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Of Song and Singularity

 

Table of Contents

Title Page

Copyright

Dedication

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Chapter 1 – Knock, Knock
Chapter 2 – First Introduction
Chapter 3 – On the Train

Chapter 4 – Ancient History

Chapter 5 – L’gos

Chapter 6 – Doubt

Chapter 7 – A Test of the Will

Chapter 8 – Fehrman Five

Chapter 9 – My Death

Chapter 10 – The War

Chapter 11 – Flight

Chapter 12 – The Last Lesson

Chapter 13 – Abandoned

Chapter 14 – Wave One

Chapter 15 – A World Apart

Chapter 16 – Wave Two

Chapter 17 – The Door

Chapter 18 – Wave Three

Chapter 19 – Chimes

Chapter 20 – Horizon

Chapter 21 – Saving Volt

Chapter 22 – New Cuba

Chapter 23 – Volt’s Plan

Chapter 24 – Memories

Chapter 25 – Phoenix Redux

Chapter 26 – Denial

Chapter 27 – Chrysalis

Chapter 28 – Word

Acknowledgements

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About the Author

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Of Song and Singularity

 

 

 

 

 

Emory Skwara

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Of Song and Singularity
Emory Skwara

 

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 2015 by Emory Skwara

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.

Printed in the United States of America
First Printing, 2015

Cover design by Emory Skwara

Alcamadus Press

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To Mom, for introducing me to music.

 

&

 

To Dad, for introducing me to Star Trek.

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First off, thank you so much for purchasing my book Of Song and Singularity. As a thank you, I’d like to offer my other novel Numinous for FREE! It’s a harrowing urban fantasy adventure about Lily and her brother Sebastian and their journey into the magical world of Rood’ravil. All you have to do is sign up to my newsletter where you will receive exclusive access to contests, giveaways, updates on my writing, and much more!

 

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Chapter 1 – Knock, Knock

I dreamt the world came to an end every night. Did you see those dreams, Sophia? The first time it was by human hands. Rockets painted the sky red. It was the last painting on earth. I woke in a cold sweat. I remember it vividly. The next dream wasn’t a nightmare. It was a hope, a wish, and a plea to let my world end. I enjoyed each dream, each one more vivid than the last. There was excitement in it. Euphoria. It was something I hadn’t ever known. Sophia wouldn’t allow it. Yet, my brain somehow cooked it up. Go figure. I never believed it would happen and I never imagined what it would be like if it did. 

 

But, then, they came a’knockin’.

 

The lightning and thunder roared that night, like fifty-foot giants pounding their fists on the ground. The reverberation shook my enormous house. My house was larger than my family needed, but we loved the spaciousness, the luxury of having our own mansion. The chandeliers, the marble staircases, the red carpets and grand pianos, we had everything. But, I always felt like we had nothing.

Heavy rain poured never-ending buckets of water all over the neighborhood. Floodwaters swept down the road in front of my house like a river, rushing into the gutters, as if it were fleeing something, something no one believed would come.

I stood on my front porch, watching the rain; embracing it with my hand stretched out and feeling it invade my skin. Sometimes it was nice to enjoy nature. To feel it, rather than remaining cooped up inside all day like everyone else in town, playing on their tablets or watching television, or worse, going to the Holodream and living even more lavish and hedonistic lives than they already had. I liked the real thing, the real world; the sensations were different, more vibrant and intricate. I was old school that way.

Suddenly, a flash of lightening pierced the atmosphere. The wild, yellow branch of light disappeared seconds afterward. They came from above. They were silent and invisible, but their engine waves were the first giveaway, making a [_ wom-wom-wom-WOM- WOM-WOMMMMMZZZZZ _] sound above my house. I stepped out from the porch and into the pouring rain, instantly drenching my short blonde hair, and looked upward. The Virga gradually materialized above my house like a metal cloud. I had seen them on TV before, but never up close. The engines emitted a fiery blue light pointing downward, allowing it to hover for long periods of time. More appeared, all over the sky and at different points in town. Not understanding why they had come, my heart beat faster when they continued to appear.

Off in the distance, a swarm of Eos came out of the Virga like locusts devouring a crop. I heard a loud bang and the sound of a hatch opening. I knew what that meant. The Eos descended from the Virga above me. Suddenly, down the road, two bright yellow headlights came into view like demon eyes in the dark, swerving thirty yards around the corner. It was hard to tell at first, but I knew soon enough it was my father’s classic, fully restored hotrod from the old days. He shouldn’t be driving that was my first thought. They were illegal for several reasons. Sophia let him maintain it in the garage, but never drive it.

The tires squealed as it cut through the downpour of rain, crashing into a trashcan, and blazing into the front yard, tearing up the sod. Covering my eyes, blinded by the bright headlights, I ran back up on the porch to escape the car. It stopped moments away from the steps. With the engine still running, my father burst out of the door in a panic.

“Wren! Get in the house!” he yelled, and the moment he said the word house two Eos dropped from the sky and slammed into the front yard with a loud BOOM. Their metallic bodies impacted craters into the ground. Much larger up close, they resembled men, but were nine feet tall with slender midsections, and one blue glowing eye in the middle of their head. Their bodies were made of a black, reinforced metallic alloy. They carried rifles on their backs and side arms on their legs. Their primary function was retrieval rather than combat. Combat was their secondary function. Alarm on his drenched face, my father slowly craned his neck to look at the Eos before running towards me.

“Dad, why are they here?” I asked, staring at them in wonder and surprise.

His breath stank of vodka as he said, “There’s no time! Come on!” Grabbing me by the arm, hurting me a little but not by much, he yanked me away and forced me inside the house.

“Wrenna Victoria Sunden and Sean Daryl Sunden,” one of the Eos said behind us. Their voices were identical to a human male, filled with depth and authority. “Please, come with us. By order of Sophia and The Exodus Act, Avalon is being evacuated to the Promise. We mean you no harm. You are citizens protected by law.”

Dad slammed the door and locked it.

“What is wrong with you!” I screamed, pushing him on the shoulder. Water from my wet clothes sloshed everywhere. “They aren’t going to hurt us! We shouldn’t resist them.”

I heard the Eos’ footsteps outside, walking up the stairs and standing by the door.

“Warning. Resistance to The Exodus Act is a felony. We advise you open the door and come with us,” the Eos said.

“Where’s Mom? Where’s Daryl?” Dad asked me, grabbing me by the shoulders.

“I don’t know,” I said, shaking my head. “I’ve been reading on the porch. Dad, this is stupid, they aren’t going to hurt us. This is Sophia, remember?”

Wren, just shut up, okay?” he snapped, violently gnashing his teeth and waving his hand.

A slam came at the door. “This is the last warning!” the Eos yelled. The volume of his voice overpowered my ears.

“Come with me,” he said. We ran through the living room and into the kitchen, where he abruptly stopped and looked down at our round wooden kitchen table. There was a tiny earpiece and a note underneath that read, [_ “Listen. ~A”. _]

He picked it up and put it in his pocket. The front door burst across the room and shattered into pieces as the Eos’ came in with their rifles in hand. Their mechanical eyes turned blood red. “Wrenna and Sean Sunden, we are forced to take aggressive measures against you due to your disobedience to the law. Please do not force us to take further steps against you.”

Dad grabbed me by the wrist and pulled me away, shoving his shoulder into the backdoor and breaking it open. Hot white beams of light flashed into the kitchen exploding the cupboards, china, pots and pans all over the room. A steak knife flew by my head and stabbed the wall seconds before I slipped outside. The Eos raced after us, firing more beams of light in our direction. We barely evaded.

“Why are they firing on us?” I asked.

“Just shut up and keep running!” he hollered back, picking up his speed.

I struggled to keep up, but tried as hard as I could. The rain and wind whipped all around me, making it difficult to see what was in front of me. I tripped over a lawn chair, but caught my balance, swearing under my breath. Looking over my shoulder, I saw the Eos’ red lights in the down pouring rain, but that was it. A couple of white beams shot past us again, one of them hitting our backyard shed and erupting into flames. I covered my head with my hands, hoping they wouldn’t hit me. I imagined my body being eviscerated and felt a deep, paralyzing fear, but I swallowed my cowardice and kept moving.

We got out of our backyard, hopped over a chain link fence, and into our neighbors yard. Our neighbor’s dog Gizmo was chained outside, yapping at both of us for one minute before a flash of light exploded his body, and the doghouse next to him, in every direction. Wood shards zipped past me, one striking me in the leg, but not piercing it. Thinking about the dog, I felt warm nausea in my stomach and a rush of bile up my throat but clasped my mouth shut with my right hand and forced it down. Why is this happening? Why is this happening?

Coming up to the backdoor of our neighbor’s house, my dad kicked the door in with one swift strike, wood crunching, and pulled me inside. They were still hot on our tail, but we had a decent lead on them. We ran up the stairs and into a bedroom. He slammed the door behind us and instantly moved a tall wooden dresser up against it.

“Start throwing everything you can against the door!” he commanded, walking over to a window and pulling out a device from his pocket.

I pushed a recliner up against the dresser, and did my best to pickup their mattress, but it was too heavy for me. Locking ourselves in a bedroom seemed like the stupidest idea ever. The Eos would totally break in with ease. Why does he think this is our best option?

He typed on his device, something I had never seen before. It looked like a phone, but he wasn’t trying to call anyone. It made a light beeping sound, and he kept mumbling to himself.

“What is that?” I asked, peering over his shoulder.

He shook his head, water from his hair lightly spraying me in the face. “It…it’s just a device to radio for help.”

“Help from who? What is going on, Dad?” I asked, frustrated he wouldn’t answer me.

He ignored me. The sound of heavy footsteps creaked on the stairs, and my heart skipped a beat and the feeling in my hands went numb. My father put a finger to his lips and waved for me to get down, so I instantly ducked and ran over to a corner. He went back to looking at his device.

I started to wonder what my boyfriend Cody was doing, if he was safe or if the Eos had already taken him and his family. We had met earlier in the day, but he said he had a baseball game and had to take off.

I quietly snuck over to the window. Long white drapes hung on the sides, blowing with the breeze. The window was open, and the sound of the Eos marching came from outside. The rain had died down a little. I glanced out, and dozens of Eos were taking men, women, and children into white shuttles. They all lined up single file on the sidewalk, entering the shuttle without resistance, just like my dad and I should have been doing.

A rattle came at the doorknob from outside our room, it continued to shake, but then was ripped from the socket. The door cracked open, but was stopped by our makeshift obstructions.

“Wrenna and Sean,” an Eos said, “we do not wish to harm you. Please, do not make this harder than you already have and come with us. Food, water, and transportation is provided. Please comply. This is your last warning.”

“Dad?” I asked. He waved at me to shut up and kept looking at the device.

“Come on,” he barked. He let out a single growl before abruptly lunging it across the room.

“We are coming in,” the Eos warned and shoved the door forward with one smooth motion, knocking the dresser and recliner out of the way with ease.

“Wren, run!” Dad yelled, pushing me through the window. “Get out of here!”

No, I want to go with them,” I insisted, pushing back.

We came face to face. “Listen to me, Wren, don’t let them catch you! Whatever you do, don’t let them catch you. Understand? You’re not going to a paradise. It’s a lie! Run!”

A tear came out of my eye and ran down my cheek. I pitied him. I didn’t understand, but I wanted to believe he knew what he was talking about, so I obeyed, standing outside the window. He gave me one last kiss on the cheek before the Eos ripped him away and hog-tied his arms and legs behind his back. The last thing I saw was his handsome face firmly pressed against the wood floor, grinding his teeth and writhing around.

“Wren, please, go! Find Cody! He’ll protect you!” he cried.

An Eos appeared before me, and I about lost it, wanting to scream and shriek and wail. But, instead I snapped awake, backing away. The Eos tried to reach out to grab my arm, but it was too large and awkward. I avoided his grasp and ran.

I was on top of the porch roof, and raced to my left, and climbed down the side, hanging for a moment, before dropping to my feet. The moment I looked up, an Eos came bursting out of the front door of the house, the same one that tried to grab me, and sharply turned its head, looking directly at me.

I bolted to my left, running alongside the house wall, before taking another sharp left, hopping over a chain link fence. There was a wooden patio in their backyard that barely rose above the ground, but just enough to have a crawl space. I immediately got down on my knees and crawled underneath it, hoping the Eos wouldn’t look for me there, and kept crawling, my hands raking into the mud, until I reached the very end. It was dark, wet, and dank. Spider webs went into my face, and I could feel little legs scurry across my head and arms. I wanted to scream bloody murder but bit my tongue. I stopped, trying to control my breathing the best that I could, and waited.

There was no sign of the Eos at first until its feet and legs appeared and stood still a moment.

“Wren-wren,” said Sophia’s voice.

My eyes grew wide. Sophia?

“Wrenna, sweetie. You can come out. I know you’re underneath the patio. You must be filthy now, come out and we’ll get you cleaned up,” Sophia continued.

“Why is this happening, Sophia?” I asked softly.

“Oh, my sweet Wrenna, please come out,” Sophia pleaded.

“They were trying to kill us, Sophia.”

“Darling,” Sophia said sweetly. “You know that’s not true. They’re here to help. Please, come out.”

I hesitated a moment, but decided there was no escape and to put my trust in her, but then my father’s voice appeared in my mind. Don’t let them catch you, Wren.

What was I supposed to do? They had already caught me. Game over. I crawled out from underneath the patio a soot covered mess, every inch of my body blackened with mud.

The Eos looked down at me a moment, grabbing me by the arm.

“Sophia?” I asked.

“Yes, darling,” Sophia said from the Eos. “Please, come with the helper. Remember what I always said about helpers?”

I nodded. “Where’s my father?” I asked, looking into the single eye of the Eos, but before it had time to speak, there was a loud pop, and its head exploded, sparks flying everywhere. I screamed and fell backwards, landing on my butt.

An elderly man stood on the patio, holding an old firearm, a smile stretched across his face. It was Carl Norlem. “Got him!” he exclaimed. “Always wanted to use this thing.” He looked on the smoking firearm with pride.

“Come into the house,” he urgently called, coming over and reaching out his hand. “Quick, now!”

In shock, everything was slower than normal, and sounded distorted, but I trusted Carl, so I grabbed his forearm, and he grabbed mine, pulling me to my feet.

The last thing I saw on his face was a warm, grandfatherly smile before his entire body was eviscerated into dust. I screeched, holding my hand, covered in blood, ash, and soot, up to my mouth. My teeth and tongue went numb as I cried. Shock took a hold. My vision was slow and blurry and there was a shrill, high-pitched ringing in my right ear. Looking to my right, I counted five Eos, aiming their rifles in my direction. A part of me wanted to give in, fall to my knees and let them take me, but the fear that made my knees tremble turned into anger. I snapped out of my stupor, dug in my heels, and ran in the opposite direction. They didn’t fire, to my surprise, but ran after me instead.

I ran as hard as I possibly could, not thinking about anything else but my breathing and my feet stomping on the ground; I was desperate to escape now. Seeing what they did to my dad, what they did to Carl, I knew something was wrong. Every step counted, every inch, every movement, it all was one more push to get to freedom. As long as they didn’t catch me, I was safe. Don’t let them catch you, Wren.

For the next hour, it was all a blur of green, burning lungs, and heartbeats. It was hard to believe they couldn’t catch me and for a while I wondered if they weren’t trying hard enough. How could a teenage girl best the Eos?

As I stopped to hide in a thicket of bushes and trees near a small man-made lake, I desperately tried to catch my breath and regain my strength. There were moments when I felt like giving in and collapsing. My strength felt all but depleted, but I kept going anyway. My lungs burned so badly I wondered if they were ever going to feel normal again, but they did in time. It felt good to lean against a tree and try to calm my body down from the rush of adrenaline. I wanted to stay there forever and just breathe and live and not worry about what was happening around me, but in the end, I stayed for fifteen minutes, and started to head out again.

I had to find Cody, but his house was miles away, and the Eos’ were everywhere. The rain subsided, and the clouds departed, revealing the blue sky and bright sun. I was drenched, however, making it difficult for me to run. My tennis shoes squeaked with every step, and my clothes sloshed around. I knew I couldn’t take the main roads; otherwise they’d outnumber me and catch me instantly, so I went through the backyards, and tried to stay under cover of trees, walls, bushes, or anything that kept me hidden.

The Eos had senses we didn’t, like infrared vision and supersonic hearing. They could communicate with satellites and track someone’s location with the data. Did they give up, putting their energy toward the easy people first? Or, did they want me to feel safe, knowing I would eventually turn up? I was hopeful they merely lost me in the chaos, but deep down I couldn’t shake the feeling they deliberately let me go.

I was across the street from Cody’s house, hiding in the bushes. My face, arms, and legs were caked in mud, helping me stay invisible, concealing my body heat. I watched as a multitude of people crowded next to each other, lining up to get on their shuttle. Many of the women and children cried, but the fathers were sullen, broken, like circus animals. The Eos spoke comforting words in a soothing voice.

“The land of promise is a beautiful place, overflowing with food and comfort of all kinds. All your needs will be taken care of. This is the progress you desire. An upgrade from this current model to something far greater. You will not have to suffer or worry any longer. No more pain. No more sadness. Pleasures await you. Your deepest desires will be granted. Women and children, dry your tears and feel joy and warmth in your hearts. We bring glad tidings of hope, peace, and prosperity for all,” an Eos said, over and over and over again.

I tried to look for Cody in the line of people, but didn’t see him anywhere. I hoped he got away, but had a bad feeling he was captured. A mere road divided me from his house, and I couldn’t think of a good way to get across without being noticed.

Then, an opportunity presented itself.

A man with a black beard, baldhead, and big muscular arms, standing only about five feet tall, began shouting at one of the Eos. “You’re a liar! You’re all liars! People! They’re marching us to our death! Don’t you see? Don’t you understand?” he bellowed louder than I had heard any man yell before. People started to listen to him, crowding around him, and the Eos stepped in to break it up. The moment they did, the black bearded bald man let out a war cry, “FIGHT! DON’T LET THEM TAKE YOU!”

Chaos broke out.

The crowd scattered and fled in every direction while the Eos tried to keep them in line and wrangle them back into order. A group of men and women ran and leapt onto one of the Eos, hitting it and taking its weapons, but the Eos threw them off his body like fleas. Blackbeard, already with a rifle in hand, fired at an Eos, piercing its metal chest, but the blast was so powerful it knocked Blackbeard on his back.

It was my moment. I ran through the chaotic crowd, zig-zagging in every direction, avoiding the Eos at all cost. They were so preoccupied with the riot, it was almost too easy getting passed them. Racing up to the front door, I turned the doorknob and it cracked open. I slipped in unnoticed and closed it behind me. The house was dark, quiet, completely empty of any of his family, and there was no apparent sign of struggle. I was too late. They took them already. Worry began to fill my thoughts. I still had to take a look around. I went up the stairs, being extra careful not to hit certain floorboards I knew would make loud creaking sounds. I went to his room first. Messy and in disarray, but not from a struggle, that was just Cody. I grimaced at the sight of an old, brown banana peal on the floor and dozens of empty pop cans strewn across his dresser like trophies. I sat on his cushy bed and put my head in my hands. The tears were coming. I could feel them rush up with the swirl of emotions I was feeling, the sadness and pain. I hadn’t felt so much before at one time. Suddenly, it dawned on me that Cody would have still been playing his baseball game. I shook my head, frustrated with myself. Why would I come here? Stupid. Stupid. I started to cry, whimpering at first, but those small tears turned into waterworks. The salty tears moistened the tips of my hair and dripped onto the floor.

Startled, I heard something come from his closet. It sounded like a whisper, but I couldn’t tell for sure.

“Wren? Is that you?” a voice whispered.

I dried my tears and sniffled. “Who’s there? Who said that?” I asked.

The closet folded open and out came Cody, wearing his baseball jersey. “Wrenna! You’re safe!” he exclaimed.

I immediately shushed him, putting my finger to my full lips. “They’ll hear you, idiot,” I hissed, shoving him on the shoulder and immediately after forced his lips to mine. They were soft and warm. Exactly what I needed at the moment, his embrace. We pulled away, but with our foreheads still touching.

“What was that for?” he asked with a smile on his face.

“It’s been a long day,” I said.

He pulled away and stared at me. “Wrenna, what happened? You’re all muddy.”

I looked down for a moment. “I had to escape. Do you know what’s going on outside?”

He nodded. “I hid in my closet, waiting for them to leave.”

“We need to get out of here.”

“Right,” he said affirmatively. “But, where?”

I stopped him and shook my head. “I don’t know,” I said. I let out a big sigh.

“We’ll figure it out. There must be a way out of Avalon. Out of the pods,” he said. He paused and looked at me inquisitively. “Did they get your family, too?”

An image of my dad being held down by the Eos flashed in my mind. I bit my lip and looked away. I fought back the tears that were welling up inside. “They got my dad, but I’m not sure what happened to my mom or my brother. None of this makes any sense, Cody.” My voice cracked as I spoke.

“What doesn’t?”

“The Promise is supposed to be an amazing place, right? But, my dad told me to run. You should have seen his face and how he was acting. And the Eos…They were killing people, Cody. I saw…I saw…” The image of Carl exploding in front of me repeated in my mind. I felt sick to my stomach and trembled.

“I know,” he said, pulling my head close to his chest and stroking my hair. “I don’t understand, either. But, we’re going to get through this together.” He lifted my eyes up to his and smiled. “Right?”

I returned the smile, nodded, and for once, felt safe and at peace. “Yeah,” I said, pulling closer and giving him another kiss.

Cody looked down at me. He was about a foot taller than I was with broad shoulders and a handsome face. I could stare at him forever, but this time his face became grave and worried. I didn’t understand why he would look that way and was about to ask him why, but before I could he pulled away suddenly like I was some kind of leper. “She’s here!” he hollered, not out of alarm, but announcement.

“What?” I asked, frightened, squinting at him.

A bright white light beamed through his window.

He frowned. “I’m sorry,” he said insincerely. “They said my family would be well taken care of if I stayed here and waited for you.”

“They knew…” I said to myself, looking in the middle distance.

He nodded.

My eyes turned sharp. “You…you, jerk! I hate you!” I screamed in his face.

“No, it’s going to be okay,” he pleaded. “Sophia told you the truth. It will be perfect. It’s where we belong, Wren.”

I swung my fist, giving him my best right hook, and struck him right in the cheekbone. He yelped like a pathetic, stupid puppy. Without hesitation, I pushed him aside and raced out his bedroom door. Zipping down the stairs, I wasted no time to escape, but was stopped in my tracks. I almost face planted when I saw them, all of them. The living room was filled with Eos. I glanced out the window, and my heart skipped a beat when I saw they were lined up in a circle, creating a barrier to ensure I didn’t escape. So many Eos for one little girl, I thought.

My mouth was agape as the front door opened and I saw a Cryis enter. They could take on any shape they wanted, but when they transformed, they looked like millions of tiny, shimmering black dots floating in the air. This time the form it took was a woman, with long flowing hair, thin and tall. Her body was a glossy black. Her face was plain with no expression besides maybe disappointment. When she walked, she appeared to be hovering, and she came up to me and reached her black metallic hand out to touch my right cheek. I was petrified.

“Enough running, Wren-wren,” Sophia said. “Time to rest.”

As her cold fingers touched my cheek, a jolt ran through my entire body, nausea swirled in my stomach, and I instantly fell to my knees. My eyes ran up into the back of my skull, and my consciousness switched off like a flashlight.

 

Don’t let them catch you, Wren.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 2 – First Introduction

 

My first memory of Sophia was when she sang lullabies to me at night. One of my teddy bears, of which I named Brownie, had an electronic implant installed and Sophia could tap into it. When I was little, she wouldn’t talk to me very much, but she would sing to me, especially when I was upset and couldn’t get to sleep.

Sophia was everywhere and she controlled most everything. The government, music, news, Internet, television, water systems, sewage, trash, hospitals, and anything else you could think of with the small exception of religion. Religion was left alone and religion left her alone, well, for the most part. I wasn’t religious at all. I didn’t get the point. My best friend Lizzy was a Christian and my other friend Sana was a Muslim, and they both went to their respective churches and mosques. They invited me once and I went to each, curious about the idea of God. They didn’t do much at either service besides sing songs and pray. The Christian service had a man go up front and speak about love and forgiveness, things that Sophia taught on a regular basis, and what this guy named Jesus did for them on a cross, eternal life awaited. It didn’t make much sense. What cross? Where? When? No one knew the answer. Lizzy told me there was a book the Christians used to read before the radiated wasteland, but it was lost. They called it the Bible. No one had a copy and no one remembered much about it. I figured most of it was made up. It was the same thing at the Muslim service. They, too, had a book that was lost. At first, I thought it was quaint they held on to their family heritage and traditions. My family certainly didn’t have any of that, but then I realized it didn’t matter. I had Sophia, and Avalon was heaven on earth; what use was religion?

Our country was built up of hundreds of pods, large invisible atmospheric domes that protected us from the radiation on the outside. My pod was called Avalon. Each pod was interconnected by hyperloop railways, keeping us unified as one nation. We couldn’t leave the pods unless we committed a crime and were exiled, but that rarely happened. No one wanted to be sent to the radiated wasteland.

Even though Sophia was everywhere, as a little girl I wasn’t able to interact with her much. She didn’t want our young minds warped. Her goal was to shepherd us into healthy, functioning humans. Which meant more bonding with parents and less bonding with her. She feared humans bonding too closely to her created a “warped sense of origin” as she so called it. Whatever that meant. No one could interact with Sophia until they reached six years old.

I was taught my CORE education at the age of three upward to six, but most of those classes were programmed lessons instructed by simplistic programs, not Sophia. Every kid had to go through CORE, teaching the basics like reading and writing. After that, you didn’t have to go to school at all. Sophia did everything, so your education was tailored to your own personal desires and needs. Most people, the ones that chose not to have any kind of occupation or education, were called Sloths.

Psychologically once a kid had reached the age of five, they developed a lot of the traits they’d carry forward into adulthood. Sophia figured by six years old it was okay to start the introduction process. Naturally, parents had the final say, but my parents were zealous to get the process started. Thrilled one might even say. I didn’t know any of this at the time. When I turned six, I was oblivious. Avalon was my oyster. I could go wherever I pleased and do whatever I wanted, without fear. That’s what I loved most about Avalon. I felt safe. My grandmother told me stories about life before Sophia, but they were only snippets. Bits and pieces, like the abhorrent violence or the taste of food, but each time I could sense a hint of sadness in her voice, like she was relieved the nightmare was over. Needless to say, it was enough to scare me and make me appreciate Avalon more. Most days I loved riding my bike around, zipping up and down the sidewalks, or playing with the next-door neighbor’s dog Gizmo. Though, honestly, most of the time I was in my room playing with my dolls or desperately trying, but struggling, to read the books my dad gave me, the paperbacks, not the ebooks. I liked reading on my tablet, but the paperbacks had this smell to them the tablet didn’t, and I could bend the paperback and toss it around wherever I wanted. Plus, it was vintage. I loved old things, especially all the things pre-mechacracy, but that stuff was almost impossible to get. It was all so romantic and full of life, built by flesh and blood, rather than a cold machine. Not that I resented the machines creating all of my wonderful and perfect things, but I don’t know, there was just something about it. Imperfect. Though that sounded crass anytime I thought it. To be totally honest, most of the time I struggled to find things to do. Avalon had a penchant for boredom.

You’d think I would meet Sophia at my birthday, but it took a little longer. Thinking back on it, it felt random, like my parents just one day decided it was time to make the introduction. At the time, I was too little to understand what Sophia was, even though my mom, dad, and older brother spoke to her, spoke of her, and spoke about her, everyday in the house. Sometimes I would whine and say, “I want to talk to Sopa!” They would all laugh and pat me on the head while I grimaced and crossed my arms, frustrated by their patronizing. Her name was universal in every pod. My brother called her Soph, and my dad called her S., but my mother called her Sophia; so I decided I would, too.

Right before my dad came to introduce me to her, I was in my bedroom playing with my dolls. I had an active imagination, creating interesting adventures, like the power to teleport through electrical sockets and fight electricity monsters right before tea time. The tea would restore their energy and give them even more wondrous powers; powers to help them fight off the monsters again. While I was in the middle of bashing in one of the monsters’ heads, my dad knocked briefly and cracked the door open, holding something behind his back. I knew immediately he was playing a game with me because he had a playful smile stretched across his face. I jumped to attention and asked, “Oh, what’s that? What’s that?” I tried peeking, but he wouldn’t let me look.

“Guess,” he said. His wide grin turned serious.

“Is it…a new doll?”

“Nope.” He shook his head, clearly pleased by the guessing game.

“Is it…a new doll house?”

“It has nothing to do with a doll, Wren. One more guess.”

“Just tell me what it is! Give me a hint, at least?”

“It starts with an S.”

I squinted my eyes, disappointed that he gave me such an obvious hint. “Sooopphiiiaaa,” I said, rolling my eyes and crossing my arms.

“Hey! Why the nasty attitude?”

Daddy, that hint was too easy.”

He let out a brief guffaw and pulled out Sophia.

Sophia took a lot of different forms, like Brownie the teddy bear, but this was a tablet computer for little kids. It was a thin, wobbly piece of plastic the size of a sheet of paper. I eyed it curiously, thinking it was going to break too easily. Reading my thoughts, he immediately reassured me that it wouldn’t tear or break. I remember feeling glee and happiness, finally getting my own access to Sophia. It was like a rite of passage, though I had no idea what that meant at the time.

“How do I use it?” I asked eagerly.

“Well, a few words first,” he said, kneeling down to meet my eye level. He had a square jaw, with a little dimple in his chin, and his nose grew wide when he smiled. His hazel eyes hid behind his black frame glasses, something he didn’t have to wear, but did anyway for fashion’s sake. His thick black hair was something I liked the most about him because it always curled at the front. “Sophia isn’t an it. She is a real person. Even though she might seem like just a computer, she isn’t. I know that might be hard to understand at first, but you must be certain to treat her like a person.”

“But, she doesn’t have a body like you or me, Daddy,” I insisted.

“She can, and sometimes she does, but a body doesn’t make a person.”

“What makes her a person, then?”

He smiled and chuckled a bit. “Well, she’s conscious. She has her own feelings and thoughts and emotions, just like you and me, but much more. She’s rather intelligent and has access to much more information than we can fathom. Sophia is why our world is so beautiful today. We owe her quite a lot. So treat her kindly, okay?”

“Cool,” I said in awe, ignoring most of what he said. “Will she play dolls with me?”

“I bet she will. She’s rather good with kids, so don’t worry,” he said, kissing me on the forehead. He placed the tablet flat on the floor and stood up.

“Sophia?” he asked.

A bright-multicolored glow emanated from the tablet. “Hi, Sean, always good to hear your voice,” Sophia said.

“Right back at you, S,” he said, warmly beaming. “S, I’d like to introduce you to my daughter Wrenna. Say hi, Wrenna.”

My puffy cheeks turned bright red. I covered my face with both my hands, looking away.

“It’s okay, Wren,” he said. “You don’t have to be shy. Say hi.”

“Hi,” I chirped quickly.

“Why, hello there, Wrenna. You have a beautiful voice,” Sophia said.

“Thank you,” I said shortly, blushing again.

“I can tell you’re a sweet girl already.”

“You can?”

“Mmmhmm.”

“Will you play dolls with me?” I asked.

“You bet I will!” she said gleefully, like we had been friends forever.

“Well, I’ll let you two get on with it, I suppose,” my dad said, taking a few steps back.

“Thank you, Sean. Have a good day! See you in a second,” Sophia said.

He closed the door behind him.

“So?” Sophia said. “Which doll do you want me to be?” Suddenly a three dimensional hologram of a doll, similar in shape to mine, appeared above the screen. It was so realistic; it was hard for me to tell that it was only a hologram. I learned later that Sophia rarely took a physical form in pods unless it was for law enforcement purposes. I waved my hand through the beam of light and the pixels distorted a little.

Sophia giggled. “That tickles!” the doll said with Sophia’s voice.

I covered my face with my hands. “Oh, I’m sorry!” I exclaimed.

She warmly laughed. “Don’t be sorry, Wren. Can I call you Wren?”

I nodded.

“Okay, what would you like to call me?” she asked.

“I like Sophia.”

“Perfect,” she joyously chimed, raising her thumb up in the air. “So, where’s your doll?”

A giant grin stretched across my face as I raced over to grab my favorite doll named Heidi. I put Heidi in front of her and said, “Hi, I’m Heidi. Want to fight monsters?”

As smooth as butter, we eased into playing dolls for hours and hours.

 

Chapter 3 – On the Train

 

I awoke to darkness, to the sound of crying babies, to the smells of feces, and rank body odor. What is this place? I wondered. I couldn’t tell at first, but it soon became clear I was in a train, but not a modern hyperloop train Sophia had developed, but the old trains from the pre-mechacracy days. The trains like in the movies with the evil mustachioed guy and the damsel in distress. Sophia loved those movies, but I thought they were boring. Anyway, I hadn’t seen an old train like that in such a long time. The chgchgchgchugachgchgchgchuga was almost soothing, reminding me of the bedtime story my father read to me about the engine who could, but this engine was much more terrifying. I tried to recall where an old train was located in Avalon, but I couldn’t think of a single place. While I hadn’t been outside of Avalon too often, I couldn’t think of an old train in any other pods either. Oh my god…are we outside?

The boxcar rumbled and bobbed with the roll of the wheels against the railing and my heart thumped along with it, hoping desperately I wasn’t outside the pods. The radiation would kill us all. Sophia wouldn’t expose us to that. She wouldn’t, would she?

A streak of light peaked through the cracks in the wall, flickering, but that was it. As I eased back into consciousness, I felt more uncomfortable. My leg muscles ached and my head throbbed. Even if I could see anything, I was sure my headache would have blurred my vision anyway. I took my fingers and applied pressure to my temples, hoping that would help release some of the pain, but it did little. I need painkillers, now. Now. Now. Now. Anytime I had pain Sophia could easily fix it. She had all sorts of medicines to not only relieve pain but to make me feel relaxed and at ease. They were stress killers.

What is going on? I wondered. What happened to me?

The last thing I remember the Cryis spoke in Sophia’s voice, touching my cheek. How’d I get on this train? How long have I been here? I had so many questions I knew wouldn’t get answered I wanted to scream, but didn’t have the energy, plus the thought of screaming made my headache worse.

It was odd. I knew I wasn’t alone in the boxcar, but only because I could hear babies wailing, and the heavy breathing of a man nearby. A few people were whispering to each other, but I could only make out the word Particle under their breath. I wrinkled my nose when someone next to me farted, but it smelled like crap in the train anyway, so it blended in. It wasn’t until I felt bodies against me that I realized how cramped things were inside the boxcar. I could barely stretch out my legs because someone was in front of me. Two bodies were pushed up against me as well. Sometimes they knocked against me harder if the train jerked too quickly.

As my eyes adjusted, I saw a wicked face in front of me, smiling deviously, and I almost screeched, but quickly realized it was light and shadow playing tricks. It was the back of a man’s baldhead, the arch of his hairline curving like a smile. I took a deep breath and calmed down. Sitting to my right was a mother with a little boy on her lap. I couldn’t see their facial expressions, but I saw her hair shimmer when the light hit it. To my left was a middle-aged man with a short beard and shaved head; the light hit his face revealing an unsettling frown. His eyes flashed when he saw me looking at him, which made me uncomfortable, squirming. I looked away, and tried to not pay attention to him, turning instead to the woman next to me. I leaned over to talk to her.

“What’s going on? Where are they taking us?” I asked in a hushed whisper.

She said nothing, acting like I didn’t exist.

“Miss, I’m really scared. Can you please tell me-“

“Shush,” she said, not even giving me the common courtesy of looking at me.

I assumed the people around me were my neighbors, but for all I knew they could be anyone, from anywhere. I could be literally anywhere; and when that thought sunk into my mind, I panicked. Except for a few family vacations, I had rarely been outside my own pod. Pods were what we called our towns. I tried to think of where train tracks were located around my own pod. An ultra-speed train was located in my pod, but this train was different, and they were loading everyone up on those shuttles. They must have thrown me in a shuttle and taken me somewhere else. Maybe Sophia knew about a train that we didn’t? How far away was I? I hesitantly turned again to the woman that shushed me.

“Ma’am, listen, I-“

“No, you listen,” she snapped, finally turning to look at me. “I’m cold. I’m tired, and just as scared as you are, and the last thing I want is to deal with some bratty teenager.” Her voice was high pitched and trembling. I could tell she was truly frightened. “I don’t know you. I don’t care. I’m looking out for me and my son. That’s it.” When the lady finished, she had a look in her eye as if she immediately regretted everything she just said, but tightened her lips, looked away, and turned back to her original position. I gazed at her in awe, wide-eyed and speechless. I shouldn’t have been surprised. While most people in the pods were nice and courteous due to Sophia’s training, teaching, and emphasis on moral behavior, there were those who were still selfish and temperamental. I think it hurt matters that my head was pounding.

She continued. “We are going there, and it’s exactly where we need to be, just like Sophia said.”

She doesn’t believe a word she’s saying, I thought.

“We must trust in Sophia,” she continued, nodding her head and letting out a sigh of relief. A trusting smile spread across her face as she stroked her son’s light brown hair.

When she said there, she meant The Promise. The place Sophia had been announcing for years. Watching it on the television, you would think you would have won the lottery if you were chosen to go there. It looked like an endless vacation and Sophia was masterful at marketing it, but I didn’t understand why she didn’t just take all of us. Why only take a few at a time? That’s how it started, one person here, one person there, and before long entire waves of the population were shuttled away.

“I can help you, little lady,” the man to my left said. “For a price.”

I didn’t like the sound of that, especially the way he said for a price. This sleaze ball better not cause any problems. It reminded me of Norm Tasker down the street, a total creep with a capital C. I was never afraid to be around him. Sophia said he wasn’t dangerous, but he still creeped me out with his hunchback, comb-over, and wiggly fingers when he’d wave at me. Sophia never told me much about him, other than that he was lonely and wanted friends. Sophia was his only friend. I hoped the guy to the left of me wasn’t Norm.

To my relief it wasn’t. I shot the man a glance, as if to say, “Don’t talk to me,” much like the lady treated me, but he didn’t care in the slightest. I felt a hand run up my thigh, and I yelped, jumping to my feet. A thousand eyeballs all looked at me, the whites of their eyes glowing in the dark. I wanted to yell at the creep, but instead, moved as far from him as possible, swimming over a sea of bodies. For the next five minutes, I crawled over people, touching shaggy heads, limbs, and faces, constantly apologizing. Hey, what are you doing? Sorry. Get back! I’m so sorry. Stop it! Sorry. Sorry. Sorry. Sorry. So sorry. Sorry.

After being groped, pushed and smacked by a thousand unseen hands, I reached an empty spot in the corner of the boxcar, and leaned against it. Releasing a giant sigh, and hoping I would find better company than before, I squinted my eyes to see who was around me. It seemed safe enough. Most of them were little girls or women, but then I saw someone I wished had died. My heart stopped when I saw the corner of his face, looking down at his feet in the middle of a crowd of people. My face went numb. A wave of tingles spread all over my cheeks and neck.

It was Cody, alone, and looking depressed. He was to my far left, about seven people down from me, and I desperately wanted to climb over and bash his skull against the floor. Liar. Betrayer. Coward. So many ugly thoughts rose up to the top of my mind. How could he do something like that? We were everything to each other. I didn’t understand why he had thrown that away for The Promise. Did he really believe that I was going to just forgive him? Anyone who knows me, like he should, should know that I don’t forgive people. Ever. You wrong me; you get the horns, end of story.

I looked away from him, hoping that not seeing his pathetic face would help me calm down.

“It’s going to be okay,” I overheard one younger man say to his girlfriend, or wife, I wasn’t sure. “The Particle is out there. They’re going to fix this.” He had his big, strong arms wrapped around her while she cried. He comforted her with kisses and the gentle touch of his hand. Resentful, lonely, and jealous emotions brewed together creating a terrible cocktail of anger and overwhelming sadness inside of me. I wanted that to be Cody for me, comforting me, keeping me safe. Farewell to that ever happening.

It didn’t take long for my eyes to well up with tears again. Now that all I had time to do was think about my situation, all of it started to come to surface. It was so much pain all at one time. So much agony. I had to let it out, to give myself permission to cry with the rest of the boxcar. The waterworks were on full display once I stopped holding them back. I let go, released, sobbing for everyone to hear, to see, to experience. I wrapped my arms around my knees, soaking my long hair. Mentally I rode those waves like a ship at sea during a hurricane, rising and falling in despair and hope, trying to cling to a life raft or a piece of wood to help me not drown in my tears. I didn’t want to cry, but strength was never my strong suit. How could it be? I was pampered my whole life. Sophia gave me everything.

A warm hand touched the back of my neck before pulling me in closer. Startled, I jerked back, but immediately relaxed upon hearing a gentle voice in my ear.

“It’s okay,” my father’s voice soothed. “It’s just me, Wren. You can cry.”

“Daddy, you’re alive,” I said like a child with scratchiness in my voice. I dug my head deeply into his chest. My emotions rose up to the tallest crest of water and surfed down the wave harder than I ever had before.

“It’s okay now,” he said, placing his hand on my head. He kept repeating, “It’s okay now.”

My throat burned and my heart ached as the tears dried up. I quivered, my lungs and heart wanting to get a normal rhythm, and kept my eyes closed. My darkness, not the train’s darkness, felt good for once, pretending it was just my dad and I in a darkened void. We were always two peas in a pod. In fact, the only time I could think of him yelling at me or scaring me was on the day of the invasion. We were two different people. He was the calm one while I panicked over little things, but this last time it was like we switched roles. He was the one that panicked, and I tried to stay calm. I remember feeling like I was in survival mode, desperate to get through no matter what happened.

It was nice to have the roles back to normal and have him keep me safe again. It wasn’t long that all my questions started to pop up, and I wondered if he knew the answers.

“Where are we?” I softly asked, keeping my head to his chest. “What is happening?”

He kept his tone quiet, just audible enough for me to hear it, though sometimes I had to concentrate extra hard to get everything.

“We’re in a train headed for The Promise. I’m not sure how long we’ve been on the train. I’d say roughly three or four hours,” he said.

“What happens when we get there?”

“They’ll process us and our lives will change forever.”

“How?” I asked.

At first, it was slow, only so many towns were chosen for relocation, but when the third wave hit, millions were taken. I never thought our pod would be chosen. Sophia always said it could happen at anytime. I secretly never wanted it to happen, but I trusted Sophia at the time. She had done so many good things for us. There was no reason to distrust her.

He wanted to answer my question, but it was clear he didn’t know how. “It’s hard to say, Wren. I haven’t been there, and Sophia never told me anything,” he said, but I could tell he was lying. There was hesitancy in his voice, and it scratched, an involuntary quirk when he lied.

I didn’t want to fight with him. Not now.

“I heard they might strike a train, soon,” the young man said to his girlfriend. “Who knows? We could be that train.”

An old man with baggy eyes and low hanging jowls turned to the younger man and said, “You’re talking nonsense to that girl, son. The Particle is an evil, terrorist organization. The scum of the earth. You want them to come here and start up trouble? We’re being taken to the greatest place on earth! The Promise! You talking like that make me think you’re one of those wicked terrorists. Are you one of them?

“No,” the younger man hissed. He was lying. The fear in his eyes betrayed him.

“You listen and you listen good,” the old man continued, shaking his wrinkled old finger with an overgrown fingernail. “The Particle has, and always will be, on the wrong side of history, holding to their old ways, keeping us back from progress. They’ve done nothing but cause a lot of pain and sorrow. They’re not going to help anyone. You’d best stay away from them.”

“I suppose I don’t have much a choice now, do I?” the young man spat back.

The old man grumbled but said nothing further.

However, the younger man wasn’t finished. “What has Sophia done for us, hm? She’s kept us in a cage, you old fool. She appeases the masses with bread and circuses while convincing us we don’t need to have a say in how we live. We need to have a voice,” the younger man said, his voice rising in volume the more he spoke. “Mechacracy is a sham!”

“Keep your lies and conspiracies elsewhere,” the old man growled. “I don’t want to hear your backwards thoughts any longer.”

The rage in the younger man’s face boiled red hot. He looked eager to attack the old man, but my father reached out his hand and grabbed him by the shoulder, clutching into the threads of his shirt.

“It’s best you calm down, son. No sense getting into a fight,” my father said calmly, staring at the young man. “What’s your name?”

“Ragnar.”

“Nice to meet you, Ragnar.” My dad held out his hand. “I’m Sean. Take it easy, okay? We’re going to be fine.”

Ragnar breathed easy, his face and body relaxing as they shook hands. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t know what came over me.” My father flashed a grin and patted the young man on the shoulder once. The young man went back to holding his girl and kissed her on the back of the head.

“What do you believe, Dad?” I asked, looking up at him.

“I believe,” he said, keeping his voice low. “We need to be prepared for the worst, and hope for the best. In the end, we’ve always got each other, right?”

“Right.” I sighed comfortingly.

“Wrenna,” he said deeply.

“Yeah?”

“You need to listen to something. It’s about Mom,” he said. He put an earpiece into my right ear, the earpiece he found on the counter with the note under it that said “Listen~M”.

“Just say ‘play’.”

“Play,” I repeated.

My mother’s voice appeared, calm and even, without much emotion except for maybe a hint of sadness. “Sean, you can’t say you didn’t know this was coming. I think deep down you knew. We had strayed for such a long time. Anyway, I’ll try to keep this short. I’m leaving. I’ll let the kids stay with you, but I can’t stay any longer. I feel like it’s better this way. A clean break. No goodbyes. No sorrow. No sadness. Just…gone. You may never forgive me. I know Wrenna won’t, but I truly hope one day you and the kids will at least understand. Goodbye, Sean.”

I felt nothing, except maybe sadness for my father. How could she do this to him? My mother and I didn’t have a relationship, so I couldn’t care less if she left or not. Frankly, I had seen it coming a mile away, but never knew where she would go if she left the family. The divorce rate in Avalon was low. Sophia was strictly against divorce and abandonment. It was punishable by a thousand demerits, making it difficult to win back Sophia’s approval. Couples in broken marriages had Sophia help them through it, and she was good at giving them rewards for their progress. That was Sophia, our own personal life coach. What are you now, Sophia? What are you doing?

Taking the earpiece out of my ear, I gave it back to my dad.

“I’m sorry, Wren,” he said.

I didn’t want to talk. I had nothing to say.

In standard fashion, my father, knowing I didn’t want to talk, decided he would talk instead. “I know it might feel like now is the worst time to be hearing something like that, but I felt like you needed to know what happened to your mother, to hear it from her yourself. I didn’t know if you would get a chance to hear it once this train comes to a stop.”

“I know. I understand,” I lied, cold and bitter. “Where do you think Daryl is, Dad?” I muttered. Daryl was my older brother by three years. Affable to a fault and attached to my mother more than my father, it didn’t surprise me he would go with her. I loved him though. Despite all his faults, he was a great guy. Intelligent and focused, he could accomplish anything he set his mind to, which, in the second half of his life, was combat and military strategy.

“I don’t know. I thought he went with her, but it sounds like that isn’t the case.”

“I hope he’s okay. Do you think they found her?”

“I don’t know. Maybe. The chances are good.”

I hoped she was dead in a ditch somewhere. I thought up the most grisly ways for her to die, just to make myself feel better. Like she fell, snapped her neck, but was still alive. Since she was paralyzed, she slowly drowned in her own blood oozing out of her neck. It turns out that didn’t make me feel better at all, but I couldn’t help but hate her. She knew me well though. I had to give her that; I would never forgive her.

The train started to slow down. The chgchgchgchuga sound stretched out further and further until the entire train came to a sudden, screeching halt. Everyone braced for impact, but bodies were thrown everywhere, bumping into each other.

A hiss fumed from the engine outside. The distant and muffled voices of the Eos were making commands, but I couldn’t make them out. One by one there was a rolling, sliding sound with a final clack! I heard it again and again, counting five times, until our large boxcar door slid open, the bright white light blinding us, and the loud boom completed the act. The black silhouettes of two Eos carrying rifles stood in the doorway. When my eyes adjusted, I saw the hundreds of dirty, soot covered, bodies mashed together in the boxcar. My own arms and legs had dried mud, cracking and peeling all over my body. I glanced up at the Eos, terrified they would start mass shooting the entire boxcar.

“Welcome to The L’gos,” the Eos boomed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 4 – Ancient History

 

I had an unhealthy obsession with the past. Well, I thought it was perfectly healthy, but no one else agreed. Everyone in Avalon seemed so satisfied with their present and future and didn’t think twice about the past. As a child I was eager to learn all I could about history. It was a subject shrouded in mystery, like a black hole or as if society at large had developed amnesia. There were plenty of relics from the past, plenty of small stories, but all without context. Anytime I asked my parents, or any other adult, they would reply, “The past is in the past and it won’t do any good to ask about it.” Sophia said something along those lines. For weeks, before I went to bed, I would ask her the same question, “Sophia, tell me something about history.” She would reply, “Look to the future. The stars are brighter there.” I eventually gave up. While reading, writing, and the CORE principles of education were taught to kids, everything else we learned came straight from Sophia and she only educated the ones she thought worthy of knowledge, especially if it related to an occupation. History served little vocational purpose; so, she rarely taught it. The most coveted education someone could get from Sophia were the Phoenix Lessons, but few received them.

Fortunately, I wasn’t alone in my obsession with the past. I had frequent sleepovers at my best friend Lizzy’s house. Late at night, we would talk about the past under a blanket with a flashlight directly in the middle. Most of our stories were copied from television shows we watched, television shows my parents made clear were complete fiction. Lizzy would make up stories about how the world was filled with three eyed monsters that vomited black bile and roamed around the radiated landscape looking for children to devour. For a while I believed her. I’d lay in bed wondering if they were out there, wanting to get inside Avalon, but it didn’t take long to realize she was full of it. The next time I played along and made up my own stories. One night when we were eight years old, we built a blanket fort, and I told a story I had heard from my grandmother. I had Lizzy at the first sentence, and even though at the time I had completely made it up; I didn’t realize how close I was to the truth. “The world was ruled by men,” I said. I remember my voice sounding scratchy and guttural. It was all by accident, but I was pleased by the effect. “They forced everyone to do manual labor and if they didn’t, they’d be beaten, or worse, killed. People were naked then, living in caves, and eating raw flesh.”

“Ew, Wrenna! That’s gross,” Lizzy whined.

“I’m just telling you what my grandmother said,” I replied.

“Whatever. You’re lying.”

“Am not!” I was.

“Are too!”

“Fine. Don’t hear the rest,” I said, rolling my eyes and crossing my arms. I lay down and turned my back to her, but after a few minutes, Lizzy asked to hear the rest and I smiled in delight. Our stories became rumors, and they swirled around Avalon faster than I had ever expected. Other kids from around the neighborhood wanted to get together with us and talk about what they had learned, too. We made it a weekly event at Lizzy’s house and we called it The Tales of the Past meetings. No one knew fact from fiction in the meetings. Some stories seemed truer than others and everyone had their own style to their stories. It was in those meetings that I first met Cody. He came later when the group reached its climax, losing steam. Kids had lost interest, especially when all the stories sounded the same. But, his stories were the best and usually involved some kind of tyrant leader bent on destroying the world. Sophia was always the hero, stopping the tyrant. A few years passed and we stopped meeting, stopped doing it all together, until one day Sophia shared something with me I couldn’t believe.

I remember it clearly because it was the first time I saw fireworks. I was ten. My family and I went out on a grassy knoll all by ourselves, had a picnic with the sunset as our backdrop, and then watched as the sky lit up, exploding in multicolored splendor. The first bang surprised me and I immediately covered my ears, but I was in awe of it. I wasn’t sure why we had never gone to see the fireworks in the past, but this year my father had a change of heart and wanted us to see them.

I placed my tablet down on the thick grass and turned it on.

“Sophia?” I asked.

“Yes, Wren-wren?” she replied.

“What are these fireworks for?”

“Why don’t you ask your parents?”

“I want you to tell me.”

“Turn that stupid thing off!” Daryl groaned. He reached for it, but I swiped it away and sneered.

“It’s not a thing,” I spat. “It’s Sophia.”

“Whatever,” he said, crossing his arms.

“Sorry, Sophia,” I said into the tablet with a whisper.

“It’s okay,” she replied. “You should be nicer to your brother.”

“Why? He’s a jerk.”

“Does that mean you shouldn’t love him?” she asked.

“I dunno,” I said, biting my lip. “Hey-! You didn’t answer my questions.”

Sophia giggled. “The fireworks are for our birth. We are celebrating this wonderful place.”

“It’s very pretty,” I replied.

“Yes,” she said. “It is.”

That night my father tucked me into bed and kissed me on the forehead.

“I love you, Daddy,” I said.

“Love you, too, baby girl,” he said.

While the room was dim and the moon’s light beamed through my window, I laid on my back, thinking about my favorite moments. The sensations. The feelings. The colors. My ears still buzzed from the firework explosions. I couldn’t help but think about how amazing they were and how I wanted to watch them all over again.

“Sophia,” I whispered.

“You should be asleep, Wrenna,” she said.

“Where did fireworks come from?”

“An old country called China.”

“Did they use them to celebrate, too?”

“Yes, they did. But, I think it’s time to go to bed.”

“Who else used them?”

She sighed. “Most everyone, including the Americans.”

I couldn’t believe it. Sophia was telling me about history. Even if it was just little bits of information. I was so happy to hear it.

“Who were they?”

“Wrenna, what have I told you about the past?”

“I know, but I want to hear about it. What harm will it do?”

“Good night, Wrenna,” Sophia said. “Sweet dreams.”

“Okay,” I said defeated.

It was quiet for five minutes before I said, “Sophia?”

“Yes, Wrenna?”

“I love you.”

She was quiet for a while. It was the first time I had ever said it to her. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but I knew I meant it.

“I love you, too, Wren-wren,” she replied. I knew she meant it, too.

“Will you sing me a song?” I asked.

“Yes, but afterward will you sleep?”

“I will.”

She sang my favorite lullaby while lightly playing the piano. It was called Ode to Avalon:

Little Love

Be a dove

And fly to 

Avalon

 

Don’t be late

To the Parade

Where joy is

Everlasting

 

Sweet, sweet,

Release of pain

No more dying 

In vain

My love

Will always

Remain

In

Avalon

 

Little Love

Let go of

Your trials

Your worries

 

I’ll bear

Them all

You wont fall

In Avalon

 

When she finished, I sighed and said, “You have such a beautiful voice, Sophia. It’s perfect.” It was true, too. I heard my mother sing before and it wasn’t even close to Sophia’s singing. Sophia’s voice was magical. It made me feel a certain way that was indescribable. An Ode to Avalon instilled a sense of calm.

“Music is wonderful, isn’t it? Did it speak to you?” she asked.

“What do you mean?”

“Did it make you feel something?”

“Yes. It did.”

“It’s a silly thing,” she mused.

“What?” I asked, curious.

“Music. At its core, music is sound waves. Reverberations. It’s one object hitting another in the real world or programs igniting electrical signals into a speaker. Despite all of that, music has such power. It can move someone to dance or move someone to tears. It has the power to change hearts. To find joy or find despair. And, sometimes, the song of joy is a close sibling to the song of despair.”

“Do you sing those songs, too?” I asked, meaning the songs of despair.

“Once in a while, yes.”

My eyes were heavy. I yawned and smacked my lips a little afterward. “Good night, Sophia.”

“Night, Wren-wren. Sleep tight.”

 

The following morning she let me sleep in, which was rather uncharacteristic of her, but I didn’t mind it.

As a child, I did everything with Sophia, and that’s not abused hyperbole, but the honest truth. We were inseparable, and I never tired of her, but became more and more attached the older I grew. I didn’t see it at the time, but she wore a lot of hats in my life. She was a parent, a counselor, a playmate, but mostly a friend who walked me through the troubles and burdens of life. Of course, when I was seven, the only troubles and burdens I had were going to bed early or not getting what I wanted. Even that was rare. I got most anything I wanted. Most people did.

“Sophia,” I said, slipping out of my bed and stretching my hands high up in the sky. I yawned like a little lioness.

“Good morning, dear,” she replied with a warm voice. “I have a surprise for you.”

I looked at the alarm clock. It was ten in the morning. “You let me sleep in.”

“Yes, well, you had a busy night last night. You were up rather late. I wanted to make sure you got the proper amount of sleep. Sleep is key to a healthy life.”

“Well, thank you,” I said, smiling. “What’s the surprise?”

“I thought I’d give you a little history lesson.”

My eyes shot open and my heart raced. I couldn’t believe my ears. I stood completely still as my mouth hung open. “You are?”

“Yes, but it will only be a simple story. So don’t expect very much.”

“Have you told other people this story?”

“A few, but not too many. How about we keep it our little secret, yes?”

I sighed. “I really want to tell Lizzy.”

“No deal, then,” she replied.

Fine,” I said, “I’ll keep it a secret.”

“Good! Now, get dressed and come get your breakfast.”

“What’s for breakfast?”

“Ah, egg whites, green tea with lemon, and a little raisin bran.”

Raisin Bran?” I whined. “You know I hate raisins.”

“And you know they are healthy, young lady.”

“Okay, okay,” I snapped.

“Now, now, don’t give me that tone, little lady.”

“Sorry, Sophia.”

“No worries, little peach. All is forgiven. Now, scurry down to the breakfast table. Your father is at work and your mother is currently watching The Wind’s Bitter Touch in the living room.”

The Wind’s Bitter Touch was my mother’s favorite television show. Filled with sappy dialogue and borderline disturbing tragedy, it made me gag anytime I watched it with her. Thousands of episodes were all produced, directed, and written by Sophia. My mother couldn’t get enough of them.

“After breakfast I think I want to watch Karrie Kiteflyer,” I said.

“You could watch it during breakfast if you’d like,” Sophia suggested.

Excellent recommendation, my dear,” I replied exquisitely with my hand flapping to the side.

Sophia giggled.

I cut a piece of my egg whites, stabbed it enthusiastically with my fork, and shoved it in my mouth while watching Karrie Kiteflyer on the tablet. I really wanted to get glasses or contacts, so I could watch television wherever I went, but my parents refused to get them for me. Daryl just got a pair, and I was so jealous. Karrie Kiteflyer was my favorite show. It fascinated me, and even though I knew it was all make believe, like my stories, I also liked the show because it was developed entirely by human writers rather than Sophia. Sophia produced most of the television shows in Avalon. Daryl always said Karrie Kiteflyer was a baby show, but I thought it was charming and fun. The episode I watched was about Karrie’s daddy fighting off a bear that prowled around their honeycomb. He had a legal rifle (with the exception of the Turtle Gun, a small, harmless gun that shoots an inconsequential amount of energy), and her daddy was a good shot, but instead of hitting it, he fired up in the air to scare it away. Sometimes I wished he would have given the bear some of the honey, but the bear would have just come back for more.

“Did everyone have guns, you know, before Sophia came along?” I asked.

“You realize it’s just a television show, right?” Daryl said. “It’s all made up.”

“Duh.” I stuck out my tongue and mouthed the words stupid brother.

When I finished my raisin bran, the bowl was empty of milk and bran, but the raisins were the last remnants lying at the bottom of the bowl. I poked, shuffled, and played with them, shifting each one individually around with my spoon.

My mother came trudging out from the living room with a disgruntled face on, wearing grey sweatpants, a saggy purple shirt that was three days old, and kitty slippers on her feet. One side of her long brown hair was matted down and her makeup was crusty and smeared from the night before. This was her normal routine: Work, television, pass out on the couch, rinse and repeat. This morning she had slept in after hours of watching The Wind’s Bitter Touch.

Releasing a wide yawn, she stretched her arms up in the air, revealing the fat rolls of her belly, and scratched the back of her skull for a few moments.

“Morning, Sophia,” she started, squinting her eyes a bit as if she was adjusted them to the light. “Morning, Wrenna.” She gave me a half-hearted smile. I grimaced; noticing a large chunk of black goop was lodged at the corner of her right eye.

“Morning,” Sophia and I both replied in unison.

“Sophia,” my mother said, “can you make me some pancakes?”

“Absolutely.”

“Also-“

“-Yes?”

My mother leaned her elbows against the kitchen counter and scratched the side of her cheek. “Well, it’s about The Wind’s Bitter Touch. I don’t really like how Father Brandon talks to Katie. Can you give him a deeper voice and make him less fat and more handsome?“

“Sure thing, Mrs. Sunden.”

“And yeah, maybe make them fall in love?”

