By Mason Engel
Published by Mason Engel at Shakespir
Copyright 2017 Mason Engel
Shakespir Edition, License Notes
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It was precisely noon, and the eyes of everyone in the classroom were flashing white. With the morning session ended, Vincent Smith stood from his seat quite a bit faster than his classmates. He filed out of the room before the flashing had even stopped, and with his head dipped low in a slight hunch, he started down the hall.
Vincent closed the restroom door behind him and went at once to the sink. He braced his hips on the porcelain and leaned in close to the mirror. With his head tilted back and his eyelids pulled wide, he slipped out his Lenses in quick succession. Instantly, and as acutely as a claustrophobe pulled from a coffin, he felt his restraints fall free. It felt good to be looking at something without the distortion of the Lenses, though the narrow and slightly asymmetrical face he was staring at may have better remained distorted.
Someone outside tried the locked knob.
Vincent felt a nervous lurch in his stomach. There were never any eyes behind the Lenses but his, no hidden, all-seeing observer. There was no punishment for removing one’s Lenses, but doing so was as uncommon as removing one’s eyes. Of course, the difference between those and the Lenses that covered them had grown quite slim.
Vincent retreated from the mirror and leaned back against the stall door behind him. His eyes, feeling lighter now, twisted in their sockets, as if stretching, before settling their gaze on the far wall. Like everything else in the Seclusion, it had been scrubbed to a sleek shine so it glinted in the light, completely sterile as if bathed in bleach. It left Vincent with a faint impression that a certain but implacable filth lay somewhere just under its surface. The hint of it was nearly undetectable, but it was enough to make Vincent feel as if a blindfold had been pulled tight over his eyes.
There was more metallic clicking as someone outside continued their half twisting of the knob.
Vincent sighed heavily, then leaned forward over the sink once again with the first Lens already perched on his index finger.
Moments later he was holding the door open for the person who had been twisting at the knob, a prim, surly looking boy whose frail body looked slightly absurd under the tightly drawn white uniform that clothed him. His overalls, the legs of which would have fit snugly around Vincent’s arms, were held up almost exclusively by the thin suspenders that hung from his shoulders. Even on Vincent’s own, rather wiry frame, the material of the uniform fit him far better than it did the boy.
On the off chance he might receive even some halfhearted expression of gratitude, Vincent held the door for the boy until he had passed all the way through. When the boy said nothing, Vincent started back the way he had come.
“That feature is still in development,” a boy’s voice was saying. “It’s not available yet, but my mom let me try it anyway.”
By the circle of boys congregated around the speaker, Vincent knew who it was without having to look. It was Brian, a tall, confident looking boy who always seemed to be surrounded by a circle of followers.
“Does it actually work?” asked one of the boys from the circle. His voice was eager, and his eyes were wide enough for Vincent to see the outer rim of his Lenses.
“Better than I thought, honestly,” returned Brian. “It flashes to let you know, red usually, and then…”
He trailed off when he spotted Vincent passing by on the far side of the hall. The others followed his gaze, fixing Vincent with their usual empty expressions and hollow eyed stares. Vincent looked away.
Brian’s voice faded as Vincent drew farther away down the hall, then disappeared completely as he turned into the open door back into the classroom. Most of the class was already seated, tucked with obedient stillness in their white wraparound desks, their feet fixed like tree roots to the white tile below, and their Lenses and eyes behind glued to the white wall ahead.
Vincent took his seat near the back – though not quite as near as he would have liked – and hunched over in his chair. Though the ceiling was far higher than necessary, its slight curve, starting all the way down from where the walls met the tile, seemed to Vincent to hang too close overhead.
Mrs. Farring, a terse, elderly woman whose age had cost her none of her full, straight-postured frame, entered the room from a separate door in the wall everyone was so carefully watching. Almost simultaneously, the frail boy from the restroom shuffled through the door in the wall opposite, closely followed by Brian and the others.
“This is an important afternoon.” It was Mrs. Farring. Her voice was shrill and sharp, and cut through the air of the classroom with every syllable. “Today, we begin our examination of the Order.”
Vincent sighed, letting his head dip a few degrees downward. He glanced around the class, hoping perhaps just once he would find an expression not so vacant, but he was met only with stoic, forward looking faces, and the stern, disapproving face of the girl in the desk to his left. When she noticed him looking, she turned back to the front so sharply her jet black ponytail curled toward him like a whip.
“Which, of course,” continued Mrs. Farring, “is even more important…”
Vincent’s spine straightened, almost involuntarily, when he noticed Mrs. Farring’s eyes on him.
“…today.” With her eyes still on Vincent, she enunciated these last two syllables with cutting precision, “Now,” she continued after a pause, turning to the rest of the class, “I have already transmitted the simulation. Please engage.”
There was movement around the room for the first time as heads changed orientation in the slightest degree, tilting this way or that in time with the flitting of eyes across the insides of Lenses. Then everyone was still, but now with even more vacant expressions than before. Sighing once again, Vincent glanced down at the small message overlain across the bottom part of his vision – the message from Mrs. Farring – and the classroom disappeared. He was alone, sitting in a small white pod, feeling its movement as his own as it hovered just inches above the ground, which, to his surprise, wasn’t bleach white like everything else. It was dark and hard looking, not quite uniform across its surface, with minute chunks of it pulled free in oblong shapes and sitting atop its surface like pebbles. He had read about this: a road, some sort of vehicle path used in the Cities.
He looked around at the rest of the sim. At first he thought to be encased by yet more claustrophobic walls; so complete were the dark, window-lined structures that surrounded him. But then he looked up. The walls weren’t that at all, but buildings, incredibly tall, taller than he had ever seen before, and they weren’t domed and curved like those in the Seclusion, but straight and high and magnificent and old.
Then everything began to fade.
“My apologies,” rang out Mrs. Farring’s voice, its owner unseen but its volume as present as ever. “Wrong simulation.”
Vincent’s eyes clung to the scene, but it was gone before he could drink in anything else, replaced by a depressingly familiar white. He spun around in his seat, which was now a desk. They were in the usual classroom sim, one that depicted a room much like where their bodies resided, only in this room, if you turned your head too quickly, you could see an edge of blackness populating your vision, rendering the world with infinitesimally small pixels that joined together in near perfect imitation of the true image.
“Let us begin.”
Mrs. Farring was visible again, standing, as usual, at the front of the room, her voice no longer disembodied. She stood next to a massless screen that had been projected on the front wall from nowhere in particular. The screen showed a title Vincent found drudgingly familiar: “A History of the Order”. Without waiting, he glanced up and to the right with a quick flick of his eyes. The rendering lines of black on his periphery closed like a curtain, and the simulation disappeared.
He was back in the classroom, the real one – or, at least, half of him was. He had left his left Lens engaged so Mrs. Farring wouldn’t notice his absence. His right, however, was nothing more than a window to the real classroom. Mrs. Farring was still standing at the front of the room, but her usually sharp eyes had been glazed over with the vacancy maintained by the rest of the class. She, too, was in the simulation.
This is how classrooms worked in the Seclusions. There was no need to have the bulk of advanced technology in the physical classroom when that same technology could be simulated in a virtual one. That was all the same to Vincent; reality was much more difficult to escape from than the simulations.
“The Order formed some 50 years ago,” continued Mrs. Farring, “united under a single, anarchical ideology. Their attacks have scarred the very fabric…”
Vincent let her voice fade. He had heard the story several times before. His father and the rest of the Senate had been working against the Order for years. Every night, it seemed to Vincent, he received yet another lesson on the Order’s history or its current state. Even if Mrs. Farring trialed the class with some sort of quiz, Vincent could afford his disattention. He was about to pull up a sim of his own to pass the time, when he paused. His eyes had been drawn to the girl sitting just in front of him. Her head was wobbling slightly, almost floating as it turned back and forth, now and then staring at a wall off to the side instead of the front of the room. In the simulation, of course, she was almost certainly facing forward, but the Lenses had a curious way of placing the wearer’s body and mind out of sync. Vincent looked around at the rest of the room and saw evidence of much the same: heads were turned in odd directions; mouths hung slightly agape. Vincent felt intrusive, like a spy who had stumbled upon prey too easily caught; so vacant and helpless was everyone around him. Even those eyes that, for a fraction of a second, he managed to catch didn’t see him, but rather passed right over him as they turned to behold some other unseen element of the sim.
Entranced now, Vincent rotated in his seat to take in the rest of the room and nearly jumped when he noticed the girl to his left. She was staring at him – though not really. Her bottom lip hung slightly apart from its counterpart above, and her eyes were completely relaxed in their sockets, unseeing, but pointing directly at Vincent. Vincent stared back at her, with the impression of staring at a well painted portrait whose eyes seem glued to his own. And of this portrait, depicting the girl’s smooth, cream textured skin and wide eyes set perfectly above the high bones of her cheeks, Vincent allowed himself a longer look.
The girl turned from him, slowly swiveling in the opposite direction until he could see nothing but her short dark pony tail.
Vincent turned as well, facing the front of the class, already bored of his time outside the sim. Even the simulation’s redundant facts, inevitably swayed in the negative, about the Order would be more interesting than watching his unseeing classmates. But as he made one final glance around him before engaging his Lenses, he caught another pair of eyes, only these – and he wasn’t sure how he knew it – were definitely not vacant. They were looking right at him. Brian, too, it seemed, had exited the simulation, and now, instead of on the video, his eyes were trained on Vincent. Vincent stared back, too shocked to look away, then – or perhaps not, he couldn’t tell – Brian flashed him a grin, and his eyes went blank. Vincent watched him a moment longer, but Brian’s gaze had already started to roam.
“…though in the past it has primarily targeted civilian populations in the Cities…” Mrs. Farring’s voice came back into focus, and Vincent turned, resignedly, toward the front of the room. With little else to do, he glanced down at the lower rim of his Lenses, and he was back in the sim. The video was showing gruesome footage of whitewashed hospital rooms overflowing with blood-stained patients. “…the Order has released statements of intent against government structures, even Seclusions.” The video changed to an aerial shot of a Seclusion much like their own: a hyper-developed expanse of stacked, igloo-shaped white domes, spaced in concentric circles around a single, larger structure in the center. “However, the Order’s origins in the Cities limit their capacity to launch large scale attacks to…”
Vincent didn’t bother stifling his yawn. Perhaps he should have settled for watching his empty eyed classmates. He was only a few seconds away from letting Mrs. Farring’s voice lull him to sleep when he felt his desk shudder. He looked down – the desk in the simulation remained perfectly still. Of course it had. Realizing, his foolishness, he exited the sim. When the actual room returned, he had to turn to his right to look back to the front of the room; he had been staring at the girl with the dark ponytail.
His desk shuddered once again. He spun around in his seat, looking down, but no one had touched him.
Then he heard a rumbling – distant, but growing in volume. Some of the others were beginning to exit their sims as well.
Without warning, his desk lurched to the side, airborne for a split second as the entire room shook – the frail boy from the restroom flew out of his seat, his temple met by the hard edge of the desk beside him. Even Mrs. Farring was out of the sim now. She stared at them, her stern eyes scanning them accusingly as if they were playing a joke on her. Vincent’s knuckles were white from gripping the edge of his desk. He looked around, this time meeting eyes far more present than before. But no one spoke. There was silence, the kind usually conjured only in the moments immediately following some great noise.
