Table of Contents
Of Song and Singularity
Of Song and Singularity
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
To Mom, for introducing me to music.
To Dad, for introducing me to Star Trek.
Want a FREE Book?
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!
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.
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.
“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.
“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.”
“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.”
“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.
“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”. _]
“Why are they firing on us?” I asked.
“Just shut up and keep running!” he hollered back, picking up his speed.
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?
“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?
“What is that?” I asked, peering over his shoulder.
“Help from who? What is going on, Dad?” I asked, frustrated he wouldn’t answer me.
“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.
“Wren, please, go! Find Cody! He’ll protect you!” he cried.
“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.
“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.
“Come into the house,” he urgently called, coming over and reaching out his hand. “Quick, now!”
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?
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.
“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.
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.
“Wren? Is that you?” a voice whispered.
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.
“We need to get out of here.”
“Right,” he said affirmatively. “But, where?”
“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?”
“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?”
“What?” I asked, frightened, squinting at him.
“They knew…” I said to myself, looking in the middle distance.
“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.
“Enough running, Wren-wren,” Sophia said. “Time to rest.”
Chapter 2 – First Introduction
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.
“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.”
“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.
“Right back at you, S,” he said, warmly beaming. “S, I’d like to introduce you to my daughter Wrenna. Say hi, Wrenna.”
“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.”
“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.
“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.
“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?”
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?
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.
“What’s going on? Where are they taking us?” I asked in a hushed whisper.
“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.
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.
“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’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.”
“Where are we?” I softly asked, keeping my head to his chest. “What is happening?”
“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.
“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.
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.”
“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?”
“Nice to meet you, Ragnar.” My dad held out his hand. “I’m Sean. Take it easy, okay? We’re going to be fine.”
“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.
“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.
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?
“I’m sorry, Wren,” he said.
“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.”
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
“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.
“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.
“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.”
“It’s very pretty,” I replied.
“Yes,” she said. “It is.”
“I love you, Daddy,” I said.
“Love you, too, baby girl,” he said.
“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?”
“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.
“I love you.”
“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?”
Be a dove
And fly to
Don’t be late
To the Parade
Where joy is
Release of pain
No more dying
Let go of
You wont fall
“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.”
“Night, Wren-wren. Sleep tight.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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?”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.
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.
“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?”
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?“
“Yes, I’m afraid so.“
“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.
“Why don’t you go ahead and put in your ear buds,” she said.
“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?”
“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.
“My daddy said we live in a…mek…mekracacacy?” I couldn’t ever say it right when I was little.
“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?”
“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?”
Chapter 5 – L’gos
“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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
I blushed and placed my hand to my face. Why me?
“Intelligence: High Percentile. Morality grade…”
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.
“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?”
“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?”
“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.
“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.”
“Dad,” I said with concern in my voice. “They aren’t feeding these people. Look at them.”
“What are we going to do?”
“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.
“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.
“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.”
“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.”
“That fox on your hand, then…does that mean you’re strong? Dad, I didn’t get a brand like that.”
“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.
“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.
“Hey!” I screamed at them. “What is going on? Where is everyone?”
“I’m talking to you!”
“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.
“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.”
“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.”
“What? What did I do, Sophia?”
“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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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’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.
“Over the past year, she’s been giving me the lessons.”
“She did what?” I hissed. “That’s not fair!” I bellowed, sitting up straight like a king cobra about to strike.
“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.
“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?”
“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.
“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.”
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?”
“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?”
“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.”
“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?”
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?”
“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.”
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.
“She didn’t tell me anything. Just that she got the lessons, about…The Phoenix War.”
“It changed her, Dad. And, I don’t want that to happen to me. I like Sophia. Can I just not take the lessons?”
“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.
Chapter 7 – A Test of the Will
“Get back or I will fire,” the Paegeon warned.
“It’s no use, girl,” a boy’s voice said behind me.
“Leave her alone,” a familiar voice said. Lizzy?
“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?”
“My parents are in another one of these rooms,” said the boy.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Lizzy said. “Wrenna, this is Paul. Paul, Wrenna.”
“You, too,” he replied, but it almost sounded like he couldn’t care less.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“One room. All people,” Paul said.