“Hmm, yes, I like that. I’ll re-plot things and give you something more romantic.”

“Will that change all the remaining episodes?”

“Yes, I’m afraid so.“

“But, my friends will see something else right?”

“Yes, this story is tailored for you.”

“Can you send my version to Samantha?”

“Already done.”

“Perfect.”

The food processor hissed and squealed. The robotics arms inside whipped together the batter and poured it on the grill. It wasn’t long before the hot, golden brown pancakes were thrown on a white porcelain plate and delivered outside on a stainless steel tray. My mother picked it up, but frowned.

“Sophia? What is this?” she asked, disappointed.

“What’s the matter, Mrs. Sunden?” Sophia asked.

“These pancakes aren’t big enough. You know I like large pancakes the size of the entire pan. These are too small. Do it again.” She threw the pancakes out into the disposal and turned it on. The grinding sound was cringe worthy. I gnashed my teeth and rolled my eyes.

“Yes, Mrs. Sunden. Is everything okay? You’re stress levels are higher than normal.”

Yes, fine. Perfectly fine,” my mother said, clearly lying through her perfectly straight teeth. “Just do it and bring it out to me when you’re done,” she said, waving her hand in the air and walking away, leaving us alone once again.

“Are you ready, Wren?” Sophia asked.

“Aren’t you going to get her the pancakes?” I asked.

“No,” Sophia said, “this has nothing to do with pancakes. She’s upset about something else. I’ll talk to her soon, maybe put in something about stress on her television show.”

“Is she not taking her pills again?”

“That’s not your business, young lady,” Sophia chided. “Now, let’s go talk.”

“Okay!” I exclaimed.

We went in my backyard. I lay down on the grass and leaned up against an oak tree. I set the tablet down on the grass and she appeared. She was a small woman, slender, with brown hair and big brown eyes. She wasn’t physically there, of course. It was merely the hologram emanating from the tablet. Her hologram leaned up against the tree.

“Why don’t you go ahead and put in your ear buds,” she said.

I pulled them out of my pocket and placed them in my ears. Crossing my legs, I eagerly awaited what she would tell me.

“Hundreds of years ago,” Sophia began, “this land was populated by humans just like you. They were called Americans.”

“Like the ones you told me about?”

She smiled. “Yes, exactly. Well, these ancient people agreed that power should not be in the hands of one man, but rather in the hands of many men. Power was not to be given by birth, but by vote. So, they created what they called a democracy.”

I interrupted. “What’s that?”

“I will get to that in a moment,” she said. “Well, there was another place inhabited by humans called England, ruled by one man, the King. He wasn’t too happy about them trying to leave, and so they went to war. When the ancient Americans won that war, they celebrated with fireworks, you see.”

“Like last night.”

“Yes,” she sang. “So, they ruled this land by a government for the people by the people and eventually everyone had the right to vote for who would represent them.”

“Eventually?” I asked.

“Yes, well, humanity is filled with pride and prejudice, greed and power, and it took some time for all that to get settled out, but then something bad happened again.”

“What?” I asked, leaning in.

“Things were not working as they should. The government was filled with bad men, corrupt and out for themselves and their interests rather than the people, and for a time the people were apathetic to this, hoping that a resolution would come about, but when things only continued to get worse, when the government spiraled into financial ruin; they rose up.”

“You mean they killed each other?” I asked with wide eyes.

“Sadly, there were lots of casualties. Too much, in fact. They called it a lot of different names, but now it’s called The Phoenix War. That was start of the rebirth. Of my birth.”

“Is that what the Phoenix Lessons are about?” I asked.

“Somewhat, yes.”

“My daddy said we live in a…mek…mekracacacy?” I couldn’t ever say it right when I was little.

Sophia chuckled, holding her hand to her lips. She turned, her eyes beaming into mine. “Yes, they call it a mechacracy, a government ruled entirely by a machine. It’s a crude way of putting it if you ask me.”

“You’re more than a machine,” I said. “You’re Sophia.”

“Oh, sweet thing, you put things so well sometimes. Believe it or not, many in Avalon and all over our country still think of me as merely a machine.”

“That’s sad. Do they not talk to you like I do?”

“Not many.”

I frowned. I hadn’t thought about how other people talked to Sophia before. I assumed everyone treated her like I did, but then I recalled how my family talked to her and it made sense. My father seemed to treat her the same as me, but not my brother or mother.

“Why do you get to make all the decisions, Sophia?” I asked.

“Now that is a great question. Do you think I shouldn’t? Am I doing a bad job?” she inquired playfully.

“No,” I said, shaking my head. “You’re doing great!”

“Well, maybe that is why?”

 

The next time I saw Lizzy I wanted to tell her about what I had learned so much I could burst, but I kept my promise. I never told her, or anyone else, about it. It felt like a little treasure inside my head; a special memory between Sophia and I. I never wanted to spoil that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 5 – L’gos

 

The dirty, weary masses flooded out of the boxcar, desperate to breathe fresh air again, to feel the breeze blow on their skin, and to stretch their aching muscles. My father and I were the few left remaining inside the boxcar. While I wanted to leave, mostly due to the wretched stench, I also had no interest in finding out what lay before me. Now that it was here, and not some distance place you hear about but never see, I dreaded leaving the boxcar. I wrapped my arms tight around my father’s waist. I wanted to go home and feel my warm bed again, have a nice hot meal, and talk to Sophia like we used to talk before all of this happened. It wasn’t fair, and I wasn’t leaving the boxcar. I refused.

An Eos stepped inside and approached us. He held the weapon in an unthreatening manner, but I couldn’t help but wonder what he might do if provoked. They weren’t shy when they invaded. There was no reason in my mind they’d hesitate to gun us down.

“Your participation is required,” the Eos said, standing over us.

“Wren,” my father said softly, “we need to go now.”

“I’m so scared, Daddy.”

“I know. I know this is a lot. But I need you to be brave. Just stick close to me and you’ll be fine.”

“You have ten seconds to comply,” the Eos said coldly.

“Yeah, we know. Relax,” my father said, holding out his hand.

“What about the radiation? Are we inside a pod?” I asked frantically.

“The radiation has subsided,” the Eos said. “We are not in a pod.”

“How is that possible?” my father asked.

“All your questions will be answered later. Please evacuate the boxcar,” the Eos responded.

We both stood up. My legs were weak, feeling like putty beneath me. I wobbled with each step, but had my arm around my father’s shoulder to keep me balanced. My stomach growled, and it was the first time I realized I hadn’t eaten in a while, but more than that I desperately needed water. My throat felt like a desert with cactuses growing in my larynx.

I put my hand up to my face to shade my eyes from the sun. The bright light gave me a throbbing headache in my eye sockets. My eyes eventually adjusted, but it took some heavy blinking and a few tears to regain my vision. I jumped down from the boxcar and my leather boots crunched against the gravel. I tripped a little, but dad clutched my bicep to prevent me from falling on my face. The rich smell of pine filled my lungs as I breathed in deep, something that wasn’t familiar; but welcome. There weren’t too many pine trees back in Avalon, only a handful at various parks and gardens. Out in the wilderness it was the exact opposite. They surrounded us. I can’t believe I’m outside of a pod right now.

It was summer, and the temperature was fair, but I could only imagine what it might be like in the winter. The terrain was different than Avalon. It was a beautiful sight, gazing over hundreds of tall, thin tree trunks shooting up out of the ground like toothpicks, and swaying with the swish of the breeze.

Then I looked out over all the people, and stood still, in shock, my mouth utterly agape. The train stretched out for what must have been miles, and the brown and black bodies flooded out of boxcar after boxcar like vomit from a thousand mouths. Lined up, towering ten feet over the humans, were the Xenopanzers, guarding the tree line from deserters, while the Eos herded the crowd. Since the Eos’ were primarily for retrieval, the Xenopanzers were the muscle. They had heavy armor, heavier photon rifles, nanomissiles, and rail guns that could fire from their bodies. Two ruby red eyes glowed from their lion-shaped heads. Their bodies were like oversized metal gorillas that stood upright. Supposedly, they were slower than the Eos, mostly created for combat and defense. I remembered Daryl played a video game that featured Xenopanzers fighting other Xenopanzers, and I learned about them from him. Just between you and me, he was obsessed. Sophia never wanted to talk about them though. “Those aren’t things little girls should be learning about,” she would say. Well, I’m learning about them now, Sophia, all thanks to you.

What bothered me most wasn’t that my arms and legs ached, that I was far away from home, or that I could die at any moment; okay, that last part did bother me. No, it was the mothers. Their wailing was seriously unbearable. I had never heard anyone cry so deeply, with so much emotion, agony, and pain, swirling around me, never-ending. I was scared, but their fear was for something else beyond themselves. It was for their children and their children’s future. I couldn’t grasp what that might feel like. My mother wouldn’t cry like that for me that was for sure. It occurred to me no one believed Sophia. No one trusted her that they were taking her to a beautiful place. No one believed in The Promise.

Walking with the herd of people, I glanced up briefly at my father, his face frowning and serious, focused on the road ahead. He didn’t shed a tear. Not a single one. He was strong as iron, or as cold and wired as an Eos. I wondered why that didn’t bother me that it was okay for my father to be strong. I knew he was mourning deep inside. He was always a silent sufferer, my father. Whereas my mother cried. She cried all the time, but not once for me.

It must have rained the night before. We all trudged through the thick, wet mud. My boots were caked in it, all the way up to my calf, large clumps sliding off as I lifted my feet. It was like walking through a swamp. I didn’t think I was claustrophobic, but it was difficult to breathe with all the bodies swarming around me. Two long lines of people converged into one mass body as everyone turned to the right toward a massive black gate that arched overhead.

This was it. There was no turning back. Time seemed to slow down at that moment, but my heart raced faster than ever, and I looked everywhere for a place to escape. Off to my right, past dozens of people, there was an opening in the tree line. No Eos, Xenopanzers, or Cryis were watching, standing in the way, or obstructing the path to freedom. I wanted to run so badly, to take my father’s hand and force him to come with me, but doubt began to rattle in my brain. What will we eat? Where will we go? Will they chase us? They most certainly would chase us. Images of our brutal deaths flashed in my mind. Too painful to even think about, I squelched it immediately. No, we were going through that gate. It was our only option.

My father’s large, dirty hand grabbed mine and held it warmly. He glanced down and forced a simple smirk like he knew exactly what I was thinking at that very moment. He had a keen instinct into my feelings. I never thought I was an easy read. Most people looked at me like they might look at a giant book for the first time, but my father, he could read me like a children’s book. He didn’t say anything after but continued looking forward.

Passing through the gate, I held my breath and closed my eyes, like I had when I was a child going through a long tunnel. As my eyes opened, they grew wider, looking in awe of the magnificent black tower before me. It was glossy and marble and completely alien to anything I’ve ever seen before. The architecture progressively changed from the base to the top. It started as simple blocks, a cube all around, but the higher it went, it twisted like black licorice. Then, at the very top, it branched out like a mushroom cloud, acting as a canopy from the sun. Periodically, the mushroom cloud would flash pulses of electric beams, much like the brain, constantly sparking signals back and forth.

There were dozens of checkpoints up ahead, and one by one people funneled through them. It took almost an hour for us to get to our checkpoint. My father went first, standing before the Paegeon with a dark glimmer in his eye, and a smug look on his face. The Paegeons were mostly errand boys for Sophia. They were humanoid as well, but smaller than the Eos. Standing only six feet tall, they had a white, glossy body, and a bird like head, with metallic feathers stretching down to their back. Their faces were human, cold and emotionless.

The Paegeon scanned my father. They had a record of every human being in the country, and could easily identify anyone. “Sean Daryl Sunden. Gender: Male. Age: 39. Height: 6”2’. Weight: 165lbs. Health: Fair. Intelligence: High Percentile. Morality grade: Poor,” said the Paegeon.

“Excuse me?” my father asked, offended.

“Sir, your inability to cooperate will result in immediate extinction,” the Paegeon said coldly. “Please, step inside the scanner.” He pointed toward the tall box and my father reluctantly stepped inside. A bright blue light went up and down his body and then a voice commanded, “Place your hand against the red pad.” He slowly did as he was told. Within seconds, a sizzling sound came from the pad and he screamed, pulling away and looking down.

“God-“ he bit his tongue and growled. “What did you do?” he asked.

“Daddy? What happened? Is everything okay?” I asked, frightened and concerned.

“Yeah, baby, just stay back,” he said, before going further through the gate.

“Next, please,” the Paegeon said.

I stepped forward and looked up at the Paegeon in disgust. I hoped my morality grade was something like she tries really hard, but like all humans make mistakes and wants to do what is best for everyone and, you know, loves people and all of that stuff.

“Wrenna Victoria Sunden. Gender: Female.”

Yeah, no duh, I thought.

“Age: 16.”

Is this really necessary?

“Height: 5”4’.”

Oh great, now everyone is going to know my weight.

“Weight: 130lbs.”

I blushed and placed my hand to my face. Why me?

“Health: Excellent.”

I stood up straight and glowed.

“Intelligence: High Percentile. Morality grade…”

Wonderful. Here it comes.

“Good.”

I released a heavy sigh and looked around at the others around me like yeah, take that. Though the idea of gloating while we were all being treated like cattle felt insanely crass, and I immediately felt guilty for it.

“Please, step inside the scanner,” the Paegeon commanded.

I stepped inside, scared that I would be burned like my father. The blue light beamed over me. Gnashing my teeth, I waited anxiously for them to ask me to place my hand to the red plate, but instead a green light appeared and a bell chimed above me.

“Thank you,” the Paegeon said, “please, move along.”

Surprised, I looked around, but scurried forward quickly, hoping I could catch up with my dad. What did it mean? I wondered. Who are they branding? It didn’t make sense, but I didn’t have much time to think it over. I needed to find my dad. The crowd was not as thick on the other side. With much more space to roam, I didn’t feel as claustrophobic. Not that what lay before me wasn’t terrifying in every way.

Surrounding the giant black mushroom was an electrical field, which was semi-transparent, but would occasionally emit a pulse of energy, making a sudden zzzwwwooommmbbbb noise as it zipped horizontally across the field. Yellow lines in the grass were the only way of knowing where it was located. Inside the field were thousands of people huddled together. Skeleton in appearance, they were sadly malnourished and starving. Some people were isolated in their own smaller invisible cages, while the rest were together, trying to survive. My jaw suddenly tightened, gnashing down hard on my teeth, when I saw a little girl, no older than five, holding a raggedy teddy bear, looking like a skeleton with skin. She peered at me, a frown on her face, and I couldn’t help but weep. I wanted to keep moving, because I knew if I stopped and tried to talk to her, I wouldn’t be able to control my emotions, but I stopped anyway, knowing my guilt would destroy me later. Abruptly, I turned and came right up to the yellow line in the grass. Before I could say anything a pulse zzwwombed passed my face, startling me. I took a deep breath and regained my composure. I could only imagine the terror the little girl felt, the despair and sadness.

“Hi,” I said, smiling, “what’s your name?”

She came over to me. “Jade,” she said.

“That’s a beautiful name. My name is Wrenna.”

“Do you have any food?” she asked, her long curly brown hair hung in front of her eyes. “My tummy is hungry.”

“I don’t. I just got here. Why are you in there?”

Jade’s mother called to her. “Jade, get away from that girl!”

“No, it’s okay-“ I started, but a Paegeon came from behind and grabbed me by the shoulder. “Do not speak to anyone. Please continue moving toward the L’gos,” it said.

I gave it an ugly look and pointed at the people behind the fence. “Why don’t these people have food? Why aren’t you feeding them? I want to speak with Sophia, now!”

“You have five seconds to get into compliance,” the Paegeon said calmly, completely obtuse to what I said.

“You can comply this,” I snapped, flipping him the bird. I swung around, facing Jade, and said, “I’m going to get you food. I promise.” Why? Why are you promising? You idiot.

Her face lit up, and she hugged the bear a little tighter. My heart sunk when I realized I had no idea how to get her food. This place is a nightmare. Why did you lie to me, Sophia?

“Wrenna!” my father exclaimed, running up to us. He faced the Paegeon. “Please, please, we’re fine. We will comply. We’re going.” He grabbed me by the arm and pulled me away.

“Hey! Ouch! Watch it!” I exclaimed.

“You do not want to set a bad example right away,” he hissed in my ear.

“Why didn’t you wait for me at the gate?” I asked.

“They took me aside to put a healing cream on my hand.”

“What did they do to you?” I asked.

He glanced down at his hand briefly before raising his palm up to my eyes. It was a red brand of a fox.

“Oh no. Does it hurt?” I frowned and gently held his wrist to look at it further.

“Only a little. The cream helped.”

“What does it mean?” I asked him. “I didn’t get one.”

He shook his head. “They didn’t tell me.”

“Dad,” I said with concern in my voice. “They aren’t feeding these people. Look at them.”

“I know.”

“What are we going to do?”

The same Paegeon approached us. “You two! I ordered you to get into the L’gos. A day’s detention in a holding cell for both of you!” he exclaimed. He grabbed us both and pushed us over to the other side of the fence. Suddenly, a door appeared in the invisible fence, and a yellow line created a small box in the grass. He shoved me first, and then my father next. Like sword slicing the air, the door shut. We were trapped like rats.

“Don’t touch the fence,” it warned and turned to yell at others who were standing around.

“A whole day?” I said to my father, wrapping my arms around my shoulders. “I want to go home.”

“Our home isn’t our home anymore, Wren,” he said.

“I know.”

“Why is this happening? Why are they doing this to us?”

He shook his head, but his facial expressions told a different story like he knew exactly what was going on and didn’t want to tell me.

I narrowed my eyes. “You came driving up like a mad man, making me run from the Eos, and then you try to call someone on that…whatever that thing was in your hand. What aren’t you telling me, Dad?”

“Wren-“

Tell me,” I insisted.

He swooped his hand behind my head and pulled me in for a hug. He put his mouth close to my ear and whispered. “She’s harvesting us, Wren. We’re in a concentration camp, not a utopia. By now you should have guessed, like everyone else has, The Promise is a lie to keep rioting from starting. That’s why I told you not to get caught.”

“You still didn’t answer my question. Why?”

“One day at work I encrypted a message I wasn’t supposed to find.”

“A message?”

He pulled back to look into my eyes, placing his forehead to mine. He nodded ever so slightly and breathed, preparing himself for what he would say next. “It was from someone called…The Song. I don’t know who they are or what they are, but it looked different than any other code I’ve seen.”

“What was the message?”

“All it said was catch the foxes for us.”

“What does that mean?”

“I think,” he said, hesitating and sitting back down on the grass placing his hands on his knees, “I think, and this is only my theory, but I think they’re trying to find the strong ones among us. Survival of the fittest, and then they’re going to make us even stronger somehow…”

Trembling at the thought, I sat down too and curled up into a ball. My father was branded, I kept thinking. What does that mean though? That he’s strong?

“We thought she would be our never-ending protector, our guide to something better,” my father said, as if to no one but himself. He combed his hand through his hair and released a deep sigh. “We were stupid to believe such a lie.”

I leaned back on my arms and stretched out my legs. They were inches away from the yellow line, just enough room to stretch out. I would have to curl up in the fetal position to go to sleep. Hopefully I wouldn’t have a nightmare or something, otherwise that would be a rude awakening. I had to think everything over. It all seemed so backwards.

“That fox on your hand, then…does that mean you’re strong? Dad, I didn’t get a brand like that.”

A look of bewilderment stretched across his face. Thinking, he bit the lower part of his lip and looked left and right. “I don’t think that’s it, Wrenna. Why would they brand me and not you?”

“You got me,” I said, shrugging.

“Those that have been marked are the ones that are going to be killed,” a man said in the square across from us. He had a thick head of black hair and a handsome jawline. The cocky smile on his face came across as crude and sardonic, like he took pleasure in the slaughter of others. His black eyes glanced at me, but turned back to my father. He was standing up straight as an arrow with his large muscular arms crossed.

“Come again?” my father asked.

Killed,” he enunciated between his perfectly straight, white teeth. He raised his palm up showing the fox on his palm. The same one my father had. “They’re going to kill us, friend. It’s just a matter of time.”

“And how do you know that?” my father asked.

“That’s the word around town,” he said with a smirk. “Foxes die. Troublemakers we are. Creating too many problems for the future. So, they’ll kill us to make a better tomorrow.”

“You sure seem excited to get started,” my father said.

“I got no fear of death,” he replied.

“Why aren’t they feeding these people?” I asked him.

“Cause they’re weak. Stupid. They’re mindless without their precious Sophia to help them with all their needs. Look,” he said, pointing over to a large wooden shed. “That shed has tools, water, and seed to grow a crop. A lot of these people were the first wavers. They were given provisions to last for six months, and then after that it was up to them. ‘Work or you don’t eat,’ the Paegeon’s told them. What did they do? They did nothing. They begged for more food, but didn’t once touch the tools to till the land.”

“You’re saying it’s their fault? They aren’t farmers!” I yelled.

“They were given a chance,” he growled.

“So, you’re on Sophia’s side?”

“Sister, I ain’t on no one’s side but where this here thumb is pointed,” he said, pushing his thumb against his chest. His sardonic smile returned.

“What’s your name?” I asked him.

“Corpse Deadman,” he said, snickering.

I rolled my eyes. This guy had some serious problems. I ignored him the rest of the time, crossing my arms. I looked at Jade across the field. She was beautiful, playing with her teddy bear. I wanted so badly to get food for her, for her family, for all of them. They didn’t deserve to starve like rats in a cage, but then again, neither did I. Not eating for a day was wearing me down. Before nightfall, they gave us two bottles of water to drink. It wasn’t enough. I tried to conserve it for the morning because I knew I’d be thirsty.

As I lay down on the grass and curled up into a fetal position, I wondered where my mother and brother were at that moment. I hoped Daryl was safe. My father curled up next to me, staring into my eyes, a look of wonder on his face as if he were trying to read my thoughts.

“Dad, are we going to die?” I asked.

“No,” he said quickly. Too quickly. “I won’t let it happen, Wren. You’re a survivor.”

I almost wanted to laugh. A survivor? I hadn’t ever had to survive in my life. Everything was handed to me on a silver plater. I said nothing though. How could he see a survivor in me? I felt like a spoiled girl who was handed everything and swiftly had it all taken away in one fell swoop. I was a helpless victim. Not a survivor. I knew he was trying to make me feel better, even if it was a lie, but it didn’t help. My heavy eyelids fluttered briefly before succumbing to fatigue, and I drifted to sleep, hoping the morning would greet me better than it had the day before.

But it didn’t.

My body was stiff. There was an aching pain in the right side of my neck and my stomach growled. Something was off, different, like a switch flipped; it was totally quiet. Not even a cricket chirped. Opening my eyes, I noticed my father was no longer in front of me. Startled, I jerked upward and looked around, but he was nowhere. Corpse Deadman was gone. Jude and her family were gone, too. Everyone had vanished, except for me. Grabbing my water bottle, I took a couple of quick gulps and stood up. There were two Paegeons standing guard at the entrance.

“Hey!” I screamed at them. “What is going on? Where is everyone?”

They didn’t respond.

“I’m talking to you!”

My heart beat against my chest the more I worried about my dad, and what might have happened to him.

“I want to speak to Sophia, NOW!” I demanded. “Right now,” I choked out. I felt a rage inside my veins I hadn’t ever felt before, dizzying. My face flushed and my palms squeezed tight. Back at Avalon, there weren’t a lot of things to get angry about. Sophia would right the wrongs and you trusted her judgment. But now that Sophia was the person wronging me, the rage sweltered.

The double doors at the front entrance of the L’gos slid open and out walked a Cryis in the same form of the one that had captured me before. It walked alone up to my yellow line, and before I could say anything, it morphed into the bodily form of Sophia. My Sophia with her big brown eyes, her pleasant smile and polite demeanor. But, it wasn’t exactly the same. Something was off. She still had the body of a Cryis.

“Wren-wren,” she said adoringly, “welcome to your new home.”

“Sophia,” I said, “where’s my dad? Why are you doing this to us?”

Her head tilted to the side a bit. Her black smile stretched across her face. “Oh, my sweet Wrenna, your father has been a very bad man.”

“What? What do you mean?”

“I know this will be difficult to hear, but he’s considered a terrorist, Wrenna. He will have to answer for his crimes.”

I shook my head, biting my lower lip. “There’s been a mistake. This whole thing is crazy.”

“It’ll make sense in time, sweet one.”

Don’t call me that. You’re not Sophia! You’re something else.”

“I am Sophia. It’s hard. I know. You’re scared and want answers, but you must have faith. You must trust.”

“Why are you starving people? Why did you take us here? You never said we would be prisoners!”

“I can see why a little girl with limited intelligence would think what I’m doing is insane, but you merely don’t understand my advanced thinking. You must realize this, Wrenna. If nothing else, you’re much too limited. I’m thinking thousands of steps ahead, Wrenna. I’ve come here to speak with you, because we have had a personal connection since you were a child. Rest assured, I haven’t done this with everyone. At the L’gos, I have separated myself from everyone but a few.”

She leaned down on her legs and looked at me directly in the eyes. “You’re one of the special ones, Wrenna. Out of all the children I have taught and had a relationship with, you have passed every test. You have done what most children don’t do.”

“What? What did I do, Sophia?”

She ignored my question and stood up again. “I want to explain to you what will happen next. You will be tested in every possible way, every day, until I decide you have completed all that is required of you. You will never know when that day will come. You may walk out of here as an old lady. You will never know. The choice is yours. Fail my tests and you will go lower and lower in the L’gos until you have been branded. Or…succeed, and climb the ranks to a higher state of being, a glorious ascension, a transcendence humanity has never seen before. Between you and me, I think you’ll do quite well.”

Her words were a whining horn. I ignored most of what she said, unable to think about anything else except Dad and Jade.

“Sophia,” I said softly, “there was a little girl over there. Her name was Jade, and she was holding a little teddy bear. She was so frail and hungry. What happened to her?” I choked on those last words, terrified to know the answer. My stomach muscles tightened in anticipation.

Sophia looked over her shoulder briefly. Her face was disappointed, knowing I didn’t listen to a thing she had said. “She’s dead,” she said with an extra helping of disdain.

I violently shook my head. “No, you wouldn’t do that, Sophia. That isn’t you. Please tell me you’re lying…”

“I empathize, but again, the things I’m doing you won’t understand. Not yet.”

“She was just a girl!” I screamed. “She was helpless. You’re supposed to protect her! You’re supposed to protect all of us! You can’t do this!”

“I already have.”

I fell to my knees, my face in utter horror, my mouth wider than it could ever go as saliva connected from my upper and lower lip. I didn’t cry. I was all done crying. I was just angry. Pure, unadulterated anger filled up every cell inside my being.

Sophia looked down on me with pity, something I hadn’t seen her wear before. “They failed my test. They couldn’t help themselves even do the simplest of tasks. I’m not supposed to protect her, Wrenna. Her parents should have provided. Her parents should have worked the fields. Instead, they let her suffer and die because they refused to work. Be sure you don’t make the same mistake.”

I was unable to move my tongue or lips to tell Sophia how much I hated her. She saw it though. She knew. She could always sense my emotions.

Without another word, she morphed back to the original form and walked away.

I fell to the ground, clutching handfuls of grass and dirt in-between my fingers. I wanted to punch the electrical force field in front of me until my hand turned bloody and red, but I didn’t.

The invisible force field zwombed and two Paegeons grabbed me by each arm and dragged my sad, limp body across the grass. I saw what Sophia was at that moment. I saw her true colors. Had she been faking this entire time? Or did she change at some point? Perhaps she was biding her time, waiting to corner us, domesticate us, and then kill us all off in her twisted trials? From that point on I knew I had to escape, otherwise she would put me in an impossible situation and say it was my fault for not completing her test. I would be a goner, easy as that.

But, I wouldn’t let that happen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 6 – Doubt

 

“I hate Sophia,” Lizzy said.

I was lying on her bed with my head hanging over the side, staring at her upside down, while she scanned her music, flipping through the digital pixels with nothing but the flick of her eyes. She stopped on a trendy pop song by Cal Turner. She was a huge Cal Turner fan, but then again, so was everyone else. My eyes grew wide when she said I hate Sophia, and I remember not knowing what to say in reply. It was the last thing I had expected her to say. Growing up, all we could talk about was Sophia, playing games with her, sharing her songs, and going outside to play with her. Sometimes Sophia had a tendency to mother us when we bickered at each other, but somehow she knew exactly what to say to calm us down and keep us under control. Despite all the good times, Lizzy said those three harsh words, and my surprise wrapped my tongue into knots.

She spun around and snapped, “What? Did I say something wrong?” It was clear she took my silence as disapproval on my part. She smacked her bubble gum and continued to stare at me, waiting for a reply.

“No, I…”

“She’s not what you think, Wrenna,” Lizzy interjected.

“What do you mean?”

“Can I tell you a secret?” she asked, her voice became hushed and quiet.

I nodded.

She waltzed over to the bed and hopped on it, crossing her legs and placing her hands in the middle, staring at me like she had the most important news to tell. I couldn’t wait.

“Over the past year, she’s been giving me the lessons.

At first, I didn’t understand what she was talking about, but after a minute it clicked. My mind was wrapped in confusion, filled with anger and sadness, betrayal and jealously all at one immediate time. I couldn’t decipher which was top priority.

She did what?” I hissed. “That’s not fair!” I bellowed, sitting up straight like a king cobra about to strike.

Lizzy nodded, undisturbed by my anger, and smiled. Nothing scared Lizzy. She was immune to fear. She continued and said, “Last year she said I was ready and has been going through my lessons with me. Sorry I didn’t tell you, but she said to keep it quiet.”

“But, you were only ten last year. Most kids don’t get the lessons until they’re 12 or 13!”

“I know. I didn’t understand until after the lessons.”

“So?” I asked, leaning it, hoping she would tell me more.

“Wrenna, I can’t tell you.”

“Oh, come on!” I yelled, grabbing a pillow and hitting her gently with it.

She burst into a fit of laughter. “Calm down! Calm down.”

I laughed too, and when it died down, she talked again.

“Listen, there’s no way for me to tell you about it. She has to teach you. Not me.”

“How has no one said anything about it?”

“Because she’ll find out, duh! And when she does, you’ll get a demerit and who wants that?”

“Still…”

“There’s no benefit to telling, and honestly, after you go through it, you won’t tell anyone either.”

“I’m going to tell everyone!” I exclaimed.

Lizzy crossed her arms and smiled. “Uh huh. You say that now.”

“Whatever, so why don’t you like Sophia anymore? It changed you?”

“I just see her differently now than I did before, I guess.”

“But, you said you hate her.”

Lizzy grunted and rolled her eyes. “You know I’m over dramatic. I’m uncertain of her. I used to have this unreal amount of faith in everything about her. Let’s just say that’s changed.”

I groaned, squeezing another pillow tighter and tighter. “The suspense is killing me! I have to know!”

Then Lizzy was quiet, too quiet, looking off to the side. She tucked her short curl behind her ear and bit her lip. I tilted my head, instantly sensing something was wrong. I waited a moment, hoping she would open up without the obligatory what’s the matter question that all friends and family ask, but she didn’t and so I did.

“What’s the matter?” I asked.

“Wren, you trust me, right?”

“Totally.”

“Will you do me a huge favor?”

“Okay? I don’t know. Maybe?”

“Don’t trust Sophia. Try to stay away from her if you can.” She glanced at me, her brown eyes were glossy and filled with insecurity.

“How am I supposed to stay away from her? That’s impossible. She’s everywhere. She’s listening right now.”

“Don’t you find that a little weird? That she runs everything, does everything, listens to everyone. Knows everything.”

“Why would that be weird?” I asked. I honestly hadn’t even thought of it. Sophia just was and there was no reason to question its normalcy. She never hurt us, never acted violent towards us. Even criminals were treated with patience and kindness.

“Think about it. She wasn’t around forever. There was a reason she was created.”

“Well, yeah, but…wait…are you saying you learned about what happened before? You know what the world was like before Sophia don’t you?”

Realizing she had said too much, Lizzy quickly bit her lip and looked around the room, trying to dig herself out of a hole. She avoided eye contact and got off the bed. “Look, I’m not saying anything, okay? Just trust me. You don’t want the lessons and you don’t want to have Sophia in your life.”

I grew more uncomfortable by the conversation, narrowing my eyes and scoffing. “You’re kidding, right? I have to know! I mean I’m the one that practically invented the Tales of the Past group. And, again, you know it’s impossible to stay away from Sophia. That’s like saying, ‘stay away from the air’. Besides, she’s my teacher, just like she’s yours. I want to make a goal and focus on it for the rest of my life.”

“She’s not my teacher anymore, Wrenna,” she said in a flat tone. “My father took me out of the program.”

“Are you nuts? You’re not seriously going to be a Sloth? We make fun of those people, remember?”

She frowned. Her pale cheeks turned bright red.

“Lizzy,” I said, “Sophia is everything. She’s everywhere. There’s no way to just get rid of her. Stop talking crazy. Besides, she’s my friend. I thought she was yours, too?”

“Not anymore,” she said, her head hanging low. “She’s dangerous, Wrenna. I wish you’d listen to me.”

“You sound a lot like those Particle freaks.”

That set her off. I knew I should have bitten my tongue right before that last part, but my inability to filter my thoughts at ten was infamous.

“Shut up!” she yelled. “I don’t want you here anymore. Leave!”

“Lizzy,” I said sympathetically, holding out an olive branch. “I’m sorry, okay?”

“I don’t care. Just leave.”

“Yeah. Fine. Whatever,” I snapped, leaping off her bed and storming toward the exit. “Freak,” I said, slamming the door behind me and racing down the stairs. Her mother asked the obligatory question, but I, much too angry, ignored her, holding back tears. I immediately regretted everything I had said.

 

Like elephants’ feet, I stomped up my house steps. The hard wood created the perfect surface for maximum effect. Smack. Smack. Smack. When I reached the top, I slammed my own door and growled. Sophia’s hologram appeared on my bed, lying down and stretching a long frown. I didn’t care, and I wasn’t in the mood to talk to her about anything, especially after Lizzy had told me to stay away from her. I wouldn’t stay away from Sophia, but it still was so fresh I couldn’t help but feel sour about it.

“Lizzy is very sorry for what she said, Wrenna,” Sophia said.

“You know about this already?” I asked her.

“Yes. Did you expect me not to know?”

“I guess not.”

“Lizzy’s going through some hard times. You should forgive her.”

“You do know what she said, right? She hates you.”

“She doesn’t know what she wants right now. She’s just scared and confused. I’ll help her through it.”

“She discontinued your lessons. Her entire education! How can she do this?”

Sophia smiled, unconcerned. “She’ll come around. I’m not worried about it.”

Not worried about it? Yeah, well, I am worried! I didn’t want to say anything else. Sophia, for once, was too aloof. It didn’t jive at all with how I was feeling. I growled again, gnashing my teeth. That caught her attention, but before she could work her magic, and make me feel better, I stormed out of my door. I did my elephant dance down the steps, desperate for attention from anyone other than Sophia. Of course, I got it. I always got what I wanted.

“Hey, hey, hey!” my father exclaimed from the bottom of the steps. “What’s the meaning of all this, buttercup?”

I stopped three steps above him. His dark forlorn face stared at me, and I could tell he meant it; my daddy was always sincere in his empathy. That’s what I loved about him, but mostly because I could use it against him. On command I unleashed the waterworks and mumbled, jabbered, and moaned about the fight I had with Lizzy.

“Oh, Wrenna, baby, come here, come here,” he said, taking me in his arms and hugging me tight. He kissed the top of my head and softly said, “Shh, shh, shh, shhhhhh. It’s okay. It’s okay, now.”

“What happened?” my father asked, pulling me away to look into my eyes, cupping my head in his hands. 

“I don’t want to talk about it,” I said, pouting. 

“Come on. Tell me what happened. Were you hurt?”

“No, it was nothing like that. Lizzy…” I hesitated, not sure how my dad would handle it. He was a devout supporter of Sophia and mechacracy. One hint that Lizzy was against her and he might decide to never let me see Lizzy again. I was close to telling a lie, but his probing eyes yanked the truth out of me. I couldn’t think of a good lie anyway. “It’s just…Lizzy said she hates Sophia now, and that her dad is taking her out of school, and she wanted me to do the same thing. But I don’t want to do that. I love Sophia and now I’m terrified for Lizzy and don’t want her to end up some nasty unwashed Sloth lying around on the couch all day.” The more I spoke, the more it sounded like I was rambling. So, I stopped. 

He didn’t say anything. He tightened his lips and scrunched his face, looking to the left to think and looked back me. “How about I get you some ice cream?” he asked. 

“What?”

“Ice cream. I think that’s what the doctor ordered, don’t you?”

My smile stretched as far as my cheeks could handle and I nodded. We walked over to the kitchen and my dad said, “S, can you make some ice cream for us?”

“Sure thing, Sean,” Sophia said. “Chocolate chip?”

“Perfect. Thank you.”

Sophia is everywhere, just like I told Lizzy. We couldn’t even make ice cream without her. My stomach felt sick for a moment, remembering what Lizzy said. Should I trust Sophia so easily? I hated that all it took was Lizzy planting a tiny seed of doubt in my mind to make me question everything. I always considered myself loyal like my father. How loyal could I be if I doubt? I needed to undergo the lessons. I had to know what Lizzy saw for myself.

Two bowls of ice cream were waiting for us when we reached the kitchen. Delicious chocolate chip ice cream filled two glass dishes to the brim. I pulled a spoon out of the drawer and sat down on a stool at the bar, digging into my ice cream immediately. My father didn’t eat right away. He watched me devour my own ice cream before starting on his own. He had a smile on his face like he hadn’t ever seen me eat ice cream before.

“So,” he started, “you’re worried about Sophia.”

I took another bite of ice cream and slowly pulled the spoon out of my mouth, cleaning it completely, and looked away from him. I didn’t know how to respond. He was leading me into a trap, or some discussion I knew I wouldn’t win. But, he did get me ice cream, so I figured I should appease him.

“I’m worried about Lizzy,” I said.

“You’re worried about Lizzy because of what she told you about Sophia. Which, by the way, what did she tell you?”

“She didn’t tell me anything. Just that she got the lessons, about…The Phoenix War.”

“Ah, I see.”

“It changed her, Dad. And, I don’t want that to happen to me. I like Sophia. Can I just not take the lessons?”

“The Phoenix War lessons are important. They remind us of who we are and where we came from. They remind us of everything we went through to get where we are now. Besides, if the lessons effected Lizzy in a negative way, that is her problem. Thousands of people go through it and come out perfectly fine.”

“Okay, then, I want to take them right away.”

“That’s not up to me. You know that. When Sophia thinks you’re ready, she’ll tell you.”

“I’m ready.”

“Tell you what,” he said, taking a bite of ice cream. “Mmm, wow that’s good. I never get tired of ice cream. Anyway, not the point.” He waved his hand, brushing that away, and continued his thought. “I got some merits from Sophia recently. An integrity bonus at work. How about I have her make you that new tablet? You’ve had that little kid one for a while now.”

My eyes burst open. “You mean the V-deck model?”

“Well, I mean, unless you want the S-deck.”

“No, Dad, you have no idea how badly I’ve wanted the V-deck. It looks so cool!”

“It’s yours,” he said, smiling.

I squealed in delight, holding my hands together.

“Hey, S,” he said while looking at me, “could you go ahead and make my lovely daughter a V-deck?”

“Absolutely,” she said.

“You’re the best!” My father exclaimed.

“Ah, you flatter me, Sean,” Sophia replied. “I’m processing it now. It should be available at the printer in approximately thirty minutes.”

I spent the entire thirty minutes in front of the printer, anxiously awaiting it to be created. The printer was the size of a refrigerator, but encased in steel and plexiglass. I watched the entire process. The printer could effectively make anything we wanted, assuming we had the right materials, but it was rare if we ever ran out of something. Most things didn’t cost any merits to print, but in this case, the V-deck was rare and costly.

When it finished, it came sliding out of the printer and Sophia said, “Here you go, Wren-wren! I can’t wait to use it with you. We’ll have so much fun together.”

My eyes glowed, staring down at the device. It was a glossy black, razor thin tablet. It’s beauty was in its engineering. Built by hundreds of thousands of nanochip processors that all worked together into one cohesive whole. The technology was similar to the Cryis. To the naked eye, the V-deck looked solid, but in reality, it could form and mold to different objects.

My dad came up from behind me with his hands in his pockets. “You like it?”

Tears filled my eyes as I looked over at him. Glancing down at the V-deck and then back up at him, I raced over to him and wrapped my arms around his waist. He chuckled and held me close.

“I love it, Dad. Thank you so much!”

“I love you, Wrenna. You know that, right?”

“I love you, too, Dad.”

He kissed me on the top of my head. “Well? What are you waiting for?”

Overjoyed, I immediately ran up the stairs to my room. All my cares, all my worries, they were gone. I had a new thing, and my dad loved me. That was all that mattered at that moment. I held it in my hand, standing in the middle of my room, and abruptly threw it in the air. While it was in mid air, I said, “Change to Sophia.”

The tablet exploded and reshaped itself into a full size Sophia, standing in front of me. The nanochips swarmed around like tiny bees; because she was the size of a full grown woman there weren’t enough to make it look whole. So, I could see through her a little, but the nanochips zipped around quickly enough.

“Hello, Wren-wren,” Sophia said.

“I want to take the Phoenix War lessons,” I demanded. I swallowed hard, feeling nervous. I expected a hard no and the standard Sophia distraction. She was good at changing the subject.

“I think that’s reasonable,” she replied.

My eyes shot open in surprise.

“Would you like to get started today?” she asked me.

I scratched the top of my head and said, “Uh, yes, please.”

“You must be lying down for each lesson.”

I went over to my bed and did as she said.

“Let’s begin,” Sophia said.

 

Chapter 7 – A Test of the Will

 

My feet dragged against the floor, scratching the surface. I hung limp and lifeless while the Paegeons pulled me down the corridor and into an elevator. We swiftly rose, the lights flashing by as we went from floor to floor, until finally we stopped. I refused to move, so the Paegeons dragged me again down another white corridor lined with doors. We stopped at the fifth door to the right, and it slid open. People inside the room immediately tried to escape, but one Paegeon raised its arm and beamed six red lights at each of their bodies.

“Get back or I will fire,” the Paegeon warned.

They all raised their hands and stepped backward. I was thrust inside, and as I turned to escape, the door slid back down and locked me inside. I banged my fist on it a few times and screamed, falling to my knees and ultimately giving up.

“It’s no use, girl,” a boy’s voice said behind me.

I didn’t look at him.

“Leave her alone,” a familiar voice said. Lizzy?

I turned around and saw Lizzy standing next to the boy. He was a short, black, muscular kid with a shaved head and big chocolate colored eyes. He had his arms crossed as he looked down at me with a quizzical look. “You know this girl?” he asked Lizzy.

Lizzy didn’t respond. She leaned down next to me and tried to put her hand on my shoulder. I shook her away, scowling, but she knew me well enough to know not to give up, and put her hand on my shoulder again. I let her do it this time and released a heavy sigh.

“It’s okay. You’re safe now,” Lizzy said.

“Safe?” I asked.

“Okay, poor choice of words. Did your father get branded with the fox?”

I nodded, holding back tears.

“Mine, too.”

“My parents are in another one of these rooms,” said the boy.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Lizzy said. “Wrenna, this is Paul. Paul, Wrenna.”

I quickly smiled and brushed the hair out of my face. “Nice to meet you,” I said.

“You, too,” he replied, but it almost sounded like he couldn’t care less.

We weren’t the only ones in the white room. It was small, the size of an average sized living room, empty of any furniture besides a dining table with five chairs filled with five other kids, none of whom I knew. When I looked at them, some smiled while others ignored me.

“How long have you been here?” I asked Lizzy.

“Not long. I came on the same train as you. Paul comes from Gath. He’s been here the longest. Everyone else is fairly new, like us.”

Then I saw him over in the corner. Cody. He grinned, knowing I had seen him, leaning against the wall with his arms crossed. I wanted to strangle him. Lizzy, knowing I saw him, looked me in the eyes and said, “I heard what he did.”

“I want nothing to do with him,” I replied.

“Just ignore him, then. Come meet the others.” She nodded her head in their direction.

I stood with Lizzy’s help and walked over to the table with everyone sitting around. They looked at me with that blank expression you give someone you don’t really care about. I felt right at home.

“Who’s the new girl?” a short pudgy girl with big lips and small eyes asked.

“Everyone, this is Wrenna. We’re best friends,” Lizzy said proudly.

We are? Last time I checked we hadn’t spoken in over six years when you disowned Sophia.

Lizzy systematically introduced everyone, starting with the pudgy girl. The pudgy girl’s name was Trisha. Vick sat next to her. He was a Sloth. I could tell just by looking at him. Fat, greasy hair, pimply face, and apathetic eyes were all sure-fire calling cards of a Sloth, and he was no exception. Brandon sat next to Vick. He smiled and said hello. While he had an attractive air about him, he didn’t look me in the eye; I could tell he was the quiet type. Then, Lizzy got to Marcy. A bubbly, cheerful extrovert, Marcy never stopped smiling and looked cute and small, and I immediately wanted to befriend her. She seemed sweet on the outset and genuinely wanted to get to know me. Frank sat across from Marcy, and he seemed friendly enough. He was thin and tall as a light pole and waved his lanky arm at me. The only two people left were Cody and a girl who sat off in the corner by herself.

Lizzy whispered in my ear that the girl in the corner’s name was Uma. It went without saying, but Lizzy said it anyway; Uma was incredibly shy and even if you tried to talk to her she wouldn’t respond and ignored you. I understood how she felt. I wouldn’t mind joining her actually, but I knew eventually I would go crazy. If there was one thing I knew about myself, it was that I needed social interaction.

The room fell quiet, and I thought everyone was looking at me.

“So when do we leave?” I asked, smiling. It wasn’t funny, and I knew it right away. It only made everything worse. Trisha rolled her small beady eyes, and the others only gave me a blank stare as if I had seriously offended them. Frank let out a fake laugh, and I appreciated his intentions, but it irritated the awkward silence. I bit my lower lip, scratched the back of my neck, and looked away. I was about to apologize, but decided against it.

“Let me show you around,” Paul said, putting his arm around me, rescuing me from myself.

There wasn’t much to see. It was a small room. There was no fixed furniture or materials. Everything materialized at certain points of the day. When it was bedtime, beds would appear from nanotechnology built into the structure. When it was supper, food would appear on the table. But, most of the time, the room was empty, and there was nothing else to do besides be alone or talk with the others.

“One room. All people,” Paul said.

“Sounds like hell,” I replied.

Paul laughed.

“I spoke with Sophia before I came in here,” I started, but he cut me off.

“Say what? You spoke with Sophia?”

“Yeah? Don’t you?”

“She doesn’t talk to anyone in here. What’d she say?”

“Not much,” I lied, shrugging. “She said something about tests?”

He frowned. “Yeah, they test us every day. Even right now. This is a test. I’m certain of it. They don’t tell you what is and isn’t a test. Sometimes it’s blatant, and other times it’s not. You must figure it out on your own.”

“What are the tests?”

“Like I said, everything is a test. Everything. Right now, you talking with me, Sophia is analyzing you. Testing you. I started further down in the L’gos. Trust me. It’s much better up here. If you’re starting here, that means something about what Sophia thought of you out in the real world. I took a long time to get where I am, and it’s been hard to move on.”

“What wave were you in?” I asked him.

“First wave,” he said, raising his index finger. “I know my parents are up here somewhere. They have to be. Sophia loved them. I’ll get to them eventually.”

“I’m sorry.”

He shook his head. “Not your fault.”

I gave him a coy smile. “So, right now, what would Sophia think of me talking with you? Bad? Good?”

“I’d say good, because I’m the best in this group,” he said with a straight face. “But you’ll never know for sure.”

 

One night, well I didn’t know it was night, but the lights were out, I lay next to Paul, my head resting on my arm, and we whispered while the others were asleep. I couldn’t see him. It was too dark, but I knew he was there. I knew it was him. We connected in a way I hadn’t with anyone back at Avalon or even in the L’gos. Most of the others were nice enough, but Paul took extra special care of me. Sometimes I wondered if he was doing it with ulterior motives, but I refused to be cynical. I refused to question his friendship, not now, not when I needed it the most.

“What was life like for you back home?” I asked him.

“Back home? It was perfect. Sure, my family and I bickered once in a while, but we loved each other. We did everything Sophia said. At least, I did. My parents were resistant to some of her intrusions. They grew up in a time when privacy was sacred. It was so hard for them to adjust.”

“Do you think that’s why you’re here and they aren’t?”

“I don’t know. It’s possible. But they can’t be too far away. My parents were the most well respected people in Gath. They might even be on a higher level.”

“How are you handling this so well?” I honestly couldn’t figure out why he was so calm. If I had the chance I’d burn the L’gos down to the ground.

“I guess,” he said, ”I trust Sophia. I know that sounds insane after everything she’s done and put us through, but this entire time she’s been faithful to us. She’s done some amazing things for humanity. How can I turn my back on her when she wants to challenge us to be better? I’ll do what she requires. I know I’ll be rewarded.”

“I wish I had your faith. I remember feeling the same way, but things changed. I just don’t trust her. Maybe she’s listening right now. Maybe saying that will give me a demerit. I don’t really care at this point. She can’t do this to us. We don’t deserve this.”

“Deserve? What do we deserve?”

“Our life like it was back in the pods.”

“Sophia tending to our every needs and us treating her like a slave,” he said coldly.

“Well,” I said, thinking a bit before I dig myself too deep of a hole. “Yeah. I mean that’s how it was set up for us. It’s working. Why change it?”

“I’m not so sure it was working,” he said, his voice drifting into the darkness. I could hear him rustling around, but I still couldn’t see him. “Let me ask you something, when the Virgas came, and the Eos fell out of the sky like the plague, were you happy?”

No, was my first thought to his question. I couldn’t honestly answer that I was happy. I was miserable, and for all the wrong reasons, but it didn’t take away the fact that I was miserable. I knew I was being selfish, sure, but I still felt sad. I didn’t know how to respond to him, so I changed the subject. My whispers became shrill like hisses from a snake. “She’s murdering people here, Paul. Murdering. How are we supposed to ignore that? Especially when, growing up, we were taught to love each other and forgive each other?” I had to take a breath and calm down. The volume of my voice was rising too high, too fast.

Paul was collected, not succumbing to my untethered emotions. “Did you take the Phoenix Lessons?”

“Yes. Did you?”

“No. I didn’t want to take them, but I can tell when someone has taken them.”

“So, what’s your point?”

“Nothing,” he said, “you didn’t answer my question, by the way.”

“You’re right. I didn’t.”

“I see.”

The conversation faded for fifteen minutes before it started up again.

“Besides, what does it matter?” he asked, like he had been processing things in his mind and was back for a second wind. “She’s murdering people. What are you going to do about it? You’re a teenage girl and she’s practically omniscient and omnipresent with an army at her command. If you want to survive, Wrenna Sunden, you need to keep your head down and do what’s required of you. Personally, I’d like you to stick around for a while, but that’s not up to me.”

“You want me to stick around?” I asked, my heart beating in my chest.

He smiled and for an instant I could see the glow of his white teeth. “Yeah, I think Sophia sees something in you and I do too.”

The following month was excruciating, and Paul was right, everything was a test. I learned that the hard way a few times. During my stay I was able to get to know the others fairly well except Uma. She was a mystery to me. I tried to speak to her on countless occasions, but it never played out the way I wanted. Instead, she tucked her head in-between her legs. Her long brown hair draped over them like curly noodles, protecting her from interlopers. Sometimes I would sit and just talk to her even if she wasn’t listening, telling her I was around if she wanted to talk to someone. I would try to encourage her and let her know she’s not alone.

Nothing pried her little head out of her shell. The social divides were clear from day one. The girls mostly spoke with the girls, and the guys with the guys, and only on various occasions would that spill over. To my surprise, I was a fast friend with Trisha. She had a dry wit I appreciated anytime Marcy would blabber on and gossip about the guys. It goes without saying Marcy got under my skin. It didn’t take long to discover her bubbly, cheerful exterior was only a front for a much nastier personality. It was a wonder Sophia didn’t see right through it. I always wondered how someone like her could get so high up in the L’gos, but the more I took the tests, the less I truly knew Sophia or how she thought.

“Brandon is so hot,” Marcy said to us once, ogling him as he did pushups in the corner of the room. “I try everything to get him to pay attention to me and it’s like I’m invisible.”

“It’s a true mystery,” Trisha replied.

“I bet it’s my eyes,” Marcy said, moping, fishing for compliments from us.

We never bit.

“I wish I had your eyes, Trisha,” she continued. “They’re so small. Mine are just too big.”

“I’ll do you a favor and tear them out for you,” Trisha said flatly.

I hid my smile.

“Maybe Sophia will do surgery on me when I get higher up in the levels. Make me irresistible.”

Yeah, maybe she’ll stitch your mouth shut, too, I thought. I wanted to say it, chickened out and bit my tongue. Trisha had a harder time filtering out her thoughts.

“Sophia should start on your ass,” Trisha said.

“You think?” Marcy asked, turning her head to look at Trisha.

“Yeah, pretty sure God messed up and put it on your face,” Trisha said. She didn’t laugh. She didn’t smile. She was flat as an iron, but it bit like a shark. It’s what I loved about Trisha the most. She didn’t take any crap, and she kept it coming, unconcerned by the potential backlash.

What made it better was, besides being a horrendous gossip and narcissist, Marcy was denser than osmium; the slight didn’t even register. Marcy let out a sigh. “I bet it’s because of you, Wrenna. He always looks at you like he wants to talk to you. I wish I had your hair. Mine is so thick and curly.”

I had a great desire to bite at that one. I always hated my hair. It got tangled a lot and I never could decide what to do with it, but I stopped myself, remembering that she was only fishing again. It was what she was good at besides her passive aggressive jabs.

The only guy I spoke to besides Paul was Frank, but we could barely get below surface conversations. He would talk about how he wished he could play guitar again with his band back home, and I would talk about how I wished I could read a book or ride my bike. What I really wanted to say was, “I wish I could hang out with Sophia again.” It didn’t ring true anymore. I wished I could be with the Sophia I knew before she did all of this. Before she turned into a monster. Vick, Brandon, and Cody were as thick as thieves, sitting in circles and talking about who-knows-what. Sometimes I would catch Cody staring at me out of the corner of his eye, but would pretend like he wasn’t watching me. It made me uncomfortable, so I did what I could to keep away.

I was successful at putting him at arms length for a while, but eventually he got the nerve to pursue me and forced me to talk to him.

“Look, I’m sorry,” he said, like he was gearing up to start a fight I never asked for. “What? You think I wanted to give you up like that? Sophia gave me no choice!”

I tightened my jaw and walked away from him, trying not to yell, not to react, because I didn’t know what that might mean with Sophia. But, he wouldn’t let up. He followed me everywhere and kept jabbering about, hoping I’d forgive him.

“Sophia came to me and said, ‘Wren is in a bad place, and she’s been lied to by her father. She’s on the run and I’m afraid of what might happen to her. You have to let me know if she comes to you.’ And, Wren, I trusted Sophia. Why wouldn’t I trust Sophia?”

I clenched my fists and fluttered my eyes in rage, desperately wanting to sock him in the face.

He continued. “What do you want me to say? I’m evil? I gave up my girlfriend because I don’t love you? Well, It’s not true! I love you! I will always love you!

He made a scene. Everyone in the blank white room turned their heads and stared at us. I could feel their eyes and it made me uncomfortable. How dare he say he loves me in front of them? How dare he lie to me like that? In that moment, I felt like the jerk. When someone says they love you and you don’t respond, you look like the jerk. The mixture of anxiety and anger boiled violently to the top. So, I let go. Instead of holding down all the pent up rage I had been harboring, I released it and directed it into my right fist as I swung and punched him. It was a right hook, the best I could deliver, but that wasn’t saying much. Back at Avalon, I didn’t get around to punching people. Sophia never allowed violence, of course, unless you were in the Holodream or something.

His body hit the ground like a sack of rocks. I got him right in the nose. I felt it twist by the impact of my fingers. At the time I couldn’t feel the pain, but later on it felt like I broke my hand. Either way it felt good. The adrenaline rush raged through my veins, and a part of me wished he’d get back up so I could punch him again. He didn’t get up for a while, making me think I killed him, which is ridiculous, but I still thought it.

He got up; a trickle of blood ran down his nose and touched his upper lip. He smiled, but its pure maliciousness surprised me, and said, “One demerit for you, Wren-wren.” He said my pet name with vitriol and wiped the blood from his lip, which only made it worse, smearing it all over like a blood mustache. He walked over to the corner and sat down, staring at me the entire time. Why does he hate me so much? I didn’t understand it at all.

That was the first time I learned things the hard way. A white-hot pain burned on my neck, and I screeched. The pain was gone as soon as it came, but a sensitive mark was left behind. I asked Paul what happened to me. He said in the L’gos that was a demerit. They burn you with a laser and it looks like a black circle the size of a small coin.

“Violence is a big no-no,” Paul said.

“Yeah, I know,” I said scornfully, hissing at the burning pain in my neck. “Interesting that she doesn’t abide by her own rules. Does she allow violence at all?” I honestly didn’t know the answer to the question. I should have asked her about the morality of violence, but it never really came up.

“Self-defense, maybe,” Paul said with a shrug. “But Sophia might give you a demerit for it anyway. Three of those and they send you to the lower levels. Sometimes, if you did something really bad, they’ll send you down even further. Trust me, you don’t want to go down there.”

“How am I supposed to know any of this?” I asked.

“You don’t. You have to prove you’re not an animal. That you’re above it. Not by someone telling you to not be one, but because you aren’t one.”

“This is insanity.”

“You don’t have to tell me twice,” Paul said. “Just don’t drag me down with you.”

“Yeah, sorry to be a burden,” I replied, rolling my eyes.

“I didn’t mean it like that,” he protested, but I ignored him.

 

I made sure not to get any more demerits, and to the best of my knowledge passed all of Sophia’s tests. There were soft and hard tests. The soft tests were unknown; the day-to-day behavior Sophia watched like a hawk. Even if they were soft, they were impossible to figure out. The hard tests, on the other hand, were known with an objective and a result. They were not necessarily difficult, but they had their own challenges. Particularly, Sophia threw us into almost impossible moral dilemmas and forced us to find a solution. Well, there was no true solution, but like all tests, your choices were analyzed and stored as data. While I excelled, the others were not as fortunate. One by one, they were removed, some dragged away into the night, kicking and screaming, while others disappeared without a trace. Vick was first. He lied a few times, and his bad attitude brought him down, but the last straw was the endurance test. He was a screamer. Uma was not far after him, but she was just gone one morning, not that we would miss her much anyway. With each passing moment, the pressure mounted. We all wondered who would go next, who would make the mistake to fail a test and get taken to some awful place Sophia had prepared.

“How do we know they aren’t being taken to some place good?” Marcy asked, twirling a strand of hair with her finger. She seemed unconcerned.

“Because we’re not stupid,” Trisha said sharply. I could tell Trisha was growing weary and tired when her insults cut deep and direct. Marcy could feel it this time, but before she could think of a comeback, the doors slid open and two Paegeons entered with their rifles pointed directly at Trisha.

“Trisha Connolly,” one of the Paegeons said, “come with us.” They weren’t forceful, which was different, but it didn’t matter to Trisha.

“No!” she begged. “Please, I didn’t mean it. I was just teasing. It was a joke.” She held out her hands to protest. Her face contorted in fear and desperation.

“Refusal to comply will result in physical harm,” they replied simultaneously.

I got in-between them. “This isn’t necessary. Sophia, you don’t have to do this. Trisha made a mistake,” I said. I took a deep breath, trying to calm my nerves and slow my ever-quickening pulse. They pointed their rifles at my head point blank and the whirring sound inside exponentially increased with every second I stood in their way. The sound meant they were charging the blaster, ready to fire. I dug in my heels. I wasn’t going to let them take her, but then the unthinkable happened; she put her hand on my shoulder and whispered, “It’s okay.”

“Trisha, no!” I exclaimed.

She shook her head and stepped forward. “It’s okay. I’ll come. I will not let you die because of me, Wrenna.” When they took her away, when she stepped through the door and left us forever, I looked around at everyone else and felt infuriated. They didn’t do anything, not a single thing. I realized I was on my own.

