Metal Heart


A Novel by M.J. Crouchley

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[_ © 2016 Melinda Crouchley _]




Paris burned the day my heart stopped beating. It was the first terrorist attack on the country since the nano virus invaded, spreading its creeping horror over the cities and farmlands of France. My parents and I, like so many other casualties, found ourselves caught in the middle.

We felt immune. I felt immune. Growing up in hot zones around the world numbed and protected me from death in the way a seasoned soldier might feel exempt from bullets or bombs after a few successful tours. But death found us that day.

It started with chocolate. Or the pretense of chocolate. I had used the pretense of a trip to a chocolaterie to escape the military installation we called home. It was actually a medical base, erected solely to treat those who were in the later stages of succumbing to the nano virus. Overall, a pretty miserable scene for any 15 year old. There were little fun provisions left in the kitchen since we were nearing the end of our six month tour of France and I was exploiting a particular fondness of my father for chocolate. I hastily waved my parents about my plans, sent the GPS coordinates, and then scurried off base, scanning out with the armed guards at the front gates.

I never did get those chocolates. I got close. They were the last item on my itinerary. The chocolaterie was four blocks from the base and I had overstayed my quick trip by at least two hours so it wasn’t unreasonable that my parents were worried.

The problem is that I had swapped the band that was supposedly tracking my whereabouts with someone else. And in turn, missed their frantic texts.

In retrospect, I should have known something terrible was brewing. This wasn’t my first time in a warzone. There are certain signs that you become wary of… that seem harmless individually but become ominous when looked at as a whole. The restless natives. The overcrowding of the medical camps around the temporary military installation. The shuttered windows and hastily boarded doors. The huddled locals who turn suspiciously quiet when you enter a shop.

I could have been reading the warning signs but instead I was reading a hand-written letter which was the main purpose for my charade that day.

I was wearing the band I had traded with the chocolaterie owners son. He was attractive enough, slim with dark features. We swapped bands sometimes and then we swapped spit. He always smelled like chocolate, but tasted like cigarettes. It was not an unpleasant combination. That’s where my parents finally caught up with me. In front of the shop with the faded gold letters on the window and the giant chocolate frog on a rotating display next to truffles and butterscotch cakes. Because Paris during the initial on-set of the nano virus was best summarized by a giant chocolate frog rotating in a window display. Opulent and decadent and completely ridiculously tantalizing. The sun glinted off the glass, and I shielded my eyes to look across the street at my parents, confused by their sudden distressed appearance. They waved and shouted across the street at me.

“Eleni!” I think they shouted my name.

And then the chocolaterie windows blew out from the force of a bomb exploding a block away. The deafening silence sucked up all the air and oxygen immediately following and then there was a sharp ringing in my ears and finally the muted wail of sirens and anguished screams.

The rest was pure chaos. I sprinted across the street towards my parents. They grabbed me up greedily, wrapping themselves around my cowed, shaking body and shoving me forward. Buildings exploded around us as we raced back towards the base. We would be protected there. There was relative safety in the form of armed soldiers and weaponry. My father carried a gun, but a firearm is really no match for an incendiary device. We never really had a chance.

We thought we had a chance.

The base was in sight. At least, what we could see through the thick, billowing clouds of concrete dust and debris raining down on our heads. We ran through a fog of smoke, across narrow, cobbled streets. People screamed, shouting curses in garbled French as we passed, their cries lost in the ringing chambers of my ears.

We’d just turned down a side street when the reverberation from an exploding artillery shell tripped me, catching my foot on an ancient sidewalk crack. I fell forward with no time to splay out my arms, hitting the ground hard and fracturing my skull. I lay stunned on the pavement. My parents dove on top of me, shouting my name. They formed a protective shield around my inert body, hiding me from the gravelly sprays of former Parisian buildings. Blood spilled from my head, pooling on the ground, seeping into my left eye and blurring my vision.

A bomb went off next to us. The impact shook us like ragdolls. The concussion thudded through our chests, hurtling us in the air. My eyes squeezed shut and I lost track of my parents, their arms ripped from me by the force of the blast. The left side of my body convulsed, rippling with a white hot pain that plunged me into darkness.

My heart stopped beating.  


I woke in a hospital bed with my arms and legs constrained. My first instinct was to break free of the cuffs and run. Still running through the streets of Paris. Running from danger with the world crumbling down around me. Except the ringing in my ears wasn’t exploding bombs anymore. It was silence. Cavernous, hollow silence.

The room was empty of other people. Sun streamed in through the blinds of a window to the left of the bed, the sky a mystifying indigo hue. Unreal. I blinked and the color shifted, growing paler. I blinked again and shook my head. The color shifted a third time. I closed my eyes. I just wanted to sleep again. To stop waking up.

My brain caught on the last sentence. When had I woken up?

I didn’t remember waking up before this. Just the bombs and the black.

A tinny, hissing sound to my right startled my eyes open again.

There would be no more sleeping.  

An attractive white doctor in his early 30s with a whisker free face and glasses entered the room, carrying a tablet. He met my eyes, averted his, and walked over to the right side of the bed. He set the tablet down on the mattress, close to my feet. Upside down I read the word “Prothero” on the screen saver. I looked back over at him.

“Where am I? Where are my parents?” I asked this as calmly as possible, though hysteria threatened to surface at any moment. The voice leaving my throat sounded abnormal and tinny.

“Do you know who you are?” The doctor requested, his words echoing through a tunnel made of soup cans. I nodded my head, half in response to his question, and half to pinpoint the cause of the noise distortion.

“My name is Eleni Garza. Where are my parents?” I repeated, sternly. Less hysteria, more indignation.

“My name is Arthur Dawson, I’m your principal Doctor. I’m sorry Eleni, but your parents are dead.”

“What?” I asked, pulling against the restraints with a knee-jerk reaction.

My agitation didn’t alarm him. He moved in closer and set a comforting hand on the railing of the bed, making a seemingly deliberate decision not to touch me.

“Your parents are dead Eleni. I’m sorry to tell you this. They died in the Paris bombing. You were critically injured. A team of doctors repaired your heart, many internal organs, as well your ear and the left side of your face. I’m afraid you were in a coma for-”

“My parents are dead.”

It was important to say it out loud. The words hanging in the air made it real. My parents are dead. They died in an explosion. Dr. Dawson moved the conversation along brusquely, anticipating my next series of questions.

“Yes. You were brought to this facility for rehabilitation four months ago. You endured massive trauma and have operated in a state of amnesia synched with your sleep cycles. You can’t retain new memories past the explosion that killed your parents. I’m afraid all the events since that tragedy are completely wiped from your memory.”

I swallowed hard. His monologue continued to wash over me for another minute or so with a patient steady purring sound, blurring at the edges. I wanted to cry but no tears came. I wanted to scream but my throat burned and constricted. The left side of my face felt stiff. I tried to reach up and touch it, but the handcuffs prevented me. They clanked sharply against the iron railings on the bed. My left arm registered a numb tingling sensation, as if I’d fallen asleep on it. The fingers on my left hand curled and flexed, but they didn’t look or feel like mine. I balled these phantom digits into a fist and slammed it down on the railing as hard as I could, with as much force as the cuffs allowed.

The pain produced from this action wasn’t like pain at all. It was like the memory of pain, with all the sensations dulled. Anxiety flickered through me.

Dr. Dawson stopped talking. At first he had comforted with an air of perfunctory to his inquiries and gestures. He must have noticed a difference in my body language.

“How long?” I asked.

“The bombing was a little over eight months ago. I’m so sorry. A memorial service was held for your parents. You did attend, but I’m not sure you would remember.”

“I don’t,” I responded.

He offered a conciliatory nod.

“I understand. Please – the ceremony was for your relatives. We have your parents personal belongings here if you’d like to see them,” He gestured towards a smooth white closet on the left side of the bed.

I turned to look, aware of a quiet whirring emanating from my left eye-socket as my vision adjusted. I blinked and the sensation felt wrong. My lid was heavy on the left side, as if the muscles strained to perform this basic function.

“Did I do something wrong? Am I in trouble?” I asked, indicating the cuffs.

As my vision tracked down to my left arm, I again noticed the subdued whirring sound, a startled shifting of focus, my left eye operating like a zoom lens.

“No, Eleni. We regret using these measures, but at times your reactions to certain discoveries have been quite… violent.”

I worked to suppress the panic swelling like a balloon in my stomach. “Certain discoveries” sounded ominous. The way he shifted guiltily on his feet. The dizziness from my poorly focused pupils. Taking a deep breath, pushing air in and out of my tight lungs, willing the panic balloon to deflate and order to be restored to my senses.

“Can-can you tell me? I want to know what’s going on,” I requested, exuding a calm demeanor in direct contrast to my internal turmoil.

“Yes. There’s no easy way to tell you any of this, I’m afraid. About your parents or about what happened to you following their death. You were severely burned across the left side of your body. Your left arm did not survive. We had to amputate and later replaced it with a mechanical prosthetic limb. Your heart was impaled by a bone fragment from your arm but nominally functional when you were brought to the medical facilities in Paris. We stabilized your condition with an unconventional heart transplant. You have an artificial organ made of plastic and metal material with an organic exterior. Nanos are twice daily injected into your blood stream and work with your bodies other vital organs to help ease acceptance of this foreign object.”

“My heart?” I tried to reach up to touch my chest.

The handcuffs prevented me again. I stared hard at Dr. Dawson, my left lid aching with the pressure.

“The scarring is a cosmetic issue to be dealt with at a later time. A hearing aid implanted inside your inner ear replaced your damaged cochlea and we provided a synthetic lobe to… keep your facial balance. The volume can be increased. It might be turned down right now, my apologies if it’s difficult to hear. We’ll explain more about that later. You adjusted quite well to the use of the prosthetic arm, but we hope to further hone your fine motor skills with physical therapy. What we are most concerned with at the moment is your heart and how well you accept your ocular implant.”

“My oc-” I tried to get the whole word out but my throat collapsed around it.

“Yes. For the most part, the areas of your brain sensitive to eyesight and depth perception accepted the artificial oculus we developed. It’s remarkable how coordinated your prosthetic and ocular implants are with one another. Aside from your body rejecting the heart implant, this was our primary area of concern. Well, the lung and hearing aid too, I suppose. But you’ve absorbed these elements better than we hoped, better than we initially projected. Your recovery is nothing short of remarkable. Perhaps it’s because you are so young, the elasticity of youth, the flexibility of your not-quite-settled skeletal structure. There are so many conjectures-”

His running monologue ceased as my eyelids drooped with the weight of his speech. I wasn’t sure how much more medical jargon I could stomach. Nausea knocked into my guts like a fist and I closed my eyes to ward away the swooning gesture passing over me.

Dawson paused, continuing with a less enthused and more sympathetic inflection, “Due to the severe trauma to the left side of your skull, we rebuilt portions of the cheek and eye socket bone structure. No need to be alarmed, but electrodes run from your new implant into the parts of your brain operating the visual cortex.”

I bit down hard on the inside of my cheek and a metallic flavor flooded my tastebuds. I winced in pain and sucked in a deep breath.

“No need to be alarmed?” I asked, bewildered by the statement.

Everything he said was a reason to be alarmed. Half my body, the majority of my major organs, skeleton, nervous and cardiovascular system – were disrupted. I was only half a person now. Half a person and half a machine.

“This is a lot of information to absorb all at once, but it’s important for you to understand what’s happening with your body,” Dr. Dawson patted the mattress of the bed reassuringly, as if he were touching me.

“Could you-could you take these off?” I held up my arms to him as far as they would reach.

He gave me a long stare, finally picking the tablet off the bed and tapping buttons on the display. A single click released the handcuffs. I rolled my wrists around and touched the side of my chest covering the metal heart. I wore a grey cotton shirt with the Prothero symbol on the right side. The symbol consists of dark blue, snake-like arrows chasing each-other in an infinity loop, with a Vitruvian man entangled in their coils. I shuddered while looking at it, recalling the last time I was clothed in a similar uniform. The scar on my chest from the heart surgery was thin but raised beneath the cloth, a rolling ridge of puckered flesh dividing me in half. Smaller and cleaner than I expected but there nonetheless.

“We couldn’t heal the incision scar as perfectly as we’d hoped. Amazing advances have been made in regenerative tissue, but considering the state-” He pauses. “We considered this scar a much better alternative to the original appearance. Just think – we cracked your ribs to get the implants installed correctly. That used to leave patients with horrific wounds to heal. One tiny scar is nothing compared to a new heart and lung, right?”

I blinked up at him, my head tilted like a confused dog. Satisfied he would not utter anymore terrible explanations for a moment, I let my fingers move up to my face, exploring reluctantly. Starting at my neck, which felt like rumpled, wrinkled laundry.

“Again, we can push forward with removing the scar tissue there. We can grow you an entirely new epidermal layer, if you’d like. It would be cosmetic and the cost could be-” He stopped himself short once more. “Ahem. There are more important issues to concern ourselves with first. Beautification surgeries can be performed at a later date.”

My fingers traveled towards my smoother but still mottled cheek and landed on my eyelid. It was normal. It was skin. An audible sigh escaped me. My fingertips bumped over non-organic material, wires and circuits, running up along the left side of my forehead and into my hair-line.

Another sound passed my lips. Not a sigh of relief, a gasp of disgust. And then a long, troubled silence as I took this new information in.

“Am I – am I a robot?” Was the first question to escape me.

“No,” Dr. Dawson answered quickly. “Parts of you were replaced with replicated tissue, wires, and circuitry, but you are a large percentage flesh and blood human. You are yourself, Eleni.”

“Can I- can I be alone for a minute?” I asked.

“I can’t allow it when you’re unrestrained.”

“Why?” I demanded. It seemed like a reasonable request.

“Well… you previously attempted to remove the device. This caused extensive damage to yourself and the kinetics. They were much more… modest… before, and sub-dermal. However, you tried to cut them out,” He said.


I have no memories of cutting myself with a sharp object. The idea is nauseating.

“If you like, I can help you into the bathroom. You can see the implant for yourself. The surgical work and technology is quite extraordinary. You, Eleni, are quite extraordinary,” He beamed, pride leeching into his voice.

“Yeah. Extraordinary.”

The next moments were a daze. My newly repaired brain tried desperately to align with the tech-eye but my sight blurred and I felt dizzy on the walk to the bathroom, even with Dr. Dawson’s assisting me.

“Once your ocular implants adjust, you will find the dizziness passes quickly. You’ve been in rehabilitation for four months. Aside from a limited measure of mental adjusting every morning, you’re healthy and strong. You are healing at an impressive rate.”

This time I couldn’t muster the energy for a response. My cries all died away in this abhorrent new reality. Where my parents were dead. Where I was part machine, part 15 year old girl.

In the bathroom, with the door propped open and the Doctor peering in, I relieved my bladder. Dr. Dawson tapped on his tablet, periodically glancing up to give me a reassuring smile. After flushing the toilet with gray water, I moved over to the sink. Gripping the sides of the porcelain, I steeled myself and looked in the mirror.

My own face stared back at me, marred with burns. My amber, troubled eyes, the mole dotting my right cheek, near my lip. The wide, flat nose and fuller lips no one could ever mistake for caucasian. My cheekbones were more apparent, not hidden under a layer of mushy baby fat any longer, they were gaunt and sharp. I looked older. But more importantly my left iris was not a red robotic orb as I’d imagined. Not a mechanical lid. It looked identical to my real one. Aside from the burn scars, the only difference was a patch of small, sturdy looking wires and green tinted circuitry embedded on my forehead and left temple. These ran up into my shaved, fuzzy hairline and into my short, wavy chocolate brown hair, down through my skull. I shuddered.

“What is this?” I asked with a quiet, childlike tenor, experiencing a mixture of awe and horror.

I was beginning to register what happened to my body and my life. Dr. Dawson moved closer to the bathroom, maintaining a respectful distance, not attempting to touch me.

“The circuitry you see there is the charging system for your vision. There are wires inside you, attaching the implanted organ to your brain, at least, the portion of your brain controlling your vision. This system on the outside operates on solar and kinetic energy. The sun and your bodies own natural functions keep your implants and prosthetics operational. It’s all water proof. It’s completely safe.”

“It’s safe,” I echoed.

How could this look like a real part of me? How could it operate like my eye? I felt all the tension, panic and distress of the morning dump into my stomach at once. Frantically, I lurched from the sink to the toilet, in time to vomit up an orange, acidy stew of bile. I flushed and sat down heavily on the toilet seat. I massaged my temples where the wires and circuits bent and flexed along with the pressure point sensation of my false fingertips.

“This is difficult for you.”

“Yes. Can I, can you-” I stuttered, trying to form a cohesive thought.

“No, I can’t leave you alone,” His statement was remorseful but insistent.

I nodded and leaned back against the wall, covering my head. The room spun around me in lazy, nauseating circles. My skull ached but I couldn’t cry.

“I can’t cry,” I said.

“You are able to cry out of your right tear duct. But the left…”

“Can I bleed?” I asked.

“Yes. But please don’t-”

“I’m not going to,” I assured him.

Dr. Dawson visibly relaxed, believing the encouraging information that I wasn’t intending any self sabotage. He approached the bathroom cautiously and took a paper cup from the sink lip, poured water in it and extended it to me. I accepted it. Swished the liquid around in my mouth. Spit it in the toilet. He filled it up again, and this time I drank the contents, staring at him with a mixture of trepidation and sadness. He backed up into the hospital room and I stood.

“Are you hungry?”

“Am I hungry?” This was the first time I’d felt truly indignant. Am I hungry? How could I possibly be hungry at a time like this?

Fantastically enough, my stomach rumbled in response to his words.

“Yes, I am.”

“I’ll order you up some food,” He tapped a button on the tablet.

I walked back to the bed without assistance. Already my brain, the artificial eye, the hearing aid and the prosthetic arm were better communicating. The tinny sound in my ears was drifting into the background. The whirring still set my teeth on edge. Not sure how I would get used to the sound.

“How many times have I done this?” I asked.

Dawson looked up from his tablet, surprised.

“I’m sorry. This feels very familiar. I can’t really describe-” I started to say.

“Close to 90 days,” He interrupted me to reply.

And that’s how it went, the first morning I woke up and retained new memories. The muscle memories of the physical therapy came back much faster than I would have guessed. By the time I finished breakfast, both eyes were operating mostly in synch with one another, and the hazy motion sickness passed. The fake arm and attached hand respond with eerie accuracy to the mental signals and muscle memory left in the remaining stump. Tiny wires and microscopic banks connect my nervous system to the machine. I am united with technology, dependent on it for every breath.

In the rush to explain all the other organs – the ear, eye, arm and heart, Dr. Dawson failed to initially inform me of my left lung implant as well. Out of all these synthetic parts, the lung gave me the least trouble. I mean, what could be more natural than breathing? Your lungs want to breathe, heart wants to beat, eye wants to see, arm wants to touch. Your body is a machine. I am a machine.

The physical therapy session was arduous, running on a treadmill with a tight thin metal band attached around my wrist to read all my vitals. This was new Prothero tech, modeled after an older generation band I wore in Paris. After the incident in Mexico City, before the bombing in Paris. It’s easy to confuse the sequence of events. One incident was far worse than the other. Both had far reaching repercussions.

Once the band was clamped closed, I couldn’t fathom how to remove it. When I asked Dr. Dawson, who was by my side the entire day, how it would be removed, he shook his head and didn’t answer.

I didn’t ask again.

Since he felt confident in my mental health and physical abilities, I was not further restrained by the handcuffs and leg shackles threatening in every room. The band had to be scanned at all the entrances and exits, like checking out groceries or swiping a credit card. I was a walking, talking commodity. A Prothero product. Eleni, new and improved.

The rooms were all the same, white, muted hues spilling out into clinically sterile hallways. No bad elevator muzak or bad hotel paintings to liven up the scenes. The only distinguishing elements were different furniture or equipment in various shades of white or gray. More windows or less windows dotting the walls. It was hard to imagine a person who would purposefully design a building to be so boring and functional. I didn’t see anyone else but nurses and other Doctors. They all communicated in whispers. The environment felt designed to minimize my stress and discomfort. It would be wrong to say I didn’t appreciate this. I felt sure any loud noises or sudden movements or harsh vocalizations would probably send me into a low-level panic attack. I might chew my fingers off or leap through the windows. Impossible scenarios either way.

The windows were unbreakable. Not because of any iron bars. The glass was the kind you couldn’t shatter and leap through. It wasn’t penetrable by a bullet or a chair or a fist. I’m not sure what it was, but I knew without having to be told, this was not a viable way out. I knew without having to be told the best way to obtain freedom was by calm and quiet cooperation. But when I stared at those bleak, ivory walls and out those impenetrable hospital windows into the radiant blue sky, I felt more broken than healed. More weak than strong. Even if my body was better than ever.

Despite my new-found clarity, they didn’t believe I was completely out of the black hole of my mind.

The next morning, I was shackled again. Dr. Dawson appeared shortly after I awoke, carrying the tablet, offering a placating smile, bordering on smug. I watched him silently, curious as to how this scenario would play out. He clearly thought we were back to square one, but there was hope in his gaze as well. A desire to draw out his suspense overtook me.

He set the tablet down on the bed and began the morning ritual of question and answer. He gave no indication yesterday had occurred. Neither did I.

“Do you know who I am?” He asked.

“A doctor.”

“Do you know where you are?”

“A hospital.”

“Do you know who you are?”

“Eleni Garza.”

“Do you know what happened?”

“A bomb exploded in France. My parents died. I’m part robot. THIS, “I pointed in the direction of my left eye, constrained by the cuffs, “isn’t a real eye. This isn’t a real arm. I have a metal heart.” I pointed at each piece of anatomy and concluded my speech by staring blankly at Dr. Dawson.

“Oh, come now Eleni, your heart is real enough.”

Dr. Dawson’s comforting smile spread until he nearly beamed. He was quite attractive, if icy and distant. At the end of the demonstration of my newly retained memories, he stepped forward and placed a hand on the railing again, close to my shoulder but not touching it. Avoiding re-assuring human touch at all costs. It wasn’t clear if this behavior was his preferred bedside manner, a Prothero insistence, or the result of a bad altercation between us. Whatever the case, I loathed it. The alienating lack of human contact was the opposite of what I desired.

“Trust me when I say, this is  wonderful news Eleni. This is the breakthrough we’ve waited for. Now we can progress forward with cognitive therapy and new elements of testing. I’ll get you breakfast and we can begin.”

He turned on his feet, moving to exit the room.

“Dr. Dawson?” I inquired.

He swiveled again. I held up my arms as far as they could move, the cuffs binding me.

“Oh right. Sorry. Old habits,” He explained.

The cuffs clicked off to reveal the band beneath it, attached to my left wrist. I studied it for a moment. There was no clasp. There was no tie, only an endless loop of cool silver metal, betraying nothing. No indication of what actually operated it. A shiver ran down my spine. So much of my body was no longer my own. None of the surgeries or implants were conducted at my request. I had been manipulated, broken and healed without my consent. Without the permission of my parents or loved ones. It was eerie to realize so much of my life now belonged to these people. How was this possible? Where were the people who loved and cared about me?

The remainder of my prison sentence involved the internal desperation to answer those questions. On the outside, I was docile and firmly committed to eating, drinking, and healing. Weekly tests were conducted to be sure I had a firm grasp of how to manage my auditory implant. Daily vision tests occured until I didn’t wake up with a jarring incongruity of vision. These were coupled with exercise routines testing the endurance of my new heart and lung, where I would run treadmills and row machines until it felt like I might pass out. Only then was I given reprieve. Sinewy muscles formed in my arm and legs. My doughy jawline hardened. The swell of my breasts faded away, my hips stayed thin and shapeless. My menstrual cycle lapsed into every two months. This was fine, they said. This was normal. Prothero didn’t seem too concerned with these symptoms, so neither was I. As opposed to my flabby, widening frame from a year ago, this muscled, athletic version of myself felt right. I felt strong and healthy, like Dr. Dawson said. For the most part, I enjoyed these exercises.

The chemical treatments however, were my least favorite part. Daily doses of silvery gray substances supposedly required to assist with my body accepting the organs and nanos. Those injections caused my jaw and teeth to ache like I’d bitten down on a fork. An object made of tin or metal. I tasted copper and wires all day long. The doctors charted my progress, with Dr. Dawson in the lead. His well-groomed countenance was the first I saw in the morning and the last in the evening.

We would perform perplexing mental acuity puzzles and fine motor skill demonstrations. Most of them related to creating pictures in my mind and touching or drawing objects related to them. I’d never spent a lot of time drawing before, and discovered not only did I like it, but I was also quite good at it. The tests were bizarre and nonsensical to me. I assumed they were related to the eye-brain connection they were attempting to strengthen. I didn’t know any better. For all intents and purposes, Dr. Dawson appeared to possess no other life but patiently coaxing me back into a more humane version of myself.

There was the day when we first visited the closet containing all my worldly possessions. I didn’t own much, considering I’d spent most of my life traveling the world and had paired these objects down considerably. The experience was unpleasant. Not as bad as blacking out, but I do remember dizziness and headaches, moments of panic and disorientation. There were family pictures. News stories. Interviews. A 30 minute documentary. There were communications from people I’d never met. Gifts of money or items I did not need. It was overwhelming.

I was a well known entity in the world. After the image of my parents dying in the bombing hit the waves, America watched my story unfold with interest. There were images of me in hospital beds, reports on surgeries and progress, and recorded statements I don’t remember making. A memorial service I don’t recall attending. These were absorbed more or less with the studied calm overlaying a deep sense of disconnect I developed the first morning of waking. When I’d looked down at my wrists on the bed and then up at the patient, closed features of Dr. Dawson. It was extremely important not to struggle. Even if I don’t remember trying to.

Some of my questions, I couldn’t contain. Especially when we looked at photos of me interacting with extended family members.

“Where are my relatives?” I asked Dr. Dawson, as we flipped through pictures of them.

“At home. Your mother’s family is primarily on the West Coast. Your father’s in the South. We’ve already covered this material,” He replied, a bit too perfunctorily. This was a subject he clearly didn’t want to linger on.

“Yes but, why aren’t they here?” I insisted, fearing his answer.

“They agreed it was best if custody were remanded to Prothero, during your rehabilitation. None of them are able to care for you in the state you are in. It is the best thing for you to be here, I promise,” He reassured me.

“Why – why haven’t they come to visit me?”

“They did, at first. But the results proved disastrous for your healing. Your amnesia was a symptom of a heightened emotional state. Seeing your friends and family reversed your progress. A few times you slipped into coma like conditions. Gradual integration back into your life is the best solution we can come up with,” He said.

“Oh. OK. But I will get to see them? Soon? I mean, I’m doing so much better,” I reminded him with my best, healthiest flash of teeth.

“Yes, you are. Perhaps once we finish all the testing, we can talk about arranging a visitation. Would you like that?”

“Of course. Of course I would,” I contained my excitement at the prospect.

“I will make sure it happens. We are only looking out for your best interests, right Eleni?” Dr. Dawson insisted.

“Yeah. It’s just sometimes I get a little lo-”

“Lonely. Let’s keep making progress and I’ll get things in motion for you to be with other people. How does that sound?”

“Great. It sounds…great. Thanks Dr. Dawson,” I said, an immense wave of gratitude washing over me.

I didn’t notice at the time he never explicitly agreed to visitations. He simply waved it off as a reward I could look forward to when I finished the tasks on the schedule. He used his brilliant composure and sensitive tone to obscure his intentions. Or rather, Prothero’s intentions. Though I’m not quite sure if those were two separate things. Dawson and Prothero are too muddled in my memory and at times I think he is genuine. Those are rare moments, few and far between. All his other platitudes are an act.

Our attention always came back to the closet, because they used this instrument to help piece me back together again. Mental reconstruction to accompany the physical alterations. The closet, aside from holding the clues to the last 8 months, also contained my parents valuables. As well as my own, mostly jewelry and clothing and knick-knacks. Then, pushed to the back of the closet, an ornate tin box. No bigger than a short loaf of bread. This was the last trinket Dr. Dawson asked me to emotionally process during our sessions.

We were sitting in the hospital room with two chairs set up around a table. Our sessions consisted of him bringing out a personal item from the closet and me talking about the memories and importance. He would catalogue what I remembered, my reactions. Every day since I woke up, a new object would appear.

Sometimes he would ask me questions about my parents. Not just about fond memories, but questions that stirred something ugly in my gut. Though I didn’t let him know that. He would ask me if they ever talked about the work they did. He would ask me if they ever invited me into their labs. If I ever touched any of their samples. If I ever interacted with their patients. He asked me what I knew about the nano virus. About the cure. I told him what I could. I told him what I thought he needed to hear. But it was never enough.

He knew it wasn’t enough. I knew it wasn’t enough.

But it was all he was going to get out of me. And truly… what did I know about my parents? My parents who had forced me to travel the globe in six month spurts, ripping me from one hotzone to the next with no compassion for my stability and seemingly little care for my safety. My parents who spent more time fighting some stupid disease than raising their daughter. My parents who never seemed to have a moment to ask about my day, but never hesitated to roll up the sleeve of my jacket and stab me with a needle if it suited their ends.

Those were my parents.

And then sometimes… I remember they were warm. I remember laughing with them over a steaming plate of nasty army food. I remember riding on my dad’s shoulders as we strode along the shoreline of a beach. I remember my mother sneaking me an extra piece of goat cheese from the makeshift kitchen. I remember my father taking me to a huge open air market in Afghanistan and buying me a special tin to keep all my travel souvenirs.

There were some good memories but they were more like photographic impressions. I couldn’t recall words we spoke or how their skin felt next to mine or the scent of their clothes or the taste of the air we breathed. It was just like flipping through a mental photobook.

Then there was the last day we had to revisit that book. We were wrapping up the physical therapy and the mental calisthenics were just for show, anyway. Dawson was no psychologist and he didn’t really seem to care about most of my answers. Except for the very specific ones I didn’t intend to give him.

Dr. Dawson placed the tin on the table. The thud sounded ominous, weighed down with foreboding. Guilt and fear rushed over me, increasing my heartbeat. Blood rushed to my cheek and pushed against the drum of my right ear. It took me a few seconds to meet his gaze.

“Can you tell me what this is?” He inquired casually, his pacifying, detached smile resurfacing.

I leaned over to further inspect it, my hands hovering above the tin surface. I surveyed my hands, the right and the fake left, two halves of the same coin. Each representing my life, before and now. The contents of the tin could put a quick end to the doctor’s mollifying smirk. They could change the course of my life, the course of other lives.

I allowed the tips of my right fingers to touch first. I slid them over the dimpled, thin metal. The lid is decorated with intricate middle eastern loops and designs. This box is from Afghanistan. A gift from my father for my 11th birthday. On the underside of the lid, inside the tin itself, a label tells you this. The inside is lined and padded with cotton and red silk. Red silk. Red like a warning. Like a stop sign. Like danger. Red like a beating human heart.

“It’s a box,” I responded, being deliberately obtuse.

“Yes. This tin box was found in your barrack after the bombing. When you were in the hospital, soldiers were assigned to pack up your belongings and ship them here. This was underneath your bed. Pushed far to the back, nearly unreachable by a full grown man because the mattress was so low to the ground. This tin was only accessible to a young girl, like yourself.”

I nodded, hoping for nonchalance, but my neck felt stiff and my head weighed too much to make the effort seamless. My fingers pulled away from the tin, curling into involuntary fists, knuckles going white.

“Did you open it?” I inquired, trying to keep my question trivial and almost disinterested.

Dr. Dawson chuckled, quietly. His reactions and movements muted.

“We couldn’t. There seems to be a special key or magic trick to opening this particular lock. We wanted to be sure it wasn’t a bomb, you see. We submitted it to an X-Ray scan. What do you think we found?”

I nodded again. Perspiration bloomed in my underarms. My fingernails dug small holes into my palms. I was quickly losing what little composure remained.

He beamed. It looked like an easy, natural thing. His pretty, evenly spaced teeth gaped at me. Very white. His dazzling blue eyes sparkled with trust and compassion. He looked like an All-American white boy from the mid-west. Not really a boy, more of a man. His mollifying smile betrayed nothing beyond it.

“What did we find?” He questioned.

“Letters,” I replied, my heart hammering loudly in my chest, the noise ringing in my ears.

“Yes, the box contains what looks like letters. What are those letters filled with Eleni?”

“They’re personal. They’re mine,” I fired these statements off too quickly. I was losing it.

His peaceful expression shrank a little, and his gaze diverted to the tin, coming back to fix on me.

“Do you remember what we talked about Eleni?” He asked gently.

More nodding, my head bobbing up and down in submission.

“Nothing is personal anymore. The whole world heard your story. All aspects of your life, all knowledge about you is available for public consumption. Your life changed. You are a completely different person. You need to move on and start your new life. You need to talk to me about those letters.”

I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t tell him. Everything would fall apart. I’d spent the last eight months piecing my life together after losing the two most important people in my world. I couldn’t experience the pain again. It was the last straw. I gave them everything. They’d taken everything. My parents. My heart and ear and eye. My memories. I hadn’t seen anyone who loved or cared about me in almost a year and I wanted the contents of the tin exempt from their clinical observations. Their poking and prodding. I needed to keep my secrets, and the lives of the people in those letters, safe.

Also, I was scared.

“Dr. Dawson,” I said it with heavy emotion. He must have heard it. He must have known what was coming because he reached out and touched me, breaking the rules. In defiance of his own previous practices, maybe in defiance of Prothero itself.

He touched the fake hand, punctuated with the Prothero band I could never remove. His skin was warm, like I’d often imagined it might be. It was so shocking, the sympathetic human touch. I darted from the chair and slammed myself up against his chest like a frightened animal. I clung to his neck, a drowning person trying to escape the freezing waters around her. My whole body ached as I sobbed. I could  cry. I wasn’t a robot after-all. I was a real person.

Dawson sat there, bewildered, his glasses slightly askew on his nose. Sluggishly, he wrapped his arms around me and lifted me. The tin box was swept from the table by this action and knocked to the floor. But its contents were forgotten for a moment. It was simply me and Dr. Dawson there, in the room with cameras recording our every move. 20 stories above the ground in a high rise Prothero hospital in Washington DC.

He set me down on the bed and tucked me into the covers, like my father used to do when I was young. Depressing waves of gratitude washed over me. I was a girl. A young girl. All alone in a scary new world coping with extreme circumstances. What I needed was a hug, an authority figure to tuck me in and tell me everything was going to be alright. The only person left to do it was Dr. Dawson, with the loving guidance of Prothero behind him.

“I think that’s enough Eleni. You’ve endured enough. You’re right. I’m sorry. Why don’t you rest? We’ll talk later. OK?”

I dipped my head in agreement, wiping at the tears and snot covering my cheeks.

He stayed next to the bed, muttering soothing phrases. Brushing hair off my forehead with a paternal, concerned countenance. I was drifting off to sleep, relieved and sated by the non-clinical human contact.

It was probably my imagination, probably the depression and anxiety and sadness distorting my reality, but I recall hearing him say, “You’re just a girl. Just a young girl.”

As if reminding himself. As if it wasn’t obvious enough. At the time, I remember thinking, you’re right. It’s true. I am. Alone and horribly disfigured. I’m a young girl who needs a friend.

I would never be a young girl again. No one would treat me that way for the rest of my life. I was nobody’s child, I was simply a piece of machinery. The ghost of who I’d been, trapped in the flesh and tech form of Eleni Garza. Reshaped into this new thing, into whatever Prothero needed me to be. They needed me to be whole again. So I made myself into a box, constructed of tin and cotton and silk, with all the personal, dangerous letters trapped and locked inside. I would be a box and I would never open up again.

Dr. Dawson probably thought I was asleep. When he turned to leave, I reached out and clutched desperately at the bottom corner of his crisp, white jacket.

“I want to go home,” I whispered.

I opened my left eye to him. It looked organic upon first sight, but distorted if you stared at it too long. I stared in the mirror at this new eye on some nights meditating on how stony it could be. How callous the ocular implant could look if leveled properly. How dangerous a weapon I could be, if wielded correctly. In the dark it never occurred to me to question where these thoughts came from. They felt like mine and came from me, but in truth, they were the thoughts of a stranger. A newer, uglier Eleni Garza.

Dr. Dawson stopped in his tracks and stared at me, a little shaken. Our whole encounter this evening troubled him. He was confused and disoriented by my sudden need for physical contact. By the eerie stare of an artificial eye viewing him as clinically as he viewed me.

“We-we’ll talk about it later. Get some rest, Eleni.”

“Alright,” I closed my lids and rolled my face into the pillow.

He walked swiftly to the door, and I heard it click gently shut behind him. Heard the locking gear grind into place. Trapped. He was out of the room, no doubt relieved to be far from me.

I couldn’t sleep yet. I pushed up from the bed and hopped down onto the tile floor. Padded across to the bathroom. Took the usual place in front of the mirror, staring at my own likeness. Trying to make sense of these changes. Attempting to recognize myself in the reflection. And today for the first time, a smile appeared.

I was going home.

The next morning Dr. Dawson entered the room and announced the good news. I was being transferred to a new facility, with young people my own age. A transitional, group therapy home for wards of the state. And then after that, a combination school and hospital all rolled into one, to re-integrate me back into the world following successful physical therapy.

It turns out Prothero’s version of home was another prison with windows equally as unbreakable and no chance to escape.

Prothero’s version of home, a military base in the Pacific Northwest, is where my story really begins.


Our field exercise unit is in the SIM today, scouting ahead of the troops with drone jets, secure behind the front lines of a bombed out city in a desert setting. The appearance of the rubble reminds me of the Afghanistan landscape and the rusted, broken signs are all in Arabic. The SIM controllers make a habit of never disclosing whether simulations resemble terrorist locations we might attempt to infiltrate. But the locations sometimes possess a familiar texture and I often find myself reflecting, “I’ve been here.”

The SIM is housed at a large warehouse facility at the northern end of the base, where the old internet search engine built a data center. Their campus and empty buildings were absorbed when base construction began fifty years ago. Fort Columbia sits on the banks of the same titled river, a slow curving arch away from where the upgraded hydro-electric dam produces a meager output of electricity. Its power generation is dwarfed by the wind and solar farms in the surrounding area. The base energy needs, especially housing a giant SIM, are incredible and this is one of the most diverse resource and energy rich locations on the continent to carry out such a feat.

The SIM room is where the imagination of the controllers and engineers comes to life. Whatever environmental setting and battlefield scenario they want to construct springs forth from thin air, melting out of the cobalt blue reflective plates built into the walls, ceiling and floors. The nano constructions are real enough to touch. Real enough to interact with. Unlike the virtuals we can play from our bands. Virtuals are full color, 3D ghostly projections of images but contain all the substance of a cloud. They are a gauze of filtered light and more nanos.

But the SIMs, they are different. Not holographs, not virtual reality, not smoke and mirrors. Prothero owns this technology, patents and all. They don’t tell us about the SIMs, about proprietary information. The only thing we need to know is how to survive. How to become a soldier.

I am a National Service Academy resident. We aren’t students and we’re not yet soldiers. We fit somewhere in between. The Academy is where I am learning the mechanics of flight. In six months, I will assume controls powering a combat-ready drone jet. Thus far I’ve logged over 265 hours in a flight simulator. Once 300 hours are completed, I will gain access to a real, tangible cock pit. I should achieve this before the end of the year.

Myself and 40 other residents are tracked into the Aeronautics branch of service. There are six main specializations. Aeronautics, medical, psychology/criminal profiling, engineering, counter-terrorism, and bio-chemistry are the other educational tracks provided on base. Prothero drafts the brightest, smartest citizens with the highest standardized placement test scores into service as soon as they turn 16. Drafting and mandatory being the operative words. There is no choice and no hiding once Prothero spies your talent. The lower you are on the socio-economic scale, the easier it is for them to scoop you up in their clutches. Me, well, they owned me fair and square. Totally legal. Others here were wrenched from families and friends and loved ones. Their futures were optimistic for many other reasons but mandatory national service.

And then, there are the politicians. People seeking political office establish their careers at age 16, with the standardized testing, and it’s vital to success in Prothero’s government to graduate from the Academy. You have to serve your country, even if you never set foot on a battlefield. These future politicians are as pre-selected as us future soldiers, but the fortunate sons and daughters of the wealthy are not sent out onto the front lines in the same way as the child of a low-class person. A debtor.

The average young person selected for mandatory national service will be caught up in the system forever. Like me. Trapped in an endless prison merely for having potential to aim higher than a job as a technician or manual laborer or artist. I was born with a gift for computer engineering, and secured enough sway with Prothero they allowed me to track into this specialization without pre-testing. The promise of aviation, of breaking free from the ground and my body, was too seductive to ignore. It was the only good choice in a series of no choices.

I’ve been assigned to the same unit since August – the longest I’ve worked on a functional team with anyone in my entire life. I’m paired with Rabbit Santiago, Luis Kang, Clinton Fuller and Corazon Ortega. The three guys are all friends and Corazon is our unit lead. She’s field experienced and the best at making tactical decisions. We take our orders from her. She’s a short stocky hispanic woman with curling red hair she keeps in small tight braids against her scalp. Her severe personality more than makes up for a lack of physical intimidation. When Corazon says jump we say how high and better already know in what direction.

Clinton, Luis and Corazon scout ahead on foot, and I’m behind them with Rabbit Santiago. We are the two residents in the unit with enough amassed Aeronautics credit to pilot. Clinton is in our specialization, but he’s failed drone simulation testing and tech class three times now. They continue letting him back into the courses, hoping one time it will stick, averting their gaze from his failure, to the money endowed by Fuller’s rich parents. Money will only get you so far – and I get the sense from his increasing desperation on the battlefield and in our academics, he is running out of chances to prove himself.

Santiago, who I spend the most time with out of anyone on base aside from my friends, carries himself with a professional, business-like demeanor when we work together, hardly regarding me unless required to. We bear a begrudging respect for one another and we’re almost friends when we run simulations. I mean, we have to cover one another. We have to work together in here to protect ourselves and our squad mates. Santiago is not especially nice, but nicer than he needs to be, I guess. Nicer than Clinton or Luis have ever been.  

The two of us, Rabbit and I, sit nestled snugly inside an Electro Magnetic Pulse (EMP) tank while our drones run vertical tracks up and down the landscape. It’s a bit uncomfortable for Santiago, who stands a foot and a half taller than I do, making him over six feet. He’s folded into the cramped space, his long, beak-like nose nearly touching the tank wall in front of us.

We are bundled in the SIM armor, a higher tech variation of what we’d wear on an actual battlefield. The increased tech is to provide the needed haptic feedback in the simulations. The suit is a navy blue protective exo-skeleton of malleable plastic and hemp cloth, similar to kevlar but more flexible, and embedded with nanos. The nanos provide an extra thick shield, mostly impenetrable by bullets. The material is thicker in the areas where our bodies are the weakest – knees, elbows, shoulders. A thin glass read out folds down from our helmets and a virtual display can be projected from a console in our chests. Though we are far-removed from combat in the tank, this uniform is standard-issued for all soldiers.

We monitor the drones visual feeds on our bands, routing information to the troops and tracking any movement we pick up on the battlefield. Reports are made to Corazon via the mics attached to our helmets in order to keep chatter off the waves. This is a routine simulation and we’re tucked far away from the danger of battle and the ground troops. I’m bored watching the shapes and colors morph on the virtual in front of me.

“Hold up,” Santiago breaks my musing, nudging with an elbow. “You see that?” He inquires, tilting his band towards me. A slash of purple pulses in the bowels of a building in the northeast corner of the map. I blink and the color vanishes, leaving a trace of radiant light bursts in its wake. I slip a hand under my visor and wipe sweat from my brow. The bright colors dissipate, but a high pitched squeal picks up in its stead. I box my ears. The sound stops abruptly.

“You alright over there?” Santiago asks, concerned.

I shrug and focus in on the map again.

“I don’t see it. I did, for a second. I don’t see it anymore,” I answer brusquely. Our displays shows nothing but crumbling skyscrapers and cracking towers. Innocent citizens fleeing before the sting of war reaches them. Their images are ghostly, haunting.

“It’s right here. There’s a weird signature in this building,” Santiago nods, pointing towards a squat white tenement with stone peeling off the walls. Santiago possesses notoriously good vision, so I trust his judgment in this case.

“Not human?” I ask, squinting. I’m growing concerned my false eye is shorting out and giving me bad information. In two years of perfect operation, this would be a first.

“It’s some kind of missile system,” He murmurs, rotating the image. His drone jet hovers in the air above the building, collecting and transmitting the data. “I’m taking it in for a closer look.”

“Careful,” I admonish.

He lowers the jet, angling it in broken windows, searching in areas where holes have been blown in the siding.

“There’s definitely a hot item in there, but I can’t get a good visual. It looks like the same signatures of the missile system we saw two weeks ago in that forest SIM. You remember this deep purple color?”

“Confirmed,” I reply, sounding more confident and assured than is true. I can’t read the data on the screen he points to. I can’t see anything inside the building. It’s just grey, ugly wall. “Would you like assistance Raptor Two?”

He cocks his head over at me, a suspicious glaze falling over his face.

Here we go.

This behavior stems from my status as the top resident in the Aeronautics specialization. Santiago has played second fiddle since I stepped out of the testing room. But it’s not like my privilege is unearned. I pilot Raptor One, have logged more hours in the flight simulator, and possess the highest grade in our Tech class. I’m smart and focused. I didn’t buy my way into service like Clinton Fuller, son of Senator Edmund Fuller, hailing from the great state of Texas. I didn’t volunteer like Rory “Rabbit” Santiago with his near perfect NEL score. Most people don’t volunteer. It’s rare. Volunteers are pretty much only white people like Clinton looking for some kind of political angle.

Santiago and Fuller share several Aero classes and spend most of their off duty hours together too. But I have a hard time believing Santiago is angling for a political position. He is not charismatic or charming. He isn’t even articulate.

Whatever the case, Santiago’s never acknowledged our rivalry, though tension existed between us from the moment we met. From the first time we shook hands, a knot of anxiety tightened in my stomach. No matter how much time we spend together, no matter how comfortable the silence… Santiago makes me nervous in a way I’ve never experienced. He makes me defensive, I guess. He’s the only one in our Academy specialization who even comes close to presenting as competition. It’s not just that. No one else on the base gets under my skin, because everyone else ignores my presence. Santiago… notices things. He doesn’t comment on them, but he notices. And he’s always poised to take over if I slip up in the slightest. Like right now.

“No. Thanks. I’m going to drop this building. Condor Five, do you copy? Can we move all friendlies out of the blast area?” He requests of Corazon.

She responds crisply over the speakers built into our helmets, “Do you have Raptor One for backup?”

“Negative. I’m on this,” Santiago answers.

“I don’t think so. Garza, monitor the area for enemy combatants. Do you read?”

“Copy that Condor Five, I’m moving into location now.”

Santiago covers his helmet mic and turns slightly, glowering in my direction. “I’ve got this Garza.”

His irritation stings. I’m only doing what Corazon told me. What Prothero built me for, what they chose for me. It’s nothing personal.

I spin the jet around and aim it at the building Raptor Two hovers near.

“Only doing as ordered,” I remind him.

“Sure. Right. Whatever,” He says, uncovering his mic, ”Condor Five, I’ve got Raptor One in-bound. Am I go ahead to deploy?”

“Affirmative. Light it up,” Corazon says.

Santiago grins and I furrow my brows at the visual projected from his band. The heat mark explodes like a luminous beacon on my read-out. It shudders on the virtual as my drone approaches. I notice a second color pulsing just below the missile signature, on the fourth floor of the building.

“Raptor Two, hold your fire,” I say, zooming in on the image. It’s red – a human signature. There are people in the building. “We have a live target.”

Live being a relative term. The SIM civilians aren’t real, but they are considered as such in field exercises. We wouldn’t sacrifice them outside of these doors, so we don’t during an operation. Those are the rules.

“I’m not seeing it Raptor One. I have go ahead. Delivering the package,” He reports.

“Santiago, it’s not all clear. Let me investigate first. There are humans in there!” I shout, urging my drone jet faster.

He scowls, “There’s nothing on my monitor except the explosive. Condor Five, can you confirm human presence in the building?”

“I cannot. Raptor Two, hold your fire. Raptor One, I need to see what you see. Patch me in.”

I sigh with a stilted, trembling relief. I can see multiple human heat signatures clearly on my visual. I would prefer not to add casualties to my near perfect combat score today. I tap on the band monitor, giving Corazon full access to the scans of my drone. She remains silent for a moment. It’s an eerie, drawn out silence. She loudly clears her throat, “Raptor One, no visual confirmation. Garza, you’re seeing things.”

I squint at the screen. The signatures are there, right in front of me, and if I angle the drone correctly, there’s an opening. I’ve gained a full view into the building. Humans are inside. A group huddles against a far wall and a young boy stands at the gaping hole, leaning out. He waves his arms in dreamy arching motions, leaving traces of color and light trailing in their wake.

“There’s a group of people on my monitor right now, women and children. Condor Five, Raptor Two – are you blind?” My voice becomes high pitched.

“Raptor One, is this a joke?” Santiago turns and studies my virtual with confusion.

I zoom in closer, hovering so near the building I can see a face, one I remember as well as my own. I’ve drawn it from memory a hundred times. This face belongs to the author of the letters in my tin box, to a young man named Mateo. I’m completely immobile, frozen in place. Able to hear the chatter happening around me, unable to will my fingers to move.

“Condor Five, I’m gonna drop the payload. Can you request Raptor One backs up?” Santiago questions, irritated.

“Raptor One, back up. Back up!” Corazon shouts, frustration leeching into her calm demeanor.

“I, I can’t,” I murmur, transfixed at the image on my screen. Mateo’s long hair flaps in the swirling wind from the drone jets. He’s waving out of the opening, mouthing inaudible exclamations. I turn on the targeted audio in the drone. At first, the only sound is the scream and buzz of Raptor Two’s jet engine. I aim the mic in the direction of the building, straight at the opening.

“Help us! Eleni!” Is what I hear over the radio.

All the blood drains from my cheeks. My heart jack-hammers inside my chest.

“Santiago, are you hearing this?” I inquire in a small voice. It rises up from a well of confusion and a tangle of conflicting emotions. This can’t be happening. I cannot be seeing and hearing this.

My trembling fingers push the signal over our helmets, so the entire squad can hear the audio booming in their speakers.

“Garza,” Santiago turns to me again, the indifference vanished from his demeanor, “I don’t hear anything. You OK?”

Over the radio Corazon shouts, “Raptor One move now!”

“You look sick,” Santiago says. “Are you gonna be sick?”

He shifts over to grab my shoulders. I don’t bother pushing him away. It’s too late to stop him. He’s already hit the sequence on his band to destroy the building. Santiago’s drone shoots a bunker bomb through a sixth floor window. It explodes on impact. I can’t move. I can’t move my jet.

I leave Mateo hanging out the opening, a group of women and children huddled in the room behind him, screaming for help. Horror grips and paralyzes me as the explosion collapses the building. The ceiling falls in on the group of people, taking my drone down with it. I watch the spiraling crash to the ground and the loss of signal as Raptor One blows apart.

“Garza, what are you doing!?” Corazon shouts over the radio.

I’m keenly aware of Rabbit Santiago touching me, his hand pressed tentatively against my shoulder. I sense the uncomfortable proximity of his face to mine. The concern etched into his features. I shove him away harshly and jump to my feet. I rip my helmet off and toss it to the tank floor. Santiago moves with me. I push the hatch of the tank open and clamber outside, gasping for air. The interior is stifling, I can’t breathe. My false lung won’t fill with oxygen or won’t release it. I can’t tell which. I stumble off the edge of the tank, collapsing on the ground. My head spins.

Santiago exits the hatch and joins me on the ground. “What’s going on?”

I turn towards him, my vision blurring. “I saw people. I saw people in there.”

“Yeah. You said that. Hey, y-you’re bleeding,” He informs me. His finger touches beneath my nose, bumping against my top lip. Red liquid smears across his tan brown flesh.

I reach up towards my nostrils, fingers coming away bloody. I exchange a long glance with Santiago. He blinks slowly, studying me with beady, intelligent eyes. He probably thinks I’m taking performance enhancing drugs, like Flash. I wouldn’t be the first resident to try it. I’m not though, and it’s nearly impossible to slip those kind of drugs past the toxicology readers on the band. I would be outed after the first pill or injection. I sniff some of the fluid back into my nose and rub the back of my hand across my upper lip.

“It’s only blood,” I say.

“We’re not supposed to bleed in here, Garza. It’s a SIM,” Santiago scowls further.

“That’s not true. People get hurt all the time,” I counter. “Luis broke three of his fingers a month ago. And Clinton always-”

“Idiots who aren’t paying attention,” Santiago cocks a brow. “But you’re not an idiot.”

Corazon stalks up, interrupting our confusion. Behind her, Clinton Fuller and Luis Kang smirk, shaking their heads in equal parts dismissal and amusement.

“Out,” Corazon orders, pointing towards the entrance to the SIM.

“I didn’t mean to wreck the jet. I saw people. I heard voices.”

“No, you didn’t. Get out,” She repeats, composure slipping.

“There were people in the building,” I snap, trying to stem the crimson trickle from my nose.

“Out! Before I remove you,” Corazon stalks closer, brows drawn and unhappy. “Please, make me physically remove you. I would love nothing more.”

There’s no more arguing. Not with Corazon. I pick myself up and hobble away, unsteady on my feet. I’m almost to the door when Santiago jogs up holding my helmet. He pushes it into my open palm, his expression caught between discomfort and sympathy. A novel look for stoic Santiago.

“You really didn’t see those signatures? Those people?” I inquire.

He shakes his head.

“I believe you  saw something,” He offers, the corners of his lips twitching into a brief, fleeting smile. “And it spooked you. Ghosts in the machine?”

“Not ghosts. I saw someone ,” I confirm. “You know I’m not an idiot, Santiago. So why won’t you believe me?”

“Garza,” He says, hesitating. His slightly too bushy brows are knit together with genuine concern. A stray piece of his curling hair slips out from his helmet. He pushes it off his forehead carelessly. We stand together in a long, drawn out silence while hot fluid drains from my nostrils and drips down over my chin. I’m bleeding and really should get out of the SIM before Corazon makes good on her promise. But Santiago’s demeanor, the set of his well defined jaw, roots me in this spot.

“Garza, you-” He starts again.

“Rabbit, you coming or what?” Clinton’s voice crackles over our helmets.

Santiago breathes a heavy sigh and shakes his head.

“You should get your nose checked out, you’re bleeding everywhere,” He mutters before turning and jogging back to the EMP tank.

I shoulder through the main SIM door into a dimly lit, grey metal corridor colored with dull red light. Phospherescent rays of silver dash over me, scanning my limbs and the SIM suit, verifying I’m not smuggling out any unregistered tech. Making sure whatever exists in the SIM stays there.

A clipped female voice shivers out of the walls, “All clear Eleni Garza.”

A row of lockers rolls down from the ceiling and I remove the individual pieces of gear – the chest plate, the pads, the heavy boots, the helmet and the slick blue one piece suit that zips from my neck to the bottom of my torso. The process of extracting these clothes takes so long a small pool of the blood dripping from my nose builds at my feet.

The door next to me clicks open and the blinding silver rays brighten the hall, but I distinguish the hulking form of Clinton, followed by the tall, reedy body of Rabbit Santiago.