Then the rumbling started, again, louder this time, definitely louder. Mrs. Farring started to open her mouth only for the rumbling to be joined by a high, whistling shriek –
The rumble turned to an explosion and the entire room seemed to lurch upward. Mrs. Farring was thrown from her feet, and Vincent from his desk – along with the rest of the classmates. Instinctively, Vincent pulled himself back to his desk, not bothering to climb back into it but hiding beneath it instead. The others did the same, with raw fear pulling their soft features into looks of terror far more genuine than those of vacant interest in the sim.
Vincent cowered with the rest, together like a single unit, with his eyes trained on Mrs. Farring. She remained on the ground, surprisingly steady, expressing the same disapproving look she always did when something happened not according to her plan.
The silence endured for several seconds, and the room remained stationary. Slowly, Mrs. Farring got to her feet. Brian followed suit close behind, then Vincent behind him. The others rose more cautiously.
A series of words began to scroll across the bottom rim of Vincent’s Lenses. Mrs. Farring, with her eyes drawn close as if watching the bridge of her nose, seemed to be reading them as they passed.
“There has been an earthquake,” she recited, her voice hollow, monotone as she read the message aloud. “The students will be sent home while the structural integrity of the building is – “
Everything went black. There was total darkness, then a flicker as the lines of pixel rendering curtains attempted to pull themselves open, then nothing.
Cautiously, Vincent reached up to his right eye and removed the Lens there. He could see the classroom – cut in half now with the darkness of his left eye – and the eerily black eyes of everyone around him. He took out his second Lens.
“Everyone.” Mrs. Farring had started to follow his lead. She laid her Lenses carefully on the table behind her. “Remove your Lenses.”
There were whispers of dissent around the room, of fear.
“Now.” Mrs. Farring’s voice rang out once again, firmer, this time. “Unless you’d rather walk around blind.”
Slowly, as if weighing these options, the others began removing their Lenses, scrutinized from the front of the room by Mrs. Farring who remained as steady as ever.
“The network has been compromised by the earthquake,” she continued. “Luckily, we already received our instructions. You are to return home until we can assess the situation.”
No one moved. Even Brian, far from his usual brashness, seemed a bit nervous.
“You are dismissed,” said Mrs. Farring, raising her hands as if shooing a flock of birds. “Now go.”
Mrs. Farring herded them toward the exit. Vincent was the first to rise. He turned his back on the rest of the class and as he left the room, he was followed by their whispers of despair over the lack of Lenses. Vincent, of course, didn’t mind their absence, but he felt a stroke of despair all the same. For as he looked down at his open hands, at the Lenses there, now completely dark, he felt for the first time he was being watched.
“I’m glad you’re safe son.”
Vincent nodded in response. He directed his attention to the plate of food in front of him, but he remained uneasily aware of the gaze of his father from his left.
“We both are.”
His mother, sitting straight ahead, caught his eye as she spoke. He humored her for the obliged glance of gratitude, then returned to his food. He resettled in his seat, shrinking in at the shoulders. Uttered over the sterile white surface of the table before them, the words of his parents seemed out of place, especially those of his father. They didn’t pertain to the Order, after all, or to some new policy or heavy-handed lobbyist in the Senate. Those were the only sentiments of his that ever seemed truly genuine.
“Thank goodness no one was hurt,” said Vincent’s mother. Her capacity to feel seemed no higher, perhaps even lesser than that of her husband, but it was difficult to tell, even for Vincent. His pre-Seclusion memories, all of them faint and fading quickly, weren’t much use as a measuring post by which to judge things now. Before his father had been elected – or appointed, perhaps (Vincent wasn’t sure) – to the Senate, the one thing Vincent remembered for certain was a lack of white. Not in the way of darkness, simply not in the stifling way it existed now. It was present even in their own dome, in its curved walls all the way to the ceiling, in its bare, perfectly uncluttered tile floor. It was present in every room without exception, especially in the room they occupied now. A kind of hybrid between a small kitchen, a dining area, and an area where one might sit in hours of lull to engage with one’s Lenses, the Main was high ceilinged and perfectly round except for the two offshoot, smaller rooms linked to its circumference. It played host to their nightly meal, at which Vincent now so painfully sat. Of course, dinner was slightly better than afterwards when the table would sink back into the floor, the chairs would be spaced wider, and his parents would invite him to share a simulation. These invitations, to what seemed his parents’ indifference, Vincent easily deflected with complaints of school work.
His mother prompted him. He wasn’t paying enough attention to know what to say.
“Yeah,” he said automatically. “It was fine.”
This earned him a sidelong glance of disapproval.
“You should be grateful, Vincent,” said his father. “The Cities had it much worse.”
“They felt it too?” asked Vincent.
“Of course they did,” said his father. “They were the ones targeted.
Vincent’s mother dropped her fork on the edge of her plate in surprise. “Father.”
Vincent looked up from his food for the first time. Mother was aghast. Father opened his mouth then closed it again. He cast Vincent a nervous look.
“Targeted?” said Vincent. “By the earthquake?”
Father hesitated before responding. He looked across the table at his wife. Her stare was cold, admonishing, but she said nothing. She merely shook her head in disapproval before resuming her meal. Vincent, however, never lifted his gaze from his father.
“What happened?” he asked.
Father cast his wife another look. She wouldn’t meet his eyes. “The Order,” he said, reluctantly, and with an apologetic glance at Mother. “The school didn’t want to cause panic. But the Order has been growing more brash.” His tone was no longer apologetic. It never stayed level for long when he was talking about the Order. “The missiles were shot down not too far above the school. We’re lucky they weren’t nuclear or–“
It was Mother’s voice again, and it was sharper than before. Fathered deferred.
“Defensive measures have been taken,” he said, adopting a more neutral tone. “There was a bug in the defense system that allowed them to get that close, but it’s been patched. Nothing to worry about.” He glanced at his wife, as if to confirm he had been convincing enough. After a pause, she nodded her approval.
“It’s a good thing we were relocated to the Newsight campus,” she said. “Their people are so brilliant. After working on the Lenses, the defense system must have been trivial.”
Father nodded in agreement, and Mother raised her lips in a tightly held grin. Vincent was staring up at them both. He hadn’t touched his food for the past several seconds.
“I nearly forgot to ask, Vincent,” said Mother, her lips falling back into their normal straight lines. “Was everyone frightened when the Lenses went dark? How have you been?”
Vincent shrugged. He didn’t want to talk about the Lenses. He wanted to hear about the attack.
“Terrified, of course,” Father answered for him. “You too, Mother. Must feel odd. Naked. I can’t imagine being without mine for more than a second.”
Mother nodded, as if they took turns at this. “It’s been unbearable without them.”
Vincent opened his mouth, then bit his tongue. Neither of his parents seemed to notice.
“But Mrs. Carsons said we’ll have new ones soon.”
“Mrs. Carsons,” said Father, slowly, as if tasting the syllables on his tongue. “From Rearing?”
Mother shook her head. It looked odd when it wasn’t moving up and down. “From Incubation,” she said. “With me.”
Father smacked the table in realization. Vincent jumped.
“Her husband is a Newsight man, isn’t he?”
Mother nodded, looking natural again.
“I remember now,” continued Father. “What did she say? How long until the recall?”
“It’s already in process,” said Mother. “Everyone will be shipped the newest model within the week. Mrs. Carsons even said the Cities would receive the upgrade. Fatrem mandated it himself. Can you believe that?”
For a fraction of a second, Vincent saw something novel on his father’s face. There was an upward twitch of his brow, a widening of his eyes, a slight parting of his lips, and then nothing. He was composed again.
“That is news, indeed,” he said. Mother didn’t seem to notice his reservation.
“It’s quite generous of them,” she said. “Almost no one in the Cities has access to Lenses. Mrs. Carsons mentioned something about an extra gift as well, but I can’t imagine Fatrem giving away any more than he already has.”
Vincent inspected Father for a reaction but could detect none. He could have imagined it the first time.
“I wouldn’t put it past him,” said Father. “He might include the application he gave to the Senate with our new Lenses.” He opened his eyes wide as if to show them off. Sure enough, Vincent could see the outer rim of the Lenses sloping across the whites of Father’s eyes. There seemed to be tiny lines reaching out from the rim, as well, but they were too far away to see for certain.
“Lucid?” Mother tilted her head downward while her eyes stayed still, as if looking at Father through imaginary bifocals. “Surely not.”
Father shrugged. “Newsight is promoting it heavily,” he said. “And they should. I tried it for the first time last night. Best night of sleep I’ve had in years.”
Mother nodded in agreement. Vincent frowned.
“I don’t know how you sleep in them.” The words slipped out of his mouth before he could stop them.
“My Lenses?” questioned Father, his brow raised. Mother looked appalled.
“Have you not been wearing your Lenses to bed, Vincent?” Vincent looked down at his food. Mother, uncharacteristically, seemed ready to raise her voice when Father interrupted.
“Well the old pair wasn’t very comfortable, Mother,” said Father. He cast Vincent a warning look. Mother glared at them both, her nose tilted ever so slightly upward, disappointed.
Father saw. “But when you get your upgrade,” he said to Vincent, forcing sternness back into his tone, “you better get used to sleeping in them.” Then, deciding the matter was settled – though Mother’s look said quite the opposite – he changed the subject. “Anyway, this ‘Lucid’ application is all the more reason to wear the Lenses at night. It allows them to detect when you’re dreaming. They flash – red usually, always very soft – and you can see it while you’re asleep.”
Mother’s expression remained rigid, but it was softening.
“I used it last night to get rid of nightmares,” pressed Father. “I used to wake Mother up with them. Not last night, though. Right, Mother?”
“Not a wink.” She smiled a very forced looking grin, and Father did the same. Vincent was losing interest. The glimmer of real conversation had been short lived.
“Speaking of Mrs. Carsons,” Father resumed, picking up the prior thread, “you might tell her I’m a bit cross with the Newsight lobbyists at the moment.”
Vincent perked up again.
“Really?” said Mother, frowning. “How so?”
Vincent fixed his eyes on Father. He could see remnants there of what he saw before: a look not so artificial as usual.
“The bill they’ve been pushing for comes to the floor tomorrow,” said Father. “Perhaps I’m being old-fashioned; perhaps we all are, but I just can’t see it ever getting passed.”
“They’re appealing the regulations again?” said Mother. Father nodded.
“All of them this time.”
Mother didn’t nod.
“Some of the data they want to collect…” Father trailed off. He was in danger of exposing a real expression again. “They claim to be able to use it against the Order. But still…it’s a lot to think about.”
“Well if it will stop the Order then I don’t see why not,” said Mother, in her practical way. “Is there much discussion about it?”
“It’s all anyone has been talking about. Both parties are generally averse to it. There’s even a great deal of bipartisanship talks to make sure it doesn’t get passed. We’re collaborating closer than we have in years.” Father paused, almost frowning, seeming to listen to the echo of the words that had just left his mouth, as if to ensure they had been his own. His face suddenly seemed lined with more wrinkles than Vincent had seen before.