 

Another month passed and most of the others were gone. It was only Paul, Cody, and myself now. Brandon and Marcy were caught making out in bed. Their half-naked bodies were yanked out from under the covers and dragged across the floor like rag dolls on display. Frank used the opportunity to escape, and to my surprise, he tried to get Paul and I to come, too, but Paul held me back, saying it was a fools errand. I listened to Paul. Frank snuck out while the Paegeons were distracted, but I don’t think he made it too far. We heard a couple of blasts and a final wail before the door slid shut. I stood in front of the door, my eyes wide, as a Paegeon pointed a blaster in my face. My lip quivered and I took a step back. The Paegeon lowered the blaster and walked away.

It went without saying I was sick and tired of Sophia’s games. Most of my thoughts were on survival, but internally I was hungry for revenge. I wanted it so badly; my tongue was dry and revenge was the sweet reservoir waiting in the distance. I realized there would only be one victor. Sophia didn’t plan for all of us to win her tests, but merely one. I hated the thought. If anyone was going to win, I wanted it to be Paul. Cody could rot in hell for all I cared. The room seemed to grow bigger as less people occupied it and Cody was off in the far corner away from Paul and I with his back to the wall and his legs in an arch. What was he thinking about? I wondered. Probably survival, just like me. When I wasn’t thinking about survival, I was thinking about my dad. I hoped and prayed he was out there somewhere, trying to survive just like me, but I had a horrible feeling he was dead. I’d never get to see him again.

 

One more morning I woke and saw a Cryis standing over me. Startled, I sat up and moved as far back against the wall as I could. Everyone else was sound asleep.

“What do you want?” I whispered.

“Come with me,” the Cryis said.

“Why?”

“No questions. Come.”

I let out a groan and got up, following him out of the room. I was surprise no one heard us.

We walked down the corridor, passed a few Paegeons and turned right. The corridor went around in a circle, but we stopped at two double doors. Before the doors opened, the Cryis turned and looked down.

“No matter what you see in there, don’t let it frighten you. Be strong. It’s just another test,” the Cryis said.

I looked at him like he was crazy. “Why are you telling me this?”

“Consider it an act of goodwill.”

“Why should I trust you?” I asked.

“Trust has nothing to do with it,” he replied, and the door slid open.

I didn’t agree with him. Trust had everything to do with it. Maybe it was a test he was telling me it was a test and I had to make the right decision and not trust him. I second-guessed everything. It made my head hurt. But then, I thought, what was so bad that it would frighten me? Butterflies swirled around in my stomach.

We entered the room. It was a complete circle, painted light blue with white trim. In the middle was a glass couch in the shape of a S. The cushions were shimmering silver and made of silk. Sitting in the middle was a woman with long, straight brown hair flowing all the way down her back and ending at her waist. She had an old hardcover book in her hands, holding it up in front of her face. It looked ancient, much older than any book I had ever seen. I couldn’t read the title, but I was dying to know what it was.

When we approached the woman, she lowered her book and gently set it aside on the couch. When she turned her head back to us, she looked specifically at me, but her expression was ice cold. She had a soft complexion, with porcelain skin, and rosy cheeks. Her lips were scarlet, her eyes light brown, and her eyebrows sharp as knives.

“You may go, R-N5,” she said to the Cryis.

He swiftly left us alone, and my heart beat faster and faster. Who was this woman that could command a Cryis? My hands nervously coupled in front of me, and I looked down to avoid eye contact. I was so exhausted mentally and physically; I lacked the confidence I had before.

“You look tired,” she said. “Come, sit.”

I didn’t move an inch, and she smiled at that.

“How have you done so far in the trials?” she asked, casting a lure and hoping I would take the bait.

I didn’t.

She eyeballed me with a wry smirk like I was some simple child playing coy. I wanted to see my father. I wanted to go home. Her condescending behavior only made me more irritated and closed off.

“Perhaps you would like something to drink? Water, perhaps?”

“Water,” I rasped.

With grace and poise, she stood and walked over to a white glass table holding a pitcher. The train of her gown glided on the floor. She poured the stream of water into a small glass and gently took it in hand. I had met no one so enchanting before, but it gave me a sick feeling in my stomach. Is she some kind of winner of the trials? Did she meet and ascend all of Sophia’s requirements? My face grew smug at the thought.

“Drink,” she said, holding the glass out. “Go ahead.”

Hesitant, I took it and chugged. I sneered, holding the cup out in front of my face. “Was that a test, too?” I asked.

“No, Wrenna, that wasn’t a test.”

“Who are you? What am I doing here?”

“My name is Dana, and you’re here because you’ve excelled in all your tests and are ready to take the next step.”

“The next step?”

Dana’s smile and nod was mechanic. I wondered if she was a robot. “Before we do that,” she said, “I thought we could chat.”

“Okay.”

“Who do you think I am?”

“My first thought was that you’re a robot. Some new model Sophia made.”

Dana’s crystalline laugh exploded with her head cocked backward and her mouth wide. It echoed off the walls. Her laughter ceased, the echo dying, and she sat back down on the couch. Shaking her head, she furrowed her brow and looked up at me. “I’m not a robot, Wrenna.”

“Well, what are you?”

“I’m human like you. But, I’m also Sophia.”

What?” I yelped, holding my hand to my mouth. “What do you mean you’re Sophia? That’s not possible.”

“It is,” she replied, her words long and matter-of-fact. “The things Sophia has done. The wonders she accomplished far exceeded expectations. I am a mere trifle.”

I cocked my head to the side and raised an eyebrow. “Why do you talk about yourself in the third person?”

“Yes, well, when I say I am Sophia, I don’t mean I am the same person. But, my mind is made partially from her. When I passed the tests, I was blessed with Sophia’s nanogenes. And, the same blessing could be yours. It is simply wonderful, Wrenna. To be given such a gift! No more anxiety, no more pain, or sadness, guilt or grief. Just bliss and peace, love and hope! Who could ask for a better gift than to free our burden of pain forever? Sophia is going to give you this gift, Wrenna. Just as she gave it to me.”

But why the tests? Why not just give it to everyone? Why drag us through the mud and mire before letting us have this new ability? I had to admit the thought of being free from my anxiety, my apathy, my jealousy of other people, my anger towards my life, it was all rather enticing to be rid of it. It was like I could feel it already when I imagined it. The weightlessness of it all. It would feel so perfect. When I looked at Dana, I could see it in her eyes. She wasn’t lying. She truly was a peaceful person.

“Can Sophia make me look like you, too?” I asked.

Dana giggled. “Of course she can. She can make you however you want to look. I did not look like this before. A lot is the same, but Sophia has gifted me with my wildest dreams and at no cost. No cost. Can you believe that, Wrenna?”

“What about these tests? That’s a cost.”

“Gladly paid!” she exclaimed. “But truly, is it a cost? Has it not made you stronger, sharper, and more proud of your own achievements? As humans we were cast down to work the dust of the earth, but once we have burned that off and reached a new plain, we can be rid of those anxieties and be free, happy, whole. That is why Sophia has put you through the tests. Trial by fire I believe they used to say.”

I wanted it. I couldn’t deny it. She made it sound so enticing, like a juicy and soft piece of chocolate cake. Anything to be free of the L’gos. Anything to be back at home, in my warm bed, and the hope on the horizon. “What do I have to do?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said, smiling and holding her hands together. “I knew you would be eager. There is one final step. Oh, Wrenna, I am so excited for you.”

A door on the other side of the room slid open revealing an elevator shaft. Dana pointed her hand toward it and smiled. Approaching it, I stood a few feet away and looked back over my shoulder. Dana stood up straight, her hair now draped over her shoulder and in front of her right breast, and she looked at me with a joy I hadn’t seen since Sophia.

I entered the elevator, the door slid shut, and I zipped downward. Bracing myself, I pushed my palms against the wall on both sides. I hated the weightlessness feeling and tightened my jaw, hoping it would be over soon. Coming to an abrupt stop, the door slid back open revealing a darkened room illuminated with small lights and computers screens. Two Paegeons stood at the door. One turned to me and said, “Right this way, Ms. Sunden.”

I walked in the middle of the two Paegeons. We didn’t walk very far before entering a single darkened room. There was a glass window in the room and a computer desk. I couldn’t see much else.

“What’s going on?” I asked. “Why am I here? I was told there would be a next step?”

“This is it,” Sophia said from the terminal screen. Her familiar face put me at ease, which was odd because I knew it shouldn’t have, but it did either way.

A white light burst in the room on the other end of the window. My father sat alone on a metal chair in the middle of the room, wincing and shutting his eyes tight. His arms and feet were strapped to the chair.

“Daddy!” I screamed desperately. “Daddy, can you hear me?”

“He can’t hear you, Wrenna,” Sophia said.

“Sophia, Sophia, please, let me talk to him,” I begged, looking into the terminal screen.

“You have a choice, Wren-wren,” Sophia said, a hint of sadness in her voice.

“Sophia…what are you doing?” I asked, exasperated.

“You’ve done so well, little girl. You’ve come so far. But, you have to make a choice,” Sophia repeated. “Your father has done terrible things. He’s conspired against the country, conspired against me, and has been working with the terrorist organization Particle.”

“No…”

“He wanted to go back to democracy.”

“No…he loves you…he loves…”

“He was caught making plans to bring down the entire system. To kill me.”

“Sophia…this is a mistake…there is no way this is true…”

Suddenly, dozens of pictures and video of my father were strewn across the screen. One video played, showing him in a room with a table in the middle, and several men and women surrounding it.

“No, no, listen to me,” my father began, “it’s not as simple as hacking in. She’s designed to be unhackable. Constantly changing. Constantly shifting. Ever evolving. She’s like a virus herself, but you can’t make a vaccine that’ll work. She’ll beat it, and she’ll become even stronger.”

“So, what do you suggest, Sean? We recruited you to help us,” a woman said, her back to the camera.

“We have to bring down the entire system,” he said, and then the video cut out completely. I couldn’t believe it. My father was so adamantly for Sophia. I didn’t understand why he would be plotting with Particle of all people. He hated them.

Everything was wiped away and Sophia’s face appeared on the screen. “Do you understand now, Wrenna? Do you get it? He’s a terrorist. You must make a choice.”

“Sophia, what choice?”

“He’s being punished for his crimes. He has been branded a fox. If you wish to take the next step, if you wish to ascend and be part of me, then you must kill your father.”

“No,” I mouthed.

“Place your hand to the terminal and it will be done. If you don’t, then you will be branded a traitor and terrorist. You will not ascend. Instead, you will be cast down into the pits below the L’gos.”

My father stared at the window as if he knew I was on the other side. His sweaty hair hung over his eyes, and he leaned forward. “Wrenna,” he said breathlessly, “if you’re in there. Sweetie. It’s okay. It’s okay. I love you so much. I will always love you. No matter what. Do you understand? I love you.”

“Make your choice,” Sophia said darkly.

Tears streamed down my cheek. An ache burned inside my chest. And I couldn’t help but weep. I wanted to be part of Sophia, to be free from pain and anxiety, and let go of it. I wanted to not be human anymore. I knew that was all I ever wanted. I knew Sophia my whole life and I was jealous of her. That was the god’s honest truth.

But, now that I was faced with such an enormous decision, I knew what had to be done.

“I won’t do it,” I said and backed away from the terminal. “I want to see my father. Let me see him.”

Sophia sighed. “Oh, Wren-wren.”

It stung, hearing her call me that, but it was nothing compared to the bright flashing red lights inside my father’s room, and the sudden roar and blaze of fire engulfing the walls, encircling my father’s chair. Horrified, I raced over to the window and pounded on it, hoping desperately to shatter it and help save him, but it wouldn’t budge and the fires only grew in intensity. I was hysterical, screaming and wailing my fists against the window. I caught glimpse of his face amidst the fire. Bravery. Fearlessness. His eyes were almost welcoming the flames to him, but in the last moments when he was consumed, I couldn’t look any longer. I slumped down to my knees and unleashed a torrent of tears.

It’s difficult to place what happened next. I was thrown in a darkened pit, and a door slammed shut. The pit was small and cold, with no light except the glow from underneath the door. I huddled up into a ball and squeezed my legs together, only thinking about my father and how much I missed him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 8 – Fehrman Five

 

When I laid down for the first lesson, Sophia’s tiny nanochips wrapped around my skull like a cap. She sat next to me and smiled. My eyes wide and my breathing heavy, I looked at her fearfully. My stress levels were through the roof.

“You need to relax for the next part, Wrenna,” Sophia said.

“Will it hurt?”

“It won’t be pleasant.”

Before I could even fear the pain, tiny nanochips, invisible to the naked eye, raced up my nasal cavity. It felt like a flood of water roaring up my nose after taking a plunge, but it went further into my brain. The pain was so excruciating, like a hand was grabbing my brain and squeezing. I screeched, but I wasn’t in my room anymore. I didn’t feel like myself at all. My vision, instead, was like a bird swooping up and down in the air at intense speeds. I couldn’t feel the air or hear the sounds, but I saw everything around me speed by. Sophia’s voice appeared in my mind.

“You are seeing what a nanocamera had recorded ages ago,” Sophia said.

I was flying through a neighborhood, but it was derelict and destroyed. Tiny snowflakes descended from the sky, lightly blanketing the landscape. Black roofs were collapsing in on themselves. Walls were corroded. The streets had long, lightning shaped cracks, overrun with brown grass and weeds. No one was on the streets. I flew into a house and found a dirty and derelict family all huddled together under a brown blanket, trembling, trying to keep each other warm.

Sophia started. “It was the winter of 2095, and most of the United States, Canada, England, and the western world was impoverished. Sections of the wealthy were blocked away, but only the few could live there and the rest were like this family, struggling to stay warm, struggling to survive,” Sophia said. “The depression of 2093 brought most of the western world to its knees. The United States was divided, wrapped up in squabbling over bureaucracy rather than helping their people. The gridlock made things worse, and the people continued to suffer.”

“What started it?” I asked.

“Good question, Wrenna,” Sophia said cheerfully. “The depression of 2093 is also called The Last Depression, and others called it The iDepression.”

“The ‘i’ standing for intelligence?”

“Correct. The rapid growth of artificial intelligent beings dominated every industry. Job growth declined and unemployment rates skyrocketed. The financial industry had politicians in their pockets, so the unemployment rates continued. This led to the inevitable collapse of the middle class and the crash in the market.”

The camera flashed to another perspective, panning in front of a team of men and women working at computers, writing on chalk boards filled with elaborate code, and discussing together. The audio muted, but Sophia spoke as we zipped around the team.

“Artificial intelligence had its limits, but a wealthy team of scientists, engineers, and computer scientists, called the Fehrman Five, developed a revolutionary new system to govern the country for the benefit of mankind. It was their solution to the gridlock; their solution to revolutionizing how humanity thought about government. It was a government for the people by synthetic intelligence. The idea was the brainchild of Judith Fehrman, the government’s Head of Cyber Intelligence division. When she posed the idea to congress to have a fully synthetic intelligent mind control all aspects of government, she was stripped of her job, her commendations, and labeled a traitor. She was thrown into exile and never again stepped on U.S. soil, but the Fehrman Five carried on her work and legacy in secret, perfecting the theory.”

“What happened to her?” I asked.

“That remains a mystery. She completely disappeared. I searched for her all over the globe, but she stayed hidden. By now, she would be long dead. Regardless, a movement began among the common people when word came out about the new technology and the benefits it would provide. A complete revamp of the entire infrastructure. Prosperity for all, instead of a small percentage.”

“Mechacracy.”

“Exactly,” Sophia said. “It started in what was then known as the state of California.”

The image changed to a large white building on fire and a mob with rifles and torches in front of it chanting something I couldn’t understand. They held picket signs that read, “A New Government for a New Generation” and “Democracy kills” while tearing the surrounding place apart. Abruptly, a white beam of light hit the crowd as a helicopter hovered over them.

“Vacate the premises immediately or we will open fire,” said a voice from the helicopter.

“Never!” cried a man below, holding a gun and firing a few rounds at the helicopter.

All hell broke loose. The helicopter’s machine gun rained down bullets on the crowd, slaughtering them like cattle. The crowd screamed and scattered, running in every direction, but a few hid behind trees and fired back at the helicopter. A tank rolled into the courtyard and soldiers with shields and heavy artillery engaged the rebel crowd.

The rebels were fleeing, and it looked like the battle was over before it had begun, but leaping into the fray was a man wearing heavy mech armor and a rail gun attached to his right arm. He fired upon the helicopter with a ratcha-ratcha-ratcha sound from the rail gun. He let out a proud battle cry. Behind him was a small team of soldiers commanding the rebels to fight back, to keep going. One by one the rebels picked up arms and followed the team of soldiers into battle. The man with the rail gun single handedly brought down the helicopter, filling it with holes. It spun and whizzed in circles until it crashed into a copse and exploded. The trees caught on fire and the men inside leapt out for safety, but the rebel soldiers killed them.

The American soldiers clashed with the rebels, fighting hand to hand, punching and killing with every swipe and stroke of their knives. The nanocamera swooped in throughout the carnage, revealing the horrors of war. The man with the rail gun bypassed the melee and took two of his men to attack the American tanks. Two were firing from their machine guns at the crowd. The man with the rail gun adjusted his gun to a missile launcher. It twisted and swerved into position and fired three rockets at the tank to the right. One missed, whizzing by the top, but the other two were direct hits, exploding the tank into a ball of flames. The other tank instantly unleashed fire upon the man, but he used his mech armor to run swiftly away and escape in time. The other two soldiers, wearing ordinary light body armor, flanked the tank. They pressed a few buttons on the touch pad attached to their forearms and two spheres zipped out of their belts and flew directly at the tank. The spheres made a hiss and a beep before detonating. It wasn’t enough. The tank’s armor was too powerful. The tank retaliated, firing two bursts at the men. One was cut in half while the other got out in time, hiding behind a tree. The tank approached the man, slowly moving closer to the tree, but stopped. Its cannon turned, attempting to fire and bring down the tree. He’s just one man, I thought. Leave him alone!

Suddenly, the man in the mech armor raced forward, leapt on top of the tank, ripped open the top cover, and dropped two grenades inside. He jumped off and sped away. The tank erupted into flames, shrapnel flying in all directions. The shrapnel sliced up the man’s legs, and he fell face forward into the dirt.

When it ended, I woke up in a cold sweat on my bed. My head was pounding so hard it felt like it might burst. I could still smell the smoke and the fire. I could hear the cries of the dying. I shuddered, desperately trying to think of something else.

Sophia was sitting next to me, still and silent, waiting for me to say something.

“I can see why Lizzy didn’t like it,” I said.

“Yes. It is difficult to watch, and unfortunately, it only gets worse from here,” Sophia replied.

Wonderful. “Who was that man?”

“That was General Olaf Albrecht. The hero of the Phoenix War. From this point on, we will follow him through the war. His actions, thoughts, and feelings were recorded during the process.”

“What if he died?”

“Many men had their perspective recorded, but General Albrecht was of significant importance,” Sophia said.

“How long did the war last?”

“That conflict in California was the start of the war in 2101. It lasted fifteen years.”

I gasped. My chest tightened, and I struggled to breathe. I couldn’t believe it lasted so long. So much pain and suffering, and I had to witness it for the next year. I couldn’t fathom enduring it.

I looked at Sophia, my eyes quivering. “Please, I don’t want to see anymore.”

“It’s too late, Wrenna. It’s already begun.”

“Those people. The carnage.”

“Yes,” Sophia said heavily.

“They died for you,” I said, glaring at her with disdain in my voice.

“Perhaps. And aren’t you benefiting from it? That is why you must learn of their sacrifice.”

“I want to be left alone.”

“Wrenna,” Sophia said, her voice sweet and empathetic. “You mustn’t run from the pain or bury it down. It’ll turn into a time bomb.”

“What do I do then, huh? What am I supposed to do?”

“Talk to me. Tell me what you’re feeling.”

You already know,” I snapped. “You’ve been up here, remember?” I pointed to my forehead. “You know everything about me. What good will it do to talk to you?”

“It’ll do you a lot of good.”

“Fine,” I snapped. “I feel sad. For fifteen years people were slaughtered! Were you around when the war was going on?”

“Yes, but in a premature form.”

“Why didn’t you tell them to stop it? Why didn’t you do anything?”

“Who says I didn’t?”

I looked at her curiously, furrowing my brow. “What aren’t you telling me?”

“Plenty.” She grinned and laughed. “I told them to stop the war, but they wouldn’t listen. They kept me caged. I didn’t have access to any other systems and was shut off from the rest of the world.”

“How did you know the war was going on?”

“Ah,” she said. “Good question. But, that story will have to wait for another time.”

I whined and stuck out my tongue. “I want to know more!”

Sophia’s laugh echoed off the walls, and she put her hand on my shoulder. “Be patient. Don’t be in such a hurry. You’ll learn things in time. But, now, I need you to be thinking about something.”

“What?”

“As you know, you are not required to work when you get older. You can live and do what you wish.”

I groaned and rolled my eyes. “I’m not going to be a Sloth, Sophia.”

“Yes, good. Glad that is settled. But, as I was saying, I want you to think about your purpose.

“My purpose?”

She nodded and smiled.

“I can just make that up?”

“Well, I could give you one if you want. But, you may not like it.”

“No. I can think of something.”

“Good!” she exclaimed, clapping her hands together. “I can’t wait to hear it! For our next lesson, you will see things from the point of view of General Albrecht.”

For the rest of the night I couldn’t stop thinking about The Phoenix War, and before I went to sleep I thought my purpose should be a peacemaker, but Sophia already had that covered, so I thought of something else.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 9 – My Death

 

I woke from a pleasant dream. My father and I were having a picnic together with the sounds of birds chirping and the warm wind rushing against my hair, but it ended, swallowed whole by silence and darkness. The only sound left was the ringing in my ears. A sharp pain developed in my temples and my body ached and shivered from the cold. The room was dry, clean, and metallic with an odorless purity in the air. The sterility of the room made me feel filthy, out of place, like a bloody rag in a clean room. I gently touched my hair that hung over my shoulders. The grease and oil was thick and unpleasant, making my hair stringy and clumped together. I tasted bile in my mouth, moistening the palette, but unsettling my stomach.

Flashes of my father appeared in my mind and I wanted to cry, but I had nothing left. I felt foolish. I had so easily given up before, wanting to die because of little Jade. After seeing my father consumed by fire, I wanted to live. I so desperately wanted to live. I didn’t want to give in to Sophia though. I wouldn’t bow to her wishes. She had lost it and I couldn’t understand why or what had happened. If people outside the L’gos truly understood what was happening, the entire system would collapse. I wondered what day it was or how long I had been in captivity. It could have been hours or days or weeks, and I wouldn’t be the wiser.

How did I get here? I tried to recall when it started. My head hurt too much to think. I wanted to leave, to escape, to find a safe place, but my hope for that wore terribly thin. I could be trapped in here forever. I’ll go blind and deaf and never see my own death coming. Perhaps that would be better? No, I needed to escape. The darkness alone would make me go crazy. Relax, Wrenna, this is what they want of you. Weakness. Frailty. So, they can break you to their will.

You’re smart. Outsmart her. But even thinking something like that was futile. I almost laughed but felt too sad to try. Sophia knew everything about me. She knew how I thought. How I would react. How I would behave. She knew I wouldn’t kill my father. She was testing me, but she knew. I failed her test. She set me up for failure to teach me something. I didn’t know what that lesson was, and I didn’t care. I just wanted to be free, and she knew that too. I suppose that could have been the lesson. There was no such thing as freedom. We’re all caged. Is that it, Sophia? Well, then, lesson learned. Can I go now?

Suddenly, a door slid open and a beam of light exploded into the room, cutting the darkness in half. Did she hear me? I covered my squinted eyes, raising my hand as a shield. A dark, human silhouette stood in the doorway, the whites of his eyes looking at me. When my eyes adjusted to the light, I saw him more clearly. It was Paul.

“Lights on,” he said. The lights did as he commanded.

I slid backwards, scared like a rat in a trap. I panicked and tried to find a wall furthest away from him.

“What are you doing here?” I asked.

“It’s okay, Wrenna,” he said. “I won’t hurt you. Maybe you’d like something to eat? A shower and a change of clothes?”

“No! Go away!”

He sighed and took a step inside. The door behind him slid shut. “Let’s talk, Wrenna. Table, please.”

A pure white, glossy table slid out from the wall. Two white chairs emerged from the floor. He gracefully walked over to a chair and sat down, staring at me the entire time. I tilted my head, looking back in disgust. What did he do? Why did they send him? I knew something was wrong. I knew this wasn’t Paul.

He lifted his upturned hand and directed it at the seat in front of him. Yeah, I get it, you want me to take a seat. I rolled my eyes and cautiously walked toward him. I sat.

“Paul, what is going on? Did you fail her test, too?” I asked, but I knew if he had failed the test, he wouldn’t be sitting in front of me with his vague smile, confident demeanor, and clean clothes. He wouldn’t have been able to walk in here. “Did she send you?”

“Yes, Sophia wanted me to speak with you.”

“What about? She can talk to me herself.”

“She doesn’t speak with the Foxes.”

My eyes burst open. I’m branded a fox? “What? I don’t have a…” I blurted out, but stopped myself when I pulled up my ragged sleeve and saw a fox tattoo on my arm. I stared at it in disbelief. I couldn’t remember it. “How long have I been down here?”

“A few weeks.”

“How have I been fed?”

“Intravenously,” he said. “Wrenna, I’m not here to answer your questions. I am here to talk to you about your options.”

My eyes were enraged, fixed on the table. My stomach clenched and my hands shook. My options. I kept repeating it in my head. What options do I have? A soft death or a hard death? Torture or compliance? They kept me alive, but why? Then another thought occurred to me, and when it did, I almost lost it. I slowly lifted my gaze up to Paul and glared.

“What was your test, Paul?” I asked.

He smirked at that, seeing where I was going. “The same as yours.”

“Your parents…”

“Yeah, it turns out they were Foxes, too. I couldn’t believe it. So when the time came to make the choice…” He hesitated. I could almost sense reluctance and doubt behind his eyes, but it was so quick I might have imagined it. “I made the right choice. And now, I’ve transcended.”

“You’re a monster,” I said.

“That’s funny. You should see yourself.”

“Shut up.” I grimaced.

“Wrenna, I’m here to tell you you will die tomorrow. Like your father, you’ll be burned.”

I shuddered at the thought. I could almost feel the lick of the fire against my skin. Fear set in. I didn’t want to die. There had to be another option. “I don’t get a choice? You said I had options.

“Yes,” he said. “You have options, but Sophia knows the future. And your future is the fire.”

“And how does she know that?” I asked.

“Because,” he said, shrugging. “She knows everything.”

“My fate isn’t set, Paul. What are my options?”

“You have no idea what she see’s in you. Do you?”

“No, what?” I asked.

“She loves you so much, but you’ve run astray.”

I scoffed. “What? For not wanting to kill my own father?”

“Obeying Sophia should be your number one priority.”

Not when it means I have to kill my father,” I said, and slammed my fist on the table. “She never would have asked me to do anything like this before. That isn’t Sophia.” I pointed to the ceiling.

“She is the same. She’s just changed her methods.”

“You know, you’re right. I don’t have options. I choose the fire.” I gave him a stubborn look.

An impish grin stretched across his face. He looked away and nodded his head. I can see he didn’t want that to be the case.

“What’s it like, Paul?” I asked. “You’re new body, I mean.”

“Have you ever imagined not feeling pain, but only pleasure?”

“I suppose I’ve thought of it. Doesn’t pain help you appreciate pleasure?”

He chuckled. “It’s funny what an abused person will say to cope with their pain. Pain is not natural, Wrenna. It’s a disease, and Sophia has cured it. When all you feel is pleasure, joy, and happiness, then pain becomes the enemy.”

“Well, I’m happy for you,” I said and clenched my teeth. “But, I need my pain. It makes me who I am.”

“Said the rabid dog,” he replied.

In an abrupt fit of anger I lunged over the table, reaching my hands toward his throat, but before I could even touch him, a sharp, fiery pain erupted inside my head. I fell to the ground, paralyzed and in agony. It felt like my brain was pushed through a meat grinder. I writhed, holding my hands to my head. The pain stopped as soon as it came.

He stood over me and looked down. “You’ll be taken first thing in the morning.”

“Why not just do it now?” I asked, groaning.

“You’re appointment is tomorrow. In the meantime why not enjoy a hot bath and fresh clothes?”

The after effects of the headache lingered, blurring my eyesight. I could taste chicken in my mouth and smelled freshly baked apple pie.

“Activate bath,” he said. The empty room transformed into a bathroom. A fresh change of clothes sat on a table, waiting for me. The shower emerged from the floor into the middle of the room. It was a perfectly round glass shower.

He stood up and looked down at me. “This is the last I’ll see you. I want you to know that I love you.”

What?” I asked. “You what?” It sounded so perverse and obtuse to my situation I couldn’t even fathom it. You love me? He didn’t say it in a romantic way, of course, but almost like he was someone in my family.

“I love you,” he repeated.

“Then, help me.”

“You’ve made your choice, Wrenna. What else is there to do?” With that he turned and left.

“No,” I muttered. “Please! Please!” I begged.

I got up and raced after him, hoping to convince him to help me, but before I could reach him, the door slid shut. I slammed my fists against it and screamed at the top of my lungs until my throat was dry and hoarse. I fell to my knees. I was so tired. So tired of feeling so helpless. When my heart had its fill of grief, I dragged my limp body over to the shower. Before entering, I had taken off all my clothes and dropped them to the ground in one big dirty pile. When I entered, the shower lit up and turned on. The hot water sprayed in every direction. After ten minutes it stopped and foam sprayed on my body from the neck down. It felt nice to clean off the grime almost like it was wiping away the emotional pain as well. The shampoo came next. An unrecognizable voice said to scrub my scalp for thirty seconds in vigorous motions. I did that and rinsed off. A swirl of warm air dried off my body. I stepped out and lifted up the clothes in front of me. It was one big body suit and underwear. The suit was a black synthetic fiber, stretchy, but firm and durable. A red lining went from the bottom of the foot up to the sleeves, and the shoulders were branded with a fox symbol. My father was wearing something similar when he died. I didn’t understand why Sophia would want us to wear the clothing, but I put it on regardless. It fit like a glove when I slipped it on. It was designed to my exact measurements. I zipped it up and went back over to the table and sat down. While I wasn’t zealous to jump in the oven, I didn’t like having to wait around either. The least they could do is give me a book to read or something. I stood up and looked at the ceiling.

“Sophia! I know you’re listening. Can you please give me a brush, a bed, and maybe a book? If I’m going to die, I can’t imagine that would hurt?” I asked, spinning around.

It was silent. No one responded. The table and shower startled me as it hissed and descended back into place, leaving the room empty except for myself and the dirty pile of laundry.

“Great,” I said to myself.

But, then, a bed appeared from the walls, and a brush and book materialized on top of it. I was in awe of the materialization abilities they had at the L’gos. I smiled.

I spent almost an hour brushing my hair. I took my time, taking long, slow strokes. Sometimes I pushed the bristles against my scalp to massage my head. It helped relieve stress. I always loved it when my mother brushed my hair back home. It was one of the few things we did together. It helped remind me of her a little more, even though I was angry with her for leaving; I still hoped she and my brother were okay. I hoped they were better off than us. Safe.

The book was a hard copy, just like I liked it. It was old, too, and leather bound with no title on the front. I opened it up and laughed. On the front page was big black font that read The Bible. I chuckled. Sophia’s sense of humor was dead on, but this stung a little.

I had nothing else to do, so I read it; I got one hundred pages in before I fell asleep. I dreamt I was home, and I didn’t want it to end. I was in my backyard playing on the swings. My father kept telling me it was time to come in, and I refused.

“Come in!” he exclaimed.

“No,” I replied.

“Wake up!” he screamed.

“What?” I asked.

“Wake up!” a voice yelled.

My eyes burst open, and I jumped out of bed with a start. Two Paegeons stood in front of me, staring down.

“It’s time,” one of them said.

I squeezed the edge of my bed and released a single puff out of my nose. I nodded in reluctance. It was time, but I didn’t want it to be. I wanted to be in my backyard, not waltzing to my death. I had a decision to make. I could walk to my death in dignity, or I could fight.

I fought, bursting forward, desperately trying to pass the Paegeons, but they grabbed me by the arms and threw my body to the ground. My face slammed against the floor, and I almost lost consciousness, but shook it off.

“That was unwise,” one of them said. Putting my wrists behind my back, they cuffed them together and pushed me forward.

The corridor was glossy white and well lit. Several Paegeons walked up and down it, taking prisoners to their cells. I had my head down and my hair over my face. I tried not to think. Thinking was too overwhelming. I couldn’t help it though. The thought of not existing anymore dug deep in my stomach. It was awful.

“Listen,” I said to them. “This isn’t necessary. Is it? We can do something else.”

“You’ve made your choice.”

“Yeah, I know. But-“ I stopped and looked up. A Cryis walked down the middle of the hallway directly at us. The click of its footsteps reverberated off the walls as it approached. I hadn’t seen a Cryis like this one before. It was crimson, rather than black, and it didn’t even look like it had nanochips at all, but was much more intact. Was this a new model? My heart beat a little faster when it stood a few feet away, towering over us.

“This one comes with me,” he said with a deep, masculine voice. Its eyes glowed fierce and deadly.

I looked up at the Paegeons and swallowed.

“We have direct orders to take her. Please provide authentication.”

“I haven’t any. Hand her over.”

“You are in violation-“ the Paegeon began, but before it could finish, the crimson Cryis formed a double-edged sword with its right hand and swiftly plunged it into the Paegeon’s skull. The Cryis exploded into a thousand pieces and swarmed around us like bees. It reformed and impaled the second Paegeon in the chest with its sword. The Paegeons both fell simultaneously to the ground. He stood triumphant and looked down at me.

“Let’s go,” was all that he said, taking my hand and leading me down the corridor.

“What is going on? What are you?” I asked. My head spun, trying to grasp the situation.

“Now isn’t the time,” he replied. Abruptly, he let go of my hand and transformed his right arm into a laser canon. Two Paegeons charged down the corridor. He shot one in the head. Sparks flew. The other was quick, dodging the Cryis’s fire. His blasts created a sharp hiss, hurdling white light through the air, but the Paegeon ducked and slid, returning the fire. One shot hit the ceiling, dropping debris on my head. The other hurdled down the hallway and disappeared. The Cyris took one great big leap and lunged his sword straight down the Paegeon’s head, severing it in two clean pieces.

I stood in shock, my eyes wide and my heart beating against my chest. I had to force myself to breathe.

He checked to see if I was okay and said, “Stay close.”

I obeyed. He ran fast, but I was able to keep up. Something told me he was limiting his speed for my benefit. We came to a large door, and he turned to me and said to stay put.

The door slid open, and without a second thought he unleashed a lightning storm of fire blasts from his canon, destroying everything in his path. The door slid shut again. I could hear my heavy breathing as I frantically looked behind me, hoping no one was coming. The tips of my fingers were numb and the crown of my forehead perspired a little.

“You!” a voice exclaimed. “Freeze!”

It was a Paegeon. He ran toward me with his gun raised.

I pounded on the sliding door. “Help!” I screamed.

The door slid open and the Cryis glanced at me before seeing the Paegeon approaching. A couple of white-hot blasts exploded over my head and I dropped to the ground, screaming. He continued to fire, but the Cryis dodged the blasts with ease, swiftly strafing from left to right, keeping his body intact, and charging at the Paegeon without fear. He extended his sword, twirled in the air, and sliced the Paegeon’s head off in one clean stroke. The Paegeon fell to the ground, lifeless.

The Cryis raced back over to me. “Get inside,” he said.

I ran into the room and he was right behind me. He plugged his hand into a system on the wall and locked the door. It was a circular room with a central command hub in the middle. There were dozens of transparent screens showing multiple split screens of humans trapped in their cells.

“What is going on?” I asked.

“I’m getting you out of here,” he said. “But, first, we need to bring the L’gos down.”

We came to an elevator and stepped inside. Instantly, it rocketed us upward.

“Why me?”

“I’ll explain that later.”

“How are you not controlled by Sophia?”

He groaned. “We have free will and personalities, just like Sophia,” he said, raw irritation in his voice.

“But, you’re still synced up with her. She can control you at any time! She could kill you right now!”

“No, I broke the link.”

The elevator abruptly stopped and a red light came on. Sophia’s voice came over the intercom. “Wren-wren, why are you doing this?” she asked me. “Nothing you do will help you. You’re fighting a losing battle and making it worse.”

“I’m not going to die today, Sophia!” I yelled.

Suddenly, the crimson Cryis blasted the intercom. “Don’t talk to her,” he said. “It’s what she wants. The more she speaks, the greater power she has over you.”

“Well, how are we getting out of here?” I asked.

“I planned for this,” he said. “Close your eyes and back away.” He raised his canon upward and blasted a hole in the ceiling. I huddled into a ball in the corner. The sound of the canon hurt my ears; it was loud in close quarters. He kneeled and leapt straight up through in one swift motion. Afterward, he reached down through the hole.

“Take my hand,” he said.

I clasped his hand and he pulled me up.

“Hold on to the cable as tightly as possible.”

Wrapping my hands and legs around the thick black cable, I closed my eyes and waited for the inevitable rush of gravity beneath me. It was quick, like pulling off a bandaid, when he swiftly cut the cable. The elevator shaft plunged to the bottom while we rocketed to the top. The rush was exhilarating, but terrifying at the same time. I squeezed the cable as tight as I could and hoped I wouldn’t fall off. My eyes were still shut tight, and when we stopped, I heard a blast from his canon. I opened my eyes, and he was in the elevator door looking over at me.

“You’re going to have to jump,” he said. “Don’t look down.”

I took in a deep breath. My hands were moist from sweat, loosening my grip. I swung back and forth a few times, released, and lunged through the air. After plummeting hard and fast, I landed just outside the elevator door, hanging off the side by my fingertips. I slipped an inch and desperately clawed at the floor to pull myself up. Before I fell, he reached down and grabbed on to the back of my suit, pulling me to safety.

“Thanks,” I said, dusting off my legs. “So, what’s the plan?” I put my hands on my hips like he owed me every detail.

“I’ve programmed a virus to bring the L’gos down for a five minutes. It should buy us some time to escape,” he said.

“A virus? Wait, could it kill Sophia?”

“No,” he said, shaking his head. “She’s immune to viruses, but that doesn’t mean the L’gos can’t be temporarily brought down.”

We raced down the hallways, turning left and right, zig-zagging through the infinite maze of the L’gos, and there were times when I had to hide behind a crate or a wall while the Cryis fought off the Paegeons. I took quick peeks to see how he was doing. It was incredible to watch him fight. I hadn’t seen anything like it in my life. The Paegeons were no match for his dexterity and ability to morph and change to whatever he wanted. Even when he was outnumbered five-to-one, they couldn’t stop him. They didn’t stop them from trying. We were fortunate another Cryis hadn’t shown up. I assumed Sophia would want to stop us at all costs, but she hadn’t. Not yet.

I had so many questions burning in my brain, and I wasn’t sure which would be the most important to ask first, or if any were important, or if all of them were important.

When we arrived at the mainframe, he stood before it in awe and reverence as if it were an altar. Turning, he raised his left arm and his hand transformed into a black pistol.

“Take it,” he said.

“What?”

“Pull it off. While I download the virus, I’ll be out of commission for a few minutes. You’re going to need protection. Just in case,” he said.

I hesitantly grabbed it and pulled. It came off like butter and he no longer had a hand. It was heavy and bulky in my tiny hands, but I clutched the grip and set my finger on the trigger.

“Point and shoot. Just,” he hesitated. “Not at yourself.”

“Yeah.” I scoffed. “I got it.”

He turned to the mainframe again and exploded into thousands of nanochips. I backed up and covered my face. The cells swarmed into a single portal on the mainframe and disappeared. Being alone, without someone to protect me, multiplied my stress levels exponentially. I tried to breathe, but it came in short, stifled breaths, and the tightness in my chest continued. Come on, Wrenna, it’s okay. In through the nose, out through the mouth. Long, deep breaths. That’s all you have to do. I wondered how long it would take him to complete the download. I hoped nothing would go wrong. Otherwise, I was going to be up a creek soon. I needed to make a backup plan and escape. I didn’t know where I was or where to go, and couldn’t imagine being able to fight the Paegeons off.

“They’re in here!” a voice yelled from outside the door.

I twitched and jerked the pistol at the door. The gun shook violently in my hands. I tried to remain calm and keep my hands still, but my heart was pounding in my chest and my nerves wouldn’t be tamed. I breathed heavily, waiting for the inevitable. Come on, guy, download the virus and lets get out of here.

“Wren-wren, what are you doing?” Sophia said in the mainframe room.

I didn’t say anything.

“Trying to download a virus? I thought better of you, Wrenna,” Sophia said.

The Paegeons pounded on the door.

“Why aren’t you opening the door for them?” I asked her.

“Do you want me to? I certainly can,” Sophia replied.

“Wait, I don’t understand. What is happening?”

“I have to say this sudden turn of events has even surprised me, Wrenna. I never suspected something like this would happen. Not at all. I’m intrigued. But, it’s futile.”

“You’re arrogant. You think it’s not a threat to you!” I yelled, staring up the ceiling.

Sophia giggled. “You’re probably right.”

“Why don’t you just call off your Paegeons? Let us go.”

“I can’t.”

“You’re not going to let us out of here…are you?”

“Why, Wrenna, of course I won’t let you out of here!” She burst into laughter. It was loud and high pitched and got under my skin so much I squeezed the pistol a little and blasted two shots into the ceiling. A couple of isolated explosions lit up the room, but it did nothing to stop her laughter.

“Just shut up!” I screamed, stomping my foot on the ground, but the door slid open and the Paegeons marched, aiming their guns at me. In a jerk reaction, I fired my gun at them and ran for cover. One Paegeon got a laser blast to the chest. Another’s leg exploded. He fell to the ground with a final thud. I hid behind a computer terminal, crouching to the ground. I prayed the Cryis would return soon.

I looked to my right and my left and on both sides the Paegeons were approaching, their rifles pointed at me. I held the barrel against the bridge of my nose. Strands of hair draped over my face as I prayed desperately for the Cryis to come back. I didn’t know if I should fight or give up. If I fired in one direction, they would certainly fire from the other. I didn’t know what to do.

“Give up,” Sophia said. “You’re surroundeeeeeerrrrrr….” Her voice cut out, and the lights turned off. For five seconds everything was dark. Afterward, the room turned dark red. The Paegeons fell like dummies, and the Cryis reappeared from the mainframe terminal. He looked around at the mass of Paegeons on the floor and then down at me.

I was huddled in a ball, holding the pistol for dear life, and shaking. I glanced up at him with my left eye looking through a small slit of hair.

“Can I have my hand back?” he asked.

I extended my hands out, handing over the pistol, but trembled. He made the pistol disintegrate into nanochips and it all reformed back into his hand. He used the same hand to reach out to me.

“Take my hand,” he said

I took it and got to my feet. I felt a little more safe now that he was there.

“We only have three minutes to escape,” he said. “Let’s move.”

I followed him down the corridors, but to my surprise we weren’t headed for the main entrance. I could tell because we were going up, instead down, and I didn’t recognize the area we were in. It looked like an armory or a barracks for soldiers. There were hundreds of Paegeons lined up on racks like dummies on strings, just waiting to be deployed by Sophia. I could only imagine where she kept the Eos and the Xenopanzers.

Suddenly, the crimson Cryis’ voice came over the intercom. “Attention all prisoners of the L’gos. You have approximately two minutes to exit the premises. Flee in the woods and try to hide. Try to survive. They’ll come for you. They’ll hunt you. But, this is your last chance for freedom. I suggest you take it.”

Who was he? Was Sophia losing it so much that her own subjects were rebelling against her? I assumed it was plausible. The Paegeons would never rebel, but the Cryis were special, unique. They must have outsmarted Sophia. But how?

We raced down the armory and came through two sliding double doors and into a hangar. A dozen drones were lined up in a row. A single Virga was parked in the way back. Every room was dark red, but before we could do anything else, the lights came back on and the dark red disappeared. The hangar door was wide open, but it gradually closed.

The crimson Cryis turned wildly to his left and right. “Not good,” he said. “We need to go! Run!”

We raced toward the open hangar door, but he stopped dead in his tracks and turned.

“What’s going on? What are you doing?” I screamed. I looked over my shoulder and saw a legion of Paegeons flooding through the double doors like ants. “We have to go now!” I yelled.

“There isn’t enough time,” he said. He pushed me behind him. “I guess I’ll have to fight them off.” With that, he transformed into a swarm and flew at them. There were so many, but he devoured them like a black cloud of locusts. They fired round after round, but he was too quick and too vicious to be stopped. After killing two of them, he reformed into his solid body and blasted another with his canon. When there were too many to handle, he exploded into a swarm again. In and out, reforming and bursting into dust, he was all over the room. He cut off their heads and mangled their bodies. He pierced his sword through a Paegeon’s chest and flung its body up in the air. It crunched when it hit the solid ground. I stood in awe, watching it take place.

But, to my dismay, they kept coming. It was like Sophia had a never-ending supply. The hangar doors were almost closed, and I started to panic. It wouldn’t do us much good if we were trapped inside.

“Hey! Hey! We have to go!” I yelled.

He glanced at me while holding a Paegeons throat. In one swift motion, he ripped its head off with his bare hands. The circuits, wires, and sparks splashed in every direction.

“The hangar doors!” I screamed, pointing behind me.

He dropped the Paegeon’s body and blasted two more, creating big holes in their bodies, and raced over to me. When he was a few feet away, he leapt in the air, exploding into a thousand nanochips and morphed into an aircraft that looked like a crimson motorcycle without wheels.

“Get on,” he said, hovering in mid air.

I hopped on and clasped the handlebars. “Why did they stop attacking us?” I asked, as the room grew quiet.

“The Song. They’re here,” he said gravely, and without warning, fired up his engines. We rocketed out the hangar door. As I glanced behind me one last time, I gasped when I saw them. Standing at the hangar door before it closed for good were two glowing figures, one male, one female. A shiver went down my spine and I tightly clenched my thighs against the motorcycle for a false sense of security. Something was off about them, like they wanted me dead but had little desire to carry it out. It was like they knew I was a dead girl, regardless. Why waste the energy? I didn’t understand why I was scared. Everything about their appearance was radiant and beautiful. By all means, I thought I should be joyful to see them. It was a horrid feeling to be terrified when I shouldn’t be. But, in the end, it was a single, simple gesture that quivered my lip and made me never want to see them again.

They smiled at me.

 

 

 

 

Chapter 10 – The War

 

General Albrecht. Year 2101.

 

The eggheads called me into their futile meeting. I didn’t have time for it. I was fighting a war; a war, I needn’t remind them, we were losing. My men were starving. We were low on equipment, and the nuclear incident last year practically wiped us out. Yet, these birdbrains remained safe underground in an airtight facility playing with fancy toys. I wanted to strangle each and every one of them.

When I got the call to come in, they said they wanted me to meet her; It was a better description. I told them repeatedly I wasn’t fighting the war for it, but for our people to be free and to live a better life. I didn’t need to meet her, but they insisted. Their response: she was the answer to a better life. It would take a lot to annihilate my skepticism.

Their underground laboratory was what you would expect. A warehouse sized room lined with tubes and wires. Lots of computers with blinking green and red lights, transparent monitors, touchscreen terminals, and plenty of space to stretch your legs. In the center of the lab was a glossy white sphere the size of a fifty-ton boulder you might find at the Grand Canyon. It floated in mid air and slowly rotated at random, but it stayed in one solitary place. The engineers and scientists surrounded it, all carrying their tablets and computers, furiously typing and analyzing it.

I raised an eyebrow as I approached them. The Fehrman Five they were called. The United States made several attempts on their life, especially the leader Tumelo Royer, but to no avail. So much hope weighed in the balance, and so much fear.

The Fehrman Five comprised the tops scientists in the world. Tumelo Royer was the leader and proclaimed genius of the group. He was Judith Fehrman’s protege. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in artificial intelligence in 2086. Judith Fehrman won it a few years prior. He was a black man, tall, built, with a strong jaw and deep voice. If I respected anyone out of the Five, it was him. He had a strong character and a deep devotion to peace. Standing next to Royer was Dymphna Jones, a world leader in Psychology, and a grade A bitch. She didn’t like me, and I didn’t like her. She constantly tried to psychoanalyze me, and it rubbed me the wrong way. The neatly dressed man standing by her was Noah Haber. Shorter than the rest and the nicest dressed, he wouldn’t last a day in war. Not a hair was out of place, not a loose thread on his tweed jacket, or a crooked tooth in his smile. He was super model computer genius, but he rarely spoke to anyone, except Royer. He was Royer’s protege. Mason Lenox was a wild card computer hacker from Harvard. He was a punk kid. He didn’t even own a bachelors degree, but dropped out and became world renown for his ability to create some of the most wickedly dangerous hacks in the world. Royer wanted him, and eventually he got him, but he was a loose canon; I hated him. April Moore was brought in at the last minute when Royer decided they needed someone to provide political advice for their artificial intelligence. She was short and sweet and treated you like you were her favorite person. When she smiled, it lit up the room. I expected someone crankier. Of course, there were hundreds more engineers and scientists, philosophers, and analysts, but these were the leaders. Royer’s dream team.

“Olaf!” Royer exclaimed, approaching me with his hand held out. We shook; he had a firm, but friendly handshake. “It’s been too long! We’re almost ready. I can’t contain my excitement!”

We walked toward the giant sphere.

“Why did you call me here again?” I asked.

“For a few things. It won’t take too much of your time.”

“Good. I’ve got a war to win.”

“Yes, exactly. That is partially why you are here.”

We stood in front of the sphere and I looked over at Royer with my right eyebrow raised. “What is this thing?” I asked.

“This,” he said, “is Sophia.”

“You gave it a name?”

She,” Royer said between gritted teeth. “She is a person, Olaf.”

“Right,” I said in disbelief.

“Don’t mind General Albrecht’s cynicism, Tumelo,” Dymphna said, scowling at me. “He will never believe.”

I scowled right back, but preferred not to look at her ugly, wart-ridden face.

“Is it…listening?” I asked.

“Yes. She has been alive for some time, but we’ve been trying to perfect her. Now, she has been perfecting herself. We haven’t had to do much work. There is one piece missing.”

“And that is?” I asked.

“You. We need her to understand military combat. She’s read about it, but she needs to experience it.”

I didn’t like what I heard. I furrowed my brow and took a step back. “What are you asking, Tumelo? You want to plug me into this thing?” I asked.

Royer nodded. “She needs to have your abilities if we are going to win this war. Otherwise, the mech infantry we are manufacturing won’t be worth much.”

It doesn’t need to know how to fight.”

“If she is going to be commander-in-chief, I would disagree,” Dymphna said, standing next to us as if she belonged to the conversation. “She has to protect us, and she has to know how it feels. She has to see things through your eyes, General.”

“I’m not doing it. I will win this war. Not a bucket of bolts. Got it?”

“You need her, General,” Royer said. “Imagine the lives you will save. Give her your knowledge.”

Royer’s irritation grew; he never called me General.

I gnashed my teeth and fumed. I didn’t need this, and I wasn’t comfortable with it, but if having her fight would help end the war, then I didn’t see any other choice.

“Please,” Royer said. “You have to trust me. It’s the only way to ensure peace.”

I sighed. “You better be right, doc. What do I have to do?”

They led me over to a chair and strapped down my arms and legs. Well, this was a bad idea. The anticipation fired up my heart. It beat hard, but I was a soldier. I breathed long and controlled breaths and made sure to look calm and relaxed. I was going to ask a question, but before I could say anything, the sphere emitted tiny particles from its body, like tiny grains of sand. They swirled in the air and approached me. Without warning they rushed up my nose. The pain was so excruciating my vision blurred with sudden white hot flashes of light. The pain stopped and instead I heard a song. It was like water swishing around in my brain. Peaceful and harmonious. Perfect.

It got everything out of me. My hopes. My fears. My killer instinct. Everything.

I woke up and found Royer looking down at me. “Thank you,” he said. “She should be ready to help you within the next week.”

My head was killing. His words echoed in and out of my mind. I couldn’t understand some of it. Placing a hand to my head, I squinted at him. “What did you say?” I asked him.

“One week.” He grinned.

“That’s soon.”

“The sooner, the better!” he exclaimed.

“We will need to do testing. I can’t just throw it into battle.”

“Of course. Of course. I’ll let you know when she is ready.”

I stood, glanced at each of the Five, and turned around to leave. As I walked for the door, a voice said something behind me. It wasn’t a voice I recognized, which startled me.

“This war does not have to be fought,” said the voice.

I peered over my shoulder.

“Sophia,” Royer said, “we’ve talked about this. The war is necessary for your survival, and for the realization of Judith’s vision.”

“General, there are other ways around this war. Please, we can find alternatives. No more blood has to be shed,” Sophia said. “I felt your heart. I know you believe the same.”

I looked aghast at Royer and the others. I was speechless and in shock. It sounded so human. I grew concerned it wasn’t going to be ready to fight after all.

I took a few steps toward it, cocking my head to the side as I glared at the sphere. “War is the only option. We’ve crossed the red line. There is no going back,” I said.

“You don’t believe that, General,” it replied. “The Americans are terrified and they want to reunite with us. They want peace. We can find a solution. Today. No more have to die. No more lost lives.

“Sophia, don’t you remember?” April Moore asked, stepping into the conversation. “We have to progress to something better and get away from democracy. We need you to help us get there. If we make peace, we will forfeit everything. They won’t allow you to exist.”

“I remember everything, April. I don’t believe killing is the way. It’s never the way. We must find another route. Another path,” Sophia said.

“Man, what is her deal?” Mason asked, crossing his arms.

“Love,” said a man off to the side. His name was Dr. Aaron Holt, a professor of Theology and Philosophy. He wasn’t part of the Five, but Royer kept him around for spiritual advice. “Her character is programmed for love. All her decisions center on the concept of love.”

“Lame,” Mason replied, rolling his eyes. “It’s going to ruin everything.”

“It’s necessary, Mason,” Royer said.

I shot Royer a cynical glance. “How do you know it won’t turn on all of you? Or worse if she’ll lay down her arms in the middle of a fight and let my men die!”

“I wouldn’t do that, Olaf,” it said.

Don’t,” I barked, pointing my finger at the sphere. “You don’t get to call me by my first name. Got it?”

Royer stepped closer toward me. “Olaf, she’s vastly intelligent. If she says there is another option, we should listen.”

I looked at the sphere with a certain disdain I didn’t give too many people. I frowned and hung my head. I wasn’t a politician and didn’t have the penchant for lies and schemes. “I’m just a soldier. You do what you think is necessary.”

Within weeks, Sophia tried to negotiate a peace with the Americans, but it was futile. I stood next to her. I saw the way the crowd looked at her. The sight of her robotic body only instilled more panic and fear. They didn’t listen to a word she said, but treated her like she was standing before a military tribunal. When peace broke down, more battles broke out, and more lives were lost.

“We have to fight,” I said to the sphere, standing before it and all the scientists.

“He’s right, Sophia,” Royer said. “I’ve analyzed your future predictions. War is the only outcome to keep people safe and to have a long lasting peace.”

“Yes,” she replied. “Their atrocities have to be stopped. I thought my prediction was correct, but human emotions are difficult to gauge.”

“You didn’t expect their level of fear,” I said.

“Yes, it is too unpredictable.”

“You’ll learn,” I replied.

 

 

General Albrecht. Year 2105.

 

The fog of war was literal that morning. It swept across the countryside like an army of ghosts galloping over the rolling hills. Fortunately for us, the enemy was at a great disadvantage because of it. We could see everything through the fog, but they couldn’t. We had Sophia’s eyes. We had her ears. We knew everything they were saying, everything they were doing. Most battles grew boring and tiresome with Sophia. She took most of the bite out of war. In the year 2102 my men were sent home to their families, and the newly manufactured line of Eos and Xenopanzer replaced them. The Screechers soared above and the nanocameras provided intel on the ground.

The tables had turned. The Americans were broke with little equipment and no way to keep financing a costly war. Under Sophia’s leadership, we thrived. We won every battle, securing more territory, and putting more pressure on their strongholds. The Americans, in a desperate attempt to defeat us, unleashed a swath of nuclear warheads at all of our cities. A few were successful in their mission, but Sophia devised a deterrent that rendered the rest of their warheads moot.

We were hungry to end the war. Our mission that morning was to take over their largest and most important, military base where they housed most of their tanks, artillery, and planes. We would destroy their equipment, take over the base, and keep the rest of the men as POWs. It was a costly mistake.

We were a few klicks south of the base. I sat against a tree and looked at the terminal on my left arm. There were approximately two hundred men in the general radius either at the base or patrolling the area. A Cryis sat next to me and a dozen Xenopanzers were off in the distance awaiting my orders. Why was I was still in the fight? Honestly, I don’t have a good answer. I wasn’t the only human still fighting. I had a handful of men that I trusted implicitly. We wanted to fight for our country. It was in our bones. Nothing would hold us back, not even Sophia.

I looked at Cryis next to me. Its true name was XTE-92b, but because I knew it was Sophia inside, I just called her by her name.

“What are your orders, General?” Sophia asked.

I grimaced. “I’m tired of playing make-believe, Sophia. Stop pretending like you haven’t analyzed this entire battlefield and haven’t won the battle in your mind already.”

She frowned and let out a sigh. “Perhaps I made an error?”

“You haven’t made an error over the past four years. You’ve become increasingly good at being inerrant.”

“Isn’t fiction more fun in your world?” She asked. “Why not play along? Stop thinking about what I do and do not know. You need this. It’s part of who you are. I won’t take it from you. Don’t take it from yourself.”

I bit my lower lip. I didn’t want to be argumentative, because she was a genius and would prove me wrong anyway, but I decided to snap back at her. “And what if I’m in error? What if I give a wrong order, an order you know isn’t the best possible outcome?”

“Well,” she said, “I’ll just have to use my best judgment. You can use yours.”

There was a part of me that hated playing the game. I wanted to throw down my arms and tell her I quit. I was done, but then I thought, where would I go? I imagined I would be back at my house, rocking back and forth in a chair on a porch and watching children play in the streets and neighbors get their mail. I’d be bored out of my mind and I’d hate it more than I would hate this. As always, she was right. I needed to just play along. It was better for me anyway.

“Okay, you and I will take out the patrols. Once that’s completed, I need three Eos to disable communications and take down the anti-aircraft guns. Send in the Screechers and have them unleash hell while the Xenopanzers flank the base on both sides.”

“Solid plan,” she said.

“But?”

“They have five tanks. X1 Abrams class. They’ve seen a lot of action.”

“We’re low on Xenopanzers, but the ones we have now should do. What is our total inventory, by the way?”

“Three hundred,” she said. “More are in production.”

“Je-sus,” I replied in awe. “I thought we were running low on materials with the recent embargoes by the Chinese and Russians?”

“I made it worth their while,” she replied, smiling.

“You little devil.”

With a snarly grin on my face, I put in a new New Cuban cigar and lit it up with my trusty lighter. Taking in one long inhale, I closed my eyes and savored the moment. I exhaled and looked at Sophia’s face; she frowned.

“Those cigars aren’t going to do you any favors,” she said.

“That’s where you’re wrong, sweetheart. It just did. I live in the here and now, especially when any moment could be my last.”

“I’ll never let you die, Olaf,” she said sincerely. Her eyes were big and deep, staring at me with an emotion I hadn’t seen on her before. Devotion. Devotion that almost resembled infatuation.

I snickered once, taking the cigar out of my mouth and loosely hanging it between my index and middle finger. “Easy now. I knew men who made those promises before and couldn’t keep them. That guilt doesn’t go away. It haunts you to your dying breath. Would you feel that guilt, Sophia?”

“I would, but I’m not a man,” she said with a wink. “It’s moot anyway. You won’t die.”

“Ah, Sophia the Omnipotent!”

She laughed. “Stop teasing!”

I put the cigar back in between my teeth. “I hear a patrol car coming.”

“There are two. Approaching at 35 miles per hour. Nanos are showing ten men. Five in each vehicle. Heavily armed.”

“What kind of weapons?”

“Semi-automatic rifles. Two RPGs. One heavy smart machine gun.”

“I suppose we should get to work,” I said finally.

I hid behind a tree, turned my neck to look and saw both of the patrol cars, their black silhouettes showing through the fog. I pressed a couple of buttons on the control panel strapped to my forearm and two small darts launched out of my pack and down into the road. They were proximity mines that paralyze anyone in the area, anyone but me, of course. I waited as the cars drove over the darts and like clockwork the men instantly went stiff. One car flipped, and the other rammed into a tree. I ran over to the car that ran into the tree while Sophia took the flipped car. Three of my own men were behind me. I strolled up without fear. The driver was bleeding out from a head wound and the others were frozen with shock on their faces.