I’m standing in the gloom wearing nothing but a sports bra and underwear, a silver metal necklace bearing an ornate coin dangling between my breasts and glinting in the light. Santiago clears his throat and averts his gaze. Clinton stares at me lasciviously, offering an approving nod.

“Nice panties Garza,” He chuckles, elbowing Santiago.

“You wanna borrow them?” I retort. “They’re probably your size.”

Santiago chokes out a laugh that sounds like dry leaves rustling, and heads to his locker on the other side of the hall. He always dresses with his back to the room. I’m convinced he would shove his entire lanky body into the top locker if it would fit.

“You’re still bleeding,” Clinton accuses from two doors down, jamming his helmet into the top rack with an un-necessary display of force.

“I’ll get it checked out,” I mutter, retrieving my green cargo pants, black shirt and hooded jacket from the locker. I step into the pants, pulling and zipping them up as quickly as possible. I want to get out of here. I’m not used to being in the locker room with only two male residents. Even if both of them are my squadmates, I don’t trust them. The vibe Clinton emanates is unpleasant, antagonistic.

“So, did you go crazy in there or what?” Clinton asks, shedding his elbow pads.


“Then what happened?”


“Bullshit. Are you cracking up?” Clinton bends down to unlace his boots.

I contemplate giving him a swift kick to the head, putting a decisive end to his bewildering interrogation. I decide against it. Fuller needs all his brain cells intact and fully operational since there aren’t many to work with.

“I’m fine. Everything is fine,” My voice wavers, betraying my statements.

“You’re cracking up. What about you Rabbit? You think Garza’s cracking up? You think she can’t handle the pressure?” Clinton asks, gazing up at me from his perch, grinning maliciously.

“I don’t know. She seems upset,” Santiago says, statement diplomatically void of emphasis.

“I know. Garza’s cracking up,” Clinton’s grin widens.

“Why are you guys out here anyway?” I ask, pulling the hooded sweatshirt over my head with a mental sigh of relief. Nude and vulnerable with Fuller around is not my preferred state. “The SIM isn’t over yet.”

“Rabbit couldn’t concentrate after your mental breakdown. He bombed the wrong target and nearly wrecked his drone too. You should have seen how pissed off Corazon was – she said all her pilots are a bunch of fuck ups and ordered him out. I left in solidarity cause I’m a good friend like that. You two need to get your shit together,” Clinton stands six feet away, naked except for boxers, studying me with bemusement. Santiago says nothing.

“You alright?” I direct my question to Santiago’s back.

He pivots his neck, brows raised in surprise.

“Yeah. I’m fine. Take care of yourself, Garza,” He says in an even, sincere tone, reaching to draw the hood of his jacket up over his head. “We need good pilots out there.”

“You too, Santiago. Be careful.”

I slam my locker door shut and hit a soft key button on the band to connect with the SIM security system. Silver light pours into the hallway, casting an eerie pallor over us.

“Who cares about her? I’m a good pilot,” Fuller remarks, non-plussed at the exchange between Santiago and I. “Rabbit, I’m a good pilot.”

Santiago chuckles at the petulant timbre of Fuller’s statement, turning from the locker.

“Not better than Garza,” Santiago points out.

“Yeah well, neither are you,” Fuller reminds him.

“I know,” Santiago responds, with only a small hint of bitterness.

The crisp feminine voice reports. “No Prothero SIM technology. You may exit.”

With a cushiony exhalation of air and a wash of green flickering in the dark corners of the hall, the far wall slides open. The floor beneath my feet shifts and rolls forward, dumping me out into the raw, blustering January air. The door seals tightly shut behind me. Winter rain splashes down, mixing with the blood trickling over my chin. I pause for a moment and draw in a sharp painful breath. I haven’t seen Mateo in four years. And I just killed him.


Five days later I’m in one of the empty Tech labs, taking apart a third generation wristband, the kind featuring a physical clasp and lock. I’m hoping this process will reveal the secrets of the fifth gen machine molded to my prosthetic arm. Three years ago this band existed as only a prototype, but it’s now worn by all Academy residents, Prothero staff and government officials.

The mysteries of unhinging, of rooting the band continue to elude me, and the best place to find answers lay in the source itself. This process would be helped along significantly by examining a fourth gen model. Those versions acquired a bug, introduced by the Contras exploiting a poorly constructed firewall in a new and improved security feature. The Contras could unlock the bands whenever they wanted with a signal as basic as a radiowave or piece of music. Sloppy work by Prothero, no doubt helped along by a Contra mole on the inside.

Fourth gens don’t exist except for on the Contra black market. Prothero made sure of that, issuing a recall and ripping them from the bodies of their owners, if need be. They disabled the tech with a broad-spectrum signal, instantly killing the hardware and software inside. A clever failsafe. If it was not secured, it was destroyed. Nestled in Prothero’s clutches, I never saw the faulty fourth, but I would love to obtain one. It wouldn’t take me long to crack the secrets of the tech.

Gen Five came out – better, stronger than previous models. I wore it a full year and a half before the device hit the streets. No one has figured out a loophole in version five yet. Prothero built them to be impenetrable, unlockable. I’m going to try. I’m going to figure out some way to extract myself from the band, from National Service, from Prothero.

I deconstruct the third gen band with a kinetic knife, carefully unhinging the pieces and laying them off to the side. The tiny items are separated into containers. As I pull the band apart, I sketch the components on my tablet and make notes. Specifically I am concerned about the clasp and lock feature held together by a thin metal node, accessible from the outside. My working theory is that the fourth and fifth gens use the same nodes but the lock is internal and controlled by secured software inside the band. Or some other hardware. But that’s impossible. The metal is so thin. It’s probably some nano function. Microscopic. I’m probably wasting my time. But I have time to kill, trapped in National Service.

Halfway into deconstruction, a door opens in the front of the room, off to the right. A well-known figure emerges.

Clinton Fuller passes the threshold and swaggers over to where I sit, taking a seat on a rusting, battered stool at the opposite side of the table. He’s wearing his off-duty clothes – the hooded sweatshirt unzipped to reveal no shirt underneath it. He chews on a gristly piece of beef jerky and the smell makes my stomach churn in disgust.

“Garza, you are the biggest nerd,” He says, his tainted breath catching in my curled nostrils.

“What do you want, Fuller?” I request, my nerves on high alert. Clinton rarely talks to me. He never talks to anyone unless he wants what they possess.

“It’s not what I want, it’s what you’re going to give me,” He replies, confirming my suspicion.

I cannot contain the laugh, it bursts out of me at his assertion. He frowns, irritated.

“And what’s that?” I inquire, clearing my throat.

“A passing grade in this class.”

I snort in response. Without extensive tech knowledge, remotely piloting a Raptor or stepping into the cockpit of a Condor is out of the question. Without National Service experience, a political career is equally dead in the water. Clinton Fuller needs more than my help. He needs a miracle.

“And how am I supposed to deliver that?” I ask, intrigued to hear his line of reasoning.

“You’re going to tutor me,” He says.

“No, I’m not,” I reply. At the same time, I scoop the scattered band parts into a metal box on the table. I need to get out of here before things turn ugly, so I’m preparing a quick escape.

“Why not?” He demands, used to hearing only compliance to his requests.

“Because you’re un-teachable. The second highest ranked resident in our specialization is your best friend. If Rabbit Santiago can’t teach you, I won’t be able to,” I answer honestly.

“He’s no good to me. He has these moral quandries. I can’t waste my time on that. Come on Garza, this could be good for you,” He insists.

“I already have all the connections I need in life, Fuller. Thanks,” I slam the container down into a drawer built into the table, a little too harshly. The pieces clatter and roll around. The cacophony is deafening for a moment.

Clinton doesn’t approve of this display and his features lock, brows drawing together.

“You’re not the only one with connections around here Garza. Prothero isn’t going to protect you forever. As far as I can tell, they don’t care about you anymore,” He says. “When was the last time Prothero showed an interest in you?”

The insinuation hurts, because it contains an element of truth. Years have passed since I saw Dr. Dawson. Since I was inside the Prothero lab at DC. They sold me into National Service and abandoned me here to a fate worse than death. A fate designed to turn me into a weapon, used to kill others. Whether I like it or not.

“That’s low, Fuller, even for you,” I mumble half heartedly. His knowledge of Prothero’s abandonment needles me and I’m frustrated at not being able to control these emotions in front of him.

“I want your help Garza. I’ve seen you with machines. You’re the smartest person in our specialization. An arrangement like this could be beneficial for you. So why are you holding out on me?” He asks, voice rising.

“Look, I can’t tutor you because… because I don’t really know WHY I’m so good at this stuff. It comes naturally – it’s intuitive. I can’t explain it and I couldn’t teach it if I wanted to,” I explain. “Which I don’t.”

“That sounds like an excuse. Not a reason. Why don’t you do what you’re asked Garza? It will be easier on you in the long run,” He insists with a smug, satisfied expression.

“Nothing in life is easy Fuller. Not for people like me,” I retort.

I scoot back from the table and rise to leave. He clamps a hand down on my left wrist, around the band. He squeezes it threateningly and without warning, the band sends an electric shock flashing over his hand and forearm. A mildly unpleasant sensation bites at my wrist, a thousand tiny needles poking but not penetrating flesh. He releases me in surprise and pitches off the stool from the force of the electrocution, slamming into the table behind him as if I’d given him a heavy shove.

“What the hell was that?” He demands, cupping his injured hand delicately. It’s an awkward look for a bulky guy like Clinton.

“I dunno. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to,” I stutter, backing away.

As satisfying as it might be to watch Clinton in physical pain, I’m not partial to needlessly abusing others.

“Tampering with Prothero technology is illegal. I could have you arrested for making those mods. My father could have you shipped to a labor camp,” He sneers, grimacing in pain.

“I doubt that. Prothero owns your father. Just like they own me,” I snap.

“One word from my father, and I own you ,” He threatens.

“You couldn’t afford it,” I say, disgusted by the truth of the statement.

“Get out of here Garza, before I stomp your head in,” Clinton replies.

I don’t need anymore motivation. I’m out the door like a shot, swiftly jogging the hallways until I collapse into bed in the barracks. I briefly contemplate waving my best friend, Scarlett, but she’s busy this evening. Out at her Salt patch, checking the tarp she lays over the beds during the frosty winter weather, making sure no wild animals disturbed her preparations. She won’t be back until after lights-out.

I lay in bed, staring up at the ceiling, ruminating on the fantastic frying sensation of the band. I’ve never experienced tech like this. I’ve never seen or heard of a band malfunctioning and sending off electrical impulses. If Fuller decides to make a big deal out of it, there will be repercussions to answer for. Won’t there? I’ve never had much interaction with politicians, outside of obligatory Prothero sponsored events, designed to promote the positive effects and benefits of corporate sponsored citizens. Sweaty palm pressings and glittering, calculating smiles is all I remember of those senators. What could one of them do if they decided to take a bite out of me?

The next morning a wave from our Tech instructor announces upsetting news. I’ve been reassigned as Clinton Fuller’s lab partner in our sixth period Tech class. No other choice exists but to assist him in passing. He achieved his goal, regardless of my willingness. The speed at which it happened is mind boggling. Clinton is savvier than I gave him credit for.

During breakfast I show Scarlett the wave. She sips her customary black coffee and raises her brows in mock horror at the text hovering on my band.

“Maybe it’s not such a bad thing,” She murmurs, moving the runny eggs around on her plate with half-hearted disinterest.

“Uh, what?”

“He’s well connected. Not terrible looking. If you can’t get early release, you could get information. You could maybe get a cushier placement,” She drops her fork and pushes the plate away dramatically. “Could they possibly cook these one morning? I mean, they’re practically goo!”

“You think I should let him get away with this?”

She laughs, “Let him? Clinton does what he wants. You might as well take advantage of this opportunity. Of him.”

I grab her plate, scooping the yolks and whites into my own pile. Scarlett has no love for early morning feasting and I scavenge her left-overs, standing sentry over her plate like a starved vulture.

Scarlett’s attention wanders down the table to an attractive resident with side-burns. He meets her gaze and smiles wide. Scarlett tips her coffee mug towards him and takes a deep gulp. I shovel a forkful of dripping egg into my mouth in disgust.

Scarlett is a gorgeous curly-haired blonde with green eyes and large breasts and wide hips all packed into a petite frame. Scarlett is nice for a white girl. Most other residents are either smart or mean because that’s how you are selected for and survive the Academy. You have to be special to catch Prothero’s attention, to pass their tests. As far as she lets on, Scarlett is neither smart nor terribly mean. The going rumor is she slept with a recruiter to secure a spot in service. But I’m not judging her. I’ve seen what it’s like out there for those with little choice or any other options.

You can’t hide from Prothero if you possess a skill or talent or information they want. You can’t completely hide from the nano virus or the rations or the poverty either. Scarlett is not overly intellectual, but she’s straight forward and not deceptive. In general, the smart girls and the tough girls give her wide berth. They’ll trade things with her and share information because that’s how survival in the Academy works. Long story short, Scarlett knows everyone and everyone knows Scarlett.

For reasons which continue to puzzle me, she’s been my best friend since shortly after I arrived here two years ago. She said at the time we’re both special and need to look out for each other. I’m not sure on one of those counts, I’m not endowed in the ways she is, but it’s easier to live on base if a friend has your back. Especially in a place like this.

She’s shrewd in a way others don’t recognize and while I consider her advice, I would rather not get mixed up in dealings with Clinton. I already have one powerful organization meddling in my life. It seems unwise to involve another.

Directly after eating, I apply to the instructor to be returned back to my original solitary assignment in tech lab. He claims he can do nothing, the move came from above his head. I swallow back my pride and indignation. Scarlett was right. Fuller gets whatever he wants. Maybe I will ride this thing out. I could find some valuable information to trade, and make this work for the both of us. This could work.

Our first class is conducted in silence. Clinton mutely offers me the kinetic instruments needed to deconstruct and repair the tech we examine. The hand that suffered the electrocution is bandaged. He doesn’t mention last night, and neither do I. We complete our assignment for the day and both receive high marks. Despite my disinclination towards him, this unlikely partnership could work. If I can get Fuller a passing grade, perhaps Senator Fuller’s influence could erase my debts or end my National Service term early. Perhaps there is some benefit to this arrangement after all. I can make this work. I will make this work.

Two more labs pass in the same fashion. The third time we share a table, Clinton’s bandage is removed. My attention lingers on his wrist so he flexes his hand to show it’s all healed.

“Disappointed you didn’t leave any scars?” He asks.

I duck my head and study the schematics of the tablet to avoid his leer.

“I didn’t mean to do that,” I mutter.

“But you did. Could you…do that to my band? Could you make it electrocute whoever I wanted?” He inquires, keeping his speech casual.

My face flushes. “No, I already told you.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“It doesn’t matter what you believe,” I whisper angrily, the blush traveling from my cheeks down to my neck.

“Are you blushing?” Clinton asks, emitting a booming laugh. Heads turn in our direction. I glance around the room quickly and my gaze falls on Santiago, who moved into a lab group with two other residents when Clinton abandoned him. They welcomed him quickly. It can’t hurt to have a smart kid like Rabbit on your side.

Santiago favors us with a look I’ve only seen one other time, his display of disquiet in the SIM after my bloody nose. He catches me watching from across the room and shifts his head, ebony hair hiding his expression from view. Santiago’s look, this entire exchange with Clinton, unsettles me.

“Keep it down Fuller,” I hiss at him.

“Oh relax, Rabbit doesn’t care. Look, I won’t get you in trouble for the mod. But I want you to work on my band,” I look up from the tablet and find he’s staring at me, rather intensely.

  I swallow hard. “I don’t know how it happened. I really don’t.”

            “It doesn’t matter. Meet me here tonight after G.A. You can work on the band,” He moves to rest his healed hand on top of the tablet, obstructing the assignment, limiting all distractions.

“Dammit Fuller,” I grumble, nudging at his fingers. “This isn’t going to work.”

“You’ll change your mind,” His palm rests firmly on the tablet. Tough, inflexible. “This arrangement could be beneficial for you. You’re smart Garza. Be smart.”

“Fine,” I say quietly. My curiosity is piqued. Perhaps, as Scarlett hinted, this would be my ticket to early release. Modding Clinton’s band. Helping him pass Aeronautics.

“Excellent,” He exclaims, releasing the tablet.

And really, no other options are available to me. Clinton is a juggernaut of power around here, and the carrot he dangles is impossible to ignore. Early release from service. Sure, he hasn’t outwardly stated it, but his father sits on a number of boards and appropriations committees. Edmund Fuller could pull strings. With a single wave he could have the government forgive my debt to Prothero. Edmund Fuller could sign my walking papers and I could be heading south in a matter of months. Without having to participate in the destruction of the Contras.

Contras are the main terrorist organization opposing Prothero’s global regime. Their base of operations is in the heart of Mexico City, but resistance cells are scattered all over the world, according to Prothero. The Contras existed before the release and spread of the virus. They rose up from the ashes where the virus originated – Mexico City – and disseminated their anti-Prothero doctrines when the global outbreak occurred. People were desperate for a cure, desperate to pin the blame on another entity, to clear their reputation. Prothero blamed the Contras. The Contras blamed Prothero. The rest of us are casualties.

Regardless of the historical significance, I don’t want to go to war. I want to fly a helo, sure. But I don’t want to die. I’ve already been blown up once and stitched back together. Prothero had no other use for a technology enhanced robot girl than on the front lines to extract revenge on the terrorists who murdered her parents. It made for good press. At one time.

Now I am forgotten. Overlooked. Committing government sanctioned murder is my only option. Or maybe not. Maybe there’s an alternative. Maybe I can escape that fate and escape back to Mexico City.

        My heart leaps into my throat at the thought. My head pounds and it’s enough pain to drowned out Scarlett’s friendly concern. All I have left in my life is hope, and this is more than I’ve had in a long, long time.

Mateo’s recent letter stirred up a strong sense of desperation. He warned me about mounting evidence of Prothero releasing a new strain of NV in the general populace. There were at least ten confirmed cases in Mexico City by his counts. Nothing reported on the waves yet.

          Two months have clicked by since Mateo and I last communicated. Fear of what is happening out there in the real world mounts every day. Bad things are unfolding for someone I care about and I spend the days spinning gears, going about assigned duties and tasks like a robot. Now there’s Clinton, with the promises he can fulfill if I keep up my end of the bargain. An impossible task, but I’ve beaten the odds before.

When I return to the tech lab later in the evening it’s dead silent. Eerie. I half expect Clinton to show up late, or not at all. But he’s here before I am. Sitting at the table I used to solely inhabit, now our shared space. He spins one of the older model bands in lazy circles on the table surface. The one I was deconstructing the first time he approached me about being partners.

“How long is this going to take?” He inquires, not looking up as I approach and sit down across from him.

“I have no idea,” I reply, leaning over and opening a drawer to retrieve the kinetics.

“Well, you have six months until we become soldiers. I suggest you make it sometime before then,” He says, flashing a grin, revealing two rows of large perfectly white teeth. His lazy confidence reminds me of Dr. Dawson. I shudder inwardly.

“Roll up your sleeve and hold your arm out,” I order, neatly lining up the kinetic tools side by side on a metal tray. The whole scene resembles an operating table and a bolt of cold fear shoots down my abdomen.

This image triggers a long held memory. A flashback from the time when Prothero rebuilt me. It’s brief and dismal in comparison to all the time I’ve lost. Sad really. A simple row of surgery tools lined up on a metal sheet, similar to this one. It’s not the first time I’ve regained a snippet. Hopefully won’t be the last. It’s disappointing because the images never really answer any questions. In fact, they open up more.

I set the kinetic tool down gingerly and take a deep breath to restore my calm.

“Hey, Garza, you alright?” Clinton inquires. He’s not being friendly but he’s not being patronizing or mean either. It’s almost as if Clinton is a human being after all. Like he might, marginally, care about things outside of himself.

“Yeah, yeah,” I wave towards him. “Let’s get started.”

I touch down the tip of the kinetic tool to the smooth metal surface of the band, steeling myself for the jolt this could produce, gritting my teeth against the anticipated pain. Clinton tenses his muscles, understanding the potential for a repeat performance of last week.

What happens next surprises us both. A weak glimmer of blue flares up the length of the kinetic tool, through the plastic handle and into my fingertips. The azure color melts into my pores and travels up the length of my arm, to where my band rests. The prickling sensation produced is wrong. I should be in pain. This should hurt. Instead, it’s as if the electricity responds to me. Seeking me out. I drop the tool instinctively and the tiny blue lines flicker away. My band flashes and goes dark, returning to a simple slip of cool, grey metal. It’s unclear where the energy goes…absorbing into the air around us. Back into the band. Into my flesh. The light disappears and we are left to contemplate in silence.

Clinton stares, open mouthed, at his band and then at me.

“What are you?” He asks quietly.

I don’t respond. The scientific, inquisitive part of me demands I pick the tool up and make another attempt to produce the same result. Clinton, in his fascination, leaves his arm in a prone position, and I waste no time taking advantage of his shock. The moment the kinetic tip touches his band, blue fire lurches back into existence, rolling up my forearm. Instead of fear and pain, a heady, swooning pleasure passes over me. My hand tingles, but it’s not a numbing sensation. It’s… power. As if I, or my band, absorbs this energy.

Clinton scoots back from the table.

“What are you doing?” He asks again.

“I wish I knew,” I respond. I really have no idea what’s happening. It’s scary and exhilarating.

“Let me see,” I inquire, moving to grip his arm. To touch his band again. This time, without the tool.

“No,” Clinton says firmly, taking another step back from me.

“Why?” I ask, bewildered by his response.

“Because it hurts. Are you trying to kill me?”

“Don’t be such a baby,” I snap, making a grab for his band.

“I changed my mind,” Clinton says, moving backwards, running into the table behind him.

“But-” I say, floundering.

“I don’t want to mess with my band,” He says, wrapping a shielding hand around it.

“I need to understand,” I insist, slipping into alarming notes of desperation.

“Look, I gotta go Garza. Stay away from me, alright?” He makes a wild grab for his bag and his tablet spills out, clattering to the floor.

He fumbles down to his feet and retrieves it, but not before I glimpse an image on the cover. It’s Scarlett. Why would Clinton Fuller plaster a picture of- Oh. Oh wow. This is all getting complicated. I can’t let him leave like this. I have to do something.

“Clinton. Stop,” I say sternly.

He pauses in his frantic gestures, hiding his tablet from view and swiping at the beads of sweat hanging on his forehead.

“Don’t tell anyone,” My words are not a request. They’re not a command either. “Please.”

He averts his gaze.

“What are you?” He asks again. It’s not a question this time. It’s a confused accusation.

A hot throb of pain burns at my temples, crawling over the ugly scars running the length of my face and neck. The creepy wires glowing candy apple green and cerulean at times on my cheek, forehead and temple, depending on what processes work to keep my vision operational. White blue electricity licking its way up my fingertips like greedy snakes. I must look like a monster to him.

“You’re bleeding,” He says, using the ensuing confusion and dismay to make a clean escape.

I don’t bother reaching up to verify his statement. The taste of hot copper and burning already stings my tongue. I climb up onto the tech lab table and lay down, staring up at the ceiling. I tilt my neck so the blood runs straight down my throat, metallic and warm. The carefully lined up kinetic tools rest on the icy metal next to my head. The memory of the operating table slips back to me, the quiet murmur of Prothero doctors hovering above, moving in and out of searing overhead flourescents. That fearful sensation creeps back into my stomach.

I can’t wrap my head around what transpired here. Maybe this incident was for the best. Impressing Clinton Fuller with my tech expertise was a long shot. He’s white and well-bred. He couldn’t possibly understand what it means to have brown skin interlaced with computer parts. He would never sympathize with my plight. The power he possesses could never belong to me in any form. A futile, choking laugh escapes me and passes into the shadows.



A nagging, heavy weight nestles in my chest the moment I awake this morning. My heart and lungs are thick, as if they filled with poisonous fluid overnight. Like the first symptoms of a flu or infection, the kind I haven’t suffered in years. Dr. Dawson was not wrong when he hyped the immune system benefits of daily nano injections. The thought jogs my clouded memory – my body is not fighting an oncoming illness. It’s the anniversary of the bombing. Three years ago I lost my parents. I lost the world as I knew it. I lost parts of my body and mind I will never get back. The cloying pressure evaporates, replaced by an empty crater in my chest where my real, human heart used to go. Scarlett says Salt is perfect for numbing pain, but the drugs Prothero doles out work so much better. No more illness, no more hurt of any kind.

Even if I can’t craft an appropriate emotional response to this date, people remember. They send me electronic greeting cards and flood my notifications with junk mail and my stipend account with credits I never spend. I will die before I’m in a position to leave Prothero and spend money. The amount of credits accrued in that account is a mere drop in the bucket compared to what I owe Prothero.

In the evening, after classes, I skip dinner and make the  annual pilgrimage to the nondenominational chapel Prothero erected on the base. It is a new building, constructed within the last five years and the walls and floors retain that fresh chemical smell I associate with military installations. An ordained priest leads services here twice a week, Wednesdays and Sundays. A rabbi Thursdays and Saturdays. They both commute in from Portland by train. The Muslims don’t celebrate here or anywhere in public, not since the nano virus hit and the conservatives blamed them. That’s when the nuclear solution reared its ugly head. When the middle east evaporated into the dust and sand swallowing it up for hundreds of years before the bombs went off. You don’t see Muslims anymore. They’re all in hiding or joined up with the Contras.

The Buddhist monk sleeps in the only quarters the chapel provides. He performs all the other services, maintains the building, makes sure to douse the candles in the evenings.

I’ve only passed these doors half a dozen times. There are a few times of the year where I need solace. I find it here. Amongst the smell of fresh paint and treated wood and the streaming false winter sunshine from the floor length windows. The church is mostly glass. The Prothero government has reservations about surveillance cameras in churches, but people in glass chapels can’t hide.  

I’m not a religious person, but I take comfort in rituals. This one alleviates the burden of absent pain about parents I only remember in alien snippets and detached memories. This ritual is removed and divorced from me somehow, like an idea that was planted in my brain rather than an intrinsically motivated decision.

I pull the door open and the quiet assaults my senses first. Anywhere else on Fort Columbia there is always noise. Coughing, snoring, chattering, rustling. The sound of water flowing through pipes and floors, the hum of electricity, doors closing and opening, footsteps in the hallways.

In the Chapel it’s silent. The monk is not present but he must be around, tending to his vegetable garden perhaps. He grows and eats his own food, from what I could see on approaching the building. He’s cultivated a modest grove of fruit trees and a healthy supply of winter kale and squash to keep him nourished. I recognize them from the contents of the Academy crops. We eat a lot of local, seasonal fruits and vegetables to keep the cost and resource usage down. Kale, apples and squash are a regular part of our diets this time of year.

The steps of my booted feet are loud and disruptive to the peace. I survey the room. A wooden confessional with decorative panel doors is built into the left wall. An image of Jesus Christ crucified on the cross hangs on the wall behind a raised stage and podium. To my right is a basin of holy water and behind that, tucked into the wall is a display of white candles, with eight rows and ten candles in each row. A sprinkling of candles are lit and the tiny flames dance, their spark reflected on the glass around them. I side-step the holy water basin and move to the candle wall. My business in here will be brief. I try to avoid seeing the priest or rabbi or monk whenever I make a quick jaunt in. I don’t want to hear from or about God. I just want to light a candle.

I am about to pick up the incense burner when the door behind me wooshes open on its well-oiled hinges. I turn as a familiar, stooped shape enters. I spin away, flipping the hood up over my head. I hear him stride to the basin, the soft plink of his fingers dipping into the liquid, the rustling of his clothing as he makes the sign of the cross, and moves into the pews. He takes a seat on the sparse wooden bench. I let out a watery sigh and pick the incense burner back up again, setting it against the wick of a candle. It sparks.

I rifle in my pocket and pull out a letter from one of the weirdos. The people who remember the anniversary just like I do. They remind me I am loved and cared about by complete strangers who sympathize with my plight. I touch the incense burner to the bottom of the letter and a flame catches, crackles and licks up the paper material. I watch it burn and feel nothing but the gravity of Rabbit Santiago watching me across the distance.

“What are you doing?” He asks while flames consume all those senseless, comforting words, turning them to ashes. Finally the fire touches my fingers and I close my palm around it fast. It burns.

“Stop. Stop!” Santiago calls out, scrambling out of the pew, down the short hallway and over to the basin. He grabs my hand and, with no other option available, dips it into the holy water.

Another sigh escapes me as the cool liquid counteracts the false pain. The scorched skin isn’t real, but my brain tells me it is. The nanos send the warning signals and the heat registers in my phantom limb.

“What are you doing?” He asks again, visibly dismayed at the fouled holy water in the marbled basin.

“It’s a ritual,” I answer, pulling my hand away from him and jamming it in my pocket. There’s another letter in there from another secret admirer who refuses to forget the past.

“Not that you asked my opinion, but it doesn’t seem like a great ritual. I’ve never seen you at Mass. Didn’t realize you were a religious person,” He says, tipping his head towards the sparse, cavernous ceiling.

“I’m not,” I say.

“So you hang out in churches burning letters for fun?” He asks, his ghost smile arising .

“Every year. Like I said, it’s a ritual. It’s an anniversary,” I answer. I’m not sure why I tell him this. Maybe it’s the loneliness in my chest, the emptiness of the chapel, the confessional mood all these religious trappings inspire.

“Oh, right,” He says, understanding crowding onto his face. “The Paris bombing. Your parents-” He has so far avoided eye contact but looks up at me now, into my eyes.

“Yeah. The terrorists killed my parents today. It’s not exactly something you forget,” I retrieve my burnt hand from the pocket, studying it. It’s raw, but the wounded flesh heals itself, the nanos stitching the pale pseudo dermis back together with swiftness and precision that could only be engineered by man and carried out by robots. God bless those nano injections, they are good for something.

“Yeah, not something you forget,” Santiago echoes, the hidden understanding of loss peeking through his words. I fight the urge to look up at him again.

“What are you in for?” I ask, nodding towards the front of the church, changing the subject. “I never pegged you for a religious person either.”

“I’m not great at it. But my mom, she guilts me. Sent me a wave today reminding me about mass and I haven’t gone in a couple weeks and I thought maybe if I came here and said a few hail marys…” He shrugs and fires off a loose smile, letting it hang in the air like the end of his sentence.

“Sorry to interrupt,” I say, sidestepping the basin between us and moving past him. “I’ll let you get back to it.”

“Don’t. You don’t need to go,” He says. “You weren’t interrupting me. Really. I- it’s nice to see you outside of the SIMs. Being normal. Well, relatively speaking. Normal for you.”

A lopsided grin arises, in spite of the anxiety pecking at my insides. The anxiety Santiago produces with his shaggy hair and big nose and calm, stoic demeanor.

“I promise I won’t try to light myself on fire,” I say.

“That’s re-assuring. Are- are you OK? I mean, your hand,” He gestures towards the red, angry flesh rapidly losing its crimson color. The computer is almost repaired.

“Yeah, it’s not like real pain. It’s simulated - the kind of sensory shock a droid might receive if it bumps into a wall or you know, burns itself,” My smile strains and crashes. “Sorry to freak you out - I haven't felt much since the bombing. And I- it's nice to feel again. Anything,” My face flushes.

“I understand. Someone must care a lot about you to use up a valuable resource. Paper letters. I mean… that’s expensive. What- what was in the letter?” The words tumble from Santiago and he looks instantly guilty. Like he wishes he could take them back. “You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to.”

“No, it’s fine. People send me letters, credits, waves, all sorts of sentimental reminders on the bombing anniversary. Strangers. People who believe they understand my plight or take pity on me. I don’t want their pity or their gifts. So, I burn them. I like to burn them,” I answer stiffly.

“Does it help?” He asks. “Does it help you forget?”

“A little.”

“Does it help you feel?”

“A little. I told you, I don’t feel pain. Not the way you do,” I pull the damaged hand from my pocket and hold it up for him to inspect. Nanos healed all the wounds. “Prothero took care of that for me.”

His mouth twists and he reaches towards me with his long fingers, then draws them away as if he would be burnt himself.

“Must be nice,” He says. “Not to feel anything.”

For the first time, I notice a wooden, beaded rosary bracelet cinched around his wrist. A tiny red cross dangles down between two white beads. It sends a bolt of recognition shooting through me, but I can’t place it. Maybe because whenever we’re in close proximity he’s clothed in a uniform or maybe because I simply don’t pay enough attention to Santiago. Which, if I’m being honest, is not exactly accurate. I do pay attention to Santiago. And whatever the case maybe, I notice the rosary today. It looks familiar – I must have seen it before and forgotten.

“What- what is that?” I gesture towards the bracelet.

“It’s nothing,” He mutters quickly, tucking it down into his sleeve. “Just a symbol. Just a reminder.”

“OL… well… I’m sure it has its uses,” My right hand flexes and seizes on the other letter in my pocket. I look over at Santiago who is… well, he looks so guilty right now.

       “Hey, you want to burn one? One of the letters?” I ask, curious. Santiago’s usually impossible to decipher when I’m near him and seeing him express any emotion, however fleeting, is kind of mesmerizing. He doesn’t betray his inner workings in the SIM or outside of it. Until today, we’ve never spoken in a non-simulated-combat scenario.

He gives a reserved nod. I pull the second letter out of my pocket, offering it to him. He accepts it with a rolling of his shoulders, as if a heavy weight pushed down onto him. I turn and grab a lit candle, touching it to the bottom of the page. It burns fast but he keeps his eyes locked on mine. It’s only now, at this moment, that I realize how similar he looks to Mateo.

At least, the adult version of Mateo I’ve built in my mind. We’ve worked side by side in a SIM unit for six months and I’ve never bothered to really look at him before. Well, maybe I have. But I haven’t given those thoughts much sway until now. Seeing him here, in this context, without the Prothero tech trappings or the rigorous demands of the Academy. Just the two of us, alone. Vulnerable.

The flames hit his skin and he curses under his breath in Spanish, dropping the letter. The paper ash drifts to the floor. I turn around and reset the candle into the display.

“Did you feel anything?” I ask, my back to him.

“Yeah, I felt something ,” He whispers. The emphasis on the final word, the emotion he imbues into those syllables makes the hairs on the nape of my neck tingle. I will myself not to turn around.

Again, the plink of his fingers dipping into the water. He performs the sign of the cross, moving to the entryway and down the row of pews. He stops to kneel and say a prayer in front of the crucifix. I watch him, compelled by his sincerity in these actions. Compelled by the emotions he stirs within me.

Why did he come here tonight?

The Buddhist monk enters from a side door and nods kindly at me. I don’t return the favor. Rabbit stirs and looks over at him, blinking. He wipes a palm across his face and rises from the ground. I take this opportunity to slip out the doors.

Scarlett waits on the steps leading up to the chapel exterior. Her presence so shortly after my intimate run-in with Santiago disorients me. I stop in my tracks.

“What are you doing here?” I ask, surprised.

“I know what day it is. I might be blonde but I’m not completely ignorant. I know you come here. I know you well enough Eleni,” She says, her voice bordering on cross. “Also, we exchanged GPS coordinates. I always know where you are.”

“Oh, right.”

“Let’s get out of here,” Scar says, looping her arm through my elbow and dragging me down the church steps. I notice she wears a short black skirt and periwinkle high heels with ballerina straps that loop around her exposed calves and tie behind her knees. A coral, hemp knitted cap dangles jauntily off the back of her head. “This places creeps me out.”

“You don’t like church?” I ask.

“Not particularly. Religion never made life wonderful for me. This, however, is going to take us somewhere wonderful. Like neverland,” She drops a round, white pill in my palm.

“What is this Scar?” I ask, closing my fingers stiffly around it. The newly repaired synethic skin wraps tight around my robotic arm, covering it with a sparkling nano sheen. It will take time for the flesh to loosen and return to its normal state.

“An anniversary present. Don’t ask questions,” She insists. “And don’t take it yet.”

She pulls me across the base, past the dormant tanks and helos and the silent airfield, to the gates on the north-western end of Fort Columbia which open towards Hood River and away from the Dalles. She navigates the rocky terrain on four inch heels with a terrifying swiftness. I stumble along behind her in combat boots like a toddler wearing new shoes.

“What’s in the bag?” I inquire, after we pass security with the lubricant of a Salt exchange.

“Told you not to ask questions,” She says.

“I don’t like surprises,” I insist.

She sighs explosively. “Fine, there are clothes in my bag. For you.”

“Are we running away?” I ask, a scoop of fear and excitement dipping in my belly.

“For the night,” She grins mischieviously.

We walk in the wintry darkness, only the bands illuminating our path. Owls hoot and bat wings clatter, whipping through the night above our heads. Scar moves so fast and with such confidence, we are not exposed without a weapon. This is her territory, a well-worn tract of land she could walk blind-folded, if the situation required it.

“I figured it out already,” I hiss over her shoulder as we barrel across low brush, the river to our right, the rolling muddy green hills of the Columbia Gorge to our left. “Where you are taking me. I don’t want to go.”  

“You don’t have a choice. You need this,” Scar doesn’t slow her pace as she responds.

“Do I need this. Or do you?” I say, my tone accusing.

“Same thing,” She mutters back to me. “No more arguing please. You’ll attract the wild animals.”


We skitter through the night in silence until we round a bend and the train depot opens before us, a dimly lit automated station with comforting bulbs flickering in the solace of a dreary winter evening.

We arrive at the platform just as a high speed bullet train whooshes to a stop, the brakes hissing and the electric currents shifting between the rails and train, humming a pleasant tune. Relaxation takes hold of my senses and I haven’t even imbibed Scar’s mystery pill.

She waves to a baggage attendant, an acne scarred white man with short shaved red hair and a splash of freckles contrasting against the gleaming whiteness of his teeth. He wears a stiff grey uniform with green piping signifying the color of the railway we board. The green line runs between Fort Columbia and Portland, our intended destination – Scarlett’s Salt distribution territory. She is drug-running and dragging me along with her. I try to work up anger or irritation at this intrusion on my silent bombing-anniversary meditation, but nothing comes. Nothing comes from nothing. And a metal heart feels nothing.

The attendant finds us empty seats in the dining car and Scar’s cunning flirtations materialize two gin and tonics. She drinks and giggles and chatters with other passengers while I stare at the passing landscape. Slices of jumbled and translucent memories of my parents drift back to me, brief snippets I can’t hold in my mind’s vision. Whispered words in their voices, the low or high chuckle of their laughs, the cloying sterile smell of hospital, the angry crinkle of their foreheads, the curved disappointment of their lips. The roughness of their frightened bodies in their final moments.

My gaze shifts to the barely drained cocktail glass on the crisp white linen and the lime wedge dangling on the side of my drink regards me with an accusatory air. It reminds me of another time, a whole other set of memories I desperately want to avoid. I pick the lime up, squeezing the fruit juice into the alcohol. I set the white pill on my tongue and drain the glass in two greedy sips.

The laughing around me dampens to a dull roar of sound. The lamps sparkle and create starbursts inside the train compartment. I close my eyes against the glare and don’t open them until Scar claps her hands in front of my face and we’ve magically transported to Hobo’s, the last remaining gay bar in the city of Portland.

I’m wearing a short silver sequined dress, my combat boots and a black hooded jacket with an a-line cut so the flaps dangle to my knees. I don’t remember dressing and I don’t remember how I ended up here, glittering on the sidewalk in the chilly late-winter drizzle.

Opening the door and walking into the establishment is like scaling a mountain, my knees and feet take forever to reach the pavement and the concrete underneath swirls and bucks like a wild horse. Inside the brick and steel and wooden interior the smiling Kings greet us. Donald and Sammy take my fake hand in theirs, squeezing and ruffling my hair, trailing their fingers down my exposed circuitry. Touching all the forbidden parts of my body with the comfort and ease of two men who can tell all your secret hurts and fears just by looking at you. Who want to embrace the uglier parts of you because if they don’t, who else will.

A fire roars off to our left in a cylindrical steel bucket and a man wearing a headset lounges at the bar-top, tapping his finger against a tablet, music pouring out of nanobots strategically embedded in the walls. Curtains of mood generated LEDs billow from the ceiling, the LED wires pulsing and shifting different patterns as the music and the energy of the room vibrates. Wire tendrils of colored electricity snake down through the gaps in the railing of the second floor balcony, rustling the hair of the dancers.

Scarlett grabs a bucket of nano sludge from the bar, Sammy holding it out to her with a delirious smile. She dumps half the contents on her head and half on mine. The sludge, a thin viscuous liquid, pours down our hair, head and torsos, blazing phospherescent pink, green, yellow, blue as it travels over the fabric of our clothes. Scarlett reaches over the counter for a jar of winged nanites. They flutter inside it, trapped and banging against the glass, glittering with frenetic light. She unhinges the lid and mechanical fireflies swarm the room, drifting and settling on dancers and flitting up into the air again. Donald hoots and claps to the rhythm of the music. Scarlett twirls in a circle, ropes of her hair slipping loose from the cap.

The sludge is pleasant, like the comforting heat of a blanket or a loved one. Soft, like downy fleece. I brush over its silky surface, watching it change colors and patterns, green stars, purple hearts, blue honeycombs. I watch myself in the mirror above the bar, surprised to find my mouth painted thick with black lipstick, my eyes drawn with glittering black liner and mascara. My lids rolled over with an obscene pink color making my caramel, moody eyes pop. I pull a smudge of black off my lips with a finger, painting dark swatches on my cheekbones.

Scarlett vanishes into the crowd, reappearing and disappearing again like one of the nanite flies. As I watch for her to show herself again, a tiny bug lands on my open palm, twitching its metal wings. I hold it up to my gleaming lips and part them, setting the miniscule metal robot against my tongue. I swallow and it buzzes and rumbles all the way down my throat, tickling my insides. It tastes like licking metal.

Scarlett turns and catches my reflection, grinning like a fox, teeth and eyes flashing. I lift a glass of pink fizzy liquid in the air, dropping its contents down my throat. She waves and melts back into the frantic scenery. Absorbing into the night, spinning out with flashing colors and loud, grinding rhythms and pulsing flesh. I float away from the bar counter and fall into it like a dream.


My dreams are terrifying. Not the mildly unsettling kind of nightmare only lingering with you for a few hours afterwards. These are the sweating, shaking, waking up in a panic, bolting straight up out of the covers kind. The sort of horror that makes drifting back to sleep impossible, because your brain won’t stop replaying the final seconds over again in great, terrible detail.

In these dreams, I keep dying. By electrocution, by an explosion. I’m walking for what seems like miles down a sterile, white hallway similar to those in the Prothero lab… but it stretches on endlessly with hundreds of doors. Some open as I pass, revealing the horrors lurking inside. My disfigured parents in hospital scrubs hovering over my bloodied and disheveled body on an operating table. Burnt and mutilated children, with the smell of fried flesh wafting towards me. Moaning, helpless victims of the nano virus, black veins tangled like roots in their skin. Their bodies bruised and bleeding. The sounds of chaos and suffering bounces off the walls and echoes down the corridor. Whispering, fuzzing voices… a high pitched whining sound and the crunch of static. The scent of copper, the taste of metal on my tongue, the tempo of the buzzing increases, until I have no other choice but to run. The end of the hallway holds the key to my salvation, if I can only reach it before the noises drowned me completely.

Overhead the flourescents crackle and snap, the bulbs exploding as I pass, raining down glass and little sparks of electricity, landing on me like flakes of snow. They absorb into my skin, leaving a  glowing blue residue in their wake. I run to avoid the mini explosions above, but escape is futile. My presence triggers them.

Up ahead, the door recedes no matter how fast I run, until there’s no other choice but to give up. I slump against a sterile white wall, closing my eyes in defeat. When I open them again, the door is right in front of me. I swipe my band across the security key to enter and the heavy metal door slides cleanly open, silencing all the sinister noise in my ears. The illumination spilling into the hallway blinds me, and I take the first step inside, shielding my face.

The room is huge, cavernous, a storage warehouse devoid of any items. My shuffling steps echo against the walls as I move further into the beam. A large platform rises in front of me, and on it rotates a massive metal ball riddled with microchips and wires. It is suspended in mid air of its own accord, there are no cables attached either above or below. I stumble towards it, drawn by its overwhelming size and the subtle shivering of the metal. It emits a pleasant calming hum, transfixing and compelling me forward.

I approach with caution, and though the room is too large for this to be a reality, I’ve only taken two or three steps before I’m at the base of the platform. I mount the stairs, and notice that the entire platform is comprised of a similar material to the metal ball. It thrums and shudders beneath me, like a microscopic, violent earthquake. As I step down, the wires and coils trapped underneath and within the metal flare a vivid green and fade away. The platform senses and tracks my progress.

I’m close now, I’ve nearly touched the surface of the ball when the humming turns to a scraping, grinding noise. The white hot light of the room shifts to a familiar silver blue, reminiscent of the electric flames from the metal band. The front portion of the orb rolls open like a window shutter to reveal a giant floating mechanical eye. In the center, the pupil, an orange pulse clicks on. Before I can scamper backwards, or run, or contemplate doing either of those things, the beam hammers into my stomach, knocking me off the platform. The room erupts in an electric pulse and the once pleasant humming of the metal ball becomes maddening. Pounding into my skull. Whispering nefariously at my ears.

That’s when I glimpse a robotic, prosthetic arm similar to mine reaching out from the center of the orb, the iris of the eye. But it’s not the same as mine. The flesh of the limb appears diseased and mottled. It is criss-crossed with data chips and tiny veins of wires. Cybernetics. A fully realized merger of man and machine. But no, not man. This is the arm of a woman – it’s my arm. The one Prothero gave me. The palm open and grasping. Gesturing towards me. I am on my feet, and somehow, without mounting the steps, standing back on the platform in front of the orb eye. I touch the chilled, synthetic skin. Its fingers lock around mine and pull me forward. I fall into the ball of energy and disintegrate instantly.

I wake up drenched in sweat, panting and shivering. This is the full extent of my dream, the same I’ve had every night since attempting to mod the band with Clinton.

I don’t see Clinton other than in passing until tech lab the following Tuesday. We’re back to being silent partners. I stay quiet and docile for another two weeks, the dark lines underneath my eyes growing from a lack of sleep and mounting anxiety. The silence and suspicious glances from Clinton become almost deafening, tension building between us. Clinton is scared of me.

The tail end of January approaches at a rapid pace and though my expertise earns him high marks in lab, he will be on his own when it comes to mid-year exams. Exams carry the bulk of the grade. I can’t escort him into this particular gauntlet. Study sessions are out of the question. He refuses to be alone with me.

Two days before the test, during a solitary moment in the SIM, Santiago turns off his mic, radiating waves of disquiet. I mute my own headset and turn towards him, but he won’t look up from his drone monitor.

“I have a message to deliver to you,” He says in a hollow voice. “From Clinton.”


He interrupts me with staccato delivery. “He wants you- he wants to meet with you.”

“He knows where to find me.”

        “No. He said tonight, at Lyle Lake,” He flicks a thin finger at the readouts on his monitor absently, zooming in and out on the warzone it displays. Explosions and gunfire and brimstone. He won’t look at me.

“Oh. Right. Why?” I ask.

“You don’t know? I thought you might know. He wouldn’t say. What-” His adam’s apple bobs and the words clog in his throat. He swallows them back, “happened between you and Clinton?”

“Why do you care?” I ask, intrigued by his discomfort, his reluctance to do what I assume is some normal, bizarre duty in his relationship with Fuller.

“It matters to me. Is all. Because we’re squadmates,” He says, voice stilted and sincere. He believes that. Rabbit is nothing if not sincere.

“Sure. OK. Because we’re squadmates,” I nod at him placatingly.

“We are. We watch out for each other. Don’t we?” He asks.  

I shrug, looking at my own monitor, looking out over the simulated wasteland in front of us. We’re piloting our drones from a secure location on top of a building, supplying a steady stream of information to all the squads engaging enemy combatants below. This particular exercise is so routine, Santiago and I could do this in our sleep.

“Nothing. Nothing happened between us,” I say with too much force. His direct questions cut right through my subterfuges.

A burst of gunfire brightens our screen. I take aim at an enemy tank and release a missile in its direction. It explodes, virtual dust billowing into the air.

“Clinton's used to getting what he wants. He wants- he said he needs you. For something,” The concerned lines on Santiago’s face deepen at the end of his sentence.

“Well, I need him too. I’ll meet up with him, if that’s what he wants,” I say, Santiago scowling further. “Tonight. After dinner. 7pm.”

“You need him,” He repeats. “Why him?”

“Why not him?” I reason. “Clinton Fuller has political connections. This may come as a surprise to someone like you, but I want out of here. I want out of National Service. I want a better future. Clinton can get that for me. What do you want?”

“What do you mean, someone like me?” He asks, patching the coordinates of two surface snipers to the ground units.

“A volunteer,” I say, my face carefully blank.

“Oh,” He takes in this information. “You think I volunteered for National Service?”

I shrug, diverting my drone from the jarring snarl of the city center and drift over to scan a lifeless field for any signs of transmitting tech. I direct the drone to launch a probe into the bowels of the earth, distracting myself from the tension mounting between us.

“Sure. You want to kill terrorists, don’t you?” I ask, looking up from the projected chest display.

“No. That’s not- I want-” He says, the hard look falling from his face. His eyes flicker up to meet mine, softening. Then over to my temple, the wires pulsing in shades of green and blue.

His tone shifts, “Nothing. That’s none of your business. I’m delivering a message. I’m just, delivering Clinton’s message.”

 I make another sweep of the field and unleash a barrage of machine gun fire. It rips through the crop of corn growing there, mowing down the stalks into a mess of yellow and green plant parts.

Santiago frowns at my read-out, absorbing the actions of my drone with his annoyingly keen powers of observation. He notices everything. Nothing passes by him unseen, nothing occurs that he doesn’t entertain a quiet thought about. I usually respect our silence, but it’s broken and the nagging questions won’t be held back. Curiosity wins.

“Why are  you delivering his messages? I mean, why do you hang out with that guy? You can run intellectual and aeronautical circles around Fuller. Why do you let him hold you back?”

“It- it’s complicated. It’s none of your business. You- you don’t know anything about me. It’s better if you don’t know anything about me. If you stay out of this, Garza,” His control slips, voice crackling like electricity around my last name. "It's better if you stay away from the Fullers. You don’t know them like I do."

“You don’t know anything about me either,” I counter. “And Fuller sought me out. You said it yourself, Clinton gets what he wants. It’s easier to cooperate. Unless you have a better option?”

Santiago’s face shutters, eyes fixed on his distant mental point.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  

“Depends on what he wants.”

“What does he want from me?” I prod. “He must have said something. It would help me prepare if you could give me some kind of hint. Do I need to bring anything? Dress in uniform? Are we going somewhere?”

“He didn’t tell me,” He spits through clenched teeth. “Just said he didn’t want to be alone with you again.”

“OK. Fine. Why do you seem so pissed off?” I ask, growing tired of his evasive attitude.

“I’m not- I’m not mad at you,” He bites off the end of the syllables. “Not you.”

“Right. Cause, really, why would you be mad at me?” I inquire, keeping my inflection neutral. “Clinton pulls the strings here, Santiago, and we’re just his dancing puppets.”

He rises to his feet, pacing across the rooftop, kicking debris and litter out of his path. I watch him settle into a new vantage point. The absence of his lanky frame at my side immediately fills my stomach with a cold throb of remorse. I’m surprised at how lonely the SIM feels without Santiago close by. I’m surprised to have any feeling at all about him.

“You and Clint,” He calls over the distance, facing away from me. “You don’t fight for what you want. You don’t really earn it. You’re entitled to money and education. You don’t see outside yourselves. You don’t recognize your own privilege.”

“What- what are you talking about!?” I shout back to him.

“Nothing,” Santiago responds, hunkering further down around the projections emanating from his chest console. “Forget about it.”

I can’t forget it. I don’t want to. The frustration mounting behind my composure shifts, a crumbling dam breaking open inside me. I pull out an EMP pistol and aim at Santiago’s display, blowing the drone control on his upper torso apart with the impact. It knocks out all his electronic equipment, putting him in the dark.

“I am nothing  like Fuller. I’m better and smarter than both of you. You’re- both of you are worthless,” I sneer, heading for the stairwell and the exit, anticipating the tongue lashing from Corazon.

Her insults and threats will never outweigh the satisfaction of… nothing. I am not satisfied. Arguing with Santiago doesn’t feel good. I don’t want to argue with him and I’m not mad at him. He’s not mad at me either. Why are we arguing at all?

“I’m not worthless!” Santiago yells. I turn around. He stares straight ahead, slumped over his damaged controls, looking out over the warzone.

I wonder if his facial expression mirrors the sad turn of his shoulders and bow of his head.

“I’m not worthless,” He mutters, loud enough for me to hear.

The only noise is the booming crunch of his jet crashing into a building and the surprised shouts of our squad over my headset. I pluck off my helmet and toss it down the stairwell in front of me. It clangs loudly in the din, the surprised shouts of our squadmates bouncing eerily off the surrounding concrete walls.

Outside of the SIM, I wave Scarlett. She promises to ditch a crimonology class and meet up at her Salt patch for what she calls “a much needed distraction.” She doesn’t really need to check the beds – they are dormant for the winter. Whatever plants she’s growing now are indoors at the hydroponics lab and under super secretive lock and key. I try to avoid any knowledge of the drug manufacturing and distribution done by my best friends. The Rosas, despite their proclivity towards medicine, are also stunningly good chemical engineers. They’ve dabbled in bio-chemistry courses, aiding Scarlett in her grow operation.

Scar invented this Salt check strictly for the purpose of getting me outside the base and into a different frame of mind. We arrive at the patch and I notice a meager bed of winter flowers growing at the tented area where she keeps her supplies.

“That’s new,” I say, pointing towards the greenery.

“Oh yeah,” She chuckles, embarrassed. “I special ordered the seeds from some place across the country. Planted them myself. Can’t believe how good they turned out.”

“Very pretty,” I murmur.

“You know why I like to grow things?” She asks, kneeling down next to the plant and stroking the green leaves wistfully.

“I like to grow things because it’s important to stay connected to the living world. We get dead out here. We get dead in here,” She points to her chest. “And these plants remind me that we’re alive, because they are. This place will make you hard, Len. But you need to remember you’re still alive. No matter what happens.”

I reach down and close the fingers of my prosthetic hand around the flowers, delicately, so I don’t crush the petals. I rip the green and pink plant from the loamy, rich soil Scarlett carefully cultivated and tuck it behind my bad ear.

Scarlett gives me a little smile.

“That’s winter camellia. It’s a hardy plant – specifically bred to bloom in the coldest part of winter. Some scientists got together and worked hard to make that plant what it is,” She says, wistfully.

“And what is it?” I ask.

“Resilient,” She answers with another smile.

She pulls a Salt cigarette out from behind her ear, where it was obscured by a tangled clump of blonde hair.

“You need this, Len,” She offers. I don’t disagree.

“Clinton wants to meet me tonight. Alone. What should I do?” I ask, taking a long, lagging pull from the end. Trapping the smoke in my burning lungs. The fake one… can the smoke even damage an artificial lung? Probably not. No cancer for me. If I avoid the wrong end of a plasma rifle or another bomb, I could probably live forever.

“Take me with you,” She says flatly.