“Sounds like hell,” I replied.
“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?”
“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’d say good, because I’m the best in this group,” he said with a straight face. “But you’ll never know for sure.”
“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.
“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.”
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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!”
“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?”
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 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.
“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.
“Trisha, no!” I exclaimed.
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.
“What do you want?” I whispered.
“Come with me,” the Cryis said.
“No questions. Come.”
“No matter what you see in there, don’t let it frighten you. Be strong. It’s just another test,” the Cryis said.
“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.
“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.”
“How have you done so far in the trials?” she asked, casting a lure and hoping I would take the bait.
“Perhaps you would like something to drink? Water, perhaps?”
“Water,” I rasped.
“Drink,” she said, holding the glass out. “Go ahead.”
“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?”
“Who do you think I am?”
“My first thought was that you’re a robot. Some new model Sophia made.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.
“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.”
“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…”
“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.
“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.
“I won’t do it,” I said and backed away from the terminal. “I want to see my father. Let me see him.”
Chapter 8 – Fehrman Five
“You need to relax for the next part, Wrenna,” Sophia said.
“Will it hurt?”
“It won’t be pleasant.”
“You are seeing what a nanocamera had recorded ages ago,” Sophia said.
“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.”
“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.”
“Exactly,” Sophia said. “It started in what was then known as the state of California.”
“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.
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!
“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.”
“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?”
“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.”
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.”
“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.”
“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.”
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.”
“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.
“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.
“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.”
“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
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.
“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!”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“Please,” Royer said. “You have to trust me. It’s the only way to ensure peace.”
“One week.” He grinned.
“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.”
“This war does not have to be fought,” said the voice.
“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.”
“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 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?”
“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.
“What are your orders, General?” Sophia asked.
“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.”
“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.
“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.”
“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 would, but I’m not a man,” she said with a wink. “It’s moot anyway. You won’t die.”
“Ah, Sophia the Omnipotent!”
“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.
“It’s not personal,” I said. “It’s war.”
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
“Hold on!” the Cryis yelled, and we abruptly descended.
“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.
“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.”
“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.
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.
“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.
“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?”
“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.
“You outsmarted her?” I asked.
“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.”
“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.”
“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.
“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.”
“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.”
“No, don’t kill the deer. I need water.”
“I’ll scan the area for a water source,” he said. “Wait a moment.”
“I’ll carry you the rest of the way. Hop on my back,” he said.
“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?”
“Couldn’t we cover more ground this way?” I asked.
“Yes. That’s true.”
“For a computer, you’re not very smart.”
“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.
“Hey!” I barked. “Don’t ever do that again!”
“That was stupid,” he said. “You need to think before you speak.”
“Don’t drink from it, yet,” he said. “I’ll purify it.”
“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.
“Stop it!” I yelled. “Don’t look at me like that.”
“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?”
“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?”
“Looks like you got your wish.”
“What?” I mumbled in the dirt.
“Time to go.”
“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.
“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.”
“You’re an incredible piece of technology,” I blurted out, but felt bad saying it.
“I mean.” I coughed. “You’re a wonderful person.” I smiled as wide as I could, showing all my pearly whites.
“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.”
“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.
“She grew attached to you, Wrenna, and I mean to exploit it.”
“So, you want to use me.”
“You’re not upset?” he asked. “Your heat signature is surprisingly calm.”
“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.
“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?”
“Perfect,” I said sarcastically. “So, what’s the plan? Where are we going?”
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.
“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!”
“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.
“Come on, come on,” she teased. “It’ll make you feel better.”
“Wrenna?” my mother asked from behind me.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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.
“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…”
“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
“Would you please just carry me?” I asked Volt.
“I’m not a horse, Wrenna.”
“Just a flying horse.”
“That was an emergency.”
“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?
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.
“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.
“Wrenna, it’s okay. It’s just me,” I heard a man say, which sounded an awful lot like my father. My heart raced.
“It’s Volt, Wrenna,” the voice said.
“I have food and water,” he said.
“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.”
“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.”
“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.
“Yes, sir,” I said, mocking him like I was a soldier. I did a brief salute.
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?
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.
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 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.
Instead, I found a road. Was this the road Volt was talking about?