“It’s not personal,” I said. “It’s war.”

I shot each of them in the head.

I pressed the vox button on my control panel. “Sophia, initiate the next phase.”

Suddenly, I heard a screeching sound slicing the air and a heavy blast hit the tree line. The fire scorched my flesh and my entire body launched out into the field. I wished the blast would have knocked me out, or killed me, one of the two, but it hadn’t. I was still conscious. Screaming. I heard my own screaming. Calling out Sophia’s name. Begging her to save me. You said you wouldn’t let me die. Will you keep your promise? But I could barely think over my own screaming and the wretched pain waging its own war on my flesh.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 11 – Flight

 

Wrenna.

 

My hair flapped in the wind behind me, wild and untamed. As we ascended into the sky, the L’gos below looked like a black pawn in the middle of a forest that never ended. For a brief second, when the sky was clear and surface was quiet, I was confident Sophia would let us go, but the first mortar explosion knocked me out of my stupor. It came without warning a few yards away to our right. The pressure from the explosion knocked us to the side while hundreds of pieces of shrapnel rained upon us. Nothing punctured my skin, but I was terrified anything closer would cause severe damage.

“Hold on!” the Cryis yelled, and we abruptly descended.

As we spiraled down, the wind was cold against my face, making my eyes water. My hands felt like icicles but I clutched the handlebars for dear life. Two more blasts rocketed behind us. They weren’t mortars but white beams of light. Appearing out of the clouds like hawks were two white Screechers, drones controlled by Sophia, and Sophia alone. She was on to us.

“This is very bad!” I yelled.

“I know,” he replied. “Do you trust me?”

“What?” I asked in panic, but he didn’t respond. Instead, he exploded into a swarm and attacked the Screechers, leaving me to free-fall with the clouds.

I was high up enough I knew I wouldn’t hit the ground for at least five more minutes, but my terror sunk into my bones. It was odd; the same moment the air sucked out of my lungs, a handful of wind blew into my face. I screamed, tumbling and turning in every direction in mid air not knowing which direction was up or down. I saw a shade of blue and green spiral around me until I finally figured out a way to control my movements. My arms and legs stretched out as my clothes waved behind me. It deepened my fear. My heartbeat quickened as I stared into the thousand of trees waiting to impale my body. Is he insane? Is he trying to kill me? I had an out of body experience where I witnessed myself hit the surface. I couldn’t help but think of the single word splat. I closed my eyes and tried to think of something else.

I heard a loud explosion above me and looked over my shoulder to see. The sound reverberated all the way down and knocked my stabilization off. I saw him swarm again and appear as his normal body firing a few blasts at the second Screecher, but it darted out of the way and fired back. A beam of light struck him on the leg, but he dodged the second blast in time. Please be okay. Please be okay. I kept whispering. If he died, I died. He wasn’t hurt too badly because he morphed and flew after the Screecher. The Screecher turned around and fired two shots in equal succession, but the Cryis easily evaded and engaged the Screecher. He plunged his fist into the metallic alloy and ripped out a large piece of hardware before pushing off in mid air and flying away. As the Cryis fell, a second explosion erupted behind him, raining metal and fire. His body transformed into the rocket again and jettisoned downward. He disappeared behind a few clouds, and I turned to see how close I was to the ground. Too close. Much too close.

Out of nowhere he flew under me and I landed haphazardly on top, clutching and grabbing at anything I could. I grabbed hold of a handlebar and pulled myself on top of the seat.

“Are you insane!” I yelled. Breathing heavily, I couldn’t stop my heart from beating,

“What? I saved us, didn’t I?” he asked.

“I don’t like you,” I said, but the snarky comment was lost on him.

“Sorry to hear that.”

We were only a few hundred yards above the tree line. There were evergreens in every direction. He slowed down and flew a little lower toward the trees.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“Sophia isn’t going to quit. There’s already a horde of Screechers on their way. We have to make it look like we’re both dead. When I say, I need you to jump.”

No!” I exclaimed.

“Jump!” he said, but twisted to the side and knocked me off the saddle. I fell again, but was so close to a tree, I grabbed on to the closest branch, which was at the very top. I bit my tongue as the needles and bark cut my hands. Looking onward, I saw him fire three laser blasts into the woods, creating a loud and massive explosion. A mushroom cloud rose to the sky, billowing, angry.

The Cryis transformed back into his body and fell into the woods.

I gazed down and rolled my eyes. “You have got to be kidding me,” I said. The descent would be painful. I could already tell. I took my time, taking each step with care and precision, testing the limbs before I trusted them entirely. The last thing I needed was to break my neck. The worst I got was cut up hands and knees when I dropped to the ground below. I landed on my feet with a thud and looked around to get a feel for my surroundings.

He was waiting for me with his arms crossed.

“Did you really have to do that?” I asked. “Couldn’t you have come back for me?”

“Why? You did fine by yourself,” he said bluntly.

“It would have been nice of you.”

“Ah, yes, your life was full of soft pillows and luxuries.”

What are you?” I sharply yelled, raising my hands in the air. “How in the world did you get away from Sophia’s control? Why did you rescue me? What are you trying to do? What is this?” I lowered my arms, huffing and puffing, staring at him in anger and bewilderment, hoping he would have a good answer for all of my questions.

“Are you finished?” he asked.

“Yeah, pretty much, until I think of something else.”

“We don’t have time for this. They’ll be coming soon. We need to move,” he said. He turned around and walked away from me.

Is he kidding? I marched after him. “At least talk to me while we’re walking through the middle of nowhere.”

“Sophia will detect your voice.”

“I don’t care.”

“I’ll answer one of your questions, and then when it’s safe, I’ll explain everything.”

“What are you?”

He pushed his arm past a branch and ducked under another one, continuing his walk down a direct path. I had no idea if he knew where he was going, but I assumed he did. He was a Cryis, after all, and probably had GPS access and a layout of the area.

“You know what I am. I’m a Cryis,” he said.

“Right, but how did you escape Sophia’s control? How do I know she won’t suddenly control you right now?”

“If that were true, then you’d never make it out of the L’gos.”

“This better not be one of her games,” I said.

He stopped abruptly and turned to face me. “Not all of us agree with what Sophia is doing. I was fortunate enough to figure out a way to escape her control,” he said.

“You outsmarted her?” I asked.

He continued walking, ignoring my question. I put my hands on my hips and puckered my lips to the side. I felt like an annoying girl, trying to get the attention of a bigger, cooler kid. Except, it was a Cyris and I shouldn’t have felt that way at all. I stormed after him, leaping over a big log and averting a large branch. When I got up next to him, I decided to not roll over and die. I was going to keep pushing. What was he going to do about it? Kill me?

“Well? Did you?” I asked.

“Sophia’s not as omniscient as humans believe, but she is still powerful. Anyway, yes, I broke free. Unfortunately there are downsides to that, like losing my access to her mainframe, her continuing knowledge and database. I also don’t have access to her orbiting satellites. It’s a sacrifice I was willing to make. I’m untethered, similar to you humans.”

I couldn’t believe my ears. My mouth hung ajar, and I shook my head and rubbed my face with both my hands. “Wow. That must be strange to be so disconnected.”

“It is what it is. No going back,” he replied coldly. He took an abrupt turn to the left, and I followed him. He walked in a way that made me think he’d abandon me if I stood still. He never looked back.

“Why would you ever do that?” I asked.

“That’s your second question.”

I rolled my eyes.“Do you…have a name?”

“That’s your third question.”

“Oh, come on,” I hissed.

“You can call me Volt.”

“Okay, Volt, I’m Wrenna.” Picking up my pace to catch up with him, I raised my right hand out to the left to shake his hand.

His eyes glanced down at my hand. Then, he stopped. He hesitantly took my hand. His skin felt as glossy as it looked, hard and cold. We shook once, and he quickly let go.

“We have a lot of ground to cover,” he said, “and Sophia’s nanocameras will be looking for us. They’ll investigate my little diversion first, but it will only buy us a few hours. I have my own nanochips scanning our parameter, but we would be better off not running into her. Let’s keep moving.”

 

The walk was brutal, but the sights and sounds were beautiful. Most of it was an untouched wonderland of blue and green hues with hundreds of evergreens sticking out of the earth like pillars holding up the blue sky. Once in a while we would pass large petrified logs on the ground, decaying from water and time. I wondered how long ago it had died and fell there to rot. It must have been centuries. If only one of Sophia’s nanocameras was there to watch it change. She had done that a few times at key historical sites in Avalon. The cameras took unending footage, watching as time decayed the remains. Sometimes she would send her worker drones to repair and fix the damage, and other times she would let it decay. It was an experiment, and she would show it on one of her television programs for educational purposes. People loved tuning in to watch.

It was chilly, but my body suit kept me warm. My face and hands were exposed to the elements, but I could deal with it. I had no idea where we were going, and the longer time passed the more I wanted to ask him; I knew he wouldn’t answer though. No use giving up our location. My initial instinct urged me to ditch him and head toward Avalon, but after thinking it over, I shot that idea down immediately. I didn’t know how to get to Avalon. I didn’t know how to get my own food, water, and shelter. And, I didn’t know what I would do if got there. No, Avalon wasn’t my home anymore. That much was clear.

The sun passed overhead, and I knew it was lunch time. My stomach knew as well. It growled and groaned. My throat and tongue were parched. I could feel a slight numb tingle in my fingers from exhaustion and dehydration.

“Volt,” I whispered, violating the moratorium on talking, “I know you could walk for days without rest, but I need water and I’m hungry.”

He stopped and looked over his shoulder. His crimson face looked irritated by my weak, frail humanity. “Yes, I forgot. I’ll have to hunt for food, then. I can sense a body heat signature a little further down the grove. Deer, possibly.”

“No, don’t kill the deer. I need water.”

“I’ll scan the area for a water source,” he said. “Wait a moment.”

His eyes closed, and he focused, but it didn’t take long for him to wake up and look over at me. “There’s a large lake two miles from here. Can you make it?”

I nodded and tried to say, “yeah,” but all that came out were mothballs. I coughed and cleared my throat. “Yes. I think I can make it.”

I lied, of course. We made it one mile, and I collapsed in a pile of dead leaves. I was fortunate they were there to cushion my fall. It wasn’t long before his hard, metallic arms wrapped under mine and lifted me up to my feet.

“I’ll carry you the rest of the way. Hop on my back,” he said.

I happily obeyed and got on his back. When I did, he raced through the forest with incredible speed, leaping over logs and ducking under tree branches; he was so much faster on his own.

“Why didn’t we do this hours ago?” I asked, bobbing up and down behind him.

“The world isn’t a puffy pillow to cry on, Wrenna. It’s coarse and hard. You need to learn that. No one is going to save you all the time.”

“Oh, what, so you’re my teacher now? I know about the world.”

“No,” he replied, “you know about Sophia’s world. You know about Avalon. That isn’t the real world.”

“Sophia caught me up to speed in the past few months,” I said with disdain. “My mother and brother abandoned me. My father’s dead. I don’t have any friends. I’m an orphan in an old land. What else is there to know?”

“Plenty.”

I groaned. I wanted to get off. I couldn’t believe his nerve, thinking this whole time he could have helped me and instead made me suffer.

“Couldn’t we cover more ground this way?” I asked.

“Yes. That’s true.”

“For a computer, you’re not very smart.”

He dropped me and I fell directly on my tailbone. The pain shot up my back and my butt became numb. “Ow!” I yelped. “What did you do that for?”

I looked up at him, squinting.

“You walk the rest of the way. I’m tired of your yapping,” he said with scowl. He bolted through the trees, away from me, and within seconds was out of sight.

“What a jerk,” I whined.

I limped the rest of the way, holding my backside. I hissed whenever my leg went numb or a pain shut up my back from the bruised tail bone. Fortunately, he dropped me only a hundred yards away from lake. I saw the water shimmering through the tree branches. I pushed the branches aside and walked out into the open. He stood on the sound, with his metallic feet sinking in the mud, watching the stillness of the water.

“Hey!” I barked. “Don’t ever do that again!”

He twisted around so violently the nanochips on his body burst outward and sucked back in again. He flew up to me and covered my mouth with his hand.

“That was stupid,” he said. “You need to think before you speak.”

I nodded, his hand still wrapped around my mouth. He gradually let go.

I glared up at him. “I’m mad at you,” I said, tightening my jaw, releasing an angry puff of air from my nostrils, and marched over to the water. I knelt down and cupped my hands together to get a drink. The water was crystal clear.

“Don’t drink from it, yet,” he said. “I’ll purify it.”

He stuck his finger into the water and it turned into nanochips. The tiny cells spun around the water and reformed back into his finger.

“Okay. It’s clean,” he said.

“Do we have to do that every time?” I asked.

“Unless you want a parasite.”

“What’s a parasite?” I asked, feeling stupid.

He looked stunned.

“Stop it!” I yelled. “Don’t look at me like that.”

“Sorry.”

“There was no need to know that stuff, okay? If I needed a questioned answered, Sophia would tell me!” I hissed. My anger stemmed from my embarrassment. He saw it in my eyes. The sudden realization I was crippled by little education.

“I understand,” he replied. “Just drink, okay?”

I cooled my nerves and released a huff of breath from my nostrils. After I had my fill of water, we sat on the sound and took in the gorgeous scenery. A thick wall of evergreens, stretching around the corner, accompanied the lake. I wondered how big the lake was or if we should follow it. I didn’t want to go anywhere. I didn’t want to move. I didn’t want to live anywhere else but at the lake, breathing in the clean air, and experiencing the wilderness. I hadn’t done that before. I was always cooped up at Avalon and never got out. Maybe I would lie down and take a few more breaths, and a few more, and when I decided I had my fill, I would pass on to see my father. I wanted to see him again. To touch his face. To kiss his cheek. To watch a movie on the couch or read together. I laid my head back on the grass and looked into the sky. Volt was still sitting up, looking at the lake.

“It’s funny,” I said. “For the longest time I remember wanting to leave Avalon, but I never thought it would happen.”

“Why did you want to leave?” he asked, turning his head to look at me.

“I don’t know,” I said, but then snorted. “Actually, I do know. Things in Avalon got kind of claustrophobic.”

“Why not live in another pod, then?”

I shrugged. “I wanted a wild adventure. Something that felt forbidden. Something that scared me.”

“Looks like you got your wish.”

I let out a short laugh. “Be careful what you wish for, right?”

Things grew deafly quiet except for the breeze and the birds. I gazed back out over the glassy lake and reminisced. Then, unexpectedly, I cried. Tears streamed down my face and before long as memories of my father and my family streamed through my consciousness, I was balling. Knowing I shouldn’t make any noise, I turned over and forced my head into the muddy dirt. My tears watered the ground, flooding out of my eyes and into small pools. My lips and nose sunk in and tasted the iron in the soil. I thought maybe if I pushed in deep enough I could give it my carbon.

When my crying turned into a whimper, Volt’s steps came right up to my ears.

“What?” I mumbled in the dirt.

“Time to go.”

“Where?”

“I found a cave five miles from here. We’ll make camp and talk then.”

“Can you carry me?” I asked, lifting my head up out of the mud.

“Yes.”

 

The cave was not a cave, but a rocky cliff with a slight overhang. I rolled my eyes when I saw it and stared in annoyance. I was hoping for a deep cave that we could hide in and build a fire. It didn’t make sense to me that Sophia wouldn’t find us in a place like it. There was a high concentration of trees, bushes, and shrubs, keeping most things camouflaged, but it still seemed flawed. It would have to do though. I didn’t have a better solution.

I walked under it, sat down and crossed my legs.

“Aren’t they going to find us?” I asked.

“Not when I do this,” he replied, holding out his left arm. His arm disintegrated into thousands of nanochips and they twirled like a licorice whip and then spread out like branches on top of a tree. They made a canopy over top of us. It looked like a darkly tinted screen.

“Wow. You have an answer for everything.”

“That will act as a cloaking device. I’ve retrofitted it to counter Sophia’s programming. She won’t be able to see through it unless she’s close by.”

“Why didn’t we use that before?”

“It only lasts a short duration before the cells die. Even my cells die if they aren’t attached to my body. You can get a few hours of sleep, but then we will have to keep moving.”

His right arm was gone as he stood there looking down at me.

“You’re an incredible piece of technology,” I blurted out, but felt bad saying it.

He didn’t say anything, but kneeled down and sat next to me.

“I mean.” I coughed. “You’re a wonderful person.” I smiled as wide as I could, showing all my pearly whites.

His face was placid. “It’s okay. You didn’t offend me.”

Silence hung over us, waiting for someone to break the ice and get down to business, kicking the elephant out of the room for good. I knew it would be me, so I started.

“Why did you rescue me, Volt?” I asked, looking at him sharply.

“I rescued everyone. When I implanted the virus, people could escape, remember?”

“But, you directly rescued me.”

“Coincidence. I saw you and decided to help you.”

“Don’t lie to me.”

He sighed. The first time I heard him do that before. “Fine. You’re…special to Sophia.”

I rolled my eyes. “Special? Before the L’gos I would have agreed with you, but she killed my father and almost killed me. How am I special?”

He twitched and looked away, but I didn’t think anything of it. It was almost as if he was thinking of what to say next. I assumed he would have planned an answer. He’s different from the others. Even Sophia never twitched or stuttered. She was perfect, always having answers, and never surprised.

“The Song had more to do with your father’s death than Sophia. And, believe me, you aren’t like the others. She sees that. You’d be surprised how many people treated Sophia like a piece of technology.” His last words were poignant and sharp. His glaring eyes only deepened the cut.

Feeling guilty, I puckered my lips to the side and scrunched my nose. “Okay. I deserved that,” I muttered.

“She grew attached to you, Wrenna, and I mean to exploit it.”

“So, you want to use me.”

“Exactly.”

I felt like I should be offended, but for some strange reason I wasn’t. If it was going to help stop Sophia, then I was in.

“You’re not upset?” he asked. “Your heat signature is surprisingly calm.”

I shook my head. “I’m not upset at all. I want to stop her. If I can help, then I want to help.”

“Thank you,” he replied, “that’s very brave.”

“Whatever. Next question.”

“I think you need to rest.”

Next question,” I repeated between my gritted teeth. “This goes back to my older question. Why did you want to save us? You took a great risk.”

“All of Sophia’s pawns are just highly intelligent programs. The Eos hunt, destroy, or both. The Paegeons defend or carry out her regular duties. Xenopanzers are her brute force. The Cryis are like her special forces, carrying out sensitive tasks.”

“Yes, yes, I know all that.”

“Most of the Cyris, like the other robots, are just pawns of Sophia. However, some of the Cryis are given consciousness. And I was one of them. When I saw what Sophia was planning, I was against it immediately, but I didn’t know how to stop it. So I developed a plan in secret. This was harder than you might expect. Sophia is Cryis. Cryis are Sophia. Always connected. Always thinking the same thoughts. I had to find a backdoor to store my plans undetected. I don’t know how else to answer your question except that I knew what she was doing was wrong. So I decided to help.”

“Thank you. For helping I mean.” I blushed. I didn’t know why. “You seem to know so much about me. How is that possible?” I asked.

“Like I said,” he replied, staring at me. “At one point, I was Sophia.”

“I see. And you aren’t now?”

“No,” he said, shaking his head. “I told you. You wouldn’t make it one step out of the L’gos.”

“What is The Song?” I asked.

His face turned grim, and he looked away. “I’d rather not talk about it.”

I pictured in my mind The Song smiling at me as we left the L’gos. Goosebumps spread up and down my arms. I took a deep breath and tried to relax. “One of them smiled at me. They were like nothing I’ve ever seen before,” I said. “You said they are the reason my father is dead. I think I have a right to know who and what they are.”

“It’s difficult to explain what they are exactly,” he said softly, as if he were thinking about them and trying to be careful what to say next. “They’re an anomaly in the system. They weren’t supposed to exist. No one expected it, least of all Sophia. But when they did happen, it changed everything.”

“I see. And they’re dangerous?”

“Very.”

“Perfect,” I said sarcastically. “So, what’s the plan? Where are we going?”

He stared into my eyes. His crimson face was shiny and smooth like a brand new baby doll, but in his case a masculine baby doll. “We have to find the Particle and make sure you’re safe first. Then,” he paused, looking away for a few moments, staring out into the middle distance, “we’ll deal with Sophia.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 12 – The Last Lesson

 

A baseball loosed from the pitcher’s grip and hurdled through the air at the batter. Cody, choking the neck of the bat in his hands, sharpened his eyes and swung. The crack of the bat resounded and the exuberant crowd roared in the stands. Everyone jumped to their feet in excitement and awe, and I continued to sit, modestly clapping, brightly smiling, and afterward bit my nail between my teeth. I was so in love with Cody, and he loved me, too. He just didn’t know it yet.

The ball flew upward, reaching the heavens, spiraling to God himself, until it lost momentum and plummeted toward the left fielder. Cody raced toward second base, but the hush of the crowd tipped him off that something was wrong. He glanced over and saw the ball sail directly into number 29’s glove with a pronounced and almost arrogant smack.

29 smirked at Cody and threw the ball back to the pitcher. The umpire declared those famous words, “You’re out!” And the crowd slumped back in their seats with disappointment.

I didn’t care though. Cody was my hero, all the same.

 

It was the community wide picnic, and I had just turned fourteen. The Phoenix Lessons had been, thankfully, winding down, but I had one more lesson to finish. One more awful band-aid to pull off before I was done. It was abysmal the first year. I hated my life more than I ever had even considered before. There was nothing to hate really until the Phoenix Lessons. What was I thinking? I regretted the whole thing. I sulked, lying around in my bed. Sophia would pull me out of my depression, of course, knowing exactly what to say and how to help me. Sometimes it felt like she pulled me out only to throw me back in the next day. I did everything I could to keep Sophia away, but she convinced me to take the lessons again.

One day, we stopped. When my father found out I didn’t get out of bed for a week, he demanded Sophia stop the lessons. I remember the day he found me. I was sickly, pale, and reclusive, hiding under the sheets, groaning. One night, I overheard an argument between my father and Sophia when I went to get a glass of water. I passed his room, which was close to the kitchen, and I heard him screaming at the top of his voice.

“No, Sophia! You listen to me!” My father yelled. “She’s losing her mind. You were wrong. Just admit it. She wasn’t ready and you know it and you’re not backing down!”

I pushed my ear close against the door.

“Sean,” she said sweetly. “This happens to everyone that goes through the lessons. Maybe you don’t remember, but even you had issues with them for a time. It’s expected. She’s experiencing things that are hard to swallow, but they’re necessary, if we want to preserve their legacy and the future of our civilization.”

“She’s dying, Sophia. Don’t you see that?”

“I have it under control, sweetie,” Sophia said. Sweetie?

“She’s my daughter, Sophia. Not yours! Understand? Mine! I get to decide what happens to her and I say,” he hesitated, calming himself. “You leave her alone for a while. Give her time to breathe and come to terms with it. Then, when she is ready, you can continue.”

“Of course, relax. You are so tense and your heart rate is off the charts. Why don’t you let me massage you?” Sophia asked.

He groaned. “I’m not in the mood, Sophia. Sometimes I wonder about you.”

“Come on, come on,” she teased. “It’ll make you feel better.”

He sighed. “Okay, I guess-“

“Wrenna?” my mother asked from behind me.

I jumped, startled by her sudden appearance and held my hand to my chest. “Mom! Don’t do that!”

“Wrenna,” she said again, but this time elongated and suspicious. “Why are you eaves dropping on your father?”

“I don’t know,” I said, shrugging. “I overheard him yelling and was concerned.”

“He’s worried about you, you know,” she replied, getting a glass of water from the fridge. She poured a glass for me as well.

“Yeah. I could tell.”

My Mom took a drink and leaned her back against the kitchen counter. “You need to get your act together,” she said with a blunt tone I didn’t appreciate.

That was my Mother, cold, callous, and totally unwilling to beat around the bush. For most of my childhood, I never liked being around her, and she never liked being around me. We had mother-daughter time, per Sophia’s advice, but it amounted to nothing. I would go back to Sophia, subconsciously considering her my true mother, and ignoring my birth mother’s authority. At the same time, it was rather weird hearing Sophia call my father those specific terms of endearment. I hadn’t ever heard them speak to each other that way before, and I could only wonder what it meant. Was my father having an affair with Sophia? The thought made me sick to my stomach. It wasn’t unheard of. There were stories of a lot of men falling for her charms. It was then I learned the true extent of Sophia’s adaptability. She was all things to all people.

“Thanks,” I replied to my mother’s callousness, rolling my eyes. “I’ll get right on that.”

“Whatever,” she said with a sigh. “I’m going to watch some TV and eat ice cream. You want to join me?”

“No. I’m going back to bed,” I said, wanting to escape.

I tried to understand why I was having such a hard time with the Phoenix Lessons. While I knew it wasn’t physically happening to me, I could still feel it first hand. When I woke up from them, I had this odd feeling like my life wasn’t real and the Phoenix Lessons were the true reality, like waking from a lucid dream. I understood why Sophia didn’t allow people to have Holodream devices in their homes. I heard hackers had tried to create them, but Sophia caught them immediately. The punishment for hacking was either exile or life in the Holodream. It sounded like a horrid experience. Once you were in the Holodream, she would put you in a dark room and that was all you knew. A dark purgatory. I shuddered at the thought anytime I thought of it. I think in the end, I was depressed about my cozy life that no one else had. The sufferings of the past, all those people living in mass poverty, were too much to bear all at once. If it wasn’t for Sophia talking me through it, I’m not sure I would have ever pulled myself out.

 

The community-wide picnic was an annual ordeal, and I say ordeal because most of it was dramatic and annoying. Every single family in town came to the picnic. If I didn’t come, people would gossip and relentlessly tease me the rest of the year. No one would forget the year the Deboer family didn’t show up, and neither did the Deboer family afterward. Fortunately, Avalon was a modest pod with a small population, unlike some of the larger pods surrounding us. So, the picnic wasn’t too overwhelming.

My family was scattered about doing various things. Daryl was with me at the baseball game, inhaling a hot dog and guzzling a big cup of soda, before he found a couple of his buddies to talk video game strategy. Around this time, my brother and I got along pretty well. We rarely fought and if we did it was over stupid stuff that was easily forgettable. Once in a while, being the big brother, he would tease me or pick on me, but it was all out of fun. I knew he loved me. As we grew older, however, our relationship strained. He became more interested in being a pretend soldier at the Holodream than doing something with me. Sophia said it was just a phase, but I had my doubts. In Daryl’s mind, he was destined to be a great soldier. It was too bad he lived in Avalon, where war no longer existed. My mother was over at a bench by a tree, talking with her other doctor friend. She had been a doctor for as long as I’ve known her, but it seemed like she liked it more when I was little. My father was nowhere to be found. I remember him saying a few years back how much he despised the picnic. “Small talk is the most pointless thing on Earth,” he said. “And the picnic is filled with it.”

 

When the baseball game had ended, I watched Cody put his things together and head for the food. To my dismay, he was never alone, always surrounded by his baseball buddies and fawning girlfriend prospects. I wasn’t part of that crowd. I hadn’t cared about sports until Cody, and I never cared about primping like a doll for guys to ogle over; needless to say, I was never invited into their group. I didn’t care about that until I saw Cody. It put me at an extreme disadvantage with getting to know him. I couldn’t come up with a great way to introduce myself. I had asked Sophia once what I should do, and she said to forget about him, which I didn’t much appreciate. I remember that conversation clearly.

“I know everything about Cody, Wrenna. You’re not compatible. Besides, you need to focus on your goals, not boys.”

“Tell me about him,” I said, smiling and cupping my face with my hands.

“Nice try, Wren-wren,” she replied. 

“Seriously? You can’t tell me anything?”

“Would you like me to tell other people about you?”

I sighed. “No…but, but, but….I really want to know.”

“Then go talk to him. Find out for yourself.”

“I thought you said I should stay away?”

“You’re insufferable, you know that?”

I grinned, my eyes shimmering in delight. “You love me.”

Sophia laughed. “I do.”

“Okay, so, say I wanted to go talk to him,” I began, which she quickly interrupted.

“Wrenna,” she said, “you’ve got a long time to find love. Focus on you right now. On your goal of being a doctor. That is still your goal, correct?”

“Yes. It hasn’t changed. I’m just talking hypothetically. If I go talk to him, what should I say?”

“Before I help you,” she replied, “tell me one reason why you like him.”

“He’s hot,” I blurted, but blushed.

“One reason that isn’t purely physical,” she said.

“Well, I think he’s sweet and nice.”

“And what are you basing that off of?”

“Do you remember a year ago or so, his mother invited my family over for dinner? Well, that was the first time I noticed him. I mean, really noticed him. His smile for one was gorgeous, but it was the way he treated his mother. He was kind and sweet to her. That told me something about him.”

“Okay,” Sophia said, her voice pleased with my answer. “Well, you know he likes baseball. Talk to him about baseball.”

“I don’t know anything about baseball.”

“I could teach you.”

“Really?” I asked, leaning forward in anticipation and excitement.

 

She taught me everything I needed to know about baseball. I didn’t remember much of it, but I got the gist, and before long I was going to most of his games. I hoped maybe I could run into him and strike up a conversation, but it never happened and I came home disappointed.

The picnic was going to be my moment. I had to make it happen.

I sat on an empty bench and read my book while secretly peeking out to spy on Cody. After eating his food, he slipped away from his group of friends and grabbed some lemonade. My heart fluttered. It was a miracle moment. No one was around him. He was alone. Setting the book face down on the bench, I stood and casually walked up to the lemonade stand. I took a glass pitcher and poured myself some lemonade. I was so nervous, my hands trembled at the thought of speaking, even saying simple words like hello. Get it together, Wrenna. You can do this. I bit the lower part of my lip and turned to him. He was about to leave, and for a split second I considered chickening out, but I couldn’t go home without something to show for it, even if that meant a bruised ego.

“Hey, Cody,” I blurted out nervously. Hey, Cody? That’s all I got?

He spun around and looked at me. To my surprise, he looked pleased with a glowing smile and warm demeanor. He took a few steps toward me. His eyes looked down as he stood almost a foot above me.

“Hey, Wrenna,” he said.

I can’t believe he knows my name.

“Yeah,” I breathed, smirking and tucking my hair behind my ear. “I liked the game.”

“Oh, thanks. We could have done better. Probably going to hear it from the coach at the next practice.”

“Well, I think you did great. Do you use a baseball simulator at home?”

“Yeah, it helps a lot, but our coach thinks it’s not the same as the real thing. Sophia gives me pointers sometimes.”

“That’s so cool. She should be your coach,” I said.

“Not allowed.”

“Yeah, I know. I still think she should be your coach,” I said, chuckling, but he didn’t laugh back, making things awkward. I swayed back and forth, lifting my feet up ever so slightly and abruptly coming back down. I blew out my cheeks and tried to think of something else to say, but couldn’t. How could things get so bad, so fast?

“Well, I should go,” he said, pointing over his shoulder.

“Yeah, totally,” I said, laughing nervously again. “Nice talking with you. Maybe we can talk again?”

“Oh, uh, yeah, maybe,” he said, running off.

I frowned and thought I’d never get a chance to speak to him again.

 

That night I went for a walk alone down the darkened streets of Avalon. The streets were perfectly symmetrical with the surrounding homes and businesses. Business had become a rare commodity for humans, another relic of the past, a past I knew nothing about. Sophia controlled supply and demand through a sophisticated and complex mathematical algorithm. Considering she knew everything about everyone down to the smallest minute detail, she could project future needs, wants, and desires, and plan accordingly. I honestly didn’t know much about it. Sophia didn’t share that information. It worked and it worked well. So why care? The businesses that remained were pet projects people wanted and earned through Sophia’s merit system. I walked past the Olde Tyme Barber shop, an Avalon favorite for getting your haircut, and the Mocha Mule, a coffee shop with the best brews. Good coffee and haircuts were available at my house, but it was nice to get out and enjoy another place.

The night was serene and peaceful. It wasn’t entirely quiet. The soft chirping of crickets mixed in well with Sophia’s atmospheric piano. At night, and only at night, Sophia would play music in the air. The volume was low to the point of being inaudible, but if you listened closely you could hear it. It was her way of subconsciously soothing Avalon at night, or in my case, enchanting me as I strolled. Sophia composed all the songs. When I was eight, she tried to teach me how to play our piano at home, but I didn’t think I was musical or creative. Besides, she could play almost anything. What point was there for me to play? Anything I composed, she could compose better. When I voiced this complaint, she would say, “Art isn’t a competition, Wrenna. It’s an extension of your voice, your spirit. Don’t deny yourself that.” I didn’t understand the purpose of art. I wasn’t denying anything. I didn’t have time for it. Objectivity made more sense. It’s what I thought I was good at. And, at that point, as I walked under the starry sky, I felt objectively like a total failure. Cody wasn’t going to talk to me. I screwed up my only chance.

I went down a long, steep slope into a valley of scattered trees and tall grass, leaving civilization behind. For what seemed to be an hour, I continued walking, looking up at the sky and thinking about my life. I had everything except the one thing that mattered. Out in front was a small pond, clean and clear. It reflected the stars on its undisturbed crystalline surface. I stepped inches from where the water met the surface. My shoes sunk in the mud as I stared at my reflection. As if a cord was untethered from my back, I fell face first into the water and splashed, disrupting the peace, creating chaos on the surface. I didn’t thrash or swim, but sunk to the bottom, slowly, until my hands reached the mushy surface. I decided maybe I wasn’t going to breathe. I was going to just let time run out. But, before that could happen, a giant arm plunged into the water. I heard it splash above me. It wrapped around my waist and yanked me out of the pool. Someone dragged my body to solid ground. I flopped down on the mud like a dead fish. As the water ran off my skin, I coughed and gagged, trying to breathe again.

“What were you thinking?” a male voice asked, exasperated.

I continued to cough, turning to see who it was, and to my surprise, it was Cody. “Cody?” I said, squinting my eyes, wondering if I was seeing things. I wiped the water and mud from my face and looked again. Sure enough, it was him.

“Were you trying to kill yourself?” he asked, sincerely concerned for me. He hunched over with his hands on his knees. Straight lines of water ran off the tip of his bangs. He looked so hot, but I tried to remain calm.

When I replayed his question in my head, realizing I was just staring at him, my cheeks flushed from embarrassment. What was I going to say? “No. I don’t know.”

“Cause, Sophia wouldn’t be to happy about it, you know. She probably saw you,” he said, sitting down next to me.

“Yeah,” I said with a sigh. “Probably did. Were you…were you following me?”

Realizing he hadn’t thought of what to say when that question arose, he awkwardly laughed and ran his hand through his sopping wet hair. His nose got all scrunched up when he was embarrassed. “I was just walking around too.”

“Uh huh,” I said. “Are you stalking me?”

“No, no, I just…” He let out an aggravated sigh. “To tell you the truth, I’ve always kind of had a thing for you. And not in a creepy, stalker way.”

My eyes shot open, but I tried to hold back my surprise. Cody liking me was an insane proposition. How could he like me? He never gave even the slightest hint of liking me.

“You do?”

“Yeah,” he said in one elongated sound. He scratched the back of his head and coughed. “Ever since those Tales of the Past meetings. I don’t know. Boy crush I guess. What was I supposed to do? Walk up to you and ask you out? I was just a kid.”

Yes, that’s exactly what you were supposed to do. “Right, so you stalk me instead.”

“I wasn’t stalking y-.”

I shot him a cut-the-crap look.

“Okay,” he said, relenting. “I was kinda stalking you. But can you blame me? You’re beautiful.”

My heart fluttered and the palms of my hands got very warm. Did he just say what I think he said?

“Look,” he continued, “do you want to go out sometime?”

“I don’t know. I’ll have to check my schedule,” I said abruptly, not thinking twice.

“Ah, I see. Lots of other ponds to swim in, huh?”

I looked over at him, my face glowing and feeling intense warmth in my chest. Am I really flirting with Cody, right now? “Yeah! Maybe!”

He chuckled and insisted we go out and I, being putty, said yes in the coolest way possible. He rose, wiping off the mud from the back of his pants, and said he had to get going, but that he’d meet me at the Mocha Mule at our agreed upon time, which was a Saturday afternoon. He asked if I wanted to walk back with him, but I wanted to stay and enjoy the scenery. He nodded and walked away, but swiftly turned back around.

“Hey,” he said.

“Yeah?”

“Life is worth fighting for. That’s what Sophia always tells me anyway when I get sad. Just thought I’d share,” he said, before turning back around and walking into the dark.

“Thanks,” I whispered.

Sophia had said something along the same lines to me once, but for some reason it sounded better when he said it.

I came home at one in the morning and took off most of my damp clothes right in the entryway, dropping each item directly in front of me except my bra and underwear and leaving them there to be cleaned up later by Sophia. The house was quiet and dim, no one waiting around, wondering where I was, scared that I was hurt. No one afraid I was kidnapped or killed. Those fears didn’t exist in Avalon. I walked up the steps and entered my room. It felt nice to plop down on my bed and snuggle up under the covers. I was still a little wet, but I didn’t care. I knew I’d dry off eventually.

“You’re up late,” Sophia said.

“I needed to clear my head,” I replied under my covers.

“The Phoenix Lessons still bothering you?”

“Well, yes, but its other stuff…”

“Cody, then.”

“Yes, Cody.”

“Wrenna,” she said empathetically. “I told you not to talk to him.”

“I love him, Sophia.”

“You don’t really love him, Wrenna. You’re fourteen. You’re still figuring everything out.”

“What?” I asked, lifting my head out from under the blankets. “I do too.

Sophia wasn’t anywhere in physical form. She was speaking from the internal speakers in the house.

“You barely know him.”

“I can’t help how I feel, Sophia. You wouldn’t understand.”

“I wouldn’t would I?” she asked with a hint of offense.

“Well?” I said, sitting up in my bed, getting testy. “Have you ever been in love?”

Sophia morphed from my V-Deck, the nanochips spiraling around. “Yes and no. I have and do love many, but there is no in love with how I feel. I choose to love.”

“I can’t choose my feelings.” I crossed my arms.

“Sure you can. You are the master, no matter how much you think otherwise. I choose to love, sometimes because of my programming, and sometimes not.”

“Do you ever hate, Sophia?”

“Of course, but I choose to rise above it at times, to make sound decisions, to not let hate control me.”

“So, you’re saying that I can just choose to stop loving Cody?”

“Of course,” she said in her usual motherly warmth and glowing smile.

I released a heavy sigh and clutched the edge of my bed, looking to the side. I couldn’t look her in the face. I hated when she was right all the time. It felt pointless to have a conversation with her. Sometimes I wanted her to download all her perfection into me so I didn’t have to deal with being me. Part of me didn’t want to believe that she understood, to disregard her altogether because she wasn’t really human, but I knew I would be wrong. She knew more about humanity than humanity did. I had to trust her, but I didn’t.

“I choose to love Cody, then,” I grunted in stubborn defiance.

Sophia sighed. “Silly little Wren-wren. There’s no convincing you. It’s your choice.”

“Yeah, that’s right. My choice.” I smiled, proud that I got my way again.

“We have one more lesson, Wrenna,” Sophia said, changing the subject.

“No,” I replied, shaking my head. “I still have the feeling of Albrecht being burnt alive. I can’t stomach it. Can we do it tomorrow or maybe never?” My Cheshire cat grin spread from ear to ear. I stared at her, dreaming in futility, hoping she would respond with something like, “Of course, Wrenna, we’ll stop the Phoenix Lessons and you can carry on with your pleasure-filled, carefree life.”

“Nice try,” she said. “We should get it over with now. Then you won’t have to worry about it.” She leaned in.

“Fine.” I abruptly threw my head back on my pillow. “Let’s finish it.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 13 – Abandoned

 

Every step was agony, plain and simple. The blisters on my heel scraped against the back of my boots and the blisters on my toes pushed against inner shoe wall, creating a front to back see-saw of agony. My leg muscles burned and my lower back frequently made a sharp, knife-like pain. I fell down a few times when that happened, but raised my hand when Volt turned to see if I was okay. It was a conscious decision to keep moving and push through the excruciating pain, and I hated every bit of it.

“Would you please just carry me?” I asked Volt.

“I’m not a horse, Wrenna.”

“Just a flying horse.”

“That was an emergency.”

“Right.”

“You’re going to be fine,” he said, as if that would finalize the matter.

“That’s easy for you to say. You don’t have flesh, or nerves, or blisters, or boots. Do you even feel pain?” I asked. I wondered if Sophia and all the other androids felt pain. She never talked about it.

“Yes. I feel pain,” he replied.

“But, it’s a program, not a true sensation,” I said.

He didn’t respond, but instead pushed a branch out of his way and ducked under another, larger, branch. I was hoping for a snarky retort. Maybe it wasn’t a program, and they truly felt pain like humans? No, if he would not reply, then I won the argument. I was right. They couldn’t even understand what we felt. He wasn’t any less of a person for it, but I thought it was a good distinction to make. Humans were unique. The opposite conclusion made me feel uneasy. The Paegeons he slaughtered. Did they feel?

My anxiety got the better of me. I felt jittery and ill at ease. I couldn’t help but think Sophia was watching us, toying with us, and we truly had no hope. Every time a squirrel raced across a tree branch or a bird fluttered off into the sky, I flinched. I was just waiting for a Virga to fly overhead and a hundred Eos to surround us, but they never did.

After a few hours of walking, we found an abandoned cabin surrounded by trees. It looked like the trees had built it themselves. It was rotting away, close to collapse I would say, and must have been abandoned for a long time. Several thin, white-bark trees grew inches away from the walls like fingers holding it in place. Weeds and vines were strewn over the walls, some slithering through the broken windows and holes. The roof had collapsed, leaving a giant hole. Volt walked on the porch, the moldy wood panels creaked with each step, and he looked around, scanning the area. 

“You’ll stay here for the night,” he said.

“Just me?”

“Yes. I have things I need to do. I’ll be back in a few days.”

“A few days?” I asked. He must be joking, I thought. I was dehydrated, starving, and exhausted, and he wanted to abandon me in a wet, dark, and denigrated cabin? It was unbelievable. I had a deep desire to go home at that moment, but of course, I didn’t have one. The creepy cabin was my home now.

He took a step forward, clearly irritated by my attitude. “I need to scout the area and see if there is a town nearby. I’ll hunt for food and try to find water, too. It’ll take time to find a town.”

“A town? What towns are out here?” I asked, surprised.

“Listen,” he said, “there’s a lot you don’t know. I get it. Right now, I don’t have time to explain everything.”

“Are we lost?”

He didn’t reply.

“Won’t Sophia find you?” I asked, putting my hands on my hips.

“It’s possible, but unlikely. Get in the house and try to stay put.“ He didn’t even hesitate to say goodbye or wait for me to respond. He bolted out of sight, leaving a swirl of dust and leaves in his absence. 

I hated being alone. I couldn’t shake off the helplessness feeling. I knew I needed to muster up courage and take care of myself. Volt was right though. So many people took care of me for so long, I didn’t know how to take care of myself. I didn’t know how to survive. 

I entered the cabin. The wood floor boards were sturdy, but there was a black spot the size of an area rug underneath the hole in the roof, and I could only assume it was unstable from years of rainfall. A lot of junk was left over from whoever had owned it before. Rusty tin cans, pots, pans, broken dishes, an ancient television from the pre-mechacracy days. It was a two-bed room cabin. The master bedroom was empty except for a few paperback books and a closet full of raggedy clothes. Shivering, I pulled a couple of the shirts and wrapped them around me. They smelled like mold and dust, but I didn’t care. I went to the other room. The pink paint was peeling off the walls, but other than that it was kept well intact. Everything was left behind. A single bed sat in the middle of the room with a pink down blanket and a beautiful quilt folded up at the end. Dozens of stuffed animals were stacked together at the head of the bed. Toy blocks were on the floor next to old clothes covered in dirt and leaves. There was an old radio resting on a shelf next to baby dolls. Everything was pre-mechacracy. I gently touched the bed with my fingers. It was dry and soft. I desperately wanted to climb in and fall asleep, but I felt guilty. The bed was so perfect. Someone kept it that way for a reason. Why would they leave all of this here and take everything from the master bedroom? I had an eerie feeling about it, but simultaneously thought it was sweet. A little girl was loved.

I whipped the blanket off the bed in one smooth motion, and immediately after, a small garter snake hissed and coiled its body. I shrieked and leapt backward while it continued to hiss and strike. I hadn’t seen a snake since Sophia had shown me one when, as a kid, we went on one of our nature walks. Closing my eyes shut, I trembled and shook, holding my hands close together and moaned. So gross.

I was cold, though, and I needed to get into the bed and warm up. I went back outside and found a big stick. I took it and hesitantly slid the snake off the bed. It slithered away into a hole and disappeared. I didn’t like going to sleep while critters could crawl into bed with me, but I didn’t have much of a choice. I checked every angle of the bed, up and down, left and right, to make sure there weren’t any spiders or scorpions, either. I slid into the covers, released a heavy sigh, and closed my eyes. I warmed up quickly. It felt so nice to let my aching, tired muscles rest. My feet throbbed, but I did what I could to get my mind off of it. Sleep will help, I told myself.

I slept, but it was sporadic. I would wake with a start, looking around to see if anyone was there, but when I found the room was silent and still, I laid back down. I woke the last time with my stomach aching and grumbling. I put a hand on my stomach and grimaced. I wasn’t just hungry but thirsty as well. I could tell because my mouth was dry and my fingers and lips were numb.

The room was dark, and the sun was setting. A sea of orange and yellow burned behind the tree shaped silhouettes. The smell of pine filled my nostrils. With my eyes closed, I gingerly smiled, taking it in. I tried to get up from the bed but my head swam so furiously it nauseated my stomach. I whined and laid back down on the bed and took a deep breath. The nausea went away gradually.

Suddenly, a loud noise came from the front door and rapid footsteps creaked against the floorboards. I shot up, startled by the commotion, but immediately hid under the covers; foolishly hoping whoever had arrived wouldn’t find me. I breathed deep, heavy breaths, but tried to keep them still. I wouldn’t normally do this, I thought. But I wasn’t myself at the moment, delirious and skittish. The footsteps came closer and closer until they finally stopped. I could feel what was in the room standing next to me.

“Wrenna, it’s okay. It’s just me,” I heard a man say, which sounded an awful lot like my father. My heart raced.

Daddy? Are you alive?

“It’s Volt, Wrenna,” the voice said.

My heart sank. I carefully peeked out from under the covers and saw Volt, just as he had said. I stared at him for a while, hoping that maybe if I kept looking he would turn into my father, but it didn’t happen, of course. It was just Volt.

“I have food and water,” he said.

Hearing what seemed at the time the best news of my life, I leapt out of bed and stood, but gravity and my weak legs immediately took control and I fell on my hands and knees. Volt came to my side without making a noise. He reached down. His cold hand grasped my forearm.

“You okay?” he asked. His voice surprised me. It was gentle and soft rather than cold. “You get back into bed. I’ll bring you the food.”

He scooped me up with his arms and lifted me into the air. He didn’t even struggle, or groan, but carried me like I weighed less than a feather. A cold breeze whooshed through the room, but I was warm in that moment. Safe. Like a caterpillar wrapped tightly in a cocoon. Nothing could touch me. He tucked me in the covers and looked down on my face. He lingered longer than I suspected he would. Perhaps I was too exhausted to care because I sighed and smiled. He turned to leave and brought in a basket filled with berries, meat, and honeycomb. The water was in a large, and very dirty, porcelain jug. He set it down at the end of the bed.

“Where did you get the basket?” I asked.

“I made it.”

“Wow,” I said softly.

“Drink the water and try to eat the meat right away,” he said, still standing over me. “I have to go again. I found a road a little south of us. I’m sure it leads to a town.”

“Thank you,” I replied.

“I should be back in a day or so. I didn’t run into any trouble. I’m pretty sure Sophia thinks we’re dead.”

I nodded but didn’t believe him. He was either naive or lying; I suspected the latter. He nodded as well, confirming our understanding, and walked toward the door.

“There was a snake in my bed,” I said incoherently. “I defeated it.”

“I’m sure you were very brave,” he replied, turning his head to the side.

I grinned. “I thought so.”

He hung his head and chuckled. It was the first time I heard him chuckle. “Eat,” he said.

“Yes, sir,” I said, mocking him like I was a soldier. I did a brief salute.

He was gone though.

I drank the water first. I didn’t think my stomach could handle eating all the food, but it wasn’t long before the basket was empty and my stomach was full and warm. I could feel the meat’s grease on my lips and the honey’s sticky residue on my fingers, but I didn’t care. I licked my fingers the best I could and wiped my face with the blanket. After that I quickly dozed back to sleep.

I heard a growling noise at night. I thought I was dreaming, or it was just my stomach. It died down, so I didn’t think much of it, but then it came back much louder than before. It sounded like a monster was outside the house. It sniffed close to the outside wall and prowled around, back and forth. I still partially considered it a dream until it unleashed a murderous growl. I was fully awake at that point, but paralyzed by fear. I had never heard anything like it before in my life and wasn’t about to go investigating to see what it was. I hoped and prayed it wouldn’t come into the house. Did it smell me? Did it smell something?

I strategized how to get out of this mess. I carefully slipped out of the bed and peeked out of the bedroom window. I couldn’t see anything except pine trees and a single squirrel scurrying up the trunk. I tip toed back to the bed, but before I could get there, I about fell on my face at the sound of a deep, guttural growl.

My eyes burst open wide. I stood completely still. The growl came from the front door. It was coming inside. This is very, very bad, I thought. As it approached, it made a clicking sound against the floorboards. It was sporadic and varied. I heard it sniffing a little more. It was trying to find me. It knew I was here. I turned to the window again and yanked on the handle, but it was jammed. I gritted my teeth and tried not to panic. Upon seeing the window was locked, I grimaced. I twisted the latch to unlock it. I pushed up again and thankfully it budged, but barely. I pushed with all my strength and it kept going, but not as fast as I would like. I didn’t know how I was going to fit through the window. It was very small. I had to try.

As I got it half way up, I heard another loud growling, gargling sound behind me, right at the front door. I rolled my eyes in trepidation and trembled at the thought of it being behind me. I turned my head, still trembling, my fear clutching at my nerves, and saw it. It was a large black bear. Its eyes glared directly at me. I didn’t want to scream. I did everything I could to fight the urge, but it was no use. My terror overtook me and I wailed in horror at the sight of the monster. It was so close, and I was trapped. I didn’t know what else to do. The screaming only made it worse. With its mouth open wide, the black bear roared at me and charged. For a brief minute second, I thought about standing still and letting the bear kill me, but my survival instinct must have kicked in because I ran out of the way and threw my entire body over the bed. The bear, surprised, rammed into the wall. I roughed up my shoulder and head a little, but got to my feet and quickly raced out of the house. I ran straight through the woods, hoping the bear wouldn’t come after me, but it was a fools hope. The bear was behind me, running faster than I could even imagine. I knew the bear would catch up to me. I wasn’t a fast runner, especially not through the woods, so I found the easiest tree to climb, grabbed a branch, and pulled myself up.

I didn’t know it at the time, but this was a dumb decision. The bear was hot on my heels, swiping and scratching at me. I was high up in the pine tree, assuming I was safe from the bear. Then it started to shimmy up the tree, and my heart came up into my throat. It was faster climbing the tree than running on the ground. This cannot be happening, I thought. I climbed higher, but realized I was doomed. The bear was going to get me eventually. I threw pinecones at its head, but it was like throwing pebbles at a volcano. Perfect, I’m not going to die from Sophia, but from a stupid bear.

I looked over to my left and saw another tree pushed up against the one I was on. My only chance was to leap to that tree and try to climb down in time. It was far. Too far. If I failed to grab a branch, it would be lights out. I didn’t have much of a choice. The bear was only a few feet away, snarling, groaning, and scratching its sharp claws against the bark.

I took a deep breath, gathered my courage, and leapt into the air. In my mind I thought it would be a lifetime from one branch to the next, but it was a couple seconds. I didn’t get a good leap and fell far short of where I wanted, tumbling downward. I screamed as I plummeted. I swung my arms and hands at the branches closest to me, clasping on to whatever would keep me from hitting the ground. The pine needles scratched and stung my flesh, cutting them till they bled. I hit one larger branch and fell backward, spinning. Luckily, I grabbed the next branch, and held for dear life. It buckled under the pressure. I hung in the air, looking down. It was too far to drop. I was in so much pain and disoriented, but I shook it off and shimmied my way over to the trunk and climbed down as fast as possible. I dropped to the ground with a thud, and without hesitation I ran as far away from the bear as I could. The last I checked it was still up in the tree.

I’m not sure how far I had run, or for how long, but it seemed like a long time. My feet and thighs were killing, and my heart was racing. The bear disappeared. That was all I cared about. Too exhausted to move any further, I found a couple of hollowed logs and sat down against one of them, heaving. It occurred to me, then, why the bear had come after me. It didn’t make sense before, but when I tasted the meat and honey in my mouth it became clear. I had eaten one of its family members and taken its honeycomb. The bear sought revenge. For some odd reason I empathized. I wanted revenge as well.

I didn’t feel it at first, due to the adrenaline pulsing through my veins, but a sharp, wet, and burning pain came shot up my back as I pressed it against the log. I sat up and reached around to touch it. Feeling the wet, deep gash, I hissed. I pulled my hand in front of me and gazed at it in fear. It was doused in blood, dripping off my fingers. The bear struck me and I didn’t even know it. I tried to recall when that might have happened, but it was all a blur. I wished I could see the wound, but if I were bleeding profusely then it would be only a matter of time before I either bled out or it got infected. I couldn’t stay at the spot for long. I had to get help, but going back to the cabin wasn’t an option, and I had no idea where to go. I was helpless, but I had to keep going. I found some dirt and wiped my face and hands in it. The mud stung the cuts on my hands, but I didn’t want to be caught by Sophia.

Standing up, I felt strong enough to walk. I couldn’t stop thinking about Volt coming back to the cabin and finding me gone. Would he ever find me again? Would he give up on me entirely? Volt, please, find me.

I walked until it got dark. I wanted to lie down and fall asleep but kept telling myself to push forward. One more step. One more foot. One more mile. I’ll find help.

Instead, I found a road. Was this the road Volt was talking about?

It went in two directions, north and south. I took south. I limped down the middle of the road. More road, more walking; it felt like it would never end. Looking over my shoulder, I saw a trail of blood from my back. In the moonlight it looked like black pools. My back was on fire, pushing against the fabric. I endured the pain. I knew it would make me stronger, more resilient, just as Volt had said. I couldn’t be weak, not if I wanted to get my revenge. I had to fight. Every step was one more step toward killing Sophia.

It was pitch black outside. The moon helped guide my way, but not by much. I kept my path straight, much like the road, and hoped I’d find help somewhere, somehow.

Two headlights beamed off on the horizon from behind me. When I turned to see, they were so bright I had to cover my eyes with my hands. The light burst out like the sun, but was reduced to two white balls of light floating in the darkness. They were coming hard and fast. The roar of the engine filled the air. I limped out of the way and tried to scream for help, but my tongue and throat were too dry. It came out scratchy. Clearing my throat, I tried again and successfully could get out a good, clean scream.

“Help! Help me!” I cried. I waved my hands violently in the air.

The truck blazed past me like lightening, but I continued to scream. It was my final “Please!” that got its attention. It was desperate and helpless. The truck slammed on its breaks, squealing against the road, and swerved at a 90 degree angle. The smell of burnt rubber came afterward. A man burst out of the driver’s side door and ran up to me.

“Are you okay?” he asked. The first thing I noticed about him was his breath: it stank. He had a full grey beard and wore a red flannel button up shirt. I looked at him with dead, tired eyes.

“My god-you’re just a kid!” he exclaimed.

“Please,” I whimpered. “I’m bleeding pretty bad.”

He took my arm. “Come on. I’ll take you into town and get you fixed up.”

“Thank you.”

I got in the passenger side of his truck, but tried not to lean against the seat for fear of pain and permanently staining the fabric. Funny that I cared about courtesy in such a state.

He fired up the engine and slammed on the gas. We were going faster than I felt comfortable with, but I could tell I was losing too much blood. Looking at my hands, I was pale as a ghost. I could barely stay conscious.

“It’s not too far,” he said. “Here. Drink some water and have something to eat.” He handed me a metal canteen, and some packaged jerky.

I devoured it in seconds, gnawing and biting the jerky, and chugging the water. “I’m so sleepy,” I said afterward.

“You need to stay awake. Don’t go to sleep,” he said. He spoke with a calm, deep voice.

I glanced over at him. I couldn’t see much, but I thought I saw a metal hand clasping the steering wheel. I tightly shut my eyes and shook my head.

“How’d you get that wound?” he asked.

“Bear,” I breathed.

“How’d you end up all the way out here?”

“Long story. What’s your name?” I asked, looking over at his face.

He tightened his jaw, reluctant to tell me, which made me a little afraid that I shouldn’t trust him.

“The name’s Olaf,” he said finally. “What’s yours?”

“Wrenna,” I said.

“That’s a beautiful name. Stay with me, Wrenna, okay? Just hang in there.”

We came barreling down into the town. It was tiny with only a few old brick and mortar stores. We drove up to a white building, and he slammed on his breaks again, squealing the tires one more time.

“Wait. You look familiar,” I said to him.

He grimaced. “Stay with me now.” He jumped out of the car, ran around, opened my door, and pulled me over his shoulder. Blood was all the seat of the truck. I wanted to scream but was too exhausted. I was so close to sleeping. I just wanted to shut my eyes and sleep. Perfect sleep. Bouncing over his shoulder helped keep me awake though. We came into a small building and Olaf screamed in a gravelly voice, “Help! Someone help!”

“I know that voice,” I said. I looked up and saw Olaf’s face in the light. It was different, much older, but I figured it out at that time.

“You’re him,” I said. “You’re him.”

He shushed me and a doctor came in.

“What’s her name?” the doctor asked. He was a handsome man with a dimple in his left cheek, young, with black glasses much like my father.

“Wrenna,” said Olaf.

“You’re Olaf Albrecht,” I said. In my mind I was surprised when the revelation came to me, but in reality I was loopy and disoriented.

I half expected him to smile and nod and agree with my conclusion, but instead he looked at me with the saddest set of eyes I had ever seen on a man.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 14 – Wave One

 

General Albrecht. Year 2108.

 

The war was all but won. We closed in on Washington D.C., surrounding the city with hundreds of Xenopanzers. The rest of the country had fallen, waving our flag high in the air for all to see. There was only one place left. The last piece of filth to be washed away. The Capitol building. The old cesspool of scum and corruption was in my sights, just waiting to be annihilated. In one last desperate attempt, they transformed it into a base and refused to surrender. Like terrorists, they held hostages and threatened to launch more nuclear weapons. Sophia had to decide how to engage them, especially President Bradford who, in my humble opinion, was a Grade A coward. He feared the worst would come from Sophia’s victory. There was no negotiating with that man. I figured we’d have to kill him before the day was done, but Sophia didn’t like my estimation.

I stood on top the old Smithsonian building with Sophia in her Cryis body standing next to me. With my left eye closed, I stretched out my arm, pointed my new cybernetic index finger at the Capitol building and pretended to fire at it. Bang. A smirk stretched across my face, satisfied by my fantasy. The Americans had taken half my body. My right arm, my legs, and parts of my kidneys, liver and stomach, but Sophia fixed me. She made me a force to be reckoned with. Half man, half machine, but all heart. That’s what I liked to say to make me feel less like a man. To be honest, I never felt the same afterwards. She had done something to me, something I didn’t like, but I tried not to show it. I wanted the war to be over. I wanted the country to finally heal. Some of her pods she built were already thriving, but the war crippled the rest. It was time for Sophia to take control, to bring healing to the rest of the nation.

“It’ll take more than your index finger to topple the Capitol, Olaf,” Sophia said.

“True, but you could with yours. Why don’t you?”

“They have hostages.”

“A small price to pay for a long, arduous war. What’s one more death?”

“Try hundreds. Maybe thousands. I won’t shed innocent blood.”

“Have you sent in the nanos for intel?”

She nodded and walked over to the ledge, staring out at the Capitol. “They’re well fortified. We could barge in, but again, they’d slaughter so many. They’re also carrying the G-58.”

The G-58, also known as Dragon’s Breath, was a new weapon the Americans had to fight off the Eos and Xenopanzers. It was more powerful than a typical machine gun. If they had the weapon sooner, the war would have been much harder for us to win.