“I’m serious Scar.”

“So am I. Those guys – I don’t like it. What does Clinton want from you that he couldn’t get inside the Academy residency? That’s what I am most curious about,” She shakes her head in thought. I pass her the drug.

“Wish I knew.”

“What… happened between you two?” Scar asks pointedly. The curious, semi-disapproving tone echoes Santiago’s earlier question.

“Nothing. I don’t know. We aren’t making much tutoring progress. I’m supposed to get him to pass Aeronautics, but he avoids me like I’ve got end-stage NV. It’s-”

“It’s bullshit. What does he expect you to do? Work some kind of magic?”

“Yeah. Heh. Magic,” I shrug further into my jacket.

Magic, like producing electricity from my fingertips.

“Anyway, I don’t want you to go alone.”

“Thanks Scar.”

“Duh. Of course. You’re one of my favorite people Lenbot.”

We spend the rest of our on-duty hours together, ditching our last two classes of the day in favor of smoking two huge pipes of Salt. All the anxiety leeches from my system, replaced by a warm, heady confidence. Scarlett spends the downtime twisting winter camellias into our hair. I had the foresight to set an alarm so we show up early.

The winter wind picks up, blowing sharp and bitter. I watch in fascination as the breeze untwists a camellia from Scar’s hair and flicks it out over the waving waters of Lyle Lake. On the horizon, two human shapes approach. My stomach gives a queasy roll but the lingering Salt quenches the nausea before the anxiety can spread and take over.

“Why’d you bring her?” Clinton demands when he and Santiago reach the edge of Lyle Lake.

        “ Her  has a name. Its Scarlett,” She says, the toss of her blonde curls sending more camellias flying.

        “Yeah, I know who you are. This doesn’t concern you,” He replies.

        “If it involves Len, it concerns me. And we only evened out the odds here. It’s not fair if you get to bring your toadie with you. Excuse me, if you get to bring your Rabbit,” Scarlett indicates Santiago with the cock of a brow.

        “Whatever. This is between Garza and me. Right Garza?” Clinton asks.

        My eyes slide over to where Santiago stands, a little aside from the group, his head hanging and his shoulders slumped forward. He won’t acknowledge me.

        “Right. So let’s talk,” I look back at Scarlett and tip my head towards Santiago. She saunters over to join him.

        “What do you want?” I ask Clinton.

        “I need to pass Aeronautics,” He says.

        “Yeah, and you’re halfway there in Tech Lab. But if you won’t meet up to study with me, how am I supposed to tutor you?”

        “You weren’t supposed to tutor me. Just give me the answers.”
p.        “Uhm, I don’t have the answers.”
p.        “No, not right now. On the test. During the test. You can hack my tablet. I saw what you did with your band. I saw what you did. I know what you can do,” He leans in towards me, menacing.

        “Keep it down,” I hiss, eyeing our friends.

        “Yeah. So if you don’t help me, I’m gonna tell Prothero. About your band. About what you do,” He says.

        “You’re doing it wrong,” I reply.

        “What do you mean?”

        “If you want to convince me to help you – offer me something, something I want. I don’t do blackmail. I don’t negotiate with terrorists,” I say, voice rising.

        “I’m not a terrorist!” Clinton yells.

        Several feet away, Scarlett snorts and covers her mouth to stifle laughter. Santiago jams his hands in the pocket of his pants and kicks at a patch of dirt at his feet.

        “I want out. I want out of National Service. I want your father, Edmund Fuller, to forgive the debt I owe to Prothero. Tell me you can do that, and I will hack your tablet during the test. I will help you pass Aeronautics.”

        “I don’t know if my Dad can do that,” Clinton muses. “How much money do you owe Prothero anyway?”

        “A lot,” I answer. “A couple million.”

        “That’s insane. We don’t have that kind of money laying around,” Clinton throws his hands up in frustration.

        “You expect me to believe that?” I ask, crossing my arms. “Fine, then the deal’s off.”

        “No way, I can turn you in. No one will ever associate with you again. You’ll be put in the brig,” Clinton argues.

        “Big deal. I’ve spent plenty of time in the brig. And no one likes me anyway,” I remind him.

        “Fine. I’ll see what I can do. AFTER I pass the test,” he confirms.

        “I want written confirmation post-exam. Or I’ll tell the Academy administration how I helped you cheat. I’ll show them how. I’ll prove it. And we’ll both burn for it,” I keep my tone level and serious, but inside I am trembling. I don’t want to burn for this.

            The rewards though, if I get what I want. I can taste freedom. It tastes like limes.

        “Fine. Geez, what’s wrong with you?” Clinton asks, voice pitching towards a whine.

        “I’m entitled. We both are. Right, Santiago?” I call over to him. Santiago stirs, only to turn his back.

        Clinton looks between us, igniting a dull idea, some spark of recognition that humans outside of himself might hold their own feelings and desires. His gaze settles on Scarlett.

        “Why did you bring her?” He asks again.

        “Because she insisted. And I needed to be sure I was safe here. I am safe. You wouldn’t hurt me in front of her. Would you?”

        His fists clench and unclench in irritation.

        “That’s what I thought,” I turn around. “Remember what I said Fuller. Written confirmation. Or I’ll wave your father personally. His address is on the net.”

“Fine. It’s a deal. Rabbit, let’s go,” Clinton orders.

Santiago nods tersely. The wind gusts again and tugs a camellia from my locks, sending it whirling into the night. Santiago jumps lazily and snatches it out of the air. He holds it in the center of his palm, studying it for a brief moment. He doesn’t look up at me but I watch curiously as he pockets the flower and follows on Clinton’s heels.

        Scarlett jogs over to where I stand in the crab grass, contemplating Santiago’s actions.

“You don’t look happy. Did you get what you wanted?” She asks, looping our elbows, pulling me out of my musing.

        “Not yet, but I’m close.”

        When we return to the Academy and prepare to bunk down for the night, I make a quick pit stop in The Commons. I bring the tin to spend a precious fifteen minutes pouring over Mateo’s last letter again.

        I walk towards the common bathrooms, otherwise known as The Commons, attached to the cafeteria by a covered glass walkway adjacent to the barracks. The barracks are large ugly squat gray buildings resembling a cross between college dorms and shared hospital quarters. Academy residents are segregated by perceived gender into these sleeping quarters, but the commons is neutral territory and rife with sexual tension as young men and women shower in low slung stalls mere feet from each-other. It’s one of a small number of places to grab a minute of “privacy” in the labyrinthine series of inter-connected buildings.

I pick the third stall on the right, lock the door and settle down on the floor. I don’t notice anyone has entered until Rabbit Santiago clears his throat on the other side of the stall door. I know it’s him because… I recognize the sounds he makes. His covered feet treading on cement. The ragged sound of his breathing in close quarters.

        “Don’t do it,” He says.

        I rise from the floor and throw the door open dramatically. It bashes against his face.

        “Dammit!” He shouts, grabbing his nose.

        “Oh crap!”

I reach guiltily back into the stall for a towel, holding it out to him. I notice he wears sweat pants, sneakers and a sleeveless shirt. The cloying, sour scent of sweat permeates The Commons. He must have come from playing basketball or running. I’ve sketched him before, doing both. He isn’t aware of that. No one is. It’s not a big deal – Santiago has graceful lines. I need a muse. Not a big deal.

        “It’s fine, I’m not bleeding,” He waves away the towel and I throw it in the hamper, turning back to him.

        “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize you were standing right there,” I say, lamely. “Are you sure you’re OK? I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

Santiago’s hand falls away from his nose, unsettled by my statement.

        “You didn’t, not really,” He reassures.  

        “You here to talk me out of helping Fuller?” I ask.

        “I don’t need to, if you tell me you’re not going through with it,” Santiago says, his voice colored with notes of hope.

        “I can’t do that,” I answer. His face falls.

        “You’re gonna throw your future away for Clinton Fuller? You understand the consequences if you get caught. Why do you want to risk that? You have a shot at- you’re doing good here at the Academy. You could go anywhere after this.”

        “Clinton is offering the only chance I have of escaping National Service. I’m not going to die again – not for Prothero.”

“The Academy is giving you a chance to change your life. To do something useful. Maybe it’s not what you wanted or imagined, but this is an opportunity to make the world a better place. Aren’t you at least grateful for that?” His expression implies I should be.

It’s not his own personal sentiments or beliefs I’m hearing. He regurgitates the messaging the Academy drives into our brains on a daily basis, like a sad National Service brochure. I don’t believe he believes their rhetoric.

“I would trade everything Prothero gave me for another day with my parents,” I say, surprised by the truth of the statement, by the emotional weight behind it. “They saved people’s lives. They were saving the world. Prothero only patched me up so I could go out and destroy it. I’m not going to help anyone. We’re not going to help anyone, Santiago. Not like this,” I make a futile, shrugging gesture with my fake arm.

I don’t talk about my parents much. Scar never asks, she senses I don’t really want to talk. No one ever asks about them or mentions them anymore, except the anniversary weirdos. It’s like my parents vanished from the earth in the explosion and from the history of it as well. It’s as if they never really existed in the first place.

I don’t talk about them much, but I’m talking about them with Rabbit Santiago. A surprised tear winds its way down my cheek. I brush at it, distracted by its presence, by his presence here. He’s always catching me off guard. Catching me up during some of my worst moments.

“Eleni,” He says and stops. It’s the first time he’s uttered my first name and it surprises us both. He lapses into a prolonged silence I feel strangely compelled to sit in.

“Rabbit?” I finally prod, reaching out to touch his arm. Offering him this friendly gesture terrifies me, panic flipping in my belly.

        “Eleni,” He steps closer to me and I’m uncomfortably aware of our proximity. The heat radiating from his body. The rough stubble on his jaw.

The intimacy of the empty commons.

 He presses towards me and for a split second I steel myself for the delicious horror of his lips on mine. Instead, he bends over and picks up Mateo’s letter from the ground. When I heard Rabbits voice I’d let it fall straight to the floor.

“You dropped this,” He says. His eyes graze across the page filled with numbered sequences he couldn’t possibly decipher quick enough to make sense of. The flourescent bulbs overhead spark. A familiar stinging, tickling sensation licks around my left forearm. I swallow the metal heart in my mouth and grab the crumpled, well-worn pages from him. I jam them in the pocket of my hoodie and can’t look up. There’s a crack in the cement beneath our feet. I study it.

“You’re gonna throw your life away,” He repeats coldly. Whatever opinions he formed of my secret letter in those brief seconds of holding the page, changed his mind about me. About pressing closer.

I take a deep breath. It’s like breathing underwater. Gasping for air.

        “Why do you care what happens to me? And don’t tell me it’s because we’re squadmates-”

        He interrupts me, “It’s none of your-”

        I interrupt him, “It is  my business. This is my life Santiago. Unless you can help me get out of National Service, the way Fuller can, then stop lecturing me about my choices. None of my choices are easy.”

        His gaze drops to the pocket containing the letter. Mateo’s letter. His nostrils flare.

        “You’re right. It’s your life. You didn’t ask for my opinion. Do what you want,” He stalks out through the stall door, letting it close gently behind him.

        “For the record, you never offered me help,” I call out to the woosh of the closing Commons door. “You just told me what to do. There’s a difference.”

        He’s gone anyway, so he doesn’t hear me. It’s the truth though.

On the floor of the stall the winter camellia Rabbit rescued from the air earlier lies on the ground. He must have dropped it when he bent over. I reach down, pluck it up and shove it into the pocket with Mateo’s letter.


Another day passes and I don’t see either Rabbit or Clinton – it’s free study before the exams and most residents are either cloistered in their barracks or littering the hallways with tablets pressed to their noses, absorbing last minute knowledge. Scar takes a break from her review and we wander away from the Academy to a grove of scraggly trees we use for field exercises when the SIM is down for repair. We climb the branches and nestle into our comfortable, well-worn perches.

“What should I do?” I ask, plucking a twig from a tree limb. “Hack Clinton’s tablet? Cheat on the exam?”

“Do what you need to do to get what you want. I’ve always believed that. You’re too smart and capable to end up a worthless grunt in Prothero’s army. If giving Clinton Fuller the answers to a test is the way to prove that, you know where I stand,” Scarlett picks at the green polish on her nails and dribbles the remnants off her fingers to the ground below.

“If Clinton fails, if this gets messed up somehow… we could both be in a lot of trouble. Maybe worse than the brig,” I state, stripping the bark from the twig in chunks.

“Clinton is not your responsibility if this thing goes south. Rabbit can pick up the pieces like a good lap dog. Or bunny. Or whatever,” She shakes her head.

“I don’t care about either one of them. I think it’s… I’m watching my last shred of hope hanging in the balance. I could escape from here, Scar. I’m this close,” I pinch two fingers together to emphasize the point.

“What the hell are you gonna do out there in the great wide open anyways? As far as I’m concerned… this is the place to be. It’s safe here.”

“For now.”

“Damn right for now. In case you haven’t been paying attention Leni, the here and now is all we’ve got. We could be dead in six months. We could get blown to little bits the first step we take off a helocraft,” She finishes excavating the polish from one set of nails and moves on the other.

“That’s what I am hoping to avoid. What about you? Where else would you rather be right now. I mean, besides with me?” I counter.

She sighs heavily, “That’s not fair. No one is dangling escape in front of me.”

“You’d go straight back to Mississippi. In a heartbeat. Safe isn’t best.”

“But it’s different, with me. The reasons I came here are not the same as yours. National Service allows me to make money. I need to stay here. I need to help my family. My brother Logan was supposed to do the same but he’s gone off the map who-knows-where. It’s just me supporting my parents now. I don’t have a choice.”

“And I just have crappy ones. I don’t want to help Clinton. But I want to help myself. Why do those things have to be the same? I’m not the same as him, am I?”

Scarlett offers me a sympathetic shake of the head, “You’re so much smarter. And far more talented. But that doesn’t mean much in the real world, Len. Money talks out there. Power moves the engines. If you have a lead on either, you should use it.”

These conversations with Rabbit and Scar have helped me make zero decisions about the exam tomorrow. I’ve made a pact with Fuller and should keep my promise, but the fear of moral compromise, of what Prothero and National Service agents could do if I am caught, weighs heavy on my mind. Rabbits pleas for my personal safety. Scar’s careless, reckless regard for the rules if they do not suit her needs. When I lay my head down on a pillow to sleep – it throbs with indecision, an ache far more piercing than usual.

I bring up a window on my band displaying the Academy residency manual – a user guide for navigating the waters of National Service. Under the subject heading “plagiarism and cheating” I scroll the text describing the consequences. Immediate expulsion, a mandatory five year sentence in a prison work camp and a notation in your credit report which can be accessed by anyone, especially potential employers. Life would not be easy for Clinton and I if this treachery were discovered. His political career would be dead in the water. I might end up dead or remanded back to the custody of Prothero. What would they do to me then? The prison sentence of National Service would be a vacation in comparison.

I push these thoughts to the back of my brain and endure another fitful eight hours of nightmarish dreams.

Today the exams are impossible to ignore. Clinton sweats in his seat and Rabbit favors me with foreboding looks from across the room. Sergeant Vargas enters and closes the door behind her, the universal signal for the exam to begin. I access the document and fill in the answers. It’s easier than I thought it might be, but harder than I’d hoped for Clinton’s sake. In order to make his test look legitimate, I must be smart in the choices I make for him.

I finish my test earlier than the other residents, like usual, and start hacking the network. Clinton slipped me his personal area network identification in the hallway on the way to Tech Lab this morning, while Rabbit averted his eyes in what I assume was moral indignation. I wanted to say something to Rabbit, I wanted to explain again why I’m helping Clinton but then it occurred to me that I have nothing to explain. I don’t have to justify my decisions to Rabbit. Or anyone else.

I open up a separate screen and tap a remote access app feeding directly into Clinton’s tablet, subverting Prothero’s tracking system. A moderate firewall used by the Academy to discourage this type of access is quickly erected but I bypass it by tunneling through the network, executing an encrypted PAN mirroring his system. I type in Clinton’s Academy password and instantly my tablet reveals his screen.  

Clinton filled in very little of the test, aside from the most basic of answers. Even some of those are wrong. A dart of fear stabs in my brain when I stare down at his exam. Along with a massive amount of irritation that someone so inept could move this far into National Service with virtually nothing to show for it. While the rest of us work hard and study.

In the upper right corner a red blinking timer ticks off the remaining 25 minutes left in the exam. I could do more than enough damage on this test for Clinton Fuller to pass. A stupid urge wells within me and I cast a glance back at Rabbit, my mind spinning with all his admonishments, with all the heavy conversations of the last couple days.

His head is bent over a tablet, his shaggy dark hair obscuring the upper half of his face. His jaw is set in concentration, and the faintest tip of his tongue pokes to wet his lips as he works. The effect this has on me is akin to the dipping, rolling sensation I experienced the first moments of waking up from the coma years ago. All of my senses are not working in harmony, my eyes and ears and limbs fighting against one another.

Maybe it’s the power of my gaze, but Rabbit does look up. Catches me staring. Mouths “don’t” very clearly. I look up towards the head of the class, where Clinton sits, also hunched over his tablet. Watching the blinking cursor on the exam page, waiting for me to fill in the answers for him. Indecision pulls all the muscles in my neck taut.

My left hand, dormant with my fingers barely touching the tablet, twitches. A crackle of electricity sparks from the band, jumping to the tablet, frying the tech inside. The screen, poised on Clinton’s exam, plunges into complete darkness. The scent of melted wires fills the air and a thin black tendril of smoke climbs up from the device.

“Garza,” Sergeant Vargas barks from the head of the class. “What are you doing back there?”

Heads swivel in my direction. I look around frantically. Clinton turns to me, his visible horror mirroring my own. His features fluctuate between rage, fear and desperation.

“Nothing. Honestly – my band shorted. It killed my tablet,” I flip the device over to expose the burnt plastic on the back. Pieces of the black material cling to the desktop.

“That’s impossible. Bands don’t ‘short’ Garza. For this interruption, I will pause the time on your tests,” She informs the class. All around me shoulders relax.

“Now, bring your tablet up to the front for me to look at. I will reboot it manually. Your test was auto saved to the network. It looks like you completed all the answers. Are you done?” Vargas asks.

“I was almost done. I was… refining my answers,” I say, hoping she believes this thin excuse.

“Well, you may need to stay after to finish up your edits if we cannot remedy this. The rest of you have twenty minutes left. As in real life, you will work around this distraction. Eyes on your own tablets please. Bands in neutral,” She releases the timer and once more an aura of panic settles over the room.

“Your band should have been in the neutral setting during the exam,” Vargas furrows her brows as I reach her desk.

“It was on the setting, I swear. Look,” I tip my wrist towards her. The band clicks on and the neutral screen rolls out.

“It is on the setting now . Let me pull your PAN from the last five minutes, to be certain you weren’t accessing the extranet,” She says.

A surge of panic rolls through me. My PAN would show no alteration, but I’d logged into Clinton’s band to use his tablet. It would show on his logs as a dropped signal with an immediate reconnect, an innocuous piece of data appearing much more sinister given my band’s malfunctions. What if they scrolled PAN records of all the students and noticed a discrepancy? I’d covered my tracks well, but I’ve never encountered this situation before. I’ve made a habit of keeping quiet and uninteresting so as not to attract attention to these hacking abilities. I can’t help casting another gaze at Clinton who sweats bullets at his desk while time ticks away. 15 minutes now – I’m standing next to the instructor as she hems and haws over the ruined tech equipment.

“Whatever you did to this tablet, it appears to be permanent. I’ve no more hope of resurrecting this device than if it were a corpse. You can use my tablet in the interim. Please return to your seat,” She holds it out to me. I accept it with a cowed dip of my shoulders. Her brows furrow.

“Try not to ruin this one,” Vargas admonishes, waving me away.

I jog back to my seat and slam down into the chair, clicking on the tablet. The welcome screen rolls out, I enter my information and log into the exam document. All my data is saved – I make a few changes in case Vargas monitors my document. Software and networks transfer to any usable piece of tech, via the bands. Through my network, the remote access app is accessible. I run the same encrypted tunnel and gain remote access to Clinton’s tablet, with ten minutes left in the exam. I begin with the basic questions first, leaving the simply stated but correct answers in place and correcting the wrong ones. Five minutes are left in the period. At the head of the class Vargas watches me like a predator after slippery prey.

“I see you haven’t updated your answers in the last several minutes Garza. Are you daydreaming another method of sabotage over there?” She asks.

A few residents chuckle but most concentrate on their own test in these final moments. With a pang of loss and the death of my hope, I type “I’m Sorry” into the last sentence of an essay question and close out of Clinton’s tablet, returning control to him.

I submit my completed exam and log off the borrowed tablet, carrying it back to the instructor with leaden feet and a lump in my throat. Clinton grimaces down at his exam, knowing he’s failing for a fourth time. It’s painful to witness. He may be a wealthy, privileged jerk who bribed me into helping him cheat, but no one deserves this kind of humiliation. There’s nothing I can do to stop it. As we gather our belongings to leave lab for the day I can’t stop myself from offering a consoling pat on his shoulder. It’s so foreign to me, so against my nature and better judgement, but… we’re in the same boat, Clinton and I. Full of holes and sinking fast. Losing hope of ever reaching dry land.

The moment I make contact, it’s clear this sign of compassion is a mistake.

“Don’t,” He says icily. A group of residents stop their forward progress to the door and watch us curiously.

“You could have let me tutor you,” I try to explain. Somehow that only makes things worse. Poor choice of assertion on my part.

“Don’t touch me, Garza. You’re a damn freak,” He shrugs me off his shoulder and my arm falls limply to my side.

“Oh, right,” I murmur as he exits the class.

Rather than depart with everyone else, I loiter at Vargas’ desk with the ruined tablet until the room empties. I proceed to a tool drawer and dig around inside, shoving kinetic instruments around with an angry fervor. The clattering, banging noises in the otherwise silent classroom adequately reflect my inner turmoil. Clinton failed his exam. Our deal is done. My hope is gone and Mateo is far away, out of my reach.

I slam the drawer closed and bang a fist on the table. It sounds like a gunshot in the quiet. The tablet leaps from the counter and clatters to the floor. I bend over to retrieve it and as I’m standing back up, I catch a movement in the corner of my vision. Rabbit Santiago watches from the door. He nervously shifts the rosary around his wrist, the look of sympathy on his face hard to ignore. He should be gloating. He has good reasons to gloat. But he doesn’t look happy about my misfortune. Somehow that’s worse.

“Is this what you wanted?” I shout the question at him.

He turns his back, slinking away. More a cat than a rabbit.

Two days after the exam, during Tech lab, our bands emit a wailing siren. Clinton and I, our bodies bent around the project we’re working on, slowly lift our heads and stare at each other in horror. Saergant Vargas walks over to our table.

She grabs Clinton around his meaty bicep and leans in, whispering to both of us, “Stop what you’re doing and step outside. Two armed guards are waiting for you.”

She turns to me. “You’ve got a lot of explaining to do.”

I scoot off the stool and fall to the ground, my shaking legs buckling and knees giving out at the same time. With a grunt of frustration, Vargas hauls me up and I regain a wobbly bit of composure. The class full of residents stare at us. Rabbit stares at us and I want to look at him so badly the desire burns in the back of my head, at the top of my neck like an animal need. But I resist. I look straight ahead as Vargas drags me across the room and dumps me unceremoniously through the door, Clinton chasing our heels like a big dumb dog.

In the hallway, as predicted by Vargas, two armed guards await us. They box us in and we follow their lead without question. What would we say? Where would we go? We know what we did, what this is about.

“Clinton,” I whisper in a choked voice.

“Don’t talk to me,” He croaks back.

At a fork in the hallway, we turn left, exiting the Academy. We are ushered into a waiting hover car. It swoops left as well, towards the administration building. The guards don’t speak to us, they stare straight ahead. I don’t recognize them, have never seen them on base before. They wear irregular uniforms I didn’t notice in my initial panic, with white stripes running down the arms. These are not ordinary soldiers.

We reach the building and are dragged up to our feet, out the door and shuttled down the steps. I beep past the tech scanners and no one bats an eye. They push us towards a conference room where a wall slides away to reveal a gleaming metal table. Sitting in an uncomfortable chair is Senator Edmund Fuller. He’s a handsome chiseled white man in the way most rich, powerful white men are handsome. The way Clinton Fuller is handsome. Wheat colored hair, fair skin, blue eyes. Reasonably sized nose and mouth. Chins pointy. Forehead sloped. Edmund Fuller frowns at our approach, his freckled nose wrinkled as if he smells a foul odor.

“Goddammit Clinton,” He curses when we’re within range. He socks Clinton across the face with a lazy, deliberate backhand devoid of emotion.

Clinton reaches up to cover the bruise and smear of blood there with a mechanical air. He is like an empty shell of a person. Edmund Fuller snaps his attention over to me and studies the wires and implants with all the curiosity of a person debating whether or not to switch from one virtual movie to the next. He pauses and holds his hand out with a gesture oozing calculus.

“Senator Edmund Fuller. You’ve met my son,” He says using an affected southern accent with the intent to charm.

I flop my hand into his, wishing it weren’t coated in a film of terrified sweat. He gives it a hard, angry squeeze and a wave of dizziness passes over me. The world is not making sense right now. The Senator speaks, so I take a deep breath and concentrate my attention on him.

“Really appreciate what you tried to do for him. What that Santiago kid was never able to achieve, no matter what wheels we greased. It’s a shame you two weren’t quite able to pull it off,” He says with a shrug and shark toothed smile. His teeth are impossibly white.

“But I’ve taken care of it for you. For both of you. You appreciate that, don’t you Ms. Garza?” Still grinning. The grin makes him look positively feral.

I nod passively, dumbly. Clinton drops his hand from his face, the trauma of the slap drawing his limbs down as if he could melt into the earth. Clinton’s a statue next to me, so paralyzed and wracked with fear you could land a bird on him.

“I thought you might appreciate that. You,” He touches me and I control the urge to flinch. Barely. The slip of his mottled flesh as he rubs the back of his index finger down the wires of my temple, over my jawline, resting on my chin. He grabs the bone and flesh there, hard.

“You hold a bright future ahead of you. You’re a smart young woman with powerful friends. My son here,” He releases my chin and slaps Clinton on the arm, “should be so lucky.”

“Lucky,” The word tumbles from me with all the bottled bitter taste I’ve ingested over the last four years.

“Lucky,” Edmund Fuller repeats with a scary twitch of his wolf mouth. He looks more like a wolf now. His eyes are too pale for a shark.

“Sorry for all the pomp and circumstance. I thought it might do you both some good to be taken down a notch. But next time, there won’t be a next time. Enjoy the rest of the year kids. It will absolutely be your last here at the Academy,” He turns on a dime, expensive pleated pants and black shining shoes sparking against the cement.

“At least one of you will be graduating and making yourself useful to society,” He says with his back turned.

The soldiers press in on us and shove us out of the room. The wall slides back into place and Senator Edmund Fuller slides out of view.

        Clinton lets out a ragged breath, sounding more like a spooked sob. I turn to him and my gaze catches on the welt dotting his cheek. I open my mouth to speak.

        “Don’t talk to me,” Clinton says again, with measured ferocity.

        “What did he mean?” I ask, because I’m not scared of Clinton Fuller anymore. His father is so much worse.

        “He means we were caught cheating. He saved our asses. I’m not graduating. You didn’t catch any of that? And everyone says I’m stupid,” He pushes away from the guards, stomping out through the tech scanners and into the heavy grey day.

        The guards don’t attempt to stop him, instead they disperse like the seeds of a dandelion in the wind, scattering back to their posts. Probably glad to be out of the cross-hairs of our odd grouping. I don’t follow. I linger in the hallway of the administration building. Edmund Fuller can’t hide in there forever.

        After ten minutes of no activity, the wall slides away one more time and the senator emerges. He straightens his tie and a silver Prothero band slides into view, rolling back down into the cuff of his crisp, gleaming white button up shirt. His straw colored hair is neatly parted. He leers over at me and I notice his perfect, artfully sculpted dimples. Goosebumps surge and spark along my skin. It’s a familiar sensation. I’ve come to associate it with the Fullers.

        “You stayed. That was thoughtful,” He glides over to me with a perfect, languid gait. Like he’s floating on air. This man secretes a disturbing dream like quality from his pores.

        “How did they catch us?” The words plunge forth with a life of their own. It’s a stupid question but I need the answer. I need to know where I messed up and how Prothero found out. Loopholes like this can’t exist. I can’t make stupid mistakes.

        “Prothero has eyes everywhere Ms. Garza. I’m surprised you haven’t noticed. Don’t you possess one of theirs?” He offers me another slippery, toothy grin.

        “I wanted-”

        He interrupts, “I’m sure you did. But as I explained earlier, your wishes are all used up. It’s an incredible disappointment. You had such high hopes, I’m sure.”

        He winks at me. I suppress the urge to shudder. Weakness in front of this man would be like swimming in bloody water with a shark.


        He interrupts again, ”Don’t trouble your devious little mind about him. He’ll be fine Ms. Garza. So will you. I’ve made sure of that.”

        “What did-”

        He interrupts a third time, inserting himself into my dialogue as smooth as liquid, oily as silk, “I exerted the pressure I am capable of, to save you both from yourselves. You’re welcome.”

        “Thank you,” I say, sounding more sincere than I feel.  

His comment about Rabbit filters back to my memory.

        “You mentioned Rabbit- I mean, Rory Santiago,” I begin, anticipating he will cut me off. He doesn’t. The senators expression is blank, waiting.

        “Yes, what about him?”

        “You said he owes you,” I repeat his statement, hoping to avoid asking a question that I don’t really deserve an answer to. I asked Rabbit not to meddle with my life.

        “Oh, I believe Rory’s secrets should be his own. Don’t you? Men are so often incapable of true subterfuge. If he hasn’t told you his sorted background, I don’t believe that is my place. But it is curious of you to ask. Any particular reason you need this personal information?” One side of his mouth curves up in vague amusement.

        “No, not really. I just- no,” I falter.

        “I suspect he would echo that same sentiment. You look a little deflated Ms. Garza. I know, it’s all so overwhelming. Drink a glass of warm milk and lay down for a bit. Consider that future I mentioned. It’s very bright indeed,” He tips an imaginary hat and brushes past me. The guards resurface on the other side of the scanner and escort him from the building.

        They move fast and vanish into a heavily armed hovercar, trailing two more in its wake. A helo in the air above, blades thumping and chopping the wind all around it, monitors the procession.

Senator Fuller leaves and takes the remainder of my hope of a clean getaway with him. It’s back to my original, much more complicated plan for exiting National Service. It’s back to waiting for an opening. Waiting for something to change.


My head throbs, my skull stuffed with nothing but nerve endings and glass. Jolts of electricity shoot across my veins with each thrum from my temples. It’s bad enough by fifth period I’m excused from Flight Simulation and sent to the infirmary. Helo SIMs are my favorite part of course rotation, both for the chance to showcase my tech expertise and the knowledge that each SIM brings me closer to my goal of departing national service and Prothero forever.

The flashing lights and humming machines send off disconcerting stabs of pain through my left eye, and though Lieutenant Peril disapproves, I scan out of class and proceed to the medical wing. The infirmary is a newer one story white stone building attached to the Academy compound, and the compound itself is on the far south end of the base. It’s next to the open land used for running field exercises. Classroom instruction takes place in a hulking brick building, like that on an old liberal arts college campus. These structures are older than the base itself.

The infirmary is a component of the classroom training, where field nurses and doctors practice, so the buildings are connected to one another by a covered glass walkway. Whoever designed this structure knew of the rainy reputation in the Pacific Northwest and cared enough to keep us dry. On the way down the hall my vision blurs and doubles, fading into disorienting patches of black. I use my hand as a guide, fingers trailing across concrete and brick until I stop in front of the infirmary. I pull open the heavy metal door and enter the main room. A young male receptionist, probably a failed resident, sits at the front desk, boredly surveying the empty room. Standing next to him is a woman in her late 30s.

“Hello Eleni. How are you doing?” Nurse Esperanza asks. She wears a scrub shirt and uniform pants, and her sable hair is pulled back into a ponytail. She motions me behind a secure door and I trail her lead into an empty examination room.

I hop up on the exam table, massaging the pressure point of my temple.

“Another headache huh?” She cranes her neck to the side and studies me for a moment, “Have you taken your injection today?”

“This morning. Just like clockwork. Disgusting breakfast of champions. Especially this new stuff they’re pumping into me.”

“I was worried about that. The dosage with the next generation injectors is excessive.”

“It is. What would happen if I stopped taking it?” I ask.

“At the worst you would suffer catastrophic organ failure and cerebral hemmoraging. The least would be chronic immune system deficiency. The nanos and organs are waging a war inside you Eleni. Those injectors keep you on the winning side.”

“And the only side effects are nose bleeds and constant migraines.”

“Don’t be so dramatic. It can’t be that bad, can it?” She inquires.

I fish the injector out of my pocket and set it against the tip of my right pointer finger, de pres sing  the green button at the top. A needle pops out and stabs into my flesh. The fluid enters my veins. Metal fills my mouth. Bile rises in my stomach.

“This new stuff is bad. Can you give me any pain meds?” I ask, attempting to apply a modest amount of charm. Prothero has turned me into a glorified junkie.

She sighs, “Nothing strong enough to cure your winning personality. Here’s extra vicodin. You can lay down here or in your barrack.”

I lean back against the wall in defiance. “Vicodin isn’t strong enough.”

“OK, here’s what’s going to happen. The bloody nose in the SIM a month ago seems to be the catalyst for this series of headaches. Yeah, I heard about that. You’re my patient Eleni. My responsibility. I’m sending Dr. Dawson a wave about these complications. I’m not sure what’s going on in there,“ She taps on my head. I peer up at her, brows furrowed, ”But I don’t like it. I don’t like this new medicine they prescribed you. You should return to the old dosage.”

She turns and opens a cupboard, retrieving a bottle of pain medication from a middle shelf.

“I don’t like any medicine,” I inform her, glowering.

Nurse Esperanza spins back around, all traces of her former patience vanished.

“You can glare at me all you want. 5,000 individuals with their own complicated medical histories live on this base and I treat every single one of them. You are by far the most stubborn.”

“Dr. Dawson won’t come. He hasn’t seen me in over two years,” I sound surprisingly melancholy, despite my reservations about Dr. Dawson and his Prothero experiments.

I swing down off the bed and scoop up the bottle of pills from her.

“Oh ye of little faith,” She retorts.

I’m touching the doorknob when Nurse Esperanza calls out.

“Wait, let me run one more test,” She insists, rifling inside another drawer.

I let out an explosive sigh and turn.

“Sure. I’m a human guinea pig anyway. What’s one more test?” I grumble, hoisting myself back up on the bed.

She retrieves a needle and extracts a blood sample, bandaging up the barely visible puncture wound with gentle precision.  

“What do you want with my blood?” I ask, running a finger over the band-aid.

“I have a hunch,” Her smile spreads, crinkling her pert nose. “Don’t worry so much Eleni. You’re a good kid.”

“You’re probably the only person who believes that,” I say, indulging in a dose of self pity.

“Oh, that’s not true. But you could ease up on the angst and self loathing. You’d probably make more friends that way,” She suggests.

“Yeah, precisely what I need. More friends,” I roll my eyes.

“I’ll wave you when I hear from Prothero.”

“Don’t hold your breath. I’m not,” I grumble as I walk past her.

She waves me off dismissively and shuts the door of the exam room against my back. For the moment, the tiger balm burns the headache out of my system. The only thing that remains is returning to class. I take my sweet time walking down the empty hallways and corridors back to the education building where sixth period Tech awaits.

As soon as I enter the lab, Clinton Fuller glares at me from the back of the room. My ears burn as I take a seat across from him. I don’t speak. Don’t make eye contact. It will only exacerbate the situation.

“This isn’t going to work out,” I whisper to him. “Maybe you should go back to Santiago? Save yourself the embarrassment of being seen with me.”

It’s supposed to be a helpful suggestion, but the word “embarrassment” makes him cringe. One of his meaty paws curls into a fist.

“Neither of us got what we wanted,” I insist, not heeding his warning glare. “So let’s cut our losses. Go back to our old partners.”

“Shut up and do the work,” He responds with a menacing grumble.

“You’re going to regret this,” I snap a data chip into the belly of a plasma rifle.

It warms beneath my fingers and I smile in satisfaction, despite the stress of interacting with Clinton. The comforting hum produced by the mechanics clicking on soothes my frayed nerves. My life might be spiraling out of control, I might be manipulated and forced into tasks I am uncomfortable with, but technology is the only thing I can exert control over. It is logical and reasonable. It is complicated and engaging. It is what remains of my life.

“I already do regret this,” Fuller says, voice rising.

He swipes an arm through our project, scattering the pieces across the table and onto the ground. Destroying our entire work for the last 45 minutes. Probably damaging some of the pieces beyond repair.

“Real mature Fuller. What are we supposed to do now?” I ask angrily.

He shrugs, “Pick it up.”

“You first,” I reply.

“Pick it up Garza,” He commands.

I look around the room and notice we’ve pulled in a small audience. Rabbit Santiago stares down at his tablet, a curtain of hair masking his features. There are no Scarletts or Rosas here to ease my discomfort. Even Sergeant Vargas watches in mute fascination. Clinton Fuller gets whatever he wants and most of those in authority let him. As was already evidenced by our lab pairing.

“No,” I say, with calm, steady delivery, “I’m not going to.”

Clinton snaps his fingers.

“Clean it up now,” He orders, a steel inflection working into his command.

“Do it yourself,” I respond. “Clean up your own messes.”

“I don’t need to do that. Ever,” Clinton says, bursting forth with an ugly sneer. The uncanny resemblance to Senator Fuller curls my lip.

“Rabbit,” Clinton says, with the intonation you might use to call a loyal pet to your side. “Come here.” I almost expect him to punctuate this command with a whistle.

From across the room, as if he’s been waiting for this cue, Santiago rises slowly to his feet. He paces over to our table, hair hanging like a distorted halo around his head.

“Could you get that for me?” Clinton asks, pointing with the toe of his boot at our ruined project.

Rabbit bends down to retrieve the rifle components at our feet.

I take a deep breath, packing the blinding rage activated by Clinton deep down inside. I cannot lose it here.

“Rabbit,” I say, keeping my voice low but earnest. “Don’t. Don’t do that.”

He doesn’t respond, just collects the damaged items and places them on the counter. He stands there, awaiting Clinton’s further instruction, his hands splayed out on the tabletop. His fingers press so hard against the table, his knuckles turn white with tension. I can’t see his face, but an ache beats out of my metal heart for him. I have no clue how Santiago’s tied to Clinton, what the Fullers have on him, but it hurts me to see him subjugated like this.

A sudden impulse to touch him, to offer him a reassuring squeeze over-takes me and I do not obey it. I don’t comfort Santiago and he doesn’t look at me. His jaw clenches tightly, the tendons on his neck bulging with repressed emotion.

From the head of the room Sergeant Vargas interrupts. “Santiago, back to your seat.”

Rabbit turns to leave.

“Prothero is the only thing protecting you, Garza. Otherwise, you’re just as helpless as Rabbit. Remember that,” Clinton whispers across the table, his appearance again taking on the gross shape of Edmund Fuller.

Clinton is unusually quiet for the rest of the period until the warning bell sounds for General Assembly. We’re lining up and making our way towards the door of the classroom when I catch a snippet of Fuller talking to Santiago.

“Garza’s losing her shit,” Clinton says, loud enough to be heard across the room.

Rabbit responds with a hollow chuckle that sounds like wind moving through an abandoned house. I risk a quick peek towards the back of the line where they stand together. A few others turn to stare.

“I don’t want to be around when she goes crazy. Guess it’s time for a new lab partner,” Clinton says.

I direct my vision towards the ground, finding our standard issue black combat boots intensely fascinating. The headache comes back with a vengeance and I reach up to my left temple. It always starts in this spot.

“I’m getting tired of looking at her ugly, mutilated face, anyway. She’s a monster. Don’t you think? Don’t you think Garza looks like a monster?” Clinton asks.

I can resist looking up again. Rabbit pinches the bridge of his nose, head bowed. Clinton throws a look of irritation at Rabbit for his lack of enthusiasm, but is otherwise undaunted by his friend’s mute response.

“Hey Garza, Rabbit says you look like a monster,” Clinton laughs towards me with an ugly sneer.

Rabbit doesn’t deny it and his silence consents more to the statement than if he’d eagerly agreed. The rage I felt a few weeks ago on the SIM rooftop swells back into existence. I’m not mad at Rabbit. No, I am  mad at Rabbit. I’m definitely mad at him. I’m angrier at Clinton, but the way Rabbit just stands there and lets Fuller abuse him. My fists clench. More necks swivel in our direction. The line should be walking out the door, but no one is interested in moving. Their attention is temporarily diverted to our quarrel.

“You didn’t mind staring at me when I was helping you pass tech lab. But, you didn’t pass, did you?” I shout back to him, despite my better judgement.

Rabbit’s head snaps up and issues a stern shake, warning me off this topic. Finally, he makes a move. It’s too late. A blushing stain grows on Clinton’s neck and a vein bulges in his temple. He works hard to form a coherent sentence.

"You- you bitch," He stammers. "We- we had a deal."

“We never had a deal. You were using me. You were using me to pass this class. To get close to Scarlett.”

“What!?” He asks with shrill horror.

“Yeah Scarlett Buford. You have a thing for her. Don’t you?” I respond.

Clinton takes a step back, as if slapped.

“That’s not true,” He says, blinking rapidly.

“Oh, it’s not so funny when someone is mocking you, right? Maybe you should consider that before humiliating your friends,” I say.

Rabbit shakes his head again, warily. He wants to remain neutral in this argument. But he can’t. He can’t remain neutral.

Sergeant Vargas shouts an order at the front of the line for us to move and everyone shifts uncomfortably. The residents return to their chatting and the group lurches forward.

I manage one final glimpse behind me. Clinton stands paralyzed at the back of the class, processing our exchange with a look of confusion.

Rabbit stands at Clinton’s elbow, studying me with another bout of intensity. Our eyes meet and his flick over to my left temple, to the wires and circuits. I cover them protectively and turn back around. Clinton’s statement “Rabbit thinks you look like a monster” roars through my head.

Fine. Fine then. I’m a monster. Rabbit Santiago and Clinton Fuller believe I’m a monster.

The entire walk to General Assembly I hold my pounding temple, willing the pain to retreat. The silence from the back of the line is deafening. Right before we enter the doors I break formation and veer off towards a water fountain. I retrieve two more pain relievers from my pants pocket, gulp them down and splash water on my forehead. While turning around, I bump into a resident.

It’s Rabbit Santiago. In any other situation, with any other person I might apologize. But I am tired of him. Of them both. Ever since my mental breakdown in the SIM these two have hovered over me like two birds fighting over a piece of carrion.

             “Dammit Santiago! Leave me alone!” I shout.

He says nothing in return, just stares back at me, face an unreadable mask. Clinton stands behind him. My fake heart leaps into my throat.

“Watch your back Garza,” Clinton threatens.

He shoves Rabbit forward, using the other boys body to knock me out of his way. I catch myself on the lip of the fountain to avoid toppling over. Santiago stumbles into me and uses the frame of the door to stabilize himself. He stands there for a second, his back hunched, his body tensed. Rabbit is not a cute fluffy bunny, he’s a beaten dog.

I hate Clinton. I hate Clinton for doing this to another human being. I hate Clinton for manipulating me into impossible situations. Using me, just like Prothero.

“Why don’t you watch yours?” I call out to Clinton, shaking with fury.

I can’t back down any longer. I am tired of having Prothero relentlessly rubbed like dirt into an open wound. I am tired of being constantly called out as different. I’m not a monster.

Both of them spin around. Rabbit’s expression borders on horrified surprise, tinged with a hint of dismay. He probably wishes I would stop talking. Clinton barrels towards me, face etched with rage. A Lieutenant appears from behind him, grabbing his shoulder and pulling him to a halt.

“Back in formation. All of you,” The lieutenant stares at me pointedly.

I fall in behind Clinton, pleased I can at least keep him in my view.

“Not here Garza, up there,” The Lieutenant pushes me roughly, gesturing towards the front of the line.

I nod and shuffle ahead, giving Clinton and Rabbit a wide berth.

Scarlett stands two lines over and we exchange playful winks across the expanse of people separating us. She’s with one of the twins we’ve befriended, Emilia. The other, Emmanuel, is four lines over. The Rosas are identical twin sisters, both incredibly gifted, shy but delightfully awkward once you spend considerable time with them. Emilia and Emmanuel Rosa are the only other people at the base who acknowledge my existence with more than a casual, passing interest. Probably because they’ve obtained the “freak” status as well. The base doesn’t house another set of twins. The statistical likelihood of both twins being suitable for National Service is slim, according to the mini-documentary Prothero financed on them last year. Like me, they bear the stigma of being Prothero public relation props and most of the other residents steer clear.

The Rosas have individual names, but most people don’t bother to remember them because they look and sound so similar. Only Scarlett, myself, and the commanding officers bother to distinguish between them.

Scarlett speaks into her band and her wave registers in my earpiece.

“What’s going on? You look sick.”

I shake my head at her and whisper towards the band, “We’ll talk later.”

Before we can make any further exchanges, a siren announces the beginning of General Assembly.

Colonel Gutierrez steps up to a podium at the front of an elevated stage at the back of the room. His voice projects over loud speakers buried in the ceiling. He makes brief announcements about which residents are due for inoculations, and what upcoming power outages and food shortages to expect. He steps away, the auditorium grows dark and a virtual spins into existence, displaying the latest news from around the globe.

My mind switches to autopilot as a pulsing red beacon leapfrogs from continent to continent, images spilling out from states and countries depicting all manner of horrors we are shielded from until our training ends. It’s the same bleak scenes on display, with the nano virus lurking as a persistent fearful threat we need Prothero’s protection from. They are shielding us from a dangerous bio-hazard, sheltering the deserving from a miserable fate, so we should be grateful. Images of war, bombs, guns, and disease flash past our upturned heads so fast my stomach churns in response.

Gutierrez clears his throat loudly, calling my wandering attention back to the elevated stage where he speaks. Other bodies snap to attention.

“There is one other issue I’d like to address before we part tonight. We’ve experienced unrest in our Southern states over the last five months. We suspect an informant exists in our ranks. An infiltrator feeding a Contra group information about our movements and our new weaponry.

“If you have information or suspicions about a fellow resident, soldier or colleague please contact a sergeant or lieutenant. Do not attempt to confront this person individually. Federal agents will assist with detaining and questioning to determine guilt.”

My left temple throbs in response to this information, fear rippling out over me. I steal a glimpse down the line. It’s shadowy in the assembly hall but I can make out Clinton’s hulking shape. Projections from the images overhead dance oddly over him and the residents between us. He glares in my direction, his beady eyes shrunk to small daggers. Foreboding washes over me as the image of a bomb exploding rises up on the virtual, raining debris down on the assembly. It dissipates into nothingness before it reaches us. I close my lids and Clinton and the destruction disappear.

After General Assembly we’re released for the afternoon until dinner. Scarlett and I find each-other in the crowd quickly, we nod to The Rosas and scoot out the door to her barracks before we are discovered by any of Clinton’s group.

I relate the story from Tech and once we’ve gone over the entire scenario, I beg her to drop it. We read our instructional texts together, sitting side by side on the floor at the foot of the bed, scrolling the tablets on our laps. Our shoulders and knees tucked up against each other. Breathing comes easier with Scarlett, with pleasant human contact. My headache spins down to a dull roar. It’s possible to concentrate on the text.

We are safe for the rest of the evening back in Scarlett’s barracks. We finish our assigned reading, making a brief foray into differential equations before we both lose interest. It’s time for lights-out at 8pm. I drop underneath her bed, laying on the cool concrete beneath it. She tosses me a pillow and I prop it below my head, staring at the mattress separating us.

I reach up and poke a finger between the springs. She shifts and drops her head down to speak with me, her mass of curling blonde hair obscuring her ears. Her dangling face grows crimson as gravity forces blood to the top of her skull.

“Yes my darling Leni?”

“Nothing. I missed your stupid face,” I state with a teasing grin.

“Your face is stupid. Goodnight dear,” She says in her best motherly persona.

“Night Mom,” I murmur back, my lids falling closed.


In the morning, during the stroll from our barracks to the mess hall, a wave pops up on our bands. I open it and my heart melts into liquid, dripping into my stomach. I look up quickly and notice others looking down at their wrists, then laughing and guffawing, elbowing each other. All around me, residents are laughing. They’re laughing at Clinton Fuller and they’re laughing at me. Someone, my guess is one of the mean white girls from Tech with designs on impressing Fuller or humiliating both of us, circulated an image of us embracing. The image is shopped, our heads attached to the bodies of others, but it’s a fairly good depiction. I cringe, embarrassment and frustration assaulting me. This is not going to resolve our struggle, it’s only going to make the conflict between Fuller and I much, much worse.

Though my stomach is queasy from the wave, I manage to choke down four pieces of bacon, buttered toast and an apple. Scarlett, after commiserating over the wave and its implications, keeps a watchful gaze on Clinton, Rabbit, Luis and two other residents I recognize; Julio and Damion. Clinton catches me observing him, and makes an obscene gesture. The group erupts in laughter, except for Rabbit Santiago who remains stubbornly ambiguous about his friends comments. About everything, really. I don’t know why this bothers me. I don’t know why I let them bother me at all, but I set down my half eaten apple, my stomach rumbling with agitation.

“Five guys,” I look over at Scarlett doubtfully. “He has five guy friends with him at all times. He could strike at any time and I would be totally outnumbered. But what I really want to know is who sent that wave?”

“An evil troll. It’s not worth your time trying to figure it out. Don’t do that to yourself. Look, Clinton can barely cobble together a brainwave. You think he’s gonna start a fight? In front of all the residents here?” Scarlett takes a sip of coffee, grimacing.

“Maybe,” I push the tray away from me.

I pull out the injection device and Scarlett looks away hastily. She dislikes the miniscule drop of blood collecting on the tip of my finger. There is a sick, sad kind of humor in a soldier who grows queasy at the sight of blood. The Rosas watch with vague interest. They are in the medical specialization and all the anatomical elements and oddities of the transplants and nano juice fascinate them.

“Ugh. Why do you do that at the breakfast table? It makes me so ill,” Scarlett groans down into her coffee cup, indicating the injector.

“Geez, did you wake up on the wrong side of the bed or what?” I inquire.

“Maybe. I dunno. The lights were all wonky in our barracks last night. You didn’t notice them?” She asks.

“That’s odd,” Emmanuel says. “We’re on the same circuit as you. We didn’t see anything.”

“Yeah, annoying is another way to describe it,” Scarlett intones, taking a large swig from her mug. “It was annoying. They flashed off and on for hours. Not to mention Len is a walking, talking space heater. With her below the bed, I was sweating like a pig all night long.”

I snort in response and she chuckles good naturedly.

To either side of Scarlett, I notice people staring at me. All during breakfast residents nudge each-other and point our way, laughing openly. I ignore them. As much as I’m used to invisibility, I’m accustomed to recognition as well. Dealings with Prothero numbed me to both.

“What’s in those injectors anyway?” Scarlett asks.

“Battery acid and carbonite,” I respond.

“I wouldn’t put it past Prothero,” She frowns down at the product. I pocket it defensively.

“Can we not talk about my evil corporate sponsor this early in the morning? I’m anxious enough as it is,” I say, squinting over at Fuller’s table.

Scarlett flashes me a sympathetic look and pats my arm.

“You wave me the minute those creepos try to mess with you,” She stands up. “And forget about the picture. It sucks for right now, but it will be old news before too long.”

“No it won’t. If it’s on the net, it’s forever,” I remind her.

“Sure, you’re right. But people have short attention spans. So relax.”

“Yeah, I’m super relaxed,” I say, poking at the apple core on my tray.

Scar rolls her eyes and leaves the table. The rest of us follow suit. We compost our uneaten food portions and depart on our separate ways. As I walk beside the twins, I can’t help but notice it’s even more impossible to tell them apart from one another when they’re dressed in uniform. Today they’ve both gone for double braids and their dark almond eyes are hidden under hats, unnecessary as we will be in the SIM. We exit the main doors and meet up with our group outside the mess hall.

We usually march down Chenoweth Creek Road, the main road through the base, but it’s raining outside today and the lieutenants are lazy so they order up a hovercar. The lambent blue glow of the engines hum as the machine drifts in the air, rocking peacefully back and forth. A metal ramp rolls down from the door and we board the craft in pairs, taking assigned seats. I end up squashed between the two Rosas who are excitedly chatting about preparations for testing they will endure this morning. We enjoy the 30 minute ride from one end of the base to the other, passing the giant operations building and the mile long armory jam-packed with expensive tech. I pay special attention as we cruise by rows of EMP tanks, drones, and helocrafts.

Adrenaline surges through me in proximity to these large, dangerous machines. They lurk on the base grounds like a napping pride of lions, watching and waiting to pounce at the first sign of danger. Part of me is horrified by the purpose they serve, but a greater part of me is fascinated and thrilled by them. They possess a complicated, sexy power and the tech inside them is a thing of beauty. In four months we will be done with training and education. We will be operating these weapons in actual military scenarios. We will be killing human beings, instead of virtual simulated ghosts. Instead of shooting each other with rubber pellets. Those thoughts are not so thrilling. Those thoughts keep me up at night. They are the endless subjects of the letters between Mateo and I.

It’s nice to be indoors. The room temperature is moderate and the climate is dry. The giant warehouse is decked out for urban warfare today, it looks like we’re running a scenario at a large commercial port. There are gutted out rotting semi trucks and twisted cargo containers scattered around larger buildings and cranes dotting the expanse. A rusting metal sign dangling above us reads “Terminal 6.” A strange sigh of relief escapes me when they close the SIM doors and we meet up with our tactical superiors.

My body is on high alert. All the tension arising from the last day culminates here. The altercation, the ominous apprehension from yesterday’s afternoon General Assembly, the wave this morning and the creepy interaction at breakfast prepare me for a rocky day playing at war. I’d hoped for a semblance of the camaraderie soldiers are supposed to have for one another on the battlefield, but Clinton immediately starts up with the snickers. We are behind all the other units scanning the area for specialized weapons technology as well as identifying any last remaining targets and securing the rear of the forward surge. No drones today. I yearn for the somber, safe interior of the tank and the swooping display of our remotely piloted aircrafts. I don’t want to be anywhere near Clinton Fuller.

I keep as quiet and invisible in our unit as possible. Corazon, Clinton, and Luis are in the lead. Rabbit and I walk ten paces behind, using our chest displays to punch up the camera view from the back of our helmets. Our rifles, loaded with rubber bullets instead of live rounds come equipped with mirrors to scout for approaching enemies. We are only issued real plasma rifles for target practice and trips outside the base. Too many accidents in the last 10 years to trust a resident with a real plasma rifle inside the SIM. It’s a shame, they are an excellently constructed piece of tech.

Every once in awhile we turn to get a full visual scan of the area behind us. So far nothing has made an appearance, which is typical for this kind of simulation. Taking up the rear usually results in a dull exercise for our squad. All the fighting happens in front of us, where I prefer it. As much experience as I’ve logged in the simulators, entering a war zone raises the hairs on the back of my neck.