“Well,” said Mother, pulling Vincent’s gaze from Father, “whatever you decide, we trust you to make the right decision. Don’t we Vincent?”
Vincent looked to her, then back to Father, whose face had closed to interpretation once again.
“Right,” said Vincent.
Father looked up at this. Vincent stared back, searching Father’s eyes for a look of confirmation, assurance, something, but all he could see were the tiny lines of the Lenses.
The next morning, Vincent, huddled close into himself against the wind, pushed through the main doors of the school. Instantly, the cold in his muscles gave way to manufactured warmth, and the whistling in his ears to excited whispers and shuffling feet. Taking a moment to adjust to the light reflecting off the school’s bleached interior, his eyes searched for the source of the sound. In the far corner of the room – in a space of congruent shape to the Main but of amplified size – a group of Vincent’s classmates, nearly all of them, in fact, were clustered around a large opening in the wall where an uninterested looking man was passing out small packages. Vincent’s white overall clad peers clambered over each other wildly for their share, with an eagerness in their eyes Vincent had scarcely seen in them before.
“They can’t function without their Lenses.”
Vincent turned around, following the voice. He found its owner in the brawny, tall boy so used to being followed by the same crowd now clustered around the man with the packages.
Brian smirked at them. “I’m surprised they survived the night without them,” he said.
Vincent glanced back at the group still fighting each other for – if Brian was right – their upgrades.
“They’re already here?”
“They’ve been here for a while now,” said Brian. “There’s been a line ever since the doors opened.”
Vincent continued to watch the crowd push and shove to get closer to the opening. “You got here early then?”
Brian shook his head. “Just a few minutes before you. I didn’t have to wait in line. I got the new version as soon as I went home last night.”
Vincent nodded, unsurprised. It made sense. He should have known Brian had a Newsight parent. Many of the kids in this Seclusion did – it was where the company was based, after all. Then again, the crowd of students was too large for everyone whose parents worked for the Lens creators to have gotten their upgrades early.
“Your parents work for Newsight?”
Brian nodded. Vincent motioned to the group at the opening. “And none of theirs do?”
“Some do,” said Brian. “But none as high up as my mom.” He said the last part as something of a boast, but it seemed proud, too, genuine.
Vincent didn’t say anything back. He was about to start over to join the crowd when the main doors pushed open a few meters off, dousing them with a sharp wave of cold. It was the girl with the dark ponytail. She cast the mob of students a quick glance before stalking past them and down the hall toward the classroom. Brian noticed Vincent looking.
“Our moms used to work together,” he said. He sounded resentful anyone should have the privilege.
“Used to?” repeated Vincent.
“Her mom was head of Development,” said Brian. “My mom says she was always pushing too far, always testing features that weren’t quite ready. She had an accident a few years back because of it. Ended up dying.” He finished with a blunt, detached tone, not quite cold, just matter-of-fact. Vincent, however, was more interested.
“So how does she already have her Lenses then?”
“Her dad still works for Newsight,” said Brian. “Not nearly as high up, but they probably still get taken care of. Everyone loved her mom.”
Vincent fixed his gaze on the mouth of the hall where the girl had just disappeared. “What’s her name?” he asked.
Brian watched him, wearing a hint of a grin. “Why don’t you ask her yourself?”
Vincent shot him a look, his cheeks growing hot, then crossed over to the crowd of his peers to pick up his new Lenses.
Vincent blinked several times in quick succession as he dropped the second Lens onto his free eye. He squinted at himself in the restroom mirror. The new Lenses felt a bit thicker than before. The distortion, though undetectable, felt heavier now, like he had traded in his cotton blindfold for a leaden one.
For proper adjustment, please do not remove your new Lenses for the first three days.
The words scrolled across the bottom rim twice before Vincent could read them fully. He tried to shift the glass covering his eye with his index finger – he didn’t like the idea of sleeping in Lenses – but it felt already fixed in place, held there as if by suction. He breathed out, heavily, and then yawned in the same breath. He had lain in bed last night with his mind spinning like a top, turning over and over again his father’s troubled expression during dinner, and now the Lenses would make sleep even more elusive.
Three small white numbers at the bottom of the glass on his eyes began to blink: 800. He was about to be late.
Turning from the mirror, Vincent left the restroom. Moments later, just as Mrs. Farring was stepping through the door at the front of the room, Vincent lowered himself into the nook of his desk.
“Good morning, everyone.”
The class responded in kind, Vincent’s own voice calling out habitually with the rest.
“We were cut short yesterday,” continued Mrs. Farring, “so we won’t waste any time this morning. You should receive my invitation shortly.”
As the words left her mouth, more of the same appeared along the bottom edge of Vincent’s Lenses. Another sim. A second yawn rose up in Vincent at the thought, and he caught it halfway through when he noticed Mrs. Farring’s eyes on him. The rest of the class, however, seemed all too eager to test out their upgraded devices. Expressions went blank faster than usual, and heads began to drift. Still under the careful inspection of Mrs. Farring, Vincent glanced down twice, and the classroom rematerialized in almost the exact fashion as he had just seen it. Admittedly, far closer to exact than had been managed by the previous Lenses.
The video screen was already hanging in midair at the front of the room, its picture frozen at some long-winded title, the first words of which made Vincent slouch in his seat.
“We’ll pick up the Order simulation where we left off,” said Mrs. Farring. “Today, we’ll be covering the Order’s presence in the Cities.” Vincent straightened slightly at this. He thought of the black road surrounded by towering, dark-paned structures. Perhaps he would stay in the sim today after all.
But when the video began, a shot of a politician giving a particularly dry speech in the Senate, Vincent knew in an instant he would see nothing of the Cities. It had been a fanciful hope to begin with. If the decrepit, shadowy scene he had seen in the simulation the day before was any indication, the Cities would be far from sterile enough to show in the sim.
Sighing, Vincent leaned back and disengaged his right Lens. His head had been left facing forward and, for a second, the room was split seamlessly in two between the simulation and the real thing. Though now, seeing the two side by side, Vincent could easily have forgotten which was which; so closely had the sim recreated its mark. He chanced a look at Brian, half expecting, half hoping to see the larger boy disengaged as well, but Brian was looking in the opposite direction, his eyes glazed over with the telltale vacancy of the sim – the same as everyone else. Vincent turned to the girl to his left; she too was fully engaged.
Surely, Vincent thought, the Cities had to be different than this. They had to be better. Even the deserted, dark environment he had glimpsed in the sim had been more compelling than the Seclusion. Even its absolute emptiness had felt warmer than the full capacity classroom of cold, blank-faces in which Vincent now sat. More exciting, too, though school didn’t set the bar particularly high in that regard.
Vincent yawned once again, not bothering to hold it in this time. Mrs. Farring always ended up watching the sim the same as the students. She wouldn’t notice him. Taking care to position himself out of view behind the girl in front of him just in case, Vincent settled his face into his hands. He closed his eyes and began to listen.
“…until the urban exodus. That is when those who were able migrated from the Cities into the Seclusions. Only a few were left behind, and these few are continually provided with supplies and protection. However, the Order’s insatiable appetite for destruction leads them again and again to the Cities’ unprotected outskirts. Where once families and children lived, there now are only ruins. The Order has…”
Vincent was starting to slip away, but his mind continued to linger on the narrator’s last few words. Where once families and children lived… Vincent’s memories from pre-Seclusion began to pry their way out of the dark once again. He remembered short square buildings with pointed roofs and none of the gentle curves of the Seclusion domes. He remembered the pungent smell of air not quite clean, of a thick black fog that clung to the clouds like a sticky film. He remembered the paths, the roads, and people walking down them, none of them dressed in white, and some shouting, some even smiling. And then he remembered the towers, slender and dark as they rose up from the stone paths that encircled them, reflecting rays of light with their story height windows…
The narrator continued to talk, but Vincent was no longer listening.
He was standing in a long triangular clearing on the same, hard looking surface he had seen the day before, and walled in on all sides by a dozen of the same, ominous towers of dark paned glass and black metal – though here, some of the panes were missing. Entire chunks of the buildings, too, had been detached. Midway up, the structures were broken off at jagged corners, the windows hanging from only half their frames. At the lower levels, hardly any glass remained at all – only shards of it, jutting up and down from the edges of the window frames of shop fronts like the mouths of fragile but deadly caves. And looking down at it all, from its perch halfway up the narrow behemoth structure at the head of the triangle, was an enormous screen. Its counterpart surfaces below and above had long since flickered out of life, but this middle one continued to shine, despite the massive, circular fracture in its center. It showed a giant face, one Vincent didn’t recognize, of such a size that the story-wide cracks in the glass occupied only a small portion of it, only the figure’s right eye. That’s what Vincent called it: a figure, for its features struck him in neither way so strongly as to enable him to assign the thing a gender. It was merely a face, and one – in the eyes, at least – with which Vincent felt familiar. For as the thing moved, twisting slightly at its gray-collared neck as if to survey the triangular clearing before it, Vincent could see the rims of Lenses against the whites of its eyes.
He turned away. The face had a way of captivating its observer, but it wasn’t something one looked at for long.
Vincent started in the opposite direction, toward the upper vertex of the triangle. The skin on the back of his neck itched with a nagging heat from the stare of the figure behind him, but he ignored it, instead training his attention straight forward; he could hear something. There were voices, soft at first, then, as he kept walking, almost loud enough to make out. He increased his pace as he stared ahead, craning his neck, trying to see past the strange looking wheeled vehicles that sat overturned every few meters along the clearing. He passed half a dozen of such things before he discovered the voices’ source. There was a line of people, about 50 total, all dressed in the farthest opposite of Vincent’s white overalls as could be imagined. The ragged brown and gray cloth they wrapped themselves with seemed to hang off their malnourished bodies like oversized folds of skin, and it shivered from the cold along with their bodies beneath.
Suddenly, Vincent felt a second set of eyes on him, and this set didn’t bore into him like the figure’s above. He turned his head, on instinct, and found their owner. It was the girl with the dark pony tail, the one who sat to his left in class. She wasn’t wearing her overalls any longer; she was clothed in the same tattered, ancient looking cloth as everyone else in the line. The only sign of difference was the leather belt wrapped around her waist at the tightest loop – though it, too, still sagged against her. The leather was faded, stained with dirt, but Vincent could still see the color beneath: what once must have been a shining, vibrant red.
The air in the clearing suddenly seemed to hold its breath, stagnant. There was silence, a hush drawn over them from nowhere and everywhere at once, and then the pixel populating lines, the ones Vincent could see if he turned his head too quickly in the sim, had fallen down across each of his eyes, from the top this time, not the sides. They crossed his vision as two burning red bars, glowing at the edges with the same hue as that on the girl’s belt. They passed all the way down over his eyes, leaving a residue of crimson haze in their wake, and then they were gone. The girl held Vincent’s stare for a second longer, then turned back to facing the front of the line.
Vincent turned, twisting at the neck as he scanned the clearing, searching for the source of the light. He looked accusingly up at the screen to the figure with the shattered right eye, but its gaze, too, had been turned from him. No one else had seemed to notice the light but him.