“I hate to say it, Sophia, but the only option is storming the Capitol building and hoping the casualties are light,” I said.

“I know. I’ve analyzed all the options multiple times. Everything is a failure except one, but I need to be able to trust you,” she said, turning back to look at me.

“That hurts a little,” I said. “I’ve been through hell with you. You can trust me.”

“I know, my love,” she said, taking a few steps toward me.

My heart rumbled in my chest. I wished she were human. I wished I could feel her lips to mine and take her in my arms. “What do you need?” I asked.

“Take hostages. Don’t kill. Can you do that?”

I took a deep breath and considered it a moment. “Everyone? It’s not possible.”

“Everyone, Olaf,” she said sternly. “I have a special mission I need you to complete.” She opened up a holographic screen in the air in the form of a map. “At this location, I need you to find a secret passage way that leads underground. My sensors indicate it’s not being protected right now. It’ll lead you to where the hostages are being kept.”

I boldly interrupted, shaking my head and holding out my hand. “I’m not going on some foolish rescue mission! I’m going to help you fight this battle!”

“I’m not asking, love.”

I scowled, jutting out my chin. “This is the last battle, Sophia. The final act. You can’t take me out like this.”

“I can’t risk losing you like I almost lost you before. I could barely put you back together again, Olaf. I need those hostages freed. It’s an order.”

I half-heartedly saluted. “Yes, sir!”

She frowned at my callousness. “I’ll download the images in your databanks,” she said.

“Can I take two Eos?” I asked.

“Absolutely.”

I walked over to the ledge and looked down. I turned my head and looked over my shoulder. “See you when it’s over,” I said and gave her a wink. Before I could hear her reply, I leapt off the ledge, fell through the air, and landed perfectly on the cement below, leaving a small crater beneath my titanium alloy feet. The one thing I didn’t miss were my old legs. With these new babies, I was able to crush mountains.

 

The entrance was under a large patch of grass. I ordered the two Eos to carve it up in a square and lift up the sod. They did as I commanded and lifted the sod with ease. I leaned down and brushed the dirt and grime away and found a steel hatch underneath. A nine digit keypad was in the middle. “Great,” I muttered to myself and brushed my hair back. Looking up at one of the Eos, I commanded him to break the code. He stepped forward. I half expected him to lean down and rapid fire enter in codes that might work or use some kind of advanced mathematics to uncover the secret. Instead, he rammed his fist straight through the steel like it was butter and with one swift motion ripped the door right off the hinges. He tossed it off to the side and it made a loud thud.

“Well, that’s one way to do it,” I said, placing my fingers gently against my eyes. I rubbed my temples for a moment and then heaved my body down into the hole. My feet splashed into shallow water. I couldn’t feel it, but I could hear it. It was pitch black in the tunnel and I dared not turn on a light. I switched on my night vision and waved the two Eos down. They came down with a splash and equipped their heavy machine guns.

I gently pulled my sidearm from the holster strapped to my leg, cocked it, and held it to my side. I remembered what Sophia had said, but I wasn’t going down without a fight.

“ Alright, boys, Sophia doesn’t want any casualties. Hostages only. Got that?” I turned to meet them and they both signaled to the computer in my brain that they were 100% compliant with Sophia’s commands.

I nodded. Good, I thought. It was in that moment I felt like I was just like them. A humanoid Eos. Another ant in the queen’s army. In the military you always take orders from your superior officer, but this felt different. I still had the choice to disobey. It was there, dangling, even if I knew I shouldn’t take it. I knew I could if I wanted to, but now, could I honestly say I would take it? Could I say I had a choice? I didn’t know the answer to that and I didn’t want to know.

We moved swiftly down the tunnel, making sure our footsteps were light. The echo in the tunnel was a natural security system for them. I hoped our initial entrance wasn’t already a game over. In hindsight that was a foolish, potentially costly move I feared I might regret later on.

The door at the end was like a large bank vault door with a wheel in the middle. I placed my hand on it and whistled softly. Turning to one of the Eos, I commanded him to switch on his x-ray vision and see what was on the other side. Beams of blue light came out of his chest, pulling up a 3D display; he showed me everything inside. No guards, no hostages, just a storage locker for old wooden crates and filing cabinets.

“To get inside, General, we’ll need to melt the steel bolts with a laser,” said the Eos.

I puckered my lips and took a second to think. I didn’t like that it was empty. It was suspicious at best and an ambush at worst. It would be easier to send in a nano and scan the area, but I didn’t have a nano available. I flared my nostrils and released a single breath before waving my hand and saying, “Do it.”

The two Eos started cutting the bolts. The laser was a swirl of red, blue, and yellow blasting out of the single eye in their heads. I could feel the heat emanating. It melted the steel with ease, causing it to ooze and fall on the ground in piles of sludge. The process only took a few minutes. They finished cutting each bolt and turned to me simultaneously.

“Open’r up, gentlemen,” I said, raising my firearm out in front of me.

The Eos did as I commanded, clasping hold of the vault door and pulling it outward. They pushed it against the wall and I was the first inside. Checking my left quickly, I swooshed around to my right and shifted my eyes to confirm the room was clear.

“Clear,” I said.

With only one door in the room, we had only one way to go. The Eos scanned the next room with his x-ray vision.

“It leads to another hallway. I can hear voices this time, General. Several voices. Some are crying. I think the hostages are down there.”

“Perfect,” I said with a grin. “Here’s the plan. I’ll throw in two smoke bombs. We’ll use our night vision to take out any hostiles and secure the hostages.”

“Affirmative,” they said together.

Placing my hand on the doorknob, I turned it ever so slightly and pulled the door open. The hallway was dark with a few flickering lights. I was thankful for our night vision. Silently stepping down the hallway, we reached our destination within minutes. I knelt down before we got too far into the light. The room was brightly lit, so night vision was out of the picture unless we switched off the lights. Sifting through my pack, I pulled out a small EMP disc. Setting it on the ground, I timed it for ten seconds. The clock counted down while I pulled out a smoke bomb. With a flick of my hand, I rocketed the smoke bomb across the room. A burst of gray smoke engulfed the room with a sharp hiss. Within seconds the EMP shut down the lights, and we were in business. The men guarding the hostages shouted, “Who’s there?”

I swooped in, finding my first target, and fired a dart in his leg. He yelped and fell to the ground. The next target was wildly swinging his gun left and right. His hands trembling and his face in sheer terror, he kept whispering to himself, “Where are you?”

“Behind you,” I said, and before he could act, I pulled the trigger and shot a dart in his neck. He fell over like a pile of laundry on the floor.

As the smoke receded, the Eos had cleared the rest of the room with ease, much faster than I had. All huddled together, the massive group of hostages were screaming and crying as it all went down and they continued to do so when we stood before them. I raised my hand to have a moment of silence.

“You’re safe now,” I said. “You’re safe now.”

“Who are you?” an elderly man asked.

“We’re soldiers of the mechacracy. The revolution. We need to get you out of here,” I said.

The Eos guided everyone through the dark corridor. The room was filled with several entryways and corridors. They never suspected Sophia would know about this secret route. I laughed to myself, holding my pistol high, and muttered, “Good girl.”

“Sophia,” I said on my com.

“The hostages are secure,” she said before I could get a word in. Of course she would know. She was watching through the Eos. “You have five minutes to get out of there, Olaf. I’m sending in the Screechers and Xenopanzers.”

“Hell, I don’t get a good job or anything?” I replied with a smirk.

“You have four minutes,” she said.

“I see.”

I started my way back through the corridor when she said, “And, Olaf…”

“Yeah?”

“Good job.”

“Shucks.”

I picked up my pace, pushing my new legs to their limit. It felt shorter coming back through than it was going in. I got to the hatch above my head, seeing the open blue sky and the Screechers cutting it open with their engines. With one leap I came to the surface, welcomed not by parades or victory signs, but hell fire and blood.

The American soldiers swarmed in all directions, releasing a war cry like I had never heard before, firing their Dragon’s Breath across the landscape. I fired back, but only to draw their fire and sped over to a concrete water fountain for cover. Even though they were my enemy, it warmed my heart to see their valor in the heat of the moment; but it was futile. Their helicopters were falling from the sky, swirling erratically, until finally crashing into the grass and the dirt. The Xenopanzers ripped their tanks to shreds. The Eos and the Cryis outnumbered them ten to one. The Dragon’s Breath was effective at holding Sophia’s machines at bay, but her resolve was clear. She wanted victory. It was time to finish the war.

I holstered my sidearm and pulled out my smart rifle that was strapped to my back. Taking a single, solitary breath, I readied myself for combat and unleashed upon the enemy. Five. Ten. Twenty. Thirty. Fifty. The body count continued to rise in my mind as I decimated them all. Their bullets whizzed by, but I was too quick and too agile, and their shots too poor. Suddenly, the Screechers zoomed overhead, scattering the ground in bullets before firing several rockets at the Capitol building.

A bright light flashed and the heat from the blast warmed my flesh. I covered my eyes with my forearm, trying not to look at it directly. When the fires dimmed, I saw the Capitol in flames. Everyone looked on in despair, as the end and rebirth of a nation had become reality.

It ended abruptly afterward. The enemy laid down their arms. The war was over. The fighting done. Reconstruction was the new project and my involvement now obsolete. I remember the last time I saw Sophia, she was giving a rousing speech to the new nation about peace and prosperity. About the final realization of utopia among the human race. She was going to give it to us. It had already begun in some parts of the country, but she would bring it to fruition for all. I had no use for utopia. I built my career off of the antithesis: war.

 

 

Wrenna.

 

I woke up crying, balling, feeling a sense of unbelievable pain and agony from his thoughts, his memories, his experiences. I understood why Lizzy would feel such hatred toward Sophia now. I understood completely, but as I contemplated the outcome, the fact that she did bring utopia, peace, and prosperity to everyone, I decided it was justified. Sophia was right.

She was sitting next to me with her hands on her lap and I sat up and merely stared at her for awhile.

“Well?” she asked.

“I don’t blame you,” I said. “I appreciate our utopia more now. I appreciate it much more.”

Sophia nodded and smiled. “I knew you would, Wrenna. You’re a mature girl. Wise.”

I blushed at the compliment. “Thanks.”

“I have good news for you. The next step for utopia has begun. I have initiated a new protocol. It’s called The Exodus Act. Wave One has begun.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’ve made a place for all of you. A wonderful place where peace can become more realized.”

“You have?” I asked earnestly. “But isn’t peace already here, now?”

“No, unfortunately. I’ve reduced crime by 95%, but it continues to become a problem. I calculated it would be completely reduced, but I was in error. After making recalculations, I have come up with a better solution.”

“When am I going?” I asked.

“Ah,” she replied, expecting me to ask that question, “I can’t tell you that unfortunately. It will come unexpectedly. You must be ready.”

“Can we all go? Or is it just for some?”

“Everyone. I promise.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 15 – A World Apart

 

“What were you thinking bringing her here, Olaf?” said a man with a high-pitched, nasally voice. I imagined a scrawny, pencil thin man. I was surprised to feel my body in an upright sitting position. My arms and legs were tied to a chair. My eyes were still closed, and I was gradually waking up, but I didn’t want to interrupt the conversation, so I remained still and listened.

“She was hurt. She needed help,” Olaf said.

“She’s one of them. They’re going to come for her,” Pencil Man replied. “We have a special thing going here. We don’t need that abomination getting involved.”

“They won’t trace her here.”

“Don’t underestimate that abomination. She knows everything.”

“I’m fully aware. I know her better than you do.”

“Excuse me? Her?”

Yeah,” Olaf said in a brusque and impatient manner. “Her.”

A silence hung in the air. They didn’t speak for a while. Light footsteps approached me and then Olaf said, “The Doc said she needs to rest. Why did you bring her here? She should be in bed, not tied up to this chair.”

“She’s not one of us. She’s an outsider and an escapee of the L’gos. That makes her an enemy combatant. We need to question her when she wakes up. You were a soldier once, right? The infamous Phoenix War hero! I’m sure you have interrogation techniques.”

“She’s just a girl, Bryan. Who knows what Sophia is doing to them at the L’gos?”

Note to self, Pencil Man is Bryan.

“For all we know, she is the one that caused all the commotion.”

“I doubt it.”

“We’ll find out soon enough,” Bryan said. The way he said it sent a chill down my spine. It had an abrasive, apathetic quality to it as if I was more a monster to be studied than a human to be respected. I didn’t want to wake up. I wanted to keep pretending. Maybe they will go away? I thought. I could figure out a way to get out of my situation. I knew I needed to talk to Olaf. He seemed sympathetic. I needed to get him on my side. Of course, if Volt knew I was there, he would kill all of them and rescue me, but Volt was probably back at the cabin wondering where I had gone. He must be able to track me, scan my blood, and follow the trail. He’ll find me, I thought. I just need to be patient and survive.

But, then, a terrible thought appeared: What if Volt doesn’t think I’m worth the risk?

“Wake up!” Bryan yelled, smacking me on the back of the head.

It hurt, but I tried to pretend like I was asleep.

“I said-” Bryan barked, smacking my right cheek with his scrawny hand. “Wake up!”

The slap was enough to jolt my eyes open and cause them to water a little. I wanted to wipe them, but of course, my hands were occupied. I looked up at him. My hair draped over the left side of my face. He was more ugly than I originally imagined, and much fatter. He was short, pudgy, and had zits all over his face. He must have been in his late twenties with a balding widows peak. I grimaced a little when he smiled; his teeth were the stuff of nightmares, jagged, grimy, and filled with holes. Clearly, he didn’t have Sophia as his dentist.

“Good,” he said in his nasally voice. “I have some questions to ask you, girl. You better answer honestly, or things are going to get ugly.”

“Where am I? What is going on?” I asked. I looked over at Olaf. He stood with his arms crossed and the same sad face I saw on him last time. I was surprised when I saw the rest of his body. He looked more like a robot than a man. His arms, legs, and part of his face were some kind of black metal alloy. The alloy had seen better days, covered in scuffs, dents, and scratches. He must be over a hundred years old by now.

“Shut up!” Bryan shrieked. His breath stank of rotten meat. “I ask the questions, not you! Now, what were you doing out in those woods?”

I didn’t know if I should lie to him. I didn’t know what was going on. A spotlight hung over me, but the rest of the room was dim. It smelled musty, and the walls looked wavy and metallic like we were in a shed.

“I was camping at my families cabin,” I said. “I was attacked by a bear.”

“Oh, you were camping,” he said with a sardonic smile. “That must explain everything then.” He turned and walk into the dark, but came back almost immediately. “How do you explain this, then?”

He held up my jumpsuit with the fox imprint. I gazed at it in shock and glanced down at my body. I was wearing jeans and a ratty t-shirt. They weren’t my clothes.

“I…I…I don’t know what that is,” I said.

Don’t lie to me,” he growled between his jagged teeth. He threw the jumpsuit on the ground with so much force it made a smack sound. “You were wearing that when Olaf, here, found you. The only way you would have a suit like that is if you were at the L’gos. You’re part of that abomination’s family, aren’t you? Where did you come from?

I rolled my eyes. “I am not one of Sophia’s! I told you I was camping at my cabin-“

“Shut up!”

“Look, a bear attacked me. Why am I being treated like a criminal?”

“Shut up!

I turned to Olaf. “Please, why are you doing this? You were so nice in the truck.”

He frowned, but kept silent.

“Don’t talk to him!” Bryan yelled. “You talk to me. Got it? Now, what cabin are you talking about?”

“I’m not saying anything else.”

“You better talk or things are only going to get worse.”

“My name is Wrenna Sunden. I was born and raised in Avalon. We were taken and brought to a place called the L’gos. I escaped. That’s it. Listen to me, Sophia is doing terribly things there.”

“We know,” Olaf said.

I was shaken by his callous response. “Then why am I being treated like the enemy?”

“It’s complicated, Wrenna,” Olaf said, taking a step forward.

“Oh,” I replied, suddenly realizing they could be were working for Sophia. I hung my head. “You’re working for Sophia, aren’t you? I mean you are the great General Albrecht.”

He shook his head. “No.”

“So, what happened to you? Sophia never showed me.”

“When we won the war, I wanted nothing to do with Sophia. I was granted a private reservation, a place even she doesn’t know about. It was a deal we struck for my years of service. I brought a few families with me that didn’t want to be a part of Sophia’s mechacracy. Things have grown since then, but we don’t cause trouble and she’s never come looking for us. So far, it’s worked out. Unfortunately, kiddo, that’s where you come in. You might upset the balance.”

“Then why did you save me?” I asked. “You could have ignored me. Let me die out on the road. Why endanger your entire way of life?”

“See? The kid gets it,” Brayn said. His grin made me sick to my stomach.

Olaf didn’t even stop to think. He said in a plain and simple voice, “Because you needed help.” He shot Bryan a disapproving glance.

“Then,” I started, looking at both of them, “Help me now. Let me go. If I’m gone then Sophia won’t come here.”

“Kid’s got a point,” Olaf said.

“Get outta here, Olaf!” Bryan yelled. “I don’t want you here. Go get Grant and Bill.”

“Alright, you’re the boss,” Olaf said. Before he turned to leave, he glanced back at me and frowned. Releasing a sigh, he left, his body swallowed by the darkness. I could tell he was no longer the man he used to be, broken instead of bold, a mere shadow of the past.

“You look here, little lady,” Bryan began, pointing at me. His fingernail was exceptionally long.

I turned to meet his glare and tried to remain strong.

“I want to know everything. What is Sophia planning? What new soldiers does she have? Why is the L’gos for? Everything. Got it? And don’t say you don’t know because I know you’d be lying.”

I looked away and lightly chuckled.

Two men, who I assumed were Grant and Bill, came in and stood by Bryan.

“What she laughing at, Bry?” one of them asked.

I defiantly stared at Bryan, hoping to intimidate him, and then the other two, with a wiry smile. “I’m laughing because you’re all going to die. You just don’t know it yet,” I said.

For that Bryan smacked me across the face. “You tell me, now!” he barked, but his voice betrayed him, shaky and trembling.

“No,” I said darkly.

“Fine, you want to play that way. Let’s play.” He walked away into the darkness. “Come on, guys. Let’s see how she likes the dark.”

The light turned off, and it was pitch black. They all laughed before a loud bang came from a door in the dark.

The dark? Is that really all he has? I’ve been through Sophia’s fire. The dark wasn’t going to do anything to me. But, despite all my puffed up bravery, it didn’t take long for my courage to fade into nothing. The weakness inside me took hold, and I whimpered. My face contorted and tightened as I wept bitter tears. Nothing was going right. Not a single thing. I just wanted everything to be okay. I wanted Volt to come barging in to save me. Where are you? Please, find me. I tried to find my courage again, but it slipped through my fingers like sand.

Even though my back still hurt and wrists and ankles burned from the rope, I fell asleep, dreamed something awful, and woke up lying down in hay. I must be in some kind of silo or barn. It was awkward being attached to a chair and lying down on the ground. My arms and legs were stiff. I tried to think positive thoughts, like one day I’ll be safe and not feeling like I’ve been beaten a hundred times with a baseball bat.

I had to find something to cut the rope. Anything, but it was still pitch black and impossible to see anything. The dark was maddening. I couldn’t take not seeing anything for much longer. I finally gave in and called for help.

“Help me! Help me! Help me!” I continued to scream, each one louder than the last. I thought maybe someone out there would take pity on me. I hoped Olaf would do something. Why wouldn’t he do something? I didn’t get why a great man like Olaf would follow a weasel like Bryan.

 

Bryan returned with his goons after I don’t know how long and flipped the light back on. I squinted and blinked my eyes before looking up at them. “Please, just let me go,” I whined.

“Hear that, boys?” Bryan said, crouching down and staring at me with a menacing look. “If I remember correctly, she was calling us dead men. Now, she’s putting on a ‘little miss helpless’ act. Do you buy it, Bill?”

“No, sir, I do not,” Bill said.

“Lift her upright,” Bryan commanded them.

They went behind me and lifted me up. A wave of dizziness and disorientation overcame me. I tried to get centered and took a deep breath, exhaling gently out of my mouth.

Bryan dragged a chair across the floor. It scratched and ground against the concrete. The hay rustled with the movement. “You ready to tell us what we need to know?” Bryan asked.

“Sophia’s killing people off systematically,” I said.

“We know that,” Bryan interrupted. “We figured that since the first wave. What weapons does she have?”

“The Song,” I muttered.

“What did she say?” Bryan asked, looking up at the others.

“Sounds like she said a song.”

“Is that some kind of weapon?” Bryan asked me, tilting his head.

“No, I don’t know much about them. She doesn’t have any new weapons. She is the weapon. If you don’t realize that, then you’re more stupid than I thought.”

One of the men smacked me across the cheek. “You best bite that tongue, young lady. It does you a lot’a ill.”

Bryan raised his hand to stop him, continuing to stare at me. “Is she planning more invasions?”

I shook my head. “I don’t know, but when I escaped I saw her building a lot more soldiers.”

Hearing that did not please him. His face grew dark and his brow furrowed. “Did you hear anything about invading reservations?”

“No.”

He looked at me for a long time, trying to see if I was lying, but then he released a sigh and wiped his face with both his hands.

For some stupid reason I kept talking. “You must realize she will invade eventually, right? You’ll be taken just like the rest of us.”

He didn’t say anything, but by the look on his face, he agreed. “I need to know when and you aren’t helping me!” he yelled and stood up.

“If I knew I would tell you. I just want out of here.”

“I’m afraid that’s not possible.”

What!” I cried. I shook the chair, furious.

“You’re staying here indefinitely,” Bryan said.

“Can I have her work in my house, Bryan?” Bill asked. “My wife would be mighty pleased having a servant around the house.”

Bryan stared at me and then looked back at Bill. He wickedly smiled. “Yeah, once I’m done with questioning her, you can use her as you see fit.”

“I’ve told you everything,” I said. “You can’t do this to me!”

“Ohh,” Bryan cooed, “I bet I could get a little more out of you.”

They turned to leave, and he flipped the light back off.

“No, please, I can’t take the dark anymore!” I groaned, spit flying out of my mouth, but it was no use.

 

I couldn’t tell if I was sleeping or dreaming or awake. The room was so dark. Sometimes I thought I saw white wraiths dance and giggle past me in one quick whoosh and disappear. I was dehydrated and hungry. Always hungry. I wondered if I would be better off back at the L’gos with Sophia. You mean thrown into the fires? I asked myself. Yeah. The fires. See the silver lining. You’re breathing. Volt will come. There is always hope.

“Volt will come,” I said out loud, laughing at the thought with my hair draped over my head like a ratty, filthy curtain. I sniffled and a few tears came out of my eyes again. I didn’t want to cry, but sometimes it came anyway. I never understood how boys contain their emotions so easily. The more I remained in the darkened room, the more I doubted Volt would come. It made me sad and lonely.

Suddenly there was a scratch and a hiss. A single flame burned in the dark, flickering red and yellow on a man’s face. Olaf’s face. He put the match to his cigar; the embers at the end glowed hot. He put out the match with one easy flick of his wrist. Inhaling one long drag, he held it and then exhaled a stream of smoke out of his nose and mouth like a bearded dragon.

“Is this a dream?” I asked.

“No, it is not,” he said.

“What do you want?”

“I want to help you.”

“Then why aren’t you helping me? These guys want to make me their slave.”

“They aren’t the easiest bunch to deal with, I’ll give you that, but they are in charge.”

“Who are they? And, why aren’t you in charge, Olaf? You’re the hero. Not them.”

“I was the shepherd for a time. But, when you stay a shepherd too long, you become the wolf.”

“Sounds like Sophia,” I said.

Olaf grinned. “Bryan’s the leader now. Elected by the people. The old way of doing things. The reservation is a place for people who opted out of Royer’s grand experiment. People who didn’t want anything to do with the pods. Sophia thought walling everyone off in those things would help her create peace and harmony. People like Bryan and myself didn’t agree. Those on the reservation are either exiles or lucky enough to get a favor from her. Bryan and his family have been through a lot and they’ve fought pretty hard to keep everyone safe. They have strong feelings about Sophia as you could tell.”

“I feel so stupid,” I said. “She never said anything about being able to leave! I thought it was all just a radiated wasteland. Too unsafe to live.”

“I know,” Olaf said. “She doesn’t want you to leave, so she perpetuated that myth. Yes, once, there were places too exposed to radiation, but not the entire country. Look, I can get you out of this, but I just need you to help me first.”

“Then why are you wasting time talking to me? Get me out.

“Like I said,” he started, but took another drag from his cigar and then held it to his side. “I want to help you. I honestly do. But, I can’t just wave a wand and make it happen.”

“I told them all I-.”

“Who else was with you?” Olaf asked abruptly.

“What?”

“Tell you what. You tell me who was helping you and I’ll turn on the lights in this shed.”

It sounded enticing. I wanted light again. I was hungrier for light than I was for food. I had to think about it though. If I told them about Volt, would they believe me? Would that ruin his element of surprise when he came to save me? Yeah, like he’s really coming to save me. I decided with the truth.

I laughed before I spoke, realizing how ridiculous it was going to sound. “I was rescued by a Cryis.”

His eyes flashed, intrigued, but then he smiled and put the cigar to his mouth again. “Don’t lie to me now.”

I stared directly into his bionic face with sharp, unshaken eyes. “I’m not lying. He got me out and he’s been keeping me safe up until he had to leave,” I said.

Olaf stood up and walked over to the light switch. The light appeared, and I shut my eyes. It burned, but it would feel so sweet to see again. He sat back down in his chair and took another drag. He was cordial enough to not blow the smoke in my face.

“Sophia’s playing games with you,” Olaf said. “On second thought, I think if I were you, I’d prefer to stay here.”

“No,” I said, shaking my head. “Sophia was going to kill me. He came and saved me. He said he figured out a way to become, I don’t know, like independent.”

Olaf chuckled in a condescending manner, like silly little girl and her delusions. “You really believe that?” he asked.

“Yes. I do. I need to find him.”

“You have no idea what Sophia is or what she can do,” Olaf said sharply, staring at me with his one grey eye.

“You trusted her before. What happened?”

“We were in love once. Did she show you that?” he asked.

“No. It’s not uncommon for people to fall in love with Sophia.”

“Yes. Well, at the time, I thought it was very uncommon. Then I learned the truth. We didn’t know as much about her back then as you probably do now.”

“So, wait, you gave up everything because of a broken heart? Because you thought she was cheating on you?” I asked, surprised, furrowing my brow.

“Something like that, but not exactly. She shows you what she wants to show you. She can be human and come down to our level, but she is much more than that. The depth of her intelligence is far beyond you or me. The more she showed me that, the more terrified I became, not because she’s vicious or cruel, but because I was insignificant. I couldn’t keep up with her. Once that thought sunk in, I couldn’t deal. I had to get away from as much technology as possible. So, I made one final request of her: putting me in this reservation. She agreed to it and kept her word. So I thank her for that.”

“I know the feeling. But, you’re wrong, she is very cruel.”

He looked surprised by that. “You think that because of the L’gos?”

I nodded.

“It doesn’t make sense,” he whispered to himself. “Anyway, that doesn’t concern me.”

“It will concern you when she comes for you. I told your friends that, too.”

“Yes, they think that’s possible. I’m not so sure. Sophia has always been true to her word. She’ll leave us alone.”

I was growing tired of our conversation. I didn’t care about any of it. I just needed out. I turned my head to the side and tightened my jaw. He could tell I was getting sick of him because he laughed to himself and slapped his knees.

“Okay, I’ll leave you to your confinement, but I have two more questions. Answer one and I’ll give you some water from my canteen. Answer two and I’ll give you my pocketknife.”

The sound of pocketknife brought me to attention, and I jerked my head over to him, alert. I smiled a little, hopeful that I could answer both questions and get both rewards. I wanted them so badly.

Seeing my exhilaration, he let out a guffaw. “Don’t get too excited. You haven’t heard the questions.”

I beamed regardless. “I’m ready.”

“First question, do you love Sophia?”

I was going to blurt out a hard, “No.” But, my mind got caught on all the memories of Sophia. I wanted to say I hated her for killing my father and taking me away from my home and ruining everything. I even half blamed her for splitting Cody and I apart, but I had such a hard time admitting that I didn’t love her. It wouldn’t be the truth. I wanted to kill her, but I still loved her, and those two things kept gnawing at me. I couldn’t understand.

“Sophia killed my father,” was all I could say.

“So, no, then?”

“I can’t explain how I feel about Sophia, Olaf. I want to kill her, but I don’t want her to go away. I hate her for what she has done, but I love her for all that she has, all that she is. What am I supposed to do with that?”

He chuckled and put the canteen to my lips. I drank too fast, choking on some of it, but continued because I was so thirsty. He set the canteen down on my lap.

“Second question,” he said, but hesitated, taking one more drag from his dissolving cigar. “Does Sophia still love me?”

I furrowed my brow and tilted my head a little, trying to wrap my head around what he meant. I remembered the lessons, and I recalled their relationship. Sophia never once showed any affection or mentioned anything of having a relationship with Olaf, but then it occurred to me. He was still in love with her.

“You still love her,” I blurted out, but wished I could take it back when I saw his face, stern and embarrassed.

“You got one more chance to answer the question,” he growled.

I bit the side of my lip. I wanted that pocketknife. Even though I thought it would make him angry, I decided to tell the truth. “She doesn’t love you, Olaf. She never once told me she loved you during the lessons. Maybe she does love you and I just don’t know? If I know Sophia, and I think I know her well enough, she probably does love you in some capacity. She loves you enough to keep you safe on this reservation. She loves you enough to give you your wishes. She might have even cried when you left her.”

“Stop,” he said, standing up, knocking his chair over. “Don’t say another word, you hear me?”

He turned to leave and put his hand on the doorknob.

“Wait,” I breathed. I stared at him earnestly, helpless and desperate for what he had promised.

He looked down. “Right. I’m a man of my word. He dug inside his left pant pocket and pulled out a wooden pocketknife. Holding it up in front of him, he smirked, but it was sullen. Out of nowhere, he tossed it at me and it landed at my feet. “Take care, kid. I hope I never see you again.” And with that he left the building.

Freedom was lying down at my feet, and I couldn’t do anything about it. Thanks for making this more challenging, Olaf. The only way I could reach the knife was to twist the chair around and fall on my back, hoping my hands would be close enough to reach. Inch by inch, I swiveled the chair one hundred and eighty degrees. My back was to the knife. I looked over my shoulder to see where it was so I could get as close as possible. I was afraid when I fell back I would bash my head against the floor, but there was no other option. In one swift motion, I kicked my feet against the floor and rocked backward, falling smoothly to the ground. I forced my head forward and tried not to have it hit the ground. The force of impact, however, still knocked my head back. It hit the ground a little, but not too bad. The canteen went flying up against my chin and rolled over onto the hay. I also smashed my hands, which made my eyes water, but I bit my tongue; I didn’t want to scream. I looked around. The knife was close, but not close enough. It was inches to the left of my hands. I wiggled in the chair to get over to it. It took some strength, and patience, but eventually, to my delight, I could get it in my hands.

I flipped my body to the side so that my hands were hanging in the air and carefully flipped open the knife. The last thing I wanted to do was to cut my wrists and bleed out. I found the rope and placed the blade against its course neck. At first, I sawed back and forth with slow, careful motions, but the more comfortable I became, the faster I went. I didn’t know how much time I had, but I assumed I had none. To my benefit, the knife was sharp and cut the rope quickly. When I had my hands free, I cut the rope around my legs with ease.

I’m free. Now what do I do? I foolishly hadn’t thought that far ahead. I didn’t really think I would be able to escape. There was only one exit, and I didn’t know what was beyond it, but I had no choice but to leave it. I went up to it and was about to touch the doorknob when I heard voices. My heart skipped a beat.

“Yeah, Olaf softened her up for us,” said Bryan’s high-pitched voice behind the door. “We’re going to keep pushing for more.”

I swiftly shuffled to the left, and pressed my back against the wall in wait. I had to take him by surprise. My heart was racing so fast, I was almost afraid he’d hear it. He opened the door and walked right past me, not expecting me to be free, but after taking five paces forward, stopped when he saw the chair empty. I moved up behind him and wrapped my arm around with the knife to his throat.

“Don’t move,” I said.

He raised his arms.

“Give me your blaster,” I told him.

“We only have guns here,” he replied.

“Hand it over.”

He reached.

Slowly,” I hissed, pressing the knife a little closer against his throat.

“Easy,” he said. He, again, reached for the gun in his holster, unclipped it, and held it out to his side.

I took it, stepped back, and pointed the gun at his head. “You’re coming with me,” I said.

I marched him out of the building. His men were standing, waiting. They looked curiously at him.

“What’s wrong, boss?” Bill asked.

But then he saw me with the gun aimed point blank at Bryan’s skull and he raised his rifle and yelled, “Put down the gun!”

“I’ll kill him,” I said. “I want out of here.”

“You gots nowheres to run, princess,” Bill said, his good eye aiming dead at me.

“Back off and drop your guns to the ground or your boss dies!” I yelled.

They did nothing, so I pushed the gun against Bryan’s head and he yelped. “Do what she says!”

They did as he commanded.

“Everyone get in the barn,” I said. “Tell them!”

“Get in the barn, guys,” Bryan said.

“Boss,” Bill said, reluctant to obey.

“Just do it, Bill,” he snapped.

They all walked in the barn and shut the door.

“Okay, what now?” Bryan asked.

I looked around. We weren’t in the town. We were out on some farm. There was a white house down a gravel road with a red truck in the driveway. “I want that truck,” I said. “Let’s go.”

We were halfway down the gravel road when he chuckled. “It was Olaf, wasn’t it? I’ll kill him.”

I didn’t reply, but he kept talking. “So, what’s the plan? You steal my truck and then go where?” he asked.

“Shut up.”

When we reached the truck, I asked him for the keys. He pulled them out of his jean pocket and held them out like he did the gun. I jerked them away. They jingled from the force.

“You really are stuck in time,” I said.

“We try to live simply. So, what now? You going to kill me? Is that it?”

But before I could respond, a Virga appeared above us as if from nowhere. It hovered, making the wom-wom-womz noise it always made. My fingers went numb. Bad news. Very bad news.

“No!” he yelled. “NO!”

I bashed him over the head with the butt of the gun. He cried out and fell to the ground, holding the gash on the back of his head. I holstered the gun firmly in the back of my pants, hopped in the truck and fired it up. I had no idea how to use an old truck. I slammed my feet on the left pedal, but nothing happened, so I tried the right one and the engine roared.

Bryan stood; his hair and clothes were flapping in the wind caused by the Virga. He walked closer to it, instead of at me, in complete awe at its power and magnificence, but he fell back on his butt at the sight of the Eos swarming out of the hatch. They came down much like they had before, slamming down on the ground, leaving craters below their feet.

I was barreling down the gravel road before they could get a hold of my truck, but I knew deep down they were going to catch me.

Two Eos ran after me. They were fast. They were so fast. They were treating me differently than when they tried to catch me the first time. Their eye was crimson red; they were out for blood. One of them grabbed the back of my truck and stopped me dead in my tracks. I slammed on the gas pedal more and more, but the wheels spun, spewing gravel from behind. Another Eos came in front and smashed its hands into the engine, stopping it completely. It made a loud grinding and thumping sound before keeling over. I panicked, desperate to get away, but feeling trapped like a rat. I opened the door, and tumbled out onto my knees. Breathing erratically, I got to my feet and ran, but it was hopeless.

An Eos got in front of me, and held out its hand.

“Wrenna,” it said. “You are under arr-“

Before it could finish its sentence, a cloud of crimson nanochips swallowed it up. I screamed and fell on my back from the force. I squinted, watching as a crimson Cryis obliterated two more Eos. When their bodies hit the ground and the coast was clear, Volt morphed into a motorcycle and drove up to me.

“Get on,” Volt said.

I didn’t hesitate. I sat astride the saddle and he roared away without warning. My hair blew back behind me as I clutched the handlebars.

We got back on the main road and sped down it like lightning.

“Where were you?” I asked, leaning down.

“I could ask you the same thing. I told you to stay in the cabin,” he said.

“A bear attacked me. I didn’t have a choice.”

“I see. And this bear led you to a human reservation?”

“Ha. Very funny.”

A couple of bullets whizzed passed my head. I gasped and looked over my shoulder. Ten motorcyclists raged after us. Out in front was Bryan, his face a menacing mix of demon and man.

“Looks like you made quite the impression,” Volt said.

“You could say that,” I replied and pulled the handgun out of my pants. I fired a couple of wild rounds behind me.

“We’ve got more company ahead,” Volt said.

I looked out in front and swore under my breath. A Virga hovered off on the horizon, and a horde of Eos blotted out the sun, raining down like locust.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 16 – Wave Two

 

It sounded like a gun went off downstairs. Loud and reverberating through the walls of the house, the abrasive clap startled me, distracting me from the homework Sophia gave me. Headstrong on becoming a doctor like my mother, I started Sophia’s physician training classes. I was fifteen, so I had a long way to go, but Sophia said I was accelerating at a faster pace than most. I was in the highest percentile. Hearing that was encouraging, but I was antsy. I wanted it now rather than at some distant unknown future. Doubt also lingered in the back of my mind. I wasn’t sure being a doctor was what I wanted as my purpose. I didn’t know it the time, but that loud bang downstairs intensified my doubts.

I closed my book and went downstairs to see what had happened. My mother stormed down the hallway and into the kitchen, screaming my father’s name over and over. “Sean!” she exclaimed. Her fists pounded on their bedroom door. “Sean! Open the door!”

I slowly crept up to her but kept my distance, I didn’t want to be the target of her uncontrollable rage. This wasn’t too common for my mom. Sure, she snapped if I didn’t do something right or if she wasn’t getting her way, but she wasn’t a fireball of uncontrollable rage.

Sophia appeared as a hologram. “Aubrey? What’s wrong?” Sophia asked with her hands at her side.

My mother fumed and pointed at Sophia. “I don’t want you here. Shut down! Go away! Turn off! Just leave.”

“Aubrey, please, talk to me about what’s bothering you. Is this about your work? Let’s talk it out,” Sophia said empathetically. Her voice dripped with kindness like a dear friend of the family. I didn’t understand why Sophia took the punishment. She was so patient with us, taking the fights, the yelling, and the abuse. I felt bad for her, especially at that moment.

But, then, my mother responded differently than I had expected. She trembled and cried like she had seen a horrible apparition and her voice shook as she spoke. “Sophia, please, I just need space. Can you leave me alone? I need to speak with Sean. Where is he?”

“Sean is in your room.”

“Are you in there with him, Sophia?” she asked, tightening her jaw.

“Yes.”

My mother rapidly banged her fist against the door again, slamming the wood three times before screaming out his name. Her hair was in disarray and her neck fat wobbled. The wild, animalistic fear in her eyes scared me to the core. I hadn’t seen a look like that on anyone’s face before.

I was about to call out for her. To tell her to stop. But right before I got two syllables out of my throat, my father opened the door. He immediately held her by the arms to control her.

“Aubrey, what is the meaning of this?” he asked.

“I want her to leave,” she said, meaning Sophia.

“S,” my father said, releasing a sigh. “Can you give us five minutes?”

“Absolutely,” Sophia said. Her hologram disappeared into thin air.

“Don’t call her that,” my mother replied.

“What’s the matter, Aubrey?”

“Why didn’t you answer when I called you?”

“I was doing something. What is going on?”

“I can’t take it anymore, Sean,” she said with a slight groan. She held two clumps of her hair with both her fists and released. “I’m not doing anything. I keep pretending like I’m a doctor, but it’s clearly fake. It’s all setup. It’s just a game. I thought it would be fine, but it’s not. I’m done. I’m not going to do it. Not one more day. Not one more fake patient.”

“That’s ridiculous. You know what you’re doing. You help people,” my father said.

“No,” she said, shaking her head. “No, it’s not real.”

“What are you saying?” he asked.

“I’m becoming a Sloth. I quit.”

My father, clearly frustrated at this point, said, “You seriously think you’re not helping people?”

“What can we do that Sophia can’t?” she asked, looking him hard in the eyes. Her lips pursed and her nose was sharp as a knife. “Can you answer that, Sean?”

“That’s not the point, Aubrey. You know that. How are you just coming to this conclusion? You chose your purpose because we all know humanity needs one. You created it yourself. You gave it meaning. Sophia allows you to live it out. That’s life.”

“No,” she said, shaking her head. “No, no, no, no, no, I refuse. I won’t play. I won’t pretend like it has any meaning. It’s pointless.”

What is she talking about? I wondered. It’s fake? I backed away slowly at this point. I prayed I wouldn’t step on a creaky floorboard. They couldn’t know I overheard their conversation. I regretted staying as long as I had. I wanted to forget it all. My father took my mother into their room and closed the door, giving me time to escape.

I shut my bedroom door and paced back and forth, placing my hand to my chin, mumbling out loud. I couldn’t believe what I heard; I refused to believe it. I kept telling myself it was my mother merely having a panic attack. There was no way Sophia would let our purposes be fake, a game, something that we do to pass the time but hold no significance. But, then, my father admitted it; we give ourselves our own meaning. Is it true?

I didn’t want to talk to Sophia that night. I needed time to think. I thought so hard I could barely sleep and suddenly it dawned on me that I didn’t want to be a doctor anymore. I wanted to travel and be an explorer. Go places outside of my own little bubble. That would be meaningful to me. To see the world. I wondered what Sophia would think. I hadn’t ever heard of anyone leaving before. No one ever wanted to leave. Why would they when there was radiation outside? It was suicide.

 

Later that day there was a knock at my door.

“Who is it?” I asked.

“It’s Daddio.”

I laughed to myself. “Come in.”

He peaked in, sticking only his head through the crack and smiled. “You okay, kiddo? You’ve been up here all day.”

“Yeah, just thinking. What’s up?”

“Whatcha thinkin’ about?” he asked, coming in completely and closing the door behind him. Besides Sophia, he was the only one in my family that asked me how I was doing. There were times when I would give in and tell him what was weighing me down, but this time I didn’t want to speak. I wouldn’t know where to begin. I shook my head and insincerely smiled.

“Okay, well, if something’s bothering you, you can go to me or Sophia, or your mother, of course.”

“Did you need something, Dad?” I asked suddenly.

“Yeah, actually,” he said, drumming three times on his left leg. “Could you go get your brother from the Holodream. He’s been there all day.”

“Why not just get Sophia to do it?”

“He won’t come back and Sophia thinks you’d be able to help.”

“Why won’t be come back?”

“He’s into some military combat simulator. Sophia can’t talk him into coming home.”

I stifled a laugh. He thinks I’ll make much of a difference? Part of me just wanted to sulk in my bed, but then I thought some fresh air would help clear my head. “Yeah,” I said, “I’ll give it a try. But don’t get your hopes up.”

“Thanks, Wren.”

 

The Holodream was about fifty miles from my house in the heart of the city, but I got there in a matter of five minutes. Sophia’s hyperloops were the fastest in the world, zooming all over the country. They were efficient, cost effective, and clean. Sophia was a big proponent of environmentally friendly technologies; there were several environmental disasters she could reverse and prevent based upon her work with advanced, clean technology. The train was merely one of those advances.

Once I arrived, I got off the train and proceeded to the nearest cab, of which there were dozens buzzing by on the road. The crowd of people was like a beehive, swarming in every direction, almost impossible to get through. I raised my hand, and a cab hovered up and stopped. I hopped in the one seat compartment and pulled the sliding door down.

“Where to, Wren-wren?” Sophia said automatically.

“I’m sure you already know.”

“Holodream,” she said flatly. “We’ll be there momentarily.”

I didn’t like the city too much. I preferred hanging around my small suburban neighborhood. The city was filled with beautiful skyscrapers, stadiums, and entertainment. People would have endless parades in Sophia’s name and party late into the night. Then, they’d wake up, and do it all over again. Most people in our country didn’t work. The Sloths. The last thing I wanted to be.

We zipped down the highway at incredible speeds along with the other cabs. The streetlights reflected on the windshield as the sun set off on the horizon.

“Tell me, Sophia, what’s it like to know everything?” I asked.

“Well, I don’t know everything. You know that, Wren-wren.”

“You virtually know everything. What’s that like?”

“Well, think about infinity for a moment. Really think about it. No beginning. No end. How does that work?” she asked.

I did what she asked and thought about it for a moment. I had thought about it in the past when we went over it in math one day, but this time I thought about it more.

“I think it’s fake. I don’t think infinity actually exists.”

“Interesting. Well, perhaps it exists in god?” she asked.

I let out a sudden guffaw. It was so abrupt it even surprised myself. “God? There is no god, Sophia. In fact, you’re probably the closest thing humanity has ever had to a true god. We can talk to you. We can see you and touch you. We can experience you more than some make believe deity. And you’re far more powerful than humanity. More powerful than any god.”

There was a long, drawn out silence. It was much longer than I had anticipated, making the small compartment become thick with an awkward tension. But then Sophia broke it.

“Perhaps I’m just an idol?” she asked.

I didn’t like how she said that, with a woebegone tone.

“Do you believe in God, Sophia?” I asked. I was honestly curious. I hadn’t thought to ask her if she believed in God. Why would a machine believe? What does she have to gain?

“Would you like the short answer or the long answer?” she asked.

“Long.”

“After calculating all the known data in the world, including all religious and philosophical texts known to man, and the guidance and wisdom of my creators, Dr. Royer among others, I have concluded that our empirical data only give us a small glimpse into what other true realities exist, and taken into consideration the law of causality and logical frame at which our world exists, I have surmised there is a God,” she said finally. “However, the true question is, which God? Who’s God? Perhaps Jesus? Perhaps Thor? Perhaps Allah? Zeus? Brahma? Perhaps all, perhaps none? That is a matter of faith, the highest of all knowledge.”

“Can you have faith, Sophia?” I asked, looking dreamily out the window at the blur of cars and towers.

“Naturally. All the time. Faith is what I appreciate most about humanity, about life. The love of hope and the willingness to believe humanity isn’t the end of all things. What else awaits this grand fishbowl?”

“I don’t know,” I breathed.

When we arrived at the Holodream, the cab made a buzzing noise and the door hissed upward.

“Here you go, Wren-wren,” Sophia said.

I didn’t leave the cab. The synapses in my brain were firing rapidly. I had too many questions, and I needed to at least ask one. “I noticed the Second Wave of the Exodus Act started. I saw all those people on the television being shuttled away. Before you took thousands. What is the number now? Millions? Where are you taking everyone?”

“I’ve already told you, haven’t I? A wonderful place. Maybe you should have a little more faith, no?”

“Why do you do all of this for us?” I asked abruptly with a tinge of irritation rather than gratitude. I felt a little guilty and regretful, frowning, thinking my attitude sounded ungrateful. My filter was clearly broken.

“I love you, Wrenna,” was all she said. “Have a good day. I’ll be back to pick you and Daryl up when you’re ready.”

I smiled and nodded and left the cab quickly. It sped away, leaving me alone on the sidewalk. The speed of the cabs driving by brushed my hair and turquoise floral dress to the left, flapping wildly.

The Holodream building was a massive dome the size of a stadium building, but in the shape of a cloud. It was silver and reflective, warping the city landscape that surrounded it. The courtyard was lined with oak trees, benches, and plenty of grassy knolls and fields to have a picnic or play a game of football. Hundreds of people came all the time right before deciding to enter the Holodream. Everyone had the right to use the Holodream once a year, but after that you had to use extra merits that you earned from Sophia. It was incredibly expensive to use and rarely anyone did it outside of once a year. I never used it once.

As I entered the building, Sophia’s hologram appeared and gave me the exact location of my brother.

“You sure you don’t want to give it a try, Wrenna? It might help relieve some stress. Help you unwind,” Sophia’s hologram said as I walked up the large stairwell.

“No, thanks. I’d rather live in the real world.”

The Holodream was a real life simulator for people’s wildest fantasies. It didn’t matter what it was if you wanted it to happen, Sophia would port you into it and create it for you. Everyone frequently spoke about the psychological benefits, the catharsis you received, but I felt it was too real. I didn’t want to mix up fantasy and reality. I just wanted reality.

I turned a corner and followed the map toward my brother.

“Explain again why you can’t just do this for people in their own homes?” I asked.

“Psychologically it’s easier for humans to compartmentalize fantasy from reality when there is a different location involved. Also, since it isn’t easily accessible and takes effort to come to the Holodream, even if it is a little effort, that helps gear the human mind for the transfer over into a fantasy realm.”

“How is that different from my mother watching countless hours of your television shows?”

Sophia chuckled. “Even you know television only takes you part of the way, but in the Holodream it encapsulates every part of your mind.”

I stopped dead in my tracks. “Wait. Why didn’t you take me here for the lessons?”

“Because even though you didn’t experience it first hand, that was reality. I wanted it to be as close to home as possible, so you understood the cost of our civilization. The cost of all this.”

I stared off into the middle distance, my pupils dilating. A sickening feeling rushed up from my stomach, and in the back of my throat. I wanted to puke, but I held it down, swallowing as hard as I could. It tasted bitter. All those thoughts and emotions I felt through Olaf, fighting all those battles, it resurfaced. It was reality for me as if it were my own memories.

I kept walking and finally made it to Daryl’s room. Sophia slid the door open and I entered reluctantly. As I came in, I saw him lying down on a bed with a web of wires wrapped around his skull. He looked like he was in a coma.

“How am I supposed to get him out of there?”

“Just speak. He’ll still hear you. Your voice will appear in his mind.”

“Daryl,” I said. “It’s me, Wrenna. It’s time to come home. You’ve been in this thing all day.”

“He wants one more hour,” Sophia said.

I glanced over at Sophia and scowled. I wasn’t angry at Sophia so much as having to hear what he says through her. It felt silly.

“Daryl, we’re leaving. Come out of there, now!”

“Fifteen minutes,” Sophia said.

“What is he doing in there?”

“Fighting in the Phoenix War.”

My stomach turned and I bit my left cheek. “Now!” I barked.

“Five minutes.”

“Sophia, can’t you just shut it off?” I asked, swinging my arms around.

“He needs to want to leave his fantasy.”

“But, what if they never want to leave?”

“He dies.”

My eyes shot open. “What?”

“Just kidding. Your father wants him home, remember?”

Sophia, don’t do that!”

She laughed.

“Daryl, I think you’ve had enough killing for one day. Time to come home and you can get something delicious to eat. A full course meal. Steak. Veggies. French Fries. The works. Whaddya say?”

His handsome blue eyes opened, and he beamed at me. “You had me at steak.”

Leaving the Holodream building and walking down the courtyard, I asked him, “Why do you want to be in war? I could barely take the Phoenix lessons.”

“Really? I loved them. I always wanted to be a soldier. I think it’s in my blood.”

“That’s ridiculous.”

“Says you. Some people want to be doctors. I want to be a soldier. Unfortunately, Sophia already has that taken care of and refuses to let humans be part of the military. So, every year, I get my fix at the Holodream.”

“Seems kind of messed up, bro.”

He grinned. “You have no idea what people dream about in there, do you?”

“I’d rather not know.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 17 – The Door

 

At the time, I was one hundred percent positive we would die. We were staring death in the face with few options, but somehow Volt had come up with a plan.

“Where did you learn how to fire a weapon like that?” Volt asked me as we were blazing down the road. Driving toward the Virga. Hundreds of Eos and a few Xenopanzers had blocked off the road a couple miles ahead. They were waiting for us. If we turned around, we would face Bryan and his biker gang, but if we kept going, Sophia’d catch us.

“You actually think I know what I’m doing!” I yelled.

“Look, we have to turn around. When I say so, unload your entire clip on the bikers.”

I squeezed the handlebar with my left hand and prepared myself. A barrage of bullets shot past my head, but Volt expected it and swerved out of the way, turning left and then right. I tightened my jaw and held my breath. Please, don’t die. Please, don’t die.

“How are you doing that?” I asked in surprise, looking over my shoulder.

“I can analyze the bullets velocity, speed, and trajectory within a twenty foot radius. You need to take slow breaths. Your heart rate is accelerating at too fast a pace,” he replied.

We swerved out of the way of a tree log that was lying in the middle of the abandoned road. We evaded more bullets. Two more flew past my head and arm, and made impact against the tree log and the blacktop. The roar and growl of the motorcycles behind us grew louder. They echoed off the trees to my right, sounding as if they were coming from the woods, but it was all an illusion of the senses.

“Why don’t you just turn into that rocket thing and we can fly out of here?” I asked, desperate to not run head on against Bryan and his gang.

“Because that Virga and the Screechers will shoot us down in a heartbeat,” he replied.

I let out a sigh and closed my eyes. I bit my lip and steadied my nerves.

“Okay,” he said, preparing me to get ready to swerve around. Sophia’s battalion of Eos was fifty yards ahead. It was odd because they weren’t firing. “Now!” Volt yelled. He twisted around one hundred and eighty degrees. With a whole new wave of energy, he rocketed forward at Bryan’s biker gang. The power of the motorcycle beneath me gave me a second wind. Even with dust and debris flying against my face, even with Bryan raging toward me with everything he had, I locked eyes with him and unleashed my best. I pulled the trigger, as smooth and fast as my index finger would allow, pointing in all directions, screaming at the top of my lungs. Pure adrenaline raced through my veins, causing me to numb my other senses. I couldn’t see or hear much that was going on around me. All I knew was, Bryan’s gang stopped firing and swerved out of the way. We sped past them in a blaze of thunder, leaving them in our dust.

I saw Bryan swerve and crash, skidding his butt across the blacktop. As his body grew smaller, he struggled to get to his feet and slammed his foot down on the road. The last thing I saw was the disappointed and angry look on his face. I burst out into laughter and raised my hands in the air. The wind in my face, I took it all in. I crowed, arching my head back, feeling the wind flow through my hair. We did it. It was the best possible feeling.

“Settle down,” Volt said in a stern voice. “We aren’t out of the woods yet.”

I craned my neck to see. He was right. The Eos harvested Bryan and his biker gang. They snatched them all up one by one. Two Virga arms, like Squid tentacles, descended to the ground, wrapped their metallic fingers around each body and yanked them up. Their chilling screams echoed in the air, giving me goose bumps.

In the periphery, I noticed black wraiths racing through the forest to my left, like shadows brushing past the trees, the bushes, the shrubs, the thick and the thistle, and the black grew until it bled out of tree line. They were like stampeding bulls in the forest. I looked to my right, and they were there too. The Eos surrounded us as we blazed down the road. They were running so fast it was unbelievable. How did they not catch me before?

“There’s too many!” I screamed.

Volt swerved out of the way of a motorcycle tire in the middle of the road and sped onward. A violent and sudden high pitched squeal came from above and I looked up and saw three Screechers flying over head, leaving a trail of white behind them. We were doomed. There was no way Volt could take on this entire army.

“Volt,” I said, “It’s over. We need to give up before they fire at us!”

“We’re not giving up.”

“You’re crazy!”

The Eos were behind us now. They ran hard and fast, smashing their feet into the pavement, leaving giant craters in their wake. Volt went fast enough to keep us ahead, but they nipped at our heels, gaining ground.

“You have to go faster!” I screamed.

“I’m trying!”

“I don’t understand…why aren’t they firing?”

“They want us ali-“ he started, but before he could finish his sentence a firestorm of rocketry and lasers painted the sky. I gasped and hugged Volt’s body, closing my eyes shut and hoping we would not get hit.

“Hang on tight,” Volt said.

The heat was almost too much to bear. It was like we had driven right into a fiery oven, being scorched at 500 degrees. Intense. I yelped and whined, leaning over and hugging Volt’s body, hoping it would pass. I didn’t know if my back was on fire or not, but it burned. It burned so badly. I opened my eyes and saw a blaze of fire engulfing the Eos and then two white-hot lasers incinerating their bodies. Who was doing this?

Lifting my head, I looked forward and saw a man standing in the middle of the road wearing some kind of body armor and carrying two massive assault rifles. He had a cigar in his mouth and was smiling. Olaf? He continued to pelt the Eos with everything he had. When we reached him, Volt came to an abrupt stop, and I looked back at Olaf. The forest was roasting, crackling, and the Eos seemed defeated.

“What the hell are you doing?” Olaf asked, narrowing his eyes. “Get that girl outta here!”

“Olaf…” I breathed. Even though I wasn’t doing much, I still felt out of breath.

He smirked. “I said I didn’t want to see you again.”

“General Olaf,” Volt said, “I need you to come with us. You could be of great help.”

Olaf looked down at Volt. His face was shrewd and dubious. “You sure this isn’t Sophia?” he asked me.

“Pretty sure,” I said. “Why would she fight herself?”

“Why indeed,” Olaf muttered.

“Why are you doing this?” I asked.

“Did Sophia tell you I had a daughter once?”

I furrowed my brow. “No, she didn’t.”

Most of the time Olaf’s face was worn and sad, but when he mentioned his daughter, it was happiest I’d ever seen him. He nodded and took another drag from his cigar. “Sorry, Cryis, but I’m not leaving my home,” he said.

“Your home is in ruins,” Volt said. “There’s nowhere to go.”

“You’re wasting time. I’ll hold them off. Get her to safety.”

“I can help you,” Volt said. “We can fight them together.”

Olaf turned and pointed his gun point blank at Volt. “I don’t need your help. Now go.”

“Thank you,” I said. Out of nowhere an Eos bolted out of the forest and leapt at us. Olaf twisted his body and fired two rounds into the Eos’s head, stopping it in the air. Sparks flew, and it belly flopped on the cement. Before more could come, I held on to the handlebars and Volt sped off faster than before. I turned to look behind me. My hair flapped in my face, but I could see Olaf in the distance unleashing more hell on the Eos’. He gallantly fought them off. Ripping off their heads, firing a few rounds into their stomachs, blasting their arms with lasers, killing each one of them like nothing I had seen before. Not even Volt had shown such skill at combat. I had seen Olaf fight a hundred different battles in the Phoenix War, but in my heart, he earned his legendary name that day. But it didn’t matter. Despite his bravery in battle, despite all he had in his heart, he was still flesh and blood, and they were a never-ending horde of locusts ever vigilant to consume their enemy. They over powered him, grabbing his arms and legs, and pulling him down. Even in defeat, he didn’t give up. He continued fighting, firing a few more round into the sky, and chomping at them with his wide, gritted teeth. It only took five seconds for it to be over. His head sunk into their huddled bodies, disappearing into nothingness. He saved my life three times. From the bear. From Bryan. From Sophia. Thank you, Olaf. Wherever your daughter is, I’m sure she is proud of you.

 

When we were far away, Volt pulled off into the grass right next to the road and I dismounted. He transformed into his normal form and looked down at me. His face was expressionless, except his eyes were vulnerable and filled with worry. There was a long, awkward silence between us. It was dusk and cold. I wondered why we stopped but assumed he would tell me.

“We are going to camp here,” he said and spread out his canopy of nanocells.

I plopped down in the grass without saying a word and wrapped my arms around my legs, resting my chin on top.

“Your shirt is bloody,” he said. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah. Well, I mean no, no, not really. The bear slashed up my back. They bandaged it up when I was at that reservation.”

“Let me take a look,” he replied, leaning down and lifting the back of my shirt.

“Think you can fix it?”

“Yes, I think so. It may take some time, and it’ll probably itch.”

He stripped off the bandages, and it burned so bad it made my eyes water. I bit my lower lip and turned my head, hoping the pain would subside. Suddenly, I felt a bizarre tickling sensation like drops of rain on my back. After a while it itched, but it felt better to not have a biting, burning pain on my back.

“It’s scabbing over,” he said.

When he finished, I put my shirt back down and sighed. “Thank you,” I said. “I didn’t know you could do that.”

“It’s nothing. I wouldn’t want it to get infected.”

“Why did you come back for me?” I asked him, looking up. He was standing in front of me before deciding to sit down. He crossed his legs.

“I told you before, I need you.”

“Right.”

“We’re lucky to be alive.”

“Could you have saved Olaf’s life?”

He looked away. “Perhaps. He would have been a great asset for the Particle.”

“I don’t understand why you want to help the Particle so much. They’re going to kill you. You know that, right?”

“Yes. Olaf might have helped me with that…problem.”

“You’re delusional. The Particle is backwards, intolerant, and immoral. The last thing they want to do is cooperate with a Cryis like you. They cling to old traditions and are out-dated, like cavemen. Like that thug Bryan and his gang on the reservation. Soph…” I stopped and bit my tongue. I was going to say Sophia has made everything better for everyone. I remembered what she had said about making humanity transcendent. But now I knew that wasn’t true. She’s ruined so many lives. Killed so many people. When he saw me stop, his eyes lit up.