“Up there,” Luis nods towards the roof of a building about 700 feet away, a Contra soldier holding a rocket launcher aimed directly at the EMP tank.

“Think they’re gonna get him?” Rabbit asks, dubious.

“Probably not,” Luis replies.

Corazon taps on her band, “Bison Four, you’ve got a sniper with a rocket launcher east of your coordinates, roof-top.”

A resident pops out of the tank and fires her rifle towards the sniper, who takes a few steps back, drops the launcher and falls from view.

“Good thing we weren’t taking bets,” Rabbit says

He looks over at me, grinning. My glower causes his smile to slip and he turns away, absorbed with his display. It’s a shame because I don’t often see Rabbit smile often and I don’t want to interrupt. I like the way his upturned lips light his face. It’s the complete opposite of the dutiful, empty expression he wears around Fuller and when we’re together in the SIMs.

A blast from the EMP tank at a target unseen to our unit is the catalyst to a wave of static electricity rolling back at us. The static-electricity aftershocks are a vaguely unpleasant experience. In the next minutes, everything we touch delivers a mild sting and our rifles and displays frag too. Mine don’t. They never do. All of the machines attached to me work perfectly. Including the implants. The machines in my body and blood wouldn’t be much good to me if they could be rendered inoperable by a single EMP pulse. Another hidden benefit of the prosthetics.

Rabbit smacks his chest console and gives his helmet-cam a jog. The equipment is out of commission for the moment. This is the only time our GPS signal and vitals are undetectable to Prothero. They have alternate means of tracking us when the bands short out due to EMPs. We’re all implanted with microchips at the top of our spines, near our brain stems, where removal would be difficult and potentially deadly to achieve. A life insurance policy, of sorts.

“EMP tanks do nothing but mess up the ground units. Prothero should waste them for scrap metal,” Rabbit speaks to no one in particular until he catches me watching. Or maybe he knew all along no one else was listening, as a ploy to trap me into conversation. Whatever the case may be, he is acting different today. Amped up. Talkative. Direct. Not like himself.

“Oh, yeah. Probably,” I answer.

“You don’t wanna talk about Prothero?” He raises an eyebrow.

“You’re right, I don’t want to talk about them,” I say.

“Fair enough. You understand now, what I was getting at? The -,” He clicks the mic setting off his helmet. “The Fullers are not nice people, Garza. Senator Fuller-”

“Is so much worse than Clinton,” I finish for him.

“He really, really is. His eyes-” Rabbit’s pupils widen in the horror of remembrance.

“Are beady and dead. Like a shark,” The memory makes me shudder.

Rabbit nods with understanding.

“I hoped you wouldn’t get mixed up with them,” He turns quickly at the sound of distance machine gun fire.

This far removed from the action, it’s hard to remember we’re in a war zone. It’s more like being immersed in an intense video game and less like the real thing. It’s the lack of smell. SIMs can do everything but recreate the scent of sulfur and blood and sweat. The hot, acrid scent of death.

“Too late for that. I screwed everything up. I missed my chance to escape, if I ever could. But who cares, right? We’re all going to the battlefield. Some day soon this will all be ours,” I spread my arms wide.

His head drops, “I- yeah. My situation is different,” He says.

“Different how? How is your situation different?” I ask, the conversation with Senator Fuller rushing back to me. Rory Santiago has secrets.

He ignores the question.

“You know what I don’t get? Why did Prothero send you here? Why would they ship someone like you off to fight in their war? It doesn’t make sense,” He indicates the rifle blasts and explosions in front of us with a tilt of his long neck.

“What do you mean, someone like me?” I ask. “What’s wrong with me?”

He studies my temple and scars with an intensity he hasn’t displayed before. I reflexively move to cover the circuitry, reminding myself of the last time someone touched them. The terrible scrape of Senator Edmund Fuller’s waxy skin against mine. Rabbit blocks me before I can fully hide the deformities from view. Our hands briefly fumble together, our gloved fingers intertwining like keys in locks.

He dis-entangles himself, clicking off the speakers in my helmet and bathing us in a wash of silence from the squad. It’s a relief to be disconnected from their adrenaline-fueled shouts. He moves in close to me, our faces inches apart, the tips of our noses almost brushing. He presses against the hard casing of the helmet as if he could melt through and touch my cheek.

“There’s nothing wrong  with you,” He says, and he’s so close I can taste his hot breath, the oxygen from our lungs burning together intimately.

My stomach dips and I breathe deeply. He smells like sweat and cinnamon chewing gum. I exhale and meet his eyes, darting mine quickly away.

“But you shouldn’t be here. Not with all the money Prothero spent putting you back together,” He finishes his thought.

“That’s exactly why I’m here. I’m working off my debts,” My feelings about whether or not I owe those debts is a moot point.

“You and everyone else,” Rabbit says. “What I’m trying to say is- you know, never mind. Just, be sharp in here. Clint doesn’t take failure well. He blames you. You’ve got a pretty big target painted on your back now.”

“Thanks for the warning and all but you-” He takes another step forward, leaning in closer.

For a brief, astonishing moment I think he’s going to kiss me. This is going to happen. Then it all becomes so absurd. Rabbit Santiago and I kissing in the middle of a SIM. With Clinton Fuller a hundred feet away. With bombs going off all around us. An explosion spouts shrapnel into the air and it rains down, the debris pelting our uniforms. Rabbit hesitates and a wave of relief washes over me.

“You need to let me go,” I say gently. Meaning the opposite. Feeling the opposite.

Rabbit shakes his head as if stumbling from a darkened room into sunlight, trying to get his bearings. He frees up space between us, retaining his grip on the helmet. Holding onto it as long as possible.

“Right. Yeah. Just watch yourself. I don’t trust Clinton. Not with-” He attempts to stop mid sentence, but his mouth works ahead of his brain. “You.”  

“What? Why? I can take care of myself,” I push against his chest with a wry smile. Feeling the opposite. “Fuller won’t beat me.”

Rabbit doesn’t smile in response, only releases the speaker as instructed and takes another step back. His far off gaze returns. He bends over and retrieves his helmet. I peer ahead and see Clinton turned to watch us, staring hard.

Rabbit stands up, pulling the helmet back over his head. I spend a moment studying his profile against the spark of gunfire flaring up in front of him. He has a solid jawline and prominent chin, but there’s no glamorizing the beak nose cutting a sharp line across his face and widening dramatically at the nostrils. His lips are large too, tamed only by the stern clench of the aforementioned jaw and high cheekbones. On his right cheek, a crescent moon shaped scar dangles like the comma of a sentence. He’s handsome, in a scrawny, scrappy way.

Rabbit’s display catches my attention as it flickers back to life on his chest screen. It’s a mirror image of my own, which neither of us are paying attention to. In our distraction, an enemy assault vehicle rolled up behind us, equipped with an Automatic Denial System and a Long Range Acoustic Device operating on low frequency, otherwise verbal communication would be impossible. The wheels of the vehicle roll over debris, crunching rocks and rubble beneath the metal.

We turn in time to see a gunner pop out a side panel equipped with an ADS gun. The function of an Automatic Denial System allows a concentrated burst of heat to be aimed at a specific target without damaging anything else around it. A discharge of hot air hits our backs and I dive on Rabbit to shield him from the blast, shouting out a warning to Corazon. We roll off into a row of cargo containers, away from the beam, when the LRAD kicks into full gear.

The auditory sensation causes an indescribably awful pain to radiate inside my skull. I reach up to turn my left hearing aid completely off, but think better of it. I may need to hear in the immediate future. The pain of the LRAD, coupled with the scent of scorching synthetic material and flesh wafting towards us makes me dry heave, even in the midst of combat. Corazon takes shelter, but Clinton and Luis are exposed to the brunt of both beams since Rabbit and I moved off. They’re on their knees in the street, covering their ears, in too much agony to go for their rifles.

Corazon motions us to move around the side of the containers. We flank the vehicle, towards the open panels where the gunners can be seen aiming the ADS units. We fire on them. Corazon shoots and the Contra simulation explodes, knocking her backwards and out of my line of sight. Our target drops his gun, and I snatch it up, tossing it away. Rabbit delivers a boot kick to the SIMS face and drags him out of the vehicle, dumping him on the ground. I point my gun into the opening of the tank and fire. The wheels stop turning.

We’re about to move away from the vehicle when a noise emanating from the LRAD catches my attention. It’s the grinding, swirling sound of a machine working inside the vehicle. Rabbit walks a few paces ahead of me so I grab his elbow, attempting to haul him backwards. He digs in his heels and motions towards Clinton and Luis laying inert in the street.

The LRAD pulses, deafening, yet I hear a gurgling, churning discord underneath it. I explain to him with mimed gestures my apprehension about the sound, but field signals are not my strong suit, and he shrugs in incomprehension, turning away. Frustrated, I approach the vehicle and press my palm against the side of the metal. Vibrations resonate to the surface and machinery ticks and hums inside.

Abruptly, the LRAD clicks off but the noise of the other device is over-powering, with a familiar undertone of liquid gurgling. I spin around to Rabbit.

“Move, now!” I shout, pointing in the direction of Clinton and Luis struggling in the street, a good portion of their clothes seared off.

“What?” He asks, confused, and probably still a little deaf.

“Bomb! It’s a bomb!” I turn my attention back to the vehicle. The ticking gains momentum. I reach in the panel and grip a hard metal device. A charger. I pull it out to examine.

From behind me, Rabbit exclaims, “Oh shit.”

Wires or external mechanisms are not visible on the charger to determine its origin or how to defuse it. The black, unadorned box is made up of hard metal and the explosives and tech are internal. It would take kinetic tools I don’t possess to crack the case and access the insides. The tools are littering the ground 50 feet away. There’s no time to gather them. My fingers tremble against the black box. I can distinguish which circuits would disable the charger, but there is no way to defuse it while the metal blocks access to them.  

I hear a low moan and remember Corazon was knocked into a row of shipping containers. I toss the charger into the open panel on the assault vehicle. Disabling it would be a futile effort ending in my charred corpse. Or the SIM version of that. I don’t care to discover what that looks or feels like today. I motion to Rabbit, who hauls Luis off the road, and scramble to assist our unit leader. My connection to the bomb is severed by the distance, but it doesn’t matter. There are only seconds left on the timer. Corazon needs to be shielded. I hope Rabbit moved Clinton.

Corazon lays propped up against a rusted container, bleeding from scattered cuts on the exposed parts of her face, as well as a cut across her right bicep. She is twice my size and there’s no way I can move her in time, not without assistance. Her vitals on the display read as normal. I frantically glance around until I notice a piece of side panel by us. I grab the rusting silver metal and hold it over my back like a shield. I cover her with my short, slim body and wave Rabbit on the display.

“Take cover,” I shout.

The vehicle explodes behind us. The force of the concussion spills me forward. Wrenched metal and burning tire fall over us in chunks. The smell of chemicals and wires assaults my nostrils and churns my stomach. I roll off Corazon and stare up at the sky for a minute, my breath coming out in short pants. Other than being covered in bruises and dirt, I am fine. I prop myself up on my elbows and notice Rabbit, Clinton and Luis headed towards us. Luis and Clinton’s uniforms are shredded, flapping like tattered flags in the breeze generated by the SIM fans overhead. The powerful machines kick on and send gusts our way, working to douse the flames from the fire.

Burn marks mar their flesh and a tiny part of me rejoices at the sight of their injuries. My ears ring from the LRAD and the explosion so I can’t make out their dialogue. Luis and Rabbit tug at Clinton’s arms, attempting to pull him backwards or halt his progress. He shakes them off, his muscles bulging grotesquely as they are hurled back and fall to the ground. I roll over onto my knees, turning away from them and climbing painfully to my feet.

Clinton’s fist slams into my back and sends me sprawling into a pile of rubble from a blown apart shipping container. My head hits first, on the sharp, jagged corner. The vision blips in my left eye, a rainbow of colors seeping into the edges. They pool in the middle of my sight, merging into a sea of black. The acrid warmth of blood seeps across my tongue. With my still functioning right eye, I catch sight of the broken edges of the metal where I hit spattered with red and blue liquid. The left half of my face is numb as if my mind and body lost connection there. Adrenaline shoots through me and a strong desire to fight rather than flee rips me onto my feet.

I whirl towards Clinton. He takes a step back, blinking at my ruined face, and then pushes forward, chest barreled.

“You’re dead Garza!” He shouts, close enough for spittle to land on me.

“What’s wrong with you?” I demand, enraged.

“You let the LRAD sneak up on us,” He accuses. “You blew up the assault vehicle before we had a chance to get cover.”

I shake my head vigorously. Tendrils of pain flick out from my shattered left eye socket and I reach up to the sizzling, flashing wires there. It’s not full, throbbing pain. It’s the pressure points. It’s the mingling of real human hurting and robotic sensory stimulation. My fingers slide into liquid and a ragged sigh heaves from my chest. The left lung, the fake one, leaves a stale and artificial tang on my tongue. The exploratory fingers come away smeared with blood and a viscuous bright blue substance I’ve never seen before. They smear together with a purple hue. I press them to my lips, licking the moisture off. It tastes bad. Like the smoke from a chemical fire.

“It wasn’t me,” I insist. “There was a bomb inside.”

I frantically search beyond Clinton. Luis and Rabbit stand stationary off to the right and I gesture towards Rabbit.

“Rabbit, you saw it,” I say.

Rabbit gazes towards us ambiguously, neither confirming nor denying. My anger increases, that specific anger associated with Santiago and Fuller together. Rabbit can’t stay neutral about this.

“Tell him,” I demand.

Rabbit opens his mouth. Clinton cuts him off before he can speak.

“He didn’t see an explosive,” Clinton interjects. “Only you, losing it.”

“There was a bomb,” I repeat.

“Clint,” Rabbit steps up and touches his arm, but Clinton shrugs him off angrily. “She’s right. There was a bomb. She tried to disarm it and warn us. She needs medical attention, her eye-”

“Like there were human signatures in the building a month ago? Huh Garza? You nearly got us killed today,” Clinton growls. “If this were real combat, you would have gotten us killed.”

“This isn’t real combat,” I counter.

“Exactly. It’s not real combat. Just relax, OK? You both need medical treatment. Let’s flag down an EMT,” Rabbit reasons, unsuccessfully inserting himself between us. Clinton barrels him out of the way with a broad shoulder. Rabbit stumbles back a few steps, grimacing.

Clinton jabs an accusatory finger towards me.

“You can’t do anything right,” Clinton says. I hear his father’s influence in these words. I hear the echo of Clinton’s failures laid bare.

“Oh please, let’s talk about how I ruined your life. I failed your exam. I harbored a stupid crush on Scarlett Buford.”

“Shut up Garza,” Clinton growls.

“Come on. It wasn’t all bad, was it? We had some good times. What about when your father showed up-”

“Eleni,” Rabbit says sharply. “Stop.”

Clinton looks over at Santiago, confused.

“What’s with you?” Clinton asks, moving forward, crowding Rabbit’s personal space with his massive chest. I am momentarily forgotten.

“What do you mean?” Rabbit cringes and takes another step back.

“Stay out of this,” Clinton demands, thumping a fist against Rabbit’s clavicle. Rabbit winces. “This is between me and her.”

“You won’t let me stay out of it. Neither of you will let me,” Rabbit insists, gaze flickering over to me. “I don’t want- I want-”

Rabbit’s adam’s apple bobs as he swallows back his statement. Clinton turns slightly, following Rabbit’s gaze.

“Garza?” Clinton asks, frown deepening. “You want Garza?” His tone turns incredulous, disbelieving.

I hate that, the disbelief underscoring Clinton’s questions. Why is it so impossible Rabbit Santiago would want me? Rabbit wants me. The world tilts a little on its access and I reach out to steady myself against the shipping container.

“No. No, I didn’t say-” Rabbit breaks eye contact with me sheepishly, frantically.

I hate that too. OK. Rabbit doesn’t want me. I lean further back into the container, my lungs pulling in a sharp, shallow breath.

“You and Eleni Garza?” Clinton interrupts. “After what she did to me? After everything we’ve done for you?”

Rabbit’s nostrils flare.

“Eleni has nothing to do with-”

“Well you can forget about your future career. If you ever want-”

“Rabbit?” I ask. “What’s he talking about?”

He looks up at me despondently through the snarl of his curling hair.

“Eleni, I-” Rabbit starts, Clinton interrupting him.

Everyone interrupts Rabbit.

“You can forget what we offered you Santiago. You can forget our deal. You don’t look at her. You don’t talk to her. She sabotaged me. She ruined me. She’ll ruin you, too,” Clinton rants, shoving Rabbit’s upper torso and stepping between us. Blocking our view of one another.

“I know Clint. I know what happened. Relax. Calm down,” Rabbit says in a placating, tired voice. “Both of you calm down.”

My heart wrenches in my chest. It becomes crystal clear that I want an impossible thing from this situation and I want it more than I’ve wanted anything in the last three years, besides freedom. I want Rabbit Santiago to tell Clinton Fuller he’s wrong. That I’m right. That I did the right thing.

“I don’t need to calm down. You didn’t need me to ruin your life Fuller. You were doing a damn good job on your own,” I say, derailing Rabbit’s poor attempt at mediation.

“I’m so sick of you Garza. I’m so sick of looking at you. I’m sick of you fucking up my life!” Clinton kicks out at scrap metal by his feet to emphasize his point.

“I’m sick of you too. I didn’t want to be your Tech partner. Nobody wants to be stuck with an idiot like you!” I shout. “Not Me. Not Scarlett. Not Rabbit. Not your father. He told me himself.”

“Eleni!” Rabbit pleads from behind the wall of the older, bigger boy.

Clinton winds up for a punch. I attempt to bolt around him, but his hulking frame blocks my retreat. I scramble backwards down the row of containers to avoid another altercation. Where is the Staff Sergeant? We took damage from the bomb and there must be a developer or engineer watching our SIM. Rabbit or Luis must have reported the assault.

Clinton attacks me with a wild swinging fist and I jump back in time to avoid his fury. Shouts come from behind Clinton. I hear the movement of approaching residents.

Clinton’s inhuman appearance, the rage and humiliation, overwhelms me. It’s all I can see. My damaged eye socket burns so I swipe at it, the back of my hand coming away purple with mingled blood and blue fluid. My left hand balls into a fist. He’s too big for me to take down, but at least I can get one solid punch in. Clinton takes a step forward and I stand my ground. I pull my arm back to deliver a punch and it lands squarely on his jaw.

His head wobbles and he falls off to the right, against another shipping container. He uses it to steady himself. At the same time, simulated pain echoes in my artificial limb. I might be made of solid steel, but he must be made of solid rock. The false knuckle tissue on the fingers is torn and bleeding where my fist made contact. Veiny wires pulse up and down the arm, but otherwise, it is relatively undamaged. The pain is minimal. I could go rounds with this prosthetic.

Fuller shakes off the blow and moves toward me menacingly. I’m about to pummel him once more, when he kicks my gut and sends me reeling. All the air vanishes from my lungs. A familiar male voice shouts my name. Rabbit. Rabbit shouts my name.

Clinton follows the kick with a solid slug to my left temple and I collapse on the ground, my vision drowning in sparkling white and pink colors, my body unable to absorb anymore shocks and retaliate appropriately. A high pitched squeal roars in my ear and sound in the cochlear implant cuts out.

Fuller’s on top of me, pounding with a flurry of fists mostly aimed at my head. My arms are thrown up over my face and I position the prosthetic to absorb the impact of the punches. The skinny forearm and wrist do not provide enough protection.

With blurring vision, I notice the lights overhead pulse and dim. Static electricity floods the space between Clinton and I, the tiny hairs on our bodies standing on end. The scent of ozone fills the air. The panic in my system turns to dread. An explosion of power is imminent. I am going to explode. A warning static pours from the band, blooming over my arms and forehead and skull. The static connects with Clinton and he jolts off my inert frame, staggering away in a fury of pain.

The fists stop.

I push myself up off the ground to survey the landscape, my ribs and chest throbbing tenderly. A scrawny male frame holds Clinton, who thrashes and bucks in his grip like a wild animal. A Staff Sergeant muscles his way down the row and I discern the shapes of other residents behind him, jostling for a better vantage point. The Sergeant shouts at Clinton and I, but after all the abuse of the day, my ears run the sounds together into distorted white noise.

My attention diverted, I don’t notice anyone next to me until my bicep is gently shaken. I look over to locate the source of the jostling. It’s one of The Rosas. Emmanuel.  

“What?” I ask her, dimly aware she attempts for a second or third time to elicit information.

“Can you hear me?” Emmanuel asks again, sound rushing back into the world.

I wince and nod, my head bobbing loosely on my neck as if my bones evaporated. I try to stand, but my legs are jelly. I slump back down to the ground, defeated for the moment.

“Eleni, your eye-” Emmanuel explains.

“Yeah, yeah,” I grumble, cutting her off.

I reach up above my head and fumble around on the rusted, dusty metal of the shipping container until I grasp a door handle, hauling myself up. My legs sway drunkenly on the solid ground and I cling desperately to the frame of the container to steady myself. No more than ten feet away, Rabbit Santiago pulls Clinton’s arms behind his back. A staff sergeant stands in the empty space between us. He does not look pleased.

“You’re an asshole Clinton,” I slur with puffy lips. My face is so swollen it’s hard to convey emotions. I can’t feel the full force of the pain yet while adrenaline courses through my veins.

“You’re a Prothero monster!” Clinton bellows, striking out against the Staff Sergeant between us.

“Both of you, knock it off!” The Staff Sergeant commands.

“It’s better than failing at life!” I shout back, kicking towards him with all the force my wobbly legs can muster.

“I’ll kill you!” He lunges again, slipping out of Rabbit’s grip.

I’m prepared this time, standing my ground.

“Go ahead and try!” I shout. “You’ll probably fail at that too!”

The Staff Sergeant deftly shoves Clinton towards Rabbit. They go sprawling back into the crowd behind them. Nobody makes an attempt to catch their falling bodies and they tumble to the ground.

“Not today,” The Staff Sergeant intones.

I sneer at their misfortune until he turns on me.

“What are you smiling at?”

I wipe the smirk off with red and blue stained fingers, smearing the blood across my cheeks.

“Oh damn,” The Staff Sergeant mutters, surveying the wreckage of my ocular implant.

He taps a button on his band and speaks into it.

“I need a medic in here.”

I stumble over and collapse into a heap a few feet away, assured there will be no more attacks on my person. The adrenaline crashes out of my system. I’m deaf in my left air. Blind in my left eye. I can no longer hold back the tears of frustration. I lean my forehead on my knees and cover my ears. I want to shut the world out. I want to disappear.

A hand falls on my shoulder. Maybe Emilia or Emmanuel. I reach up to encircle the wrist, touching our matching bands, finding comfort in the human contact. It’s not one of The Rosas. The forearm is bigger and muscular. I release it at once and try to make out the owner, but my vision fuzzes again. I close both lids. It’s easier this way.

In the black, Santiago whispers, "I'm- I’m sorry.”

“Rabbit. Please…go away,” I say, “And leave me alone.”

He moves away. The sounds of a scuffle register and I look up to see blurry shapes melting and tussling in the row. The slim dusky shape of Rabbit, the big blonde shape of Clinton. The Staff Sergeants and two Lieutenants. I hear the discord of fist meeting flesh and another struggle, but it isn’t important at the moment. Nurse Esperanza appears, shining a bandlight into my real pupil. The last sound I hear before fading into a welcomed unconscious state is her speaking into a band.

“Dr. Dawson, we need you at Fort Columbia. Urgently.”


Scarlett finds me three days later. I’m sitting on a rock by the edge of a stream running by the base, skipping stones. A patch rests over my left eye. They weren’t able to save the implant. It cracked in the socket and the internal connection to my visual cortex jarred loose either during the initial gouging on the container or the dozen blows from Clinton Fuller’s fists. It would cost a significant amount of money to replace the old tech with a brand new model. It would take time and energy and Prothero has lost their interest in me. Dr. Dawson flew out from Washington DC to inspect the damage himself. It was nice to see him, despite everything. He’s older, the boyish good looks giving way to maturity and a more respectable graying around the edges. There’s a professorial undertone about him I attribute to a growth of facial hair.

The Doctor indicated he was personally interested in my case and made vague noises about a suitable ocular replacement he’d been tinkering with in the lab. They ran several tests, Dr. Dawson loves his tests, and found a tumor in the socket located where the electrodes connect and the nanos bind to soft tissue. I haven’t told anyone yet. What’s the point? I survived an explosion that killed my parents to die at age 18 of brain cancer. Killed by the devices intended to give me life, sight, and sound.

Maybe it isn’t cancer. But it was disturbing to the Doctor and the nurses, which is enough for me. There’s a tumor growing inside me and it isn’t one hundred percent benign or malignant, but it’s suspicious and unsettling. They took a tissue sample for a closer look back at the lab in Washington DC. They doubled the dose of nano juice present in the injectors and re-plugged in the wires, attaching an interim ocular implant. The tech equivalent of a spare tire. It’s a shiny silver model displaying infra-red instead of the regular color spectrum. It’s taking a considerable amount of adjusting to discern separate shades but Prothero isn’t offering physical therapy this time. Passive aggressive punishment for breaking their product, I suppose. My sympathies for them are muted by the over-arching fact that they gave me cancer.

“This seat taken?” Scarlett sits down next to me on the rock.

“Saving it for you. Hey, aren’t you supposed to be writing an essay on criminals in the 21st century?” I inquire, offering her one of the smooth, flat stones I’ve gathered into a pile at my feet.

She takes it in her petite, neatly manicured fingers. They’ve always looked so out of place here in the chaos of National Service. As if she is destined for other, better things. Office work. Raising children in a big mansion. Pressing palms at an art gallery. You can’t imagine dirt or grime smudged under those nails. You can’t imagine someone cruel enough to send her off to combat with a rifle. She will be destroyed and buried. My heart aches. She reads my mind, giving voice to my thoughts.

“Are you kidding me?” Scarlett snorts. “Essays are time ill-spent. I’m strictly front-line material, Lenbot. Cannon fodder. Academics are for the smart white girls.”

I smile sadly, my mouth lopsided because the left side of my face is tender from all the poking and prodding. It’s a brilliant rainbow of fading bruises. The visible damage from the assault should be gone by the end of the day.

“Yeah, well they can have it,” I grumble, watching a failed skip sink beneath the exterior of the water.

“How’s your eye?” Scarlett asks, distracting from my morbid mood.

“Busted. Got a spare while they’re fixing up a new one, but it’s awful,” I toss the remaining handful of rocks in the water and pop the hood of my jacket up over my hair.

“Come on Len. It can’t be THAT bad. I bet you it’s wicked awesome. Like a superhero.”

“It’s not wicked awesome. It’s probably better if you don’t hang out with me. After what happened,” I say.

“It probably is, but I’m here anyway,” Scarlett says.

“Scarlett, those people in there hate me,” I remind her. “Clinton Fuller hates me. He tried to kill me.”

She drops the stone and covers her band, leaning in close to me. An amusing habit she’s picked up in the last year, since her parents were sold into the labor camps. She now openly rails against the government whenever she finds a particularly agitating media wave. She suspects Prothero listens in to everything we say and records it. Which is absurd. How could they monitor everybody? Why would they want to? There are real terrorists threatening security at home and abroad for them to focus their energies on. A pair of National Service Academy residents would be a waste of their time and resources. Her paranoia is Salt induced and nothing more. At least, I hope it is.

I’m kind of counting on that.

“How many times do I have to tell you? They don’t hate you Len. They hate Prothero. And you’re a walking talking commercial for them every time you enter a room,” She uncovers the band absentmindedly.

She probably wasn’t aware of doing it in the first place.

“I was only in three commercials,” I respond lamely.

“Well, that was enough,” She counters.

I shrug and toe a rock around in the dirt.

“Do you wanna see it?” I ask, changing conversational tracks.

I’m tired of talking about Prothero. I want to laugh and forget about tumors and being beaten by a fellow resident.

“No. Yeah. Is it gross?” She scoots in closer.

“Very.” I peel back the patch. The interim eye is made of solid metal with a cyan blue lens operating as the iris. It moves and functions like the old model. The appearance, however, is much creepier. I kind of like it. It’s more conspicuous in a way my other ocular implant never was. I don’t need to pretend at being normal anymore. I’m more robot than person and this is the last visual clue to remind everyone of that.

“Oh wow. It’s pretty. Can I touch it?” She inquires.

I laugh at her question. No matter what screwed up events are happening, Scarlett provides much needed levity. She tosses her blonde curls over one shoulder and leans in. The closer she gets, the more she fish-eyes in the lens until her image distorts like a fun-house mirror. Her lips purse thoughtfully and I laugh harder as they bulge and grow to outrageous proportions in my view.

Scarlett taps the tech with one purple polish coated fingernail. It makes a tinny, solid sound against her nail. I almost flinch at the touch, but the implant is too new to be fully incorporated and accepted as a real part of me. My body remains keenly aware of how false this organ is.

“Cool. I’m jealous,” She reports.


“Yeah. I predict things are going to change for you. This eye thing is way more bad-ass than you give it credit for. Now let’s get back inside. It’s freezing out here,” She stands and tugs on my elbow, pulling me to my feet.

We return back to the residency and hang out in her barracks for the afternoon, smoking with the window open, playing a dice game with a virtual movie on in the background. It’s a regular Sunday night. A night to forget for a few hours I might be dying.

I don’t forget about it though. And I want to be a step ahead of Prothero if I can be, so the next morning I wave Emilia and meet up with her in the resident medical wing. She checks out a phlebotomy kit from the lab and we hike out to an abandoned house mouldering in the suburbs of the Dalles. We scout the perimeter and when it’s confirmed to be all clear, we kick open the weathered front door. Birds scatter in the attic rafters and I hear the distinct squeaking of mice, but it’s otherwise devoid of wildlife. And humans, the bigger concern.

We settle into the kitchen and prop up the table and two chairs, knocked over by criminals looking for a place to rest their heels and take their hits. Glass vials and cigarette butts litter the floor. We aren’t the first people to utilize this space for recreational purposes. Emilia sets the medical kit on the table and stares at me openly. Her normally serene and happy demeanor is tinged with suspicion.

“This is a long walk to draw your blood, Len,” She says, voice calm but heavy with suspect.

“I’m sorry for all the subterfuge, I can never be sure where or what or when the Academy might be recording. I don’t want them to know I’m doing this,” I admit.

“Why?” Emilia asks bluntly. Emilia is great for that. She and Emmanuel have a way of cutting through all the usual social static and getting straight to their point. They will make excellent medical officers. Or medical researchers. They will excel at whatever they put their scary, intelligent brains towards.

“There’s something wrong with me,” I say.

“Yeah, I thought so. You haven’t looked well for the last month or so. Dark circles under your eyes. Pale. Sweating. Nosebleeds. Are you sick? Are you dying?”

“Yes and no. I don’t have all the answers. But I don’t want to be kept in the dark either. You understand?”

Rosa hesitates, then nods. She extracts a syringe and preps her tools while she speaks.

“What kind of tests do you want me to run?” She is suspicious, but less so now that all the cards are on the table.

“Whatever you want to run. But you can’t tell anyone else what you find. Only me. Please. This is important,” I stress.

“Can I tell Manny?” She asks, ignoring most of my previous requests.

“Do you need to?” I ask.

I want to limit their exposure to Prothero, shield them as much as possible. I’m already involving them and asking too much. But I’m blind here, without information, with Prothero in total control. I need to stack the deck in my favor somehow.

“Of course I have to tell her. We could publish an amazing research paper on you. We’ve talked about getting a blood sample to study for months, since you’re the only person on base who takes regular nano suppressants. Honestly, I’m glad you asked for my help. The symptoms of implant rejections are increasing at a much higher rate than normal. So, can I tell her or what?”

Emilia waits for my answer with raised brows and a smooth, placid countenance.

“OK, only you two. No one else. Please,” I repeat. “And you can’t name me in your publication.”

“Fine. I want you to count to ten for me. You will feel a slight prick,” She says, holding the needle over the pit of my elbow, poised near a vein.

“One, two, three, four, five, six-” She stabs the needle in my right arm, initiating blood extraction.

“I thought you said ten,” I mutter, watching red liquid pour into the vial.

“I did. Neither of us like surprises. I don’t want to get caught violating a Prothero law, Leni. Emmanuel is important to me. My life is important to me. We are going to do big things and change the world. You tell me if this is going to get me in trouble,” She flicks the vial and rubs my arm to keep the veins flowing.

“You aren’t going to experience consequences from running these tests. Tell me the results. And then, get rid of the sample,” I instruct.

She nods.

“Aren’t you curious about what you might find there?” I ask, hoping to tease out a smile.

“Yes. I am,” She relents, smiling good naturedly.

Emilia finishes the extraction and turns to rub a healing gel over the wound, but it has closed already.

“Already got that, thanks,” I say with a smirk.

 She bandages my elbow anyway, wrapping the tape and gauze with expert precision. Her fingers don’t shake, she maintains the composure of a dignified surgeon. It’s easy to forget she isn’t even 18 years old yet when she works so efficiently.

She pulls a sticker from the back pocket of her pants and presses it against the cloth of my hooded sweatshirt.

“If it’s between you or Manny, I won’t choose you,” She says in a soothing tone.

I look at the upside down yellow smiling face she placed on my chest, right above my metal heart.

“If it’s between you or me – I would choose you too,” I inform her.

“Good,” She zips up the pack. “That’s why I like you.”

She wraps up her tools and rises from the chair, knocking it over. We tip the furniture back into its state of disarray. It seems right, somehow.

“That’s not the only reason you like me,” I say, nudging her with my good elbow as we move out of the dining-room area.

“It’s certainly not your charming personality,” She gives me a friendly wink.

“Everyone says that. It’s starting to hurt my feelings,” I mutter, following her lead out of the door.

“That’s impossible. According to Scarlett you don’t have any,” Emilia teases.

“Yeah, everyone says that too,” I respond.

“What are we going to find in your blood?” Emilia asks as we trudge away from the city, back towards the ruined highway.

“Answers,” I respond.


The eye patch is worn intermittently. It’s funny how quickly one can adjust to a new appendage, even if it doesn’t want to adjust comfortably to that person. I experience periodic depth perception issues, but those hiccups don’t excuse me from fully participating in field exercises. I come close enough to passing out this morning that the Sergeant releases me. The recent visit from Dr. Dawson was a strong reminder to the Academy I’m largely Prothero property. It’s back to being treated with kid gloves.

I’m headed to the barracks after underestimating the distance jumped between two lakes, nearly drowning in one of them. Swimming isn’t my area of expertise. We’re outdoors this week though it’s snowing outside. The lieutenants are not merciful today and the SIM energy needs to be conserved. I’m showered and laying in bed with the tin box resting on my chest. It’s heavier now. Three years have seen the influx of over 20 more letters. Ages have passed since Dr. Dawson wanted me to open the lid and expose all its confidential contents. They are my secrets to keep. Even Scarlett doesn’t know what’s inside them. She asks, of course. But I’ve maintained my private, personal relationship with this box, its contents and the deliverer of those contents for four years with only a brief period of interruption. When I was blown apart and stitched back together.

It amuses me Prothero couldn’t figure out how to open it. The largest corporation in the world with the smartest team of scientists and mountains of money at its disposal are fooled by a simple, common place tin box. Deceptively common place. You need a key to open it, and the key was hidden in France at that time.

I’m contemplating opening the tin when a throat clears above me. Scowling, I look up.

It’s Rabbit Santiago. He hovers over me, betraying no particular emotion, face decorated with a fading black eye and swollen lip. It’s impossible to read his intention from this vantage point. But it’s unnerving how silently he entered the room. I sit up quickly. The box tumbles off my chest and rolls onto the bed, looking as if it will continue descending to the floor. I’m not worried about it popping open, the lock is quite secure. I stare in awe as Rabbit bends down and scoops the tin up effortlessly right before it free-falls. Quick, like a bunny.

“What are you doing in here?” I demand. The bed separates us. My arm extends over it, reaching for the box.

“What’s in this thing?” He turns it over, searching for the lock.

“What do you want?”

“I want to apologize,” He says, expression serious.

My nerves go on high alert. I snort in response, grabbing for the box. Rabbit deftly moves it out of my reach. Visions rise of stomping on his foot or kneeing him in the crotch.

“OK. Apology accepted. Give me back the box,” I request, reaching for it.

“Fine. Here,” He extends the tin towards me and I quickly snatch it away.

He sighs and sits down across from me, collapsing his elbows on his knees as if he were in danger of falling apart. The vulnerability of this gesture wins him my attention. I sink down onto the bunk, crossing my legs in a sitting position. I balance the box on my lap, running my fingers over the exterior. This action produces a calming mental and physical effect. We’re both quiet. It’s strangely nice, sitting in silence with him. A familiar feeling, from all our time together in the SIM. Protecting each other, covering each other’s asses. He takes a deep breath and I find myself willing to listen.

“I’ve done a lot of thinking the last couple days,” He starts.

I can’t resist needling him, “Sounds painful.”

Rabbit’s raised eyebrow and fleeting smile tug on the corners of my lips. Score one for me. But the levity can’t last, not between us.

“What do you want?”

His jaw drops open and he closes it soundlessly, a fish gasping for air.

“I’m waiting, Rabbit.”

He clears his throat.

“What happened- What Clint did- I’m not like that,” He stutters.

“True, you don’t go around beating your squadmates. Congratulations, you aren’t an asshole. I’ve got a gold star here somewhere for you,” I pat at the pockets of my pants.

“I’m not asking for a gold star.”

He swallows and his throat produces a dry clicking sound.

“What Clinton did… I wouldn’t do that. I wouldn’t hurt someone unless I had to. Unless I needed to,” He says sincerely. “I wouldn’t…” His voice drifts off, collapsing around the words. He squeezes his long, weird fingers together as if attempting to wring the sentiment out.

“I wouldn’t hurt you,” He finally admits in a sober, strangled tone. “Not you.”

The sincerity and pathos catch me off guard and shoot a bolt of electricity up from my toes. I’m reminded of those brief fleeting moments in the SIM where I thought he might kiss me. How he agreed with Clinton that I had ruined his life, sabotaged him somehow. How he stood in the middle of this whole mess and tried to mediate. He did nothing. He didn’t choose a side, did he? Did he choose a side? I squint at the bruises and cuts healing on his face.

I remember him telling Clinton about the bomb. Scenes of him struggling with Clinton in the alley between the looming cargo containers flash before me. The weight of his hot hand against my slumped, defeated shoulders. His apology. This apology.

Maybe Rabbit chose a side.

“I tried to stop him. I tried to save you. I mean- help you. You said I wouldn't help you, but I did."

“You heard that? What I said in the Commons? I thought you were gone,” My metal heart twitches.

“Yeah, I’ve got big ears,” He tugs his bottom ear lobe with a quick, self disparaging grin.

I can’t help but laugh in return, “They are pretty big. I never noticed before.”

“That’s the idea,” He chuckles, a low rumbling sound I feel in my chest. He brushes his curly hair back over them.

“They’re gonna make you cut your hair before we deploy,” I mention, instantly remembering he’s not deploying with us.

“Yeah, that’s why I’m growing it out I guess,” He casts his eyes down to his steepled fingers. “Cause fuck ‘em. It’s my hair. It’s my body.”

“No. It’s not really,” I say, cocking an eyebrow. “It belongs to the Academy. To National Service. To Prothero. Apparently, to the Fullers.”

His hands clench into fists. “I don’t belong to the Fullers.”

“I don’t believe you,” I reply, watching his clenched knuckles turn white with the pressure of his restrained emotion.

“Right. Forget it. Forget I said anything,” He interrupts, shaking his head. “You’re just gonna lump me in with the Fullers. You don’t want to associate with me and you don’t need my help. You don’t need anyone’s help. You’re Eleni Garza. You’re better than everyone else.”

“That’s not fair,” I argue. “I didn’t say that.”

"Yes, you did. You actually did," he says. “But you don’t really have to say anything. You’re the privileged daughter of the doctors who cured NV. You- you’re better than everyone else. Aren’t you?”

“You’re twisting it up. I worked as hard as anyone else to get here.”

“You did?” He asks brusquely. “When?”

“What do you mean, when?”

“When did you work hard Eleni? When were you hauling garbage or scrubbing sinks or bleaching laundry? Did you ever work a hard day in your life?” The indignation bristles in his questions.

I can see it now. I can see a younger version of Rabbit carrying bags of garbage out the back of a late-night restaurant to a compost bin. I can see him on all fours, knees digging into a tile floor as he scrubs a sink. Back aching as he hunches over a pile of laundry, eyes and fingers burning from the chemical fumes. I can see him out there, in the real world, sweating for a different life. I can see that reflected in his far off looks. The Rabbit look – shoveling through the crappy jobs forced on him with the detached compartmentalization of someone destined to be a soldier. Rabbit worked hard to get here. I can see that now.

But that doesn’t change how I perceive him. It shouldn’t change anything. It doesn’t.

“Yesterday. Commons duty. I cleaned the toilets. What’s your point?” I ask smugly.

"I meant before here. To get here. You take the Academy for granted, don't you?" He asks, inflection bordering on disgust. "Talking to you- this- this was a terrible idea.”

He scoots towards the edge of the bed, getting ready to run.

“What do you want me to say?” I ask, stopping him in his tracks. “That I’m sorry Prothero bought me and sold me into Service? That it’s my fault I grew up in the shadow of my parents? You’re accusing me of things I don’t control, Rabbit. So for the last time, what do you want from me?”

Rabbit drops his head and ruffles his scruffy, dark hair. He meets my gaze, the bewildered pools of his eyes deepening.

“I don’t know,” He says softly. “I want…”

His voice peeters out and we sit together in tense silence. Unconsciously my fingers raise to my temple, massaging and pushing at the flesh and wires there. The beginnings of a raging headache are forming. I feel it like a snarling storm on the horizon.

“You don’t know what you want,” I hold the oncoming pain at bay by grinding my back molars together. The result is a tinfoil taste on my tongue. “So, that’s it. I accept your apology. We done here?”

“Yeah,” Rabbit says. He rises from the bed and stops himself with a jolt.

“No,“ He collapses back on the mattress, staring at me boldly. The change in his demeanor puts me on edge. I pull in a deep breath, my fake lung swelling with the pressure. “In the Commons. That letter-”

“Is not up for discussion,” I say, exhaling quickly. Too quickly.

He scowls, pressing a palm to his forehead. My metal heart skips a beat. There’s no way he decoded the letter in that short time frame. It’s impossible. The code Mateo and I devised is not perfect but it’s meant to obscure our communications for just such occasions.

“It’s none of your business.”

“Hey, that’s my line,” He quick smiles, trying to ease the tension. It’s an admirable effort.

“I am aware. You use it on me all the time. It’s a little unfair since you insist on meddling in my business,” I purse my lips at him.

“Look – before the fight in the SIM, Clinton talked to me. He said ‘weird things’ were happening to you. He’s not smart, but he’s not blind either. None of us are. We’re with you all the time, practically every day. Your headaches, the nosebleeds, those visions and voices and the bomb and the LRAD,” He stops, one shoulder curved up in a questioning gesture.

I shrug and stare down at the tin box in my lap, filled with secrets. I flip it upside down and right side up. The letters encased inside tumble end over end.

“The squad made it out safe. It doesn’t matter who did what. We all survived. No big deal, right?” I insist.

“Look, I know what I’ve seen in the SIMs. I watched you overload that tablet during the exam. In the SIM that day, something  happened between you and Clinton. Some electrical current passed between you.”

“Nothing happened,” I say.

I don’t like the direction of these questions. I don’t understand what point he’s trying to make. Most of all, I don’t want to consider the mounting evidence. The implications of my body changing, the ramifications of the tumor and nano injections.

“You’re wrong. Clinton says. He thinks- I think- Prothero _changed _ you  didn’t they? I don’t just mean the implants or the robot arm,” He gestures to indicate the left side of my body.

“No, Rabbit. Prothero didn’t change me into a better soldier. They rebuilt me into a freak. A dangerous monster who destroys everything good she touches. I mean, look at this eye. Look at me,” I shake my head, dismissively at first, but the lump in my throat melts and hot tears threaten to spill from my eyes.

“Look at me,” I echo in a choked whisper. I glance up at him quickly, embarrassed to be caught in this tangle of emotions in front of him. Embarrassed to be exposed and vulnerable in front of Rabbit Santiago. Again.

“I am. I am looking at you,” He says, voice husky.

He stares at me the same way he did in the SIM a week ago, our bodies only inches apart. When we were in The Commons and he bent to retrieve the letter. A swooning giddiness stirs in my belly. My heart implant skips a beat. The desire to lean across the expanse and kiss him shoots up from the base of my spine. He scoots to the edge of the bed and my heart beats faster.

I untangle my legs to inch closer, the momentarily forgotten tin box unmooring from my lap. This time it drops like a rock and hits the ground with a heavy thud, eating up the silence in the room. I stare at it, afraid the letters spilled out, along with my secrets. What am I doing with Santiago? I can’t have feelings for anyone else. Can’t involve anyone else in my life. This is wrong. This is so wrong.

We’re both distracted, looking at the floor. The intimate moment is gone, interrupted. Santiago leans down and picks up the tin without any of his former grace but with a leisurely deliberateness. He gives the ornate carvings more of his attention than before. He heard the shifting of the letters. He observed my emotional connection to it. From the set of his jaw, he doesn’t get a good vibe from this box. He reluctantly gives it over to me, avoiding eye contact.

“You should leave,” I say quietly.

He rises quickly from the bed and stalks off with that funny gait of his, the top half of his long body leaning forward, trailing his lower torso behind. He’s almost to the door before I muster up focus to speak again.

“Thanks,” I call out, stalling his progress. I like him in here. I like a few more quiet moments together without the outside world pressing on us. “For apologizing. You’re a good guy, Rabbit. A nice guy. Sorry if I’m not a nice girl,” I say with a sad, weary smile.

“Eleni-” He turns to me.

“You want a nice girl,” I inform him. “Someone you can take home to the Fullers. Someone who won’t make you a liability and ruin your future prospects.”

He runs a hand through his moppy hair, working his jaw around until he finds the words.

“I wanted you… I wanted you to listen to me,” He says.

He wanted me to listen to him. I wonder how many people ever listen to Rabbit Santiago.

“Thanks… for listening to me,” He finishes. The puzzled look on his face indicates he’d like to say more. But he stops. He looks at me.

“I always do,” I respond wryly. “I listen to you.”

“You never  do,” He counters with a quick Rabbit grin.

“You won’t tell me anything,” I remind him. “Everything is none of my business.”

“You’re right. It is none of your business. Goodbye Garza,” He winks, turning and exiting the room in a rush.

“Goodbye Rabbit,” I whisper as his back disappears through the door.

An audible sigh escapes me and the tension creeping its way all over my muscles releases. My mind floats a million miles away and my vision moves to the box laying on top of the sheets.

I pull a necklace out of my shirt, a coin dangling from the chain. I detach the coin and roll it into a slot in the tin box. The lid pops open and I remove the stack of letters inside, setting them on the bed. I pick up the top letter, running the tips of my fingers over the paper and ink. These are from Mateo Alvarez. The Matador. These are letters from a terrorist.


I didn’t know Mateo was a Contra. Not at first. At first it was how you might envision young love blossoming. Two 14 year olds sat under a lime tree in a courtyard outside the gates of a military base, peeling the rinds off citrus fruit and tossing them to crows. We watched one of the local boys, Javier Hernandez, gathering limes to sell on the street-corner to the soldiers and tourists. He’d been tagged in cross-fire between two factions of Contras. Revolutionaries with different types of revolution in mind. The irradiated bullet tore through his calf, shredding the meat and breaking the bone apart. He replaced it with a plastic leg, the kind of hollow, creaking item you could easily print up at a replicator store on the corner. Not sturdy enough to last for long. His parents probably purchased one every six months, like a new pair of shoes. I liked Javier. He always waved and smiled at me with a palpable cheerfulness, limping between the trees, limes bulging from the hemp bag slung over his shoulder.

Matty and I listened to the chatter of nationals, watching as they lined up in the hot sun to receive inoculations. We talked about my leaving in two days time and how we imagined Paris would look, feel and smell. Communicating in Mateo’s broken English and my limited Spanish. We bit sour fruit and held hands in the shade of the tree. Hiding away from the suspicious gazes of the military men and women around us.

Mexico City was falling apart. In a few places, literally, where the bombs exploded. Where civilians rioted for inoculations, burning cars and shattering glass. Boards went up over windows and were never removed. Doors were shoved ajar and left open to the public, all the contents inside looted. The city was littered with damaged buildings and parks where average citizens waged battles against police and soldiers, suffering the fate of unarmed people when they go up against authority clad in riot gear and wielding weapons. Innocent people died fighting for medicine to help them live. The horror of such an act lost to their bloody corpses, lost to the loved ones mourning them. They experienced no other side of war but the losing side.

The disease and war is the result of Prothero’s work. A lab exploded here seven years ago and released a chemical nano weapon which spread across the population like a wild fire in a dry summer field. That is secret information, obtained only by those working in the Prothero government with access to high level security clearance. As far as the rest of the world is concerned, the Muslims or the Contras or both loosed NV, so the world supports never-ending conflict as retribution. Any solution to get rid of the virus and the terrorists. The only cure is an inoculation produced by Prothero and they hold the government patent for the next twenty years. Creating a generic from their intellectual property is something they can charge dearly for.

Prothero didn’t find the cure. The inoculation was created by my parents. They spent their last days traveling the globe with it, tugging me in their wake as they delivered salvation to the populace.

 I had the cure. Mateo did not. We held hands anyway. He was dying under the lime tree. I was leaving for Paris so my parents could assist in establishing an emergency base to deal with the outbreak there. The whole world was sick and dying but Mateo’s palms were warmer than the sun of Mexico and our fledgling love smelled like limes.

You couldn’t skip a bi-weekly inoculation if you were a government employee or dependent. I tried to let Matty go in my place instead, to receive the life-saving injection since enough of the drug accumulated in my body to last for weeks. He was turned away at the door. It was impossible to cheat this system, they scanned your retina to ensure the medicine was going to the right person. I didn’t own enough eyeballs at the time to loan him one, so over the course of four months I watched him grow sicker. Mexican citizens only received the drug if they were selected by weekly lottery.

Mateo’s number was 16 and it hadn’t come up in six months. Inky veins snaked like deadly, poisonous rivers under his skin. It should have worried me more, I suppose. But life outside of Prothero contained a dreamy sense of unreality. I watched the world crumble from a safe distance, wrapped in a comfortable blanket of ignorance. It should have worried both of us but I could only concentrate on how devastating it was that our flight was leaving in 48 hours and I’d never see him again.

Nestled under the lime tree, Matty asked me to steal an inoculation from the hospital cart. And I agreed. He said if I delivered the medicine to him that evening, he would not be sick anymore. I didn’t have a good reason to say no. Stealing from Prothero felt like a game, like pretend. I wasn’t scared of them. I’d grown up with some measure of their involvement my entire life, like a benevolent over-seer. A third, kindly parent figure, gifting me good health, abundant food, and shelter. Disobeying Prothero possessed all the weight of defying my parents. And those consequences were never more severe than standing in the corner with my nose against the wall.

I was 14. I was an idiot.

Love for my friend made me brave and Prothero’s indiscretions colored my perception of what was right and wrong in the world. Maybe that’s not entirely true. Seeing the sickest, deadliest parts of the world tainted my perception of what was right and wrong. I knew stealing was wrong, but letting people suffer when you had enough medicine to heal everyone was also wrong. The only alternative was watching Matty die.

We planned it out that morning. I would be seated at the small battered desk in the former kindergarten room of an elementary school they’d repurposed for a public health facility. Right before they gave me the inoculation I would moan and fake stomach cramps, doubling over. It worked. The nurse looked away, calling one of the assistants over to us. While her attention was diverted, I grabbed a handful of injections and stuffed them into the outer thigh pocket of my cargo pants. I was certain no one noticed, despite the pocket bulging with medicine. I never witnessed authorities scanning Prothero staff and family after inoculations. We had no need to take what was offered for free.

Prothero wasn’t immediately aware I’d stolen the medicine. So I enjoyed this one, glorious evening where I thought everything was going right. I was a hero and I’d saved another person’s life. There were the final, brief, fleeting moments where I delivered the inoculations to Matty in a tin box my father purchased from Afghanistan, another of my parents war ravaged travel destinations. The tin was special. It still is. I didn’t possess many items, we traveled often and learned to pack only the objects of true importance. I kept them all locked away in the tin. I’d scooped all the “important” trinkets out of it already, like the mood ring from my Grandparents. The miniature china tea set from my Aunt. Stickers. Toys. A whistle. Chapstick. These were all dumped in a plastic bag and shoved into my luggage.

I presented the box to Mateo. The tin constructed with graceful, swirling decorative symbols in Arabic I could not decipher. Neither could my father. The key to unlock it is genius in its simplicity. A silver coin slips into a slot on the left side, the gap in the metal expertly hidden under all the decoration. Your fingers would normally glide right past it, but for a small indent where two objects meet, a moon and star. In between them is the slot. The coin rolls into it and you can hear an internal mechanism click. The key rolls out the right side. The coin is emblazoned with the same image, the moon and stars melting into one another. My father punched a hole in it and I wore the coin on a chain around my neck for safe keeping.

I offered these items to Mateo. Explained how the lock and key work. There were six vials inside. One a week for the next six weeks. I wasn’t sure if it would save him. But I was sure it would stall the progression of the darkened veins moving up his neck and spreading like fungus across his jaw and cheeks. I stood a moment, admiring his tan skin and wide nose, sharp cheekbones, long hair that framed his large, chocolate eyes. He offered me a generous smile as he took the box and we hugged. My nose and heart filled with limes. The bitter scent stung my nostrils, searing into my brain, permanently rooting in my memories. He stooped his neck down towards me and I placed the chain over his head. He gave me a slip of paper, written in the Spanish I learned from our stilted conversations.

We could not communicate over the inter-waves. They were not secure. Prothero scanned for exchanges between nationals and servicemen, especially on military bases, so electronic communication was not an option if we wanted privacy. Privacy is what every 14 year old romantic wants. The sense of a forbidden, marginally dangerous love. The first slip of paper he gave me contained the hastily scribbled name and address of a connection in Paris to whom I could deliver letters. I didn’t question why or how he would be acquainted with a person half way across the world. I was too enamored of the idea of our secret tryst.

He departed with the box and I with a slip of paper. The Spanish words didn’t take long to memorize, as he’d instructed. I repeated them all the way back to base where I ripped the paper into shreds and flushed it down the toilet with the gray water, as Matty suggested.

Prothero soldiers came for me the next morning. They’d noticed the inoculation discrepancy and reviewed the security devices to determine how the injectors had gone missing. When the officer first knocked on the door my parents were polite. Polite and upset. Then frightened. I was led away in unfamiliar tech handcuffs. They took me to a sparse, cold white room, sat me on a chair in front of a table and left me there for two hours. I chewed the inside of my cheeks raw, hoping my parents would arrive at any moment. Instead, a scary General with pepper gray hair and icy green eyes entered the room. One look at the grave set of his jaw and I couldn’t stop the frightened tears.

He questioned me about the inoculations. Why I’d taken them, where I’d taken them, what I’d done with them. I lied consistently, keeping my story straight every time. I told the Prothero general I’d tossed them down one of the open sewage drains near the base because I thought they would go into the water system, and assumed more people could get the inoculations.