And then he paused. A misplaced memory of his parents’ conversation from dinner slipped, unbidden, into his mind. His father had been sleeping with his Lenses because of some new application, one he had said Newsight had given away for free.
The flash of red.
The last thing Vincent remembered was listening to the droning voice of the sim narrator, and now, as he looked around him, at the impossibly high buildings that fenced him in, at the strange looking figure with the fractured glass eye, it began to make sense.
With a sudden surge of confidence, Vincent turned back toward the line and started walking. He was heading for the girl with the ponytail. Here, if nowhere else, he had to talk to her. But the distance between them seemed not to close, as if the rock surface beneath Vincent’s feet slipped backward with his every step. And then came the rumbling. It was coming from behind him, soft at first, then deep, wailing and thunderous. Vincent started to run, to run toward the girl, but he couldn’t seem to move – and nor to hear. The sounds of the voices had been dwarfed by the mechanical roaring above. They were close. Something, was close, right on top of them –
There was a flash of light, this one not red but a hot, burning gold, and not slow and horizontal, but blazingly fast and straight down, as a streak, aimed directly at the line where the girl stood. Then the gold turned into deadly orange, and the streak into a burst of fire as the object struck its mark. Vincent felt a searing heat across his face and was thrown back, still watching, horrified, as the standers in line flew limply from their spots, risen with sheer force into the air, their tattered clothes now singed through and torn with shrapnel, their bodies tossed back as rag dolls from the explosion.
As the dust settled, Vincent picked himself up off the ground, slowly, shaking, and stood with his shoulders vibrating in an uneven shudder from his sharp, shallow breaths, and he stared at the spot where the girl had just been standing, where now was only a charred portion of the pavement streaked with something more than just ash.
“No,” he whispered it out loud to himself as he continued to stare. “No.” He turned back to the figure on the screen at the head of the clearing. It seemed to have changed slightly. Its lips, though faintly, now curled upward at the corners, forming a smug looking grin that seemed to taunt Vincent.
“No!” he shouted at it, accusing, hot with fury. “It was you! I know it was you! I know it was y–”
Vincent’s eyes snapped open and he was back in the classroom. Everyone was looking at him. Some even looked concerned.
He turned self-consciously in his seat. He caught Brian’s eye and was met only with a vague, unreadable look of curiosity, and then he turned to the girl. She was among those who had concern in her gaze. There was something else there too, something that made Vincent feel as transparent as glass.
Vincent whipped around to face the front of the room where Mrs. Farring stood, simmering.
“You will stay after school to finish your simulation,” she said. “Is that understood?”
Vincent shrank into himself as the looks of concern on those around him turned to something closer to amusement. “Yes, ma’am.” He said it in a small, defeated voice, and Mrs. Farring seemed satisfied by it.
“Good. Now, everyone else, we’ll take our break a few minutes early.” Without another word, she turned from them and disappeared through what seemed to be her own personal door. The rest of the class stood as well, starting for the door opposite. Vincent rose more slowly. Brian crossed over to him through the crowd.
“How was it?”
“How was what?”
“The new application,” urged Brian. “Lucid. Did you use it?”
Vincent froze when he heard the name. That’s what it had been called, the dream app, from dinner.
“Yeah,” he said. “I think so.”
Brian raised his eyebrows, expectant. “So…” he said, “What did you think?”
“Uh…” Vincent hesitated. “It was…good.” He paused for a beat, then, when Brian seemed unsatisfied, added: “It was cool.”
Brian still looked a bit skeptical but didn’t press any further. He started to turn away.
“Brian?” Vincent called after him on reflex. Brian turned to him, his brow lifting, expectant once again.
“I was just wondering…” Vincent trailed off, trying to figure out how to phrase it. “If…if you don’t want the dream to keep going. How do you end it?”
Brian seemed confused by the question. “Well most people don’t want it to end at all,” he said. “You can do whatever you want. You can control whatever you want, with practice.” He paused here, as if he had answered the question, but when Vincent said nothing back, he continued. “But,” he said, in a voice a bit lower than before, “if you do want to wake up, all you have to do is fall back asleep.” He paused again, hesitant, seeming to size Vincent up. “Of course there are other ways to wake up,” he said. “Permanently.”
In Brian’s expression on this last word, Vincent could see the same shadow of a look he had seen during the sim the day prior, and something beyond it that seemed to leave words unsaid.
Brian turned away. Vincent stayed where he was, and as he watched the larger boy file out of the class with the few of their peers who remained, his breaths began to grow shorter. His Lenses felt suddenly tighter against his pupils. He started for the restroom.
The door was locked when he tried it. He knocked impatiently, and kept knocking until the boy inside stepped out.
“Just wait your–”
Vincent pushed past him and pulled the door shut as he went. He threw the bolt into place and leaned back. His eyes felt more constricted than usual, as if the stranglehold his Lenses had on them had finally been pulled all the way taut.
Trying to compose himself, he crossed over to the sink and leaned forward so his right eye, with its lid pulled all the way up, was within centimeters of the mirror. He dragged his index finger across the surface of the glass Lens sitting atop his pupil as he had done so many times before, but nothing happened this time. He tried again, pressing a little harder so his eye sank back a millimeter into his head, but the Lens remained. He leaned back so he was standing straight again, his eyes locked on his reflection. He blinked several times, then tried his left eye – still, nothing. Frowning, and sweating now, even under his thin, breathable overalls, he resumed his position up close to the mirror. He opened his eyes wide and inspected the white area just beyond the grayish green of his irises. He saw the rim of the Lenses the same as usual, but, amidst the irritated, spindly lines of bloodshot red in his right eye, he saw something else. Another set of lines, ones not his own, and nearly undetectable, stretched out from the edge of the Lens and curled back and up under his eyelid.
The stranglehold felt by his eyes was nearing a breaking point.
Before he could go back to work on removing them, his Lenses started to flash white along the bottom rim.
1128. It was time go back.
Vincent let his eyelids droop closed for a moment, though this didn’t get rid of the numbers, and he massaged the area of his forehead just outside the tips of his brow. He stayed like that for a few seconds as he regained control of his breathing, then he left.
He pushed through the door back out into the hall and started for the classroom, but as he did, he saw movement behind him. He turned, and, all the way at the end of the passage in the direction opposite the rest of the class, there was Brian. The larger boy was walking rather quickly, hunched over at the waist as if hiding – as if bracing himself, too. He was probably feigning nausea to get out of the sim. It wasn’t a bad idea.
The blinking numbers turned to 1129. Sighing, and more out of habit than duty, Vincent began to turn as he started at a brisk pace back toward the classroom. When he turned fully, though, he came to a stop so quickly his feet nearly slipped on the slick tile below. The girl with the pony tail had just exited the girl’s restroom, and he had nearly run into her.
“Sorry,” he mumbled, looking down automatically. “Wasn’t looking.”
He stayed where he was, his eyes downcast, expecting her to twist around in her normal whipping motion, but she didn’t. She stayed where she was, inspecting him, with keen, wide dark eyes.
“I tried to take mine out too,” she said, her gaze trained on Vincent’s irritated right eye. “I couldn’t get it out either.”
Vincent started to raise a hand to his face self-consciously, then caught himself. He glanced at the girl, then looked away again; her eyes seemed to stare straight through him. “I guess we’re not supposed to be able to,” he said, looking up at her now. It was an effort to hold her gaze. “They said we’re not supposed to take them out.”
“We’re also not supposed to tune out of our sims,” she countered. “But you do that anyway.”
Vincent felt a familiar heat begin to kindle under the skin of his cheeks. He glanced over the girl’s shoulder at the open door of the classroom, longing, even, for the discomfort of his desk.
“How do you know that?” he asked.
“I can tell,” she said, matter-of-factly. “I tune out too. When I do it, though, I try not to make it too obvious in case Mrs. Farring is watching. You, on the other hand, never hide it at all.” She paused. Her inspection of him continued. “You watch me sometimes. A lot of times, actually.” She said the last part without much expression, as if stating the obvious. Vincent barely noticed his lips part in shock. He tried to stammer some excuse, but nothing seemed to come. The girl grinned.
“Come on,” she said, flicking her head back toward the classroom. “We’ve still got all afternoon.” Unhesitating, and with far more confidence than Vincent could have mustered, she grabbed his hand and pulled him along behind her, back toward the classroom.
Vincent felt the heat in his face sink downward, deeper into his neck, then all the way down through his chest where it settled as a hollow jumble of nerves in his stomach.
And then he heard the whistle. There was no rumbling to precede it this time, and within a fraction of a second, it was already at an earsplitting shriek. The girl looked up.
“What is tha-”
Her words were cut off as the whistle turned into a resounding boom and the ceiling above them cracked down the middle, leaking dust from above.
There was silence then. They were still, the girl’s eyes fixed on the ceiling, Vincent’s fixed on her.
Then they were flying backward. Vincent could hardly make sense of the colors spinning through his line of sight. There was a cloud of orange, hot with streaks of red, then plumes of black and gray, sprinkled with flecks of white that flew through the air in all directions.
He hit the ground in sync with the girl and skidded a meter longer from the momentum. When they came to a stop, the girl was coughing, and her arm was draped over Vincent’s waist.
Vincent pulled himself into a sitting position, coughing up dust as he did so, and stared down the hall. Or, at least, he tried to. It was thick with a brown cloud of smoke and debris. The usually spotless white walls had been coated with grime, and the paint that covered them dripped from the heat of the flames that licked their perfect surface.
There started a second whistle.
“Come on!” The girl had heard it. She got to her feet, pulling Vincent up with her and dragging him farther down the hall. “We need to move!”
Vincent had barely gotten to his feet when there was another explosion and the ground lurched under them, sending them hurtling into the wall to their right. Vincent felt the heat much closer behind them now.
“Let’s go!” The girl continued to drag him forward, her right hand still curled tightly around his, and her face dipped low beneath the smoke.
The ground shook as they ran from yet another explosion. This one was followed by screams. Vincent thought of the clearing among the towers, of the line of people thrown to the side like grains of sand. He increased his pace.
Doors on either side of them began to open. Teachers poked their heads out, their eyes wide with terror as they stared back at the blaze rising up down the hall.
“You two!” one of the teachers shouted from his room. “Get inside!”
The girl didn’t stop running, and she didn’t soften her grip. Vincent only had time to glance back at the man before the ceiling caved in between them, and his vision was blurred with dust. Vincent covered his mouth with his free hand to stop the debris from entering his lungs. He stumbled over the tile, which seemed suddenly mobile and uneven as they ran, then skidded to a halt behind the girl as they reached an opening in the hall. They had reached the high ceilinged room that led to the main entrance. From the opening where the Lenses had been passed out earlier that morning, streamed more teachers, frantic, all wearing the same dumbfounded expression of terror. The girl didn’t seem to notice them. She had dropped Vincent’s hand and her eyes were drawn close, as Mrs. Farring’s had been when reading yesterday’s message on the Lenses.
“We need to get out of the school,” the girl said, still seeming to stare at the bridge of her nose. “My dome isn’t far.”