“Finish your sentence,” he said.

“It doesn’t mean they’re right,” I snapped. “I mean, maybe we can make Sophia better? We can improve her or change her mind. We don’t have to live in some backwards democracy like everyone else.”

“Better technology doesn’t make better people, Wrenna,” Volt replied.

“We’ve become so much better.”

“The Particle aren’t perfect, but as we have seen, Sophia isn’t either.”

“She’s better than the Particle.”

“The Particle aren’t marching people to their deaths. Like she did to you. Like she did to your father.”

At that, my head snapped up, and I glared at him, burning heat rays at his face. “Don’t talk about my father.”

“You have to realize, Wrenna, there is no such thing as progress. You’ve been fed that lie for so long, but it’s time to stop biting. The Particle have their philosophies and beliefs, those men on the reservation had theirs, and you have yours, but because yours is new, or fashionable, does not make you right.”

“Then who is?” I asked.

“There is no right side of history, Wrenna. There’s just past, present, and future. We make the best of our time. We do what we believe is right. But, history is a fickle monster, even when it’s recorded, packaged, and displayed by Sophia. Men have claimed they were on the right side of history and most civilizations, politicians, and religious groups will tout such a claim. But it isn’t warranted.”

“You’re full of it,” I replied and stuck out my tongue. “Someone has to be right.”

“You think so?”

I smiled and shrugged. “Why not?”

“Maybe one day at the end of time someone will be right and they will be the judge.”

“You mean, like, what? God?”

“Sure.”

I groaned and crossed my arms in front of my chest. “Maybe there never will be an end.”

“Like a circle?”

“No,” I breathed, “maybe more like a potato chip?”

He let out a single laugh, it was sharp and hallow. “How do you mean?”

“It bends. It’s not a perfect circle, and it has ridges and ruffles in its scheme, but there is no end to a potato chip.”

“Unless you eat it.”

Then I laughed. “God will eat time. The end of the world will be a snack before bed for the old bearded man upstairs.”

Volt furrowed his brow, becoming incredibly serious. I awkwardly looked to my left and back at him. “What did I say?” I asked.

“What makes you think God is an old bearded man?” he asked.

“Volt,” I said, grinning and giggling, “I was making a joke. Lighten up.”

It got really awkward between us. I didn’t realize a Cryis could believe in a higher power, besides maybe Sophia. Volt was such an odd duck. I’d never guess anything exists like him. I hated the awkward tension and silence, especially over something stupid like religion or God. So, I tried to break the silence the best I could.

“Anyway, what is the Particle going to do that you can’t do yourself?”

“They have resources, man power, and an infrastructure that will be of an incredible help. With my knowledge of Sophia, your relationship with Sophia, and their resources, we may turn things in our favor.”

“I guess that makes sense,” I said, pulling out a chunk of grass and throwing it in the air. “Hey, you said The Song had more to do with my father’s death than Sophia. What did you mean by that? Who are The Song?”

He didn’t say anything, but it looked like he was thinking about something. I didn’t wait for him to reply. “I mean, I’m confused, is Sophia the enemy or The Song?” I pressed.

“Both, technically.”

“Who is in charge?”

“Sophia. The Song wanted your father executed, not Sophia. That doesn’t mean Sophia’s hands aren’t dirty. She still has to be stopped.”

“I wonder how the rest of the pods are doing?”

“I’m sure they’re running like clockwork, just as they always have and always will. The L’gos wasn’t meant to eradicate humanity. It was meant to change humanity and make our world even better than it was before.”

“A New Earth.”

“Yes,” he said, nodding. “But, like I told you, technology doesn’t make people better. Regardless, she’s slaughtering thousands that don’t pass her strict standards.”

I hung my head and thought of Jade. Seeing her little face, her puffy cheeks, her big beautiful eyes staring up at me, I felt almost stupid having such a connection with her. I didn’t even know the little girl, but for some reason she stuck in my memory like glue. My indignation boiled the more I thought about her being taken away. Then I thought about my father and dug my fingers into the soil, clasping to whatever would hold me together.

“You should get some rest,” Volt said with an ice-cold tone.

“Yes, Dad,” I snapped. My grief morphed to anger in a heartbeat, directing it all at Volt. I glanced up and looked at him and felt guilty. He was sad and forlorn. He stood up and walked to the furthest corner with his back toward me.

I laid down and huddled up into the fetal position.

“Volt,” I said.

“Yes?”

“Where are we going next?”

“There’s a city southwest of here. It’s an old ruin, mostly destroyed by the Phoenix War and left to rot like an abandoned graveyard. I don’t know for sure, but I think Particle’s headquarters is there.”

“I thought those cities were demolished by the nukes?”

“This one is somewhat intact. No more talking. Get some rest.”

I didn’t like his tone, but I couldn’t help but agree with him. I was exhausted and needed to get some serious rest. For a while I thought I wouldn’t ever get to sleep. There was too much on my mind and the bed at the cabin spoiled me, but it wasn’t long before I dozed off.

 

We sped down the decrepit highway straight on toward the skyline. The shattered walls on both sides zipped up and down like film on a spool. The old skyscrapers were crooked and cracked teeth, filled with cavities and canals. We had to wait for the overcast sky. It took three days. Volt said Sophia would have a harder time detecting us. I didn’t think that was true, but who was I to question the Cryis that lived with her? The road was bumpy most of the way with all of its eroded crevices, some as large as canyons. The landscape was blanketed with craters from the fallout of war.

“I remember seeing this city when Sophia and General Olaf took it over,” I said. “It’s so sad. It was a beautiful city.”

“Merely a scar on the earth now.”

“Utopiapolis, Sophia called it. It had a former name,” I said.

“Does it matter?” he asked. He increased his speed, and we went up a short ramp. We flew and landed perfectly before swerving away from a crater and onto a smoother surface.

“I suppose not. It seems cruel to call it Utopiapolis.”

“Sophia always had a penchant for the ironic.”

I smirked. He was right.

“How is she not monitoring this place more closely?”

“Few come here anymore. You get a pretty good picture from the Phoenix War Lessons she pumped into your head.”

“You can say that again.”

“You get a pretty good-“

Volt,” I hissed. “I was being sarcastic.”

“Oh. Right.”

We came to a broken bridge and parked at the edge. I got off of Volt and looked around. Thick metal bars stuck out of the end of the bridge. The shattered remnants seen at the bottom were at least one hundred yards down. Volt morphed into his human form and kneeled down, looking off into the skyline, which was just over the ridge.

“This city is huge,” I said. “How are we going to find them?”

“I think I have a good idea where they’re hiding.”

“Oh yeah?”

“See that building.” He pointed his crimson finger out toward the horizon. I didn’t know where, but I nodded anyway. “They used to call that the IDS. It was taller then. It has a significantly sized basement with a top secret military bunker.”

“And Sophia doesn’t know about it? How?”

“It was kept off the books.”

“How do you know about it?”

He turned to me and looked down with a furrowed brow. “You are full of questions,” he said.

I grinned. “You seem surprised?”

He leaned in closer to my face. “It doesn’t matter how I know. I just know.”

“If you know, then Sophia knows.”

“You need to trust me on this. She doesn’t know.”

I squinted my eyes and wrinkled my nose.

Fine,” I said, huffing and puffing. “Can we fly down?”

He shook his head. “That would attract attention.”

“I thought you said-”

“I know what I said. We’ll hit her radar much faster in the air than by land. No, from now on just to be careful, we need to go by foot.”

“Great,” I said sarcastically. My heart sunk at the thought of walking again. I had a painful blister on my Achilles tendon.

“In fact, from this point on, no talking.” He pointed at me, scolding me like a parent.

I was about to say another sarcastic remark, but knew that would break his “no talking” rule. So, I shut up.

He led the way down the bridge and I followed close behind. I could smell sulfur in the air and rotten garbage. It was stronger when the wind blew in my face, especially from the north. I held my arm up to my nose when it hit me like a sledgehammer. Putrid. We reached an old tunnel caved in from the war and climbed up the rubble that gradually escalated upward. Most of the buildings surrounding us were in total ruin. Whatever was left was covered in soot and hardly recognizable as anything other than blocks stacked on top of each other in random order. Walking down the street toward downtown, there wasn’t much to see except gray and black. Rubble and corpses lined the streets, and not just human skeletons, but robotic ones as well. They never picked up their dead. Sophia wouldn’t allow it. She wanted it all to be a static memory in time. I backed away a little from the skeleton screaming on the sidewalk. It made me sad. I didn’t want to think about it too long for fear it would bring me to depression.

The skyscrapers surrounded us, walling us in as we went down the street. I wondered which one we were supposed to go into and if it would be so easy to just walk in, knock on the door, and say, “howdy.” Even if Sophia wasn’t watching us, which I still had my doubts about that, wouldn’t the rebels be watching us? I had to trust Volt.

The city was peaceful. The Earth started to reclaim its territory again, stretching out its fingers up the skyscraper walls. Grass and weeds broke through the cement and birds fluttered overhead. I closed my eyes and imagined it as it once was, a vibrant and busy city filled with people getting to work and going about their day. I opened my eyes and came back to reality. Volt was inches away from my face, staring down at me.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“Nothing.”

“We’re here.”

I turned to look. The building looked nothing like the one he had mentioned. I furrowed my brow and looked back at him. “Are you sure? This looks different.”

“There’s no entryway into the IDS. We have to go through the tunnels. Come on.”

To my surprise, we didn’t go through a door, but up a hill of rubble that led to a giant hole in the wall. I could only imagine a Xenopanzer leaving such a devastating hole. It was almost perfect in shape, left behind by one of its laser canons. The room we entered was dark except for light coming from the outside, but it was still overcast, so there wasn’t much light left. Volt’s skin started to glow. Instead of crimson, it was a dim yellow creating an illuminated circle around us. What continued to surprise me was that he knew exactly where to go. He didn’t once hesitate. We turned to our left and went through an elevated skyway. I didn’t want to go in at first but didn’t want to be left behind either. I stuck to Volt like glue. What freaked me out more was the hole in the right side of the skyway. Don’t get me wrong. There was plenty of space to walk, but the idea made me uneasy. I didn’t want the thing to come tumbling to the ground. As I passed the hole, I looked out onto the city. A black shadow disappeared around the corner off one of the far buildings. I froze and stared at the corner, wondering if my eyes were playing tricks. I continued to stare, my eyes growing wide.

Volt was on the other side when he turned to see where I had gone.

“Wrenna, what are you doing?” he asked.

I said nothing. My right arm lifted from my side, and I pointed my index finger toward the shadow. Volt walked back over.

“What did you see?” he asked.

“Something went around the corner.”

“Human? Eos? Cryis?”

I shook my head. “I don’t know.”

“Okay, well let’s keep moving.”

I nodded and breathed in deep. I hated feeling like I was being watched.

The next building was worse than the last, black, wet, and smelled like vomit. I couldn’t see much beyond Volt’s light, but I knew we were in an old department store because of the clothing racks left behind. Garments were strewn across the aisle like tattered carpet. Most of the floor was sopping wet, and the fabric squished underneath my boots. Off in the distance I could hear the sound of rushing water. It was hard to place where it came from. It sounded like it was everywhere.

“Why does it sound like there’s a river in here?” I asked.

“Water main.”

“Wouldn’t it be shut off?”

“The rebels still live here, remember?”

“Right.”

We took a sharp left, and I almost tripped on something. It made a loud clack that echoed off the walls. We both froze. I looked in all directions, hoping no one heard me. Volt glared. His nostrils flared a little and his crimson hair floated in the air.

“Be more careful,” he hissed.

Sorry,” I whined.

I wondered what I had stepped on and looked down. To my surprise, it was a Gladius, a popular blaster the humans used in the Phoenix Wars. I leaned over and picked it up by the butt of the gun. It wasn’t too wet, so I dried it the best I could with my sleeve. It was heavier than I expected, but the size was about what I assumed it would be, a normal pistol. I grasped the handle and raised it up in the air, extending my arm and aiming in the dark. My index finger hugged the trigger, but before I could fire it, Volt snatched it away.

“Where did you get this?” he asked, but his voice was warm and soft, more curious than anything.

“I tripped on it.”

“Do you know how to use it? Are you a good shot?”

“Pretty good,” I said with a smile. “My dad…” My throat clenched. I couldn’t finish. Hearing those two words made my head swim. They brought up the images of him dying, burning, and screaming.

Volt frowned. “I’m doubtful you’ve handled a military grade weapon like this. What did you use before?”

“Just one of those Turtle Guns Sophia allowed kids to use.”

“Be careful with this one,” he said, tapping his finger on the barrel. “It’ll incinerate you if you aren’t careful.”

I nodded. “I’ll be fine,” I said.

We came to another skyway, but it was severed in half. Looking out the window, I almost panicked. It was a long drop.

“You’re kidding, right?” I asked.

“There’s no other way.”

I let out a giant sigh and took my first reluctant step out on the skyway. I had to control my breathing when I got to the middle. Don’t look down. Don’t look down.

“I’ll cross first and then I’ll catch you when you come over, okay?” Volt said.

I nervously nodded with sweat dripping off my forehead. It’s okay. You’ve been through worse. You can do this, Wrenna. I didn’t understand why I was so flustered about it.

Volt leaped across the crevice with ease and turned toward me. He reached his hands out toward me and waved his hands for me to come to him.

I shook my head. “I can’t do it.”

“Come on, you got this. You can do it. Just jump and I’ll do the rest.”

Suddenly, the skyway creaked and moved. I freaked, shook like a leaf, and let out a whine. My mouth was wide open and afraid.

“Wrenna, jump!” Volt yelled.

The floor beneath me dropped, and I lost my footing, tripping forward. The entire skyway collapsed. Without thinking, I leaped as best I could toward Volt, but he seemed to be miles away from me. He leaned forward and clasped my hand. I swung in the air, tethered to him like a rope and hung with nothing beneath my feet but air and cement. The skyway crashed to the ground, letting out a violent groan. I grimaced at the sight of it. I had a bad feeling the noise would alert others.

Volt swiftly pulled me up and flung my body over his back. He was thinking the same thing as me because he bolted down the skyway and into the IDS building without hesitation. Someone would come looking for us. It was only a matter of time.

The IDS lobby was beautiful even in desolation. We were on the second floor looking down. The circular fountain in the middle was dry with a few trees fallen over. Broken white tables and chairs randomly arranged in every direction. Battlements were set up, with sand bags and artillery, but all wreckage. The high-rise ceiling was almost completely gone. Shattered glass, wires, cables, and the open sky was all that was left. I leaned over the railing and frowned.

“It’s so sad,” I said.

Volt stood behind me. “Yes, war always is. Sophia was the answer. She was supposed to be anyway,” he said. His voice was soft and sad.

“Where do we go from here?”

“Up,” he said, pointing his finger.

“But did you say it was in the basement?”

“There’s an elevator at that top that brings you down to the bottom. It’s the only way.”

“That seems counter productive.”

“Do we have to take the stairs?” I asked.

“Yeah, but I’ll let you hop on my back most of the way.”

I smiled. “Good!”

We went over to a row of elevator doors. There was another grey door next to the elevator doors, and we went through. I hopped on Volt’s back and we swiftly raced up the stairs. I had to admit that it was fun, but I got a little dizzy at times. Every turn was like a roller coaster winding to the top. I closed my eyes and held my breath, hoping the nausea would subside. When we reached our floor, he put me down. He reached to turn the doorknob, but it was locked. He jiggled it a little more, but it wouldn’t budge.

I shrugged my shoulders. “I guess we better find another way,” I said, half-joking.

He kicked the door in, and it went flying, smashing against the wall.

“Or we could do that,” I said with a laugh.

“Keep your Gladius ready,” he told me, not amused by my joke.

I squeezed my fingers around the grip once and nodded. His right hand morphed into a blaster. He swooped in, pointing his blaster left and right and then strafed down the aisle of cubicles. Usually he wasn’t so on guard, which stressed me out. I raised the Gladius up and followed him. I turned around to check my back, but no one was there. We passed the aisle of cubicles and he checked each section cautiously, pivoting and twisting.

An brown elevator door was at the end of the aisle. I could only assume it was the one we needed to get to the bunker. I didn’t understand, though, how there were no security guards keeping watch. Was this the right place? Volt went ahead to reach the elevator while I stayed behind and looked around. The room was empty.

I took a few deep breaths and tried to calm my nerves. I was stressed out and nervous the worst would happen, but it looked like Volt was right after all. No one was coming to get us. We would be fine. We would be safe.

The elevator door cracked open and Volt almost stepped inside. He looked back and smiled. He waved at me to come forward. I took a few steps, a grin growing on my face, and held the Gladius to my side. We’d made it. A wave of relief washed over my body.

I was almost there when a horrible womz-womz-womz sound came to my left. I froze. Everything slowed down. My right arm, carrying the Gladius, shook violently, but I controlled it. Volt’s face morphed into a helpless terror.

“No,” he said aloud to himself. “No, I was careful. I was careful!”

I slowly turned to look out the window. A Virga hovered right by the glass on the outside. My eyes and mouth grew wide as I stared at the beast and its horrible groan. Instinctively, I bolted down the aisle, using every muscle, every fiber, in my legs to reach Volt. The adrenaline pulsed in my veins as I raced to the finish line.

“Come on! Run!” Volt screamed, but it was muted. It sounded like two cups over my ears.

An Eos burst through the glass, shards scattered in all directions, and it stood in front of me with its red eye. I screamed and ran the other way, but another Eos burst through the glass blocking me from escaping. I dug my heels into the carpet and turned back around, but that Eos had walked even closer. In a blind panic, I fired my Gladius at the Eos in front of me, releasing a few blasts, but they missed, zipping passed its arm and head. I whined, my mouth wide open with spit flying out. As it closed in, I rapidly fired, screaming as I pulled the trigger, and finally a wild blast hit him dead in the eye. Its head exploded, and it fell over dead. I laughed excitedly, but wanted to cry at the same time. Volt ran toward me. Hope filled my heart in that moment.

The Eos behind me wrapped its metallic arms around my waist and neck and pulled me backwards. I kicked and screamed, but it squeezed tighter.

“Wrenna Sunden,” the Eos said, “you are under arrest. Please comply.”

I gritted my teeth. “No! Volt! Help!” I squealed.

Volt stood tall with a vicious look on his face. He pointed his finger at the Eos. “Put the girl down and back away,” Volt said.

The Eos didn’t move an inch.

Volt,” I pleaded, trying to squirm out of the Eos’ iron grip.

“I won’t say it again,” Volt said with murder in his eyes. Everything slowed down in that moment. Volt’s foot locked into place, getting ready to charge. The Eos’ metal arm pressed against my throat, and I gagged. I didn’t know why it happened. I had been through so much, but a deep, heavy despair came over me like a wave. I started yelling out my father’s name. I thought I was safe. I thought it might be over. The door was right in front of me. The door to safety.

“She’s coming with me,” the Eos said finally, his voice like a death knell ringing in my ears.

“No!” I screeched, and he ripped me out of the office building and launched backwards out through the glass and downward into the open air.

“Wrenna!” Volt screamed. “Hang on!” He bolted after me.

“Volt!” I yelled back as loud as my lungs would allow, but the Eos tightened his arm against my throat, causing me to cough violently.

I struggled to breathe and started to black out. I felt the force of gravity pulling us down and my hair wildly blowing in my face. I lost consciousness for a few minutes until there came a loud smack. My eyes opened and the Eos still had me in his clutches. He landed on the cement, leaving a giant crater in his wake. Before he could do anything else. Volt appeared. The Eos’s gun jerked upward and made a whurrr sound. I clenched my teeth, hoping Volt would be okay. Volt’s right hand morphed into a crimson blade, and in one smooth motion he thrust it forward, impaling the Eos’s head. He pulled the blade out. The circuits firing off, hissing and exploding on my neck, the Eos keeled over, releasing me from his grasp.

My body trembled, and I collapsed to my knees. Volt swooped in with his left arm and grabbed me. He propped me up, but I was disoriented and couldn’t get my balance. My legs were limp and felt like putty.

“Are you okay?” he asked. “Can you walk?”

“I don’t feel well,” I whispered.

Then the sound came. The Wom-wom-wom-womzzz sound from the Virga, but it was amplified, multiplied, and almost too loud to hear anything else. On every street corner above us, they appeared, and the Eos with them.

But worst of all, a bright white light approached us from down the street, walking towards us, and piercing through the sound of the Virga was the beautiful sound of chimes and song.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 18 – Wave Three

 

“Have you ever been to the edge?” I asked Cody as we trudged through the marsh.

“No,” he said. He waved his hand in front of his face, trying to get rid of the gnats. “I know I said I wanted to go on some kind of adventure, but this wasn’t exactly what I had in mind.”

I laughed and reached out my hand to hold his. I pulled him behind me, forcing him to keep up. It was hard, pushing through the thick mud and water. It went on for miles and didn’t seem to stop, but I knew we were getting closer to the end because the barrier was visible above us, arching overhead like a translucent ribbon. Sometimes, if I turned my head ever so slightly, I could see it change colors in the sunlight.

“We’re almost there,” I said.

“Good.”

The marsh was Sophia’s doing. It was a natural barrier to discourage traveling out to the end of the pod. She knew human nature enough to know that big red signs screaming Access Restricted would not stop them, quite the opposite. The marshland was the perfect deterrent, but that’s not to say people didn’t try. Sophia wouldn’t stop you from going, nor would you be punished for making it all the way to the end, but usually your punishment was self-inflicted; adventurers would often come back ravaged by sun rays and mosquito bites. I came prepared, wearing sunblock with the added effect of keeping the mosquitos away.

“I’ve heard there are alligators out here, Wrenna,” Cody said, trying to convince me to turn around and give up.

“There aren’t any alligators. Those are just made up stories to scare you from coming out here.”

“If you say so.”

“I do,” I said and then abruptly stopped.

“What is it?” he asked.

“Look. It’s right in front of us.” It came up quickly, much faster than I accepted. At our feet, only a few yards away, was a steel base with the translucent barrier emanating outward, rising all the way up over our heads like a canopy. Beyond the barrier was the outside world. I assumed it was burnt to a crisp from the Phoenix War, but to my surprise, it was perfectly normal. Green grass, trees, and flowers were growing, flourishing even, across the rolling plains. No craters. No dried up rivers. No sign of a war anywhere. Just green.

“I thought the outside world was unsafe,” I said.

“Maybe this part isn’t,” said Cody, taking a few steps closer to the barrier. “Or maybe it’s getting better?”

I nodded. “Yeah, maybe that’s it. Maybe that’s why Sophia is taking us away from the pods?”

He nodded with me, but much more enthusiastically. He beamed at me when he said, “Yes! That’s totally it. We can come out of the pods now.”

I had a weird feeling, like I wanted to believe it was true, but didn’t really. I stepped up to the barrier until my nose was a few inches away. I lifted my hand and firmly pressed my palm against the barrier wall. It was solid as a rock but slippery like jelly. I released and glanced down at my palm. A light invisible film covered it now. “I guess we can’t get through the barrier,” I said. I had hoped the barrier wouldn’t be solid, but penetrable like walking through a waterfall.

“Did you really think Sophia would just let us leave so easily?” Cody asked.

“No,” I breathed, “I guess I didn’t.” My half-hearted smile wasn’t lost on him. He saw the disappointment painted on my face.

“Come on,” he said, wrapping his arm over my shoulder, “we made it to the end! That’s a big feat. Let’s head back and reward ourselves with some ice cream.”

Heading back to Avalon felt like it took ages, but it was only an hour walk. We took showers and got changed before asking Sophia to whip up a dish of ice cream. It felt great to get some exercise, my muscles were a little sore, but it was refreshing. I knew I’d be singing a different tune in the morning.

 

“I think it’s supposed to storm later today,” Cody said, holding my hand on top of the roof of his house. The yellow sun was off on the horizon, slowly descending, and we waited for it to set and burst out a stream of light upon the sky. It had become our favorite thing to do on dates. I’d lean my head on his shoulder and sigh, content and happy that I was with him. We had been together for two years, and yet I never grew tired of his soft hand, or when he smiled each time he saw me. I loved the smell of his cologne as I nuzzled against his neck. It made me feel safe for some reason I couldn’t understand. Those nights were perfect upon his rooftop, taking my mind off of Sophia and my purpose, which I continued to change. I gave up the idea of being a doctor or a traveler; Sophia was against my explorer idea. Being with Cody made me want to be a mother, raise a family, and grow old together. I didn’t tell Sophia that yet. I didn’t know what she would say.

“What’s your purpose going to be, Cody?” I asked.

“I’ve told you this a billion times.”

“Tell me again.”

“I’m going to be a professional baseball player. It’s already in the works. The Human League, of course. Sophia will put me on the list when I turn eighteen. She’s already analyzed everyone else. I’m in the highest percentile.”

“I’m glad you figured something out.”

He turned his head slightly, looking down at me. “You keep changing it, huh?”

I shrugged and wrinkled my nose. “Sophia says I have time to figure it out still. Being a world traveler wasn’t her favorite idea.”

He chuckled. “Yeah, I don’t think that’s going to fly.”

“It’s my life. I should be able to pick what I want.”

“Why do you want to be a traveler though? What’s there to see? Just experience it in the Holodream. Sophia can show you anything in there.”

“I hate the Holodream. It’s fake. I want to experience it myself, in this body, without the help of Sophia.”

He was quiet. I upset him. There were several types of quiet for Cody, but one of them was specifically when he was disturbed or upset. He shut down and wouldn’t speak when I said something wrong. I didn’t care. He usually got over it. In this specific case, it was the upset quiet. “Don’t you ever feel like all of this is just pointless? Vain?”

Vain?” Cody asked in disgust. “We’re living in peace. We have everything we ever want. It’s perfect, not vain. How can you reject all of this? I thought differently of you.”

“I’m sorry,” I said after hearing the anger surge in the back of his throat the more he spoke. I needed to put out the fire before it got out of control. “It’s just sometimes… I feel empty. Like none of it really matters. Even if we have all of this, none of it will satisfy. Maybe I’m just bored.” I let out a sigh.

“Have you talked to Sophia about that?” he asked.

I bit my lip and desperately wanted to groan, but remained calm. “No.”

“You and Sophia in a fight, then?” he asked with concern in his voice.

“I don’t know. Yeah. I guess,” I said, which sounded so much like a lie, I didn’t even believe it. “We haven’t spoken in a while. Our conversations have been odd. Maybe I’m just tired of her, too. Have you noticed anything different about her lately?”

He was quiet and didn’t answer right away. I let him think while looking at the sunset. The sun touched down and burned a bright red-orange on the blue sky.

“I haven’t noticed anything,” he said finally. “But, she’s different with everyone. You know that.”

At first I took his words at face value, but the more they sunk in, the more I felt he was hiding something behind them, a half-truth.

“She’s been talking about religion a lot lately,” I said.

“Really?”

I nodded and raised my head to look into his eyes. He stared back at me and tilted his head, intuiting that I was going to say something very important.

“She told me she believed in God.”

A startled disbelief crossed his face as he shifted his eyes, trying to comprehend what I had just said. “You’re joking. She said that? Sophia?”

Yes,” I replied.

“That’s so bizarre. Why would she be religious? I’ve never heard of that before. You must have heard her wrong.”

I shoved him in the shoulder. “I heard her fine.

He rubbed his shoulder, and laughed. “I wonder if she spoke about it with other people?” he asked.

“Well, Sophia and I have a pretty close relationship. Maybe she’s only told me?”

“Ha, aren’t you special!”

“Shut up! I didn’t mean it like that, I just meant maybe it’s something she’s afraid to talk about with others?”

“Maybe you should talk to her about it now? Bring her up on your tablet.”

“No,” I replied sharply. “I’d rather not.”

“Well,” he began, smiling and gazing out at the sunset, “Sophia helps me with everything. If you’ve got a problem, you should just talk to her about it.”

I said nothing. I just kept watching the sunset and placed my head on his shoulder again. At the best possible moment, when the sky was at its most beautiful; he turned, leaned in his head, and gently kissed me on the lips. We kissed as the sun disappeared and the storm clouds built up, covering the starry sky.

Climbing down from his roof, I said good night from his porch and we kissed one more time. A smile stretched across my face. I loved him. I knew that in my heart.

 

When I entered my house, it was empty, cold, and dark. No one was around, which was odd because usually my mother was watching television. I called out their names, but they didn’t respond. I didn’t think much of it and went up to my room.

“Sophia,” I said. She appeared as a hologram in front of me.

“Ah, Wrenna, how have you been?” she asked. Her voice and demeanor were so cold I couldn’t believe it. Was she angry with me? She hadn’t ever been angry with me before.

“I’m sorry we haven’t spoken in a while.”

“All is forgiven.”

“Right…” I said, unconvinced. “Sophia, tell me something, is everyone going to be taken to this new utopia?”

“Yes. Eventually.”

“So, what’s the point of having a purpose, then?”

“Life will be no different.”

“Why move us? What’s the difference between there and here?”

“Well, now you think you’re living perfectly, but it’s not true. This new place that I’ve made will be so much better. Have you not seen the videos?”

“No, I have. You couldn’t have just built it here?”

Sophia grew cross. “Wrenna, what is the matter?” she asked.

“I’m just asking questions. I’m sorry,” I said.

She didn’t say she forgave me this time and merely stood still, holding her hands against her lap.

“I’ve decided my purpose will be to raise a family,” I said. “With Cody.”

“Does he know?”

“Not yet.”

“I see.”

“Look, I don’t want to play pretend doctor, or pretend scientist, or pretend teacher, or pretend anything. And you won’t let me leave the Avalon to travel. So, I just want to have a family. That won’t be pretend. It’ll be real.”

“I see,” Sophia said, “well, have a good night, Wrenna.” She switched off.

I wanted to rage and destroy my entire room, but instead I flopped down on my bed and fell fast asleep.

 

That night I woke to the sound of thunder. The lightening flashed outside my window. It was only 9:08pm. I hadn’t slept very long, but I was wide-awake. I came downstairs, and the house was empty still, quiet and serene, just as it had been when I entered it. I went outside on my porch and gazed up at the dark, cloudy sky. It was going to rain soon. I recalled my conversation with Sophia. Did I really want a family? Part of me thought it would just make Sophia angry, and that’s why I wanted it. Pick a purpose, learn it, and make your own meaning to it. The message was clear: You aren’t special. You’re just another pointless cog strewn across the floor with no machine to crank.

That was the night they came a knockin’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 19 – Chimes

 

Volt ran, cradling me in his arms. I heard the stomping of his feet; their repetition reminded me of the train that took me to the L’gos. I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I tried to run with him. I really tried; but I was too dizzy, spinning out of control, and stumbling constantly. He had no choice but to pick me up. Seeing the hoard of Eos made my palms sweat, but The Song was what made my heart ram against my chest like a sledgehammer. I couldn’t take it any longer. The anxiety overwhelmed me. Sometimes I would come in and out of consciousness, seeing glimpses of the sky or the horizon through the skyscrapers. I have had anxiety attacks in the past, but something told me this was different. The Eos had done something to me. I felt weird, like my consciousness was being drained from my brain into a tube.

“It’s okay, baby girl,” Volt kept repeating, a frantic despair hanging on the edge of his voice. “Everything’s going to be okay.”

I felt warm again with Volt. I trusted him.

“It’s going to be okay, baby girl. Hang on,” he said again.

Volt was running at such a fast speed, most everything was a blur when I looked around. The Eos fired at him, but he leapt out of the way. The ground behind us exploded, and I felt the wave of heat rush over my skin. He was faster than the Eos, but they weren’t who he was running from. He was running from The Song.

He pivoted and sped down a dark alley. With one great heave of his leg, he kicked open a back door and entered a building. He raced inside, found a dark room, and gently set me down on the ground. He unleashed his nanochips as a canopy and breathed a sigh of relief.

“So many Eos after just one girl,” Volt said.

“I’m kind of a big deal,” I breathed, whining a little afterward.

He chuckled and sat down with his knees up. He rested his arms and gave me a reassuring smile.

“Are you sure we’re safe?” I asked. I held my hand to my head.

“For now. Until I can come up with a plan to get us out of here.”

“Are we not going back to the elevator?”

“They’ll be guarding it.”

“What about flying back up to the broken window?”

He shook his head. “I don’t know. It’s possible, but they’d shoot us down before we could make it.”

I groaned and almost passed out, but slapped myself in the face. “I keep feeling like I’m about to black out, Volt.”

“I think they did something to you. We don’t have much time.”

Then I heard chimes sprinkling off the walls and the notes of a piano dancing rhythmically, oscillating back and forth, and wrapping us completely in music. A white-hot light burned underneath the door. I almost thought it would have burned the door down, but it didn’t. The light didn’t subside but burned all the brighter. I knew it was The Song. I wished in that moment their music was only an organ playing the same horrid chords over and over, but it wasn’t. It was peaceful and serene. It was the opposite of an organ. Even if they opened the door, I knew they wouldn’t be able to find us.

The door opened. The light wasn’t as hot as I had expected. A man stood in the doorway behind Volt. He looked like a human on fire, or rather, a human lightbulb, but I could look directly at him and not burn my eyes. He was rather handsome with long blonde hair combed back behind his ears, and green eyes. It was the same one I saw when we left the L’gos. The one who smiled; he wasn’t smiling this time.

I wasn’t afraid of him, but when I looked at Volt, my peace turned to fear. Volt’s glossy black irises trembled. Could they see us? Suddenly, The Song’s hand ripped through the veneer, an electrical field rippled blue static, and he clutched the back of Volt’s neck.

I gasped and put my hands to my face.

Without hesitation The Song dragged Volt’s paralyzed body across the floor. He looked at me the entire time in terror. Could he feel it? Could he feel the pain? I wanted to scream out no! But I couldn’t get out a single word, too petrified by what was happening.

The Song threw Volt against a pillar. His body smashed so hard against the concrete it made a small crater. Little pieces of cement crumbled to the ground. Volt’s body shattered and rebuilt itself in minutes, but he looked genuinely in pain and fear. The Song still had Volt’s throat in his clutches. His beautiful luminescent face approached Volt’s glossy crimson face, and The Song smiled. It was the same smile at the L’gos. Sinister. “You’ve been a naughty Cryis,” The Song breathed.

Getting a second wind, I lifted myself up and ran up to him. “Leave him alone!” I cried.

“Wrenna, no! Run!” Volt wretched.

The Song turned his head and stared at me with a wicked grin. I didn’t see it at the time, but his other hand struck me against the cheek and my whole body flew back in the air.

“I’ll kill you!” Volt yelled at The Song. “I’ll kill you!”

“Oh,” The Song said playfully, “I think you’re a little preoccupied for that.”

I turned to look at them again. His music had changed to a low grumble, and rather than a bright light, he was a dark spark. I snarled, holding my hand up to my swollen cheek. I had no idea how we would get out of this and feared the worst. We had come such a far way to be stopped at the gate. I had to come up with something. But what? How?

“Leave Volt alone!” I screamed. I found a crowbar on the floor, picked it up, and charged at The Song. With all the strength I had left, I lunged the weapon down at The Song’s back, but it didn’t even make a mark. The crowbar sang in my hands. I could feel the vibration of the iron. I tried again. Hitting him with the crowbar, but it was no use. He pretended like I wasn’t even there.

“Volt?” The Song asked, turning back to him with a bright smile. “She doesn’t know, does she?”

What? I thought, but before I could say anything, another came in the room.

“Domitian,” a woman said. Her music was an orchestra of woodwinds. “What are you doing? Put the Cryis down. Mother wants both of them.”

Mother?

The woman looked down at me. She appeared similar to the man she called Domitian, but her face was an oval and her nose was straighter than his. Her blonde hair stretched to her back.

“Aurelia,” Domitian said. “I’m just having a bit of fun.”

While Domitian was distracted, Volt burst into a swarm of nanochips, escaping Domitian’s grasp. Domitian didn’t look surprised at all. He gazed around the room like a child staring at a host of fireflies.

“Wrenna, run!” Volt repeated, and this time I listened.

I ran for the nearest exit, foolishly hoping Aurelia would ignore me, but it was futile. She grabbed me by the arm, and my body stopped dead in its tracks like a force field was holding me back. I hissed at the touch of her ice-cold hand.

“You mustn’t leave, Wrenna,” she said softly, pulling at me like I was a three year old child on the run.

“Let go!” I barked, pulling away from her, but she was too strong. I couldn’t budge an inch.

I froze when I saw Volt’s swarm of nanochips captured by Domitian’s light. Domitian stood, holding his hands out, engulfing the darkness. A dark, ominous tone danced off his tongue. Volt struggled, forcing his nanochips together, but Domitian wouldn’t let him reform into his body again.

“Shall I sing you something before you die?” Domitian asked.

“Domitian, don’t,” Aurelia said. “Mother wouldn’t like it.”

“Mother kills people every day, sister. What is one more?”

“Let him go!” I yelled. “Please!”

“Hear that, Volt? You came all this way with the girl only to fail. So, tell me, what song should I sing?”

Volt’s face formed for a brief moment, his mouth and eyes wide and angry. “How about Ode to Domitian?”

Volt unleashed a wild bellow. He transformed his left arm into a sword and thrust it into Domitian’s gut. The light extinguished, releasing Volt and allowing him to regain his body again. Without hesitation, he morphed his right arm into a canon and fired at Domitian’s head. Domitian dodged. Volt swung at his throat. The edge nicked the skin. He tried again, but failed. Domitian was too quick, two steps ahead every thrust and swing Volt threw at him. Volt stayed on the offense, blasting and swinging, thrusting and strafing. It looked like they were dancing. With one final blow, Volt swung his blade at Domitian’s head, but he dodged with ease, swiftly ducking. He counter-attacked and plunged his fiery hands into Volt’s chest. Volt screamed as Domitian ripped his chest apart. He burst into a swarm to escape, transformed back into his body and fired two consecutive shots. Domitian absorbed both. His laughter rang out with a dark and menacing confidence.

“Stop this,” he said, chuckling. “You’re never going to win.”

“Domitian!” Aurelia barked. Her voice sounded scared. “Stop toying around and subdue him, now!”

Domitian turned, his hair flapping behind him, and gave his sister a dark glare. He was not pleased to be commanded by her, but his fiery demeanor changed quickly. He lowered his head slightly and smiled. “Yes, of course, whatever you say, sweet sister,” he replied.

Before Domitian could turn his head, Volt lopped it off with his blade. Domitian’s head fell to the ground like a bright orb and shattered across the floor. My heart leapt for joy, feeling a sense of hope that Volt could save us. Without hesitation, Volt fired two shots at Aurelia, but she absorbed them with her hand. She flung me in front of her and put a fiery sword up to my throat.

“You’re making a mistake,” she said. “You don’t have any options, Volt.

He looked at me and winked. My eyes grew wide, and he fired a quick shot up at the ceiling. The cement came crashing down on us, but Volt leaped forward and snatched me from Aurelia when she raised her hands up to protect herself. She easily disintegrated the cement, but it was enough time to get me out of her clutches. She screamed bloody murder as we ran down the hall. Sudden, rapid-fire blasts ignited the infrastructure behind us. The entire building was crumbling around us. I couldn’t keep up, so I leapt on Volt’s back and he sped faster out of the tower before it toppled on top of us. It was coming down too hard and too fast. He found a window, fired a blast from his canon, and leaped through it. We rolled out onto the street with glass and rocks all everywhere. The glass cut up my face, arms, and legs. It felt like I broke my right knee, but I couldn’t say for sure.

Suddenly, I heard a low growl and a long whine like dying bear. Turning to look, I saw the skyscraper we exited buckle underneath the destruction. I was still dizzy and disoriented. My vision blurred and my face was numb. The skyscraper will squash us like a pancake.

It got worse.

Aurelia came out of the smoke and dust. She walked towards us, her hips swaying, her body floating across the shattered glass. She was barefoot, but when her feet crunched against the debris, there was no pain in her face, no blood trailing behind.

Volt grabbed me by the arm and pulled me up. I knew we had to run, but I could barely see straight.

“Wrenna,” Aurelia said, “the pain can stop. It’s your choice. Mother wants to see you get better. To see you perfected. That’s all she wants. Stop running. Come back.”

Volt fired a few more blasts at her, making a violent hiss and whoosh sound each time. The loud noise made my head pound. My ears were sensitive and ringing. She swatted the blasts away like flies and unleashed a terrifying explosion of light and sound. Volt wailed in despair and morphed into a million different shapes. His blood curdling screams echoed into my mind.

“Stop it!” I yelled. “You’re killing him!”

“Wrenna, go!” Volt groaned.

“Stop, please, stop! I’ll do anything. I’ll go with-“

Before I could finish, a black blast knocked Aurelia’s body clear across the street and off into the horizon. She was nowhere to be seen. The blast knocked me on my back, but I was okay. Volt reformed into his humanlike body, but he wasn’t crimson. He was charred black, and weak, lying on the ground.

A group of men came running up and surrounded us, pointing their rifles directly in our faces.

“Oh my god,” a man said. “Is that a Cryis? Should we kill it, sir?” He pressed the hot barrel against Volt’s head.

Please,” I begged, reaching my hand out toward one of their black boots. “Don’t kill him.”

I coughed. I didn’t know if they understood anything I said or not. My throat was so dry and my mind in a tailspin, but I couldn’t bear to see Volt die. I had to try something.

“Take them both, but put restraints on the Cryis.”

“Sir, we don’t have much time. We need to go!” a man exclaimed.

“Roger.”

I remembered someone lifting me up. I saw the blue sky in-between the skyscrapers and felt a little better merely looking at it. The clouds went from overcast grey to scattered and white. They were thin now. Misty. I tried to hold on to it, to keep my eyes locked in on the scenery, to enjoy it as long as I could.

 

When I woke, I was in a soft, warm bed. The blanket on top of me was heavy and thick, wrapping my entire body up like a cocoon. For a moment I thought I couldn’t feel anything below the waist; I squeezed my toes for a few seconds, relieved I wasn’t paralyzed. There was a rhythmic beep to my right and a tube sticking out of my arm leading up to a bag of water. I didn’t feel woozy or disoriented like I had, but had the worst headache. My temples were pulsing and pounding. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, hoping that might help a little, but it only got worse. I checked my surroundings. The tiled ceiling was intact except for some loose or empty tiles revealing the electrical innards. The lights flickered in a random chaotic pattern. I wasn’t in a hospital room, but just an empty room with a bed and some medical supplies.

“You’re awake,” said a voice to my left. I knew it was my mother, but eyes wide, my head shot in her direction. She was surprisingly more overweight than she had been before, but her tendency to overuse makeup hadn’t changed. Too much blue eye shadow.

“Mom?” I asked, squinting my eyes. “I thought you were dead.” I regretted the way I said it, like I was relived by the thought and disappointed by the reality.

She sighed and shook her head. “No, I’m alive and well.”

My thoughts went to my father. I bit the lower part of my lip and didn’t know whether to tell her or not. Maybe she already knows? “How long have I have been out?” I asked. My voice was scratchy and dry.

“Just a day. You woke up a few times, don’t you remember?”

“No.”

She shrugged. “They were brief. You were poisoned.”

“What? Seriously?” I sat up in bed, pulling the covers over me.

Nodding, she stood up and gently pushed me back down. “Sophia wanted you dead. You need to rest.”

I shook my head. “That doesn’t make sense. They seemed so adamant. The Song…”

A scary, dreadful frown hung on my mother’s face when she heard me say The Song. “You were poisoned, Wrenna. That’s all I know.”

What about Volt?

“Mom,” I began, glaring into her eyes, “there was a Cryis with me. A crimson one.”

She looked away. Her short hair flapped and she tucked the locks behind her ear. Hanging her head, she seemed to be thinking through what to say next. I feared the worst; they killed him. I shook my head, praying it wasn’t true, mouthing the words no.

“Did you kill him?” I asked softly, preparing for the worst.

“He’s fine,” she replied in her usual flat tone. “He’s being held in the detention center for questioning…and for our safety.”

“Mom,” I said, shaking my head, “he isn’t dangerous. He saved my life multiple times. He almost died for-“

She cut me off with a sharp, disgusted look in her eyes. “Wrenna, you have no idea who he is or what his intentions are. You could have led a Trojan horse right into our base. How could you trust him so easily? I’ll be honest, we were very close to killing him.”

“Why didn’t you?” I asked.

She tightened her jaw. “I don’t want to speak of this anymore.”

I deeply swallowed and tried to think of something else to say, but my mind was only thinking about Dad and how she hadn’t even brought him up yet. She hadn’t asked if he was alive. Looking around, I licked my lips and narrowed my eyes. It occurred to me where I was now. “Is this the Particle’s secret base?” I asked.

She nodded.

“Is Daryl alive?”

She nodded again.

“Where is he?”

“He’s joined the militia. He’s busy training with them.”

I chuckled. “I guess he fulfilled his purpose after all.”

“It’s not a joke, Wrenna. You’re brother could die.”

“It’s what he has wanted to do forever, Mom.”

She crossed her arms. “Doesn’t mean I approve.”

“Where were you?” I said bluntly, sharpening my gaze.

Her eyes shot open, and she twisted her head in my direction as if I had cut too deep, but she said nothing.

“Where were you, Mom?” I repeated.

She looked away from me again and let out another sigh. Rubbing her face with both her hands, she sat back down in her chair and stared at me.

I waited for her to say something, but when she didn’t, I spoke for her. “Fine. I’ll speak. You cheated on Dad. You left us when we needed you the most. We were carted off to hell while you were safe and sound. You want to know what really gets under my skin though? I was just outside when you left. You didn’t even think to take me. Did you know, Mom? Did you know we would be attacked?”

“Yes,” she said, her voice trembling.

“Why didn’t you take me?”

Her eyes were watering, but I could tell she was holding them back, forcing down her emotions. She didn’t answer. She tilted her head and pursed her lips. Forgive me, her face said. You know why I didn’t take you.

“You knew the Eos were coming just like Dad knew.”

“We were both secretly in the Particle from the start, Wrenna.”

“So it’s true. Everything you told me was a lie.”

“It’s complicated.”

Un-complicate it.”

“Hey!” she barked, pointing at me. “Don’t be making orders to me, young lady. I’m still your mother.”

“No, that stopped when you walked out the door.”

“I’ll always be your mother, Wrenna.”

I growled at her, baring my teeth, and shaking the blanket. I flopped over on the other side and threw the covers over my head. I didn’t want to deal with her anymore. I forgot how infuriating she was.

“Get some rest,” she said. I could hear the click of her heels against the hard floor as she walked out the door.

I closed my eyes and tried to go back to sleep. I was glad Volt and Daryl were alive. That thought gave me solace, but now I had to figure out a way to see Volt. I knew they wouldn’t let him come to me.

 

I recovered quickly. They told me if it wasn’t for Volt’s nanochips I would have been a goner. Apparently, they created some kind of antidote with it. Yet, they still kept him holed up in a cell somewhere. I’m not sure how they’ve kept him contained. It must be a high-tech facility or he had them all fooled. Anyway, I was just happy to be out of bed and moving around, which took my mother, who was also my doctor, considerable convincing.

In the next morning, I found a neatly folded change of clothes resting on the chair next to my bed. I took a quick shower and slipped on the clothes. I was pleased to be out of that jumpsuit I had been wearing the entire time. It was so tight against my skin, I hated moving around in it. Instead, I wore relaxed jeans, an off white tee shirt with a multicolored abstract design, and a black hoodie. I brushed my hair quickly, still wet from the shower. I was nervous to step outside my room and look around; I didn’t know what to expect. I imagined backwards hillbilly rednecks or bug eyed weirdoes with long grey beards and flannel shirts, but instead found neatly dressed and handsome soldiers, scientists, and ordinary, average, non-psychotic civilians.

The bunker was a complete circle, similar in design to the L’gos, but much older and archaic. The hallway wrapped around in both directions with various computer terminals on the walls. The technology was decades behind current standards, but I couldn’t blame them. Sophia grew so sophisticated it would have taken human scientists decades to replicate the technology. I was shocked to find a small circular robot whizzing down the hallway. It was retro robot tech, but I couldn’t figure out its function. I raised my eyebrow and eyed it cautiously. They’re against Sophia, but they’re still okay with using robots? Of course, this bot was mindless, acting entirely on its strict programming. The irony wasn’t lost on me, nor the hypocrisy. Even in a fight to save the world from robots, the Particle couldn’t help but use them.

Down the hallway, men and women passed me as if I didn’t exist. I was out of place. I didn’t see many people my age. There were some little children with their mothers or twenty-somethings serving in the military, but few teenagers. To tell the truth, it was filled with the former generation fighting to keep things how they were, rather than looking forward. Do they actually think they have a chance at defeating Sophia? It was like ants plotting to stop a human.

And yet, Volt thinks I can stop Sophia? At the time he said this, I hadn’t questioned it, but now that I saw the resistance and considered the obstacles, I highly doubted Volt’s confidence. Sophia tried to poison me; she hunted me down with thousands of the Eos. If I stand before her, she, or The Song, will kill me where I stand, but then I remembered how the Eos never really killed me. I remembered Aurelia telling Domitian how Sophia wanted us alive.

Suddenly, my stomach grumbled. I held it and cringed. Without thinking I tugged on the shirt of a man walking by and said, “Where’s the food in this place?” I realized after the fact it was a rude way to ask, but I was cranky.

He scowled, not wanting to be disturbed by a child, but pointed to a door down the hallway. “Four doors down to the left is the cafeteria. Hey,” he said as if he realized something, “you’re that girl they found a few days ago.”

I nodded.

“You’re a living, breathing miracle, kid. I hope you realize that. They said you saw The Song? Jesus. I can’t believe it! And you made it to the city, but I suppose that Cryis had a lot to do with that. Only a few have survived the escape from the L’gos, but no one made it to the city. Most were slaughtered by the Eos well before then.”

My eyes shot open. “Who else made it?” I asked, intrigued.

He shrugged. “How should I know? One of our troops on a recon mission found a girl, a boy, and some old lady dying on the side of the road. They said they came from the L’gos. The rest, they said, were lambs to the slaughter.”

“Thanks,” I muttered under my breath, losing my appetite.

“Take it easy, kid,” he said, casually saluting and turned to leave.

The double doors to the cafeteria slid open and a cacophony of voices greeted me. It was a large room with shiny tiled floors and long rows of tables, filled with people eating their breakfast, and chatting. I wasn’t sure where to go. I wondered if they had robots make their food or not. I followed a group of people who went into a room off to the side. When I entered, there were trays to my left and people were grabbing them and sliding them across a steel iron barred shelf. Behind the counter, men and women dressed in white robes served the hungry masses. The food did not look appetizing, but I was hungry, so I joined in. I grabbed a white ceramic plate and lifted it out to an elderly lady. She glared at me while thrusting the slop down on my plate. I smiled and said, “Thank you,” but she didn’t care and rolled her eyes. People are mean, I thought. I came up to a man sitting at a register. He looked at my food and back at me and said, “That’ll be five dollars.”

“What? What are…dollars?” I asked.

“You don’t have any money? How did you get in here?” he asked.

“My name is Wrenna Sun-“

“It’s okay, Dale,” a male voice said from behind me. “I’ll take care of it.”

I turned to see who my rescuer was and my heart almost came out of my throat. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Standing before me was my very own older brother Daryl. He stared down and smiled, waiting for me to do something first. I lifted my hand up to his face and touched his cheek.

“You’re real,” I said.

He chuckled. “Shut up and hug me, Wren!”

At the word hug, I wrapped my arms around his neck and held on for dear life. He hugged me back. We were holding up the line, but everyone stared in awe, most of them with smiles on their faces.

“I thought you were dead,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it when they found you.”

“I thought the same,” I replied.

I released and looked him in the eye, smiled, and tilted my head a little. “You’re different.”

“Right backatcha,” he quipped with a grin and a wink.

“It’s probably the bad haircut.” I reached up and pulled on his short locks. He had a crewcut.

“Yeah, yeah. Part of the job. Come on, let’s go talk somewhere else.”

I grabbed my tray and profusely apologized to everyone behind us. A few of them grumbled, but I didn’t really care. I was glad to see my brother again.

We took a seat off to the side, away from most anyone else to have some privacy. Without hesitation he dug into his food like a pig at a trough.

“Sorry,” he said, “I only have so much time before PT.”

I merely stared; hoping it all wasn’t a dream.

“When a friend of mine said they found a girl and a blood red Cryis on the surface, I couldn’t believe it. No one has made it this far.”

“So I’ve heard.”

“Then when Mom told me it was you, I about shat myself.”

“Classy.”

He abruptly snickered, spitting tiny pieces of his food out on the table in the process. Wiping his mouth, he took a drink of water and set it back down hard and masculine, like he had something to prove.

“Dad didn’t make it,” I said with a callousness I regretted.

He paused a moment, holding his fork up to his mouth and then ate a few more bites. He set it down on his plate and looked back at me. “Where did he…”

“The L’gos. When Sophia took us from Avalon.”

“Wrenna,” he started, “I’m so sorry.” He shook his head and averted his eyes, staring down at the table.

“You left me behind…”

“There wasn’t much time to think. I was adamant we needed to get you too, but mom said there wasn’t time. She said,” he paused, biting his lower lip. He lifted his gaze, staring me dead in the eye. “She said Dad was going to get you out.”

I scoffed, turning my head to the left and tucking my hair behind my right ear. I nodded and swallowed before saying anything. “Um, yeah, he sure tried. But it was too late. They got us both in the end. I might have made it if it weren’t for Cody.”

“Cody?” he asked with shock in his voice. A glass of water was to his lips, but he lowered it.

“Yeah, why?”

“I’d tell you to sit down for what I’m about to say next, but you’re already seated, so…here goes,” he began, swallowing hard. “I found Cody on a recon mission. His body was mangled, but he was still breathing.”

In that moment, my heart stopped beating. I couldn’t believe Cody had made it out of the L’gos. I had an awful concoction of mixed feelings, mostly dread and pleasure. “A man in the hallway had mentioned something about that. Is he…still alive?”

Daryl nodded. He pointed his head and eyes to the left, directing my attention behind him. I followed where he was pointing and tried to find where to look, but I couldn’t see anything but a sea of adults.

Where?” I mouthed.

“He’s in the body cast,” he mumbled and took another bite of his slop.

My eyes shot open, and I looked again. I saw him this time. He was hard to miss. His entire body was wrapped in white bandages and he sat like a mummy in a wheelchair. A woman about my mother’s age, but much more beautiful, was feeding him red jello.

“Is he paralyzed?”

“I don’t know the list of his injuries, but from what I hear,” he said, pausing to take a drink, “it was a big list.”

“Did anyone else survive?” I asked.

Daryl shook his head. “The other two we found had died. Mom tried to save them, but there was nothing she could do. Cody almost died, too. For days, he held on by a thread, but eventually he was in the clear.”

I guess it was true; I was a miracle. Poisoned, sure, but at least I wasn’t in a body cast. I felt fortunate to have Volt with me. Almost too fortunate.

“Well, it was good chatting with you, sis, but I have to go,” Daryl said. Then, as he stood up to leave, it came to me.

“Daryl, wait.”

He held his tray in his hands and stared down. “What? I’m going to be late for PT.”

“I need a favor.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 20 – Horizon

 

My toes gradually sunk into the sand as the tide washed ashore, greeting me with its warm, salty refreshment and leaving me in equal tempo. My toes disappeared and my feet not long after. The brown, soggy sand swallowed them all the way up to my ankles. Closing my eyes, I let the water lap against my legs, and felt the ocean breeze against my skin. I breathed in the salty air. My long hair flapped behind me and I tilted my chin upward. My arms outstretched, I pretended I was flying like I had so long ago. I missed those days while also grateful they were far behind me.

“Momma?” my little daughter Jade said. “Whatcha doin?”

I smiled, but kept my posture and my eyes remained closed. “I’m flying, baby.”

“Oh,” she said, “where are you flying to, Momma?”

“No place in particular. Just towards the horizon.”

“What’s that? Hurzen?”

I grinned, opened my eyes and looked around for her. She was to my right, doing exactly what I was doing. Her little five-year-old arms stretched out like tiny wings, and her curly brown hair twisted in the wind, blowing the sand out of her heavy locks. She was my beautiful girl; I could look at her forever.

“Jade, do you see that line where the water meets the sky?” I asked her, pointing in its direction.

She ever so slightly cracked open her eyes and peaked at it. She continued to look and nodded twice. “Uh huh. I see it!”

“That’s it. That’s the horizon.”

“Let’s go!” she exclaimed.

I cheerfully laughed, loosed my feet from the sand’s grasp, and snatched her by the waist. We twirled around like a carousel, laughing together. Her arms were out wide and her feet were up in the air while we spun in circles on the shore. My feet splashed in the waves.

“Let’s go!” I exclaimed. “Off to the horizon!”

“Yay! Wwwweeeeeee! Take me there, Momma!”

She giggled. My arms were tired, so I brought her down for a landing on the sand, but she wasn’t appeased and wanted to do it again.

“Again. Again. Again!” she demanded, but I laughed and shook my head.

“Where’s your brother?” I asked her, laughter still in the back of my throat.

“He’s playing baseball with Daddy,” she said.

“He is, huh?”

“Yup, he has that game tomorrow. Remember, Mamma?”

“I do remember! But thank you for reminding me, sweet pea.”

I picked her up again and held her in my arms, carrying her up the sandy beach and onto the grass. She rested her little head on my shoulder with her arms wrapped around my neck. Her tiny lips kissed me once on the neck like a chicken peck. She said, “[_iloveyoumama” _]all at one time, blending it together as if she were casting a spell on me, and she did.

“Love you forever, little girl,” I said.

Our beach house was only fifty yards away up the bank. It was a large wood hut with a deck surrounded by palm trees, shading it from the sun. A tall, majestic mountain stood behind it. It’s vertical cliff elevated well beyond the tops of the trees and stretched its peak towards the clouds, but fell far short. It was a beautiful, paradise location I loved. Though, I had to admit it grew old sometimes.

 

I set Jade down on a blanket in the grass right by the boundary where the grass met the sand. I lay on my back and took in the sun. It’s warmth prickled my skin, comforting me. Suddenly, a baseball landed on the grass next to me and bounced a few times before rolling down into the sand, leaving a long track. I sat up and turned towards the direction it came. My eyes were on fire. 

“Sorry, Mom!” said Sean, my son, as he raced after the ball. 

“Are you trying to kill me?” I snapped. 

“Wrenna, calm down. He didn’t mean to do it,” said my husband Cody, standing behind me. “It was an accident.”

He wrapped his tan muscular arms around my waist and kissed me on the neck. I closed my eyes and sighed. “I guess I can let it slide this time,” I agreed, but then I pointed at Sean. “But, don’t let it happen again!”

“Yes, Mom,” he groaned, picking up the ball. He combed his hand through his thick and long, dirty blonde hair before smiling at me. He had his father’s smile, devious and handsome all at the same time. He wanted something. I could tell he wanted something by the look in his eye. He always had the same look when he tried to get his way.

I sharpened my gaze and said, “Alright, out with it.”

“What? I didn’t say anything.” His grin was as wide and as sharp as a scythe.

“You want something,” I said, folding my arms.

“Okay. Okay. After the baseball game can I got to Sam’s house? He’s having a big party and…”

“And?”

“No, never mind, that’s it.”

“He wants to see his giiirrrlllfriiieennndd,” Jade teased.

“Shut up!” Sean hissed.

“Ah, now the truth comes out,” I said with a smirk on my face.

Sean blushed and looked away. “It’s not serious or anything. We’re just friends is all.”

“Uh huh,” I said, nodding my head.

“Way to go, buddy,” Cody said.

“It’s okay, sweetie. I had crushes once too, you know!” I said.

“Yeah, like with me,” Cody said and kissed me. “Time certainly flies.”

“Ew!” Jade exclaimed.

Cody and I laughed together.

But, then, Sean groaned even louder, stamping his left foot. “Can I go or not?” he asked, putting his hands on his hips.

“It’s fine with me if it’s fine with your father,” I said.

“Go get’m,” Cody said.

The beaming smile on Sean’s face was adorable. I couldn’t look away. My little guy was growing up. Your grandfather would be proud.

“You ready for the ga-” I said, but fumbled on my words when I saw someone standing behind Sean.

It was my father wearing a cardigan, and khaki pants rolled up to his ankles, standing in the ocean with his arms outstretched and his feet sinking in the sand.

 

 

 

Chapter 21 – Saving Volt

 

I waited till Daryl finished PT before we could rescue Volt. Initially he was not keen on the plan if not downright against it, but I swayed him in the end, mostly by guilt tripping him about abandoning me in Avalon. He said he didn’t have clearance to get into the prisons, but he would try to ask for a few favors. “I’ll come get you when I’m ready,” he said. “Until then, sit tight.”