After about four hours, no sign of my parents, and no ability to leave the room, my bladder released. The General left the room, disgusted. A stout female soldier with brown hair and friendly hazel eyes entered with a change of clothes, a grey Prothero shirt and a pair of camouflage pants. She told me her name but the fear, anxiety and humiliation swept all traces of it from my mind. The soldier was gentle and caring, but changing into a prison uniform scared me worse than the interrogation.

She led me, handcuffed, to the bathroom where I changed out of my clothes and into new ones. She uncuffed me so I could dress easier. My wrists ached from being trapped in one position for so long and were tender from the dull rub of the metal. It was the first time I put the uniform on. It wouldn’t be the last. In many ways, I’ve worn it ever since. The clothes were coarse and the fabric stiff with too many washes. They smelled like chemicals. The female soldier seemed genuinely sympathetic to my suffering, speaking in low murmurs and patting my back as I sobbed into her shoulder on the terrifying walk back to the cold, white room.

The General returned, and after another round of questions, my parents were led in. We viewed the tape of my indiscretion together. I couldn’t force myself to witness the crime, so I watched my parents horrified faces instead. It was worse than I imagined to see their countenances morph in shame and fear. These are the ghostly images of my parents haunting my dreams, their looks of confusion as they watched me steal the drugs they helped create from their employer. The pain they expressed told me all I needed to know about what the future held in store for us. Prothero wasn’t going to forgive and let this go easily. The corporation no longer acted as a benevolent care-taker. There would be serious consequences for violating their protocols.

The General looked pointedly at my mother, “Of course, this kind of theft could result in both of your terminations.”

She frantically pushed the black bangs from her eyes, leaning towards the table in such a way that her upper torso half folded. The bright terror in her features wrenched in my gut.

“Please understand. She’s a naive child with funny ideas,” My mother shook her head, tears spilling over her cheeks.

“Exactly. She’s a minor and this is a first time offense. She didn’t intend any harm to anyone,” My father leaned forward as well, both my parents bending as if the joints that held their hips in place simply ceased to exist.

They looked broken. Like two broken dolls instead of the weary, stoic parents from 24 hours ago. Distracted but patient. Loving but immersed in their passions. Devoted but distant. Affectionate and tender but always glancing over their shoulders and squinting ahead, hands pressed above their brows or to their temples. Racing around the globe to stave off the threat of a virus as if it were their last mission on earth.

I watched a bead of sweat roll and slide down my father’s pock-marked chin. It tumbled off and landed on the collar of his crisp, white shirt. I thought about our efforts to convince them of our innocence. To placate them into believing we were good people with no pernicious intentions. There was no court, there was no trial. There was only the cold white room and the intimidating, powerful white man whom Prothero allowed to control our fate. What would he do? Terminate my parent’s employment? Put us in prison? Kill us?

“I am interested in where she gets these ideas. Who she associates with outside of the other children at the base?” The General tapped on his tablet, leaning back in the chair and examining us with a pale, lifeless stare.

There was no comfort or promise of redemption in his gaze. Hope drifted further away.

“No one,” I replied instantly. My voice was high and sharp, pleading from my throat.

“Are you sure? This entire city is under our surveillance,” He rotated the tablet and a video popped into view.

The video displayed what I feared most, Mateo and I under our favorite tree tossing lime rinds to the birds, laughing and holding hands.

“Who is this boy?” The General asked, coolly.

My parents turned to me, bodies heavy with devastation. They looked at me as if I was a stranger, not their daughter. There was no trace of love or recognition in their eyes. I shifted my gaze to the cuffs. The humiliation and guilt burned all over me. I wished I could burst into flames and turn to dust under their stares.

“It’s my friend,” I whispered, all the spit emptied out of my mouth.

My throat made a dry clicking as I tried to swallow. I couldn’t get past a painful lump trapped there.

“You are associating with a child afflicted by a particularly aggressive strain of the nano virus. We would like you to give us the identity of this boy so we can place him in quarantine,” The General insisted.

I could have told them about Matty. But I did not. This was the first time I discovered how truly monstrous I could be. It doesn’t take implants or burn scars to frighten yourself or others. It only takes the uttering of one name. I gave them the name of the boy who collected limes from our tree and sold them on the street corner. Who, like Mateo, had a number which had rarely been called. Until that moment.

When it was over, with the name revealed, I collapsed back against the chair. My head heavy. My eyelids heavy. The General exited the room, looking no more pleased than when he’d entered. Two guards followed in his wake, unshackling my parents and I. Freeing us. But we were not really freed. Not ever again. You don’t get caught stealing from Prothero and go back to a normal life. We signed non-disclosure contractual agreements we didn’t have the time and energy to read. We were escorted back to our barracks by guards and people on the road stared, though no one would meet our gaze. The civilians were too cowed and broken to care.

In the city a young boy, Javier Hernandez, was seized and tortured and maybe killed. I did that. I gave them the wrong name. Instead of saving a life, Mateo’s life, I ended another.

Our family was whisked away to Paris, France within 24 hours of our release. Armed guards led us out of Mexico City and onto a jet plane. We were assigned clasped bands to track our movements via GPS. The bands monitored our heart rates, vital signs, acted as our identification and financial documents. Our lives became thin pieces of metal we were ordered to wear at all times.

I was flown across an ocean and haven’t seen Mateo since.

My 14 year old, flexible tendons allowed me to slip the cuff when I wanted to believe Prothero wasn’t tracking my movements. I swapped bands with girls my age to add a further layer of subterfuge to my adventures. A compliment here, a bout of laughter there, and Prothero was completely unaware I’d located the address and contact from Matty’s slip of paper. The man in the cheerful, crumbling alleyway next to a Parisian cafe greeted me with a familiar tin box and coin.

Later, back at the barrack, I opened the tin. It contained the first letter. I unfolded the page with shaky fingers and read his shaky script in the childish code we’d devised. Matty writes me in English, transposing the correct alphabet letter for its corresponding number. A=One, B=Two, C=Three, etc. with the numbers spelled out rather than abbreviated. The code is crude, but the numbers obscuring the intent of the message provide a level of comfort and security for a message traveling long distance. His first letter contained code names he’d chosen to further shield us from detection. Mine felt particularly bitter, but in time I grew to appreciate its meaning. Its weight.


         _I hope this letter finds you well and reaches you safe. I waited for you at the lime tree like usual the day you were supposed to leave and you never showed. People in the neighborhood told me what happened. How they led you away in handcuffs. I was nervous and we hid the tin in one of the underground sewer tunnels in case the Peace Officers came for us. They never did. _

[_        They came for a boy named Javier Hernandez instead. Lima, I have no choice but to think you did this. You told them it was Javier who took the inoculations and not me. The Officers raided his house and took him and his family. An entire family vanished overnight and they have not been seen again. _]

[_        I should thank you and be grateful but I’m also angry. Angry that you were caught. Angry that another family is dead or missing. Why didn’t you tell them it was me? What happened to you? Where are you? _]

[_        I imagine you are in Paris eating croissants and drinking fancy chocolate coffee with your nose pressed to the screen of a tablet, building those computer puzzles and applications you talked about. That is the only way I can survive without knowing the truth. _]

[_        My mother says the truth is biased. She says there is a good chance you are dead, like Javier and his family and you are never coming back. _]

[_        Please write to me Lima. I need to know you are alive. I need the truth. _]


_With Love, _


        I wrote him back that evening with hemp paper and a pen I stole from the front desk of the medical base. Paper and ink were expensive commodities in Europe and I didn’t want to waste either with a spelling error. It was easier to type out the words on my tablet, running them through a translating application I created. It generated all the spelled out numbers and I copied them directly from the screen. Sitting up in my bed with a blanket drawn up over my head to hide the tablet light, my parents snoring on the other side of the room. Or maybe they weren’t snoring at all. Maybe they were awake and aware of their treacherous daughter making further contact with her terrorist boyfriend. I don’t know. I don’t remember enough about them to know. Their bodies are smudged, drawn over with lines and their voices echo against the walls and windows of my head like ghosts. Not real people.

        One of the clearer images of my parents, is of my Dad with his feet propped up at a desk staring blearily into a computer monitor, eyes red-rimmed from exhaustion. I entered the room with my mom, back from the dinner he routinely skipped when he was working. He sat up, stretched and folded my mother into a hug.

He said, looking down at me with my mother wrapped in his arms. “The funny thing about a virus Lydia, is that a virus doesn’t choose sides.”

He mumbled this into the taut flesh of her collarbone, staring at me with troubled, watering eyes, the lines deepening around them as he spoke.

My parents were trying to make things better – make the world safer – cure the disease faster. Contain and cure and bring the world peace from the nano virus. Maybe I wasn’t so different from them, as I’d suspected under the lime tree. Maybe our desire to help, to resolve the wrong all came from the same place. I needed to make things right, with Matty at least. I would do whatever he asked.

I wrote him back expressing my terror, my guilt, my safety, my desire for penance. What could I do? What could I do to make up for it? I couldn’t let the deaths of an entire family haunt me forever. But mostly I remember that stupidly innocent boy with the cow eyes and thin hair and slim, hungry frame and dark veins of disease. He will haunt me forever.

Helping Mateo, I knew  it wasn’t a sound proposition. But then again, I was only 14. Hindsight tells me if stealing one thing from Prothero led to deaths, why would I persist in doing more damage? But I wasn’t evaluating the situation properly. Not then. I was furious at being threatened and humiliated. I was anxious to make amends to Mateo, to serve an appropriate sentence for taking those lives. Matty offered the only solution to soothe the shame and guilt.

The first favors he requested of me were easy, not really like stealing at all. He asked me to memorize passwords and inform him of what I saw happening in my part of Paris. Simple tasks. What he asked of me became less and less safe with every letter. Most of it was information or memorized bits of data I could obtain using technology. I would sneak into my mother’s office and download the data and files on her computer, capitalizing on her remote access to Prothero’s database and intranet. I was good with tech, even at a young age. It wasn’t hard to set up a program to capture her keystrokes and reveal her passwords so I could gain entry to confidential information.

I should have had more pause and reserve when it came to stealing important things from Prothero, but after enough time and self deception, the initial scare obtained a surreal quality, like a horrible dream. All I remembered was Prothero wronging Mateo and I, killing Javier and his family in the process. It was so much easier to spread the burden and blame. I lumped my parents into this category, for letting Prothero frighten me.

My parents reactions to my theft in Mexico City drove a wedge in the widening fissure of our relationship. They already worked long hours in the trenches on the war against the nano virus and were rarely home. Our brief time together brimmed with mechanical hugs and frosty sentiments. It was as if I’d stolen their child and replaced her with an alien thing. I was a foreign object inserted into our family, a living breathing entity possessing none of the emotions and history of their former daughter.

They were afraid of me.

It was a smart suspicion. I shadowed all of Prothero’s movements in Paris and with helpful tips and stolen secrets of our communications, so did Mateo and the Contras. My knowledge of the inner workings of Paris was another layer added to my loathing of the city and its inhabitants. It wasn’t just the decadence and opulence of its citizens. It was also the creeping disease and underlying threat of death permeating the sweet scent of bread and pastries. I hated how naive they were about what was happening behind their closed doors. I hated myself too.

Then the bomb exploded, taking me far away from those worlds. The bomb took me from both my distrusting parents and my terrorist best friend, flinging me into the atmosphere and landing me into the open, loving arms of Prothero. Right in the belly of the beast. It was impossible to communicate with Mateo, for awhile. It wasn’t as if I’d disappeared, the entire world knew where I was and what happened to me. He knew where to find me. One of the Contras worked as a janitor, cleaning floors and emptying compost and recycling bins at the Prothero funded youth rehabilitation center. I entered this institution directly from the hospital, depressed and exhausted. I languished there for a year until they threw me a bone, an opportunity to be productive with my mangled life by enrolling me in mandatory National Service. I could pay my debts. I could rack up more.

The Contra janitor dropped a letter and kicked it under my bed one evening, while I was scribbling furiously on a tablet. Scribbling and drawing and writing out all the nightmares and isolation. After he left, I slid out of the covers and crouched on all fours to retrieve it.

With teary eyes I read the message.


_When I learned about the bombing in Paris, and heard that you and your parents were victims, I believe my heart stopped beating. And a second time, when I discovered you were placed under the protection of Prothero. You had been repaired and implanted with computer parts and technology that would heal all your injuries. You are with the enemy now, and you feel alone. _

Do not be discouraged. Allies exist all around you. I cannot be there in person, but I am there in spirit. I am fighting and breathing alongside you. You are not alone.

I had the strangest dream last night. You were painting pictures of us under the lime tree where we first met. But instead of the images staying on the canvas, they climbed out of it and danced around the courtyard. You made these paintings come to life. They were mesmerizing, like the drawings you send to me. I would give you an equally beautiful gift, but I am no artist. One day I will see you paint in person, and you will make art so wonderful, it will come alive. And we will dance.

[_Ah time. It is the enemy of all. It kept us apart for too long. I have another dream, but it is not about your paintings. It’s not a thing I dreamt in the night. It’s a vision during waking hours, of you escaping Prothero and meeting me here in Mexico City. It is dangerous. I know this cannot happen. But I think about it. I dream. Maybe you could tell me one of your dreams. We would share our dreams everyday if you were here. _]

I hope all our efforts are not wasted. We will be able to defeat Prothero and liberate you. You are the reason I fight. You and everyone like you.


_With Love, _


Reading that letter from Mateo, after not hearing from him or any of my loved ones for so long, after losing my parents and control over my body and life… well, it was enough to sustain me. Enough to help me endure the prisons Prothero placed me in. Up until January of this year, those letters meant the promise of freedom, escape from years of manipulation. Matty promised escape to a terrorist refuge of… of what exactly? The way he describes it, life for the Contras isn’t glamorous or safe. But it’s the only other option available to me. It’s a choice other than choosing to stay here.

Is it strange I would return to the metaphorical arms of a terrorist when around the same time, my relatives abandoned me. I blame my Grandparents especially for giving in to Prothero’s legal team and the pressure they exerted to turn me over as a ward of the state. As an entity Prothero could capitalize on, experiment with, relegate to mandatory service.

While Prothero originally pitied me and took me on as a special case, they didn’t ever intend to pay my medical bills. I was implanted with organs and received special nano injections, along with a lengthy rehabilitation stay at their top medical facility.  My debt topped out at over fifty million dollars. While the press insisted Prothero generously provided this care and these resources free of charge, the legalities of it were not straight-forward. I could work off the debt from within the system, or my relatives could claim me and the millions in fees. My Grandparents or Aunts and Uncles couldn’t afford to pay that kind of money. It was easier for them if I was a ward of the state. It was easier for everyone if Prothero kept me as their own.

Reading the first letter from Mateo, post-bombing, was a reminder at least one person remembered me for who I was, and wanted to claim me despite all the debts owed. Those sentiments were nice, if not entirely realistic. He was nice. He was thousands of miles away, participating in a resistance against my jailers. And I was rotting in the bowels of Prothero, stuffed full of their tech like a holiday turkey. Practically bursting out of the seams with it.

It took several more months after the first post-bombing letter for me to slip Mateo anymore vital information. Old habits are hard to break, and I could break into pieces of tech at the youth center with little difficulty on my part. It was their fault, for letting me commune with the machines. For showing me the possibilities of flight. Prothero was convinced I sat placidly in their labs, fixed and harmless as furniture. But no matter how much they placated and trained me to obedience, I could defy them. They’d given me every reason to do so. They’d taken my parents from me, even before the bombing. They’d taken Matty, killed Javier and his family. They’d violated my body with technology and manipulated my mind. Prothero stole all these things from me.

        Except for this stupid tin. These letters are all I have left. I can’t get rid of them.


I don’t see Rabbit again until the next day in the cafeteria, where he sits with his usual crowd of people, plus Layla Danvers. Layla is an aeronautics resident, a recent addition to their group, and a nice girl. She showed up at the table the day after Clinton Fuller disappeared, taking advantage of his absence to wheedle closer to Santiago. I get it, I get that Rabbit’s attractive and friendly. The presence of Clinton scared most female residents away, but he’s gone now and Rabbit is officially on the market as a viable love interest. I roll my gaze away from the syrupy sweet amorous attentions they pay one another and consider the circumstances instead.

Clinton hasn’t been released from solitary yet and we all wonder what happened to him. A week has passed. Most fights carry a maximum of three days in the brig. Maybe he started trouble and they increased his sentence. I don’t know and I don’t care. It’s a relief for him to be squirreled away somewhere on base so we can live free of his presence.

Scarlett remains ignorant about the incident with Rabbit in the bunk. Just as I’ve kept her in the dark about the letters and the tumor. What kind of friend am I, hiding all these important secrets? Up until recently only the letters were locked away. Now everything important in my life could negatively impact her. Is it a wrong impulse, shielding her from ugly truths? The less she knows, the better it will be for her if I’m ever found out. I hope.

Scarlett drinks her customary black coffee and listens to Emilia describe how a pituitary gland works. It’s not exactly a riveting story, but the quiet, steady hum of Emilia’s speech is pleasant in the muted cafeteria.

Scarlett usually lets others talk early in the morning. She doesn’t like to communicate much before 9am. An attractive young man beams at her. There’s an equally appealing gentleman across from me and I’m supposed to be listening to his explanation of a digital comic book about aliens but I can’t stop my mind from drifting to Rabbit Santiago, Clinton Fuller and Scarlett. How we all are tied together by an invisible knot. I vow to tell Scarlett this evening about my conversation with Rabbit. Maybe she can make sense of it if I can’t. She’s people smart.

After breakfast, on the way to dump our trays, Scarlett interrupts my musings.

“I got a wave this morning, from my friend Sarah back in Biloxi. She says she’s lost touch with my parents,” Scarlett frowns deeply.

I place a hand on her shoulder.

“I’m sorry Scar.”

“It’s fine. I wish I knew what camp they were in. I sent them my disbursements, but now…I dunno what to do. The money just collects in my account without a forwarding address,” She says, roughly tossing her silverware into a drying tray. “I’m even more worried about Logan. Stupid asshole. Sarah said he was spotted by one of her friends in a flashhouse down in New Orleans. Ending up in one of those places is like falling down a well. Hard to get back out.”

“We’ll figure it out. They won’t be missing for long,” I offer, trying to sound encouraging.

“You’re right. I can’t help getting frustrated. If only I had a better way of communicating with them. None of them own a band, so it’s impossible,” She says, sniffing back tears.

Guilt wrenches at my heart. I found a way to communicate with loved ones across time and space without the need for technology. It hardly seems fair she was ripped away from her family, and they were sentenced to toil away in a debtor’s camp. Our mood dims as we ponder this serious subject.

Scarlett’s misfortune plagues me for the next few hours. I don’t like seeing her upset. Depression and frustration are not her natural states. It seems like there is an obvious solution to get her back in touch with her family. Something I can do to assist.

I wrack my brain during morning classes until it clicks. I need access to a computer terminal unrestricted by the controls they place on residents. I need to look into files only viewed by soldiers and COs. The closest terminal is in the Administration building, about 15 minutes away by hovercar. 30 minutes on foot, 20 if I move fast. I hit the doors of the mess hall and walk until I’m out of the line of sight of any windows, then break into a run.

Once I reach the administration building, I feign a pretense for being there, as per usual. We need to review structural integrity, I am requesting specialization re-assignment, I’ve indicated a new recipient for my Academy earnings. A dozen different excuses worked in the past with little to no scrutiny on the part of those in charge.

In general, there is an overwhelming amount of malaise on the base. So far away from civilization and other citizens, people become lazy. Careless with checks and balances. Careless with encrypted codes and passwords. Especially here in Administration, where years have passed since anyone has seen combat, if they ever had in the first place. It only took me two trips out here to memorize the keystrokes of the administrative assistant at the front desk.

The keeper of this access code, the person in control of the administration database, is a plump, wrinkled white woman in her 50s with pitying blue eyes and wispy thin graying blonde hair, cut into bangs framing her round, heart-shaped face. Her name is Cathy and her smile is so easy and cordial it gives me a pang of guilt to include her as an unwilling, uninformed accomplice in my duplicity. Or maybe it’s better this way. She will have complete deniability. The pictures on her tablet indicate children and grandchildren, so dragging her into this situation could have profound implications for her loved ones. Not that it has ever stopped me in the past.

I ignore the repercussions, stuffing the guilt into a mental container and closing the lid. I sign in at the front desk, retrieve a temporary badge, and walk past the X-Ray scanners. Of course, even with empty pockets, I set off the buzzer. My body contains metal components and non-organics I can never remove. This has become routine here and without a second glance the sentry waves me forward. I collect my belongings and move past Cathy’s desk, into the thrum of the main office and down a side hall, where an all but forgotten computer terminal exists, clumped next to a bathroom and water fountain. It used to be some kind of advertising or informational kiosk. Whatever the case, it has become the perfect gateway to hack into the system, using the stolen password from Cathy.

It doesn’t take long to search the database and net to cull the information Scarlett’s looking for. I download the data to an encrypted jump drive, avoiding the use of my band or tablet, as those would be incredibly traceable. The jump drive can be uploaded and disposed of easily. In the middle of the process a Sergeant walks by and I tap the screen to close the open window. It shifts from a stream of scrambled numbers and letters to the Prothero symbol floating against a gray background.

I leave the jump drive dangling from the kiosk, in hopes he will not notice, and shuffle over to the water fountain. He surveys me sternly, requesting my temporary badge and scanning my band for ID. The beating of the heart implant increases in tempo the longer he stands there. He takes note of the amped up cardiovascular response and his line of questioning becomes more intense. I was hoping for a quick interview. This is turning into an interrogation. Finally, he gives back my badge and tells me to move along. I nod and duck into the bathroom, leaving the jump drive and the computer terminal safely behind me.

When I exit the bathroom, the Sergeant waits outside the door, arms folded, foot tapping. I make a point of squeezing between him and the wall. My only chance of grabbing the jump drive will be in passing. If I leave it here, Scarlett will be found out, as the information directly ties to her. All the saliva flees my mouth and throat at the same time.

We walk, the Sergeant pressing so near he’s almost crushing me to the wall. When we’re a foot away from the terminal I devote my entire concentration to cleanly snatching the drive from the USB port on the terminal. As we march past, I snatch the jump drive from the port and I fold it in half until it forms a silver square less than two inches long and half an inch wide. I jam the drive in my pocket before the Sergeant catches a glimpse.          

He shoves me through the doors into the front office and barks at the administrative workers sternly for letting a resident loiter in the hallways un-attended. At the desk, Cathy rolls her eyes and gestures for me to pass the exiting scanner. I retrieve the tablet from my pocket and place it on the metal tray, but don’t dare show them the jump drive. Not with the Sergeant peering over my shoulder and Cathy’s interest momentarily piqued. This is the worst possible outcome. Sweat breaks out on my palms and the band registers a large jump in my heart rate. There is no other choice but to step forward, knowing the scanners will display the drive buried in my pocket and I’ll be in trouble with Prothero once again.

As my foot hits the first metal grate of the scanning belt, heavy gray bars roll over the scanner monitor and the machine emits a frying, spattering noise like bacon sizzling in a pan. An acrid smell fills the air and I recognize the scent of cooked plastic wires. Burning technology. It’s burned in my nostrils and on my tastebuds for years now. Cathy and the Sergeant are distracted by the crash of their security system and I’m temporarily forgotten. I walk through the scanner screens undetected, retrieve my items on the other side and deposit the badge on the desk counter.

When I’m outside the administrative building in the blustering early February wind, I notice a red stain on the sleeve of my shirt.Blood seeps from my nose again. I pinch my nostrils and lean my head back during the walk to the Academy campus. The blood flow ebbs to a stop. I attempt to make a weary connection between the scanner incident and yet another nose bleed, but my temple pounds too intensely to make sense of these thoughts. Instead, I lay down in my bunk until General Assembly, satisfied with the day’s work.

Later, in Scarlett’s barrack, we listen to folk music together on the virtual while I sketch a scene from one of the ridiculous romance novels she often reads aloud to me. The jump drive rests snugly in my pants pocket, a small thing, really. Innocuous, in the grand scheme of things. It’s nothing like stealing inoculations from the largest corporation in the world.

Art is what unites Scarlett and I, aside from her special position as one of the only approachable white girls on the base and my special status as a Prothero product. We met in the Commons during my first 48 hours here. She was singing a beautiful rendition of a country music song. Scarlett hails from what used to be the southern part of the United States before the country merged with Mexico. Biloxi, Mississippi to be more precise. Though she tries hard to mask it, every once in awhile her accent peeks around the edges like a playful child, especially in a particularly emphasized phrase. She insists it’s embarrassing, but I find it charming, as I’m sure most others do.

I’d first arrived on a Saturday and this was Sunday, our free day. I sat cloistered on a couch in the gym, sketching the graceful lines of the basketball players, attempting to render their fluid motions on my tablet screen. Scarlett was poised on the opposite end of the couch, reading a romance text and humming to herself. It was pleasant, listening to the golden, lilting timbres from her throat.

It reminded me of how my mother and I used to sing nursery rhymes together at bedtime, although my participation was less like singing and more like humming and mumbling. Hearing Scarlett’s voice soothed my nerves, jangled from the recent transition out of the juvenile rehabilitation center I’d called home for the last year. Coming across the country to an army base in the middle of nowhere was a bit of a culture shock. The tune she hummed was familiar and I unconsciously mumbled the lyrics while sketching. She noticed after a few verses and turned to me.

“What’re you drawing over there?” Scarlett inquired, her articulation as warm and friendly as I’d imagined it would be, with a barely perceptible undercurrent of the south.

I shrugged in answer to her question, tilting the tablet over towards her so she could make out the figures. They were mostly lines with vague people shapes. Nothing special. It was a form of exercising my skill, like athletes practicing free throws.

“Cat got your tongue? You a tortured artist?” She teased.

“No…I’m not good,” I admitted. “At singing or drawing.”

“Sugar that is nonsense. We run an unofficial art program here. There’s not much else to do on base, in case you noticed. It would be neat if you came to hang with us. No pressure, only if you want.”

The siren announcing 30 minutes to lights-out wailed overhead and she rose from the couch, drifting across the gym. She was almost  out the door when I called to her.

“I’m not an artist.”

She turned and beamed, a piece of curly blond hair snaking loose from her ponytail and dripping into her face. “Neither are we.”

The arts program turned out to be a group of residents, including The Rosas who met in the hydroponics lab on base and grew Salt. Scarlett would bring her guitar and one of the guys had mini bongo-drums. Others would bring tablets and some could afford canvases and paints. Another resident would film all the events and make short virtuals out of them. Musical videos. We would smoke and sing group folk songs while we painted and drew, sometimes on tablets or paper, sometimes decorating each other with fake tattoos that washed off with water.

These secret sessions were nothing like the art classes I remembered from my childhood where everyone sat stiffly in chairs with crayons, scissors and glue. It wasn’t similar to the drawing courses at the rehabilitation center, where we’d learned dry, boring instructions on dimensions, perspectives and the color wheel. I hadn’t seen real art supplies or musical instruments in years.

Eventually the musical virtuals leaked beyond our circle and we were busted. All of us served solitary time in the brig. Forming groups outside of the assigned field exercise units was highly discouraged in the Academy. Clubs and groups led to dissension and chaos. We were punished almost as much for the audacity to create a group as we were for the Salt. The Rosas and I never ratted on Scarlett, though most of the other kids did. When I saw her next, I made sure to tell her. She believed me. We became closer friends after that incident.

She could have been kicked off base for her Salt grow operation. Or kicked out of the National Service Academy. Growing Salt in plain sight is a jail-able offense. The only thing allowed in hydroponics is hemp. Our clothes are made from it. Machines run on it. They used to make paper on it, back when we used paper. But who needs paper with tech around? Well, who else besides me?

The rumor was Scarlett slept with an officer to remain on base. I didn’t care. I only cared she believed me when I told her the truth. She only cared that I told her the truth because trust is at a high premium here. We stuck close together after the bust. Scarlett grows Salt in a field off-base. If the officers know about it, they’ve never cracked down on her again. Most of them are using it, so there is no impetus to let their steady supply dry up.

We continue to smoke and make art, just the two of us, unless we can convince The Rosas to join in. Scarlett sits at the edge of her bed painting her toenails while I doodle an image of Mateo on a tablet, having abandoned the romance scene when Scarlett insisted it become more graphic than I felt comfortable with. She wants boobs and butts. I don’t tell anyone who the boy is or where he comes from, but Scarlett inquired once or twice. I shrug her off, telling her it’s a boy I met in Mexico City, a partial truth.

I’ve drawn and erased him hundreds of times. What he looked like at age 14. What I believe he looks like at age 18. Lately the images all end up with Rabbit Santiago’s big ears and prominent nose and defined jawline. It’s only when I stop to examine the drawing for a moment the resemblance becomes apparent. Those pictures are trashed quickly. It’s hard enough to remember what Mateo looked like without Santiago’s image getting in the way.

I’m so lost in thought and focused on perfecting the shading at the base of Mateo’s large, wide nose, I don’t notice what’s happening around us until Scarlett smacks at my arm. The pen slips, tracking a heavy black line across the whole picture, destroying it. I look up, preparing a few harsh sentiments, when I notice the previously empty space she stares into.

A virtual image of Rabbit as Mateo plays out of the band. The exact image I’ve drawn on the tablet. He sits under the lime-tree, wind shifting the leaves and rustling the black hair above his almond shaped eyes. His golden brown skin roasts in the patches of sunlight dotting his exposed arms and legs, lurid veins barely visible on his neck.

He speaks without sound, mouthing the lyrics of the song playing on the band. The wind, the tree, and his hair shift in rhythm with the music. As quickly as the image rises, it dies away, replaced by the tin box with the letters. This drifts off and melts into a picture of me reaching for an inoculation dispenser. Then the strained face of Javier Hernandez, the boy I accused in the place of Mateo, takes over the scene. Javier’s image is one I don’t forget. Ever.

As the music tempo swells, a bomb explodes next to Javier and rips him apart. Pieces of flesh fly into the air and splatter onto the pavement behind him. I release the pen in astonishment and it drops onto the tablet. I glance away, gasping for breath. My chest tightens and air is trapped in my lungs, fighting to move in and out. Scarlett peers down at the tablets contents, interested in the resemblance of the young man to Rabbit Santiago.

“Is that Rabbit San-” She questions.

“It’s nothing,” I reach down and click the tablet off before she can press me further.

The virtual shuts down, leaving empty air and a familiar sensation of static electricity in its wake. The small hairs on my arm stand straight up.

“Is it a new program?” Scarlett asks. “Did you make it?”

“No, I didn’t,” I respond, bewildered.

“Who were those people? Those boys?” Scarlett arches a brow, emphasizing the second question.

“I dunno. My band must be defective. Maybe it was damaged in a field exercise,” I deflect.

Scarlett eyes me doubtfully, “You should let someone take a look at that.”

“Yeah sure. Hey, I got a present for you,” I announce. Time to change the subject.

Scarlett, unlike myself, loves surprises. She claps and beams at me in anticipation. I retrieve the jump drive from my pocket and place it in her outstretched palm. She spies the unimpressive looking device, face falling. Scarlett doesn’t love tech surprises.

“What is it?” She asks, her upper lip curling in disdain.

I laugh and fold her fingers over it.

“Remember earlier today, when you said you’d lost connection with your friend in Biloxi who was keeping you informed of your family’s whereabouts? Well, I tracked her down. And I tracked them down. Scar,“ I brace her for the next revelation, “Your parents were reassigned to a different labor camp. It… doesn’t have the best reputation.”

Her expression moves from excitement to sadness to despair in seconds. Her fingers unfold to reveal the jump drive again, this time regarding it as a precious jewel.

“You tracked them down?” She asks in a petite voice.

“Your parents Scar, not your brother. He is… he’s missing in the system. I couldn’t locate him beyond the original labor camp assignment. He…didn’t transfer with your parents – just like your friend Sarah said. But I found your friend. Her contact information is there, on that drive.”

A slow, sad smile spreads across her face and tears well up in her eyes. I’m no good with people crying so I stand up, announcing my exhaustion. Scarlett nods absently, absorbed in thought. It’s a surprise when she reaches up and grabs my hand as I pass by her, on the way out of the room. She gives it a strong squeeze.

“Thanks Lenbot. For a half human you are surprisingly thoughtful.”

“You know us androids, we aim to please.”

“If we find him. If I find where Logan is hiding out… I’m going to have to help him, aren’t I? How am I going to do that from here?”

“You’ll figure it out. You always do.”

“Yeah, that’s true. Anyway, thanks again. You’re the best Lenbot a girl could ask for.”

“I live to serve,” I answer with no small hint of irony. It’s the National Service motto and the message is part of our daily diet at the Academy.

I exit the door, lost in a heady mix of happiness and distress. It’s peculiar performing a good deed for another person when those in power would deem it wrong. An illegal, immoral act. I like to imagine somewhere, someone believes it’s wrong and immoral to sell the poor into slavery, to separate families and offer them no means of communication. I believe that’s wrong.

I pass by the tech repair shop on the way back to barracks, but don’t stop to have my band examined. A mental and physical exhaustion works into my bones and the only thing I crave is sweet, dreamless oblivion. Answers can wait until morning. When it comes to images of Javier and his death, answers could wait forever.

The next morning Scarlett is smart enough not to mention the jump drive or the abnormal virtual, only indicating she was able to wave an old friend and might be hearing back about her parents soon. She quickly drops this line of conversation when The Rosas deliver gossip about a boy named Diego in their Differential Equations class. Scarlett has nursed a crush on this particular young man for quite some time.

Any lingering questions about the virtual from the night before are abandoned and she dives into a full cross-examination of The Rosas. A group of boys sits down across from us. Our conversation shifts again, and for the moment the virtual is forgotten.



Final flight simulation testing today. We sit behind the cockpit of a fake helocraft for the last time before we take control of the real deal. For the last four months of training, we get to fly the machines I only dreamed about. Yes, they really starred in my dreams. Rabbit, Layla Danvers and another senior aeronautics specialist, Brian Holmes, and I await testing. We sit on scuffed plastic chairs lining a brightly lit hallway, waiting for the testing assistant to call our names.

Despite his budding romance with Layla, Rabbit Santiago also stars in my dreams lately. And those particular visions involved much less flying. Much more of the things we read about in Scarlett’s romance novels.

I avoid contact with all of them so I can remain focused on the current task. Learning how to control and fly a Condor is my goal here in my remaining time at the Academy. I’m not going to let lust and confusion create an obstruction. At least, that’s my mental mantra, until I catch myself staring at Rabbit across the hall.

He nervously bobs his leg and I try not to smirk at this sign of anxiety. He’s usually so calm and collected in our SIM operations. Everywhere I see him, he radiates a quiet confidence that unsettles me. We haven’t spoken outside of necessary tactical instructions and information since the bizarre, intimate conversation in my barracks. A week passed, filled with long, lingering side-glances when we didn’t think anyone was looking. We don’t know what to say to each other anymore. Except for what the Academy tells us.

There’s still no sign of Clinton Fuller either. I’m not worried, but it’s odd to hear nothing after two weeks. I wonder if he’s been removed from Academy residency. Could Prothero do that because he damaged me, damaged their property? If so, they wouldn’t tell me. I would be the last person to know. About everything.

The downward tilt of Rabbit’s head, the boyish anxiety stirs a stupid feeling of compassion within me. Maybe more than that. I move over to an empty seat next to him and set my creepy robot hand on his leg, calming the nervous bounce of his knee.

“Don’t worry. You’re ready for this,” I say, the new texture in my voice surprising us both. This is why I can’t talk to him anymore. I want to back-pedal but I’m trapped now.

Rabbit’s brows tick up and he opens his mouth to speak. At that moment a Lieutenant pokes her head out the door and reads my name from her tablet. I stand up, locking eyes with Santiago. I give a conspiratorial wink and that quick grin rolls over him like a glittering stone. I turn towards the door and enter the darkened simulation room. I slip into the elevated chair in the middle of the otherwise empty SIM. I fold the helmet over my head and pull up the soft keyboard. The virtual cockpit thrums to life on all sides of me. The exam begins.

Within the hour, I’ve aced it. I’m given wings and the go ahead to initiate aviation training this week. Tomorrow.

        So are Rabbit, Brian, and Layla. We receive our pins and march down the hallway back to the main Academy building. I’m about to tap Rabbit on the shoulder as we walk, when Layla Danvers falls back and inquires about his score on the test. He glances at me, questioning. I break eye contact, swallowing an indecipherable emotional lump down into my belly. It has done little good lately, but again I tell myself Rabbit is not Mateo, Rabbit is not my friend. Layla is pretty and nice – she will be a nice person for him. I need to leave Rabbit alone. I shouldn’t talk to him. I shouldn’t touch him.

The band buzzes, reminding me to send a wave to Scarlett. She will want to hear the good news about the exam. When I’m finished with this task, I try not to let it bother me that Layla walks so near Santiago, their arms brush together. Unexpectedly I picture Rabbit in my barracks room saying, “I am. I am looking at you.”

But he’s not. He’s cozied up to Layla Danvers, or she’s cozied up to him. In the cafeteria this morning they chat amiably at their table, sharing food from the same plate. I study Layla from a distance. She has Asian features, but I can’t place her origins. Her nose is wide, hair straight and black, eyes twinkling dark pools. She’s prettier than I am, even if you subtracted my ghastly implant and scars and glowing wires. Her womanly frame and the femininity I’ve never managed to mimic are also points in her favor. It’s fine though. I’m fine with her beauty. She compliments Santiago well, I suppose.

As if to punctuate this truth, she reaches up and playfully tugs on a curled strand of his hair. He acts embarrassed and looks away, over towards our table. I duck my head, distracting myself with the cold oatmeal on my tray. I’m not  looking at [_ _] you .

In the afternoon, Brian, Layla, Rabbit and I stand in a nervous clump, waiting for the siren to announce rotation. This will be our first journey into the cockpits of the C50 Condors we’ve only ever passed on our way to the SIM and field exercises. Excitement thrums over my body. There’s no hovercraft coming for us, and once the siren wails we begin our long walk to the northern end of the base where the Condors nest. It’s disorienting to be separate from our SIM units. I wave back at The Rosas, who smile and nod as the hovercraft brakes over their heads, the ramp rolling out like a metal tongue to devour them.

A momentary lapse of the space-time continuum occurs, where I imagine the image I see before me is the future. This is the last time I’ll see The Rosas as we separate on our individual paths post-Academy. The thought stabs like the pinprick of a hypodermic needle into my heart. Thankfully, the present re-asserts itself and I remember we still have a few months left together.

“Do you think they’ll let us all fly at once?” Layla inquires hopefully, interrupting my morbid line of thought.

Brian and I exchange a short, cynical glance.

“Doubt it,” Brian replies. “They’ll let residents with the top scores pilot first. We’ll probably be split up into teams for the first month.”

We walk most of the way in this grouping, Brian and I silent, Rabbit and Layla whispering back and forth. Her long hair brushes against his shoulder as she leans in, her lips moving against the lobes of his large ears, almost touching them.

Rabbit’s ears and face and body, reminding me so much of Mateo. It’s damn distracting. I tousle my short hair over my temple, where it sparks with a bursting tingle of static electricity. I jump at the sensation and make eye contact with Brian, who I hope did not notice. As a distraction, I fall into conversation with him. This proves easier than it would have been a month ago. Ever since Clinton’s beating in the SIM, other residents act more relaxed in my presence.

I sense the helocrafts long before I get a visual on them. That… isn’t right, but I can’t think of another way to describe it. I am keenly aware of their immensity and power. The birds are dormant but not silent. Their engines hum with the promise of life and the strong shining steel frames twinkle in the harsh winter sun. At the head of the gates stands a pair of sentries, and behind them a commanding officer observes us with arms folded across her chest. She’s a tall woman with broad shoulders and a powerful jaw. She glares at our approach with the hard, wrinkled grimace of a woman with years of combat experience. She and Corazon must be related.

“You four are the new pilots?” She calls out gruffly, before we’ve set foot inside the gate.

We nod affirmation and the guards scan our bands, patting down our uniforms before we enter. Security is tight here, but in a different capacity than the SIMs. I’m surprised there are less technical elements and more man power. I make a mental note of where the recording devices are located on the outer walls of the hangar and flight control tower. I count the number of helos and visible drones.

“I’m Sergeant Yamikov. What do you find so interesting over there, Resident Garza?” She demands.

I snap out of my mental head-space and offer a sheepish smile Yamikov does not appreciate. “Nothing sir. Just, admiring the birds, sir.”

“This is not a field trip Garza. These are my birds and you are my students and I demand and expect your attention at all times. Is that understood?”

“Yes, sir.”

I steal a glance over at Rabbit who presses a fist to his mouth to mask his amusement. I get dressed down in front of my squadmates on a regular basis in the combat SIMs, but it doesn’t happen often in flight SIMs. Rabbit apparently takes a personal pleasure in it.

Sergeant Yamikov scowls at our pairing and points at Rabbit, then myself. We exchange a heavy, loaded glance. Rabbit’s smile stumbles.

“You two, Garza and Santiago, are my top pilots, you will share Condor One. You two, other pilots, can take Condor Two,” She gestures to Layla and Brian.

We shuffle bodies and take place next to our partners. I hold myself stiff and apart, as a nod to the self control I’m attempting to assert. Don’t talk to him.  

“Any questions?” Yamikov asks.

Layla raises her hand.

“Are we flying the Condors today?” She asks.

The Sergeant lets out a barking laugh. Layla’s face falls in surprise.

“No. You’ve logged hours in the simulators. You’ve piloted drones in SIMs. This,” The Sergeant gestures behind and above her, to the looming helocraft. “Is completely different. We are going to study every inch of these machines before you set foot in them. You can expect to fly in a couple weeks. Only before you’ve proven yourself intelligent enough to tell the difference between the fuselage and the swash plate.”

“What if we already know the difference?” Rabbit inquires with a hint of defiance. Don’t look at him.

“Then this will be a very short review,” Yamikov counters.

To our disappointment, we are not allowed in the cock-pits. We endure verbal quizzes on the different helo components over the course of the next two hours. Towards the end of the period, the Sergeant thumps Rabbit on the back and congratulates him on his “achievement” but doesn’t go into further detail. He glows under her admiration, his normally fleeting smile melting into a full beam of pride I’ve never, ever seen before. It rankles me. I regard this exchange with high levels of suspicion, and a hint of irritation. Why is she lavishing special attention on Rabbit? What exactly has he achieved? We all passed our SIM tests. I’m used to being the favorite in our specialization. The one with the promising future in this particular field. What does Santiago possess that I don’t, aside from his mysterious connection to the Fullers?

We’re sent away shortly after the COs comment to Rabbit. The trek back to the Academy building in the pouring rain leaves us all in a grim mood. What could possibly take two more weeks before we sit behind the controls? The decreased timeline to gain much needed experience weighs heavily on my mind. Brian Holmes falls into step alongside me and we engage in a heated tongue lashing of the training process.

Studying with Scarlett and The Rosas in the evening, I inform them of the terrible piloting session, Yamikov’s curious comment to Rabbit, and the amiable conversation with Brian Holmes. Scarlett’s interest is piqued by the last, she’s kept tabs on Brian for awhile and nonchalantly asked questions about his training progress. Emmanuel rolls her eyes at Scarlett’s romantic inquiries and changes the subject. She suggests all four of us watch the upcoming meteor shower together, an extra credit assignment in The Rosas physics class. It’s a good excuse for a large group of us to leave the base without our motives being second guessed. A perfect chance for me to sneak away and see if there are engineers lurking about in the cherry orchards. On occasion a few will show up early to prep for the spring. Last year my contact Carmen was among them. It might be tough to sneak away from the ever-watchful Scarlett, and the curious Rosas…but it’s possible. Especially if drugs, alcohol and boys are part of the equation.

The night is supposed to be clear enough to watch false stars raining down from the heavens. The closest observatory is about 45 minutes away in Goldendale, Washington, another town abandoned off the Gorge. Traveling there without a ranked officer would be strictly out of the question. Luckily, the Rosas enjoy access to a portable telescope in the biomedical labs.

If we make it to the top of Chenoweth Rim, we can secure a good enough view. We unanimously vote to make it an outing. Scarlett indicates she will invite her friend Diego, and I should extend an offer to some new friends as well. By this, I’m pretty sure she means Brian, but I’m onto her transparent scheming.

“I don’t have any other friends,” I remind her. “Especially new ones.”

“What about Brian Holmes?” Scarlett asks innocently.

“You gonna set us up?” I respond, growing annoyed. In this instance, I can be sure Scarlett only considers herself.

Scarlett twists a piece of blonde hair in her fingers, “I might consider it if you weren’t so hung-up on Rabbit Santiago,” She says archly.

       “Ooh, he’s nice looking,” Emilia interjects. “And smart too. Good pick.”

“Guys, you both need to drop it,” Emanuelle warns, glancing between us. Scar and I rarely fight and it’s never about boys.

“That is patently untrue,” I say. “I don’t even like Rabbit.”

“If that’s the case – why do you draw pictures of him when you think no one is watching? Why do you care what some Sergeant thinks about his achievements?” Scar studies me with an almost reptilian gaze. She is so much smarter about people and motivations. I am caught and exposed in her sight. No amount of lying will cover my tracks.

“I don’t want a relationship. I’ve got other things to worry about,” I reply.

Scar’s scowl relaxes with compassion. She can see that I’m genuinely upset by this line of questioning.“Fine. But Len, you’re not a robot. I mean, not totally.”

“I know.”

“You’re a girl. For the most part.”

“I know.”

“A girl with certain needs a good looking guy like Rabbit could fulfill. Probably.”

“He is   very  good looking,” Emilia interjects. Emmanuel shoves her sister’s shoulder.

“OK, conversation over,” I demand, clicking off my tablet and rising to my feet.

“Oh thank God,” Emanuelle feigns a sigh of relief. Emilia elbows her. They both giggle in uncomfortable amusement.

“The world is not going to end if you let your guard down,” Scarlett says, sitting cross ldeactivated floor like a wise blonde fortune teller.

“Maybe that’s been your experience but it hasn’t been mine,” I grumble, reaching for my pack.

“Oh stop it, I’m teasing you. Mostly. Don’t you run away from me, grumpy little Lenbot,” She reaches up and drags me to the ground, ruffling her knuckles in my hair. It’s the closest Scar is going to get to an apology in this scenario.

I don’t resist the physical affection, relieved at the subject being closed. No boys for me, no distractions other than the big ones. Flight experience in a real Condor. Matty and his damn letters. The tumor, and the side effects from the tumor. The nightmares.

There are far too many distractions.

We meet up outside the main gates an hour before lights-out on Saturday evening. We’re each carrying a pack filled with supplies and The Rosas lug the telescope between them. It’s large and unwieldy and they struggle beneath its weight. I retrieve it from them and sling it over one shoulder. Sometimes having a bit of extra strength is useful. We scan through the gates and are offered plasma rifles with actual cartridges. It’s standard operating procedure at Fort Columbia. Not only are there packs of wild boars, coyotes and bears reclaiming this area, but there are roving bands of anti-government and anti-Prothero thugs who would love to kill or kidnap residents. We need to defend ourselves. Too much time, money and technology has gone into our training to let us blindly enter the real world.

We collect our guns, and head out into the dark evening. Our bands act as adequate illumination. To the left, red and white lights blink in the silent muddy river as a hulking grey garbage scow lined with solar panels cuts east across the water. A high speed bullet train whizzes past, carrying passengers over to Boise, Idaho. The powerful machine streams by at such high speed individuals are mere smudges against the landscape, lit up from the inside and carried through the air by the diffuse buzzing of the train. The compartments appear cozy, and I take a moment to wonder what their lives must be like. What sort of food they eat for dinner, where they normally rest their heads, what their hopes and dreams are for the future. What it must be like to have a future. To have hope.

We walk alongside what used to be an interstate for individual passenger cars. It’s now dotted every 500 feet with charging plates for hovercars. In between the plates, weeds and the earth rise up to reclaim the concrete. In the gloom, with a chill on the air, the eerie desolation sends a shiver down my spine. I zip up my jacket and flip the hood over my head to ward off the cold draft.

We move steadily towards The Dalles proper, in the direction of a less treacherous path to the rim. With the telescope in tow, hiking and rock climbing are strictly out of the question. We close in on the flash ing Dalles Dam, sitting like a great concrete beast guarding the river. On good days we will walk out to the base of the dam, to a rusting swingset and three mouldy benches comprising what used to be a public park. We’ll smoke Salt, watching other residents wind-surf. Or toss around a frisbee. One of the guys Scarlett dates might organize a game of soccer or football. Normal, teenage stuff. On those days, Mexico City and the plight of the Contras feels very far away. The idea of any suffering in the world is surreal.

We take one of the freeway exits which spills down into town and spirals up a hill, dumping out on the peak of the rim. It’s also paved, barely. Fewer hovercrafts make their way up here, and the asphalt has fallen even further into the earth. The town is silent except for the creaking of open doors attached to empty houses and the rustling of wild animals disturbed by our passing. With the number of our group, and the light we produce, the chances of coyotes or hogs attacking are slim. Diego and Scarlett hoist their rifles and scan for signs of life anyway. Surely the most dangerous predator out here would be another person. A single individual with an EMP device could take us all down in one shot. Well, everyone but me.

We pass through the town without incident and ascend the winding trek uphill on Cherry Heights road. Diego tells us a story about how he broke both legs using a hoverboard when he was 13, flying down a similar hill with a blind corner. We turn the corner and come upon an old church converted into the living quarters for the orchard technicians. The signs from its previous use were discarded, but in a bizarre exterior design decision, the white plexiglass cross atop the roof remains. Prothero flags wave on a pole erected in the hovercraft lot and the symbol hangs on the front of the building, looking obscene in juxtaposition with the cross. A light burns in one of the upper windows and the sound of voices inside the walls can be heard.

I stifle a strong desire to bolt from our group and run to the door, pounding furiously on it. Demanding Carmen present herself and the letter, scribbled in Matty’s own terrible handwriting. No, this is not the time. I can slip away later, during the meteor shower, after The Rosas, Diego and Scarlett smoke Salt and consume whatever bottles of alcohol I’ve heard clinking together conspicuously in Diego’s pack for the last hour. They will be drunk, high, distracted and I can sneak off. We pass the church without incident and I spare it a backward glance as we finish rounding the long corner. The scenery disappears from view except for the giant, taunting cross on the roof and the waving Prothero flags. Never too far out of reach, never quite out of sight.

When we arrive at the peak of the rim, close to the Eagle Cave trailhead, it’s 10pm and the meteor shower isn’t predicted to be in full bloom for at least two more hours. We plunk our gear down next to the remains of a firepit, leftover from previous adventures on the rim. I help The Rosas set up the telescope while Diego and Scarlett head off into the brush for firewood. From their giggling and rustling, they won’t make it back for awhile. We lay out bed-rolls and stare up at the night sky above, dimming our flashlights and bands to see more clearly. There’s nothing remarkable up there but billions of dimly shining stars. Far out of our reach. Stupid, useless stars.

“Oh, I finished running those tests on your blood sample,” Emilia says, matter-of-fact. “You have NV.”

Emmanuel chortles, “Emilia, we all have NV. We’re all exposed to it. That’s what inoculations are for. That doesn’t mean anything.”

“No, it’s more than that. It’s not only NV. It’s a different strain entirely. I checked against another blood sample. Yours was mutated, Len. Bordering on cancerous. I can’t say if it was the implants or the nano virus itself that caused the carcinoma, but it’s there. I’m not entirely convinced the nano suppressants are helping your situation, but there’s a chance they are keeping the cancer and the virus at bay. Len, you’re kind of a mess,” Emilia confides.

“I knew that,” I laugh without humor. “What did you do with my blood sample?”

“Destroyed it. Like you said,” She strives for convincing, but casts her eyes off to the left as she says it. Avoiding my gaze.

I don’t believe she trashed the blood sample. But she wouldn’t endanger herself or Emmanuel.The Rosas know how to take care of themselves.

“If it ends up not being as destroyed as you thought, do something good with it, alright? My parents died trying to cure this virus and sacrificed themselves for nothing because three years later it still exists. It’s worse than ever. I want NV eradicated. You two are smart, like my parents were. You both could benefit humanity,” I say. “Give it some serious thought.”

Emilia wobbles her head in contemplation, giving a noncommittal shrug in response. I wish I knew what that meant, what was happening inside her head.

“No pressure, right?” Emmanuel pulls out a Salt cigarette and we all take a hit. “Your parents are like Gods in the bio-tech community, Len. We’re just worker bees.”

“No, no pressure. They were smart, but you guys are smarter. You’re younger. You have access to technology at your age that they barely knew existed. Hell, I wish I knew half of what you do. About this stuff,” I exhale the Salt and the weight of learning about my special strain of NV. I had a thought, but… I wanted to be wrong.

“If your mutated virus holds the key to curing NV for good, why aren’t you turning it over to Prothero?” Emilia asks, poking at the dormant fire with a stubby, twisted stick.

“Why aren’t you?” I ask, trying to meet her gaze. But she won’t relent. She can be stubbornly closed off and evasive when she wants to be. Anxiety and irritation creep into my veins. My robot hand clenches without warning and the static charge of blue snaps on my wrist.

“Hey, I’m sorry about your nano virus cancer,” Emmanuel says, changing the subject, sympathetic to the tension growing between us. “I hope Prothero does intervene, if only because you’re going to need medical attention. You’re gonna need help.”

I favor her with an appreciative smile.

“I’ve got all the help I want. Prothero can take their time. Anyway, guys…  Let’s keep this between us. You know, don’t tell Scarlett,” I request.

“Of course not. You asked me not to. Your secret is safe with us,” Emilia exhales a ring of smoke into the air, a thoughtful expression settling over her face.

For now , I think, watching the twins with growing distrust. No matter how many careful relationships I form, Prothero worms its way into every facet of my life. They are insidious that way.

The frost, much like Prothero, winds its way into our bones and not even the pleasant high of the drug serves as effective combat. The only cure will be fire and lab distilled whiskey. I call out to Scarlett, telling her to hurry, when a noise startles from off to our right – the opposite direction of where the two scampered off. We discern fuzzy gray shapes rapidly approaching, laden with packs and bulky equipment. Another group of amateur astronomists from the Academy. Or maybe a group of anarchists looking for a fight. Terror grips us for a moment until Emilia lifts her band and a flashlight to illuminate our visitors. The human figures squint in the beam, shielding their eyes with their own lit bands. A knot of anxiety twists in my chest.

Layla Danvers and Rabbit Santiago squint towards us.

“Do you mind?” Rabbit asks, irritated.

“Oh, sure. Sorry!” Emilia laughs, clicking her flashlight off. She looks over at me with raised brows and an impish smirk of pleasure.

He carries a telescope similar to ours. He slouches out of his pack, hefting the telescope onto the ground at his feet. Layla sheds her pack as well, wandering over to stand awkwardly next to me. I push myself off the bed-roll and reluctantly sit up. At the same time, Scarlett and Diego emerge from the brush, each carrying a load of firewood. Scar’s carnal grin falters when she recognizes our company.

“Oh, it’s Santiago. And…Layla?” Scarlett asks, un-enthusiastically.