Vincent looked through the glass of the main doors where the outside seemed tinted with a grim-looking red. “Outside?” he said. “Are you sure we shouldn’t stay here?”
She shook her head, surprisingly calm. “My dad just sent me a message. He said to get home as fast as possible.”
Vincent turned around, staring at the ruined hall they had just left behind, then in the opposite direction where the blazes were just beginning to rise, and then out through the main doors.
“Vincent,” the girl said, firmly, but utterly composed. Vincent turned to her, and with her in front of him, his periphery suddenly seemed blurred, the smoke and dust and dumbstruck teachers blissfully out of focus. The screams, too, sounded muffled and distant. When the girl held out her hand, Vincent hardly heard the explosion that sounded somewhere behind them. He looked down at the girl’s fingers, steady, as they stretched out to him. “Trust me,” she said.
And without really knowing why, he did.
They came to a stop in front of a dome between the first and second Rings. If they weren’t still being trailed by fading echoes of screams and windblown smoke, Vincent would have had the presence of mind to be impressed. The prices of domes this close to the Center were astronomical, especially along Ocean (the Seclusion’s main path). Typically, these properties had the best view of the upper levels of school, but now, the red haze of flickering flames that lit the horizon provided a view for which no one had paid.
The girl pressed her right eye up close to a palm sized screen on the door, and the screen shined green a second later. The door opened automatically. She grabbed Vincent’s hand and started to tug him inside, but Vincent held firm. His attention had been drawn back to the horizon. When the girl saw what he was looking at, she stopped her tugging and turned around to watch. There was yet another streak of gold splitting through the sky. This one was brighter than the rest, with a thicker tail, and it was heading straight for the school’s main dome. It moved with lethargic slowness as it fell down at an angle from above, lighting up the whole sky with a blinding, Armageddon-like glow. The object at the helm of the thing seemed to cut through the sky like a giant blade, its tip pointed resolutely at the last remaining remnant of the school.
In one final flash, it pierced its mark.
The dome hesitated for a fraction of a second, as if unsure what would happen, then shrank in at the sides and exploded outward with a giant pulse. The red haze above turned bright pink as the dome was engulfed from without in the same blinding white that had once decorated it within.
“Vincent.” The girl’s voice was soft, but its edges had lost their usual calm. “We need to get inside.” She tugged on his arm again. “Come on.”
With his eyes still on the horizon, the pinnacle of which now seemed eerily empty, and with the image of the fire-tailed missile still seared into his mind, Vincent let himself be towed inside.
“My dad said he’ll be here soon.”
They were cast into darkness as the girl closed the door behind them.
“He told us to go to the cellar.”
“The what?” asked Vincent. He felt in a trance. His eyes were still trained on the horizon, though all he could see now was the unlit walls of the dome.
“The cellar,” repeated the girl, as if that explained things. “Come.” She tugged on his hand yet again, but he stayed where he was. The last hour seemed to register in his mind all at once.
“I need to get home,” he said. “I need to find my mom. She works in Incubation. She could have been-”
The girl caught his wrist when he tried to turn away. “Incubation is right next to the generators,” she said. “It’s underground. She’s safer than we are.”
Vincent pulled free of her grip. “I just need to – wait,” he looked around them, noticing the darkness for the first time – the lights were automatic. “The power is–”
“We don’t run off of the Center generators,” she said, withdrawing, as if making a confession. “We have our own. It probably just shut off from the blast. Besides,” she continued, sounding eager to change the subject, “Brian’s lights were on.”
Vincent frowned, taken aback. “Brian? What does he have to do with–”
“His dome,” the girl cut in. “We passed it on the way here. In the first Ring. They had lights. Everyone else did, too. The generators haven’t been hit.”
Vincent tried to think back to their run here, but he had been too preoccupied to take in the sights. And he remained too preoccupied to think of anything but getting home. “I should still go,” he said, and he turned away, starting for the door. The girl didn’t stop him this time.
“Where do you live?” she called after him.
“Just a few paths over.” He was almost to the door.
“Really.” said the girl. It wasn’t a question. “I know for a fact you live on the other side of the Center.”
Vincent stopped with his hand on the knob.
“You won’t make it there for hours,” pressed the girl. “They’ll send in the Guard. The whole Seclusion will be blocked off.”
Vincent stayed where he was. He was trying to find a way around what she said, but he couldn’t find one; it was all true. Even the parts she shouldn’t have known.
“Wait a second,” said Vincent. “How do you know where I live?”
The girl opened her mouth to answer, then paused, rethinking. “I…I’ve seen you leave school before. You always go in the opposite direction as me.”
Vincent lifted his brow. “So you’ve been watching me?” he said.
Even in the lack of light, he saw the girl’s face grow a shade darker.
“So what if I have?” she said. “You’re alive aren’t you? But if you want to change that, be my guest: walk home.” Her body was cast into shadow as she started deeper into the unlit dome, but Vincent didn’t follow. Not yet.
The girl paused where she was, sighing as she looked back at him.
Vincent spoke once again. “What is your name?”
The girl seemed taken aback. She hadn’t been expecting this.“Jessica,” she said. Vincent repeated the name back, in his head. For some reason, it was already familiar.
“Now are you coming or not?” said Jessica. Without waiting for a response, she turned on her heel and started deeper into the dome. Vincent watched her for a moment, then started after her.
The next few hours passed without much conversation. They sat together in a small, underground room that was hidden beneath the master bed. It was almost pitch black, lit only by burning, finger-width sticks Vincent had never seen before. The walls were damp and the floor uneven, and even through the darkness, Vincent could see no trace of white. No other dome he had been inside had anything like it. Though, admittedly, he had been in only a handful.
A metallic rustling sound drifted down to them from somewhere near the ceiling. A second later, the trapdoor under the master bed swung upward, providing the cellar with only the rays of light slippery enough to slither by the man shaped shadow above.
“It’s safe,” said the caster of the shadow. “You can come up.”
Jessica rose without question. Vincent got to his feet more cautiously.
“It’s ok,” said Jessica. “It’s my dad.”
Vincent nodded in response, but he wasn’t assuaged. A man with a hidden room underground and a dome that ran off of private power didn’t call to mind a particularly trustworthy image.
Vincent followed Jessica up the steeply angled stairs toward the trapdoor. A few seconds later, they were back in the main bedroom.
The voice called out again, out of sight this time. They traced its source to the Main, where a short, grubby looking man with a rounded stomach was entering from a door behind the kitchen. As he did, the room brightened from somewhere overhead.
“Generator’s back,” he said. Vincent looked around with the aid of the lights for the first time, and he quickly saw that the trapdoor was not the dome’s only anomaly. In the miniaturized kitchen, dirty dishes stood in stacks of about chin height on the counter. The dining table was flanked on either side by two large brown chairs, made of a material not so sturdy looking as that of the chairs in Vincent’s dome. They looked more comfortable, though, more natural, as did everything else in the dome, really. The dining table actually looked used: strewn with articles of the day and scattered with flattened out cubes of bound paper, the likes of which Vincent had seen only in the sims. Even the walls, usually the main source of the Seclusion’s empty perfection, had been decorated, mostly with images of the same three people: Jessica, her father, and a woman Vincent didn’t recognize. The omnipresent sterility that had trailed Vincent like a shadow ever since his arrival in the Seclusion was utterly absent here. To Vincent, the place felt less like a building that was lived in, and more like an actual home.
“You didn’t say there was someone with you, Jessica.” The round man who had entered from the kitchen stood next to the dining table, his eyes trained on Vincent with undisguised suspicion. He was short, only just taller than Jessica, with a face as round as his stomach and a nose so wide it must surely have haunted the lower edge of his vision.
“He’s ok, Dad,” said Jessica. Jessica’s father turned to her at this, and the two of them remained silent for several seconds, seeming to hold a conversation without words. “Vincent, this is my dad. He’s a developer for Newsight. He works on the software that runs our Lenses.”
Less tense now, but still never taking his large, beady eyes off of Vincent, Jessica’s father extended his hand. Vincent stepped forward to shake it.
“Simon,” said the man. “I trust my Jessica has been taking care of you.”
“And your parents,” Simon continued, “they’re safe?”
Vincent nodded. He had received word from both of them while he and Jessica were in the cellar. The Lenses, though this attack had been far worse than the one before, had remained fully functional.
“Do they have a vehicle?” asked Simon.
“No, Sir,” he said.
Simon grunted his disapproval and said nothing back. Jessica broke the silence.
“Can you take him, daddy?” she asked. She was still standing next to Vincent, but as she asked, she stepped closer to Simon. The man’s gaze softened as if by a switch, and his tenseness seemed to ease. Still, Vincent didn’t relish the idea of riding in a vehicle, least of all with the man who stood before him now.
“It’s really fine,” said Vincent. “Don’t feel like you have to go through any trouble. Jessica has done more than enough already.”
Simon seemed satisfied by the answer. He turned to Jessica. “Well you heard the boy. He’ll be all right.”
“Dad.” She said the word in a parental kind of tone, like she was scolding him. Simon sighed in response, then looked away, running a hand through what hair he had left as he looked over his shoulder at the door in the kitchen. After a pause, he turned back to face them.
“Where do you live?” he asked.
Vincent didn’t lie this time. “412 Ocean,” he said.
“This side of the Center?” asked Simon.
Vincent shook his head. “Opposite.”
Simon turned to Jessica, then back to Vincent. He sighed again, heavier this time.
“Come on then,” he said to Vincent, flicking his head. “This way.” He turned and started for the door he had just entered through in the kitchen.
“Uh…” Vincent stayed where he was. “I’m fine, really. I can just–”
“Go,” Jessica cut in. “It’s no trouble. He’s always excited to drive.”
“Are you sure?” Vincent stared at the open door Simon had just disappeared through, unconvinced.
Jessica laughed. It was a pleasant sound, soft and sweet, and a pitch higher than Vincent would have expected.
“He’s fine,” she said. “He’s just not used to this. I’ve never brought a boy back before.”
At that, somehow, Vincent’s nerves weren’t eased.
“You’re fine,” said Jessica, still smiling. “You better hurry though.”
Vincent took a deep breath. Surely this couldn’t be worse than the explosions.
He cast Jessica what he hoped to be a confident look, then started for the door. He got only a few steps before he turned back around.
“I just want to say thank you for–”
Jessica’s lips cut him off, swallowing the second half of his sentence in a warm kiss. Vincent’s eyes grew wide, and even through his Lenses, everything seemed clear.
“Just go,” said Jessica, pulling away but still close. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Vincent looked at her, then at the open door; his lips were still parted.
Simon’s voice rang out from the next room, and Vincent was pulled from his trance. He gave Jessica one final look before starting for the door. She smiled after him.
Vincent passed through the kitchen into the next room where Simon was standing on the left side of a long, two wheeled contraption, with an egg shaped pod set in the middle, barely big enough for two people. It looked fragile and unprotected, and a series of scratches lined its polished white exterior. Vincent tried not to think about how they may have been inflicted.