“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.”
“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.
“You need to stay awake. Don’t go to sleep,” he said. He spoke with a calm, deep voice.
“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.
“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.”
“Wait. You look familiar,” I said to him.
“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.”
“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.
Chapter 14 – Wave One
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?”
“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.
“Take hostages. Don’t kill. Can you do that?”
“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’m not asking, love.”
“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.”
“Can I take two Eos?” I asked.
“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.
“ 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.
“To get inside, General, we’ll need to melt the steel bolts with a laser,” said the Eos.
“Open’r up, gentlemen,” I said, raising my firearm out in front of me.
“Clear,” I said.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“Well?” she asked.
“I don’t blame you,” I said. “I appreciate our utopia more now. I appreciate it much more.”
“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.”
“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?”
“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.
“Wake up!” Bryan yelled, smacking me on the back of the head.
“I said-” Bryan barked, smacking my right cheek with his scrawny hand. “Wake up!”
“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 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?”
“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-“
“Look, a bear attacked me. Why am I being treated like a criminal?”
“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.
“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.”
“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.
“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 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.”
“What she laughing at, Bry?” one of them asked.
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.
“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.
“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.
“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.”
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.”
“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.”
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.”
“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.”
“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.
“First question, do you love Sophia?”
“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?”
“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.
“Stop,” he said, standing up, knocking his chair over. “Don’t say another word, you hear me?”
“Wait,” I breathed. I stared at him earnestly, helpless and desperate for what he had promised.
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’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.”
“Don’t move,” I said.
“Give me your blaster,” I told him.
“We only have guns here,” he replied.
“Hand it over.”
“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.
“What’s wrong, boss?” Bill asked.
“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.
“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.
“Okay, what now?” Bryan asked.
“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!”
“Wrenna,” it said. “You are under arr-“
“Get on,” Volt said.
“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.”
“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.
Chapter 16 – Wave Two
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.
“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.”
“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?
“Who is it?” I asked.
“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.”
“Where to, Wren-wren?” Sophia said automatically.
“I’m sure you already know.”
“Holodream,” she said flatly. “We’ll be there momentarily.”
“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 think it’s fake. I don’t think infinity actually exists.”
“Interesting. Well, perhaps it exists in god?” she asked.
“Perhaps I’m just an idol?” she asked.
“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.
“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.
“Here you go, Wren-wren,” Sophia said.
“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.”
“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.”
“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?”
“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.”
“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.
“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.
“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?”
“Just kidding. Your father wants him home, remember?”
“Sophia, don’t do that!”
“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?”
“Really? I loved them. I always wanted to be a soldier. I think it’s in my blood.”
“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.”
“I’d rather not know.”
Chapter 17 – The Door
“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.
“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.
“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.”
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,” I said, “It’s over. We need to give up before they fire at us!”
“We’re not giving up.”
“You have to go faster!” I screamed.
“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.
“General Olaf,” Volt said, “I need you to come with us. You could be of great help.”
“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?”
“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.”
“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.
“We are going to camp here,” he said and spread out his canopy of nanocells.
“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.”
“It’s scabbing over,” he said.
“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.”
“We’re lucky to be alive.”
“Could you have saved Olaf’s life?”
“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?”
“Maybe one day at the end of time someone will be right and they will be the judge.”
“You mean, like, what? God?”
“Like a circle?”
“No,” I breathed, “maybe more like a potato chip?”
“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.”
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.”
“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?”
“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.”
“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.
“Volt,” I said.
“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.”
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.”
“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.”
“This city is huge,” I said. “How are we going to find them?”
“I think I have a good idea where they’re hiding.”
“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?”
“If you know, then Sophia knows.”
“You need to trust me on this. She doesn’t know.”
“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.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“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.
“Wrenna, what are you doing?” he asked.
“What did you see?” he asked.
“Something went around the corner.”
“Human? Eos? Cryis?”
“Okay, well let’s keep moving.”
“Why does it sound like there’s a river in here?” I asked.
“Wouldn’t it be shut off?”
“The rebels still live here, remember?”
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.
“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.
“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.”
“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.
“Come on, you got this. You can do it. Just jump and I’ll do the rest.”