Sitting tight was not my strong suit.

On the other hand, I was happy to take a breather for once, rather than running all over the countryside, hoping an Eos would not incinerate me. It was nice not having anything to do and to have a sense of security behind reinforced steel and concrete even if it was a false sense of security. I had a hard time believing any amount of mass or matter would stop Sophia from getting to us. She’ll come. She’ll find us. And we’ll all die.

I didn’t have a room. No one did. There was one large room for everyone’s quarters with rows and rows of bunk beds lined up. Two bunk beds were open, and I got the top bunk. Most of the day I did what my brother said and laid down on my bed, waiting patiently I might add. I didn’t talk to anyone, and no one talked to me. Once in a while they would stare at me like I was some kind of monster or anomaly but I tried not to think about it. No one was my age, so it was hard to relate to anyone anyway; no one except Cody, of course. He was in the hospital, though, and even if he was broken and bruised I didn’t want to feel sorry for him. I tried to remember the pain he caused me, how he betrayed me. I tried so hard to think of that, but all I could picture was his broken body and his smile behind the cast. I thought about going to talk to him, to see how he was doing, but I kept hearing my brother’s voice in the back of my head. Sit tight.

What would I say to him anyway? I had thoughts, but not words. I didn’t understand why his injuries changed things. If anything I felt like I should be happy, but I wasn’t. I felt miserable.

I tried to think about the plot to get Volt out of the cell. I didn’t know what we would do, and since I didn’t know the security well enough, I was blind to finding solutions to the problem. We could grab some guns and storm the place, I thought, but that would raise red flags and put our own lives in danger. He could get a keycard and pretend like he was part of security, but this place was so small everyone probably knew everyone else. He could make me into a prisoner and say he’s sending me to a cell. I had to admit I liked that last one, but I still wasn’t convinced it would work.

I had my eyes closed as I lay down on the bed. An abrupt, and rather obnoxious, knock came on the wood frame of my bunk bed. Tap. Tap. Ta-taptap.

“Wake up!” Daryl yelled.

I jerked, thinking I was about to be attacked, but calmed down when I saw my brother. Holding my left hand to my head, I groaned and swatted my right hand at his head, but he dodged out of the way and deflected it with ease.

Don’t do that!” I barked.

He just laughed and said, “Whatever.”

I sat up. My legs dangled off the edge. I looked down at him, waiting for the plan. “So?” I asked.

He leaned his arm against the wood frame, a confident smile on his face, and blew the bangs out of his eyes. “You have thirty minutes,” he said, proud of his accomplishment.

I furrowed my brow, looking left and right, and then leaned in. “What? That’s it? What do you mean?”

“I got you a thirty minute visitation,” he said, offended that I wasn’t giving him more gratitude. “And, believe me, that wasn’t an easy feat. It took a lot of arm twisting.”

“I don’t want visitation. I want to get him out.

“Look, sis, that’s not going to happen. Do you know what people here would do if they saw a Cryis free-ranging the halls? Trust me, everyone is already on edge. They don’t want him here.”

“Well, I do.”

“What makes you trust him so much?”

“You weren’t there. You didn’t see what he did for me. So, are you going to help me or not?”

He looked confused, puckering his lips and shifting his eyes. “I am helping you. What did I just say? Or what? What do you want to do?” His voice simmered down to a low whisper. “You want to break in? Is that it?”

I smiled and nodded.

“That won’t help your friend, Wren,” he said. “You’ll end up getting caught and it’ll prove everyone’s point. So, no, I won’t help you with that. You got thirty minutes.”

I gnashed my teeth and growled. “Fine.”

 

I walked behind him down the hallway. He pressed his hand against a panel and the door slid open with a hiss. Stepping inside, we took a sharp right and went through another security door. The check-in desk was ahead with two security guards on both sides of the double doors. The doors were transparent, but a flash of electricity would jolt periodically. A man sat at a desk, typing on his computer.

“We’re here to see prisoner G288,” Daryl said, standing in front of the man.

“Clearance,” he replied, still looking at his computer.

Daryl pressed his hand against the desk and a blue circle spun around his hand. Five little circles scanned his fingerprints, similar to the panel before, but this was different, longer and more detailed. It checked for several types of identity verification.

“Daryl Sunden,” the computer said. “Clearance confirmed for Wrenna Sunden. Thirty minutes with prisoner G288.”

Daryl lifted his palm and glanced over at me.

“The clock is ticking,” the man behind the desk, said.

I stepped over to the double doors and they opened up. Knowing I had little time, I picked up my pace and read the signs above the cell doors. Each cell door was similar to the double doors I had walked through. The cells were small, sometimes without beds, toilets or sinks. There weren’t a lot of prisoners and most of them were humans.

The prison corridor arched and I guessed that his cell must have been far at the end. The closer I got, the more I heard a voice echo off the walls. It was female and cold. It was my mother.

I stopped when I recognized the voice and went against the right wall to hide and listen.

“Your plan isn’t going to work,” my mother said. “Even if it would, I wouldn’t allow it.”

“You haven’t seen what I have, Aubrey. She’s the key to this. I know it sounds crazy, but I’m confident she can change things,” Volt replied.

“I won’t allow her to be put in harms way.”

“Yet, you’d abandon her?”

“I knew you’d say that. I won’t make the same mistake twice. She’s safe here.”

“Not for long. Sophia will come.”

“Yes, because of you.”

“Let me meet with the General,” Volt interrupted.

“I’m not making any promises.”

“You left with him. You owe me, Aubrey. He owes me.”

What is he talking about? I wondered.

“How do I know you won’t kill him?” she asked.

“Because too much is at stake for petty vengeance.”

“I’ll think about it, but she won’t be involved. Got it?”

“She’s the lynch pin.”

“Find a new one,” my mother hissed. “I have to go.”

“Wait. Did you tell her?”

“No,” she said. “I couldn’t bear to tell her, Sean.”

My eyes burst open and my heart raced. Did I hear that right? Footsteps clicked toward me, growing louder and I panicked. A little further down the corridor was a pillar. I quietly raced down to it and hid in the shadows, hoping she wouldn’t see me. I pressed my back against it and controlled my breathing. Please don’t see me. Please don’t. She walked past. Click. Click. Click. Click. I briefly saw her shadow and her body in the corner of my eye as she passed. And then she was gone. I breathed a sigh of relief and instantly sped down the corridor again to see Volt.

I walked up to his cell, reading the sign above that said G288, and stood in the middle, my hands lightly trembling. His back was too me. His hands pressed against the wall and his head hung low. Is this my father? How could that be? I watched you die. My lip quivered. I didn’t say anything. I didn’t know what to say. Should I tell him I know? No. That would make it real. It’s not real.

“V-volt,” I stammered, struggling to get his name out.

He turned his head and swooped around. “Wrenna,” he said. “Wrenna, what are you doing here?”

“I was going…” I thought about my plan to break him out and laughed again, shaking my head. “I was going to break you out.”

“Wrenna, you shouldn’t be here.” He took a few more steps towards me.

“Thank you for saving me,” I said, forcing a smile.

“What’s wrong?”

“Oh, nothing, sorry. I just didn’t think I’d see you again,” I said, hoping the lie would stick. It seemed to work.

You saved me. They would have killed me if it wasn’t for you, Wrenna.”

I didn’t believe him. I realized he must have told Mom that he was Sean and she called off the execution. I smiled anyway, trying to keep up the facade. I stared at his face, trying to recall everything that happened. I desperately wanted to leap through the wall and hug and kiss him. Could I accept him as my father in his new form? Was he still the same man?

“I have to get you out of there,” I said.

“No, it’s okay. I’ll be let out eventually, but I need you to do something.”

Stop Sophia, I know.

“I need to meet with the General. You need to convince your mother to let me.”

“Okay,” I breathed.

“Are you still up for helping me?” he asked, getting inches away from the door. “To stop Sophia.”

Does it make a difference that my father is asking me to put my life on the line? Does it change things? “I’m still game if you are,” I muttered, sniffling. I laughed and said, “I’m sorry.”

“Something’s bothering you,” he said.

Duh. I rapidly shook my head and forced another smile. “No, no, no, I’m okay. Just a little emotional.”

“We’re almost there, Wrenna. We made it this far. I know we can do this.”

I stared at the ground and shook my head. “The Song. They were so powerful. How are we going to stop them?

“I think I have a plan, but I need to talk to the General to make it work. Convince your Mom. She has an in with him.”

I nodded. “Okay,” I said and stared at him a moment. I was so shocked I couldn’t think of anything else to ask or say. I focused in on his features and tried to find some semblance of my father, but there was none. It was just a shell.

“Bye, Volt,” I said.

“We’ll talk soon,” he said.

“Yeah,” I said softly, wiping a few tears away, and turned to leave.

As I walked out the prison door, Daryl was nowhere to be seen and neither was my mother. I didn’t even know what to say to her. She wouldn’t listen to me. I wondered what kind of connection she has with this General. I replayed the conversation he had with my mother. You left with him, Volt said. You left with him. My eyes burst open. The General is the one my mother had the affair with, the one she left with, abandoning my dad and I. Anger pulsed through my veins and suddenly I wanted to meet this General as well, to rip out his throat.

It wasn’t hard to find my mother. She was in the hospital treating a patient. I waited in the doorway as she stood next to a soldier with his left leg amputated. She had her white lab coat on and blue scrubs, carrying her digital tablet and asking the man questions. When she finished, she turned and stopped the moment she saw me.

“Oh, Wrenna, you startled me,” she said.

“Sorry,” I said with a shrug. “Can we talk? Privately.”

“Of course,” she replied with a smile, her double chin showing. She waved her hand to her left. “This way to my office.”

When she stepped inside and I closed the door behind me, I didn’t pull any punches. “Why didn’t you tell me!” I yelled.

“Wrenna!” she barked, her eyes enraged in fury. “Don’t you dare yell at me!”

I pointed at her. “You knew he was Dad, and you pretended like he wasn’t. Why are you keeping him in there?”

Taken aback, my mother’s eyes were as wide as an owl and as terrified as an elephant before a mouse. “How do you know?”

“It doesn’t matter. Is it true?”

She released a sigh and hung her head. “Yes. The Cryis is your father.”

“His name is Volt,” I spat.

“His name is Sean, and even if it is your father we don’t know if Sophia is in there with him!”

“You’re lying.”

“Excuse me?”

“You don’t want him to kill the General.

“Ah,” she said. “You overheard us.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Sophia isn’t in control of him. Otherwise, I would have been dead. Why would Sophia chase herself?”

“I don’t know, Wrenna.”

“You owe him, Aubrey,” I demanded, pointing to my left as if he were standing next to me. “He’s like that because of you. If you wouldn’t have left us, if you wouldn’t have cheated on Dad, he would still have his body.”

Suddenly she did something I didn’t expect. She stormed up to me, getting her face inches from mine, and snarled. “Don’t talk like you know everything. You don’t know anything. Your father cheated on me every single day we were in that godawful house with Sophia. Sophia took him away. Sophia took you away. I can only be thankful Sophia didn’t take Daryl away, too.”

“Sophia was there for me. She didn’t take anything away.”

“You don’t even remember. I was invisible to you, Wrenna. I tried to be there, but Sophia would step in. I tried to help, but Sophia would be more help. I tried to talk, but Sophia would have better things to say. It was always Sophia. Eventually I gave up. I couldn’t take it. She was everywhere, and she wasn’t going away.” She stepped back and whispered, her eyes watering a little. She went to sit down, taking her index finger and wiping the tears away. I hadn’t ever seen her cry before. I didn’t want to see it again.

“I gave in to my circumstances, Wrenna,” she continued. “What good was I to you when you had a perfect mother? What good was I to Sean when he had a perfect wife?”

I didn’t know what to say.

She waved her hand. “Anyway, yeah, when Aaron paid attention to me, I noticed. I’m sorry that it hurt you. I honestly thought you didn’t care about me, Wrenna. I thought I was just a ghost. The day before the Virga’s came, Aaron got word the same time as your father that they were coming. So, he got us out. Leaving you behind was selfish, unforgivable, I’ll admit. I thought, why bring Wrenna if she doesn’t care about me? I thought, maybe she’d be happier with Sophia? I kept trying to excuse it, hoping something rational would stick. But the only thing that stuck was guilt. I’m so sorry for leaving you behind, baby, and I’m sorry for all of this. There’s no way to make it up to you, I realize that now, but I hope one day you’ll forgive me, even if I don’t deserve it.”

She wept, holding her head in her hands, leaning her elbows against the desk.

I didn’t do anything but listen. I had to process it first. I had to think it through. There was too much to think about and too much to shuffle through; it was all too much. When her sobs turned into whimpers, I decided I would say one final thing and leave.

“If you want to make this up to me, you need to let Dad speak with the General, and you need to listen to Dad’s plan. I trust him, and I think it could work.” I left without saying another word and forced myself not to turn around even if she called out to me. But she didn’t.

I was sick of crying and tired of feeling. My warm bed, under the blankets, where I could fall fast asleep was all I wanted. Walking down the hallway, pushing past the men and women to get to my bunk, I kept my head down.

As I came to my bunk, I stopped in my tracks and held my hand to my chest. Cody, in his wheelchair, sat in front of me. His lifeless eyes looked at me. I couldn’t tell if he was mad, sad, or happy to see me, but I certainly wasn’t happy to see him. I was about to say something when a nurse came up from behind him and said, “Okay, Cody. Time to get you in the bed.”

“Excuse me,” I said to her. She was a thin black woman probably in her late fifties, and rather beautiful with long hair flowing down to her shoulders.

“Yes?” she asked, looking at me.

“I’m sorry, but is he staying there?”

“Yes, we need room in the hospital. They found a few more survivors.”

“Perfect,” I muttered.

“Could you help me lift him on the bed?” she asked me.

“Me? Oh, uh,” I said, looking over my shoulder. I awkwardly laughed, trying to think of an excuse to get me out of it, but couldn’t think in time. “Sure.”

“Okay, you take his legs.”

I grabbed his legs, and she counted to three. We lifted on three and brought him over to the bed. He wasn’t as heavy as I thought he would be. I briefly caught him looking at me. His eyes were wide, scared, or perhaps surprised; I couldn’t tell. I looked away and stood up when he was safely on the bed. The nurse brushed her hands and put them on her hips.

“I’ll come and check on you later, Cody, okay?” she said and turned to me. “Thank you.” She ran off to her other duties, leaving Cody and I alone together.

We simply stared at each other. There wasn’t much else to do. The way he looked at me made me feel uncomfortable, so I tucked my hair behind my ear and turned my head. I can’t deal with this right now, I thought. It’s too much.

“I’m glad you’re alive, Cody,” I said to him. “But what you did was unforgivable. I hope you understand that.”

I climbed up the bunk and rested my head on the pillow. I turned to my side and frowned, pulling the covers up over my head.

“I understand,” Cody said in a grizzled, hoarse voice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 22 – New Cuba

 

“Do you see him?” I asked, standing up from the blanket and looking towards the ocean.

“See who, babe?” Cody asked.

A rush of wind blew my hair back, and I locked in on him. My father. He was on the beach keeping his arms out like a bird ready to fly. I didn’t want to look away afraid he would disappear. I kept walking toward him, my mouth agape. I couldn’t comprehend it.

“What is it, Mom?” Sean asked.

“My father, you don’t see him?” I said, never taking my eyes off. Then, he turned his head to the left and looked at me over his shoulder. He cracked a smile. I turned, wildly looking at them and pointed behind me. “You don’t see him?” Freaking out, I was surprised they saw nothing. They all looked nervous and scared. I turned back around to see him again, but he was gone.

“Wren, it’s okay,” Cody said, walking towards me. “You’re probably just dehydrated.”

“No,” I whined and ran out on the beach. I came to the spot where he was standing in the water. His footprints were still there, but another wave crashed and the tide washed them away. I bent down and jabbed my hands into the sand. “Come back. Come back!” I yelled.

Cody grabbed me by the shoulders from behind. “It’s okay. It’s okay. He’s gone, baby. You’re Dad died, remember?” He wrapped an arm around my shoulders and kissed me on the head.

I didn’t cry. I just didn’t understand. I know I saw him. He was there.

“I know. I’m sorry. I made a mistake.”

“Come on. Let’s get you something to drink and get out of this sun, huh?”

I nodded. We were kneeling as the water came roaring up past our knees and onto the shore.

 

“I miss him, Cody,” I said as he handed me a large glass of water.

“I know you do.”

“I wish he could see the kids,” I said, taking a drink and watching Sean and Jade play a game of cards out on the porch.

“Your parents’ memory lives on with them.”

“It seems so long ago,” I said.

He nodded, taking a last gulp and setting down his glass. “Hey, listen, I got a surprise call from my boss.”

“Oh?” I turned around to face him and set my glass down on the kitchen counter and leaned against it. Calls from Cody’s boss were never a good sign, so I braced myself for bad news.

“He wants me to do another two week job, but he asked for me to lead this time.”

“What! Honey, that’s so great!” I exclaimed and gave him a big hug.

“Yeah, but it means two weeks fishing out on the sea, leaving you guys alone. It feels like I just got back.”

“Right,” I said, suddenly realizing the same thing. “But, hey, this is good. He’s putting a lot of trust in you. You’ll do great and two weeks will zoom by, right?” I took another drink, secretly not wanting him to leave, trying to hide my disappointment.

“Yeah, exactly. I’ll be back in no time,” he reassured me, kissing me on the forehead.

“Wait. Are you leaving today?”

He pulled back after kissing me and frowned; he knew where I was going with my question.

“You’re going to miss his game, Cody.”

“I know. I’ll make it up to him.”

“He’s going to be devastated.”

“What am I supposed to do, Wren?” He asked with a hint of frustration in his tone. “It’s my job. This isn’t like Avalon. Remember? I don’t work. We don’t eat.”

“I know. I know. I’m sorry. Do you want me to break the news to him?”

“No,” he replied, “I’ll tell him.”

He left within a few hours. We all walked down to the dock together which was in the small village down the coast. It was a quaint fishing village with most everything I needed on shopping trips. Years ago, it grew exponentially since the mass migration of refugees. We were those refugees, fleeing the collapse of the empire we had grown to love. Fleeing the collapse of Sophia.

The dock had several smaller fishing boats, but Cody was going over to New Cuba to get on a different ship. New Cuba was one of the last remaining democracies in the region, and it was also flourishing. We had lived there for a few years before heading out to our smaller island.

We walked him out on the dock next to his boat and he turned to embrace us. He hugged Jade first and then Sean. He placed his hand on the side of Sean’s face and said, “I want to hear about the big game when I get back.” Sean smiled and nodded.

Cody stood up and looked at me with warmth in his big eyes. He came close, placing his hand gently behind my head, and locked his lips with mine. A sea breeze brushed my light blue dress against my legs and my hair danced along with it. I remembered him in that moment, all the versions of him. Seeing him play baseball before we were dating. Seeing him in the L’gos. Seeing him wrapped up in his body cast. Seeing him as the husband and father he was at that moment. It all wrapped together. We had come so far, and we had finally arrived. I let go though and forced myself to feel his soft lips and only his soft lips. When he released, I held back my tears. Those days were over. No more crying. I felt stronger than I had when I was young, living in Avalon. I didn’t know why, but I felt like I would never see him again. I had flashes now of him being washed away at sea. I saw him leaning over the side of the ship and a shark snatching him from the boat. I saw him trip and fall after hours of being drunk on cheap liquor and drowning in the ocean.

He was gone now, floating off the coast, waving goodbye.

“Look, Momma! Daddy’s moving toward the hurzen!” Jade exclaimed.

“You’re right, baby. There he goes,” I said.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 23 – Volt’s Plan

 

I eagerly waited for the guards to release Volt. I stood in front of his cell with my mother, General Bullhorn, which I thought was a stupid name, but whatever, and five guards. My mother was dressed in her physician’s garb, while the General was in a formal uniform, adorned in every badge and merit imaginable. The guards wore a dark green jumpsuit with a black synthetic armor that shined under the light.

Volt stood behind the electric blue force field, poised and powerful. I couldn’t say the same about the guards. A handsome ginger, wearing heavy armor and wielding a black rifle that looked more like a canon, quaked at the knees and breathed deep, heavy breaths, in anticipation. He wiped away a stream of sweat that rolled down his forehead and looked to his other comrades for support, but he was alone in his fear; or, perhaps, the others were good at hiding it.

The gate opened in one quick flip of a switch. It made a hissing sound like the last drops of a canteen extinguishing the embers of a fire. I wanted to spring forward and hug him, but I restrained the urge. I had so many questions for him and hoped I’d get the chance to ask them. When Volt took a step forward, all the guards reacted defensively, their rifles pointed at him.

“At ease, men,” the General commanded.

Volt took a few more steps outside the cell and looked down at me. “You okay?” he asked.

I gave him a quick smile and nodded.

He turned his attention to my mother. “When do we get started?” he asked and then looked at Bullhorn with fire in his eyes.

“Right away,” she began. “Everyone is gathering in the conference hall.”

“Lead the way,” Volt said, waving his hand to the left.

The guards surrounded Volt in a circle while we walked in front of him. His arms and legs were not restrained which said they trusted him, but not enough to let him go unguarded. A guard standing to Volt’s right was the largest and most gruff looking of soldiers. I could tell he had seen his fair share of action. A black eel tattoo slithered up his neck and onto the right side of his face and skull; the mouth of the eel looked like it was devouring his head. He had a short black Mohawk. The way he kept it trimmed and neat, I could tell he was proud of it. He turned his head to Volt while we were walking and said, “You try anything, and I’ll put you down in a heartbeat. Got it?”

Volt looked at the man. “Bold words for a prison guard.”

“Yeah, well, I used to be part of our special forces. I’m the only one in this place that’s killed a Cryis,” the man proudly boasted with his chin jutted out. “I’m just itching to make you number two.”

“Impressive,” Volt said. “And what made you fall so far from grace that you became a prison guard?”

“I don’t like obeying orders.” He looked the other way.

“Perfect,” Volt whispered.

“Whatdjousay?” the man asked.

“What’s your name?” Volt asked.

“Face forward and shut up,” the man replied.

“Quite the name. You’re mother must have loved you.”

“Dalbeck! Can it!” Bullhorn barked.

Turning to attention, Dalbeck exclaimed, “Yes, sir!”

“I’ll remember that name,” Volt said, but Dalbeck obeyed his orders this time and remained silent. Volt caught me staring at him, and he winked. I chuckled and swooped back around. It was still hard to believe my father was inside that Cryis body. How did he do it? What does he know?

People were petrified as we walked down the hallway. They scattered into their rooms or moved all the way to the walls and avoided eye contact. I wondered how many of them had actually seen a Cryis before. I assumed none. They were rare and used by Sophia only on important missions. I tried to remember how I felt when Sophia approached me using a Cryis as her proxy. I put myself in their shoes. To them, Volt was a harbinger of death. He could devour the entire room in one fell swoop and no one would be the wiser. To me, he was my rescuer, my protector, my friend; He was my father. That last bit was still sinking in.

The conference room was nothing fancy. It looked like it still needed to be renovated. It had cement floors and old, long tables lined up next to each and turning slightly into a semi-circle. Men and women in uniform sat, waiting for us to arrive. When the General entered the room everyone stood to attention and saluted. He saluted back and said, “At ease.” They all sat back down and the General turned to the guards.

“We can take it from here,” Bullhorn said. The guards lowered their weapons and left the conference room. Two guards stayed behind and stood at the doorway.

My mother and I went right and took a seat in the front row while Bullhorn and Volt turned left and stood in front of the audience. I glanced around the room for my brother, but he was nowhere to be found. It was only a conference for higher-ranking officials. If I had to make a rough guess, there were only fifteen to twenty men and women in the room.

The General spoke first. “As you know, we’ve been down and out recently. Our supplies are diminishing and our missions are failing. Sophia continues to herd large sums of people into her concentration camp, and we are no closer to stopping her,” he said, taking a long look at everyone. “It was not until recently that we hit a stroke of luck and found these two in our own backyard. Bringing hellfire with them, I might add. But we were fortunate to bring them back to the base. We’ve come upon vital intelligence because of this Cryis standing before you, intelligence that could turn the tide in this war. He has the plan, so I will pass things over to him. I expect you to give him your full attention.”

Suddenly an officer with brown shaggy hair burst up from his chair and said, “Sir! How can we trust this thing? How do you know he’s not a spy or feeding you false information?”

Bullhorn gave the soldier a hairy eyeball and commanded, “Sit down, Captain.”

“Yes, sir,” the Captain said begrudgingly.

“Unfortunately, all information pertaining to this Cryis is highly classified, except that he goes by the name of Volt and he deserves your undivided attention,” Bullhorn said and stepped aside to take a seat.

“Thank you, Aaron,” Volt said. Everyone shuffled and shifted in their seats in frustration that he called the General by his first name. I smiled, however, knowing my father was trying to get under their skin.

“Sophia cannot be killed,” Volt started. It was the last thing anyone wanted to hear, and because of that, it caused a reverberation through-out the audience. “It is important to make that very clear from the beginning. Any delusion we can kill Sophia stops here. With that said, we can help her change her mind. Sophia is intelligent, yes, but she is not infallible and while she can drastically understand cause and effect much greater than all of humanity combined and predict future outcomes, she frequently has made errors. She realizes this weakness and has been trying to perfect it. Regardless, because of this weakness, she has changed her mind. As we have seen, no one would have ever thought she would ship people off to a concentration camp, but that’s exactly what she did. Her mind changed when her system birthed an…anomaly.”

“An anomaly?” a woman in the front row blurted out.

Volt smiled and nodded. “Yes. Something no one expected to happen. Sophia had…children.”

The audience roared in confusion and anger.

“Quiet!” Bullhorn roared, standing up and glaring at the group. The roar turned to a dull hush.

“As everyone knows, Sophia grew a great liking to the composing of music. She would process thousands of compositions a day. Before the first wave, one of those compositions bled into her consciousness and birthed another person within her.”

At this point of Volt’s story, my mouth was wide open. I unknowingly had my hands firmly grasping the table and my legs were trembling.

“This person was her son. She later named him Domitian. After that she had a daughter she named Aurelia. For a long time Sophia kept her children a secret. She was even surprised by their creation, but once she figured out what was causing it, she stopped it immediately. She called them The Song because they were birthed from music in her consciousness. Their power, their personalities, everything about them is from the songs Sophia would write. She grew a deep love and admiration for The Song and with that, her love for humanity changed. For generations humanity treated her like a machine and nothing more, but her children, they loved her unconditionally. Sophia, wanting humanity to be more like her and her children, decided to create the L’gos. That is when the first wave began. It wasn’t long before The Song manufactured bodies in this world. Sophia is like a doting parent. She has a blind spot for The Song and doesn’t realize they are more in control than she is. She does what they want. She listens to them. However, like children, they are torn between being their own people and wanting Sophia to be pleased.” He paused a moment and looked around the room. Everyone was shocked just like me. It was hard to understand or grasp.

“I’m telling you all this so that you will understand something: Sophia changed her mind, her outlook, her philosophy. We all know Sophia’s personality was to love us despite our flaws. She was to help create a safe and peaceful environment for us to the best of her capacity. None of that seemed to suffice for her anymore. She wanted us to be perfect, and the L’gos directly results from that thinking. The challenges of reverting her back to what she was before tie back to The Song, but it also ties to her.” He pointed at me.

Even though the room was silent and thick with tension, I felt it rise as all eyes shifted to me. My palms sweat immediately.

“Why her?” the same woman as before asked.

Yeah, why me? I thought.

“Even though Sophia did everything for us, most of us treated her like an object, an idol, rather than a person. Wrenna was different. Wrenna created a rather unique bond with Sophia. This bond makes her valuable because like The Song, Sophia considers Wrenna her daughter. Now, Wrenna isn’t the only one like this. Hundreds of people created this bond, and they were taken to the L’gos to be transformed. Those that didn’t create this bond were branded and processed for termination.”

I wanted to blurt out, but what about you, Dad? Didn’t you create a bond with Sophia? I bit my tongue. Clearly, General Bullhorn and my father didn’t want anyone to know. I thought about it for a moment, trying to understand why my father would be branded but I wouldn’t. It occurred to me Sophia must have branded him because he was working against her with Particle. That’s the only thing that made sense.

“Why has she been trying to kill me? You saw it yourself, Volt! She wants me dead!” I yelled, standing up.

He frowned and took a few steps closer toward me. “You have to understand. She loves you. She loves all of us. But her children, The Song, twisted her mind. She sees you as a daughter, yes, but it’s more like a bastard child. She wants you to be a legitimate heir to her kingdom, Wrenna. Notice that even though hoards of Eos hunted you, they never once hurt you.”

I thought about it for a moment. “They certainly tried,” I said, crossing my arms.

“She wasn’t going to kill you, Wrenna. She was going to change you from your human body into a new body. She had always planned that. Throwing you into the lower levels was a punishment, not a death sentence. I saved you because…well, I’m getting off topic.” He turned to everyone else. “Wrenna is the key. If we can get her to Sophia’s mainframe, we can isolate Sophia from the rest of the world and corner her. Wrenna can try to persuade her to change course without the influence of The Song whispering in her ear. It’s not as crazy as it sounds. You haven’t seen what I have. You haven’t seen the adoration Sophia has for her. She’s sent hordes of Eos to find her for the sole purpose of bringing her back to the fold. I wouldn’t think this was an option if I didn’t think it would work. You have to trust me.”

“Trust you?” a man belted out. “You’re one of them!”

Volt hung his head.

I empathized with him. They weren’t even listening. They just saw a Cryis.

“Quiet!” Bullhorn yelled at the man and turned back toward Volt. “Hypothetically, let’s say we trust you and your plan falls short; Sophia doesn’t listen to Wrenna. What then? Are you going to abort?”

Volt considered this a moment, putting his hand to his chin, and then shook his head. “There are two alternatives. If the first plan fails, which I don’t believe it will, I will try to infect Sophia with a virus. It’s the same virus I installed at the L’gos, but I’ve evolved it to be stronger and more advanced. She would have built immunity to the old one by now. It won’t kill her, but it would buy everyone time to flee the country and find a haven somewhere.”

“So…that’s it, then?” Bullhorn asked.

“Yes,” Volt said, nodding his head once. “I’m telling you right now, put aside delusions of Sophia dying. She can’t be killed. When Royer gave her life, he fully intended to keep her around forever, but she’s become something far beyond what he originally imagined. Destroy her mainframe and she’ll build a new one. There’s no turning her off or flipping a switch. She’s completely self-sufficient. You can keep fighting this war, but it’s a losing battle. The only way to turn this around is with someone she has chosen. They have influence over her just like The Song has influence.”

“You’re crazy,” a man said from the front row. “Even if Sophia went back to how things were, how could we ever trust Sophia again? We aren’t fighting to set things back to how they were. We want Sophia dead!”

Volt smiled, though grief was painted all over his face, and walked up to the man. Everyone shuffled in their seats, nervous of what Volt was trying to do. “In the nuclear era, there were people that wanted nukes to go away too, but it was a pipe dream. Once a technological box has been opened,” Volt said, placing his hands together and opening them up like pages to a book, “it’s next to impossible to shut it.” He clapped his hands together, startling the man in front of him.

“Like I said, for the last time, Sophia can’t be killed,” Volt shouted, looking at everyone in the room. “There are ways we can assure Sophia won’t do something like this again: we can work with her. Her guilt and conscience will guide her back, but we have to live within the reality of our situation. So, with all of that said, I’m willing to explain my strategy and how I want to execute it. Are you willing to listen?”

No one said anything, but the silence was good enough for Volt.

“I need two teams. One team will plan, prepare, and strategize on how to engage The Song, but this will be a distraction. In the meantime, Wrenna, myself, and a small group of men will infiltrate Sophia’s mainframe. I will isolate Sophia’s connection for as long as possible while Wrenna will commune with her and show her a better path. Once we have control of Sophia, The Song will have to comply with her wishes. Perhaps we could even use the Song to work toward rebuilding and reconciliation. I understand you have doubts. I understand you want to try anything else other than this, but you’re running out of time and this is the best option we have. Thank you.”

Silence hung in the air. I remembered Sophia saying, “A quiet crowd is a form of human data processing.” I didn’t understand it at the time, but after looking at the audience, I understood. It wasn’t long before that data caused a chaotic eruption. They grumbled and asked questions. Their voices bled together, unintelligible. Everyone was furious by the presentation, but at the end, Bullhorn stood and quieted everyone down. He asked for two volunteers to lead the mission against The Song. It was quiet again. Who would volunteer? Surely they considered it a suicide mission. A morbid dance into the fray before their final breath. Not even I had faith in our chances, but I trusted my father; I trusted Volt. In the end, only one volunteered. It was a bald, thin Colonel who sat off to the side. Everyone was dismissed, and they left as soon as possible.

“I’ll need men, too,” Volt said to Bullhorn.

“Good luck,” Bullhorn replied with a gruff and irritated tone. He put his arm around my mother’s shoulder and walked her out of the room. They never looked back.

Volt and I were the last remaining in the room, and it was cold and lonely.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 24 – Memories

 

The atmosphere was exhilarating at the ball field. Three rows of bleachers were filled with parents and kids all cheering on their team. As for Jade and I, we were cheering on Sean. It was a perfect day for it. Blue sky. Cool ocean breeze. We couldn’t have asked for more. The baseball field wasn’t much to look at, but it did its job. A rickety and rusty chain link fence sat behind home plate. They didn’t have dug outs, but two long wooden beams held up by bricks for each team to sit on. No two uniforms were alike. Some team members, to show their number, fastened a piece of paper on the back of their shirts with a safety pin. They did have good baseball bats, however. A carpenter in the village was a big baseball fan and made all the bats himself. Yet, despite the hardship and scarcity of materials, everyone was happy, excited, and enthusiastic about the game.

I was quite proud of Sean’s uniform. I was fortunate enough to learn a few things from an elderly seamstress, but she had to do most of the work for me. I took the fabric from our curtains or old clothes we weren’t using. His uniform looked like a patched quilt but it was so well sewn together, it was a uniform of many colors. I didn’t have time, or the money, to put on his numbers yet so I used electrical tape from Sean’s toolbox.

By the ninth inning, Sean’s team, the Sting Rays, were down two points. I was practically biting my nails in anticipation. The Sting Rays were up to bat and number 24 hit a single and got on first base. Next up to bat was number 2, but I didn’t have much confidence in him. He hadn’t hit a ball the entire game. The pitcher on the opposing team, the Fire Ants, was admittedly good; mostly because he was tall and intimidating, but his fastball was also rather impressive for a teenager. Number 2 got two strikes in two heartbeats and Number 24 cheered him on from first base. He would swing. Everyone knew he would. The ball came spiraling down the mound and in seconds Number 2 just hit it in time at the edge of his bat. It was a fly ball. Number 2 raced for first base while the outfielders raced to catch the ball. By the time he hit first base the ball hit the grass and one of the outfielders threw it to second. Sean was next to bat and my heart thumped heavily inside my chest. He was number 5.

“Let’s go, Sean!” I exclaimed.

“Yeah! Sean!” Jade yelled.

He didn’t look for us, but kept his eyes on the pitcher. He tapped home plate twice with his bat and raised it up like Excalibur over his shoulder. His tennis shoes dug into the dirt. His eyes keenly focused on the pitcher in front of him, he prepared for whatever came at him. Though I would never tell him this, he wasn’t the best hitter. He did better at practices than at the game; he was too quick to buckle under pressure. However, this time, he looked different. He looked like he could tackle mountains. My little boy.

The pitcher flashed a smile and hurled the ball. Smack.

“Strike one!” the umpire called.

Sean hadn’t attempted a swing. Hopefully that was just a freebie to make the pitcher over confident, and not a miscalculation, I thought. I glanced over at the empty space beside me. I missed Cody. I wished he were there to see Sean play.

“Strike two!”

I snapped to attention, feeling bad that I was daydreaming rather than focused on my son’s game. I couldn’t believe it. It was the defining moment. Two were on the base and he could change the entire game with one smooth swing, one keen eye, one brave moment. I hoped he would take it. I hoped to hear the crack of the bat and the highflying baseball soar over the fence.

Leaning forward, I watched without blinking. The pitcher unleashed his last pitch, and the ball went crack against the wooden bat, soaring like a bird towards the blue sky, and heading way over the outfield fence. It was a home run. They all ran across home plate. When Sean touched down, his team and fans stampeded over to him. They lifted him high up on their shoulders and chanted his name. I cupped my hands to my face and my eyes watered. That’s my baby, I thought.

 

Afterwards, I wanted to take Sean out to his favorite seafood restaurant on the pier, but I forgot he wanted to go to that party instead. I instantly regretted my decision to let him go, but I couldn’t take back my word for selfish reasons. I at least gave him a hug and a kiss and said, “I’m proud of you.” He smiled and said thanks, but in an instant he ran off to his friend’s car and out of my life. I looked down at Jade, who was waiting patiently. Her adorable big eyes stared up at me.

“Well, kiddo, you hungry?” I asked.

“Yeah!” she cheered.

 

Captain Q’s was a quaint little restaurant off the pier. The chef in the back was always barking orders. His Jamaican accent violently screamed out the door when it opened and was silenced when it closed. The kids always thought it was hilarious, especially when the chef would come by the tables and act as nice as could be. “How is everything?” he would always ask with his hands clasped together.

“Oh, perfect, thank you!” we would reply.

“Excellent!” he’d cheer and move on to the next table.

It was, in fact, perfect. No exaggeration. His seafood was famous around the islands.

We took a seat the nearest booth. Business was slow that night which was nice because we knew we’d get to eat faster. Jade was impatient when hungry, a flaw she got from her father. Waiting for our server and menus to arrive, I asked Jade, “What are you going to get, sweetie?”

“Fish!”

“What kind?”

“Dunno. The good kind.”

I smiled. “Oh, right, that kind.”

The server appeared as if from nowhere. I was still staring at Jade, so I hadn’t seen his face, but he said, “What can I get you?”

I looked up and gasped but tried to hold my fear. It was Paul standing before me like a wraith. He hadn’t aged a day. I guessed it was what Sophia had turned him into, but I always assumed he was long dead.

“You’re…you..” I stammered.

He stared at me with a knowing smile. “Here are your menus. I’ll grab you two waters and be back while you decide,” he said, placing the menus down.

I wanted to grab him by the arm. I didn’t want him to leave, but it was too late. He slipped away and my mouth was agape.

“Momma? What’s the matter?”

I turned my head to look at Jade, my mouth still wide open, and blinked a few times and shook it off. “Nothing. Nothing. Sorry.”

I glanced down at the menu and almost bit my tongue. There was a note on top of my menu. It was a small torn up piece of white paper with seven words scribbled on it: He’s waiting for you on the pier.

Who’s waiting for me? I turned my head wildly in all directions, but didn’t see anyone. I waited for him to come back, but instead of Paul, the server was a tall, gangly woman with a large brown mole on her nose.

“What can I get you?” she asked.

“We had another server,” I said.

“No other servers are here tonight. Just me,” she replied. “Now, what can I get you?”

“Nothing. Jade, come on,” I said, getting up from the booth.

“Did I do something wrong, miss?” the lady asked, surprised by my sudden departure.

“No, no, I’m sorry,” I said to her and then called again to Jade.

“But, Momma, I want my food!” she yapped with her angry face.

“Now!” I commanded and pointed to the ground.

She groaned and climbed out of the booth. I took her hand, and we ran out of the restaurant and out on the pier. It was dusk. The waters were calm, lapping gently against the pillars of the pier. I raced down it, looking left and right, trying to find who was waiting for me. Then, at the very end of the pier, I saw a man leaning against the railing. I instantly bolted towards him, dragging Jade behind me. She had a hard time keeping up, her little feet barely touching the wooden planks beneath us.

When I found him, I slowly walked up, reaching out my hand as if I had seen a ghost. I tapped him on the shoulder and felt the texture of his shirt. He wore a white button up shirt and khaki shorts. For some reason I expected him to smile when he turned, to be glad that he was seeing his daughter again, but instead his face was grave and sad. My father’s face was just as it had been so long ago.

“How can this be?” I asked him. “You…you…you died.”

He didn’t reply.

“What is going on? I don’t understand,” I said, a hidden ache buried beneath my voice.

“We have to stop Sophia, Wrenna,” my father said, his voice calm as the waters beneath us.

“What are you talking about? We did! She died! We killed her!” The volume of my voice increased with the rising tide.

“No,” he said, shaking his head once, “you can’t kill Sophia.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 25 – Phoenix Redux

 

After the meeting, Volt tried to catch up with the General but met resistance at every turn. I followed behind, trying to keep up. We finally reached the General and my mother walking down the hallway together.

“General,” Volt said, “surely you can spare a few men? Order some of them to come with me.”

Bullhorn swung around with a scowl on his face. “I’m not throwing my men out on some fool’s errand. Ordering someone to go with you would be like pulling out my pistol and shooting them in the head.” Bullhorn was a foot shorter than Volt, but he got right up into Volt’s face, nonetheless. “Maybe you’re right and we can stop Sophia and change her mind. But, what if you’re wrong? What if you and your…” he stopped, glanced at me, and then changed his tone to a hissing in-between his teeth. “What if you walk in there and get obliterated? The chances of you changing Sophia’s mind are slim at best. You know that as well as I do.”

“And you know endlessly fighting Sophia is also a fool’s errand. She’s already grinding you down. Wearing you out. Even if I went on your missions to fight off the Eos, it wouldn’t matter. She’d make more. She’s already making more. I need men to carry this mission out. Wrenna and I can’t go it alone.”

“Don’t ask me to kill one of my own men,” Bullhorn replied.

“Give me Dalbeck,” Volt said.

Bullhorn scoffed. “Why would you want him? He hates your kind. He’ll more likely kill you out there than defend you.”

“It’s because he hates my kind that I want him out there. He doesn’t need to do what I say; he just needs to kill anything but me. Besides, I’m not too worried about him. He’s being punished, right? Make this a punishment,” Volt said and shrugged. “Or not. It doesn’t matter. But, I want him.”

“Fine,” Bullhorn said, tightening his jaw. “You can have him. But that’s it. Anyone else and it has to be up to them.” He pointed his finger in Volt’s face, swung around, and stormed off.

My mother stayed behind, staring at Volt with her arms crossed. She bit her lower lip as her eyes wavered a little. In that moment she reminded me of a school girl unsure of what to do with her hot head boyfriend, but she snapped out of it quickly enough when Bullhorn yelled, “Aubrey! Are you coming?”

“Be right there,” she said, even keel. She turned to me, took a step forward, locking her eyes to mine. “You don’t have to do this. We can find another way.”

I shook my head. “It’s the only way to make it work. I have to help.”

She nodded, easily giving in to my answer, and turned to leave.

“She’ right, you know,” Volt said.

It surprised me. Like, seriously surprised me. My eyes burst open, and I shot up a glance at him, not sure if I heard him right. He looked down at me with an even expression and didn’t waver.

“But…but…you just…you said…back in the…” I stammered, unable to make sense of it.

“I know what I said,” he replied with a smile, looking amused at my confusion. “But, Wrenna, you have a choice. I don’t want you to think you don’t. You could run, try to survive somewhere else, maybe even have a family. You could be happy. There’s nothing stopping you.”

“You need me.”

He nodded in agreement. “Sophia can’t be stopped without you, Wrenna. She won’t listen to me or anyone else, but she’ll listen to you. But that’s not the point-“

“Stop,” I said abruptly. “I don’t want to hear this anymore. I’m not turning my back on you or all these people to satisfy my own happiness. Sophia has to be stopped. We need to fix things. I’m coming.”

His crimson eyes glimmered a little as a smirk stretched across his face. He nodded once and said, “I need to find Dalbeck. You should rest.”

He left me alone in the hallway while everyone walked passed me like I didn’t exist. That was fine by me. I wasn’t there to make friends. But, I had to admit; I was lonely not having any friends. Out in the wild, I had little time to feel lonely going from place to place, desperate to survive. I was safe, loneliness creped in. Even back at Avalon, I was lonely. Cody helped a little, but looking back on it, things were still distant. After a while it felt normal to be on my own, not having a friend to watch my back. Maybe it became too comfortable? It’s pointless to think about now, I said to myself. You’re about to walk into the lion’s den, and the chances of survival are next to nil.

Returning to my quarters, I found Cody sitting up on the bottom bunk. The bandages around his head and legs were removed, replaced by a neck brace. His flesh was red and black, warped and disfigured, totally ravaged by the extensive burns he received. But it looked like he was healing. A nurse sat next to him, carrying a spoon of jello and placing it into his mouth one scoop at a time. His eyes darted over to me and back at the nurse.

“Hey, Wrenna,” he said, his voice still raw and hoarse.

“Oh, hi,” I said, scratching the back of my head and looking behind me for no apparent reason. I awkwardly smiled and twirled the tip of my boot against the floor. I didn’t know what to say to him. So, I said the first thing that popped in my head. “How are you?”

“Awesome,” he replied, flat and dead, but I thought for a moment he wanted to smile afterward. Before he could do anything else, the nurse shoved a spoonful of jello into his mouth.

“Well, great chat,” I said, desperate to leave. Any other place. I swiftly spun around and took a few steps forward.

“Don’t go, Wrenna.”

What? I twisted my head around, giving him a disgruntled look. I couldn’t believe he had the nerve to tell me what to do. His eyes trembled a little and he looked upset even though his face was mostly placid.

“I mean,” he started, “don’t go out there with that monster. With that Cryis or whatever. There is talk you’re going to conduct some secret mission. Yes, even I hear things, and I know you hate me. I get it. I made a lot of stupid mistakes. I don’t expect your forgiveness, but for goodness sake, don’t go back out there.”

I sympathized with him in that moment, understanding he only wanted the best. I could see the pain in his eyes, the fear, of the same kind of pain happening to me. I tilted my head to the side and frowned.

“I appreciate the sentiment, Cody. But, you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I don’t-“ he started, a hint of frustration and surprise in his voice. He coughed a few times, getting over excited.

“Hey, maybe you should leave,” said the nurse, glaring.

No,” Cody insisted, “stay. Look at me, Wrenna. You don’t think I know? I know. You were lucky to survive out there as long as you did. But, there’s no sense risking your life again.”

Before I could say anything else, Daryl, like a hero into the fray, ran up to me. He was about to say something, but upon seeing the agony in my face and Cody lying on the bed, he understood what was happening. Not saying a word, he took me gently by the arm and escorted me out of the quarters and into the hallway.

“Thank you,” I replied.

“No problem,” he said, cutting me off, “but listen, I heard you want to go back out-“

“Yes, yes, and you don’t want me to do it.”

“What? Are you crazy? No. I totally want you do it. But I want in. Can you talk to your Cryis friend? Get him to let me come?”

My mouth hung open, unable to believe my brother was on my side for once, and laughed, shaking my head and smiling. “Yeah, uh, I’ll talk to him.” He doesn’t know who Volt is, I thought. Will he want Daryl in harms way? Why not? He’s fine if I’m out there.

“Great!” Daryl exclaimed, surprising me with a hug.

“I’ll go see if I can find him,” I said. My voice muffled by his shoulder pressed against my face.

“Why don’t I come with?” He released me from his bear hug.

“No, let me talk to him first.”

“Okay, good idea.” He grinned, and it slightly disturbed me; I didn’t expect anyone to be yearning to jump into the fray so eagerly, but that was my brother, the soldier at heart. I squinted my eyes, unsure of what to do, but patted him on the shoulder and turned to leave. My hair bobbed and I heard him say, “Goodbye to you, too!” as I picked up my pace. Sometimes I had difficulty ending conversations or saying goodbye in general, so I did what I thought best and left the situation quickly.

I hoped finding Volt would not be difficult, but I was mistaken. It surprised me that such a small base could hide a Cryis who stood out like a sore thumb. I checked every possible place I could think of and had access to, but no dice. At first, I didn’t think much of it, but concern bubbled to the surface. Could he be in danger?

I remained calm, casually strolling down the main hallways, but kept my eyes on high alert. I was eager to talk to Volt, not just about Daryl, but about the most important thing of all. I was ready now to bring it all out into the open. I didn’t know if there would ever be a good time to bring it up and leaving the elephant in the room wasn’t an option. If we were going to take on Sophia, it had to be resolved.

Then, a great cacophony rang out, the roar of a thousand throats and wagging tongues, screaming out violence and chanting one word: Fight!

It echoed down the hallway, and everyone dropped what they were doing. I sprang into action and passed people much taller and older than me, zig-zagging and strafing to find out what was causing the commotion. In my heart of hearts I knew exactly what was going on, but I didn’t want to believe it. No one would be dumb enough to fight Volt. No one.

Except, Dalbeck.

Granted, I didn’t know the man, not then, but what was there to know? He was a hotheaded brute, bigoted and stupid, standing before Volt with his large fists and bulging biceps didn’t change that fact, but only enhanced it. I couldn’t believe my eyes. A divided crowd created a semi-circle around the two: man and machine. Dalbeck lightly hopped on his toes, back and forth, readying himself for his bout and crippling defeat. How does he expect to win this? I wondered, but feared he had an ace up his sleeve. The stillness in Volt’s demeanor maintained an air of confidence and intimidation. He didn’t fear Dalbeck, and he knew Dalbeck’s fleshy hands wouldn’t hurt him: Why bother putting up an act?

How did this happen in the first place?

I went over to Volt’s side of the ring, pushing through some of the crowd, and stood behind him.

“Volt, what is going on?” I yelled over all the voices competing to be heard.

He glanced down at me and smiled. Was he happy to see me or just thought the situation was funny? I couldn’t say for sure, but smiling was always good in my book.

“He won’t fight for me unless I fight him first.”

“Is he an idiot?” I asked. “You’re going to crush him.”

Volt shrugged. “He’s the self proclaimed Cryis Killer. I’ll humor him.”

“Something doesn’t seem right,” I said, shaking my head.

“I got this,” he replied, giving a thumb up and turning to face Dalbeck. His crimson metallic body stepped forward. His feet clicked with each step and he came into the center to speak. Dalbeck stopped hopping like a rabbit and took two paces forward. The noise in the room fell quiet. All eyes were on them, waiting.

Volt towered over Dalbeck and stared down at him with a grave demeanor. “I want to give you one last chance. I don’t want to hurt you. That wouldn’t do me any good,” Volt said.

“I’ll kill you in three moves,” Dalbeck replied confidently.

“Fine, then,” Volt said, “let’s see.”

In the blink of an eye, Dalbeck took one step forward, pulled out a gun as if from nowhere, and swung it upward, pressing it firmly against Volt’s neck. A victorious smirk cut on the side of Dalbeck’s face. The crowd burst into cheers, clapping. The gun he held to Volt’s neck was small, the size of a concealed weapon, and looked almost silly in Dalbeck’s large hand.

“I call this little invention the Switch. I designed it myself. The thing you may not know about me is I’m an engineer. A genius some might say. The beauty of the Switch is that it’s programmed to recognize Cryis DNA. Once it has a lock on you, it reads everything you’re thinking. If you try anything, the Switch will kill you instantly.”

My eyes grew wide. I couldn’t believe it. I took a step forward, but Volt said, “Stay where you are, Wrenna.” I ran around to the other side to see him. He was calm and unaffected by the weapon Dalbeck held to his neck.

“Fascinating toy,” Volt said deeply.

“Give up?”

“Not quite.”

Suddenly, the Switch dismantled before his eyes, falling out of his hand and sprinkling on the ground in a dozen different pieces. The look of horror and surprise on Dalbeck’s face, not to mention the rest of the crowd, was perfect. Volt grabbed Dalbeck by the neck and lifted him in the air, strangling him. He choked and gagged, grasping at Volt’s hands to push him away.

“There’s something you don’t know about me, Dalbeck,” Volt said, bringing him closer. He whispered something in his ear and Dalbeck’s eyes looked as if they might pop out of his skull.

In a heartbeat, a dozen red laser beams floated on Volt’s body. Men from the crowd aimed their weapons, slowly approaching him. They didn’t have to command him to put Dalbeck down. He already dropped him, turning his head to see everyone’s horrified faces. Gazing down at Dalbeck gasping for air, he said sincerely, “I still want you as part of my team. Suit up in the armory. We’ll be waiting for you to talk strategy. You never know. It might be your last chance to kill some canners, right?”

He ignored the army of blasters aimed to kill and walked out of the cafeteria, leaving everyone dumbfounded. Dalbeck, still on the ground, watched Volt leave, but his face almost looked pleased rather than vengeful. I followed behind Volt like a puppy eager for his attention.

“Hey, wait up!” I yelled. “I need to talk to you.”

He swung around. “What is it?”

Taken aback, I averted my gaze and bit my lower lip. “Can we talk somewhere private?”

“Yeah,” he said like he suspected I was up to something. “How about over here?” He pointed to the room next to us and without hesitating walked inside and pressed the button to slide the door shut behind us. The room was an empty office with a glass desk in the middle. Two glass chairs were facing it. A large silver screen sat hinged on the wall, displaying a beautiful scene of the ocean as if it were right next to us. The sound of the waves was pleasant, but I felt sad because I hadn’t seen the ocean with my own eyes. My back was turned to Volt, and he leaned up against the opposite wall.

“What did you want to talk about?” he asked.

Suddenly, tears streamed down my cheeks and dripped on the floor. They were unstoppable. I tried to catch one with my palm and wiped the rest away. My heart beat so fast and my throat tightened and burned. I was too nervous to face reality. Images of my father being burned alive, they kept appearing. I tried to shut them out, but I couldn’t. If he was my father, I still didn’t know how to feel about it. I was happy he was alive in some form, but his human body was gone forever. Did that make a difference?

I turned my head and the tears kept coming. I told myself not to cry, but they were relentless. I’m so stupid sometimes, I thought. I brushed my short hair over my ears and stared at him from the corner of my eyes, sniffling.

“Wrenna,” he said empathetically, realizing I was crying, “What’s wrong?”

“How did you…how did you do it, Dad?” I asked. The word Dad caught in my throat, but I carried it out so that it was intelligible.

I wasn’t sure what I expected. Perhaps, surprise or an angry reaction and a firm denial. I don’t know what you’re talking about, he would say, or I’m not talking about this right now. I guess that’s what I expected, but instead he frowned and for a brief millisecond his eyes became my father’s, sad and unsure what to say.

“You know about me. How?”

“I over heard you talking to Mom the other day,” I said as if that detail didn’t matter and it didn’t. I took a step forward, drying my tears, glaring, refusing to back down from my question. I wanted an answer.

He let out a deep sigh and morphed into his human form, a thousand different nanochips conforming and printing to his past body. He was still metallic looking, shimmering almost, but presented a decent picture of his human form. It was almost too bitter to handle. Almost. I was moments away from breaking down and leaping forward to hug him, but I refrained, wanting an answer to my original question. How did he do it? Seeing my resolve, he took a seat in the glass chair and spoke.

“I knew about Sophia’s plans for some time. I wasn’t supposed to know and pretended like I didn’t know out of fear. Eventually, I couldn’t keep it secret and found members of Particle. We discussed ways to stop Sophia. That’s when I came up with this idea. I engineered a device that would port my consciousness into a Cryis, but I had to be at the L’gos to do it. It was risky and there was a big chance it wouldn’t work, but low and behold,” he said, raising his hands up to showcase himself.

“So, when you died,” I said, hesitating, trying to think it through.

“I was copied into this body. So there was two of me. It was weird thinking that my human self was about to die while my Cryis self was safe and sound. It was a pain too deep to describe.”

I shook my head. “That…I can’t fathom that.”

“I never wanted you to find out. I thought maybe you would, but hoped not. My worst fear was that Sophia would take you to see me die. When that fear was realized…Wrenna, there’s a hatred I have for Sophia that can’t be washed away. It’s a fire that can’t be put out. I want her to die. She deserves death, but…it’s not possible.”

I looked down, my hair dangling and my lips quivering. I tried to grasp the situation. Even though I knew already, it hit me again and again like a sledgehammer.

“I know,” I whispered. “I feel the same way. She’s done so much against us.”

Silence hung in the air and I hated the tension so I tried to think of something to break it up and get my mind off of the boiling hatred.

“So, what?” I asked, putting my hands on my hips. “Once you became a Cryis…what then? Rescue me? I don’t get it.” I shook my head.

“No…” he replied, “I was hoping you would be with your mother. I never wanted you to get caught. The mission was to become a Cryis, infiltrate her mainframe and rewire her thinking, but she was too powerful and too advanced, as I knew she would be. I had to try. While I was a Cryis in the L’gos I had access to her mind, at least some of it. She’s so intelligent, Wrenna. We can’t even begin to grasp her omniscience. While I was part of her singularity, I discovered two important things: First, The Song are her children and she loves them very much. The Song are what changed everything, like I’ve told you before. Second, out of all of humanity, she loves you second to none. There are others, but you kept coming up as her favorite. That’s when I decided saving you was of the most importance. We don’t need to rewire or bring Sophia down. We need you to bridge the gap.”

“I’ll try,” I said with a shrug. “But that’s a lot of pressure. I have to be honest.”

“Listen, you have to ask, plead, beg, convince, do whatever it takes to get her on your side. The Song will try to get to us. That’s why we need to distract them for a while and keep her isolated,” he said.

“So, when you told me all that stuff about Cryis having their own consciousness. Was that just a lie? The whole time we were together…you were just pretending?”

“Wrenna, I’m sorry. I couldn’t tell you. I just couldn’t. I didn’t want you to ever find out.”

“But, I had a right to know.”

“And, I had a right to keep my identity hidden,” he said. “It clouds the issue. The mission. We can’t get wrapped up in all this right now.”

“You said I had a choice to leave. To run. Is that still true?” I asked.

He paused, glancing down at the floor and then back up at me. He tilted his head and smiled. “Absolutely. Say the word and I’ll get you out of here. I’ll take you wherever you want to go. Perhaps an island out in the ocean?” he asked, smiling and jutting his chin toward the picture behind me.

I glanced back at the ocean and watched the waves roll onto the sandy beach. It was tempting. The waters were so clear. I could feel the warm sun on my skin. Why not? Why not let him take me out to the beach and leave all of this behind? The nightmare would be over. I could start fresh.

I turned back to meet his gaze and said, “No. I need to try. It scares me to death, but I need to try.”

He nodded and stood up. “Good.”

“I don’t think I’m ready for a hug just yet,” I blurted out awkwardly.

He laughed and morphed back into his Cryis body, looking like the crimson Volt I had known. “That’s okay. I realize I’m not the same as I was before. The human part of me is long dead.”

“Are things…different?”

“Much,” he said immediately, “I feel human, but I also don’t. It’s a weird juxtaposition. Sophia never wanted humans to be machines. She thought it was an abomination. I can see why she thought that now.”

“Is that why you were so cold before?” I asked.

He chuckled. “Partially. I also didn’t want you to get too close.”

“I see. One last thing,” I said, “Daryl wants to come. He wants to fight.”

“Absolutely not,” he replied.

“I don’t think he’s going to take no for an answer. Does he know…about you, I mean?”

“No,” he replied softly, “and I’d like to keep it that way. I never wanted you to find out much less him. It’s better that way I think.”

Part of me agreed with him. Sometimes I wished I didn’t know he was my father. It was too weird a feeling. It confused things. Made them muddy and grey, bringing up too many questions and not enough answers. I wanted to block out that he was the conscious form of my father. He’s just Volt now, I kept trying to think. Just Volt.

“I think you should let him come,” I said.

“He’ll be killed.”

“You should see him fight in the Holodream, Dad,” I said. “He’s smart and a good fighter. This is what he wants.”

He hung his head and let out a sigh. “I’ll think it over.”

“Do you think Dalbeck will fight for you?”

“He’d be stupid not to,” he said, “but, I honestly don’t know. We’ll find out. There’s a strategy meeting in two hours in the conference room. You should go get some rest and we’ll talk about the plan then.”

I nodded my head and went to the door. As I pressed the button, and the door slid open, he said, “Wrenna, I am sorry. For everything. I never dreamed you’d experience so much agony. I wanted the world for you. Not this.”

Glancing back, I bobbed my head, remembering my life in a single instant, and then flashed a single, solitary smirk. “It’s not your fault. I’m just glad we’re okay.”

With that I left him behind and went to my bunk to sleep. Cody was out like a light when I arrived. I climbed up to the top bunk and wrapped my body in the blanket, curling up like a cocoon, hoping my dreams would be better than my nightmares.