“Hi Scarlett. We haven’t formally met,” Layla steps forward to shake hands but Scar shrugs, arms full. “Oh, right. Uhm, I hope we didn’t interrupt.”

“Naw. Not really. We were getting a fire started. You can help,” Scarlett says, dumping the firewood into the pit.

Diego does the same. Emilia hops up to assist Rabbit with his telescope.

“You can put that over here, next to ours. If you want,” Emilia says. She again turns to me, waggling her eyebrows.

I’m sitting on the ground like an idiot, trying to figure out what to say. Emilia and Scarlett already welcomed them, regardless of my objections. Do I object to Rabbit being here? Emmanuel and I exchange a dubious glance. She mouths “Did you invite them?” across the fire and I shake my head. Scarlett frowns down into the pit, in which Diego managed to ignite a scanty, struggling fire. She looks up at me, biting her lip in thought.

She sends a wave: “You OK?”

I nod and look over at Rabbit, his back to us as he unfolds the tripod legs to mount the telescope.

“You guys want whiskey?” Diego asks.

“Sure,” Layla responds, sneaking a glance at Rabbit to see if he approves. His back is to the fire so she hesitates, looking torn between her desire and Santiago’s lack of enthusiasm.

Diego extends the bottle of brown murky fluid towards Layla but Scarlett snatches it up first and takes a swig before the other girl has a chance. She glares at Rabbit’s turned back as she does this.

“You two come up here before?” Scar inquires, doing her best to sound casual.

“I have,” Rabbit answers without turning around. “This is a pretty decent spot to catch astronomical events.”

Scarlett snort laughs, “You a space nerd Santiago?”

He doesn’t turn around or say anything in response. He heard her. Rabbit hears everything.

Scarlett offers the bottle to Emmanuel who sniffs at the liquid, wrinkles her nose at the pungent aroma and passes it across the flickering flames without drinking. I grab it and take a swig, in time for Rabbit to turn around. His expression clearly indicates disapproval. I wrinkle my nose in his direction, the liquid burning down my throat and piling like rocks in the pit of my stomach. Diego reaches for the whiskey and I give it over.

“Where’d you guys get that?” Layla asks. She unravels her own bedroll near the head of the fire, by the telescopes, and takes a seat.

“I’m people who know people,” Diego claims. We all roll our eyes and Scarlett elbows him playfully.

“Emilia is our resident chemist. Diego is our resident taster,” Scarlett says.

“Residents aren’t supposed to consume intoxicants,” Rabbit reminds us, facing away from the fire. “If someone catches us with that or reads the toxicity report on our bands…” He trails off. I wish I had a dollar for everytime Rabbit failed to complete a sentence. I could probably buy my way out of Prothero’s debt by now.

Layla, reaching out for the whiskey bottle again, retracts her hand as if the container grew fangs and bit her.

“It won’t bite. I promise,” Diego chuckles, giving her a wink Scarlett does not appreciate.

“I don’t think she wants any,” Rabbit insists.

“Layla should decide for herself,” I say quietly. All eyes flicker over to me but I avoid the weight of their combined gazes.

I continue to stare into the barely blazing embers of the fire, to the point where the flames turn blue and dance along the edge of the wood like beckoning fingers, tiny licks of electricity. The Salt works its magic and my lips spread foolishly, without my consent.

“No, I’m fine. Really,” Layla lets out a tense laugh.

“OK. More for us!” Diego smiles again, a little too widely. Scarlett definitely doesn’t like that.

“Maybe we should move down the rim a little bit. We don’t want to crash your party,” Rabbit gestures towards the fire.

“But you’ve already set up your telescope,” Emilia points out, her voice turning musical and lilting. “And there is safety in numbers.”

“Yeah, there’s room around the fire,” I offer, relenting to this turn in the evening. Rabbit studies our group with the patient calculation of a deer stepping into an open meadow. I can almost see his ears twitching and flicking in response to the human tension.

The upward tick of his mouth is the only indication that he recognized my attempts at establishing peace. I have an ulterior motive of wanting to keep tabs on everyone in this group, so I can safely sneak off in the early morning hours.

But I also don’t want him to leave yet. Especially since Layla Danvers is with him. It’s all selfish motivation, but the end result is the same.

“Not much of a fire,” He says finally.

“Hey man,” Diego laughs. “Don’t insult my baby.”

“Your baby looks a little hungry. We spotted dry chunks of wood on the way up. If you want to feed it.”

“Yeah dude. Wasn’t much when we looked over there. Well, not that I saw anyway,” Diego gestures over his shoulder. “Let’s go scout it out. Emilia, lemme borrow your flashlight.”

Emilia protectively moves her flashlight as Diego grabs for it.

“Be careful with this,” Emilia snaps, reluctantly passing it over.

“I will guard it with my life,” Diego promises with a smirk.

Our group is silent as Diego and Rabbit slip off into the dark. Layla clears her throat uncomfortably.

“I’m sorry, who is who again? You both look so similar,” Layla addresses her comment to the twins.

The Rosas introduce themselves, Emilia extending her hand for a firm shake, Emmanuel hanging back with a friendly but terse nod. Scarlett digs inside her bag and pulls out two more Salt cigarettes. She gives one to Emmanuel who grabs her bedroll and scoots over to my side of the fire. Emilia takes a hit and passes the joint to Layla who stares at it with a mixture of fear and fascination.

“You ever taken Salt before?” Scarlett inquires.

“No. Is it…safe?” Layla asks, and even in the blaze, red blushes across her cheeks.

“Yeah, it’s not a heavy narcotic. It’s harmless. Makes you hungry and kinda sleepy. Gives you a better appreciation for all the beauty of the world around you,” Scarlett answers.

“Ah. OK. I’ll try some, I guess,” Layla laughs nervously and inhales a puff, bursting into a coughing fit.

“You get too much?” Scarlett asks with a mischievious grin.  

Layla nods and coughs, all with a placating and polite smile. It’s going to be difficult to dislike her for much longer. She’s a bit too sweet and naive to end up in a place like the Academy. I have a feeling we’ll even be friends in the morning, if Layla can remember what transpired.

The whiskey makes another two rounds and we finish up the joints right as Diego and Rabbit crash back through the brush. Layla is faded with intoxicants and Scarlett presses a finger to her forehead, tipping her backwards onto the bedroll. Layla collapses onto it with a resigned sigh, as if she’s given up fighting the urge to fall.

“This is going to be the best meteor shower you’ve ever seen,” Scar tells Layla.

        Layla nods without comment, her eyes wide and staring up at the infinite night sky. Worlds too numerous to count. Light years away yet visible in the blackness and void of space. A falling star whizzes by, and another ticks past, blinking in and out. A satellite. Maybe the one used to monitor us.

        The guys clamber back with a surprising lack of stealth, dumping their wooden bounty near the fire. Rabbit gives Layla an openly disapproving stare, turning on Scarlett.

        “What did you give her?” He asks, irritation cutting under his question.

        “Nothing she didn’t already want,” Scarlett says.

        “Right. Well, I guess you’re equally responsible for getting her back to base,” He snaps.

        Scarlett gives a bored nod and we all watch Diego stoke the fire with the new logs. The wood catches quickly and soon it’s blazing, to the point where we all scoot our bedrolls back for fear they might burst into flames. Rabbit ponders the idea of joining Layla on the bedroll then shrugs over to the telescopes again, where he stands apart from the group while Diego insists on another round of whiskey and Salt. Everyone is properly plastered at this point, and I check the time on my band. 20 minutes to midnight. Stray meteors already kicked off. I fight the urge to mirror Layla’s example and lay out on my bedroll as well. She looks peaceful enough to be sleeping, but her eyes are glazed open. She’s happily lost in her own inner world.

Despite their scientific inclination, The Rosas abandoned any efforts to use their telescope. The assignment was extra credit anyway. I doubt they needed it to maintain their perfect grade point averages. Rabbit holds sentry at his telescope with a stillness bordering on eerie. I’m half tempted to believe he’s fallen asleep standing up when he stirs and mutters under his breath, “You guys are missing it.”

His reverence and awe sounds like Layla moments ago contemplating her initial taste of Salt. He must really be into astronomy.

“Oh, they’re enjoying the show,” I counter, observing the placidly smiling bodies scattered about the fire.

Rabbit turns and surveys the group with obvious disappointment.

“What about you?” He asks, giving up his vigil of the night sky and taking a seat on the ground next to Layla’s head.

She lets out another contented sigh and flails an arm towards him. It lands in his folded lap and he reaches for her hand, placing it on his knee. Placing his own hand over it. The intertwining of their fingertips, slipping together like a key into a groove, is transfixing. Rabbit coughs and shakes me out of this reverie. Stupid Salt.

“Eleni, you there?” He asks, waving at me from across the distance.

“Yeah. Space isn’t really my thing,” I say, casting my gaze back to the fire.

“Huh. What is your thing?” He asks. “Aside from experimenting with tech.”

“Clinton told you?” I ask, fear shuddering through my system like an earthquake.

“Of course he did. He tells me everything. He used to anyway, before… before what happened in the SIM.”

“You haven’t told anyone else?” I ask, electricity zipping through me.

“Why would I tell anyone?” His eyes bore into me from across the distance. “And anyway, I’m sorry Clinton has that knowledge about you. It’s dangerous for him to know your secrets.”

“He knows yours,” I insist, gaze glued to the fire. I move closer to the blaze, letting him stew while I drag the silence out.

“I have a lot of secrets. And you seem intent on finding them out. In that pursuit, you are relentless,” He replies, offering his elusive smile. The way his lips turn and cheeks dimple makes my skin itch, like insects flit around under my clothes.

I nervously grab at a chunk of my hair and static electricity shocks me. I wince in surprise and pain. Rabbit notices. Of course he notices.

“No, I just have a long memory. And you have not given me many answers over the course of our relationship,” I say. “I can’t help it if I find you intriguing. And a little weird.”

“I like weird,” His hand rests on top of Layla’s. She snores quietly, lids closed. He catches the direction of my gaze and, as if in response, moves her arm and drapes it across her chest. “And since when did we have a relationship? I thought we aren’t even friends.”

I tip my head towards Layla. “You found that nice girl we talked about.”


“You two look good together. Clinton would be so proud,” I can’t resist tacking that on.

“It’s not like that.”

“Oh. Tell me what it’s like then, Rabbit. I’m very curious,” I lean forward, hugging my calves, resting my chin on my knees. “Don’t skimp on the details. I’ll bet you tell her everything .”

"No. Hold up. That's not fair. I- I made myself pretty clear. In your barracks. Didn’t I? You. You-" He stutters.

“You guys are ridiculous,” Scarlett pops up from the other side of the firepit. “Look, I’ll make it easy for you. You,” She points at Rabbit, “like her. You,” She points at me, “like him. You like each other. It’s not complicated. Is it?”

Rabbit clears his throat and stands up abruptly, heading back towards the telescope.

“Oh great,” I murmur into the flames, their heat not matching the burn of my cheeks.

Scarlett rises from the bedroll she and Diego share. The others don’t stir, and from the steady pattern of their breathing, they’ve all passed out. Damn Scarlett and her high tolerance to drugs and alcohol. She joins me on the ground and leans her shoulder into me. I can’t quantify my level of embarrassment at this moment.

“Smooth Scar, very smooth,” I hiss, elbowing her with real force.

“Oh come on, someone had to say it. It was torture listening to you two banter back and forth. You’re so tense and awkward. Ugh,” She crinkles a lip in disgust. “I would give you my blessing but I can’t even really tell if you like this guy. I mean, you don’t seem happy around him. Unless you are happy being miserable. In that case, you’ve found your guy.”

“Gee, thanks.”

“I’m not sorry. Are you really…do you care for that kid?” She gestures towards Rabbit’s skulking frame in the distance.

“Can we not talk about this right now? His girlfriend is two feet away,” I whisper.

“Layla is not his girlfriend,” Scarlett states matter-of-factly.

“Does she know that?” I counter.

“Layla might have Rabbit’s company, but you possess something she doesn’t,” Scarlett informs me.

“Oh really, what’s that?” I favor her with a skeptical look. Layla is a better version of me in all the ways that count. All the ways that make a relationship or a friendship strong and worth having. I have nothing good to offer another human being.

“You have Rabbit Santiago. If you want him. Now, the only question is what do you want? Who do you want?” Scarlett favors me with a devious lilt of her lips.

I drag the coin necklace from inside the folds of my hooded jacket and out into the firelight. I stare at the small silver circle as it twists and untwists on the chain. Scarlett surveys it with interest.

“The letter guy?” She asks, wrinkling her nose. “The one thousands  of miles away?”

She has this much knowledge. It was impossible to keep her from handling the tin box and making a fairly accurate guess of its contents. Letters from a secret admirer fed right into her cheesy romance novel sentimentality. Damn Scarlett.

“It’s a bit more complicated than that,” I murmur, watching the fire shine and dance across the images imprinted on the metal coin, my mind flickering back to the heat of Santiago’s fingers on the tin box when he visited my barracks. To the warmth in my stomach from our near kisses. His resemblance to Mateo, real or imagined. Exhaustion wends its way into my eyelids and I close them.

“I’m gonna go,” Santiago interrupts. I realize I’ve drifted off to sleep sitting up. Scarlett is back on the bed-roll with Diego, a rifle draped across her lap, staring dreamily into the fire. Everyone else snoozes.

Santiago stands sentry at the telescopes, but appears to be collapsing the tripod.

“I can’t see a decent comet with the light from the fire,” He announces. “I’m gonna move down the rim a little ways. Do either of you want to come with me?” I search for a hint in his question, an indication he directs his inquiry towards me. That he wants me to go with him.

“I’m good here. Someone needs to stay behind and guard these poor helpless creatures,” Scarlett indicates the napping residents.

“Garza? You want- you want to go with me?” Rabbit asks, and I find the notes of hope I’m looking for. He wants me to come with him.

I reach up for the coin necklace, but it’s already tucked inside my jacket. How long was I asleep? I stand up and shake out my tired limbs like a wet dog, casting off the luring intoxication of Salt. Waking up my brain.

“You kids go on. Have fun. I’ll be here. Bored out of my mind. Fending off bears and wild pigs,” Scarlett complains, winking at me. “Catch ya later Lenbot.”


I fall in step behind Rabbit, offering to carry half the telescope. He brushes me off and stalks several paces ahead, his long legs outpacing my short ones. We will always be at odds, even in these trivial moments. The deep chasm of all our competitive hours inside and outside of the SIMs cuts a hard line between us. We walk in silence, with only our bands for illumination. We’re about 15 minutes away from the fire, enough to get a better view of the night sky. I blow tepid air into my curled fists, watching Rabbit adjust the telescope settings.

“We won’t be able to see the meteor shower for much longer. Clouds are coming in,” Rabbit points off in the distance. I sniff the air, tasting moisture on the wind. I hate the way it smells right before a rainstorm, it reminds me of the copper on my tongue after a nano injection.

“Can I look through the telescope?” I ask. “Before we get rained out?”

“Sure, yeah. It’s all you,” He gives me space and I press my eye to the viewer. He aims it at a particularly incandescent cluster of stars and the meteors burn right through the heart of it. I inhale sharply.

“It’s beautiful,” I murmur.

“You sure that’s not the Salt talking?” He asks, a smile evident in his question.

“What’s your deal with drugs and alcohol? You don’t need to worry about getting caught. Scar takes care of that.”

Rabbit clears his throat and I sense him shuffling behind me, “No, it’s not… I-I’d rather not talk about it. Besides, intoxicated people aren’t prepared for long walks over semi-treacherous terrain. They become liabilities. Responsibilities ,” He lingers a bit on that last word, echoing the loss I’ve noticed before.

“Hey, you found a new phrase to brush me off,” I tease, lifting my face from the viewer.

“You like this one better?” He asks, smiling. I move my face back to the telescope.

“Nope. What star cluster is this?” I point towards it.

“Uhm, Lepus – it’s a rabbit. A hare,” He answers, embarrassed. “You don’t see the bunny ears?”

I chuckle at this confession, “You’re making that up right?”

“No, it’s named after a greek myth. Lepus is my favorite constellation, kind of a home base for my telescope.”

“You have a favorite constellation?” I ask with a mocking grin. “You are  a space nerd.”

“Yes, I have a favorite constellation. Is that a crime?” He asks, one side of his mouth tilted up in amusement.  

“Relax, I’m giving you a hard time. It’s… intriguing. Tell me more about Leapus.”

“Lepus. OK, it’s supposed to be the image of a rabbit carved into the sky by the god Hermes, to honor the swiftness of the hare. See how it’s tucked up right next to Orion? The hunter?”

He steps up close behind me to assist in pinpointing the new star cluster and I automatically stiffen, moving away from him. He lets out a sigh, barely perceptible, and adjusts the telescope to a different constellation.

“There’s a connection to the Easter Bunny which definitely makes it more nerdy and way less cool. Lepus used to be a bird, but the Goddess of Spring changed him into a hare for some reason or another. As punishment. He lost his power to fly, so she granted him the ability to run across land with great speed. Told you, not awesome. And no, I wasn’t named after the constellation. I found it after the nickname stuck,” He finishes, stepping away from the telescope.

“Why do people call you that anyway? Aren’t rabbits supposed to be small and fluffy and cuddly ?”

“I’m cuddly,” He retorts.

“But you’re not small,” I say.

“No. That’s true. I was in field and track in secondary education. I could run a six minute mile and hit 6’4 on a high jump when I was 15,” He boasts.

“Impressive,” I say with flat affectation.

“My coaches thought it was pretty good. The other kids called me Rabbit, so did Clint. It carried over here, with him,” He says.

“You knew Clinton before the Academy?”

“Yeah. We lived in Houston together. We met there,” The warmth sucks out from his teeth and tongue. He sounds angry.

“How did you meet?” I try to picture the circumstances and my head swims. How would a poor Hispanic kid and the son of a senator find themselves together in the same room?

“Drugs,” He says, voice breaking. “I don’t really-”

“Wanna talk about it,” I answer for him. “That’s fine. It’s none of my business.

“Maybe- maybe later," He offers, brows knit together in an expression of promise. "I could tell you later. It's not a very flattering story."

“Alright, fair enough,” I nod, an odd thrill blazing in my chest at his offer. It’s not a no. I might be wearing Santiago down.

I turn back to the telescope and we drift into a comfortable silence for a time. The clouds pile up in the distance, long puffy fingers reaching towards us.

“My real name is Rory. Not Rabbit,” He interrupts the quiet, stunning me. A jolt of electricity buzzes around my wrist and quickly vanishes.

“I knew that,” I answer, facing him.

“How’d you know?” Rabbit asks, squinting up at the stars.

“We’re squadmates in the same specialization. It wasn’t hard to figure out. I checked out the roster when Corazon wasn’t looking. I was pretty sure no one would actually name their kid Rabbit. At least, I hoped that wasn’t the case.”

“Well, don’t tell anyone else. I like Rabbit,” He quick smiles, pleased at my admission, and steps forward to fiddle with a knob on the instrument.

“I like Rabbit too,” I whisper, loud enough for him to hear.

He pauses in telescope adjusting for a moment, absorbing my statement, and goes back to turning the dials.

“Here’s another one,” He says, giving me plenty of berth to approach and look into the eye-piece.

“I… don’t see anything,” I say, exasperated.

“Those stars represent a curving river named Eridanus. Do you see it between the two brighter ones? It’s supposed to be the Nile River. Anyways, it’s where Phaethon crashed after attempting to drive the Chariot of the Sun. He was running wild, creating chaos wherever he went. So Zeus struck him with a lightning bolt and sent him hurtling through the air like a meteor until he crashed into the water.”

I turn away from the stars, “Why did you pick this constellation?”

“It seemed appropriate. We’re watching a meteor shower,” He indicates the sky with a sweep of his arm. The clouds have crept almost entirely across the stars, and there isn’t much crashing meteor to behold.

“OK. Do you want to see another constellation? Different stars?” He asks, stepping towards the telescope. I don’t scoot away this time and he carefully bumps against me while making new adjustments.

“I wouldn’t know where to begin,” I confess.

“Well, there’s not much left to see,” His hands drop away from the scope and he tilts his head up. “Some dogs, the belt of Orion. Those clouds look pretty ominous.”

“Smell the air. It’s going to rain any minute,” I say. I wrinkle my nose at the strong metal tang on my tongue.

He sniffs loudly and exhales. I catch a whiff of cinnamon gum again and my stomach does a nervous flip.

“We should get this telescope somewhere dry. I don’t want to get in trouble for damaging it,” Rabbit observes.

“What about Eagle Cave?” I offer. “It’s dry and you could store the telescope there in case it rains all night. You could come back for it later.”

“It’s a treacherous climb in the dark, especially if it starts raining before we get there. Isn’t an abandoned farmhouse around here? Or a shed?”

I step away from the telescope and cast my eyes around our location. “If I remember correctly, there’s shelter behind that grove of trees. If we move quick we could make it before the rain.”

“What about everyone at the fire?” He counters.

“What about them?” I ask. “Scar’s awake. They’ll figure it out. They’re closer to town anyway. Plenty of shelter there.”

He ruffles his hair and pops his hood up over his head. “You’re right. Let’s go.”

We grab the telescope and trudge over the dead, winter grass towards the low woods. It’s really more of an overgrown apple orchard. There’s no fruit on the limbs right now, but I can tell the difference between these trees and the cherry ones we already passed. These are taller. We use GPS on the bands to track our progress. The farmhouse is close to Cherry Heights Road, on the other side of these trees. We keep the Rim to our backs and Cherry Heights in front of us.

The rain clouds open up before we reach the house and Rabbit removes his jacket to cover the telescope. He wears a t-shirt underneath, quickly drenched in the downpour and clinging to his scrawny frame. We reach the farmhouse and I slip in through a broken window, unlocking the door while Rabbit stands on the covered porch, shivering and dripping wet. It’s cold inside, but relatively dry. Only a few spots where the roof leaks. There’s a fireplace, but no wood. And the likelihood a hawk or eagle built a nest in the upper parts of the chimney is high. I don’t want to burn the place down or die of asphyxiation.

“You should take that off,” I say, pointing at Rabbit. “It’ll dry faster.”

“You just want to see me without a shirt on,” He says wryly.

I don’t answer, not trusting myself to lie with conviction. I unzip my jacket and drape it off the ledge of the fireplace. Underneath is a simple black v-neck shirt. The air is chilly, but the nanos keep the extreme temperatures at bay.

Rabbit modestly turns his back, the typical pose he effects in the SIM locker room and the Commons. It’s rare to catch a full glimpse of a mostly nude Rabbit, unlike many of the other male residents who routinely parade around in nothing but boxer briefs. Or nothing at all.

He peels the wet shirt from his torso, wringing it out and hanging it over a hallway bannister to drip dry. Goosebumps dot his skin and his teeth clatter as he shivers. He turns around to retrieve his jacket and water drips over the muscles on his bare stomach. A black barcode tattoo over his chest hooks my attention. A prison camp tattoo. Rabbit’s either been in prison camp or wants to give the impression he has been. I can’t will myself to avert my gaze, though it makes him uncomfortable enough to place a hand over his heart, over his tattoo. His aloofness during communal dressing times clicks like a coin into a slot.

I don’t get it. Him. He is either a smart kid with designs on a political office or a talented reformed criminal the Fullers rescued from a bad fate. Reformed criminals aren’t usually admitted to National Service. Criminals aren’t really… reformed in Prothero world.

Rabbit gingerly sets the telescope down and retrieves his damp jacket, zipping his naked torso from view and flipping the hood over his head to dry his dripping hair. We decide it’s best to occupy the livingroom and sit up against opposite walls, listening to the rain and watching it buffet inside the glassless window by the front door.

“What’s with you and constellations anyway?” I ask, breaking the awkward silence.

“Kind of a hobby I picked up back in Houston,” He answers briefly. He returns to staring outside like a trapped animal counting the seconds until it can escape.

“With Clinton?” I try to keep the tone of my inquiry neutral.

“Without,” He answers quickly. Relief slugs like a rifle cartridge in my chest. I might be infected with NV but Clinton Fuller is just as cancerous. I am horrified to learn how deeply entrenched he is in Rabbit’s life. Whatever insane tumult comprised Rabbit’s life before the Academy.

I chew on the inside of my bottom lip and wait for him to speak again.

“We lived close to Prothero’s Randolph Space Center. I went there all the time, hanging outside to watch the spacecrafts take off. They built an outdoor pool, made it into a country club and I worked in the kitchens and as a lifeguard before… before joining the Academy. I would wander around the museum after hours, before hours. I spent a lot of time there,” He explains.

“Learning about stars and exploring the remains of space shuttles,” I say, the puzzle pieces of Rabbit Santiago clicking together.

Rabbit grew up serving privileged kids like Clinton and myself. Serving them whatever they needed. Towels, drinks, drugs. That’s probably how he met The Fullers. That’s probably how he ended up here.

“Yes. Now you know my dirty little secret,” He slides his gaze back to the window, the shadows obscuring his features.

I’m guessing he doesn’t just mean his love of space.

Another long silence ensues. In a lot of ways this is reminiscent of our field exercises. We’ve spent so much time together, communicating non-verbally that it’s either totally comfortable or we’re compounding tension and I can’t tell the difference anymore. Why shouldn’t I be comfortable with Rabbit? We spend more time with each-other than anyone else on base. Not by choice, by accidental design. I can’t get rid of him. He can’t get rid of me either. I wonder how it might be for Santiago to stop living under the shadow of Clinton Fuller and Eleni Garza. I bet he would be the most promising resident at the Academy.

“You’d be better off-” I start.

“Can I tell you something?” He asks, his sentence running in ontop of mine.

We laugh awkwardly and I say, “No, you first.”

“Can I tell you something I think you already know?” Rabbit asks.

“The short list of information I know about you expanded at an alarming rate this evening. Whatever else you say to me now will be a genuine surprise.”

His knee bounces nervously and he bows his head, the jacket hood pushing his face into total darkness. “I’m not at the Academy to be a soldier,” Rabbit says softly. “I’m not going to war with the Academy soldiers.”

“Where are you going?” I ask, leaning forward to catch his quiet admission.

The farmhouse livingroom warps with the intensity of a church confessional. My mind spins with a hundred ideas – he’s in training for an elite combat unit, he’s a Contra spy, he’s going to Hollywood to be a virtual star. I’m not prepared for what he says next.

“The Space and Aeronautics Institute. Training to pilot a spacecraft. I’m going to transport human cargo and supplies to our Mars colonies,” He says, voice barely above a whisper.

“Why are you telling me this?”

“Prothero’s not sending you off to fight Contras. They might own this entire world full of resources but they don’t waste anything. Turning you into a soldier, risking your life that way, it would be a waste,” He says firmly.


“They’re sending you to SAI,” He says with confidence. “I just can’t figure out why you wouldn’t tell me. I mean, you don’t trust me. And I don’t blame you. I know admission is super competitive and there were only seven slots this year. But I got my acceptance wave last week. So, there’s no reason for us to… I mean… We could be…”

“No. Rabbit, I’m not going to SAI. Prothero doesn’t care what happens to me now that their public relations campaign is done. They’re not even fixing my eye,” I respond.

“You-you’re not coming to SAI?” He asks, humbled by my admission. “I thought- you talked about escaping National Service. You said you needed Clinton, like I did. I thought, maybe you meant...” He loses momentum. He doesn’t want to finish that sentence.

“You thought wrong. Prothero doesn’t want me piloting space shuttles. They want me on the battlefield. That’s where I’m going Rabbit. Congratulations though. You worked hard and SAI sounds amazing,” I try to keep genuine enthusiasm in my voice but I’m deflated and empty. Rabbit is leaving. Prothero lied to me.

He sits in stunned silence and I join him in distress. I can’t believe there’s another way out of my messy life. There’s another way out of National Service that Prothero never offered me. They said it was this or a debtor’s camp. No other options beyond that. And here’s Rabbit Santiago escaping in six months to the safety and comfort of another round of training. Far from the front lines. Far from danger.

“Oh, well. It’s getting late, we should head back,” He stands abruptly and turns to gather his pack.

“Santiago,” I say, trying to catch his attention.

“You should get your stuff, Garza,” He says in response, fiddling with the stupid telescope. “I’ll get wet. It won’t kill me.”


“The rain is easing up a bit anyway,” He counters. “I’ll wrap the jacket around the telescope. It’ll be fine. We’ll be fine.”

“Rory,” I say.

He freezes and looks over at me. His slumped shoulders betray his confusion. He’s a helpless rabbit caught in a snare, standing there holding the telescope. He drops it into the fluff of his jacket and slumps down, back against the wall. His head hanging as if his neck collapsed.

“What’s going on?” I ask, leaning over him. “You don’t seem fine.”

He blows air past his lips, and I catch a whiff of cinnamon. The world sways and a dizzy spell passes over me.

“I thought you were coming with me. I don’t know why. It doesn’t matter, it shouldn’t matter. You don’t like me and most days I can’t stand you. But you’re smart and good with tech and you’re better than me at flight simulation. I thought you were coming to SAI – with me,” He looks up.

“Why would you want that? We can’t stand each other,” I remind him, my attempt at a playful smile forcing itself into a grimace instead.

“Why - why would they let this happen? Why would they let you die fighting Contras?” He shakes his head. “It doesn’t make sense. You’re better- you’re better than that.”

The emotion, his sincerity brushes goosebumps like large swathes of paint up and down my body. I shiver in the cold, but I’m not cold.

“I’m not.”

“You are,” He insists. “I found a way out and I thought, maybe you did too. I didn’t believe Prothero would really- I’m sorry Eleni. I thought you knew-”

His puzzled, agitated look kills me.

“Stop talking,” I plead, slumping forward so my knees bump up against his legs. My shoulders sag under the weight of this news.

He does as requested, but his eyes refuse to leave me. He’s going to leave me alone. My life is a series of people coming and going and I’m stuck in the same place. Trapped.

“You get to escape,” I whisper, unable to fight the strains of sorrow leeching into my words.

We’re close enough to exchange breath and there’s no one or nothing around to interrupt. I want to kiss him. I want to kiss him because my body compels me forward and I hate him so much. He has everything I want. I want everything he has. I want him.

He touches my cheeks, the tips of his fingers icy. He stares with a mixture of hope and despair and lust. Fear seizes me. He strokes the rigid, bumpy scars of my left temple with a thumb. He brushes over the wires and a deep sigh escapes my chest. He tilts my head down and bumps his forehead up against mine. The heat of our bodies trapped together is extraordinary.

“I’ll take you with me,” He says, lips brushing mine, heavy with emotion. “I’ll figure it out.”

It’s the saddest, nicest lie I’ve ever heard. Better than any of the ones Mateo scribbles in his letters. Because I believe it. I believe him. He would figure out a way. But it doesn’t matter. My body is breaking apart and changing. My past is always in danger of catching up with me and my future lies elsewhere. I wouldn’t survive pilot training on a spacecraft, not with this strange tumor growing inside me. I’d never pass the medical exam. But I want to believe Rabbit when he says it. He wants to believe it to.

“Promise?” I ask, failing again to produce a convincing smile.

He nods and his lips crush into mine. I meet them with equal force. My eyes squeeze shut as his tongue slides past my teeth and I breathe in the scent of cinnamon, sweat and chlorine radiating from his pores. His mouth is hot, burning, like the sun. My body is on fire and the heat only increases.

His fingers slip down my cheeks, tracing the scarred curve of my neck. They trail along the cloth of my shirt, tracing the curves of my hips and encircling my upper back, pressing me to him. The insistence, the hungry way his lips push into mine, makes me shudder. The heat generated between us rises up and wraps over us. It’s unbearably hot.

No, that’s not it. There’s a vaguely pleasant tingling sensation on our lips. My eyes slide open and I push away from Santiago. His hands fall from my back.

A vaporous blue emanates from my pores, trembling on the places our bare skin brushes together.

“Are you hurt?” I ask, remembering the shock Clinton received. “It’s not hurting you?”

“I’m- I’m fine. It kinda tingles. What’s happening?”

I shake my head. Rabbit shifts back and the light dies. He reaches towards me again and the electricity returns as soon as his fingers touch my cheek. He makes a surprised noise somewhere between a laugh and gasp.

“What is it?” He asks, voice filled with awe.

“I have no idea.”

The luminosity pulses and dies away with a crackle, leaving a sulphurous, hot scent on the air. The smell of a spent firework.

Rabbit stands up, dumping me unceremoniously on the ground, murmuring an absent-minded apology. Maybe he’s overwhelmed with this revelation. Or maybe he wants nothing else than to be far away from me. Like Clinton in the tech lab. This is not going well. I bury my head between my knees.

“Eleni?” He inquires.

I wave him off with a pathetic flail of my arms.

“You’ve done that before, with Clinton. The electricity. That’s what happened between you, what freaked him out. You didn’t- did you kiss him?” He asks, jealousy curling his upper lip.

“No. I would never kiss Clinton Fuller. Ever. That’s disgusting,” I answer. “And it wasn’t the same. The electricity hurt him.”

“Really?” Rabbit can’t suppress the satisfied smirk on his face.

“It’s not funny Rabbit. This could get me in a lot of trouble.”

“Or it could save your life. If Prothero knew you could do that… the electricity thing… they wouldn’t send you off to fight,” He reasons. My head shoots up at this remark.

“No. Not them. Rabbit, you can’t tell anyone. Please,” I plead.

“I won’t. I promise. But, how long can you keep it a secret?”

“As long as I need to.”

“Can you control it?” He kneels down next to me.

I shake my head and bury it back in my knees with a resigned sigh.

“I didn’t think so. That explains what’s happened to you in the last few months. Eleni, you can’t handle this on your own. Prothero helped you once,” He reminds me. “At least approach them. Give them the chance to help you again.”

“They did this to me.”

He’s silent, absorbing this concept. Poor Rabbit, I’m breaking his entire world tonight. All the notions he’s ever held about the benevolence of Prothero and the rightness of his life path. Dashed to pieces by a stray kiss from a robot girl.

“Then let me help you,” He asks, raising his bushy eyebrows in supplication.

“No. I’m dangerous, Rabbit. Go back to Layla Danvers and Clinton Fuller and forget about me,” I plead.

He rises from beside me and is quiet again. There’s the sounds of him rustling in the dust layered ontop of the creaking wooden floor. Footsteps. He wants to get the hell out of here. I can hardly blame him.

“Do you really want me to leave you alone?” He presses.

I look up and he’s standing over me, dressed in his damp heather gray shirt, waiting for my response. I don’t know what he wants from me. I don’t know what I want from him. What I want in general. I think I want…him. But that can’t happen. This can’t happen. Mateo’s waiting for me in Mexico City. Rabbit doesn’t need me. He needs someone normal, someone like Layla. Normal people don’t ignite in blue sparks when you kiss them. None of this makes sense.

“Why are you asking me that? Why do you care what I want? Why do you care what happens to me?” I demand, glaring up at him. Annoyed by the pressure he exerts. He’s constantly questioning my motives, offering me stupidly different perspectives.

“Isn’t it obvious?” He asks, bewildered.

“Not to me! I’m not people-smart like Scarlett. Or book-smart like The Rosas. I don’t know anything. And every time I figure something out, the world changes. I get blown up or beaten up or diagnosed with cancer. My life is a mess Rabbit. It’s a wreck and- and- you can’t just jump in and ask me what I want or offer some stupid form of escape. You can’t keep hounding me all the time because I don’t get what I want. I do what they tell me! I do whatever anyone tells me and no one ever asks what I want!" I realize I’m yelling and my voice echoes and bounces against the moldy corners and decaying walls of the empty house.

“You have cancer,” Rabbit states, horrified.

“No. Maybe. There’s a – forget what I said. Could you, could you stop hovering over me like that?” I ask.

He drops to his knees again, slouching out of his pack, staring at me desperately. He’s confused. I’m confused. We’ve been here before.

“I’m not trying to hover. I’m not trying to make you do things you don’t want Eleni. You don’t need someone to rescue you, or save you or whatever. You’ve made that pretty clear. I don’t think you want a romantic relationship either, at least, not with me. But, you might need a friend. Someone to watch your back. I- I do that already because I’m ordered to, in the SIMs. But there’s no difference now, for me, between the SIMs and real life. I guess I’m behind you whether you like it or not. I want-  I want to be your friend,” He says quietly.

It’s the longest piece of dialogue I’ve ever heard Rabbit utter. And he barely stuttered.

“Just a friend?” I ask.

"I- I heard you and Scarlett talking around the fire. There's a boy who writes you letters. He said..." He trails off and looks away. “He said...” He tries again, but isn’t able to complete the thought a second time.

“What did he say Rabbit?”

“In the letter, in the letter I saw – he said he loves you. Is that true?” He asks, voice breaking around the words. “I mean, do you love him?”

“You- you could read the letter?” I ask, scowling.

Rabbit scowls back, offended by the question, “Yeah. I’m not second in our specialization for nothing. Basic code Eleni, you didn’t even try for higher level algorithims. You guys aren’t fooling anyone. Subbing numbers for alphabet letters is not rocket science. Trust me, I’ve studied rocket science. Look, that doesn't matter. Do- do you love that guy? From the letters?”

A sad smile twists my lips. “I used to. Not anymore, at least, not romantically. He’s like, an idea. Not a real person. What does it matter? You’re together with Layla Danvers,” I remind him.

“Right. Layla,” He mutters.

“Do you love her?”

He looks over quickly. “No. No. I barely know her.”

“You barely know me,” I counter.

“You barely know me,” He repeats.

“That’s not true. I’ve paid attention. To you.”

“Huh,” He says with an embarrassed, pleased smile. My metal heart beats faster.

“You’re loyal and kind,” I say, biting into my bottom lip so hard blood leaks from it.

He reaches out a hand towards mine and drops it so near, our fingers brush and blue licks between them. We watch it with distracted fascination, heads dipping close. Just friends.

“I pay attention to you. You don’t make it easy, but… you’re tough and brave and smart,” He says, a boyish smile clinging to his mouth. “That’s worth fighting for.”

“Don’t forget I’m also reckless and dangerous,” I offer.

“That too,” He says with a laugh.

“But you’re not,” I inform him, retracting my fingers, switching off the flickering light.

“I can be,” He says evenly. His voice rumbles a different kind of blue fire in my belly.

“It will be better for you if we’re just friends. You made a life for yourself, a promising future. I will complicate things. I’ve got nothing to offer anyone. I’ve got nothing.”

“You’ve got me,” He says, voice hoarse. “I was serious about finding you a way into SAI. I owe the Fullers, but they owe me too. I could help you escape National Service. Let me help you escape.”

“Why do you want to help me?”

He doesn’t answer right away, then looks up from the rotting floorboards between our hands with that stupid quick smirk.

“It’s none of your business.”

My heart shudders and I dart into his arms, burying my head against his chest, the wet shirt giving off a strong scent of bleach. His cinnamon breath drifts into my nostrils. I suppress the strong and sudden urge to kiss him again, which would negate our entire understanding. He folds his long limbs over me, the places where we touch buzz, cerulean cascading around and cacooning us. The loud, nervous pounding of his heart rumbles against my bad ear. It’s comforting. Human. He has a human heart and I have a metal heart. And we can be friends. I drift off to sleep, holding these thoughts in my mind.

It’s later. The sky is burnished, the sun tucked off somewhere below the horizon. I’m laying on Rabbit’s hard, warm chest. His arms are around me. His nose buried in my wavy hair. I rise and shake him gently. His head lolls, eyes snapping open.

        “What-what time is it?” He asks, voice warm and wrinkled like a used bed sheet.

        The interface on our bands reads 4am.

“Damn. We should get to the base. The sooner the better,” He pushes up off the floor and scrambles around the dusty house, gathering his pack and the telescope.

The rain stopped, so we trudge back to camp. It’s empty – the others left already, seeking shelter from the damp or walking back to Fort Columbia in the damp. My purpose out here, sneaking away to harass Carmen for a letter, was largely forgotten until this moment. We will walk right past the church housing complex. There’s time. There’s still a chance. I turn to Rabbit.

“Will you walk ahead of me?” I ask, grabbing onto the sleeve of his jacket, tugging him to a stop.

“Uh, what?”

“I’ll meet you at the bottom of the hill in fifteen minutes,” I explain.

“Why? What’s going on? We shouldn’t split up,” He says, rubbing at the bags under his eyes, his mind operating on military auto-pilot.

“We’ll be fine Rabbit, this isn’t a combat SIM. Go to the bottom of the hill. I’ll meet you there. Wave me when you’re ready.”

He looks around, scanning the squat, ugly winter cherry trees. He spies the looming cross and Prothero flag waving above the church building in the distance. His mouth sets in a thin line but he moves forward anyway. I stay rooted to my spot, pretending to be absorbed in a dormant ant-hill along the side of the road. He rounds the corner and disappears from view. I wait another five minutes or so and walk languidly towards the building. Santiago’s band glows off in the distance. I mute mine. The new tech eye comes equipped with enhanced night vision anyway.

I search the sidewalk for the needed item, a rock large enough to attract attention but not look entirely out of place. An object designed to elicit notice from those who’ve spent a lifetime looking for minute details. I grab a sharper rock and trace an X on the bottom of the round stone to indicate a meeting tomorrow morning at 10am. Our usual spot is behind a tool shed in the orchards. In the parking lot I keep to the shadows and slink up against the wall at the front doors, placing the round rock on the steps.

My metal heart seizes when a brush rattles ominously across the road. A deer leaps out onto the sunken pavement and flicks its ears towards me. I make a shooing motion and it hops back off into the wilderness, into the orchard.

Rabbit’s wave pops up on my display and I tiptoe down the main walkway, onto the sidewalk and out into the street. I brighten the light on the band, tiptoeing through the naked, forlorn trees to the shed. I trace another white, chalky X on the rusted tin metal. Just in case Carmen doesn’t notice the first clue. Rabbit, growing impatient and concerned, sends another wave. I jog back out onto Cherry Heights.

When I reach the bottom of the hill, I’m breathless and panting. Rabbit holds out an arm to halt me and I pause, gulping oxygen into my lungs.

“What are you running from?” He asks, squinting up the road.

“Nothing,” I assure him. He is not assured. He looks suspicious of the shadows and possibly of me. Too much military training. Or maybe prison or drug dealing. “Rabbit, I’m fine.”

He gives me a quick visual scan and we move out. I catch him giving backward glances to the Prothero flag waving above our heads until we turn off the road. I thought Rabbit’s tension and vigilance was him taking the Academy too seriously, but I’m wondering if looking over his shoulder and cowering away from dark corners isn’t just a way of life for him.

We’re silent on the long walk back to the base. Rabbit is distant, contemplative. We’ve been given a lot of new information to analyze. I’m absorbed in my own thoughts and don’t notice he’s stopped walking until he clears his throat from behind me.

“Garza,” He calls out, in the tone I’ve grown familiar with on the virtual battlefield. When he’s shaking me from a stupor I’ve slipped into. When he’s annoyed with my performance.

“What’s going on?” I jog back to where he’s stopped, his pack and the telescope piled at his feet.

“I-I didn’t dream the farmhouse, did I? I mean, what happened there?” He confirms, scratching behind his ear.

“No, it was all real. The glowing. That happened.”

“OK. That sounds right. I had some really weird dreams. Really  weird. I want to- I want to give you something,” He pushes the sleeve of his jacket up and unclips the rosary bracelet with the red cross and white beads.

“My parents got it for me before I shipped up here. It’s-it’s a good luck charm I guess. I’m not a good Catholic like my mother wanted. But it’s worked for me so far, it’s helped me when I needed it. Will you take it?” He offers bashfully.

I extend my arm to him and he wraps the rosary around my wrist, hooking the clasp together. His fingertips linger for a moment against my delicate pulsing veins. He spins the bracelet, testing the tightness against my skin. Satisfied, he looks up at me with a steady smile, holding a grin that threatens to level all my resolve to keep him at a safe distance.

“Does this mean we’re engaged?” I ask, returning the good feeling with a lopsided, exhausted lift of my lips. “I thought we agreed to just be friends?”

“We did. It’s not like that – I think you need it more than I do. And, it means whatever you want it to mean. I guess, it’s a symbol of the promise I made about SAI. About getting you out of here. I’m going to help you Eleni. So maybe it means hope. The rosary means hope. For you, I think it means hope,” He says, his hand resting around my wrist, encircling it and the rosary beads. His touch comforts me in a way I find embarrassing, horrifying and thrilling.

“I do need hope,” I confirm. “And friends.”

I give his hand a tight squeeze and gently work my forearm from his grip. I turn and walk ahead towards the base as he collects his gear. The rosary beads and the silver coin weigh down each step I take towards Fort Columbia. I’m burdened by the tokens of people I’ve left behind. Who’ve left me behind. Rabbit Santiago, despite his best intentions, could join those ranks. But for the moment, I have hope.



I collapse into bed fully clothed, after barely making it past the base gates and into the barracks. My sleep is fitful and the nightmares move in reverse. Instead of exploding at the end, I regenerate and run backwards down the hall, where the doors all slam shut, taking the grotesque images and sounds with them. At the beginning of the hallway, now the end, I turn and witness a Mateo/Rabbit hybrid young man standing nude in a dark-lit prison room. Bars block the window and a single, dim bulb shines above his head. It’s eerily similar to the Prothero lab. I reach out for him and his body slides away from me in pieces. First his head, then neck, then chest, abdomen, legs, feet. They drop in a bloody pile to the floor. I bend down and gather them up in my arms, trying to put them together again. Screws are built into the flesh and I’m done recreating him when the sound of my alarm jostles me awake. It’s 8am. I’ve only slept for a few hours and I need to meet Carmen at 10am. My head pounds furiously, a reminder that temporary relief is only an injection away.

The thought of facing Scarlett at the breakfast table, after disappearing with Rabbit and never making it back to camp, seems too arduous a task for Sunday morning. She will want details, which entails coming up with effective lies that won’t trigger her honed detectors. It’s too many lies to keep, especially since I haven’t told her about the tumor symptoms or the emerging new powers. Better to avoid breakfast altogether and eat a ration on the way to the Orchards. The guards at the base gates rotated by now, but they will see a log of my exit and entrance times on the band. I consider the options while taking a hot shower. I could say an object I need to retrieve was left at our camp… a personal item I’d forgotten. I stare down at the rosary bracelet.

It appears I left my sense of fidelity and loyalty on the Rim last night. But that would be difficult to find and not quite tangible enough to show the guards. I kissed Rabbit and my level of guilt is disturbingly low. It’s not like I forgot about Mateo and the feelings I harbor for him. Matty is a person I care about deeply, but the past three years of paper make him less a man and more an idea. I love the idea of Mateo and the Contras. I loved Mateo once because he didn’t abandon me even with the looming threat of Prothero. But you can’t love paper. Paper doesn’t emote. It doesn’t hold you. It doesn’t reach out in the mournful night and gently touch your cheek. I turn the water down to cold, freezing any further thoughts of this nature out of my system. Rabbit’s a friend. A friend that I kissed. Once. It doesn’t matter anyway. Our paths are diverging. I’m heading to Mexico City. Rabbit is off to the Space Institute. Unless he can somehow magically arrange for the Fullers to grant me admittance there, which I highly doubt now that Clinton has been tossed in the brig. Why would Edmund Fuller help me now? Anyway, Rabbit and I agreed to be friends. One kiss doesn’t matter. It just doesn’t.

After dressing and loading up a reasonably sized pack with rations, water and a taser, I scan out a cycle at the gates, getting a moderate dose of suspicion for scanning in only a few hours ago. They offer me a rifle and I tuck it through the top straps of my pack reluctantly. Carrying a loaded weapon in the daylight seems less for protection and more for intimidation.

The landscape outside the gates is flat with a smattering of scraggly trees dotting the expanse of brown earth and sagebrush. The cycle ride into The Dalles only takes half an hour. The electricity generated from the pedals gives an extra push and good momentum is gained by riding down the declines. The inclines are worse, and once I’m out of the general vicinity of the base, it’s all uphill on the way to the orchards.

Carmen Martinez, the Contra sympathizer who ferries our letters back and forth, is a short, hard-bodied lady in her 40s with long peppered black and gray hair, typically tied back in a ponytail. Her name indicates a Hispanic ethnicity. She wears a Prothero uniform because these orchards belong to the government. This food is regulated.

Once the pickers load up all the ripe and ready fruit, the cherries are prepared for shipping down at a plant close to the base of The Dalles dam. The technicians move their belongings into a row of houses by the factory, keeping watch on machines working non-stop to process and package the fruit. More workers flood into town temporarily to load the processed cargo onto bullet trains and barges.

The cherries disappear through various channels out of the Gorge and eventually, so do all the people. Then it’s lonely, silent winter days punctuated by the howl of wind and wild animals. This is how it’s been for the last two years here, and no doubt will continue after I’m gone.

I trudge up the last curve of the hill towards the converted church and duck into the orchards, ditching the cycle far enough into the trees that it won’t be spotted from the road. The tool shed is half a mile away, through the orchard grove on my left, not visible from the road. I count the rows as I walk, sixth row in and straight back. Will she be there? The chances are slim, it’s early in the season for more than one or two maintenance technicians to roam the dormant trees. But I possess Rabbit’s tangible hope now. The impossible feels possible.

Far off in the distance to the right, a mechanical cherry rover hums. No, it’s too far away for me to be picking up any noises. It’s the vibrations. The voice of the machine. The sounds are in my head. Well, that can’t be accurate. I snap a finger beside my left ear to check the volume on my hearing aid; it’s turned halfway up. Couldn’t be a malfunction. I try again to visually locate the rover but it’s nowhere in sight. I give my head a firm shake. Must be loose wiring in the auditory implant.

The tool shed slides into view from behind a cluster of trees and I physically restrain myself from making a mad dash towards the comfort of its sagging walls. I quickly spin around and check the rear, making sure no one followed me, which is highly unlikely but existing as a terrorist spy has the habit of making you appropriately suspicious of your surroundings when engaging in criminal behavior.

I dig in the dirt and dead leaves at my feet for a rock to pitch against the side of the shed. The wise move is to be sure it’s not an ambush. The rock clangs against the rusting metal and a toe peeks out from behind the far wall. It’s clad in a black combat boot, similar to mine. I clear my throat loudly and state, “flash.”

“Bang,” Carmen says, stepping out from behind the shed, “You’re dead.”

I sigh and rub my temple. “I thought you might be-”
p.        “Someone else? Smart girl. I was trying to reach you at the base. Our plant at the gates was transferred to the Ukraine and K.I.A. two months ago. No one will believe you’re my daughter,” She shrugs.

“Why, what’s happening?” Dread rises like bile in my throat.

“Nothing good,” She reaches into her pocket to retrieve the letter, holding it out to me. “Read for yourself.”

I take it from her and she spies the rosary on my wrist.

“Who gave that to you?” She asks, suspicious.

“A friend. What does it matter?” Carmen and I are not on good terms. She doesn’t trust me, considers me a liability. I trust her because options are limited, and there are already too few people on a very short list.

She rolls up the sleeve of her jacket to reveal a matching rosary bracelet. It’s the same design, with the red cross and white beads. “It matters.”

I bite at my bottom lip with indecision. Rabbit is already involved enough by simply knowing me. I don’t want to implicate him in this, a conspiracy he has no part in. The rosary bracelet could be an unfortunate coincidence of religious iconography that has nothing to do with this shady bit of business. Or it could mean he’s a Contra sympathizer. The matching details are impossible to ignore. Regardless, I don’t want his name on Carmen’s lips if either of us get caught. I narrow my eyes at her and slide the jacket cuff over the rosary.

“Not to you,” I answer. “It doesn’t matter to you.”

“Suit yourself. Be careful who makes friends with you,” She pulls a cigarette from her pocket and ignites it, taking a drag.

“Thanks for the advice. See you in a month?”

“Probably. You know that thing you asked The Matador to get for you?” She flicks ash and takes another puff, squinting as the smoke billows back in her face.

“You read our letters?” I ask, face growing warm. Embarrassed at the thought of Carmen pouring over my amorous confessions.

“Course not. But I am privileged with some information. Or I wouldn’t be a very good conejo, now would I?”

“Conejo?” I ask.

“Yeah. Like a mole, a topo. Except I’m not blind. But I burrow underground. I keep my ears to the ground. I keep watchful eyes. I’m very clever.”

“Like a rabbit,” My fingers clench around the rosary bracelet, nails digging into my flesh. Carmen notices.

“Yeah, like that. It’s my job to learn things about you. A lot of things about you. And I take my job seriously. You asked about fourth gen bands,” She pulls the cigarette away and scrapes some of the paper and particulates off the tip of her tongue.

“Yeah. I’ve been asking The Matador for years. Three years and he never sent me one. He said it was too risky and where would I hide it and how would I avoid detection. How would I get down to Mexico City. Why now? Why is he sending me the fourth gen now?” I ask Carmen.

“Those aren’t questions I can answer. But you could probably figure it out if you think real hard. Same reason I’m here, little topo. Same reason I don’t get to live the life I want. We serve a better purpose on the inside. Maybe The Matador didn’t want you to escape, until now.”

The hairs raise on my arm, rivulets of electricity buzzing along the folds of my jacket. Carmen cocks her head at this display, taking another long drag on the cigarette, enjoying my discomfort. A hard icy rock forms in the pit of my stomach.

“That’s a neat trick Prothero has you doing there. Controlling electricity or something. Does The Matador know about that?” She questions.

I don’t answer her. “Do you have it? The fourth gen?”

“Not yet. The Matador says to tell you it’s coming. Be patient. Can you be patient Lima?” I hate when she uses our nicknames. The mocking sing-song in her tone grates my already raw nerves.

“I can be whatever I need to be,” I respond.

“Yes, you can do whatever we need you to do. But you can’t do what you want. It’s a sad story,” The smirk she wears melts the ice in my stomach and lights a fire there instead.

I never get to do what I want, anyway. Snippets from a dream I don’t remember until now flood through me. Weightless spinning in the stars. In the comfortable shell of a spaceship and Rabbit’s arms around me and we float in silence. We escape, together. I had that dream last night. It was just a dream though.

I never get what I want.

“Tell me about rabbits,” I request, the question burning up from my insides.

“Smart ones don’t get caught,” She responds quickly, her gaze flickering again to the rosary bracelet.

“What about here. Are there conejos here?” I ask, looking down at the rosary and back up to her.

“Besides me? Don’t think so. Wild ones, maybe,” She smiles again, revealing her crooked, mostly gold teeth.

“What about ones who’ve been caught?” I ask, remembering Rabbit’s prison tattoo. His ties to the Fullers. My head spins. I want to sit down but I don’t want my body language to reveal anything else to Carmen. She notices too much already.

“No. They get killed and eaten. Or maybe kept as a pet, in a cage. Smart conejos don’t get caught. They keep away from traps and snares. Like me,” She thumps a thumb against her ample chest and takes another drag on the cigarette, her eyes boring into me.

“When will the fourth gen get here?” I ask again, because it’s the only other thought revolving in my brain at the moment. I want to get out of here. Away from Carmen, away from National Service, away from the Contras and their conejos and everyone. I want to escape.

“Soon. You keep coming back to visit me. I get lonely out here separated from the colony. I like our talks,” She turns her back on me and glides like an apparition out of sight, behind the shed, leaving a trail of acrid smoke and irritation in her wake.

I liked the french guy better.