“Wrenna, jump!” Volt yelled.
“It’s so sad,” I said.
“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.”
“Or we could do that,” I said with a laugh.
“Keep your Gladius ready,” he told me, not amused by my joke.
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 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!”
“Come on! Run!” Volt screamed, but it was muted. It sounded like two cups over my ears.
“Wrenna Sunden,” the Eos said, “you are under arrest. Please comply.”
“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.
“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.
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.”
“We’re almost there,” I said.
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?”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.
“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?”
“I haven’t noticed anything,” he said finally. “But, she’s different with everyone. You know that.”
“She’s been talking about religion a lot lately,” I said.
“She told me she believed in God.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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?”
“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?”
“I’m just asking questions. I’m sorry,” I said.
“I’ve decided my purpose will be to raise a family,” I said. “With Cody.”
“Does he know?”
“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.
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.
Chapter 19 – Chimes
“It’s okay, baby girl,” Volt kept repeating, a frantic despair hanging on the edge of his voice. “Everything’s going to be okay.”
“It’s going to be okay, baby girl. Hang on,” he said again.
“So many Eos after just one girl,” Volt said.
“I’m kind of a big deal,” I breathed, whining a little afterward.
“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?”
“I think they did something to you. We don’t have much 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.
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.
“Wrenna, no! Run!” Volt wretched.
“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.”
“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.”
“Aurelia,” Domitian said. “I’m just having a bit of fun.”
“Wrenna, run!” Volt repeated, and this time I listened.
“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.
“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?”
“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!”
“You’re making a mistake,” she said. “You don’t have any options, Volt.”
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.
“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.”
“Stop it!” I yelled. “You’re killing him!”
“Wrenna, go!” Volt groaned.
“Stop, please, stop! I’ll do anything. I’ll go with-“
“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.”
“Take them both, but put restraints on the Cryis.”
“Sir, we don’t have much time. We need to go!” a man exclaimed.
“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.
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?”
“What? Seriously?” I sat up in bed, pulling the covers over me.
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.”
“Mom,” I began, glaring into her eyes, “there was a Cryis with me. A crimson one.”
“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.
“Is Daryl alive?”
“Where is he?”
“He’s joined the militia. He’s busy training with them.”
“It’s not a joke, Wrenna. You’re brother could die.”
“It’s what he has wanted to do forever, Mom.”
“Where were you?” I said bluntly, sharpening my gaze.
“Where were you, Mom?” I repeated.
“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.”
“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.”
“Get some rest,” she said. I could hear the click of her heels against the hard floor as she walked out the door.
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.
“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.”
“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.”
“You’re real,” I said.
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.
“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.”
“Sorry,” he said, “I only have so much time before PT.”
“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.”
“Dad didn’t make it,” I said with a callousness I regretted.
“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.”
“Cody?” he asked with shock in his voice. A glass of water was to his lips, but he lowered it.
“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.”
“Where?” I mouthed.
“He’s in the body cast,” he mumbled and took another bite of his slop.
“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.
“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.
“I need a favor.”
Chapter 20 – Horizon
“Momma?” my little daughter Jade said. “Whatcha doin?”
“Oh,” she said, “where are you flying to, Momma?”
“No place in particular. Just towards the horizon.”
“What’s that? Hurzen?”
“Jade, do you see that line where the water meets the sky?” I asked her, pointing in its direction.
“That’s it. That’s the horizon.”
“Let’s go!” she exclaimed.
“Let’s go!” I exclaimed. “Off to the horizon!”
“Yay! Wwwweeeeeee! Take me there, Momma!”
“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…”
“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
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.
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.
“Don’t do that!” I barked.
I sat up. My legs dangled off the edge. I looked down at him, waiting for the plan. “So?” I asked.
“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?”
“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.”
“We’re here to see prisoner G288,” Daryl said, standing in front of the man.
“Clearance,” he replied, still looking at his computer.
“Daryl Sunden,” the computer said. “Clearance confirmed for Wrenna Sunden. Thirty minutes with prisoner G288.”
“The clock is ticking,” the man behind the desk, said.
“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.
“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.
“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.”
“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.”
“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.
“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.”
“Wrenna!” she barked, her eyes enraged in fury. “Don’t you dare yell at me!”