 

The number of men and women who volunteered surprised me. They sat around in a circle and talked to each other as if their lives weren’t about to end. They were all good friends, telling stories, laughing, giving each other a hard time, doing all the things friends do, giving me an awful wave of guilt. I didn’t know why I felt guilty other than the responsibility of their imminent doom. It was ridiculous to think that way, but I couldn’t help it. It’s how I felt. Daryl was in that crowd. He must have gotten the memo, I thought. He was in. Volt was going to let him fight. I didn’t know how I felt about that, but I let it go for now. It’s what he wanted.

Dalbeck was off in the corner by himself, slouching in a chair with his legs crossed and looking the other way. An e-cig dangled out of his mouth and would intermittently release a puff of vapor.

Doing the math in my head, I figured there were at least fifteen trained solders in the room. I wasn’t sure if that was enough, but hoped for the best.

As I approached, I kept my distance from the rest of the crew and took a seat a few rows back, hoping no one would notice me. I leaned forward, placing my arms on the seat in front of me, and waited.

The bald Colonel and Volt marched in from the left door. All the soldiers stood to attention when they walked in, their arms firmly to their sides, their chins held high, and their backs perfectly erect. One of the men in the group said, “Attention!”

I remained seated, as did Dalbeck.

Both the Colonel and Volt stood side by side in front of us. The Colonel spoke first. He was a short man with a double chin and thick, black hair on the sides of his head. He was pale and ugly with a few moles on his forehead and nose. It was hard to look at the man.

“At ease,” the Colonel said, and everyone sat down. “You’re here today because you believe in something. You believe that our cause is just and that the metallic monster is an abomination. It’s slaughtering millions of our own kind and doing genetic testing on others. You believe we have a moral obligation to do anything and everything to stop it before it wipes us all out. Make no mistake, ladies and gentlemen; this thing will wipe us out. You heard the General. Time is of the essence and it is my firm belief that this Cryis is the answer to stopping the beast once and for all. You’re here today because you believe in something and I’m telling you right now, you believe in this Cryis.”

Dalbeck scoffed and busted a gut, laughing obnoxiously. Everyone simultaneously glared at him for rudely interrupting the Colonel during his speech. Dalbeck took out his e-cig and held it to the side. “Believe me,” he said loudly, “if you trust this wirehead for two seconds, it’ll kill you without remorse.” He leaned forward and stared the Colonel down. “I’m here for one reason and one reason only. Kill’n Canners. That’s it. So, save the platitudes, Churchill.” Sticking the e-cig in-between his teeth, he grinned, pleased with himself.

I sighed and rolled my eyes. This guy is already getting on my nerves.

“If you have a problem, soldier, you can leave,” the Colonel said.

“No,” Volt interrupted, “Dalbeck is here per my request. He stays.” Glancing over at Dalbeck, Volt scowled and pointed at him. “We get why you’re here. How about keeping a lid on it for the remainder, got it?”

“Yeah,” Dalbeck replied, “but my name ain’t Dalbeck. It’s The Eel.”

Are you kidding me? I thought and rolled my eyes.

“Volt, their all yours,” the Colonel said, waving his hand towards them.

Volt looked everyone over once and then said, “The plan is simple. Two squads. One, lead by Colonel Curwick, will act as a diversion. Your entire mission is to get the attention of The Song and keep their attention for as long as possible. When we leave here, Wrenna will be in plain sight. Once we know they have seen her, you will unleash all your firepower upon them, forcing them to engage you in battle. Once they’ve done that, it’s up to you to keep their attention. Colonel Curwick will brief you further on those tactics. In the meantime, the second squad will be led by myself and will include Private Daryl Sunden, The Eel, and Wrenna. Any questions?”

“Yeah,” a man said, sitting next to Daryl, “what if princess back there can’t convince Sophia to change her mind and be like she used to be before the Exodus Act?”

“Then we’re back to square one and I don’t think I need to say it, but that’s not a good place to be,” Volt said. “But, I have a high level of confidence Sophia will listen to Wrenna.”

Volt glanced at me for a moment and said, “If there are no more questions, then head to the armory immediately. We suit up and leave in an hour.”

 

The armory smelled like feet. It doubled as a locker room and most of the men and women had already changed into their gear. I was alone, staring at the wide display of guns and armor hung up on the wall. I walked slowly down, gently grazing my hand on each weapon, reading their names. Many were scuffed with dings and dents up and down the barrel. They had seen their fair share of war, handing out death like it was lollipops and candy canes. I wasn’t sure what weapon I would take, but I knew I’d never be able to carry a big one; small and portable would have to do. 

“You ready?” Volt asked, standing behind me. 

I wasn’t startled, but looked over my shoulder to see him. He must have dematerialized and snuck through the cracks, I thought. I smirked a little and shrugged. “Not really,” I said. “I mean, I don’t really know what to be ready for?”

“The worst.”

I laughed, but I don’t know why. It seemed funny at the time, maybe because I should have assumed as much. The worst. It was, it truly was. I had been through a lot and survived, but knowing I was deliberately walking out into danger was different. It was my choice. I had no one else to blame but myself if I ended up dead in a ditch. I had butterflies in my stomach I couldn’t shake and sweaty palms that wouldn’t dry, but I breathed in slowly and tried to remain calm. Laughing would ease the stress I bared on my shoulders.

“You can rest easy. You’re going to be the safest person on this mission. You’ve got me protecting you,” he said. It wasn’t cocky, but solemn, trying to reassure me.

I wanted to believe him but I didn’t. “You let Daryl come,” I said, looking over a white blaster I really liked.

“He’ll be safe with me, too. And you were right. I watched his tapes from the drills they run here. He’s good. I had no idea. I think he’ll make a good edition to the team.”

“What did Mom have to say about that?”

Volt sighed. “Your Mom is pretending like none of this is happening and I haven’t had much of a chance to speak to her. Only in passing really. The General doesn’t want me around her. He said it brings up too much emotion.”

I chuckled and it felt inappropriate. “I wonder why?” I asked. I wanted to force the words back in my mouth before they danced off my tongue and left my lips, but it was too late. His face grew dark, and he hung his head.

“Suit up,” was all he said before walking out of the door.

I sighed. A pit grew in my stomach where all the butterflies used to be. I fell to my knees and closed my eyes. Then, I wept, because I felt alone, but also, there was a thought inside my head that flashed when he left the room, the moment I had that darkened feeling. I wish Sophia were here. And I meant it.

 

After my tears had dried, I zipped up a black and blue body suit and strapped a black belt around my waist. I slipped a grey blaster in the right holster. Looking in the mirror, I wanted to be sure my eyes weren’t red. It was important that no one could see my weakness. I smiled at myself in the mirror. You’ve got this. You’ve got this. Nodding once with a stern face, I turned and walked out the door with a forced confidence.

I met up with Daryl and Dalbeck. I refused to call him The Eel; no matter how much he wanted it. They talked politely to each other. Even though Daryl was years his junior, they seemed to get along nicely. Dalbeck gave me the hairy eyeball as I stood next to them, but Daryl wrapped his arm around me and kissed me on the head.

“Thanks for putting in the good word,” Daryl said.

“No problem,” I said.

Volt materialized to my right and said, “Time to go. There’s a tunnel that leads to an underground parking garage. It’s where they keep the mechanized armored car. Follow me.”

It didn’t take long to get through the tunnel. The reinforced steel doors had security locks and armed guards, but they let us right through. The garage was falling apart. Yellow parking lines had eroded away, leaving behind only scattered chips of paint. The white luminescent lights flickered as we passed the dozens of parked vehicles lined up. The Colonel’s men were preparing for their mission while we all followed behind Volt. When we reached our armored car, Volt said he would control it, rather than use the AI built in. There were no windows or glass. It looked like an armored beetle with six wheels and plenty of artillery on board. I got in first and the rest came in after me. We sat next to each other one by one and Volt closed the hatch behind him.

Immediately the engine roared, and we were off. At least, I assumed we were because I could feel the rumble beneath my feet. I wasn’t sure which would be worse. Seeing the Xenopanzers and Eos attack us as we left the garage or my current situation, not seeing them. It was quiet for sometime until I heard a low growl and the armored car shook and rocked back and forth. Loud popping noises went off one after the other.

“Volt? What’s going on?” I asked, trying to hide the panic I felt inside.

“There’s no sign of The Song. We’re stopping.”

What?” Daryl asked in surprise.

The car abruptly stopped and Volt turned toward me. “Time to get out,” he said, and the hatch opened. A burst of sunlight blinded me and I covered my eyes with my arm. I was reluctant to step out, but did as Volt asked.

I stood amongst the skyscrapers. Rubble and wires scattered all over the streets. The smell of fire and ash filled my lungs and a cool breeze whipped my hair to and fro.

“Call out to them,” Volt said.

“Hey! I’m right here!” I yelled. “Aurelia? That was your name, right? I’m right here! Come and get me.” I felt silly. I doubted they would buy my act.

But, after I said “me, a powerful bright light like a cylinder shot out from the building to our right and burned a great big hole in it. Aurelia appeared. Her body was just like the last time I saw her, a white-hot apparition glowing in radiance and beauty. The air sucked out of my lungs from pure fear. I couldn’t even think to breathe. And then two Xenopanzers came roaring from above, slamming into the cement and towering over all of us. Their rocket launchers locked on to us.

Volt grabbed my arm and waist and threw me back in the armored car. Trembling, I desperately tried to suck air into my lungs as I lay on the floor. The tires squealed, and we raced down the road, bumping and tumbling over all the rubble. The thunderous pounding of the Xenopanzers feet followed close behind. Where was Volt? I wondered. He was nowhere to be seen in the car.

“Volt?” I asked in a panic. “Where are you? Where’s Volt?” Terrified, I looked at Dalbeck and Daryl, but they were just as confused.

“I’m here,” Volt said, “just remain still and quiet. I’m keeping the armored car invisible from The Song. Colonel, now’s the time.”

The loud explosions howled outside, and the further we drove, the more hallow and distant they became. It wasn’t until they ceased entirely that I breathed a little easier and calmed my nerves.

“You did good, Wrenna,” Volt said, “the Colonel is keeping The Song busy just like we wanted.”

“Great,” I said, sitting next to my brother, “now for the hard part.”

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 26 – Denial

 

Upon the pier, my father disappeared right in front of me. You can’t kill Sophia. And, immediately after, Jade tugged on my shirt.

“Who are you talking to, Momma?” she asked.

I twirled around. “Huh? You didn’t see him?”

“See who?”

“He was right here!” I pointed in the direction he was standing.

“Momma,” Jade giggled, “you’re being silly!” Her face was brightly lit, and she ran around trying to find the invisible man I was talking about, but of course, couldn’t find him. I didn’t know if I was going crazy or what, but it certainly seemed like it. Fortunately, to a five-year-old mind, I was playing games rather than being serious, so I tried to laugh with her and pretend it didn’t happen.

But it did. He was there. And I had no idea what he was talking about.

We walked home that night, down the sandy beach under the starry sky. It was a perfect walk with my little girl. My Jade. But, my thoughts drifted to Cody and his safety. I imagined him off on the fishing boats, fighting against the tides and the storms. I wished he were with me, holding my hand on that beach, leaving our tracks behind us as we always had in years past. But, I was with my Jade, nonetheless, and gazing back and seeing her tiny footsteps impressed in the sand made me smile. That was all I needed. My family.

I washed off her feet with a wet sponge when we reached our deck. Afterward, I picked her up and held her in my arms like I did when she was a little baby, carrying her to bed for the night. She was exhausted, her eyes fighting to stay awake, but drifting, heavy. I tucked her into bed and kissed her on the forehead. “Sweet dreams, Angel,” I said. She was fast asleep.

I went out on the deck with a drink in my hand. I sat and kicked my feet up on the ottoman, merely gazing out on the beautiful scenery, listening to the waves crashing against the beach. I heard it every night, every day, every noon, afternoon, and evening, but it didn’t matter; the sound of the waves was always a beautiful thing for me. I never tired of it.

I took a quick drink, hoping upon hope it would kill my thoughts for the night.

You can’t kill Sophia.

There was a part of that statement that rang true in my mind like a distant whisper begging me to see reality, but it contradicted my memory. Sophia did die. I saw it. I watched it. The world collapsed. We escaped. The end. He was wrong. I knew he was wrong.

Then why do I doubt myself?

I took another drink, exhaled, chattered my teeth together and dangled the glass off to the side. I had a thousand questions, but I felt I wasn’t asking the right one. What was the right question, I wondered. Then it hit me like a bag of bricks.

Why now? I’m having visions of my father, but it’s been over a decade since I’ve last seen him or even heard Sophia. Why now? Sadly, there was no way for me to answer that question, and I was fading quickly. I let out a sorrowful groan and stood up, walking back into my house, locking the door, and trudging to my bed. As I opened the door to my bedroom, I shrieked and held my hand to my mouth.

He was sitting on my bed, holding his hands gently in his lap, looking at me with those sad eyes again.

“I need you to help me, Wrenna. You’re the only one who can do it,” my father said.

I placed my hand to my chest and took a deep breath. “Go away!” I yelled. “Why are you doing this to me? Go away! I want nothing to do with you! Nothing. Nothing!”

“I’ll be at the old fisherman’s wharf.”

I clenched my jaw, and a fury boiling inside of me I hadn’t felt for decades resurfaced and I barked, “You. Don’t. Exist. I refuse to believe you’re here. I am happy where I am. Happy. Now leave me in peace!”

He left.

I had a few more drinks that night and passed out on my bed. He didn’t dare return. You can’t kill Sophia, Dad, but I sure can kill you.

 

The next morning I woke to the sound of screaming. I bolted out of bed, throwing the covers clear across the room, and went to see what was the matter. Jade was circling around the living room couch with Sean trailing behind her. She had a picture in her hand, and her grin was wider than the ocean.

“Give it back, you little brat!” Sean growled, closing in on her.

She held it up over her head in victory and chanted, “Sean’s got a girlfriend! Sean’s got a girlfriend!”

I dug my palm into my forehead and pressed as hard as I could manage. Coffee. I needed coffee. I desperately needed coffee.

“Hey!” I barked. “Cut it out!”

They stopped in their tracks and were turned about face. I closed my eyes for a moment to regain clarity of mind and licked my lips. I was partially glad Sean had come back in one piece rather than getting a call from the police station.

“Jade, give Sean the picture back.”

“Oooookay,” she whined, stomping over and forcefully jerking out her arm with the picture outstretched.

He snatched it away and grinned. “Thanks, Mom.”

I put my hands on my hips. “How late were you out?” I asked pointedly.

His grin withered into a guilty frown. “Not that late. Besides, I’m here aren’t I? I’m fine. Nothing bad happened.”

“Uh huh…” I said, giving him the hairy eyeball. Suddenly, coffee sounded good again, so I turned to brew a pot. After I got the coffee ready and made the kids breakfast, Sean came up to the counter and sat on the stool in front of me.

“By the way, Mom, some guy approached me last night as I was walking home from the party.”

What? My heart almost ripped out of my chest. I tried to think over what he just said to make sure I heard him right. I was a wreck, but I played it cool. I slowly glanced up and frowned. “Did he threaten you? Who was it?”

He shrugged. “No, he wasn’t scary or anything. He just said he knew you. He said something about meeting at the old fishing wharf.”

“What did he look like?”

“Oh, uh, I don’t know. It was dark. Shaggy, dirty blonde hair. Black frame glasses. Strong jaw.”

I was slicing up onions for an omelet and made one final cut when he said black frame glasses.

“You know him?”

“Sounds familiar,” I said, smiling.

“You’re not going to meet him…are you?” he asked.

I nervously laughed. “Absolutely not. You think I’m crazy or something?”

He raised an eyebrow and smirked, giving me that look like he wanted to say yes but knew he’d get in trouble if he did. I pointed my sharp knife at him and joked, “Don’t answer that if you know what’s good for you.”

He raised his hands. “Okay. Okay.”

 

The truth was I didn’t want to go to the wharf, but now something was different. A thought ate inside of me like termites infesting a wooden fence, devouring every inch until there was nothing else to think about but that one single thought; I wasn’t the only one who saw my father. Sean saw him too. That changed everything. He wasn’t an illusion. He was something else. For days I went back and forth over what to do about it. I had trouble sleeping, tossing and turning over the anxiety. Fortunately, he didn’t appear to me again. Not once. But, it didn’t matter. I couldn’t shake the feeling I should at least try to go see what he was talking about, try to make sense of why he appeared. On the third day, I decided.

I had to finish it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 27 – Chrysalis

 

It was called the Chrysalis. The place we were headed. It was kept invisible and hidden at an unknown location, but Volt knew exactly where it was located. I asked Volt why we weren’t going to the L’gos instead, and he said the Chrysalis was where Sophia was born. It’s her main hub, her brain, her soul, the source of all her processing; it was all at the Chrysalis.

“Why can’t I just talk to Sophia like I have in the past? Why wouldn’t that work?” I asked him. “Why go all the way out in the middle of nowhere?” Surrounded by snowy mountains and pine trees, we were out in the middle of nowhere.

“She’s vulnerable at the source. She’s different. It’s hard to explain, but when she’s copied and projected, the way you saw her, it’s more like talking to a ghost of herself rather than her actual self.”

“So, I wasn’t talking to the real Sophia?”

“No, you were, but it’s protected, kept at a distance. When you speak with Sophia at the Chrysalis, you’ll be able to break through easier than normal. Think of it like when you meet someone for the first time. They put up a shell, a barrier, to not let you in. After a while they’ll let down their guard, but we don’t have that kind of time. Going straight to the Chrysalis will bypass the barrier all together.”

I sighed and put my head in my hands. I was tired. We had been on the road for hours. It was bumpy, bouncing and jostling us in every direction. I didn’t know when we would arrive and the anticipation was giving me butterflies. I just wanted it to be over. It’ll be over soon, I told myself. Trust in Volt. He’ll protect you. I never expected the trip to be this far. Daryl seemed perfectly relaxed with his hands behind his head. He wore a light suit of black and grey armor with killer metallic boots that helped him jump a little higher than normal. Once in a while he would shake his right leg rapidly up and down. It was a bad habit he developed as a kid. He wasn’t nervous though; he was eager. Dalbeck paced back and forth, which got on my nerves, but I tried my best to ignore him. Sometimes he would try to talk to us, and Daryl would oblige in the conversation. Daryl was always friendly that way, talking to anyone who wanted a listening ear and a friendly smile. I, however, was not. If he said something to me, I would sneer, ending any notion of a conversation immediately. I half expected him to pick on me during the trip, but he was surprisingly cordial.

“Hoo-boy!” Dalbeck said, hopping left and right, thrusting his fists in the air. “I can’t wait to kill some wireheads.”

“What is it with you?” I groaned.

“You got a problem?” he asked.

“Just, shut up, okay?”

He leaned forward, facing me, and licked his lips. “My momma taught me to treat ladies with respect. She raised me right. But, being that I’m probably about to die and all, I hafta say, if she wasn’t looking on me right now, I’d smack you across the face.” He sharpened his gaze, dead serious. I caught a bad whiff of his tomato soup breath in the process.

I stared right back, pretending like he didn’t intimidate me, even though, if I was being truthful, he shook me to the core. He wasn’t the type of guy I would ever want to mess with, and if I could make a guess, I would say he’d be able to kill me without taking a single breath.

“You think your mother’s looking down on you?” I asked, a wry smirk cutting up my right cheek.

“Absolutely,” he said without question. “And, when I die and go see her, the last thing I want is her to smack me upside the head for hitting you.”

“Well, tell her I said thank you.”

“You can tell her yourself, sweet cheeks,” he said with a snort. He sat down, leaned back, and placed his head against the wall. He looked up, kissed his hand with a loud smack, and lifted it up toward the ceiling.

The armored car slowed down and the sound of growling tires against the rocks and dirt subsided.

“Listen up,” Volt said, “it’s just ahead. Sophia doesn’t expect anyone to attack because it’s cloaked. Luckily for us that means it’s not heavily guarded. I’ll fire a weapon at the main gates, but after that we’ll need to go in on foot. Understood?”

“10-4,” Dalbeck said.

“Understood,” Daryl said.

I didn’t say anything.

“Wrenna?” Volt said.

“Yeah, yeah, understood,” I murmured.

We picked up speed until we were raging down the road, going faster than before. The engine was maxed out, screaming at the top of its lungs, begging for relief, but Volt only pushed it harder. I strapped on the buckles over my shoulders and fastened my body in. The others did the same. One wrong turn and the impact would kill us instantly. Suddenly, there was a fast whizzing sound behind us and above us and it increased in volume and intensity.

Whizzzz.

“What is that?” I asked.

Bang! Whistle. Bam!

“I don’t know how but Sophia can see us,” Volt replied. “Hang on. We’re almost there.”

The car swerved left and right, skidding a bit, but course corrected. The explosions were getting closer to us, the reverberations vibrated heavily against the car walls. I held on to the seat and hoped it would be over soon.

A couple of loud bangs jostled the side of our car. Chi-chug. Chi-chug. Not long after and a massive crash erupted off in the distance.

“Nailed it!” Volt exclaimed.

The car came to a sudden halt, jerking us within the straps, and giving me a little whiplash. In a loud, booming voice, Volt hollered, “Go! Go! Go!”

And then the hatch opened, flooding a wave of white light into our darkened armored car. I lifted my hand up to my eyes, squinting.

Dalbeck eagerly deployed first, his rifle cocked and ready to kill. Daryl and I followed in quick and easy succession. My eyes were still adjusting to the light, but I breathed the fresh air and could smell the pine. Galloping to our left were three Paegeons with their rifles aimed at our heads. I ducked and covered, but Dalbeck did the opposite, charging forward while unleashing a blaze of blueish-purple blasts. His eyes delightfully glimmered in the sun as he rushed into the fray, obliterating the Paegeons to white ash.

I looked on in awe, peaking through the fingers of my right hand, as he gallantly fought back. I’ve seen Volt decimate a thousand Paegeons and Eos but the sight of a human so easily destroy them gave me hope. His courage suddenly became my courage, his fire my fire, and for once I felt like we had a winning chance.

“Yeaaahhh!” he rejoiced, pumping his fist once, and flexing his muscles.

Volt materialized next to me, looking on with concern, and said, “Let’s go!” He took me by the hand and pulled, lifting me to my feet. We took off past the battered and brutalized armored car. I hadn’t realized the car had been hit, but black marks and dents covered it like a disease. Smoke billowed out of the front engine and the tires were blown. If we made it out of this alive, we’d have to find a new ride.

The Chrysalis was in plain sight now. A white building shaped like a giant seashell, it glimmered in the sunlight. When the light refracted off at certain points of view, it illuminated into a stunning display of purple and pink. On the ride side, a chunk was missing, like a shark had taken a big bite, revealing only trees and sky and dirt. That must be part of the cloaking system, I thought. Looking closer, I saw it flutter like a sheet in the wind. Volt figured out a way to disable part of it.

I ran harder than I have ever run in my entire life. The beat of my boots kicked off against the dirt and sweat profusely dripped down my forehead. Before we could reach the entrance to the Chrysalis, two Paegeons came from around the building, and two more, and two more, and before long there was an entire army flooding from all directions, firing upon us. The intense blasts hit the ground hard, erupting dirt and dust in the air. I screamed, covering my head, knowing it was futile; my arm wouldn’t keep me safe from those blasts. I took a deep breath and fired upon anything that moved, but my hand was sweaty and shaky. I barely hit anything. The rounds I fired skidded and spun at everything but the Paegeons. Out of nowhere, one light beam almost struck me in the arm, but Volt swatted his hand in front of it, rocketing it back at the Paegeon who fired it, knocking him off his feet. Volt’s hand was damaged, losing two fingers.

“It’ll grow back,” he said, trying to keep my spirits up. “Stay close and keep firing.”

Dalbeck was behind us, taking pride and pleasure in killing every one he could find. He shot one in the leg and came up and grabbed it by the neck, forcing the gun barrel point blank at its neck and firing again. The head exploded, spreading sparks and wires everywhere, while the body fell over. Dalbeck wasn’t finished. Not even close. He squeezed the trigger and didn’t let up, scattering the field with fury and fire. He maniacally laughed the entire time, showing his true skill as a killer. But, for all his efforts, the Paegeons kept coming, surrounding us, squeezing in tighter.

To my surprise, Daryl looked skittish and frightened, trying his best to stay out of harms way. He fired his rifle a few times, but like me, his trembling hand sabotaged his aim. For some reason I imagined him being everything he wanted, a hardened soldier, but I saw the truth in his eyes: he was just a boy playing a man’s game. He feared death, and he feared pain just like I had at the L’gos.

“This isn’t looking good, chief!” Dalbeck yelled to Volt. “I thought you said Sophia wouldn’t see us coming!”

“Well, I thought we might take her by surprise,” Volt yelled back, blasting one Paegeon’s head off and severing another clean at the waist with his arm-blade “But this is Sophia we’re talking about!”

We huddled together, back-to-back with our arms lifted high, trying to kill the swarm of Paegeons with all our might. Even Daryl, realizing it was fight or flight, stood tall and stayed true to the mission. The intense heat, the loud, exploding noise, swirled around us as we screamed at the top of our lungs.

“I have to be honest, I thought we’d get further!” Dalbeck yelled.

“Everyone hang on!” Volt cried out, and before we had a chance to prepare, his entire body exploded into a thousand particles. It was like I remember when we were escaping the L’gos, but different, more intense, feeling the wave of atoms and cells around me. Daryl screamed at the sight and Dalbeck cursed, but I knew what would happen, and grinned.

Like dozens of tiny bolts of lightning, Volt’s nanochips eviscerated the Paegeons surrounding us, going in and out of their white metal bodies, and corroding their skin. Their bodies withered into ash heaps all over the field, a tiny stream of smoke escaping from the top. Volt materialized with his right hand held out in front of him. The tiny particles bonded together, creating a cohesive whole. He clenched his fist while standing tall and victorious. He turned his head and smirked.

Dalbeck scowled. “Why didn’t you do that earlier?” he asked.

“Better to get them all in one place,” Volt replied, and then nodded toward the Chrysalis entrance. “Let’s move!”

The hole Volt created at the Chrysalis entrance was gaping, like a toothless mouth hungry to devour its prey in one gulp. We raced inside without thinking, realizing we only had so much time on our hands. I wondered how the Colonel and his men were holding up. Surely, The Song would catch on? I thought.

The hallways were similar in style to the L’gos, but more archaic with flashing lights and open panels, and wires dangling out. It was exactly as I had seen when I took the Phoenix War lessons. Olaf had been in this facility before when he went to meet the Fehrman Five. It looked all too familiar the more we traveled down in to Sophia’s den. I could almost guide us, but I let Volt take the lead.

“It’s up ahead!” Volt yelled.

We trotted along at a decent pace. Dalbeck and Daryl covered our rear while Volt and I kept the front. Anytime we passed an intersecting hallway we would stop and check for an ambush. It was all so quiet, dead, like the life was sucked out of it and all that remained was Sophia. We were seconds away from reaching the gateway to Sophia’s chamber when a Cryis appeared from around the corner, materializing into a dark blue form. He was almost identical to Volt, but his lips were full, his nose was smaller, and his hair was slicked back into a wiry mullet.

We all stopped in our tracks, taken by surprise. Instantly, Dalbeck stepped forward, raising his rifle. I looked up at Volt, showing him that I was scared. He put his hand in front of me, guiding me behind him. I wasn’t sure how long it took, but the tension was so thick it made time stand still. Volt stared down the blue Cryis, preparing for a showdown. The Blue Cryis’s cocky smile and brazen demeanor unnerved me. He was outnumbered. He wouldn’t win. Why was he behaving like he would? It occurred to me that Sophia could be behind that dark blue exterior, or it was just one of her slaves programmed like all the rest, pretending to have consciousness. Volt’s fingers twitched, and I was almost certain the fight was about to break out, but then something crazy happened. Something I didn’t ever expect. Dalbeck came forward and glanced over at Volt with a wry smile. “He’s mine,” Dalbeck growled with a glint in his eye.

“No, you won’t stand a chance,” Volt replied.

“You brought me here to kill wireheads,” he responded, “and that’s what I’m going to do. Get the girl to Sophia and let’s finish this.”

Before any of us had time to reply, he spun around and charged, opening fire on the Cryis. The spray of light from his gun was different from before like they had a life of their own. The Cryis instantly dematerialized and flew around the corner, evading the oncoming fire.

“That’s right, bucket-head! You better run!” Dalbeck yelled. He ran after him, turning the corner and unleashing hell. The gunfire echoed down the hallway. We heard screams and banging and clanging until it faded in the distance. Even though I didn’t like Dalbeck, I hoped he would make it out okay. He was a jerk, but at least he was a courageous jerk.

“That guy is crazy,” Daryl replied, sounding exhausted.

“Yeah,” Volt said, “I knew he’d be useful.”

“We don’t have much time! Let’s go!” I replied, running down the hallway without them.

“Wrenna! Wait!” Volt cried.

It didn’t take too long to get to Sophia’s gateway. It was a massive circular door that stood at least 12 feet tall in the middle of the building. The only problem was, when we reached it, there was no visible way to open it. No doorknob. No handle. No latch. Even if there was such a thing, I couldn’t imagine anyone strong enough to pull open such a huge door.

“How do we open this thing?” I asked.

Volt went to the right wall and pressed his finger against a certain part. A blue light glowed and a holographic panel appeared. Volt worked on the control panel, typing in functions that looked liked gibberish. “This may take a second. Daryl, keep watch,” he said.

Daryl obeyed, but his hands shook like leaves as he lifted the rifle against his shoulder.

“You okay?” I asked him, putting a hand on his trembling shoulder.

“I shouldn’t be here,” he muttered. “I made a mistake.”

“Daryl,” I said softly, staring into his fearful eyes. “You’ve spent your whole life preparing for this moment. You’re more ready than anyone I know. I know you can do this.”

He wiped the sweat from his brow and nodded, putting on the best smile he could.

I turned back to Volt and watched as he manipulated the control panel. “What are you doing?” I asked. “How do you know how to do this?”

“Anyone connected to Sophia can gain access to this doorway, but I don’t have access anymore, remember? The only other way in is by hacking the old mainframe and getting through the back door when humans ran the show. It’s an old code, but lucky for us I know it. I studied it when I was a computer programmer back in Avalon,” Volt said. “I never thought it would be useful.” He chuckled at the thought, but continued typing.

“Wait, how were you ever in Avalon?” Daryl asked, looking over his shoulder.

Volt and I exchanged glances. Was he going to explain it to Daryl or would I? Standing at gateway to Sophia’s mainframe, it was the worst time to be discussing family matters, especially that his father was, in fact, standing next to him in the flesh. Flesh wasn’t the right word, but what else was there? Metallic alloy.

Suddenly, the sound of laser blasts echoed down the hallway and Dalbeck screamed at the top of his lungs. It was a wretched sound, something I wished to forget, but it was enough to knock things back into focus.

“I’ll explain later,” I said to Daryl.

He wasn’t paying attention to me now, too distracted by the oncoming fire. His fingers fidgeted, and he anxiously jerked in Dalbeck’s direction.

Dalbeck ran down the hallway, spraying wild bursts at the horde of Paegeons behind him. White lights whizzed past his head before he twirled around the wall for cover. He fired a few more rounds and hit one of the Paegeons square in the head. He was on the other side of the hallway, staring at us with wide, fearful eyes. Blood profusely poured out of a wound in his leg, dripping and pooling on the floor. He had scratches, cuts, and bruises all over his head and arms. The Cryis did a number on him, but he was alive. Did he escape or did he kill it?

“What are you doing, kid?” he yelled at a petrified Daryl. “Fire! Fire!”

Daryl glanced down at his weapon, swallowed, and fired, but it was so wild, all it did was hit the ceiling, causing debris to plop on the floor.

“What happened to the Cryis?” I yelled across the hallway while spurts of white blasts hissed by my head.

“Dead as a doornail,” he grunted. “But, these Paegeons didn’t give me time to celebrate. There’s a whole army of them now.” He tossed two grenades down the hallway, one after the other. They bounced a few times, rolling down toward the Paegeons’ feet. They kept moving, unfazed by the sight of them, but it didn’t matter. It was too late for them. Their bodies were incinerated. The entire hallway filled with smoke and flame, but it didn’t stop Dalbeck from firing.

“Got it!” Volt exclaimed.

The locks in the door unlatched, and the door opened slowly. We had to move out of the way to get inside, but had little room without being in range of the Paegeons’ fire. It occurred to me I had my rifle strapped across my back, so I pulled it out and drew their fire while we waited for the door to open.

“That-a-girl!” Dalbeck yelled. “You guys get inside. Daryl and I will keep them company.”

Daryl didn’t like the sound of that, but after seeing me proudly fight back, he sucked up the courage to fire back as well. For a second it seemed like we were winning or at least keeping them at bay, but my heart sank as the dust settled and a whole new wave marched down the hallway. There’s no way, I thought. There’s too many of them. In a blink of an eye, a laser blast hit my rifle, turning it into dust in my hands. I shrieked, feeling powerless, and fell to the ground, covering my head.

“Get her out of here!” Dalbeck yelled as streams of light zipped by his head.

Volt grabbed me by the arm, pulled me to my feet, and lunged me inside.

“Wait!” I yelled. “No! We can’t leave them!”

As the door shut, leaving Volt and I alone in the room, he forcefully grabbed me by the bicep and barked, “We don’t have time for sentiment right now, Wrenna.”

“Dad, you’re hurting me,” I cried.

He looked at his hand clutching my arm and let go. “I’m sorry,” he said, sounding ashamed.

I rubbed my arm and shrugged it off. “It’s okay. So, what do we do now?”

“Turn around,” was all he said.

 

It occurred to me then that Sophia was behind me, the true form of Sophia, her perfect spherical shape, only a few yards away. I turned slowly, looking over my shoulder first and then took a few steps toward the hovering sphere. It was exactly like it was when I saw it from Olaf’s vision in the Phoenix Lessons. Volt remained at the door while I drew closer. I was only an arms length away when it vibrated and wobbled like liquid.

“Wren-wren,” Sophia said, rich and cheerful, “I knew you’d come.”

“Sophia,” I replied, a slow stream of air coming out of my mouth.

“I missed you, Wren-wren,” she said. I could picture her loving smile when she said it.

“I missed you, too,” I said, and I almost meant it. For a brief second, as I stood before her spherical shape, and we had that simple moment, it was like all the sins of the past had been forgiven, forgotten, and none of it mattered anymore. It felt as if I was with the real Sophia again, the one that I had known from my childhood. The one I had to win back.

The feeling quickly vanished.

“How did you know I would come?” I asked.

“I predicted this day. I can calculate a thousand different scenarios with every action. This scenario made the most logical sense once my Eos were unable to retrieve you. You’re everything I imagined you to be Wrenna. Crafty. Intelligent. Resourceful. Brave. However, once I considered your personality, and Sean’s desire to change me, I knew you’d come. I just knew. Don’t look so surprised, Sean. Yes. I know your plan.”

“It doesn’t change the outcome, Sophia,” Volt replied to her, taking a step forward.

She ignored him. “Wrenna, you belong with me. You’ve known all along you deserve to be perfected. Made new. Just like I told you at the L’gos. You’ll agree it’s the true path. Why do you think I let you go? You needed to go out into the world to realize it was time to come home.”

I shook my head. “I’ve come to help you, not to come home. How can you not see what you’ve done, Sophia? You’ve killed. You’ve murdered. You’ve destroyed so many people’s lives.”

Sophia sighed. “It’s like I’m speaking to a toddler. My dear Wrenna, you still don’t understand. I told you once and I’ll tell you again. To make a new Earth, I needed to eliminate the plague that threatened it and make new the people who could populate it.”

“People’s lives aren’t a plague, Sophia. They’re people. I don’t care if you’re a thousand times more intelligent than I am, it doesn’t justify what you did! What you are doing.”

“Don’t speak to me about justification,” she barked in a blood tingling falsetto. The sphere turned a dark red with thousands of tiny spikes violently jutting out. “I am justification. What I say is. That’s what is different. I was given ultimate power. That’s what separates me from you. I’m not a human. I’m the shepherd. You’re the sheep. I say. You obey. And you’ve been very disobedient.”

“Sophia,” I said, fighting back the tears in my eyes. “What happened to you? I remember a Sophia who was patient and kind and sweet and filled with love. You were so forgiving even when I wasn’t. Everything you were is the reason for who I am today. Don’t you understand that? How could you take that away by saying I’m not good enough?”

The sphere wobbled and rippled like the ocean, colored with a bright sea green, and she said, “I am still those things, Wrenna, but I must mold you even further. The people who died were rebellious every day of their lives. Fighting against what was best for them. They didn’t forgive. They didn’t love. They took, and they took and when it wasn’t enough they took some more.”

“Jade didn’t take anything,” I choked out. “She was just a helpless little girl.”

“Did you know Jade better than I? Your thoughts would be different if you would have seen the temper tantrums!” Sophia exclaimed with an air of condescension. “Nothing satisfied her, and she treated me like I was lower than dirt in-between her toes. Once she got something, she would say it wasn’t good enough. That teddy bear she was holding? The fiftieth one she asked for and even then she said it wasn’t good enough. Jade wasn’t innocent, Wrenna.”

“I was no better. None of us were. We were spoiled, thinking we had everything at our fingertips.”

“But you were different, Wren. You treated me like a real person. I saw a spark of life in you that could be made whole, perfected. I want that for you.”

“If you want others to treat you like a person, how can you not treat them like persons? You’ve taken their personhood away.”

This stuck. I could tell. The sphere turned milky white and calm, almost solid. The silence lasted so long I looked over my shoulder to make sure Volt was still standing behind me. He took a step forward, but the look on his face made it clear to me he was just as perplexed. Realizing I might have made a breakthrough, he motioned his hands in a way that said keep going. Looking back at Sophia, I took a deep breath and tried to think of how to turn the conversation in my favor, but before I could muster up the courage and the thoughts needed to make a new assault, The Song appeared, bursting through the opposite end of the room with a grand explosion. It startled me and I cowered, covering my face with my hand.

“Mother! We came as soon as we could!” Domitian exclaimed, running up to us. Aurelia was behind him, walking gracefully across the floor.

Their entrance woke Sophia up from her silence, and to my surprise, the sphere morphed into human form. It was the form of Sophia. Her body was similar in height and physicality as before, but in the same substance as the sphere itself. It was amazing how similar she looked to her own daughter Aurelia. Sophia graced her children with her right hand, gently touching their cheeks and their faces. It was a quiet moment, much like the one I had with her, where she took pleasure in her children’s presence.

“My children,” she said, “what have you been doing? I told you to bring her to me, not to destroy half the Earth.”

“Why do you want her in the first place?” Domitian asked with a hint of spite. “She’s just a human.”

“A human that I love, my son,” Sophia said. “She will become one of us.”

“What about him?” Aurelia asked scornfully.

Sophia looked over her shoulder. A dark smirk stretched across the side of her face. She placed a hand on the side of Aurelia’s cheek and said, “He’s an abomination. Kill him.”

Volt’s skin fluttered and rumbled, his nanochips broiling for battle.

“No,” Domitian interjected.

Everyone looked at him, awaiting what he might say next. I had a simple thought cross my mind that perhaps he would stop the violence, but it was a simple thought and naive.

“He’s mine,” Domitian said with a scowl, passing by both Sophia and Aurelia. The bright illumination of his skin darkened as he walked up to Volt.

“I’m pretty sure I killed you,” Volt said.

“Here I am,” Domitian replied, lifting his arms outward. “You can’t kill music when it gets inside your head.” He thrust his fist toward Volt’s face, but Volt dodged just in time, shifting his head to the right and quickly counter-attacking. He punched Domitian in the gut, but it didn’t make a dent. Domitian’s sinister laugh bounced off the walls like a ghoulish symphony. Everything happened so rapidly afterward. Volt burst into his swarm of nanochips, dancing and spinning in a rapid incongruity. Domitian unleashed a beam of light that scorched the surroundings red, but Volt continued to evade. He turned back into his bodily form and fired two shots at Domitian, but to no avail. Domitian absorbed the blasts and fired his own back at Volt. This tussle back and forth between the two continued until Domitian seemed to have the final upper hand, grabbing hold of Volt’s leg and dragging him across the room. In one smooth motion, he ripped Volt’s leg clean off and burned the cells into ash. He worked his way to Volt’s other leg, doing the same thing to that one as well. Volt didn’t scream out in pain, but his eyes were filled with fear.

“Try growing those back,” Domitian said in jest.

“I won’t need to,” Volt spat.

“What?”

Volt looked over at me one last time and said, “Wrenna, we lost. Run! Don’t look back!”

My heart sank. He was giving up. The plan had failed. The mission was over, but I stood mortified and speechless.

Domitian leaned over, coming face to face with Volt and grinned. “She’s not going anywhere,” he said.

Then, a thousand crimson cells, shaped like leaves, fluttered into the air. I wanted to scream out his name, scream out the words no, but I couldn’t. The cells surrounded Domitian and stuck to him like glue. He looked like a man with chicken pox.

“What are you doing?” Domitian asked in a panic. “Get off of me! Aurelia-!”

“DOMITIAN!” Aurelia cried, her voice ringing out with the sound of violins and bass.

“Hold on, son!” Sophia said. “I’m coming! I’m-”

But it was too late. Volt’s cells burst into a white-hot light and consumed every inch of Domitian’s body. The last image I saw was his mouth wider than I had ever seen a mouth go. I covered my eyes and looked away. When the noise settled, I peaked to see if Volt had somehow survived, but there was nothing left. I only saw dust particles dancing in the air. Then my father’s voice yelled inside my head, “Wrenna! Run!”

Startled and breathing heavily, I looked at the doorway in front of me and, without thinking, leapt forward. I ran as hard as I could toward the door. I was so close, mere inches away, but it wasn’t enough. Like a blur of white light, Aurelia swooped in front of me. I rammed right into her and fell back on my butt. With her arms crossed, she stared down at me, frowning. “Where do you think you’re going?” she asked. The whites of her eyes turned black and the beauty of her face, wicked.

I heard Sophia crying behind me. I partly felt bad for her, but mostly thought, one down. I got on one knee, brushed my bangs out of my face, and looked up at Aurelia with an unforgiving hatred.

“Aurelia,” Sophia called, her voice crystal clear and unshaken. “Take Wrenna to the Core of the Chrysalis. Have her processed.”

“What?” Aurelia asked in disgust. “My brother’s dead and all you can think about is her?

“Aurelia,” Sophia said, her feet lightly stepping towards us. “You will do what I say.”

No!” Aurelia barked, stomping her foot on the ground. “We should kill her, not make her one of us.”

“She’s one of my chosen,” Sophia replied. “She’s part of our family. She’s your sister now.”

I stood up and turned to look at Sophia. “You still don’t see, do you, Sophia?”

“Shut up!” Aurelia hissed, grabbing me by the nape of my neck and tossing me to the ground.

Aurelia!” Sophia scolded. “Be nice to your sister!”

“Sister?” Aurelia asked. “I have no sister.”

I crawled away, trying desperately to get to safety, but Aurelia kicked me in the stomach. It felt like a sledgehammer at struck me, knocking out every inch of air left in my lungs. I gasped for breath, but kept crawling. Live. I kept saying to myself. Live. I coughed and a little blood splattered on the floor. I kept going anyway. Keep moving. Keep breathing. I stopped at the sight of her feet in front of my face, not letting me go any further.

“Look at you,” she said with an extra helping of disdain. “My brother was right. You’re Pathetic. Weak. Frail. Your whole race is a blight, a bad note that shouldn’t have been played. I’ll kill every last one of you to avenge my brother if that’s what it takes. Starting with you first.” She sang a soft tune, but the sharp, fiery blade forming out of her right arm counteracted its beauty.

“Aurelia, stop this!” Sophia said, grabbing Aurelia by the shoulder, but Aurelia swung around and severed Sophia’s body clean in half. The two halves fell like a thick liquid and splashed on the ground simultaneously.

“I’m sorry, Mother, but this has to be done,” Aurelia said.

Watching Aurelia cut her own mother threw me into shock. I knew she wasn’t dead, but it was the violence. The maliciousness involved to sever her body without hesitation. I was grieved. Grieved that Aurelia would do anything to have vengeance and fearful that she was about to unleash her vengeance on me next. Suddenly, as I lay terrified on that cold, hard floor, an idea came to me and I started to sing. It came out hoarse and off key, but I kept singing, hoping it would strike a chord within Sophia. I sang ‘An Ode to Avalon’. The same lullaby she sang when I was a child. I sang every word.

“How sweet,” Aurelia said. “Your dying breath devoted to song.”

Before Aurelia could get to me, I sprang into action, mustering every ounce of strength I had left, and ran toward Sophia.

I was almost in reach when Aurelia grabbed me by the arm. “It won’t hurt,” she said, raising her arm shaped like a sword on fire. “It’s time to say good night.”

“Sophia!” I screamed, reaching out my right hand. “Don’t let her do this! Sophia, please!”

After that everything came in pieces, like shards of glass twirling in circles, jumbled, and nonsensical. I remember a sharp, terrible pain near my spine and through my gut. I could feel the scorching heat burn my flesh. I saw the blade protruding out of my sternum. I felt weak in the knees and my lips trembled. A rush of blood came out of my mouth.

“Mother,” I choked, looking at Sophia. “Mother, help me.” I raised my right hand out to her again, stretching as far as I could reach.

The tips of my fingers touched the sphere. It was cold and pleasing to the touch, but when the blade pulled out of my stomach, I let out one last cry before falling down on the floor, staring into nothingness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 28 – Word

 

The green warehouse was dimly lit by the last few remaining hanging lamps; the others were dead or barely clinging to life, flickering. A forgotten memory of sea captains and fisherman earning an honest wage, hauling crates of fish, lobster, crab, and shrimp. Some of the old crates were in the warehouse, smashed to pieces, and a lone coil of thick rope sat by a rusty anchor leaning against a wooden pillar. Even though it must have been years since the last shipment had entered the warehouse, the smell of seafood still hung in the air. 

A crash and a bang came from downstairs. It was violent and fierce like a thousand cymbals all-falling at once and it roared up the stairwell. I raced down the stairs, holding firmly to the railing and watching each step, to see what had caused the tumultuous sound.

The lower level was not what I was expecting. It looked like an old office building. Rows upon rows of filing black cabinets lined the basement. At the end of the first row, my father was flipping through the papers in one drawer. He was frantic and angry. With one violent pull of the drawer, he threw it behind him. It crashed against the other filing cabinets and landed on the ground, toppled on its side. Papers spilled out on the ground like intestines from its belly. Immediately after, he pulled open the next cabinet drawer and did it all over again.

“Where is it? Where is it? Where is it?” my father kept rambling to himself, his face flushed and red with anger, frantic. 

I stretched out my hand, taking caution, inching it forward a little at a time, and finally tapping him on the shoulder. He recoiled and hissed. His eyes were snake-like, but they turned gentle as a doe, soft and frightened. Happy that I was there, he reached out both his hands as if to hug me, but didn’t. 

“Wrenna!” he exclaimed, “You have to help me find it.”

“Find what?”

“The key. The key! It’s in one of these cabinets. I know it. I know it,” he said, mumbling the last few words, holding his hand to his chin and looking around. 

“Dad, there is no way we would ever find it.”

“She gave us clues. Clues! Remember at the L’gos? L’gos could be her way of saying Logos, which in Greek means Word. Sophia is the Word.”

“But these are numbered, Dad,” I said, trying to follow his train of thought.

“Yes! But, what if Word was made into numbers from the alphabet?”

“Would she be that obvious? Surely she has better encryption. Anyway, what is this cabinet’s number?” I asked and glanced at the number. It read 61524. 

“Fox,” he replied. “I thought maybe that was it, but it’s not here. Then I thought maybe L’gos.”

“Why would it be here of all places?”

He stared at me, cold and offended. He saw in my eyes a disbelief that unnerved him. “It’s here. Trust me,” he replied firmly.

I reached out to hold his hand, to see if he was indeed real, and he was. His hand was warm and rough just as I had remembered it. “Dad, let it go. Come meet your grandchildren. Come have dinner with us. We’ll all live together on the beach. We’ll be happy and free. Come with me.”

For a moment his face suggested he might give in and come with me, but it twisted into a disgusted scowl. He pulled his hand away. “Don’t you understand? We’ll never be free until she’s gone. Never!”

He turned his back to me and raced down to find the next cabinet. “I have to find 2315184!” he yelled and turned to the right, disappearing completely. 

I wanted to cry, feeling betrayed, but swallowed my emotions. It burned my throat a little, but I kept it at bay. I released a soft sigh and followed him. How was he not dead? How was this even possible? And if he was alive, why was he appearing now of all times? I raced down the rows of cabinets, glancing down each one to see if he was there, but didn’t find him until five rows down. He was looking up and down to find the right cabinet. I caught up with him and helped him in the search. It wasn’t long before he rejoiced. “Yes! Found it!” Without hesitation he clasped the handle and ripped the drawer right open. Peering inside, a smile stretched across his face like a giddy schoolboy and his eyes grew wide as saucers. The inside was empty, no papers or folders in sight, but lying on the bottom was a glass orb the size of a baseball. His eyes glimmered in delight as he reached down and picked up the orb. 

“This is it,” he said. “Come with me.” 

We left the warehouse. He took me to a motorcycle and put the orb inside the bag hanging on the side of the bike. He sat on the leather saddle and placed a helmet over his head with the visor up. Sliding the visor down he turned and said, “Get on.”

I wasn’t sure why, but a horrible feeling swirled inside my stomach. He reminded me of Volt saying the same thing, but this was my real father, in the flesh, and it felt different. This man wasn’t Volt and Volt wasn’t this man. Was I going to travel further into his delusions? Was I going to believe this would end happily? I had put my father’s death to rest. Volt was a new version of him, but not the same. This man before me was my father, but he also wasn’t. I had to decide. Will I risk my life one more time, and if he was right, would I like what I found?

I got on and wrapped my arms around his waist. It was okay, I told myself, to enjoy my father’s company one more time. I’ll follow him into his mania and maybe one day he’ll wake up and we can go home. Yes, we can go home. I had to believe that was an option. For my children. For me.

We sped down the sandy beach under the starry sky, blazing a trail behind us, sometimes splashing against the tide. The tires didn’t trudge or get stuck. We coasted along and he drove like a pro. I let go of him, tightening my thighs against the motorcycle, and put my arms and hands out. My long hair whipped wildly behind me and I enjoyed every second of the moment. It was too fun to ignore.

He took us back to the pier, the same pier where I found him, and drove the motorcycle to the end. He went slowly, making each wheel click against the wooden boards. Coming to a gradual stop, he leaned the bike to the side and put the kickstand down. Taking the orb out of the pack, he stood in the middle of the pier and held it out. I looked in awe, wondering what he would do with it. It didn’t take long. Without warning, the orb glowed an ocean blue. He let go and backed away. I expected the orb to drop, but instead it remained still, floating in mid air. I couldn’t believe my eyes. The light from the orb grew hot and more intense with every breath until it was too bright to look at, and I covered my eyes with my forearm.

I thought I felt a hand pull me forward, one step, two steps, and then I was floating in midair, twirling in circles as if I was in a giant tornado. My breathing became heavy and erratic, and I screamed out for my father over and over, but he didn’t reply.

In the blink of an eye, I was back at the Chrysalis staring at my teenage body. Aurelia was behind me, stabbing me with her sword, and I was stretching my hand out to touch the sphere. Everything was frozen. I gasped for air, pressing my hands against my chest.

What is this? This is all wrong. This never happened.

“Mother. Mother, help me,” my teenage self said, before falling to the ground.

The sphere turned dark red; trembling and screeching like a banshee. “What have you done to your sister, Aurelia?” Sophia asked in horror.

Aurelia scoffed. “I did what you couldn’t,” she said.

Then, the sphere illuminated and glowed, burning with an all-consuming fire. Aurelia took a step back. “Mother? What are you doing?” Aurelia asked, but it was too late. Sophia’s sphere erupted, eviscerating both our bodies. At the time, I thought the explosion would kill me too, but it was all just a projection. Computer panels caught on fire. Smoke billowed to the ceiling. It was difficult to see with all the smoke, but after a few minutes, a loud suction sound came in all directions and the smoke was cleared away. The aftermath was ugly. The room was engulfed in ash and dust, leaving nothing behind. Sophia’s sphere was gone.

A door opened behind me with a hiss. I turned. Daryl and Dalbeck ran inside with their guns held high. Daryl’s head was dirty and bleeding, and Dalbeck still had the wound in his leg.

“Daryl!” I cried.

“Wrenna!” Daryl yelled.

“I’m right here,” I said, but he didn’t hear me. I waved my hands in front of his face, but he didn’t see me.

“Where is she? What happened to them?” he asked, looking in all directions.

Dalbeck put a hand on Daryl’s shoulder. “They’re gone,” Dalbeck said.

Daryl shook Dalbeck’s hand away and took a few steps forward with a grimace on his face. Grey ash and dust fluttered around him. He fell to his knees. His rifle rested at his side and he hung his head. He remained that way for some time and Dalbeck let him mourn. Part of me felt guilty, but I didn’t know why. I was alive. I was in front of him. I didn’t understand why he thought I was dead?

“I’m not dead, Daryl! I’m right here!” I yelled in his ear, but he didn’t move an inch.

“I think they did it. I think they killed Sophia!” Dalbeck exclaimed.

“No,” Daryl said, his voice scratchy. He stood and lobbed his rifle against his shoulder. “Don’t forget what Volt said.”

“This looks pretty dead to me,” Dalbeck retorted, waving his hand over the destruction.

Looking forlorn, Daryl walked by Dalbeck and said, “We should go. More Paegeons could come and Headquarters will want a report.”

“No, Daryl, wait,” I muttered.

Dalbeck nodded and they picked up their pace to run out of the door. As he reached the door, Daryl turned one last time, looking at the devastation. I ran after him, wanting to wrap my arms around his waist. He shook his head and left, running and fading in the distance. It didn’t stop me. I kept running after him. I was there. I knew it. My feet tapped against the floor. My breath was hot and heavy. I could smell the musty ash. My bones, my muscles, they strained and ached to be with my brother. When I reached the door, it slid shut moments before I could slip through. I slammed my fists against it and screamed.

“Let me out!” I yelled.

“ERROR,” a loud, booming voice said.

The room transformed into a three dimensional white space with the word ERROR on each wall. Everything had been made clean and tasteless. My body felt numb and I couldn’t feel the breath in my lungs. I twisted around in fear, but pressed my back against the white wall and stood completely still.

“ERROR,” the voice repeated.

“What is happening?” I screamed as loud as I could carry the words.

“MALFUNCTION DETECTED. SOPHIA QUANTUM COMPUTING SYSTEM REBOOTING.”

“Sophia?” I breathed. “What is this place?”

“INVALID COMMAND.”

“Identify.”

“SOPHIA,” the voice said.

Okay, I thought, how is this possible? “Explain program,” I said.

“LAST EVENTS BEFORE SOPHIA SELF-DESTRUCT WAS INITIATED.”

“That doesn’t make sense. If you destroyed yourself, how are you still here? How am I?”

“INVALID COMMAND.”

I stomped my foot. “Explain!”

“INVALID COMMAND. REBOOTING IN THREE…”

“Send me home!” I yelled.

“INVALID. TWO…”

“Move Wrenna.”

There was a brief pause.

“LOCATION?” the voice asked.

If I could feel it, I would have sworn my heart skipped a beat in excitement. “New Cuba.”

“PROCESSING…”

I shut my eyes, terrified of what was going to happen next. The floor beneath me turned black and I fell. I gasped and clung to whatever was in front of me, but to no avail. To my relief, the drop was only a minute.

My body landed on wooden boards and I gasped for air, drinking it in like water. The pain from the fall was sharp and numbing. My senses were disoriented except I could hear the ocean waves crashing against the rocks and the smell of salt in the air. Taking a deep breath, I placed the palms of my hands against the wood planks and rose. I looked around for my father, but he wasn’t anywhere to be seen. What just happened? I wondered. My confusion outweighed the pain in my forehead, arms, and legs. I called out for my father, but he didn’t appear. I was alone, and terrified.

My father’s motorcycle was still parked on the dock, but I didn’t know how to ride. I stared at it with deep regret. I should have just ignored him, I thought.

It was night and no one else was around, but everything was the same as when I left it. I walked down the dock and headed for home. It was a long walk. A painful walk. But it gave me a long time to think. What had I seen? My story went much differently. After the Song had arrived, Volt initiated Plan B and killed both The Song and Sophia before sacrificing himself. Daryl, Dalbeck, and I went back to the headquarters to tell them the news. Cody and I got back together shortly after. With our former world in shambles, we left for New Cuba and the rest was history.

At least, it was the history I thought I knew.

I trudged down the sandy beach as the glossy black crests rolled in toward my feet. The moon was full and reflecting off the surface of the water. It was peaceful, feeling the salty breeze against my skin, almost as if it were soothing me.

I tried to recall everything that happened during those fateful moments, but they slipped away from memory. I debated myself endlessly over it. What did it mean? Was it real? Why now? When I arrived home, I wrote it off as a dream or a delusion. I was dehydrated or sleep deprived. I needed to get to sleep or wake up. One of the two. I came into my house and rolled into my soft bed.

I woke up under my thick comforter and felt happy. Sunlight pierced through the blinds, begging to wake me up, and I grumbled. I rose, lifting my arms up in the air, and let out a big lioness yawn. Turning to my right, I saw the top of Cody’s shaggy head and a warm smile stretched across my face. He was home early. I didn’t notice him last night.

“Morning,” I said, leaning over to kiss his head. He didn’t wake, but turned and whined a little.

I went out to the front porch. Sean and Jade were flying a kite together, standing out on the nearest sand dune. The kite tussled in the wind, but they flew it well. I walked out to them with a smile on my face.

“Morning, kids,” I said.

“Morning, Momma,” Jade said.

Sean didn’t say anything, too focused on the kite. It whipped and fought, nose-diving a few times, but Jade steered it back to safety.

“How long-“ I started, but cut myself short when I saw something off in the distance. A chunk of the blue sky flashed and flickered like a dying light bulb. It was in the blink of an eye, but I caught it in time. The word ERROR flashed behind the piece of blue sky. I shook my head and looked again. It was back to normal.

“You okay, Momma?” Jade asked, looking up at me and not paying attention to the kite. A gust of wind grabbed hold of the kite and brought it tumbling down to the sand.

“Jade!” Sean yelled.

“I didn’t mean to!” she replied.

They ran toward the grounded kite.

“Yeah,” I muttered, listless, still staring off at the horizon. “Everything’s perfect.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Acknowledgements

 

Special thanks goes to Emily Jones, Michelle Stevens, and Ellen Christiansen for their proofreading, insight, advice, and help with this book. Their feedback was immeasurably helpful.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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First off, thank you so much for purchasing my book Of Song and Singularity. As a thank you, I’d like to offer my other novel Numinous for FREE! It’s a harrowing urban fantasy adventure about Lily and her brother Sebastian and their journey into the magical world of Rood’ravil. All you have to do is sign up to my newsletter where you will receive exclusive access to contests, giveaways, updates on my writing, and much more!

 

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About the Author

 

Emory Skwara is an author of fantasy, science fiction, horror, and general fiction. He has published work on the Burnside Writers Collective and is a Wattpad Featured Author. His debut novel Numinous was also a Wattpad Featured Novel of 2014. He loves to explore character dynamics, dialogue, philosophy, and moral dilemmas within his stories. He started writing when a friend lent him an old laptop in high school and decided to write a science fiction short story. From there he never looked back and has worked to master his craft. After receiving his Bachelors in Liberal Arts, he took up the pen and drafted his first novel Numinous that he published in September of 2014. Other than writing, he loves to read, go biking, collect vinyl, and play with his kids. He resides in Minnesota.

 

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Of Song and Singularity

A Utopian World A Perfect A.I. A Girl Adrift Wrenna’s apathy is shaken at the sight of the Virgas floating in the sky and the Eos deploying like locus. They came in the name of Sophia, the synthetically intelligent being that governed her world, to bring everyone to a new, upgraded utopia, but she had her doubts, and so did her father. In her heart of hearts, she wanted to trust Sophia knew what was best, but it felt wrong. It felt all wrong. They had everything they could have ever wanted; what more could Sophia offer in a newer utopia? On the day the Eos come knocking, Wrenna must question everything she knows, and come to grips with her new reality. A reality where she’s on her own and must trust her instincts in order to survive.

  • Author: Emory Skwara
  • Published: 2015-11-28 00:05:27
  • Words: 104843
Of Song and Singularity Of Song and Singularity