“Get in,” said Simon, motioning to the side opposite his. Vincent stepped forward, rubbing an inauspicious hand across his lips as he did so. He found a small button on the door’s exterior and pressed it, flinching slightly when it slid to the side with the rest of the door, deeper into a hollowed part of the pod. He climbed in and the door closed automatically after him. The interior was simple, just two plain seats, made of a sleek, slippery kind of material, positioned side by side behind a narrow dash, where, in front of Simon, was a series of buttons and other controls Vincent had never seen before.
Simon noticed Vincent’s puzzled expression. “Your parents don’t drive?”
Simon shook his head. “My father doesn’t trust them. He doesn’t think Newsight should have them all on the same network.”
“Neither do I,” said Simon. “That’s why I made sure this one isn’t.”
Simon pressed a button on the dash and behind them an entire side of the dome receded to the side, into itself much like the door had, and exposed the dwindling gray light of the outdoors. With a lurch, the vehicle rolled backwards and onto the street, then corrected with a half turn so it faced forward. They paused there, and Simon looked over at Vincent, amused. Vincent realized he had grabbed onto the inside of the door. His knuckles were nearly as white as the paint.
Turning from Vincent, grinning, Simon turned back to the front windshield and started the vehicle down the path – bleached white, just barely wide enough for their wheeled pod, and perfectly smooth – around the second Ring. There were only three paths that connected any one Ring to the others, and Vincent lived on the one farthest: Ocean. It was a distance which, traversed by Simon’s scratched and dented vehicle, left plenty of time for accident. But as they drove, Vincent’s nerves began to settle. The ride was almost entirely smooth, and the sounds of the outside were completely mute. The Seclusion was eerily peaceful given the events of the day.
“Your father,” said Simon, breaking the silence as if just remembering their earlier exchange. “He’s not a fan of Newsight?”
“No he is,” said Vincent. “He’s just…cautious, I guess.”
Simon never shifted his eyes from the path ahead, but he didn’t quite succeed in masking his interest. “What does he do?”
“He’s a Senator,” said Vincent.
Simon grunted at this. “Has his hands full at the moment then I suppose.” His tone didn’t sound convinced. Vincent noticed.
“Yeah, he does,” said Vincent, firmly. “But he’ll figure it out. He figures out all the attacks. He’ll make the Order pay for this one.”
Simon kept his eyes fixed straight forward. “Who said the attack was from the Order?”
Vincent froze. It took him a moment to find his words. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
The vehicle tipped sideways as they banked to the right. Vincent grabbed onto the door once again. Simon didn’t flinch.
“Has your father told you about the litigation Newsight is trying to push through the Senate?”
Vincent thought back to dinner the night before. “A little,” he said. “But not much. What is it?”
Simon shrugged his shoulders so his hands lifted from the controls for a beat. “Fatrem wants repeals on the data regulations. He says he can use the information to stop the Order. It’s being kept quiet, but it’s obviously controversial, even for the Senate.” Vincent was about to jump to his father’s defense again when Simon cut him off. “They’re holding out better than I thought they would.” Then, casting Vincent a glance, “some better than others. But with the measures that have been taken, I can’t see anyone holding out for long.”
“What measures are you talking about?” Vincent felt himself being drawn in in spite of himself.
“Everything,” said Simon. His voice was beginning to grow more animated. “The government partnership for the new tech, the ‘upgraded’ Lenses being shipped out to the Cities, and now the attack.” He paused here, biting the inside of his cheek, calming himself.
“What does the attack have to do with Newsight?” Vincent pressed. “Is the Order trying to stop the bill?”
Simon laughed, derisive and hollow. “The Order is the biggest proponent of the bill,” he said, “because the Order is Newsight.”
They jerked to a stop after these last words – they had come to a checkpoint of the Guard. A man in all white with his palm raised out in front of him stood in the center of the path, blocking their way. Behind him, a dozen or so more men of the same dress were huddled around the front door of a rather large looking dome. Vincent hardly noticed.
“What are you talking about?” he asked. “We learn about the Order in practically every sim we engage. It’s a terrorist group. Not a corporation.”
“And what makes you think those two are any different?” countered Simon. His eyes were ablaze with something that unnerved Vincent. Something he didn’t quite trust. Simon continued. “Newsight and the Order aren’t always one and the same, but they’re not always different, either. It’s all in the software. For years, I’ve combed through thousands of lines of code every day, and I’ve found bread crumbs. They all lead to the same place, but no one seems to want to follow but me.” When he finished, his chest was expanding and contracting faster than normal, and his face was red with blood just under the skin. Vincent started in cautiously.
“It still doesn’t make sense. Newsight has nothing to gain from attacking its own Seclusion”
Vincent shrank from the man’s beady eyes when they trained their gaze on him “Didn’t you say your father is in the Senate?” snapped Simon. Vincent nodded but said nothing. “Think of the bill. Even for the Senate, most of whom Fatrem already has in his back pocket, the bill is too much. Not only should that give you an idea of how serious it is, it should tell you how desperate Fatrem is to get it passed.”
The man in white outside waved his hand and Simon started to propel them forward once again.
“Look around,” said Simon. “What do you notice?”
Vincent stared dutifully out the oval shaped windows. “The Guard,” he said. “They’re going into–”
“Not the Guard,” said Simon, impatient. “The domes. Who lives in them?”
Vincent hesitated at this, not sure if it was a trick question. “In the inner Rings,” he started, “mostly people who work for Newsight. Some Senators too.”
Simon nodded. “That’s right. But it’s not just the inner Rings; it’s the whole Seclusion. Think. Who goes to your school? Who do you have class with?”
Vincent started fumbling for the few names he knew. “Well there’s Jessica and Brian…I think there’s a Sam. Or maybe it’s…” He trailed off, painfully aware of how pitiful he sounded. Simon, on the other hand, didn’t seem to notice.
“Right again,” he said. “Newsight kids. And Senators’ kids, too. All because of Fatrem’s initiative some 10 years ago that brought them here. Why do you think he would want all of these important people in a single Seclusion?”
Vincent ventured a guess he was almost certain would be countered. “To protect them?”
Simon snorted. “Protection has nothing to do with it,” he said. “It’s all about leverage. Fatrem knew the Senate would never go for his bill. Whatever he’s asking for in return for stopping the Order must not be worth it. After all, the Senators don’t really care about stopping the attacks. All they care about is–”
“My father cares,” Vincent cut in. He wouldn’t have been so sure before saying it, but after the words left his lips, he knew them to be true.
“Maybe he does,” said Simon. “But don’t be so ignorant as to believe the majority of others in the Capitol are there for any reason other than their paycheck.” When Vincent returned only with a stare, Simon continued. “Fatrem knew if he wanted to get anything passed to ‘fight the Order’, the Senators would have to feel the Order for themselves.”
Vincent’s brow was furrowed as he stared at the man next to him. Then, as the vehicle began to turn, twisting along the path around the Center, the patch of ground where the school should have been came into view. What Simon was implying came to him in an instant.
“You think Fatrem launched the attack on the school,” said Vincent. “You think he killed the Senators’ kids to get his bill passed.” The words tasted filthy coming out of his mouth, forbidden. But to Simon, whose lips had sprawled into a broad, satisfied grin, they were as sweet as honey.
“It’s looking a whole lot less like a theory than a fact,” said Simon. “I wouldn’t have been so sure had they not faked the recall like they did.”
“What do you mean faked?” pressed Simon. He was no longer looking out the window. His eyes were fixed on the developer sitting next to him.
“Did your Lenses go out today,” said Simon, “during the attack?” Vincent shook his head. “But they went out yesterday, didn’t they? From a little vibration. Why do you think that is?”
Vincent hadn’t given this much thought. He shrugged. “The upgrades are just more resilient I guess.”
Simon wagged his right index finger, smiling. He seemed to be enjoying himself. “You think the inventors of the most technologically advanced device of the millennium would let their entire system go down from a little turbulence?” He snorted at the thought. “There was never anything wrong with the old Lenses. Fatrem didn’t send out a more resilient product, he sent out a more permanent one.”
The vehicle rolled to a stop in front of Vincent’s dome, but Vincent stayed in his seat. Simon made no move to make him leave.
“If you’re anything like Jessica,” Simon continued, “then you’ve tried to take out your new Lenses.” Vincent nodded in confirmation. There was no need to lie anymore. “Well others have tried, as well, and they’ve come up with the same result you have. No one can take them out. Newsight has released a statement saying it’s because of the adjustment period, that the Lenses will be removable in a few days, but I’m not so sure.” Simon glanced around them, then leaned forward, lowering his voice. “I think they’re planning something. And whatever it is, it all starts with the bill.”
He turned to his left and Vincent followed his gaze. Both of their eyes came to a stop on the front door of the dome, where Vincent’s father was surely somewhere inside.
“If that’s true,” said Vincent, “if all of that is true, then I’m not worried. My dad will fight against them. The whole senate will. He says both parties are cooperating now more than ever.”
“Cooperating?” Simon repeated the word, his eyebrows raised, his lips curled at the corners. “That’s not a good sign. Cooperation leads to collusion, and collusion to conspiracy. At the end of it, there won’t be two parties at all.” Simon leaned in even closer and dropped his voice to a whisper. “There will be only one.”
The palm sized screen in front of Vincent’s right eye blinked green, and the door slid open. He stepped inside without looking over his shoulder and when the door slid shut behind him, he leaned back against it. He felt as if Simon’s words had weaved around him a fragile but constricting blanket, one whose threads were undeniable while in their grasp but easily broken when outside of it. Everything Simon had said had to be rubbish. It had to. Only now he was outside of the man’s two wheeled pod did Vincent realize how ludicrous it all sounded. Simon’s words had carried the weight of treason with none of its merit. Fatrem was well respected in every Seclusion. Loved, even, in some. That he would betray his own people, his own admirers, was beyond the realm of reason.
Vincent collected himself and leaned forward off the door. He was in the foyer, a small nook blocked from the rest of the Main and oftentimes the most private place in the dome. Now, though, he wanted privacy far less than he wanted sleep. He stepped forward toward what, to an outsider, looked like a blank wall. Before he collided with it, however, the wall slid to the side. He was in the Main now. The kitchen and dining table were empty, but he heard voices coming from his parents’ room. Suddenly realizing he hadn’t paged them ahead of time – they loathed surprises – his eyes flicked up and to the left as he started composing them a message. But as the words started to populate his Lenses, he began to hear the voices more clearly, as well as something in addition to them. It was a strange sound, one Vincent had never heard before, and one he already felt certain he didn’t want to hear again. Mixed in with the voices were deep, pained sounding sobs. Vincent stopped composing his message. Instead, he crossed the Main toward his parents’ bedroom, his every step excruciatingly amplified by the unforgiving tile he contacted. After only a few of these betraying noises, he slipped off his shoes – a cardinal sin in the dome – and resumed his progress, silently this time. He felt himself spied upon by the walls around him as he grew closer, disapproved by the dome itself for sneaking as he was. But he kept going. Something about the sobs coming from the bedroom told him that the normal rules didn’t apply to this particular moment.
He reached the bedroom door which, uncharacteristically, had been left ajar, held there by Father’s briefcase which had fallen into its path. With breaths as soft and shallow as his lungs would allow, Vincent leaned in close and placed his ear to the gap.