On the path back to the stashed cycle I kick angrily through the withered leaves piled beneath the trees. They crumble and flutter away at first contact with my boot. Damn Carmen. Implying I’m screwing things up for the Contras. I’m in danger here. I’m dangerous. The chill winter sun catches a glint from the rosary as I storm around the dormant trees, Carmen’s ominous admonishments filtering back to me. Rabbit cannot be a spy for the Contras. He’s been admitted into SAI. He’s changing his life. Isn’t he?

The Fullers. He could be a spy for the Fullers. He said they owed him something. Maybe he’s like me. A mole. For the wrong side. Not a rabbit at all. Carmen possesses a caustic personality, but she’s been a Contra for longer. If I can’t trust her… who can I trust? I thought I could trust Rabbit. I was trying to, anyway.

I let out a growl of frustration and slam a fist into a tree. It leaves a shallow dent in the hard bark and jogs the locking mechanism on the rosary bracelet loose. It slithers from my wrist like a limp snake and drops to the ground in a coiled pile. I pick it up and jam it in my pocket, sprinting in the direction of the cycle. I don’t want to remain in the orchard any longer. Not with heavy doubts settling in me. I experienced one good night with Rabbit. One morning infused with a bit of hope. And now stupid Carmen’s insinuations scramble my head and this stupid letter burns a hole in my pocket. The stupid rosary bracelet and its unpleasant implications.

The ride back into town is mostly downhill. I detour across the crumbling freeway to the swingset at the base of the Dam. I usually read the letters in my favorite toilet stall in the Commons, but I’m anxious to open it after Carmen suggested the contents were of great importance.

I take a seat on one of the rusting swings, gripping the chains turned green in the wind and rain from the Gorge. There is no one around to repair it. There is no one. It’s me and the letter. I peel the pages apart with shaking fingers and my eyes dive to the opening greeting and first sentence:



Winters are the worst time of the year. We have been separated for so long, you might think I am content without hearing a new word from you for months, but you would be wrong. This is difficult. I know you are strong. You can survive cold, hard winters in the Pacific Northwest, just as I can survive the hot, arid summers in the Southwest.

[_I cannot survive too much longer. Things are bad down here. They’re releasing new strands of the virus and our simulated antidotes, derived from the inoculations you stole, do not work anymore. They are useless. It is especially hostile to women and children. It is fatal. Lima, our people are dying in the most horrible ways and all I can do is watch. Well, you understand me, I cannot be content with this form of inaction for long. We are moving forward with a new vaccine but it’s slow going. Any information you could send us would be much appreciated. I do not want to alarm you, but I contracted this new virus strain. It’s airborne and they pump it through the vents of all the bombed out buildings and into the sewers. It was impossible to avoid it. _]

[_There’s a reserve of medicine set aside for the leadership, but it’s running out. Will be depleted within two months time. I know it sounds crazy, but I need you to steal inoculations for me again, enough to last until we create a new antidote. Once more for old times sake? Please send the medicine. Give the inoculations to Carmelo. Then you can hop in your bird and fly down here on silver wings. We will free you from your band. From your bondage. _]

I know you will be upset and worried. But I need you calm and focused for this. Do not do be crazy, Lima. We need your resources, your access most of all. Those inoculations will extend our lives and extend the strength and reach of the cause.

We, perhaps, may do something insane and be forgiven. In retaliation for the new virus, we’re going to take down their building, their headquarters in the heart of our city. It will not be anytime soon, we can be patient. We can watch and wait for the right time to strike. That is the way we survived this long. Our strike has been coming for a long time. It was coming before we met. I’ll remember to pray for our friend Javier and his family as I watch the bombs explode. I pray for him often. Do not be sad, pretty girl. Javier was ignorant of the resistance, but he died protecting us. He died for an important cause. Like one day I will. And you will.


With Love,



My trembling hand holding the letter sinks down to my lap and I take a long look out over the waters of the Columbia. My mind is spinning and yet blank at the same time. A million things are rushing through my head but I feel numb and empty. That’s the problem with a metal heart.

I’ve been concentrating so much on my personal dramas with Rabbit and Clinton that I’ve ignored Mateo and the Contras and their incredible need. Mateo is dying. I’m dying too, but that doesn’t feel real. Nothing feels as real as the knowledge that Mateo is sick. Again.

Everything is the same as it was years ago. Nothing changes. Nothing gets better. It’s only an alternating series of viruses and bombs and Prothero and…

The heart implant seizes in my chest, a pain worse than I’ve ever felt. It’s not skipping a beat, it’s staging a full scale revolution against my body. I curl around it, the letter falling from my hands and landing in the patchy dirt underneath my feet. I feel myself heaving forward out of the swing, but this can’t happen. I’ve had this heart for three years. Why now? Why is this happening now? I land on my knees and grab wildly for the paper, crumpling the folds in my clawed fingers, trying unsuccessfully to jam it in my pocket. Another sharp wave crashes against the shore of my chest, deep enough to make me cry out. The band display casts a projection, a warning error sounds in my ears. My vitals – it’s reading my vitals. It’s reading that my vitals are failing. My clumsy fist and the letter are all that matter now. I need to get rid of it. I can’t let them see it.

I crawl towards the river, grabbing blindly at the clumps of dry scratch grass around me and heaving myself forward with trembling legs and arms. Air burns in and out of my lungs and my vision blurs. I’m almost there. Another few feet. Another few inches. Dragging, dragging my useless body to the edge of the water. The error message on the band grows louder in my ears. I’ve never heard it before. It’s a whooping siren, like the one used to call us to General Assembly. A soothing, robotic female voice clicks on from nowhere, “You are experiencing a myocardial infarction. Please remain calm. Medical professionals are en route to assist you.”

I squeeze my eyes shut and attempt to draw another breath into my lungs. Three more feet. I can make it. I can do this. A third, powerful wave of pressure drops my legs out from under me, my fingernails biting into the hard dirt beneath them. Three feet. If I can’t make it…I use all my remaining energy to toss the letter. I watch its progress with horror – it bounces once, twice, three times and rolls to the edge of the bank. Medical helos from the base will be here any minute now. I’m sure of it. The siren, the voice. “You are experiencing a myocardial infarction. Please remain calm.” I can’t stop staring at the crumpled letter, taunting from the bank. Rolling back and forth in the breeze, but not tumbling over the edge and down into the water below.

The wind picks up around me, whirling in a circular pattern. Over the buzzing of the warning message, I hear a thumping, whining noise. A helo. I want to roll over and watch its progress, but all the strength goes out of me. My head hits the ground, the letter shifting out of view. The sounds of men and women shouting to one another pushes lazily against my ears. My surroundings grow dim, like a darkened room when you pull the curtains. Pull the blankets up over your head. Stuff the pillow over your ears.

A fourth wave of pain rolls over me, flattening my reality and taking the sounds away. The helo wings vibrate in the air, feet rumble towards me over the frozen, stiff earth. My eye implant snaps open as people touch my sides, lift, and roll me over. I catch one final, fleeting image of the letter ascending in the air and dancing out over the water. Dropping and rising. I smile, or at least I think I do. And my eyes close. And the noises stop. The world is quiet, for once.


“Eleni?” A familiar woman’s voice asks.

My eyes snap open. I’m laying in a hospital bed. Not restrained. That’s a good sign. I roll my head over and Nurse Esperanza smiles down at me. I blink, my mouth sleepily pulling into something resembling a returning smile.

“I made it?” I ask.

“Barely. That was the closest call we’ve had with one of our residents in awhile. You like to push the envelope huh?”

“It’s a talent,” I roll my head back and look up at the ceiling, trying to remember what happened before I passed out.

Oh, the letter. Mateo. The Contras. The virus. The bombing.

My heart races again and Nurse Esperanza grabs for my shoulder.

“Take it easy,” She demands.

“How much easier can I get?” My words slur. I feel…drunk. “What did you give me?”

“Don’t trouble yourself about that. Are you up for visitors?” She inquires.


“Yes, your two friends stalked the infirmary lobby for the last 10 hours waiting for you to regain consciousness. I’d like them to leave at some point. This seems to be the only way, though I’d advise against it.”

I nod and prop myself up onto my forearms and elbows, lifting my upper torso. My arms are weak and shaky.

“That’s the drugs,” She interjects. “Physically you are fine. The other nurse practitioners and doctors here can’t explain it. You healed the damage to your organs. Your body decided to randomly reject the heart implant, but we are unable to determine a specific cause. We used up all our stock supply of nano suppresants to re-stabilize you,” She crosses her arms against her chest, brows furrowed.

I smack my lips together. That explains the metal taste on my tongue.

“Sounds about right,” I say.

She takes backward steps to the door, pushing it open. “You can come in kids. Sleeping beauty is awake.”

Scarlett emerges into the room first, worry emanating from her like a beacon. Her cheeks are stained with black mascara tracks and I can’t help but smile at this. Scar is one of the few residents who bothers to wear makeup. It’s one of her endearing qualities. Rabbit enters next, bringing that pleasant dip in my stomach I’ve come to associate with him. He looks about as miserable as Scarlett, but without the mascara streaks. Scarlett launches on me with a massive hug and a big kiss on the forehead.

“You scared the crap out of me!” Scar says indignantly.

“Well, that was the intention,” I say.

She hovers over me, offering more disparaging words until Rabbit taps her on the shoulder. She throws him a nasty look and moves off to the side, barely. He brings both hands up to rest on the guard-rail of the bed, gripping it with a ferocity that makes the sinnewy muscles in his thin biceps bulge.

“Eleni,” He says in a strangled voice.

“Rabbit,” I answer.

His features twist for a moment and he asks, “What happened?”

“Nurse Esperanza didn’t tell you?”

“They wouldn’t tell us what happened to you. It took me two hours to figure out you’d been life-flighted in here,” Scarlett complains, favoring the nurse with another of her dark looks.

“Well, I decided to randomly reject my heart implant. After three years. I’m fine though. Really. Just weak from the drugs.”

“I don’t like it,” Scarlett states.

“Me either. We should all write Prothero a strongly worded letter,” I joke.

“Speaking of Prothero,” Rabbit picks up the train of thought, “Where are they?”

Nurse Esperanza steps forward and pats my leg, “Dr. Dawson is momentarily indisposed. He was relieved to hear you survived and promised to teleport over first thing in the morning. If your condition is stable enough, he plans to bring you back to DC. To the Prothero Lab, to evaluate your implant.”

Frantic thoughts, too quick and bursting with fear to comprehend slam and crash around my brain. I push myself up off the bed and claw at the IV drip in my arm.

“No. No way, I’m not going back there,” I slur, feebly attempting to extract the needle.

A horrified Rabbit reaches out to grab my shoulders and restrain me. I struggle and thrash in his grip. My pulse rockets and alarms wail as the metal heart stages another coup underneath my ribcage.

“I’m not going back there,” I choke out.

Rabbit and Nurse Esperanza force me back onto the bed. Scar stands behind the scene, covering her mouth in shock. I wish I’d told her more. I wish I’d told her everything.

Nurse Esperanza holds my weakly struggling legs and turns on Scar, “Buford, bring me that sedative on the counter.”

I shake my head furiously.

“Scar,” I plead. “Don’t.”

Scarlett stands her ground, indecisive.

“Now!” Nurse Esparanza barks, with the kind of authority you do not ignore.

The command sends Scar bolting across the room. She returns clutching a syringe.

“I’m sorry Len,” She whispers.

Rabbit holds me to the hospital bed by my right shoulder. He glances down at the wrist, empty of the rosary bracelet, and looks back up, a scowling question contorting his features.

Nurse Esparanza rips the covers from my body and rudely shoves the hospital gown up past my hips. I thrash harder, but the sharp prick of the needle enters my left thigh despite my protests. Tears of rage build in my real eye.

“Rabbit,” I stop thrashing. “Don’t let them take me.”

He offers me a look of conflicted heartbreak.

“You promised,” I say. “You promised you’d help me.”

“Eleni, it’s Prothero,” He says helplessly. “What can I do?”

Nothing. There’s nothing he can do.

“You promised,” My voice soars an octave. His grip tightens and the blue electricity snaps alive on his band. It’s not the pleasant tingling sensation from last night. It’s a hard, cruel strike of power. Rabbit releases me with a shout, backing away and stumbling into Scarlett in the process. The horrified look on his face temporarily distorts reality. I see Clinton Fuller staring in shock. My parents side glances of despair. I’m a monster. Rabbit’s scared now. Finally. He’s finally scared of me.

The full color display of my internal organs on the monitor above the bed crackles and hisses. The siren wails cut off. My heart shudders down to a normal, easy speed. The world shifts back to normalcy.

 Nurse Esparanza sweeps in front of me, shoving my friends to the door.

“Visiting hours are over,” She says.

“I’m not leaving!” Scarlett shouts. “What’s wrong with her? What are they going to do to her?”

“It’s not up for discussion. You too lover boy,” She pokes Rabbit’s shoulder. “Go on.”

“Eleni!” Rabbit calls out. He doesn’t sound scared. He sounds desperate.

Scar and Rabbit struggle against her, but it’s pushing back against the inevitable. They can’t win against the authority Nurse Esperanza wields. They can’t win against Prothero. They already lost and I watch this awareness destroy their faces as the door closes and Nurse Esperanza twists the lock. Hot tears spill down my cheek. I brush them away clumsily.

“I’m sorry. That was a terrible idea. You need more rest,” Nurse Esperanza moves to fiddle with a vial of drugs on the counter.

“Don’t,” I say, unsure of what I’m railing against. The world lurches away in a sudden rush. Then, I remember.

“Don’t let them take me.”

She strides over to my IV, equipped with yet another needle. She stares down at me with the stony set features of a woman resigned to carry out actions she secretly despises. “It’s not my choice. Believe me.”

She injects the solution and my lids are too heavy to keep open. From outside the spongy grip of blackness, fists pound on a door.

Scarlett’s voice. “What are you doing to her?”

“Buford! Stop. You’re only making it worse. Making her worse,” Rabbit insists.

“Fuck you!” Scarlett shouts. The rest of their words are muffled, as if someone jammed cotton in my ears. But I hear them talking, spinning their sounds together until I can’t tell who is who anymore.

Nurse Esperanza breaks the cacophony apart, whispering into the inky dark dream world. “You’re too important to die on us Eleni Garza.”

It’s the last thing I hear before tumbling into a landscape of nightmares.

The same dream – backwards again. Javier exploding. The dream again. A running loop of all the horrific thoughts and experiences and guilts. New sensations arise, of being strapped to a hospital bed. Blurry hands emerge, pressing and pushing at my flesh. Scalpels slice into me. Needles submerge under my skin. Electricity drives over my body in jolts. And then, I’m left. Left to starve and die and rot. Voices thunder in – the voices from the SIM, months ago, when Rabbit destroyed the building. I see Rabbit, pressing the command button on his console. Matty and the women and children trapped in the collapsing building rubble. The drone spinning to the ground. My nose erupting in blood, waves of nausea. Blood on my hands. Blood on Rabbit’s hands. Mateo crushed to death.

I wake up in a cold sweat to a pitch-black room. The sky outside, visible through a sparsely curtained window, is dark. My band indicates it’s 4am.

I remember. The revelation of the new form of NV, kissing Rabbit, the suspicious rosary bracelet, the conejos, the letter from Mateo, the heart attack, friends abandoning me. The pain strikes again, all at once, with the force of a hammer. My blood pressure spikes on the monitor overhead and a vice tightens in my chest. I am dying.

Prothero is killing me. Prothero is killing Mateo. I don’t want them to take me back to the lab in DC for experimentation. They won’t offer benign alterations this time. They’re done fixing me up. They will take what they want. Do what they want. I need to get out of here. I need to get the fuck out of here. It’s too soon to flee the base. It’s sooner than I’d planned. I’m not as strong as I should be. I don’t have enough training or experience yet. But there’s no more time to worry about any of that.

My heart threatens to rebel again, but I take a deep breath and push all the emotions down into the baser regions of my brain. Burying it with layers of military training and technical manuals and computer science. I can’t remember how horrible I feel anymore. But I understand what I must do.  

It’s the only thing I can do. No one else can save me. I save myself.

I pluck the needle out of my right arm and wrap my fingers around the drips of blood caused by this inexpert maneuver. The puncture doesn’t quickly evaporate with nano assistance. I am taking longer than usual to heal. I lift the covers and tiptoe over to an empty chair in the room where the clothes I was wearing this morning are draped. My limbs are shaky, but less so than earlier. My altered metabolism chews up drugs at an alarming rate. My favorite black t-shirt is entirely unusable, cut down the middle with a pair of scissors for easy access to my chest. Same with the bra. I toss these aside and put on the pants, the lump of Rabbit’s rosary digging through the right pocket. I pull it out and wrap it  around my wrist. Who cares what Carmen thinks? Who cares?

The jacket is fine, the medics only unzipped it. I pull it on over the hospital gown. My pack is there too, rifle missing. No big deal. There’s mace, a taser, an EMP device and rations tucked away inside the three pouches. Not enough for what I need, but it will have to do. I transfer the mace and taser to my jacket pockets. One in each. They may prove useful before the night is over. With that completed, I stand on tiptoes and open one of the upper cupboard doors. There must be inoculations in here, somewhere. Maybe not six months worth. Maybe not enough for the entire Mexico City contra leadership. But there could be enough for one person. For Mateo.

Flimsy cardboard boxes line the shelves, but none are labeled NV-1. I curse under my breath and search the lower cabinets, finding one package of the antidote. The outside label indicates the box only contains eight doses. Two months. It’s not enough. There has to be more in the infirmary. The base is teeming with people who need weekly treatments. I need to find them.

I gingerly push the door open and scan the waiting room for signs of life. A male clinic orderly sleeps at the counter,  behind him in the pharmacy four shelves are crammed with medication.

The door to my right allows access to the room. I grab the knob and turn it gingerly, hoping the click and muffled woosh of the door sliding open does not disturb the orderly’s slumber. He sighs and shifts a little, but otherwise, remains napping. We’ve become so complacent here, far from the frontlines. Safe from the virus, from the battlefield. But not for long.

I tiptoe onto the buffed linoleum and scan the first row for another box of NV-1. I’m not asking for much. One more box should suffice for Matty. I couldn’t carry much else with me, and I’ll need to slip across the base undetected. One more box.

The first row of shelves does not yield any results. Nor does the second. I’m about to give up hope when I spy familiar labeling on the bottom half of the third row. There is decidedly more than one box occupying those shelves. But I only need one.

I creep forward, grabbing the first package, and hesitate. Another package would buy two more months for Mateo, or someone else in the Contra leadership. Cursing my impulses, I grab another off the shelf and turn to find my path is blocked. The slumbering soldier has awoken, his brows drawn together in confusion.

“What are you doing in here?” He asks, stifling a yawn. Good, I can use the element of surprise. I clench down hard on the taser in my jacket pocket.

“Getting some medication,” I reply. “Could you hold this for me?” I dangle the second box in front of him. He nods sleepily and reaches for it. He must be under the impression I’m either a patient or a medical resident. Or he’s half asleep and could care less either way.

“Why are you wearing a jacket?” He inquires. “It’s roasting in here.”

“Yeah, it is,” I say as he grips the cardboard. I retrieve the taser and jam it in his ribs, pressing down hard on the button. He emits a terrified shout and I drop the other box of medication to cover his mouth.

Bad call. A jolt of electricity ripples my body like water and the wires in my temple crackle. The acrid scent of burnt hair and electronics assaults my nostrils. The vision in my left eye stutters and I back quickly away from him. Aside from the shock, I’m on my feet and clutching the taser. The orderlies knees buckle and he collapses to the ground, in too much pain to articulate, saving me from anymore dumb ideas like stifling his cries. I deliver more volts to his abdomen, hoping his closed lids indicate he’s passed out. For good measure I check the vitals on his band. Yep – steady pulse and heart-rate. He’s not going into cardiac arrest.

The tasering will report on his band. There is a red security camera light winking at me from across the room. I’m not the first drug addled resident or soldier to burst in here and attempt to elicit prescription narcotics. If a broom or pole were nearby I could bust the camera up, but the whole incident will be recorded. There’s no turning back now. Not with the orderly laying prone on the ground beneath a scattering of inoculations. Besides, the other things planned for tonight are much worse than a tasering. I scoop up both boxes and sling them in the pack, zipping them up into the confines. I need to get out of here fast, before security is alerted to the altercation.

I shuffle past the unconscious soldier and exit out into the empty, silent main hallway. The thought crosses my mind to head to barracks and pack better clothes. It also occurs to me Scarlett and Rabbit deserve a final goodbye. But I can’t bring myself to do any of these things. I recall the final scene in the infirmary, their fear and impotence. What else is there to say? They can’t help me. No one can. It’s better this way.

I have the resolve now. If I further deviate from this course…I might never do what needs to be done. The right thing. Prothero is hot on my heels and what’s left of my entire world is falling apart in Mexico. I can deliver these inoculations and the Contras can deliver a cure. Rabbit and Scarlett, well, they can manage without me. Like I said, they’ll be better off.

There are floodlights on in the main campus, and a bitter wind whisks across the vacant courtyard separating the Academy from the rest of the military base. Flakes of snow drift in the harsh breeze, but cannot make purchase on the ground. Snow could be problematic. I definitely need to get out of here before the full force of the weather hits. It’s gonna be a long jog to the first destination, so I stretch a bit, hoping to work the last remnants of medicine and heart failure out of my system.

My first and only stop is 500 yards away from the munitions depot. I circle around behind the building and slip in using an above ground basement window loosened by years of exposure to the harsh gorge weather and my interference with kinetic tools. I can pop the window out of the frame and have already weakened the metal bars. They snap like twigs when I exert pressure on them.

It’s been a hobby of mine – the hours of dark are long here – and some nights sleep does not come easy. Establishing an access point to the weapons depot seemed like a productive use of my time when awake at 2am on a military base. They don’t store rifles in the basement. Only heavy weapons like machine guns, rocket launchers and other explosives. A few of which are perfectly suited for my needs.

I slip through the gap in the concrete, glad of my relatively thin frame and lack of large breasts. I can’t image Scar trying to squeeze down in here. Oh, Scarlett. A nagging spike of pain rips into my chest but I tuck all thoughts of my friends away in a corner of my mind and close the door. I cannot be distracted from this purpose. I take a deep breath before dropping down onto the concrete. The fall is greater than anticipated – it can be difficult to judge distance using a warped, barred window. My ankles buckle as my feet land and I topple forward, knees slamming into dirty grey cement. A cry of pain escapes me and I bite down hard on the knuckles of my right hand. Hard enough to draw blood that tastes like poison on my tongue. Nano suppressants are the least appetizing medicine on the planet. If they are going to pump me full of this crap, the least they could do is make it taste sweet like cough syrup.

I sit in a crouch, catching my breath and gathering my bearings. My knees throb with a dull ache promising ugly bruises. Any attempt at self pity is drowned out by the thought of nebulous nano virus veins crawling up Matty’s neck. He can’t wait any longer and neither can I. Prothero will be here in a matter of hours, Nurse Esperanza saw to that. They’ll scoop me up this time. A heart attack and a tumor will be enough to pique their interest. This escape happens tonight, no matter what.

The band clicks on to a low pulse, providing enough illumination for me to read the labels on the shipping containers. They are stacked on tall metal shelving units, similar to a warehouse. You’d need a forklift or mech suit to reach the top shelf. Lucky for me the items I need are on a bottom row. I spy them and approach the metal box with trepidation. How am I going to get past this obstacle? I step closer and touch the side, as I did before in the SIM with the LRAD. Nothing happens. I’m not sure what I was expecting. A flash of light, the box to magically open, a genie to pop out and grant me three wishes? Stupid.

I lean in closer to inspect the lid and see if it’s possible to pull it off with a crowbar, when text on the label catches my eye. Right beneath the Prothero symbol and the catch-phrase “Advancing humanity at all costs” is a bar-code. I scan it with the band. It reads the printed ink and spits out lines of manufacturer information, including a 12 digit lockbox sequence which can be entered on a keypad located on top of the container. Well, that’s convenient. I reach in between the underside of the shelf and the container top until my fingers land on the keypad. It’s dusty. This part of the armory has been dormant for awhile.  

I punch in the lockbox numbers and the box beeps loudly. Nothing happens. I peer in at the keypad and see a text message reading “please enter the 6 digit security clearance.” Nothing’s ever easy is it? I sigh loudly in the dark, rubbing at the wires on my left temple. I have to hack this box. I need the explosives inside to provide a diversion during my ill-conceived escape attempt.

I could use the security code, stolen from the pleasant white Grandmother in the administration building. A wayward sense of morality prevents me from applying it here. I might be a monster, but I’m partly human, aware that further linking this woman to my antics will cause her to suffer serious consequences. I will not implicate her in this.

On the keypad my searching fingers curl into a fist and I bang it on the numbers. The box emits another sharp beep and renews the previous text message. That wasn’t productive.

The band however, awakens, gleaming an ominous purple. I’ve seen blue before, that is a known quantity. This is an entirely new development. An image flickers to life on the display, fuzzy at first and indecipherable, but gaining clarity as the seconds tick by. Schematics for the keypad, clearly displaying a weakness in the wiring. If I can exploit this weakness, I can overload the system and force the container open, bypassing the security code entirely. That would be preferable to sitting here playing guessing games until the sun comes up.

“Thanks,” I whisper to the purple schematic. As if in response, it pulses and winks out, retaining the previous dim white glow I use as a visual aid.

I shrug out of my pack and dig around inside the flap for the item I’m usually never without, a set of kinetic tools. The screwdriver in particular looks apt. I touch it down to the keys and a spark of electricity shoots up. I dig the metal in under the buttons and lift with all the force in both my arms. The cover of the keypad lifts off, exposing the wiring beneath. The band snaps back on, rotating the schematics, showing me where to apply the pressure. There are six colored wires. I manipulate them into a new sequence based on the read-out. I snap the keypad back on and await an updated text message.

Nothing happens. I tap out the 12 digit sequence again for good measure. Still nothing.

Frustrated, I kick at the metal container. It emits a pleasant sounding chime and the lid unlatches with a velvety sigh of compressed air.

“That’s more like it,” I announce, aware this comment is addressed to an empty room.

I don’t feel alone. A presence keeps watchful guard, listening. Mechanical entities sleep fitfully down here. Alive, but dormant. The nightmares, the giant orb, the extraordinary humming energy flash through my brain. A shiver rattles my spine. I retrieve four of the large grenades from inside the metal shipping box and place them carefully inside my pack, wrapping them in the jacket, tucked in the bottom of the bag. Fragile cargo. I reach back into the container for a fifth device, replace the lid and set the grenade on top of it. I punch in a four digit code and set 25 minutes on the timer to arm it.

A large pile of packing debris and wooden pallets rests in the back of the room. I pull out the taser and rest the electrodes against a loose scrap of paper in the pile. Pressing the button sends electric current through the material and ignites a tiny fire. It should burn hot enough and big enough to set off the fire alarm, effectively clearing the building before the grenade goes off. It’s giving off significant heat, so I back away quickly, scanning the room for items with enough height to allow for escape.

An empty container by the window is portable enough to push up against the wall. I climb on top, and a small hop confirms it will support my weight. Not quite there yet, I jump down and grab another box which teeters a bit while being placed. This is much more precarious and I don’t bother with a test hop. It will only survive the one attempt. I place a tentative foot on top and it wobbles, confirming my suspicion. With a hand on the wall to steady myself and one final, nervous glance back at the height of my potential tumble, I move my other foot and leap with all the muscle and strength I can muster. My reaching hands find a tentative grip on the window ledge, my fingers scrabbling about in the dust and dead bugs littered there. I pull my upper torso onto the ledge and walk my feet up the wall, gripping the posts left behind by the recently removed window bars.

I grab through the window frame at clumps of grass and earth, dragging myself up and out. My stomach and thighs rake painfully across the damaged posts, and I’m fairly certain when I lift the hospital gown there will be long bloody scratches, but there’s no time to stop now. I’m out of the basement and up on my feet, scanning the perimeter of my vision. No one.

This is too easy. Has Prothero become so infallible that duplicity and treachery are not only possible, but damned easy? The short answer is yes.

My priority now is the airfield. The helos.

I make good, steady progress across the base. Flat-out running seems like the smart option, but would attract more attention. At the moment I look like a sleepy resident, out for early morning exercise. Except for the bottoms of the hospital gown flapping like waving arms in the breeze. I attempt to tuck the excess material down into my pants, but it mushrooms out the top. Whatever. In a few minutes I’ll be suspect if I’m stopped regardless of my attire.

The snow descends in earnest now, and a fine, thin layer develops on the ground and objects around me. Poor visibility stacked on top of my inexperience operating the Condors is going to make for a rocky start to this adventure.

It’s hard to be upset at the fluffy white flakes piling up on all the surfaces. They mute my footprints and blanket the base in a comforting, beautiful silence. This could be the last image I ever see of Fort Columbia. I’m glad it’s this and not some rainy, drizzly dankness or one of the roasting hot, dry summer evenings. Silent snowfall is a pleasant note to end it on.

Around 10 minutes, the fire alarm in the armory goes off, a horrible piercing wail heard all over the base. I imagine it’s even scaring off whatever packs of wild animals lurk in the early morning hours outside the gates. I spin around and witness a trickle of confused soldiers exiting the building where no visible fire can be seen.

“Come on, get out of there,” I whisper, looking towards the front doors of the armory, where soldiers and guards are usually stationed, but are now ushering people away from the building.

About a dozen residents, soldiers and civilian staff gather 200 feet from the building. Should there be more people outside? I haven’t collected enough intelligence about the armory staffing to make a judgement call on potential casualties. I’ll assume everyone is smart enough to understand that a fire in an armory leads to disastrous situations and therefore evacuated promptly, especially given how often we are drilled on proper evacuation procedure. The fire should have quickly exhausted itself on the pallets, but produced enough smoke to set off the alarms. Now, my only hope is people do not investigate and the fire unit recognizes the inherent danger of the situation, deferring to the bomb squad and hazmat teams instead.

The specialists arrive at about 13 minutes, roaring down the roadway north of the airfield with full sirens and colored lights blaring, attracting as much attention as is humanly possible at 5am on a Monday morning. I hop out of their line of sight and into the grass, doing my best to look bewildered, sleepy and completely unsuspicious. My presence doesn’t elicit so much as a second glance by any of the men and women inside the armored vehicles.

Another 20 minutes of walking and a full visual emerges of the airfield where the giant helocrafts roost. There is zero activity, since most responders are consumed with the armory crisis. Upon seeing the dormant helos, adrenaline and anticipation lurch in me. It’s time to take what has been denied ever since I stole my first inoculation. Freedom.

There’s nothing I can do now but wait another five minutes for the full force of my distraction to work its magic. I back-track and slip into the shadow of the administration building, crouching behind a squat bush. My biggest concern is the explosion won’t draw the guards off the hangar gates, and I will be forced to disable them with other, more violent means. The heart implant jack-hammers in my chest. I check the time on the band. Huh, it should have gone off by-

The initial explosion isn’t excessively loud or forceful. The armory emits a tinny popping sound, like a firecracker going off in a metal bucket. Then, as if the firework multiplied, several more explosions occur right on top of another. A chain reaction of grenades, igniting from the first. The ground rumbles underfoot and from my crouching position I’m thrown against the admin building. I gain purchase and peek my head around the corner to get a better vantage point at the devastation I’ve created. Blasts flare from the armory basement, shooting metal, brick, dirt and glass into the air. I hadn’t considered how detonating bombs in the basement might weaken the support structures of the building. The whole damn thing could come down.

From off to the right I hear shouts and the clatter of boots hitting pavement. I duck back into the darkness and the scant protection of the bush before they reach my position. It doesn’t matter anyway, the guards attention is clearly on the chaos in front of them. They are flat-out running and I twist my head around to see they’ve abandoned their post at the hangar gates. I bet on their instincts working ahead of their good judgement. If there is no superior officer around to tell them any different, these are the kind of people who come running to the aidiers who might be caught in an exploding building. There are good people at Fort Columbia. Real heroes. I’m not one of them. At least, not tonight.

The entrance to the hangar is unguarded. I scan the band to gain admittance, watching the electric gate discharge and the metal and razor wire material roll away to allow access. Slipping past the security measures, I note how eerie and desolate it is without the bustle of military personnel. I’m used to traversing this part of the base in daylight, with soldiers and officers scattered about the yard.

Tonight, right now, it’s me and the birds. Immense, powerful metal birds. Some of them doomed to never fly again. I move swiftly but quietly across the empty space and slide in between the rear compartments of two helo-crafts. I drop the pack from my shoulders and extract one grenade, removing the adhesive pad and sticking it to the outer wall of the aircraft engine. I punch in 15 minutes on the timer. Then pause for a moment, pressing my lips against the metal.

“You deserve better,” I whisper to it.

It takes eight minutes to arm the rest of the grenades and select the Condor to fly out of here. Another two minutes to gain entry to the helo and hack the security code to start the engine. It’s easier than I imagined it might be. The interior cockpit looks and feels exactly like the SIM so any confusion is neatly eliminated. The only real difference is the smell – this helo has spent time in combat. I’m trapped in here with the scent of sweat and fear and blood and death. It’s a familiar odor. It’s haunted me since I can remember. I tap the ignition and lift sequence into the soft keyboard. The helo rises up off the platform and banks sharply left, the muted electric engine and strong blades levitating the huge beast of a machine.

The band inexplicably shimmers to life, schematics popping up purple, shifting to blue. Phosphorous sneaks up my forearm and into my bicep. The throbbing travels up the side of my neck and temples. I fight the controls to level out but the helo has a mind of its own. The barely airborne Condor rises, falls nearly to the ground and banks right. Right is not good. To the right looms the hangar, where eight other Condors are rigged to explode and hopefully take the rest of the fleet out with them. I don’t want to go there.

But the controls do not belong to me anymore. The glow from my body is what the aircraft listens to. And I don’t control that either. Fear lurches in the pit of my stomach and electricity crackles around the right band. I move the band away from the keyboard before it can do anymore damage. The helo rights itself at the last moment, dodging the building but clipping and grinding metal off the rear propellers.

A damage alert flashes on the schematic monitor in front of me. I dispatch a robot to deal with the minor electrical malfunction resulting from the collision and breathe a sigh of relief. The helo, finally straightened out, soars cleanly above the airfield and past the sparsely staffed control tower. They buzz the helo and a female voice fills the cockpit.

“Condor nine, who authorized takeoff?”

I set my mouth in a grim line, disabling their audio signal with the click of a button. Their techs work quick and bypass the move within seconds.

“Eleni Garza, this is home base, you are not authorized to pilot Condor nine,” A stern male voice informs.

“No shit,” I respond.

“Return to alpha hangar.”


“Garza, you are in violation of directive 17. You have ten seconds to comply.”

“Go to hell.”

“We are assuming direct control.”

The autopilot clicks on and the helo, now roaring at high speed over the airstrip, makes a hard left, hard enough for the metal to shudder and whine in protest. We’re heading back towards the hangar. I wave away the projected board with its haptic keys, grabbing the hard control, making sure to keep my left arm far away from the electronics.

“When Condor Nine lands, you will report to the nearest military police officer for arrest and detainment,” The male voice insists.

“Not likely,” I retort, yanking right on the wheel. I might as well be punching the wind, it’s that futile. Nothing happens.

My teeth clench and jaw aches with the effort of suppressing contact with the surrounding electronic devices. The physical controls are useless so I abandon them and sweep the soft keyboard back into existence.

“Work with me here,” I plead to the monstrous aircraft.

I attempt the security code again, but the resulting error message sounds like a patronizing chuckle in reply. This isn’t working. I can’t let them win. I haven’t left the base yet. I was more successful Saturday night without trying. This, this is pathetic. All that destruction at the armory and the hangar, it would be for nothing. I can’t let that happen. I don’t want to go back there. I can’t go back there.

As if to highlight my fears, the first of the grenades attached to the helos explodes. I see an orange fireball billow up and engulf the aircraft. Then the other goes, and the next, like flicking over a line of dominoes. It’s horrifying and beautiful and terrible. The scream of tearing metal punctuates the symphony of low booms. The heat generated by the destruction penetrates the helo shields and sets off a mild alarm on the interface in front of me.

“Garza, are you responsible for this?” The male voice demands, anger seething in his words.

Without further deliberation or conscious thought, my prosthetic arm sweeps up and grabs for the keyboard. The band flares on before it makes contact. A peculiar sigh pulls from my chest, similar to the one extracted by Rabbit Santiago in our brief intimate moments together. I tap at the buttons, pulling letter and number sequences from digital memories I didn’t possess until now. Each line of code is met with that chortling, mocking error message. I slam both fists down on the keyboard projection in frustration and it melts into thin air.

I grab the wheel and the glow bursts on my arm, rolling like a shockwave over my temple. My heart stutters. My grip tightens and I jerk the steering wheel in the opposite direction of the hangar. With an unhappy groan the helo pivots, wobbling and teetering on its access, but achieving stabilization.

“Garza. What are you doing?” The male voice asks with genuine concern.

I fire up the forward arms and take a practice shot against signage lining the airstrip.

“Stop talking to me!” I shout over the roar of the guns. The speakers inbedded in the ceiling and walls crackle and go silent.

I sense another remote attack coming and shift my attention back to the controls. The helo lifts higher into the air and the speed increases, putting more distance between the aircraft and the hangar. There are three or four hundred feet to go before we’ve cleared the electric chain link fence lined with razor wire, along with three rows of defense cannons surrounding the entire airfield. They are the next obstacle to overcome.

“Go faster!” I yell to the machine, hearing the engines picking up speed with a sharp squeal.

I aim the guns at the first line of cannons and unleash a barrage of ammunition. One cannon explodes in a magnificent burst, but a second next to it fires off a couple rounds before succumbing to a similar fate. The cannon shots hit the mid under-belly of the Condor, and a schematic snaps on in front of me, isolating the area and showing me the extent of the damage. I dispatch another robot for repairs. Any doubts they wouldn’t fire on the Condors are wiped cleanly from my mind. If the cannons don’t work, they’ll send out the drones next.

The drones are sleeker, faster and better equipped for aerial combat. The helos are basically air tanks used to haul equipment and soldiers. The forward guns are mostly for defense. Making it past the cannons isn’t going to be the hard part. It’s the drones I should have worried about. Not the Condors. Why didn’t I figure that out sooner? Destroying the armory and the alpha hangar wasn’t enough. I couldn’t get them all.

I wasn’t prepared enough for this.

I pound my fist against the steering wheel and at the same moment, register it’s coated with blood. My nose drips freely, a tiny red river cascades down my chin. With my attention momentarily diverted, the front of the helo dives towards the earth. Firing on the cannons was not a great idea. They are not trying to return me back to the destroyed alpha hangar now. They will disable the Condor by crashing it straight into the ground if need be. I jerk up on the controls and the craft shudders, groaning up into the sky. A wave of nausea passes over me in the process.

My left temple heats up to an unbearable degree and the band burns white hot. A virtual flashes out from it, depicting a running, wild series of codes and communications between it and the aircraft. The remote force exerted by the control tower is extreme. It’s too much. I can’t put up enough firewalls and do enough damage control to safely operate the aircraft anymore. A dozen techs must be patched in, attacking from all angles. Combatting this, along with manipulating the forward guns and out-manuevering the pack of drones I see on the monitor screaming across the airfield towards my coordinates…it’s too much.

The cockpit doubles and triples in my sight and a second stronger wave of nausea rolls over me. The virtual code snaps off and the band blazes to a red hot temperature. It sears my wrist. The smell and sensation hit me with a combined force and my stomach loses to the third round of sickness, vomiting all over the steering wheel. I drop the controls and the helo dips angrily towards the ground.

A cannon blast hits the rear propeller and blows the tail completely off. Warning bells and error messages pop up, flashing red flags and adding to the deafening, disorienting noises all around me. Cannon fire, pieces of helo exploding, the hum of the approaching drone engines. The helo begins its spinning descent to the ground.

The first blast from the drones cuts through the exposed end section, hitting the windshield of the cockpit, shattered glass exploding outward into the howling air. I duck against the wheel, abandoning the controls, cradling my wounded, burnt arm against my chest. I’m going to crash. This Condor is going to crash and explode and this time I’m really going to die.

“Help me, help me please,” I whisper, my head bowed against the controls.

The helo gives several violent, bucking shakes in reply. A crippling pain stabs my head, my body recoiling in agony. I open my watering, blurry eyes briefly to view the entire bowels of the cockpit engulfed in the smokey blue emanating from my skin.

The error messages on the monitors are clouded in code – 0s and 1s flashing across the screen faster than I can read them. The band sizzles, but the virtual is back up and talking to the aircraft. I’m talking to the aircraft and the band relays all the messages I need to tell it. I need it to keep me floating in the air as long as possible and effect the safest landing possible. That’s what the code says.

The dizzying spin and tumble of the helo diminishes to a few dips and hiccups. The relentless pound of plasma fire does not cease. I dispatch the entire army of available repair robots. They work tirelessly to put out electrical fires and stitch together damaged circuitry to keep the propellers spinning. I wince as one of them takes fire from a drone and drops smoking to the floor in front of me. Its scrabbling legs and wings fall silent, its single bright eye blinks out.

I drag my head up to peer out the missing windshield, the wind buffeting against my ears and sucking away all sound except for the boom of cannons and snip of plasma guns. My hair batters like a hive of angry wasps around my head. A extraordinary peace falls over me. The view in front of me is the dead, brown grass at the end of the airstrip. We’ve made it past the third row of cannons. We’ve made it to the fence. But we’re not high enough to pass over them.

Condor Nine slams into the electrified wire, turning the aircraft into a giant microwave. The powerful blue flames pass over me. I use the momentum to jump back into the belly of the helo. I grab onto hanging netting and a loose, flapping seat belt, ducking into the empty seat to brace for impact. The Condor roars towards the ground and five seconds later we hit, spinning a hard left, the propellers ripping up huge chunks of earth in their wake. Plasma ammunition wicks into the dirt around us and stops. The bird is down. I am free.

I roll over and drop off the seat, now parallel to the ground. The Condor is on its side. The seatbelts dangle like tongues above me and one foot is caught up in the netting. I extract it and scoot to the other side of the helo. Legs shaking, I lean against the curved, buckled ceiling for support. Electricity and exposed wires hiss and pop around me. My head swims unhappily as I pull myself upright. I rest for a moment and then advance towards the end of the helo, blown open by the drones and cannons. Crisp, early morning air pours in and blazing light assaults me. The wail of sirens drifts over from the base. The crunch and rumble of approaching tanks shakes the helo material, rattling my ears. Boots slap against dry, dusty earth. Drones sputter overhead.

Instead of stumbling any further out of the aircraft to the exposed base, I take a seat on the floor, what used to be a helo wall and rest my arms in my lap. The damaged left hand is tender and stings with pain. My nose runs slick with blood and snot. A layer of sweat shines off me like a filmy beacon. The electricity I absorbed from the fence buzzes in my veins, humming a sweet tune, pleading for release.

I’m sitting in this position, cross legged, hands in my lap, when the soldiers enter the rear of the helo three minutes later, fully geared, guns drawn. They shout orders to raise my arms in the air, but I don’t comply. I don’t speak. I don’t move. I sit calmly on the ground as they tentatively approach, yelling commands that go disobeyed with each foot they set forward. When they reach me and grab my arms brusquely, yanking the right out of its socket, they must believe I’m too traumatized to retaliate. They must think they’ve won.

I explode in a furious blue aurora, electrocuting and bringing them all to their knees. I’m not sure why I perform this action. Because I can. Because foreign noises crawl over my brain, biting like an angry nest of ants and I can’t tell what thoughts are my own anymore. The power evaporates. Blessedly, blissfully. That’s it. That’s all I’ve got left in me. The sum total of the energy left in me. I slump forward, resting my head against the cold metal of the ruined Condor, my sight landing on the packpack. Three boxes of stolen inoculations nestled inside will never see their intended recipient. I should know better. I should be smarter. I thought I could do it. I thought I was better than everyone else. Special, like Rabbit said. Turns out I’m not. I’m fallible and broken and as pathetic as the next guy. Nobody’s hero today.

Another squad of soldiers approaches, taking stock of the inert bodies scattered about me on the ground, no doubt. I don’t see them, I only hear them, the earthquake of boots against metal, the shifting of their uniforms, their ragged, frightened breath dragging in and out of their lungs. A soldier reaches out, gripping down hard and rolling me onto my back. I’m staring into the black, shining barrel of a rifle. More are aimed at my head from other angles, I can see them in my peripheral vision, but the one pointed directly at my forehead is the only one consuming my attention.

I glare up at it, into it, willing the female soldier to pull her trigger. Calling out with all the algorithims and codes and kernels of software and run time voices I’ve heard over the last two months to the machines around me. But the glow is snuffed out. She kicks me hard in the ribs and robs all the air from my lungs. I don’t retaliate. They cuff and lift me, dragging my bruised and aching legs carelessly over the ground, jamming me into the belly of a tank, painfully squished and bouncing against the interior.

None of the soldiers speak to me. The ride back across the airfield is endless. I’m transferred quickly from the tank to a prison holding cell deep underground. No one comes for me for hours, just like the last time I openly rebelled against Prothero. I don’t attempt to wave Scarlett or Rabbit or The Rosas or anyone else. Communication would implicate them in my attack on the base.

The single piece of furniture in the cell, a hard metal bench, bites painfully into my flesh. After hours of no movement, I get up to stretch my legs and walk the confines of the cell. It’s metal and concrete with a single pane of glass on the door, out of which I can see nothing but the deep grey of darkness. Out of boredom and exhaustion, I sleep for awhile. All my dreams are nightmares. I can’t remember them upon waking, though the taste of fear lingers thick on my tongue.

I’m handcuffed so relieving my bladder isn’t the easiest task in the world. I do my best to pull the pants down over my hips without the ability to unbutton or unzip. The fabric cuts a red, angry line against my flesh as I slip my thumbs into the belt loops and drag them downward. Enough pressure is exerted that they scrape off my hips, squeezing and ripping at the flesh as they go. At the moment, I’m thankful to have selected pant sizes a bit bigger than my hips and waist for comfort.

Once I shed the lower half of my clothing and relieve myself in a far corner, I can’t ascertain how to robe myself again, so I don’t bother. I sit naked from the waist down on the bench and stare at the unforgiving walls of the cell. Wishing, still wishing the soldier had pulled that trigger. Wondering why, with the power to control machines, I couldn’t make her.


If a day or two passes, I’m not aware of it. The only events occurring to mark time are when they tossed a can of tear gas into the cell, effectively knocking me out to uncuff me without fear of resistance or electrocution. I don’t remember much, only the mindless joy of seeing the door creak open and the confusion of the exploding cannister, the taste of the acrid smoke, the sensation of tears pouring from my eye, the stifling choke of the gas and the ebony blackness no dreams interrupted.

I awoke to more endless shadows, freed from the cuffs, my left hand and wrist bandaged and the cuts on my abdomen, from the window bars of the armory, coated with a healing salve. A grey Prothero shirt covered my upper torso, replacing the tattered, oversized hospital gown. The jacket was returned, to ward against the dampness of the cell, and my pants were hiked back up over my hips to preserve modesty. I notice they are buttoned and zipped wth a fresh pair of standard, resident issued underwear underneath.

That was the only “interaction” of sorts aside from two measly packets of freeze dried rations unceremoniously tossed through a slat in the door, along with a canteen of lukewarm water. I ate the food perfunctorily, gulping and gagging on the water as it burned down over my raw throat. Later, I relieved myself in the corner.

It could have been days or hours. There was no way to tell how much time passed. My band, either from the effects of electrocuting the soldiers or from Prothero disabling it, is not under my control. The tech is active, reading my vitals deep down somewhere in its hardware. Other than that, no signal appears. No time stamp. No connection to the outside world.

This isn’t my first time in solitary. The only way to play this game is to wait patiently for someone to remember you’re down here. Wallow in your own filth. Eat crusts of bread and drink old water from who knows where. With who knows what inside it.

The door swings open one last time, and on the other side Dr. Dawson appears. I expected as much. You don’t destroy half of one of the largest bases in the country without attracting Prothero’s attention. I had their attention before that. Now I undoubtedly suffer their retribution.

Light snaps on behind him and I blink into the brilliance for a moment, so his long white coat and crisp, shining black loafers only appear as a silheoutte standing in front of me. He steps forward into the cell and closes the door behind him as if he doesn’t possess a care in the world.

I let my thoughts drift over him, scanning for signs of tech. He is a wasteland of electricity, devoid of technology and it doesn’t matter because I can’t do what I want with it anyway. I haven’t generated a single spark from my band since I was captured. And I’ve tried.

Dr. Dawson doesn’t sit down and make himself comfortable in the cramped cell smelling strongly of human waste. He remains standing and with no particular inflection asks if I want to go on a walk. I nod. He steps into the hallway and I shuffle out in front him. Before we proceed forward, a soldier shackles my legs and arms. We move down the hall, the chains rubbing and tinkling like church bells in the tombed silence. Everything retains the sensations of a dream, as though we’re moving in tepid mud.

“You are adjusting well to the new implant,” Dr. Dawson offers as an ice breaker.

“Yeah. I like it better than the other,” My raw voice croaks out of my smoke damaged throat. I sound older. Different. I don’t recognize myself.

“It suits you more,” He says. His blithe conversational tone grates on my nerves. I desire strongly to bum-rush him with a hundred questions but he deliberately keeps our conversation casual. Playing more games. Mind games.

“You didn’t come here to talk about my eye, Doctor,” I state.

“No, not really. You are in very serious trouble Eleni. The magnitude of which you don’t fully comprehend,” He says. “You never do understand the consequences of your actions.”

That’s the second time in the last few days someone accused me of ignorance. I’m getting derided from both sides now. The Contras and Prothero.

We reach the end of the hallway and turn around, heading in the opposite direction.

“What’s happening to me?” I ask. I want to hear the truth from him. He owes me that much.

For the first time since he opened the cell door, Dr. Dawson really looks at me. He stops in his tracks, pausing his long, healthy strides and drinks in my crushed spirit, my dull demeanor. I stare back at him, secure in the information gained from The Rosas.

“You’re dying,” He says abruptly.

“Oh is that all?” The new Eleni voice asks. It lets out a smoky chuckle sounding as cool as the chains around my feet. “Wouldn’t be the first time.”

“I would like to take you back with me. To the lab in Washington DC.”

“I don’t want to go,” I say, taking a step back. The scrambling anxiety which compelled my recent escape attempt quavers through me.

“You don’t want to stay here either. You were fortunate enough not to kill anyone with your antics yesterday, but officers were wounded in the chaos. It will take the base months and upwards of a billion dollars to recover. The military brass is supremely displeased,” Again, the dour amusement tripping out over his tongue.

“They would love to punish and make an example of you Eleni. I can’t let that happen. I’m sorry if I made DC sound optional, that’s just me being midwestern polite. Returning to the lab is not a choice. You are in danger out here. You are a danger to yourself and a danger to those around you. Not only because of your poor decision making, but because you are harboring an infectious disease. Prothero invested too much time, energy, and a substantial amount of money in your recovery,” Dr. Dawson reminds me, a hint of annoyance underlying his statement. “Are you aware of what’s keeping you alive Eleni? I mean, besides me?”

“Nano suppresants? Artificial organs?” I hate all his questions. I hate him.

“Ok, besides those. Whatever disease you contain in there,” He points at my right temple, “Well, to be more precise. Whatever lurks under here too,” He runs a perfectly manicured, sculpted finger down the length of my arm, a desire radiating along with it. Not a sexual desire. No. It’s far more sinister.

“What is it?” I ask in Eleni’s old voice, feeling more like myself.

“If I knew the answer to that question already, you wouldn’t be here,” He says, cheerlessly. “Or anywhere. You’d probably be dead.” Goose bumps trickle down my spine.

“I didn’t kill anyone,” I respond lamely.

“You blew up two federal buildings!” Frustration breaks his neatly sculpted facade and I step back away from him, stunned. “Two military buildings. Ten Condors, nearly the entire fleet. Seven defense cannons. 36 wounded soldiers. All military operations in this sector suspended for over 24 hours because of security protocols. It took all the political power I possess to keep them from court-martialing and executing you within an hour of your arrest.”

I cover my mouth to block an eerie smile from view. There is something thrilling and satisfying at being the cause of all that destruction. It scares me a bit at how little remorse I feel. I don’t care so much about the destruction, I’m just angry at being punished.

Dr. Dawson furrows his brow and I sense another rebuke coming. The gleam in my eye cannot be stifled as easily as a grin. He understands me too well.

“This is not amusing, Eleni. You couldn’t wait 24 hours for me to arrive? Where- where were you going?” He grabs my shoulders, the right one stiff from being pulled out of socket, and shakes me angrily, “What were you thinking?”

“I was trying to escape,” I tell him, delivery flat and void of emotion.

“Yes. Clearly. Why? Where could you possibly go that we wouldn’t find you?”

It’s a reasonable question with an answer that would only cause more trouble. My mind reels out over the miles of ground I would need to cover to get to my true destination and bumps against a Santiago shaped roadblock. There is a good answer and I owe Rabbit for it.

“The Space and Aeronautics Institute. In Georgia. They take resident applications there. They recruit promising Aeronautics specialists from national service bases all over the country. You said there were no other choices Doctor,” My throat swells with rage and indignation. “You forgot to mention that one.”


“Don’t Eleni me! You said I had choices but you left me here to die. Until it was convenient for you to come back. I don’t want your damn eye. I don’t want your damn excuses. You should let them kill me!” My creaking, smoke stained voice breaks on the last sentence.

“I can’t do that,” He responds, a gentler, sadder tone entering his words.

“You tell them,” I demand. I turn on the guards, who trail ten paces behind us as we walk the hallway, “You tell them about my choices Doctor. You tell them Prothero lied about my choices!” I try in vain to draw the soldiers attention but they stare straight ahead, blankly.

“Eleni. Stop this,” Dr. Dawson commands. “Do you believe any of that matters now? No institute is going to accept a court-martialed resident. You exiled yourself from any hope of a normal life with this move,” He massages his temples, bowing his head, exhaustion crowding onto his features.

“I can’t help but feel this is my fault somehow,” He murmurs.

“Yeah. I can’t help but feel it’s your fault too,” I snip, folding my arms across my chest to steady the clammer of my heart. I’ve exiled myself from the hope of a normal life. What was going to be normal about it anyway? National Service or the Contras. There was never going to be any Rabbit or SAI. That was never, ever going to happen.

He whips his head up, brows furrowed.

“No one is going to blame me for your actions. You need to accept responsibility for your choices, no matter how bleak you assume they are.”

“That’s easy for you to say. You have the best kind of choices. You make easy decisions like what fancy shoes will I wear today? Shall I attend the opera or get cocktails with my girlfriend? Steak or lobster? I have no good choices.”

“I’m sorry to burst your self-absorbed bubble Ms. Garza but that is life. Things are difficult for you because you create complications. If you wanted a calm and easy existence, you wouldn’t steal inoculations and blow up buildings when things don’t go your way. You’re an adult now and you need to act like one.”

“You first.”

“A stunning example of your maturity. Do you mull things over before you say or do them? Honestly, is there any long term strategy rattling around in that brain of yours?”

I shrug half-heartedly. Pieces of what he’s saying are making sense and I’m no longer enjoying our verbal sparring. Dr. Dawson is of the same mind.