“It doesn’t matter. Is it true?”
“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 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?”
“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.
“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’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 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.
“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.
“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 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.
“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?”
“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.”
“Look, Momma! Daddy’s moving toward the hurzen!” Jade exclaimed.
“You’re right, baby. There he goes,” I said.
Chapter 23 – Volt’s Plan
“At ease, men,” the General commanded.
“Right away,” she began. “Everyone is gathering in the conference hall.”
“Lead the way,” Volt said, waving his hand to the left.
“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.
“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?
“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.
“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.
“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.”
“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.
“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.
“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!”
“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!”
“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?”
“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.”
“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.
Chapter 24 – Memories
“Let’s go, Sean!” I exclaimed.
“Yeah! Sean!” Jade yelled.
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.
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.
“Well, kiddo, you hungry?” I asked.
“Yeah!” she cheered.
“Oh, perfect, thank you!” we would reply.
“Excellent!” he’d cheer and move on to the next table.
“Dunno. The good kind.”
“You’re…you..” I stammered.
“Momma? What’s the matter?”
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.
“How can this be?” I asked him. “You…you…you died.”
“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
“General,” Volt said, “surely you can spare a few men? Order some of them to come with me.”
“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.
“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.
“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.”
“She’ right, you know,” Volt said.
“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.”
“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.”
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.
“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 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.”
“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?
Then, a great cacophony rang out, the roar of a thousand throats and wagging tongues, screaming out violence and chanting one word: Fight!
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?
“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.”
“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.
“I’ll kill you in three moves,” Dalbeck replied confidently.
“Fine, then,” Volt said, “let’s see.”
“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.”
“Fascinating toy,” Volt said deeply.
“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.
“Hey, wait up!” I yelled. “I need to talk to you.”
“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 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 know,” I whispered. “I feel the same way. She’s done so much against us.”
“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.
“I don’t think I’m ready for a hug just yet,” I blurted out awkwardly.
“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.
“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.”
“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.”
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?”
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.
“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?”
“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.
“Thanks for putting in the good word,” Daryl said.
“No problem,” I said.
“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.
“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.”
“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.
“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.
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.
“I need you to help me, Wrenna. You’re the only one who can do it,” my father said.
“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!”
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.
“Give it back, you little brat!” Sean growled, closing in on her.
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!”
“Jade, give Sean the picture back.”
“Oooookay,” she whined, stomping over and forcefully jerking out her arm with the picture outstretched.
“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?”
“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.
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.”
Chapter 27 – 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?”
“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.
“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.
“Wrenna?” Volt said.
“Yeah, yeah, understood,” I murmured.
“What is that?” I asked.
“I don’t know how but Sophia can see us,” Volt replied. “Hang on. We’re almost there.”
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.
“Yeaaahhh!” he rejoiced, pumping his fist once, and flexing his muscles.
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.
“It’ll grow back,” he said, trying to keep my spirits up. “Stay close and keep firing.”
“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!”
“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.
“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.
“It’s up ahead!” Volt yelled.
“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.”
“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.
“How do we open this thing?” I asked.
“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.”
“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.
“I’ll explain later,” I said to Daryl.
“What are you doing, kid?” he yelled at a petrified Daryl. “Fire! Fire!”
“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.
“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.
“Wait!” I yelled. “No! We can’t leave them!”
“Dad, you’re hurting me,” I cried.
“Turn around,” was all he said.
“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.
“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.
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.”
“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?”
“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.
“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.
“No,” Domitian interjected.
“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.
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-”
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.”
“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.
“How sweet,” Aurelia said. “Your dying breath devoted to song.”
“Sophia!” I screamed, reaching out my right hand. “Don’t let her do this! Sophia, please!”
“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.
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.”
“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?”
“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?”
I stomped my foot. “Explain!”
“INVALID COMMAND. REBOOTING IN THREE…”
“Send me home!” I yelled.
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.”
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.”
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.
Want a FREE Book?
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!
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.
Stay up to date and subscribe to my newsletter: http://eepurl.com/3L1IH
Follow me on Twitter: (@emoryskwara)
Follow me on Instagram: (@emoryskwara)
Visit my website:
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.