“It’s ok, Father.” Vincent’s mother was almost whispering. Her voice was calm. “It was just the moment. You didn’t know if he had made it.”
“No. No.” It was Father, though his voice was nearly unrecognizable. It carried none of its usual collected strength. It was shaking and weak, defeated. “I did know,” he said. “And I wanted to vote against it, I did. I just…I don’t know what happened.”
Then the sound started again, the sound Vincent had heard from the foyer: the sobs. They were coming from Father. That’s the way it seemed, at least, but Vincent thought he must surely be deceiving himself. He had never heard his father cry, nor, he was convinced, had anyone. It was a thing that didn’t happen, that was never meant to happen. But still, through the door of the bedroom, the sobs continued.
Knowing what he was about to do was quite foolish, but knowing also he had to see for sure, Vincent peeked his head around the edge of the door and looked inside. He had never seen his parents’ bedroom before, but he felt like he already had. It was plain, devoid of decoration, and stark white all the way from the curved ceiling overhead to the bedsheets below, on which his parents now sat. Father was on the foot of the bed, still in his collared, snow colored uniform from the Senate, and Mother was sitting next to him, her right arm draped, a bit awkwardly, around Father’s shoulders.
“Either way you have nothing to worry about,” said Mother. “I’m sure you followed your heart.”
Father shook his head, puckering his lips like a small boy pouting, and lifting his gaze slightly so Vincent could see the red, puffy lumps under his eyes.
“I didn’t,” he said. “I couldn’t for some reason. We gave them everything. On a platter we just handed it over.”
“Well I’m sure it will be ok,” said Mother. Father interspersed her words with a series of “no”s and head shakes, but she kept on.
“It’s Newsight, after all,” she said. “Whatever you gave them, they won’t misuse it. We’re safe, Father. We can trust them.”
“Damn it Sarah you’re not getting it!”
Mother recoiled from him, her mouth agape with disbelief, perhaps from hearing her own name. Vincent didn’t remember it being spoken aloud. Nor, really, the name at all.
“We can’t trust them,” Father continued. He had lifted his head from his hands, and now Vincent could see him clearly. His face was twisted into an expression Vincent was only slightly more familiar with than the sobs. It bore none of its usual composure, and it just failed to mask the fear underneath. Father’s eyes, too, betrayed him, and not only that, they were too red to have been irritated just by the crying. Father had tried to take out his Lenses.
“They’ve been messing with our heads,” said Father. “Somehow. I know it. Ever since the upgrade, I’ve been feeling different. I’ve felt my mind change without knowing why. I’ve…” He held his palms out in front of his knees, facing upward. He stared down at them, wearing a look of disgust. “I’ve had thoughts that weren’t my own.” He looked back up at Mother. “It’s the Lenses. It has to be. But when I tried to take them out, they wouldn’t move. I can feel them…” He bit back a sob with a grimace that made Vincent want to look away. “I can feel them strangling me, my eyes, my mind.” He shook his head, his lips puckered, on the verge of tears. “I’ve made a mistake, Sarah.”
Mother didn’t pull away this time. For Father, that seemed only to make things worse. He dropped his head once again, staring down at his palms. “I let us down,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
Mother’s arm no longer looked so stiff as she rubbed her hand side to side in between Father’s shoulder blades.
“We’ll get through it,” she said. Her voice had started to shake as well. “You don’t have to carry this alone. To hell with the Senate clearance. Just tell me what happened. What was the bill?”
Father looked up at her, and the sight seemed to conjure in him just the smallest measure of hope.
“It’s a privacy bill,” said Father. “It’s all about data. That’s what they want.” Father lowered his voice, second guessing himself. He seemed to be struggling with something, fighting something to get the words out. Vincent had to lean closer to hear. “Fatrem wants to use the Lenses to…” Father trailed off when he looked up. He wasn’t looking at Mother any longer, but at the door, where Vincent had been just too slow to pull back his head.
This was the voice of Father’s Vincent knew: stern and composed, without the wild, breaking fluctuations in pitch.
Vincent pushed open the door and stepped inside. Father had stood up, seeming taller than usual.
“Go to bed.” Father pointed out the door. “Now.”
Vincent stayed where he was. He had never disobeyed a direct command like that before, but his feet felt rooted to the tile. He looked from his father to his mother and back again, still trying to decide whether or not what he had just seen could be real.
“I said,” pressed Father, his voice near a growl. “Now.” He looked away, rubbing a hand over his face, tired. “I’ll deal with you in the morning.”
Vincent stayed where he was a moment longer. He remained until he caught his father’s eye.
“Vincent,” started Father, “I said to–”
“I forgive you,” said Vincent. It was an effort to keep his voice level. “It’s not your fault.”
They were still for multiple seconds, Father’s eyes fierce and Vincent’s steady. And then Father was starting toward him, his posture large, powerful. Before Vincent could run, Father was on him, arms wrapping him tight, holding him there. Vincent tried to break free but stopped when he felt his shoulder growing hot and damp where Father’s head was. Slowly realizing what was happening, Vincent raised his arms as well, and circled them around his father’s back. They stood like that, paused, embracing for the first time in Vincent knew not how long. When they broke apart, Vincent looked up at his father, whose jaw was flexed, biting his tongue. Father gave him one last glance, then turned away. Vincent turned to his Mother next, and for the first time he felt what Jessica and her father must have, that words would only be insufficient, that silence could say quite a bit more. Mother nodded at him, looking somehow stronger than usual, then looked away.
In a daze, Vincent stepped back. He nudged his father’s stray briefcase out of the doorway, and the door slid shut. Then he was back in the Main, and though it was empty save for him, he no longer felt quite so alone.
Vincent sat straight up in his bed when he heard the crash. He fixed his eyes with not a hint of fatigue at his bedroom door, which remained closed. The sound had come from the Main, from the foyer maybe. But as the silence endured, sitting in the air, its weight pressing down on Vincent from above, it felt impossible that such a sound could ever have disturbed him. He had almost convinced himself to lay back down when the crash sounded a second time. Only this time it didn’t fade into silence. There was a sharper, fracturing pound, and then several smaller ones – footsteps, then shouting. Vincent had barely jumped from his bed when his door burst inward and two men in uniform and holding short round sticks rushed in after it. Vincent scrambled toward his bathroom, but his legs were weak with sleep, and the nearest man was on him in an instant. Vincent flailed his limbs in vain as he tried to break free, and then the second man was on him too. In a flash, both of Vincent’s arms were pinned behind his back, forcing him to lean forward at the waist to keep his shoulders from popping out of socket. He continued to writhe against the men’s grip as they dragged him toward his busted door, spurred on by the shouts coming from the Main. But resistance was pointless. The men had vice-like grips and seemed undisturbed even by Vincent’s most violent struggles. They hauled him into the Main easily. Father and Mother were there too, struggling against their own personal escorts of uniformed, rough looking men. And now, in the light, Vincent could see the men clearly. They wore tight sleeves and collars up the neck like officers of the Guard, but they were clothed not in the normal bleach white, but in a dark, ashen gray.
“Don’t touch my son!” Father shouted when he saw Vincent being dragged into the room. “Don’t you dare touch him!”
Father began to thrash against his captors. There were three men holding him, but they could hardly keep control. Wordlessly, the man who had first subdued Vincent released Vincent’s arm and crossed over to lend a hand. As Father’s escort turned from three to four, Father grew still and the Main grew silent. But the calm seemed to have had little to do with the additional guard. Father had gone still not when he was met with the extra pair of hands, but when his eyes fell in the direction of the foyer door. The door was out of Vincent’s line of sight, but he could hear the footsteps crossing through it just the same, slow, deliberate, and ushering in a chill with them that seemed to slither down Vincent’s spine.
“Hello, Mr. Smith.” It was a man’s voice, though just barely. It struck a pitch with each syllable that seemed to hover outside the normal range, somewhere in between man or woman, as a voice whose owner had shed long ago the title of either.
“I have quite sorely desired your audience for some time now,” the voice continued. “What a thrill it is to finally have it.”
Vincent still could not see the man’s face, but it was of little consequence, for he could picture the man quite clearly. The man’s voice seemed to call to Vincent’s mind an image that already existed, of a face that had already been seared into his Lenses, one as indiscernible yet as memorable as the shrill pitched voice itself.
“Let my family go,” said Father. It seemed to require of him a great effort to stay calm. “They did nothing.”
More footsteps. The man had stepped closer to Father, and Vincent caught a glance of him for the first time. The face was more human than Vincent may have expected, perhaps only because it wasn’t as obscenely large as it had been when he had seen it before. Or perhaps because it lacked the fractured Lens to cover its right eye.
“You are right,” the man said. “But thanks to you, I have plenty of data that says they will.”
Still straining against his captors, Father met the man’s piercing gaze with a murderous, bloodshot gaze of his own. The man merely turned away, his face now contorted with a smug grin, one Vincent had seen before.
As if triggered, the air in the Main grew stiff with stillness, and it began to change. From top to bottom, the entire room grew red from the burning, curtain like lines that fell down over Vincent’s Lenses. In their wake was left a blood colored tint that blurred the outlines of the Main’s usual crisp white. The light remained well after the lines had fallen from view, hesitated there, then began to dissolve, slowly, and in time with the fading footsteps of the man with the strange voice.
“No,” said Father, resuming his struggle. “No!” he shouted after the man, and the veins in his neck protruded as he strained against the men holding him. The man who had left Vincent struck out with the club he was holding and made contact with Father’s jaw.
“Dad!” Vincent cried out and tried to twist free of his captor’s grip. The man tightened his hold easily. Vincent kicked out at him, making contact with the man’s shin, but was rewarded only with a strike to the stomach by the man’s club. He hunched over at the waist even more drastically, his breath stolen.
Father saw the exchange, and something in him seemed to snap. “Don’t you touch him!” he shouted through blood speckled lips at the man who had dealt the blow. “Let him go!” His struggle resumed with a renewed vigor this time, as the men began to drag him to the door. With thrashing limbs he struck out in all directions, mostly striking nothing but air but occasionally making contact with flesh. The men weathered his beating as they continued to drag him, but they were losing control. Father was a man possessed by strength not his own, by mind, too, not his, but of an animal cornered and trapped. He managed to free an arm and ripped a club from the nearest guard’s hand. He started batting with it madly, at arms, skulls, anything he could reach. One of the men holding Mother relinquished his hold and joined the others in the fray. But he had better fixed his hold on the woman he had just left. Mother kicked backward at her remaining captor so the heel of her foot made contact with the man’s groin. The man buckled, hunched and holding himself. Mother turned, facing the man holding Vincent now. She lunged at him with uncoordinated but vicious blows, seemingly impervious to the blows she received in turn. Vincent twisted and writhed in the man’s grip, and then he was free. He turned around to help his mother, but she pushed him back.
“Go, Vincent!” she shouted at him as the man grabbed her wrists. “Go!”
Vincent stood where he was, frozen to the spot, then looked to his father whose mouth seemed barely above the surface in a sea of gray uniforms.
“Go, son!” he shouted as he continued to struggle. And over the racket, Vincent heard the man Mother had kicked approaching in an uneven gate behind him. “Go!”
Finally spurred into action, Vincent twisted around just as the kicked man was reaching out. He dodged the man’s outstretched arms and started for the kitchen, his eyes trained on the back door. He sprinted toward it, driven faster by the sound of the man’s footsteps close behind. He felt a rush of cold air on his face when he threw the door open, and he kept running, his feet pounding the path beneath them as they ran. Only when he reached the next Ring of domes did he dare chance a look over his shoulder. But he need not have waited so long. The man had given up chase – Vincent was alone. Shrinking into the shadows cast by the dome at his back, he leaned up against the wall to catch his breath. His eyes were fixed on the back door of the dome he had just left, his dome, where his parents had surely been overwhelmed, and where their son had left them to their fate.
If only to numb himself of the shame quickly rising in his chest, Vincent felt the urge to take off running once again. He may have, too, had his Lenses not flashed white with the small message at their bottom rim.
Are you awake?
It was Jessica. Vincent relaxed his tensed muscles just slightly. Clumsily, and with his eyes fumbling over the letters as he went, he began composing a message back, but he only got halfway through.
They took my dad.
Vincent read the message twice, hoping in vain its letters would rearrange themselves. If he had started running again, Jessica’s dome most surely would have been his destination. Now, it seemed, that was out of the question. Of course, he shouldn’t have needed Jessica’s message to know Simon may have been taken. The bread crumbs the beady-eyed man had been following had led him to a dangerous doorstep.
Vincent took a deep breath. He thought for a moment, then decided there was no other way.
Meet me. Second Ring. East.
A feeling of dread planted itself low in his stomach as soon as he pressed send. After all, after everything he had learned, it was foolish to use the Lenses to communicate. It would have been decidedly more foolish, however, to let Jessica wander into a ransacked dome, the perimeter of which would surely be monitored.
Vincent took off at a jog through the relative darkness between the domes of the fourth and fifth Rings, his eyes combing the depths of every shadow he passed. The gleaming white uniforms of the Guard would have been easy to spot. The smoke colored ones of Newsight, however, would blend much more seamlessly into the night.
Vincent craned his neck around the edge of the dome behind which he was hiding. He stared down the path that cut through the second Ring, half expecting an army of gray clad men to emerge from the shadows.
He spun around, his muscles tensed to run, but relaxed when he saw Jessica approaching around the dome next to him, opposite the path Vincent had been watching.
“I thought you would come from the other direction,” he said when she had joined him.
“I cut through the Center,” she said offhandedly. Then, when she saw Vincent’s brow lifted in surprise: “I didn’t want to be predictable. And I made it here, didn’t I?”
Vincent said nothing back. Making it, and making it without being detected were two very different scenarios, the difference between which would become evident only when it was too late.
“Are you ok?” Vincent asked.
Vincent didn’t contradict her, though he could see, even in the darkness, the slight shaking of her hands.
“When did they come?” asked Vincent.
“Only a few hours after I went to bed,” said Jessica. “My dad must have been right before yours.” She paused here, seeming to turn something over in her mind, as if deciding whether or not to give it to words. “My Lenses flashed,” she said. “Red. From the app.”
Vincent felt muscles relax in him he hadn’t known to be flexing. He thought he had been the only one to have seen it.
“I did too,” he said. Jessica didn’t seem relieved. “But that’s a good thing, right? We can just go back to sleep and wake up and everything will go back to normal.”
But somehow, even as the words left his lips, he knew them not to be true.
“I don’t think so, Vincent,” said Jessica. “The new application code is what my dad was looking at when he started finding things. Things he wasn’t supposed to find.” She paused here, with a quiver set in her bottom lip. “The new software does more than what they said it would. So does the hardware. It works when people are sleeping. It monitors them. Changes them, too. Makes them think things they wouldn’t normally. It can’t control them, but with a little help, it can come close.”
Vincent thought of the Order attack on the school where so many Senators had sent their sons and daughters that very morning. Then he remembered how his father and mother had sat on the foot of their bed, how his father had said he had been feeling strange, how his eyes were bloodshot from irritation, how the spindly little lines had stretched out from the rims of his Lenses and back into his skull.
“They used it on my dad,” said Vincent, suddenly sure. “On all the Senators. They fought it for a while, but after they heard about the Order’s attack, it was too much.”
Jessica snorted, sounding uncannily like her father. “Are you still calling it the Order’s attack?”
Vincent didn’t say anything back. He changed the subject instead. “What about the bill?” he asked. “Did your dad ever figure out what it was for?”
Jessica paused, glancing around them, as if they weren’t already being monitored from within. “Fatrem told the Senate he could find every existing member of the Order within the week. He told them all he needed was information. Information he could get with the Lenses.”
“The new Lenses,” said Vincent, thinking of the recall. Jessica nodded. “But why go through the trouble of the bill? Everyone already had already put the new Lenses in before it was passed. Fatrem could have just taken control without the Senate. Now people are going to try and stop him.”
“Are they?” said Jessica. “Look around, Vincent. Who’s fighting?”
Vincent let his eyes wander down the Ring, scanning the unlit, peaceful domes that lined its either side. Nowhere was there even the slightest sign of movement.
“Senators live here,” said Jessica. “But you don’t see their houses being broken into. Because your dad was the only one of them who got too close, who started to feel something was off. No one else got that same feeling. Or if they did, it was gone after the attack. People want blood, Vincent. They want to blame someone, and the Order is the easiest target. The Senate didn’t have a choice. The Newsight data was the only way to take the Order down.”
“But how does that help Fatrem?” asked Vincent. “Your dad says Newsight is the Order.”
“The Order is whoever Fatrem says it is,” said Jessica. “He’s the one who controls the data, even if the Senators don’t know it. He can make anyone a part of the Order. Tomorrow there will be a press release saying our dads were part of it. And then leaders of the Guard will be found guilty. Then politicians. Then the whole Senate.”
Vincent felt the reality sink in him like quicksand. “Then there’s no one left to stand in the way.”
Jessica said nothing. Vincent looked away, back along the Ring. He found himself fixed with a mad desire to run from dome to dome, pounding on doors and telling people the truth, but he knew it wouldn’t do any good. He looked to the Center, where the remaining bits of the school were still visible. He hadn’t noticed the night before – Simon had been going too fast – but he could see it now. Where the main dome had been there were now the crescent shaped remnants of curved, dark black beams. What once was covered by unvarying, perfect, spotless white, what had always been lurking just beneath the surface, was now all that was left.
Vincent looked away once again. He turned his gaze a bit closer, on the first Ring, where the Newsight families lived: the gentry, the unopposing of a revolution that would sit them atop the new throne. But, Vincent thought, perhaps there was opposition after all.
“I know where we need to go,” he said.
Jessica turned to him. She too had been looking at the Center. “Where?”
“I…” Vincent trailed off. He didn’t realize how ludicrous his theory would sound until it started to leave his mouth. But it was all he had to go on. It was their only hope. “I think I know someone who’s fighting against Fatrem.”
“Really?” said Jessica, suddenly with a spark of hope. “Who?”
Vincent paused again. He thought back to the first sim about the Order, the one from which he had completely tuned out. In his survey of the room, save for Jessica, there had been only one other who was not fully engaged. Vincent remembered the way Brian had caught his eye. The other boy had worn a grin, ever so faint a grin before his face had gone blank.
“Brian,” said Vincent, and Jessica deflated in an instant.
“Vincent his mom is a Newsight executive,” she said. “Brian is the last person that would help.”
“Your dad worked for Newsight didn’t he?” countered Vincent. “And he knew the truth. He wanted to fight, and so do you. Why does Brian’s family have to be any different?”
Jessica opened her mouth, then paused. She shook her head. “I just don’t think it makes sense. Brian’s mom has almost as much to gain from this as Fatrem.”
“But Fatrem will get rid of anyone who poses a threat!” said Vincent. He was letting his voice rise above a whisper now, his mind racing too quickly to reign himself in. “She’ll know that.” Then he was thinking back to the simulation: to the day of the attack, when he had dreamed of the triangle clearing and the face on the screen. The words started to tumble from his lips now, as wildly assumed truths he somehow felt certain he could trust. “Besides,” he continued, “Brian said something to me the day of the attack, when I woke up from my dream. He said there are ways to wake up, permanently. I don’t think he was talking about the app. Maybe he knew about Fatrem’s plans. His mom is high enough up to have found out. Not to mention to have direct access to the Lenses. She could have sent a message to people who wanted to resist. She could have triggered the app.” He looked at Jessica, hating the thin film of glass that covered her dark brown eyes beneath. “I know this isn’t a dream,” he said. “but that doesn’t mean we can’t wake up from it.”
The air was still between them. Jessica stirred none of it with words of her own. Her look was still doubtful, sympathetic, even. Vincent remained convinced.
“I trusted you during the attack,” he said. “Now I’m asking you to trust me back.”
She held his gaze for several seconds, then breathed out, heavily, and cast a glance behind the dome next to them as she did so. She relented. “Ok,” she said. “I trust you.”
Vincent released a breath of his own, one he doubted would have left him had Jessica responded differently. But now there was hope. There was a fight, and he would no longer have to face it alone.
“When should we go?” asked Jessica.
“Tonight.” Vincent didn’t hesitate. “We should go tonight. Before things get bad.”
Jessica nodded, her eyes still showing a lingering bit of doubt. Vincent grabbed her by the hand.
“It’s ok,” he said. “I have a good feeling.” He brought his lips as close to a smile as the circumstances would allow, and she smiled, meekly, back at him. “You know where he lives right?”
She nodded. “In the first Ring,” she said. “Fatrem lives in a different Seclusion, so Brian’s mom got first choice of the plots.”
Vincent didn’t know this. He had assumed Fatrem lived here with the rest of management. “All the better for us,” he said. “Which plot did she choose?”
“101,” she said, “It’s by the Center, right off Ocean.”
Vincent nodded. “Ok,” he said. “Then let’s go.” He squeezed Jessica’s hand and flashed her another grin. What little doubt Jessica felt fell away in that moment, and they started down the main path together toward the first Ring, no longer quite so conscious of the Lenses over their eyes, nor of the eyes not their own that twisted in the sockets of the Lenses, watching them as they walked. Waiting.
Orwell told the perfect story of an oppressive dystopia. What he didnâ€™t do, however, was tell us how this dystopia came about in the first place. â€œ2084â€ answers this question. â€œLensesâ€, computerized contacts produced by a corporation called Newsight, are worn by everyone on the planet. The world is enamored with their seemingly endless capabilities. But a teenage boy named Vincent Smith has reservations. His father is in the Senate, and Newsight has been pushing for a bill that would lift all data regulations imposed on their devices. Fatrem, Newsightâ€™s CEO, claims to want the data in order to stop the Order, a terrorist organization whose attacks have been mounting in frequency, but his true motives arenâ€™t so clear. From a girl at his school whose father is a Newsight developer, Vincent learns about the bread crumbs in Newsightâ€™s computer code. The corporation has a closer relationship to the Order than anyone may have guessed, and the Lenses have been doing more than just running simulations. Caught in the middle of a world blinded by its own desire for progress, Vincent and Jessica finally discover the truth, but it might already be too late.