“Look, I would love to stand here all day mincing words with a reckless, violent teenager, but fortunately more pressing matters demand my attention on the Eastern seaboard. No more arguments to the contrary.”

“We’re leaving the base,” I repeat, dismayed. The consequences of the escape attempt are sinking in.

He nods sympathetically. “I’m sorry you felt you had nothing to lose. I’m sorry you wasted what little opportunity you had at normalcy by acting on a ridiculous impulse. If you can stand to curb your selfish desires for a moment, you might consider how studying this virus could benefit others. Humanity will gain much from your cooperation. We need you, Eleni.”

I drop my head, my throbbing shoulder sagging with the weight of his supplications. The cuffs, the shackles are a hundred pounds each.

“Try not to look so tortured,” He shakes his head disapprovingly.

“At least, not yet,” I mutter. He ignores this comment.

“These officers will provide escort to the barracks. Gather one pack full of belongings. I’ll be back to collect you in an hour,” He whirls on his heels and exits the hallway using a side door.

I’m left with the stoic guards, their pistols poised to shoot my artificial heart at the sign of any offensive gesture.

Traveling across the base to the Academy campus is similar to the tank ride from the crashed helo. Only with less claustrophobic bouncing, much more stony silence and not-so-subtle glares from the soldiers assigned to “protect me.” I’ve already been kicked in the ass, tripped and spit on. And that was just the transfer from the military prison to the hovercar.

At the barracks I shove my pathetic personal belongings into a duffel bag and dump residency gear on top of that, for no reason other than to prolong my stay by a few more seconds. Hoping against hope Scarlett or Rabbit or Emmanuel or Emilia will burst through the doors, embrace me and not let me go because I will never see them again. I should have said goodbye. I should have appreciated them more.The whole time I thought it was the worst thing to be here at Fort Columbia. And now I know there is a much worse fate awaiting me. No matter how nicely Dr. Dawson wants to coat it.

The tin box I leave out. I leave it behind. It’s too dangerous to travel with. I might have finally learned my lesson regarding this box. It’s stupid to keep it. It’s stupid to cling to the ghost of Mateo. Stupid to risk everything for nothing.

Dr. Dawson’s words come tumbling and wheeling over me. “I’m sorry you thought you had nothing to lose.”

I had everything to lose. I had Rabbit’s promise wrapped around my wrist and I chose nothing instead.

I drop the rosary off my right wrist and lay it on top of the tin. The coin necklace along with it. Where I’m going, those belongings will only end up causing trouble. Implicating people who will no doubt be subjected to long, scary imprisonments and interrogations because of me. I say a prayer for my friends, resting my fingers on top of the tin box one last time.

All of my friends are separated from me by my own poor judgement. I’m sorry Rabbit. I’m sorry Scarlett.

I disappear inside a hovercraft with Dr. Dawson and we are flown to the building housing the only Telepad in a 700 mile radius. I’ve never used one before. We are required to disrobe and step onto a huge platform, in the middle of a giant circle ringed with incandescent tubes. Silver rays of light slip down from the ceiling, scanning me.

“Non-organic material detected. Please override,” The smooth, comforting female computer voice commands.

I glance up and around the warehouse to the control room behind me. An uneasy feeling burrows in my guts. The circular stand is too similar to the recurring nightmare of the orb eye. This feels wrong somehow.

“Override accepted. Telepad charge: phase one. Please remain still,” The voice insists.

My body trembles and I keep a steady, leveling gaze on Dr. Dawson while white lanterns of luminescence shoot up all around me, accompanied by a hum gaining in volume and intensity. He watches me curiously, as if observing a scientific experiment and making mental notations. This is how Eleni Garza responds to molecular stimulation in a new environment. This is how Eleni Garza responds to emotional manipulation in familiar settings.

“Telepad charge: phase two. Please remain still,” The computer woman repeats.

I wonder if it will hurt when my cells unhinge and reform on the other side. I wonder if I will vanish into space, instead of traveling to the connecting telepad at the Washington DC base. I want to reach out with the new digital languages I learned, but the power is more immense here than any technology I’ve ever touched. It’s frightening. Dr. Dawson sees my fear and says nothing.

“Telepad charge: phase three. Have a safe flight,” The voice says warmly.

The telepad engines surge to life. The surrounding radiance distorts, fragmenting into swirling shapes and patterns of light. Static electricity builds in my pores, rolling into my veins and dancing up my arms. I’m a charging battery. I’m coming back online after a temporary disruption.

My body disappears.


Dr. Dawson doesn’t wait until I’m dressed before clamping a second band around my right wrist. Again, I try to make out where the device snaps together like the older models, but it’s impossible. These are custom fit and once the ends click together tightly, the metal betrays no break. It must be an optical illusion like the virtuals. A latch exists somewhere on or in the device but it is not tangible.

The code to hack the bands is buried somewhere here in the recesses of Prothero’s archives. I will ferret it out. I will be free. I don’t bother to question the second band because Dawson rarely provides answers. It’s a security precaution, I’m sure. Part of the politicking he endured to secure my release from Fort Columbia’s prison. Besides, I’m sitting naked on a cold metal chair where I’ve been instructed to remain until further notice, after recently transporting thousands of miles across the continent. I want nothing more than to put on clothes. Dr. Dawson already has the dignity of being fully covered and he’s been on this side of the country a whole five minutes less than I have.         

I dress in the standard Prothero uniform behind a screen, desperately missing my comfortable hooded sweatshirt but grateful for a small nod to my humanity.

Dawson escorts me to the new quarters, which look a lot like the old quarters. They’re all the same quarters, basically. The hospital room, the room at the juvenile hall, the barracks at the base. Each one sterile and soul-less with cameras and discomfort hidden in the walls. I throw my duffel on the bed and sit down in a huff. Dawson watches from the doorway.

“Eleni,” He begins with his smug, reassuring delivery and I hate the way he says my name. My name in general.

“What do you want?” I snap. I will tear out my hair if he says one more thing. But he’s either oblivious to my impending bout of insanity, or he doesn’t care.

“Nothing, we’ll talk in the morning. Get some rest,” His words are clipped and brief. The lights fade to black and he shuts the door. A locking mechanism hums and clicks into place. Alone in the dark, I pick up the duffel bag and dump the contents out. In the rush of packing I’d grabbed up half a Salt cigarette and it tumbles onto the clean white sheet.

A cloudy image of Scarlett drifts across the atmosphere of my mind and instinctively I reach for the necklace. The physical absence of the coin is horrendous. The last time I gave away the tin and the key, I never saw that person again. Then my parents died and relatives disowned me. My fingers dive in the pile of clothes, curling into claws of rage. All the other contents from the duffel I pick up and fling at the heavy metal door, including the combat boots. They hit with a dull thud.

“You can take all your stuff back!” I scream at the top of my lungs.

I run over to the door and pound on it.

“You can take it all back!” I shout, my raw throat cracking.

Within seconds the identical bands grow hot. Too hot. White hot. They sear my skin and send electrical charges up my arms. This isn’t the mild itching sensation of the nanos. This is a fierce and cruel power, emanating from an outside source. I can’t harness it. I can’t absorb its energy. It’s a dead power that ignores my impassioned pleas. From nowhere, from the walls or the ceiling or the bed or my own brain, I hear Dr. Dawson’s irritated voice, impossible to ignore.

“Let’s stop all this Eleni. You’re a bit old for temper tantrums.”

“What are you doing?” I stumble backwards, cradling my arms to my chest.

“We don’t have anymore need for restraints,” He assures me. “Electrocution you’re not in control of isn’t all that pleasant is it? You might consider that before turning your abilities on fellow residents, soldiers, or the guards in the lab. You’re not on some podunk military base anymore. You’re in the middle of a Prothero compound. You’ll need to mind your manners here.”

I sink down to the ground in front of the door, all my fight momentarily drained. There is no end to how Prothero can prove I’m a wind-up toy with the gears turned, aimed in whatever direction they want me to go. Hopelessly turning my arms and legs in a futile attempt to move forward. And if they want, they can come in and sweep it all away. By pushing a button they can bring me to my knees with crippling pain, whenever they want. I’ve never felt more helpless.

I crawl over to the bed and hoist myself up onto it, not bothering with the covers. I sleep curled up in a ball on top of the sheets. It’s the best sleep I’ve experienced in weeks, aside from the tear gas induced coma I experienced the other night. It’s falling forever into inky black night.

The next morning Dr. Dawson arrives with a flurry – lights buzz on overhead, he throws back curtains to reveal a barred, heavily glassed window out of which there will be no escape. Trailing him, in a similar lab coat is a thin, severe white woman with jet black hair pulled aggressively into a bun. She collects a blood and tissue sample from my right arm before I’ve had a chance to rub the sleep out of my eyes. Dr. Dawson paces the room at the end of the bed, his fingers drumming on a tablet curled in one arm.

“First things first. We’re taking samples-”

“Yeah, I noticed.”

“And then we’re going to review security footage passed along to me by the leadership at Fort Columbia. I  found extraordinarily enlightening. Do you want to hazard a guess as to what’s on that footage?” He asks, turning towards me, all his perfect white teeth flashing.

He’s a fox. And I’m a rabbit. Caught and about to be devoured.


“Great. We’ll grab some breakfast on the way.”

He stands by my feet, grinning like he’s won a prize.

“Come on, get up!”

I roll off the bed and stumble into the bathroom, twisting the lock on the door to his exclamation of “three minutes!” I splash water on my face and run a brush over my teeth. My hair is wild, straight out of bed, but I don’t bother giving it a second glance. It’s Prothero, not a beauty pageant. There was a time, during the staged events and commercials when my hair was long and straight. Chopping most of it off was one of the best decisions I’ve made in the last three years.

I untwist the lock and Dawson pushes through the door, waving me out of the room. We proceed down a sterile, echoing hallway, making a brief detour to a communal shower room. I run soap and hot water over my bruised, aching body, clean and untangle my dirty hair. Dawson stands outside the shower stall, discreetly offering me fresh clothes when I step out wrapped in a thin towel. A Prothero uniform. Breakfast is a tube of creamy green paste collected from a windowed room along the hallway, given to me by a disinterested man dressed in scrubs. We walk while I consume the nutrients and try not to gag.

“Is this part of my prison sentence?” I ask Dr. Dawson.

He ignores this comment, showing no outward display of appreciating my sense of humor. I believe he secretly finds me funny.

“In here,” Dr. Dawson instructs as a piece of the wall slides free from the hallway and opens up into another sterile, white conference room. I put a hand up to it as we pass and register a miniscule spike in the energy around the frame. I should have sensed this. My thoughts are so fuzzy here. There is a distraction, a distortion ringing subtly in my ears. All the voices of technology are muted.

The image of the great shaking orb in the nightmare room clicks into my mind and I shudder at the aesthetic similarity to the telepads. The telepads cannot be keeping me from using the abilities or I would have noticed at the base. This is on another level entirely.

Dr. Dawson slams his fist down on the table in the middle of the room, startling me from these thoughts. A team of scientists stands against the walls, observing in silence. A virtual player sits in the middle of the long, shining table. The thin white woman with black hair leans over and presses a button on the device before anyone can speak. The virtual spins up and an image of me in the cockpit of Condor 9 rolls into view. Veins of electricity writhe from my body and astounding, alien code floods the monitors around me.

I watch myself stare like a possessed woman in the cockpit window as the aircraft slams through the fence. The powerful electricity doesn’t phase me as I scramble towards the seats and brace for impact. The next frame clicks to an overhead view of the mid-section of the Condor, where I’m cross-legged on the metal and the first team of soldiers approaches. I electrocute them and they fall to the ground. The screen fuzzes out and goes black.

Back in the Prothero room, my insides resemble an exposed, scrambling nest of spiders. The room is quiet, bordering on serene. No one shuffles a foot.

The white female doctor stands close behind me. Her presence has me on high alert. She hovers with a predatorial air, like a cat who doesn’t want to move too far from her cream.

“Dr. Dawson lied to you Eleni,” The woman says with a thick, smoky accent. “You aren’t dying as he suggested. Your body is growing stronger.”

“You said I had cancer,” I interject, pointing an accusing finger at Dr. Dawson. He holds up his hands defensively.

“Correction, I said you had a tumor. And it is cancerous, but not any typical form we are familiar with. Yes, I did lie to ensure your cooperation, but I make no apologies for that. You are dangerously headstrong. It was the only logical recourse for you to come with me peacefully. Eleni, we have been made aware with this security footage and other  evidence that you are not just another sick girl. You possess a unique strand of the nano virus. The nanos in your bloodstream are… mutated,” He strokes his beard contemplatively as he speaks.

The white woman interrupts, “The inoculations we used for the old strain of the nano virus were not responsive to the new mutation, which is why we increased the dosage two months ago when your blood work showed an elevated white blood cell count, along with dangerous levels of NV. These new abilities you’ve manifested are speculated to be a side effect of either the increased NS dosage or the mutation of the cancerous cells. Of course, they could also be caused by a reaction to the NV present in your bloodstream and the nanites used to maintain the equilibrium between your body and the cybernetic implants.”

“Don’t all implantees take nano suppressants?” I ask, vaguely aware of the patronizing smirks on half the doctors lining the walls of the room.

“Not at the dosage level we assign you. For all intents and purposes Ms. Garza, you are dying of cancer. Dr. Dawson did not lie to you about that, but you developed a new strain of NV in response, halting the progress of the disease. It’s as if the two diseases are waging war inside your body, and the cancer is on the losing side. This process is changing you on the genetic level, and you are manifesting new abilities. At least, that is our theory. One we are quite anxious to put into practice here at our facility.”

“Can I do that? Can someone do that?” I ask, bewildered.

“Yes. You are not the first to present with a new strain. You are one of the first to develop this particular cluster of… symptoms.”

“One of the first. There are others like me?”

“Don’t trouble yourself over that. Not right now.”

“OK, but I’m dying. Sort of?”

Her eyes flick over to Dawson and back to me, as if to say “Is she really this stupid?”

Dr. Dawson interrupts.

“Eleni, your body is experiencing much of the trauma you would undergo if you were dying, but the nanos and the nano suppresants are working in tandem to protect your brain and organs against failure. We believe these are the only things sustaining your life at this point. The reports we’ve received are inconclusive as to what internal structure is responsible, so we’ll need to run tests.”

“But you’re not going to operate on the tumor or do chemotherapy? You’re just going to let this happen to me?”

“At this point, we don’t have any choice. Operating on the tumor could kill you. And we are concerned that the radiation might also kill the NV strain keeping you alive. Effectively killing you. As you mentioned before Eleni, there are no good choices here.”

That’s not true. He’s lying to me again. The white woman is lying. All the doctors and scientists in their lab coats are staring at me like I’m a calf fatted for slaughter. I sit, patiently waiting for Dr. Dawson to finish the rest of his request, understanding there is another element at play aside from the virus testing. They’ve already taken tissue and blood samples. Aside from a full body scan and cutting me open to investigate my organs…what more could they want?

Dr. Dawson clears his throat, “We’ll also need to determine if you can reproduce the side effects witnessed on the security footage, hopefully without the extreme set of circumstances.”

I blink once, twice, three times – maintaining a flat expression as long as humanly possible.

“You want me to electrocute someone?” I ask.

“No, not precisely. We’re not interested in watching you injure yourself or someone else Eleni, but we do need to understand where and how this ability manifested,” Dr. Dawson confirms.

“Why?” I inquire.

“That is none of your concern,” Says the severe woman, who I conjecture is Dr. Dawson’s superior.

“It damn well is my concern,” I scoot my chair back, into her, and jump out of my seat. The tabletop virtual console spins to life and the images replay. She doesn’t appear ruffled by my outburst, even as particles of the virtual drift from the image and gather clumsily on my skin, forming into blue honeycomb patterns.

“Arthur,” She says, disinterestedly.

The bands fire up and I grimace at Dr. Dawson in response, reclaiming my seat. The metal cools. My fists clench on the tabletop, the remaining pixels sparkling like diamonds on my forearm. The woman spins the chair I’m sitting in so my face glares up at hers. She favors me with a bored purse of her thin red lips.

“Outbursts will not be tolerated Ms. Garza. Despite certain privileges you retain in regards to technology, we have in our possession devices far more advanced than a mere wristband to deal with your temper. Try to be mindful of that,” the white woman says. “Or you will not like the consequences.”

“I’m no good to you dead,” I retort, hoping there’s truth to the statement.

“A notion of which I am keenly aware. Let me be clear when I say, you may be invincible for the time being, but you are not untouchable. No one is. And your unreserved cooperation is fully expected. That is not a request. That is an order. Testing will begin tomorrow morning at 9am sharp. We’re done here, Arthur. Unless you want to add any further information?”

“Ah, no.”

“Wonderful. You are all dismissed.”

Reznik waves the virtual away and stalks from the room on five inch black heels. The rest of the doctors file out after her, forming one line of white coats punctuated by more white. Dr. Dawson and I are left alone in the eerie board room as the door whooshes shut on unseen hinges.

“So, that went well,” I joke. “Is that woman your boss?”

“She is a… liaison from another department. Her name is Pavel Reznik and she’s been brought in to oversee certain aspects of our investigation. Eleni-”

“Am I on trial?”

“In a sense. Listen to me carefully. I’ve tolerated your flippancy because I’m the good cop here, despite what you may think of me. I’m your ally and friend. I can make things go easy for you. Dr. Reznik… she is the bad cop in this scenario. She’s a very bad cop, Eleni.”

“I gathered as much.”

“Go up against her, and it will hurt. You will not win.”

“Never do.”

“And yet you keep trying. It’s an admirable trait,” He smiles over at me. A genuine smile.

“Really? I’ve heard it’s a lethal one.”

“Against Reznik, perhaps. For both of our sakes, complete cooperation is going to be the best solution for the moment. It will keep you alive.”

“Reznik’s not a Doctor?”

“Not on any paperwork I’ve seen,” He muses. “Regardless, more samples must be collected before preparing tomorrow’s tests.”

“Dr. Dawson?” I ask, glancing down at the shimmering pixels, twinkling on my arm.

He looks at them as well, with more than a passing fascination.

“What do you want from me?” I’m forever asking this question. And never getting a straight answer. It should be so simple. This is probably why I have trust issues.

He averts his gaze.

“Eleni that’s-”

“Classified. Thought as much. I wanted to hear it from you personally,” I get up out of the chair. Though I knew this would be his answer, I am disappointed.

Sometimes you don’t want to be right about people, you want them to surprise you by doing the right thing.

He leans forward, touching the pixels on my arm. They give off a brief, popping shock similar to the one Rabbit and Clinton experienced.

“That happens sometimes,” I shrug, suppressing another sadistic grin.

Dr. Dawson withdraws his hand quickly. “Huh,” He grunts, surveying me with suspicion.

As we approach to exit the room, the wall slides open to the bright hallway and we proceed down a maze of passages. They blur past without any discernable detail to recall one from the other.

Eventually we arrive at a medical facility and Dr. Dawson leads me into a green colored square in the middle of the room. He summons a control on the wall and four panels lift all around me, scanning as they go. A whirring sound above my head causes me to look up and watch a pane of the ceiling lift. A white helmet rolls down, extended by a long metal pole attached to its base. The device too large for my head, so a dozen metal rods detach from the inside and clamp down on my scalp.

A calming voice urges, “Scanning in progress. Please remain still. Scanning in progress. Please remain still.”

A familiar itching spreads from the top of my skull down past my ears. The wires and circuits embedded in my head let off a sizzling, snapping sound against the machine and the acrid smell of burnt hair reaches my nostrils for the second time in the last week. At this rate, I’m going to be completely bald on the left side of my scalp.

“I broke your fancy toy,” I call out to Dr. Dawson.

“Yes, you did,” He is not amused.

“Didn’t mean to,” I assure him, withdrawing my head from the device and rubbing the hot mechanics and follicles on my left temple.

“We’ll try that later,” He suggests, as the panels glide back into the floor. “At least we got the full body scans. I’m hoping a brain scan isn’t rendered completely impossible.”

I shrug and he ushers me to a corner of the room where a hospital bed emerges from another hidden panel in the wall.

“This is surreal,” I say, pressing my palm to the wall. The tech inside is quiet as a grave. I climb onto the bed and stare at Dawson, awaiting further instruction.

He clips shackles around my ankles and a magnetic pulse secures the bands to the side-rails. A nurse materializes on the alternate side of yet another mystery panel, approaches and rolls a large plastic piece of scanning equipment over the entire hospital bed, leaving my head exposed. I’m entombed in this device, its exterior dotted with half a dozen flashing, colored buttons. The underside is cavernous, housing tools and technology in its innards.

She clicks on a virtual control and taps a series of instructions into the screen, applying a local anesthetic to my bared stomach, ribs and chest. She pats my shoulder compassionately and informs me there will be some discomfort. Three large needles drill into my flesh and retract, taking organ tissue samples with them in sealed, sterile containers. She punches in a new code and smiles benignly at me with all the wisdom of a woman who spent years dealing with people in pain.

“You won’t feel a thing,” She murmurs as a mask emerges from the plastic shelf. She places it over my mouth and nose and the only option is to breathe in the drugs. The world skates behind a veil of shifting grey and black, but not before a terrible pressure bores against my temple and forehead.


I sit across from Dr. Dawson in a cold, white room. There are an endless supply of them here at Prothero headquarters, each designed for a slightly different function than the last. All of them intimidating and bland, like the sleek, headless bodies of mannequins in a Parisian department store window.

Dr. Dawson begins with simple tasks this morning, asking me to arrange an image on the virtual. But, like the last six days of testing, I can’t do it. My numb body won’t respond, it’s filled with all the desolation of a week trapped in Prothero’s clutches while the world goes on without me. Matty edges closer to death. The Contras move towards instigating war. Everything about my previous life sits in shambles and Dawson wants me to create something from the desolation.

 As is his custom these days, Dawson asks me about the other incidents, with the tech and the virtuals. Nothing particular stands out as connecting them. One was on a SIM battlefield, the other while listening to music and drawing. The last one while I was terrorizing the base. The others – the glitches with the tablet during the exam, while stealing info for Scarlett, while kissing Rabbit – those don’t seem as wise to divulge.

“And that’s it?” He asks again, irritation seeping into his speech.


He shakes his head.

“I don’t believe you. I don’t believe you possess no control over these incidents.”

“They… happen is all. And they’re not always beneficial,” I say, recalling the heart implant failure after reading Mateo’s last letter.

“Well, you are safe here, if that’s a concern.”

“Yeah, tell that to Reznik.”

“I’d rather tell her we’ve made progress and provide her with results. You do realize how tenuous your position is here, right?”

“Well the daily threats against my life make for good reminders,” I mutter in a dead-pan.

“You don’t seem especially concerned.”

“It’s not much of a life,” I retort.

“Hhhmm,” He muses, stroking his scraggly beard.

“I’m not trying to be difficult. Maybe… maybe we could try music?” I ask, tentatively. I don’t like contemplative Dr. Dawson. Distracting him is a wise move.

Dr. Dawson nods and clicks his display. Classical music barrels into the room from the invisible speakers buried in the walls. It’s pleasant and soothing, a lilting combination of piano and strings. A virtual thrums to life from the left band. It’s the image from the lime tree, the one featuring a Mateo-Rabbit hybrid embracing me.

“Good, Eleni. Now, can you manipulate it?” Dawson requests, doing his best to mask his eagerness with calm.

I do try. I send my mind out to touch the scene, transform it with my thoughts. Nothing results from these attempts. I reach out, my fingers swiping cleanly through the image. No magnetic attraction or static sparks. The lights above us briefly dim. Then, more nothing. Failure fills the space between us with awkward and tense silence.

“I’m sorry. I’m not up for this,” I murmur.

“But you’ve done this before,” Dawson insists. It’s not a question. It’s a request.

I nod, pressing the heel of my hand against my temple.

“Yes, perhaps you need rest. You’ve had a stressful week. Let’s try again later,” Dr. Dawson concedes, in a rare display of humanity. Another thing I don’t trust, a humane and compassionate Dawson. He’s scheming.

The next fourteen days happen exactly the same.Tests are performed to draw out the virtual response and I fail them miserably. Dr. Dawson labors under a constantly fading hope that I mentally hid the ability to control the powers and he need only enter the right sequence of tests to unlock the secret. It’s tiresome but at the same time I’m grateful to be alive, though not sure how much longer Pavel Reznik will allow this oversight. Every day Dr. Dawson looks a bit more strained, our tests feel that much more desperate and I spy one or two grey hairs pop up in his expertly trimmed beard.

The only positive side effect of the experimentations is the chance to engage in eastern meditation every day. Dawson believes meditation and yoga will help foster a stronger mind-body connection, giving me greater control over the abilities. I’ve gotten quite good at entering a trance state and sending my mind reeling outside of itself. It’s improved my hacking abilities, but failed to produce any gains in the virtual manipulation department.

With my mental hacking strengthened, I’ve quietly accessed Prothero databases, amassing a stockpile of information around particularly distressing subjects. The first being the bands and the mysterious technology surrounding Prothero. I’m looking for unusual electrical readings from the city records, any whisperings of noises or odors coming from the lab. This is as much of a dead-end as I imagined it would be, but it doesn’t stop me from flagging and absorbing any relevant information.

The second subject is The Fullers. Senator Edmund and Clinton – there isn’t much exciting information to collect aside from rumors and conjectures Edmund Fuller engaged in affairs with high profile virtual movie stars. Clinton, despite showing a strength for business management, has not made any educational or political gains in the last two years since being accepted into the program at Fort Columbia.

There is no mention of the skirmish in the SIM between us, or his expulsion from the National Service Academy. All records indicate he is enrolled, scheduled to graduate this June and his military career. There are not any recent images of him on social media. He hasn’t updated or added any new content to his wave profile in weeks. My curiosity regarding his whereabouts is piqued, but nothing else comes from the research.

And third, last but not least, I’m scouting out all the information I can find on different strains of NV. I don’t trust what Prothero told me. They want to keep me weak and submissive. In a peculiar move, Prothero hasn’t silenced the newsgroups on the subject of nano virus mutations within the former United States, though as Mateo indicated, there are no reports of new strains in Mexico City.

I’m able to put together a map of the locations it’s cropped up across the country. So far it’s been confined to this continent, and mostly in the original Southern states. Mississippi and Louisiana were hit especially hard, and my heart spins out to Scarlett, wishing I could bypass all the security measures and assure her I’m alive. The information I gather is scant, and not enough to draw any particular conclusions. Clinton is alive somewhere, Prothero possesses immense technological power and nefarious plans to re-introduce a stronger variant of the virus to the population. For what purpose, I cannot fathom.

Another two weeks of failed progress and a steady increasing of the headaches, I am summoned by Dr. Dawson and escorted to the room with the sliding wall and virtual monitor. Or maybe it’s a different room. I can’t tell anymore. Dawson carries his customary tablet, but doesn’t seem interested in peering into its contents as he usually does. He’s seated at the table, staring at an empty spot on the wall, one set of fingers drumming on the metal and his other hand laying dormant on his beard.  His nails are expertly manicured. His beard groomed to perfection. He looks like a supermodel posing in the middle of a fashion shoot. It takes a lot of money and power to look so effortlessly attractive.

        “Take a seat Eleni,” He insists.

        I do as requested and occupy a chair across from him. He doesn’t look at me. A bad sign.

        “I received a wave from Reznik this morning – Prothero leadership is not happy. Unless I produce results within the next three days, they will reassign me and Pavel will take over, steering the direction of the testing,” He says.

        “I don’t like the sound of that,” I say.

        “Neither do I. I’m afraid I’ve done all that is in my power to coerce a display of your new abilities. Including threatening you with death,” He says.

        “That was my personal favorite,” I quip in a studied dead pan.

        Dawson lets out an explosive sigh and clenches his fingers as I imagine he might if they were tightening around my neck. Jokes are going to be a lost cause today.

        “The lack of progress left me with a lot of free time. I reviewed more security footage from the last month. It gave me an idea.”

        “Oh,” Is the only response I can muster. He could be talking about any act of terrorism or theft I’ve perpetrated in the last four months. Maybe they recorded my side trip to visit Carmen. Maybe a security camera installed in the barracks possessed enough zoom capability to read one of the letters from Mateo. Maybe there is video of me breaking into the terminal at the administration building. He could be referencing any of my indiscretions since January. There have been so many.

        I’m a terrible person.

        Avoiding my gaze, he leans over and clicks on the virtual. What spins up into existence stutters the beat of my fake heart and reduces me to a selfish pile of personhood. The first image materializes as an overhead angle of Scarlett and I studying together the night the virtual thrummed to life of its own accord, the first time I realized I could manipulate them. This fades from view and the next scene portrays Rabbit and I perched high on a building in the SIM, piloting our drones and arguing heatedly, then us sitting across from one another in my barracks with all the intimacy of two lovers. Finally, The Rosas, Scarlett and I sharing breakfast together. The Rosas and I rising and exiting the cafeteria on our way to field exercises. The coppery taste of medicine and breakfast gruel turns to ashes on my tongue. I can’t move my lips to speak. Dr. Dawson politely fills the silence.

        “Eleni. You are not interested in your own welfare, in preserving your own life by putting your focus on the tasks Reznik and I outlined for you. If we can’t convince you to cooperate for your own sake, I urge you to consider your friends.”

        He clicks a button on the table and the virtuals grow larger, filling the emptiness of the room with the flesh and blood images of the people I’ve left behind in the pursuit of Mateo’s madness. Another button makes the image pulse, die away and come flourishing back with my friends now featured in ominous locations. Scarlett, Rabbit and The Rosas sit in individual prison cells, in the sparse loneliness of solitary confinement.

        “That’s not true,” I whisper, reaching out to Scarlett, watching the glimmering pixels pull away from the image and absorb into me.

        “Not yet. But I can make this happen. And worse. I don’t want to do this Eleni. I’m a scientist, not a soldier. Not someone bent on bloodlust. But you and Reznik put me in a difficult position,” He shrugs and meets my gaze. I believe him. I believe he doesn’t want this.

        “What can I do?” I ask, fear leeching into me as more light shifts from the virtual and into my skin.

        “You are already doing it, I suspect,” Dr. Dawson answers, gesturing to the light transfer.

        New images twist into the virtual and there is no telling from where they come. From Dawson. From my own mind. Scarlett strapped to a hospital bed. Rabbit beaten by a prison guard. The Rosas with sunken cheeks.

        “No,” I shudder. The pixels pick up speed, pouring from the images and polluting the room with light until I can no longer see Dr. Dawson five feet from me.

        “Eleni!” He says sharply, fear and excitement tinging his voice.

        The virtual blurs, flickers and spills forth more horrors. Scarlett with her stomach blown open on a nameless, desolate battlefield. Rabbit drifting lifeless into space, arms outstretched searching for the handle of a spacecraft he will never be able to reach. The Rosas in a Prothero lab collapsing to the floor, dark veins bursting on their skin and black blood pouring from their ears and eyes.

        “No!” I shout and a burst of electricity erupts in the room. The bulbs in the ceiling shatter, raining glass down on the white tile floor. The virtual grows to such a proportion the irradiation engulfs us both. We are inside the pixels now, they are crawling angry ants biting into me with tiny pinchers. Burrowing inside and creating an exoskeleton of my flesh.

Dawson regains his faculties and scalds me with the bands. The virtual splendor blinks out. The pain grows so overwhelming I collapse onto the chair, allowing Dr. Dawson to approach me in the dim. His band illuminates and sparks strangely against the lens of his glasses, which I suspect he wears for professional stature, rather than functionality. He steps towards the chair where I sit, bumping against my legs, reaching out blindly.

“I’m right here,” I snap.

“I can’t see you,” He insists, touching the top of my head.

I shrug away from him.

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“You disappeared.”

“That’s impossible,” I say.

“Eleni, everything about you is impossible,” He takes another step forward. I roll the chair backwards and watch him blink in surprise. He moves both arms in front of him, like a mummy stalking its victim, fingers reaching into the space between us.

I look down at my body. And he’s right. The pixels implanted themselves in my pores and I’m invisible, wrapped up in a cloak of nanos, reflecting the light and images around me.

“My God,” Dr. Dawson says, patting my knee. “Do you know what this means?”

It’s a rhetorical question I don’t bother answering. It means more tests. It means if I don’t pass them, my friends will die. I lean over the table and rest my pounding head against the crisp metal. There are no good options for me here.

“Do you know what this means?” He asks again, and it’s not directed at me. No doubt Reznik watches and listens somewhere in the walls. And has been watching and listening the last two weeks.

I say nothing more, cradling my seared wrists in my lap, willing the hurt away.

“Your emotional state is the source of your abilities and you’ve displayed another symptom of the mutation. Thus far we’ve seen virtual manipulation, control over electrical impulses, and this would be an ability to manifest photothermal deflection.”

“You just made that up. That isn’t a real thing,” I say.

My words sound drunk and slurry. I wish I was drunk right now. I wish I was anywhere but here.

“On the contrary – you just made it up. You made it a real thing. What you just did is the perfect example of what I was hoping to see. What I know you are capable of. We’re done with testing for the moment, but I’d like you to remain here. I’ll need to speak with you shortly.”

He exits the room as if it’s on fire. He leaves in such a hurry, his tablet lays forgotten on the metal table. I tilt it towards me, pick up a pen and sketch the loose, angular outline of Rabbit Santiago. Not Mateo with Rabbit’s appearance. Not the lime tree. I draw Rabbit and I miss him so much, my metal heart aches. I turn music on over the virtual wave and relax my mind. I fill in the dark chocolate color of Rabbit’s pupils. Minutes tick by. My physical connection to the tablet allows me full entry to all the information collected in it. To the databases it’s connected to. A heaviness spreads over me as I tune out my real vision and concentrate on an inner image, the shapes and data streams flowing past my subconscious. I move between files and folders like skipping stones over the water. I glide into private documents and peer around.

In real life, in the physical world, I’m vaguely aware of my eyes twitching and my fingers still attending to the drawing, coloring and shading of Rabbit. Internally, I am miles away, buried deep in the hard drive of the tablet, ferreting out the facts I need to free myself from Prothero.

When I reach the file folder with the band schematics for the fourth gen device in it, the virtual projection clicks on, displaying the tin box. It rotates in the lighted pixels, so the cameras in the room survey it from all angles. This is how it’s going to be? If I want to get the band schematics, I need to give up my secrets. Otherwise, we keep our boxes locked.

I test and probe at the file, running my virtual fingers along its spine, trying to find the invisible connection of the moon and stars where I could insert a coin and bust the whole thing open. The folder and the virtual image shiver for a moment. As I crack open the document and content pours out, the virtual tin lid lifts slightly, the red silk interior gaping out for all the world to see. For the monitors hidden in the room to capture.

If I want something I’ve never had before, I’m going to do something I’ve never done. I push forward, bullying my way into the file, the lid of the tin bursting open and revealing the stack of letters from Matty. The file rips like the hem of a shirt and I reach my hand inside, grabbing like a greedy animal at the data it contains. These are the fourth gen schematics. These are what I need to rid myself of the band technology and escape.

I finally get what I want from my terrorist boyfriend – the freedom I’ve been fighting for. It only takes exposing him and the Contras. I hope all the time I did, all my years in Prothero prisons are worth it in the end. Matty, holding me hostage in these walls so I could feed him information. I hope it’s worth it, revealing our secrets so I can free myself. The virtual projection zooms in on the top letter in the pile, a series of numbers written on hemp paper. Scribbled at the bottom, With Love, The Matador .

I drop the pen and the virtual flickers away, along with my tenuous mental grasp on the folder containing the band schematics. What little I manage to hold onto is more precious than any other item I’ve clung to this far. The band schematics are in my possession now and there is nothing the Contras or Matty can do to stop me using them. I attempt to re-open the file so I can unshackle myself. It is locked.

OK, so maybe Prothero can  stop me for a little while longer. This is a small hiccup, but not insurmountable. I’ll need a code to crack the file open and review its contents. I flick on my band and select a cryptanalysis application to run in the background, on a remote server at Fort Columbia I tapped for such purposes. The encrypted and blocked signal should be masked from Prothero. Should be . I don’t comprehend the entire depth and breadth of tech here. It’s more powerful than anything I’ve felt, but there is comfort in realizing that an all-seeing eye can only see so much. There will always be cracks to slip into. There will always be weak points to exploit because no system is guaranteed. Technology is more fallible than most people.

The downside on my end – there is no telling how long the decoding program will take to run its course or if Prothero security will sniff it out. I’m going to try. After the developments of today, I want out of here so badly I can taste it in my mouth. It doesn’t taste like copper. It doesn’t taste like limes either. It’s the scent of cinnamon and the tang of bleach.

I can’t stay here at the lab. They’re turning me into a monster. An invisible, duplicitous monster. Every new ability development feels worse, more sinister than the last. I am Dawson’s monster and I want to be free.

An hour staggers by and Dr. Dawson returns as abruptly as he left, arriving with a host of other Doctors and scientists at his heels, including Reznik. The Doctors silently seat themselves in a row of chairs behind Dawson. My pulse quickens. I sit up straight, about to click the erase button on the tablet when Dawson scoops it up, examining the image of Rabbit Santiago for a moment, stroking his beard contemplatively. The calculating look in his eyes swells like the scream I stifle in my throat. Don’t look at him. Don’t you look at him.

“Eleni, I want to thank you for all your hard work and progress so far. Your service to this country and the Prothero community is commendable, as always,” He says sincerely.

I hold back a contemptuous snort in response. As if I’d volunteered for testing out of intrinsic motivation to benefit their cause. I cooperated to shield my friends from harm. I say nothing. I don’t even look up and meet his gaze.

“After examining the latest manifestations of your ability, the team and I decided you should be remanded to another facility. An institution not unlike the National Service Academy, and you will find the others there possess aptitudes similar to yours.”

“Wait, what? I don’t understand,” Panic grips me.

“This is really for the best. We cannot allow you full access to this facility any longer, not with these developments. The Kinetics Educational Research Institute, KERN, maintains special housing and a whole different system of training. There are former residents from Fort Columbia headed there, so you’ll feel right at home,” Dr. Dawson says encouragingly.

“Residents from Fort Columbia?” I echo hollowly, panic and surprise tugging in my gut.

“Ah yes, you know one of them,” Reznik smiles with sincere disdain. “He was on your simulation combat unit, I believe.”

Clinton Fuller is the name that immediately rises to my mind. He vanished mysteriously. My blood on his hands. Maybe- maybe I infected him. Changed him. How is that possible? I’d never seen him taking nano suppressants and he had no visible implants. There was the electricity between our bands, when my abilities first manifested. The white sparks between Clinton and I. Is he... like me?

“Clinton,” Is what I manage to choke out. “Clinton Fuller.”

“The name sounds familiar,” Reznik coos. “But I couldn’t really say. Either way, we are preparing for a trip. You’ll remain here for another four weeks to continue testing the range of your abilities before KERN takes over your training. Dr. Dawson has agreed, under a certain amount of duress, to allow me access  to you during that time. I hope you’ve enjoyed the rest and relaxation of the last two months Eleni. Things are about to become more uncomfortable.”

Her sneer widens to produce dagger-like teeth. All the angles of her countenance are pointed, hardened and white. She’s a hollow marble statue filled with evil. And I’m going to be under her direction. My stomach lurches and despite my keen distress, I contort my facial features into a vacant expression. I can’t let her see me crack. I can’t expose anymore weakness to her.

“My testing will begin this afternoon. I hope you’re prepared,” Reznik says, directing the doctors from the room with a flick of her wrist.

I unsteadily rise to my feet and the door behind me opens. Two armed guards enter. I turn to leave with them and cast an anxious glance over my shoulder at Dawson. He smiles reassuringly, which only increases my nerves. The silence in the hall drones out all coherent thought. The guards escort me through a series of interconnecting hallways and I follow with leaden feet.

One of the doorways dumps out into an open air courtyard somehow hidden in the glass, concrete and stone. It’s the first taste of outdoors and freedom I’ve had in weeks. I stop walking, momentarily stunned, and the guards pause with me. I deeply inhale the chill dampness, the scent of wet soil filling my nostrils. I turn in a drowsy circle to savor the image of deadened winter trees and dormant grass. As I appreciate the natural scenery, one of the guards, Iroh, offers a loose, fleeting smile. I’ve noticed him before, he’s on the regular afternoon/evening escort duty. He has jet black hair, almond shaped grey eyes and skin as dark as mine.

“Been awhile?” He asks in a friendly tone.

“Been awhile,” I confirm.

A bird zips down from the grey sky and descends on a branch near our heads, calling out with a hoarse song. Chastizing completed, the blackbird lifts off and swoops back up into the swollen, rain heavy clouds. A grin twists on my lips, the first genuine happiness I’ve experienced in… so long. Any semblance of peace has eluded me for so long.

“Come on, keep moving,” The other guard, Zapata, insists.

“Just another minute,” Iroh requests.

“Whatever,” Zapata says, disinterested.

“It’s not all bad,” Iroh directs his comment to me.

“No?” I ask, tearing my gaze away from the sky.

“Not all of it. There’s hope,” He points towards the sky and I see, barely visible inside the cuff of his stiff, starched Prothero uniform… I see the curve of a brown rosary bead and the glint of a red cross.

I restrain myself from leaping to embrace him in a wild hug and slam my gaping mouth closed quickly to avoid the suspicion of Zapata, who looks irritable at lingering in the courtyard. Iroh wears a rosary bracelet identical to the one worn by Rabbit and Carmen. The one she mentioned as having ties to the Contras. Perhaps it’s a coincidence. But I’m starting not to believe in coincidences. I’m starting to believe that there are larger designs at work here.

Iroh drops his arm and the rosary disappears into the fold of his sleeve. He captures my gaze for a brief moment, winks, and indicates with a tilt of his head we should move on. He leads the way with Zapata close at my heels. I’m boxed in between them again, but these brief moments breathing with fresh lungs have awoken me. I will endure Reznik’s tortures, but I won’t go to a new facility. Not without a fight.


A kinetic knife slashes towards my head and I lunge backwards to avoid it, but don’t put enough distance between the weapon and my upper right cheek. A stinging cut appears there. I touch it, pulling away a liquid substance comprised of blood and twinkling nanos. Dread overwhelms me but there’s no time to think. The Contra returns to administer another stab aimed for my belly. I sweep kick his legs out from under him and disarm the knife in the same motion. Glancing down into his surprised face, I’m horrified for the millionth time at his similarity to Rabbit and Mateo. Dawson and Reznik took detailed notes.

The knife sparks as my fingers close around its handle and the electricity agitates the SIM, cracking it apart into tiny pixels, falling like a fine dust to the ground. Goodbye Rabbit, goodbye Mateo. I’ve killed so many Contra clones resembling them the last three days, doing so registers only a minor emotional blip on the radar. Something akin to the guilt of squashing a spider or crushing a mouse in a trap.

Reznik, perched in the glass control room located on the right wall of the SIM building, announces over the intercom system, “Well done.”

I can’t help but feel deeply uneasy about any praise from this woman.

“Let’s try another. Harder this time. Try defensive cloaking instead of offensive combat,” She instructs.

I give a terse nod and wipe at the blood on my cheek. The wound has completely healed, stitched back together by the helpful nanos. A week ago Reznik increased the dosage of the new injectors and nosebleeds are back with a vengeance. I found dark tinted blood trickling from my ear an hour ago. The blood smells acrid, weird. I glare up at her glass cage, considering how easy it would be to burst all the electrical components in there and fry her to a crisp.

As if sensing my desire to expend a little excess energy she says, “I’m setting the intensity to 12. Cloaking please.”

I close my eyes and take a seat on the ground, crossing my legs. Despite their insistence a heightened emotional state is the only conduit to access the tech abilities, I’ve found the best way to commune with the nanites is with a calm and otherwise emptied out mind.

After a minute, I open my eyes again and the honeycombed nanos roll up and over me. Swimming up my bloodstream and out my pores, forming a protective layer and bending the light around my clothing and skin. All other imagery that might betray my whereabouts is masked, except for the outline of the bands. Reznik and Dawson don’t want to lose me in the SIM tussle while I’m invisible. I could slip right out of their grasp.

A new Contra emerges, rising from the ground, forming and building himself out of the earth. He wields another knife. His sensors pick up a heat signature, but can’t get a visual lock on me so he swings the weapon wildly, blindly. I take a step away to avoid his powerful lunges with the blade. He gets a bit too close and I side step his flailing arm, catching it in mine, twisting it backwards and snapping it off at the shoulder. I toss it to the ground at my feet. I kick the stuttering, flailing machine in the ass and it stumbles, falling to its knees and face. Drowning in fake blood pouring from the gaping wound of its shoulder. I stand there watching, helpless to do anything but kill this Contra clone until Reznik tells me I can stop.

I’m tired. My ears ring and head throbs. I’m hungry and sweating. Keeping up the cloak is sucking all the energy from me. Moving with the pixel shield is like swimming in thick mud against the current and a strong wind. My arms and legs are tired. I’m sinking inside myself.

“Wake up!” Reznik shouts over the intercom. I fell asleep on my feet. I shake my head firmly and move towards the glass nest, stumbling against the scrub grass and tumbling weeds in the desert scenario she painted for SIM practice.

“Can we take a break? Rest for a minute?” I ask, knowing there is little possibility of reprieve.

“In a moment. One more test,” She insists, turning her chair away from the glass wall. She walks to the back of the room and adjusts dials on the digital monitor. I want to reach through this tech and crush her bones in my fists, but I resist the urge.

Overhead, thunder rumbles in the sky and storm clouds form, interrupting the beginning of whatever new scenario Reznik was planning. She turns abruptly and stalks over to watch. Raindrops fall, peppering the parched earth and landing on my nano infused skin. The cloak fizzles out. Lightning crackles against the dirt near me. I catch drops of simulated water in my palm and tilt my head up at Reznik. The rain pours down in a deluge, drenching my clothes, turning the fake desert dust into a stew of mud.

I twist my right hand in a lazy gesture, beckoning the soil to move. Beneath my feet the earth boils and solidifies in a circle, lifting into the air in a tall column with me atop it. The rock scales higher, stacking new layers of false earth underneath until I reach the glass nest and stand facing Reznik.

I favor her with a ghastly leer. Her teeth set on edge and a grey pallor falls across her features. This is not the Eleni Garza she wants in her SIMs. Or maybe it is. Maybe pushing me to snap and attempt to physically assault her or someone else is the ultimate goal of these exercises.

“I’m strong in here,” I whisper through the glass. She can’t hear me over the cannon boom of the thunder or see my mouth moving in the sheets of rain. I inch the earth column closer to the glass until my nose is nearly pressed against it.

“I’m strong in here,” I repeat again. I want to be sure she hears me.

“Not as strong as you believe,” She says, her lips straightening in a hard, fierce line.

The bands crackle to life. My wrists burn and knees buckle – a swooning sensation crashes in. I pitch backwards off the earth column. My hands scrabble at empty air. I’m falling too fast and I’m in too much pain to concentrate my thoughts. Whatever is in the bands, whatever power they possess disrupts my abilities. It fries any sense of coherency or concentration right out of me. I hit the desert floor with a thud, knocking the wind out of my lungs. I can’t breathe. I can’t think. The rain pelts me with a few more drops and ceases. My vision blurs, doubles and triples. I push myself up until I’m on all fours but there is no reprieve from the pain – I’m on fire.

Reznik stops the electrocution and my tensed, aching muscles collapse. I land face-down in the mud. The gritty liquid froths down my throat and I cough out a substance looking and tasting sickeningly sweet, like hot chocolate.

“That wasn’t the simulation I had in mind, but it will suffice. You’ve fought your last opponent for the day. You can hit the showers,” Reznik sings overhead, voice oozing with satisfaction.

I’m too exhausted to move my head and favor her with a glare. Instead, I lay in the wet dirt, waiting for Zapata and Iroh to come and drag me away. When they finally appear, Reznik is nowhere to be seen. As they pull my filthy, shivering body from the SIM floor, Zapata scoffs and Iroh shakes his head with pity.

The next day is more of the same. Testing with Reznik. She doesn’t ask me to cloak. Instead she wants to abuse my ability to manipulate virtuals, as punishment for defying her yesterday. She asks me to create buildings, parkways, streets, vintage gasoline cars. She does not provide me with a tablet aid, so the mental labor is much more intensive. She orders me to construct entire bustling cities, teeming with people, using only my mind, with the aide of technology – a far more difficult task than tapping into a technological resource for constructs. My body punishes me for these efforts with the now all-too-common nose and ear bleeds.

Today, a new symptom appears. Inky veins swarm up from my arms and across my temple – the tell-tale sign of NV. This much effort could kill me, and she wants me to recognize it. She is not full of hot air and empty promises like Dawson. She enjoys watching me suffer under the weight of these powers.

By the time I finish the city I can barely stand up straight, but she orders me to destroy it anyway. The whole thing took hours to build, but only a moment of blessed, soothing release to render all of that creation useless and obsolete. That is my lesson for the day and it’s permanently etched in my brain as I stand in the middle of the collapsing city, dust and debris blowing all around me. I stand in the middle of it, protected by my shield of nanos – the destruction harmlessly seeping into my skin.

I turned away from the glass nest this session, afraid I’ll attack Reznik if I look up at her horrible visage. When I do turn to catch a fleeting glimpse of her, her nest is empty. No sharp looking bird woman tracking my every move with her icy stare. Only a vacant console, filled with lonely twinkling lights. I wipe away the final vestiges of the city with a disgusted gesture and move on unsteady feet to the door. It slides open, signaling Zapata and Iroh to initiate the long walk to the sparse white room.

I send a wave to Dr. Dawson on the Prothero frequency, the only person I can reach through the restricted systems. In the message I request a meeting. He waves me back within seconds and asks if I’m alright and what he can do to assist. Is there anything I need? I press him for a chocolate bar, 15 minutes in a sauna, a pony and a tablet with a drawing program. Best to throw in an exotic item so the other items appear relatively harmless.

His response reads: I’m sorry Eleni. Due to your abilities and the unpredictably violent tendencies you display, we cannot allow you in the vicinity of tech you could manipulate to hurt others. Or yourself.

The cryptanalysis application yielded no results thus far. It’s crawling slowly through the code and each minute that ticks by the feeling of anxiety grows. I’ve got less than a week left and with no expected timeline for when the file will be opened, I’m running out of options. And hope. I need access to Prothero technology to speed up the process. The cryptanalysis is too gradual. I need more power, I need to speed up the process exponentially. But I have limited access to resources here. Cut off from technology.

As if she can sense my swelling panic, Reznik increases the training tempo, focusing on the ability to manipulate electricity. I need all of my mental faculties to concentrate on controlling the intensity of the blue glow. Reznik and Dawson coined this ability, “kinetic distortion.” The cloaking is “photothermal deflection.” The virtual creations are “photothermal manipulations.” If only they knew I could talk to the machines as well. I wonder what scientific phrase they would use for that. I doubt any such phrase exists.

In the process of frying two Contras at once with bolts of “kinetic distortion” or what the common folks might refer to as electricity, I trip over my own two feet and collapse in a heap on the ground. It’s another day of being too damned exhausted to move another inch. Reznik’s wintry laughter haunts the SIM, lingering in the air like smoke when Zapata and Iroh arrive to collect me. I make eye contact with Iroh and raise my brows, trying to convey a message without betraying a clue that could be caught on camera. A small frown passes over his face, but he otherwise makes no other indication of understanding my plea.

“This is becoming a sad routine,” Zapata grumbles as they drag my limp frame down the wide, white hallways.

“We can at least let her wash off the sweat and blood,” Iroh suggests, gesturing with a shoulder towards the nearest commons. “You know, preserve her dignity.”

“She can do it herself. I’m not touching nothing that comes out of her. You heard what Castro said,” Zapata reminds him.

“Yeah, I know what Castro said,” Iroh responds. “Castro’s an idiot. This girl seems harmless enough.”

Zapata shrugs, “You can drag her in there and clean her up if that’s your thing. I’ll stand guard outside.”


We move off to the right, into a sparking clean, sterile commons. Iroh releases his grip on me and I hobble towards the sinks, washing the blood and grime from my skin. I return to where he stands, just inside the door.

“I need your help,” I plead.

He tilts his head up towards the ceiling. They might not be recording visuals in here, but audio is another story apparently. I turn and limp towards a bathroom stall and he moves to stand in front of the door I don’t bother locking as I take a seat on my bruised behind. I lean forward and rest my head against the door.

“Can you get me access to Prothero servers?” I whisper, so quietly I’m not sure he will hear. He knocks on the front of the door once. The metal heart hammers in my chest. I flush the toilet to add more noise distortion.


One knock.

My heart flutters again and I push the door open, heading towards the exit. He shadows my movements, saying benignly, “The first stall is my favorite too. I usually stop by there every morning before work.”

“Oh right,” I say, as he opens the door for me. We meet up with Zapata and the rest of the walk is silent.

The guards and I make our morning pit stop at the commons. In the safety of the first bathroom stall I reach behind the toilet seat and find a metal item attached to the porcelain with a tiny dot of glue. The alloy material doesn’t match any tech I’ve ever encountered. It’s a long thin strip of metal with a USB port in the middle and a clasp on either end. I hold it up and the left band emits a short spark, a finger beckoning me forward. I lay the reader down ontop of it and the band lights up like a Christmas tree. My head swims, coded foreign language running over the backsides of my lids.

The electricity generated by the band stings against my flesh and I bite down on the inside of my cheek to keep from yelling out. Eventually, the heat dissipates and when I look down, the band accepts the USB reader. It molds neatly into the metal, like an invisible hook and groove. The two ends of the metal strip attach to the band, encircling it as the band encircles my wrist. Mystifying and seamless.

The band kicks on and the USB generates a pale orange virtual, lighting up the inside of the stall. Data pours in a stream past my open, staring eyes in the same way a virtual projection appears from the bands. It hangs in the mid-air, illuminated against the backdrop of reality.The data runs up my arm, through my veins and into my temples. The information inside bursts with passcodes and bypasses for security measures and ways to permanently disable RFIDs.

My metal heart shudders as a cold computerized voice whispers from the inside of my prosthetic ear, “Get out.”

The servers here at the Prothero lab are aware. Sentient. They feel me rustling around inside them.

A stronger, more urgent declaration, “Get out,” accompanies a warning spike of power in the bands. I frantically disconnect, snuffing the blue glow like a candle flame. The codes disappear inside my flesh and the virtual projection goes dead.

My heart beats like fluttering moth wings against my chest. Whatever entity is in the servers saw me. It knew what I was doing. It comprehended and spoke to me. I take a few deep breaths to regulate my pulse, but the static electricity lifts the hairs on my arm and won’t go away.

“What was that?” One of the male guards, Castro, asks.

“Nothing. Seeing what the weather’s supposed to be today.”

“Oh don’t worry, you won’t be seeing daylight anytime soon,” Castro assures me with a chuckle.

What an asshole. I run a finger down the spine of the USB reader and it detaches from the band. I drop it into the toilet and flush, praying the plumbing doesn’t back up, watching as the evidence hits the sewers.

Whoever Iroh works with, if it’s the Contras or some other terrorist organization… they know their tech. They’re smart. They’re everywhere. The conejos are multitude. Rabbit might be one of them. For the first time, this idea makes me smile instead of stirring acid pains in my stomach. And then I remember his connection to the Fullers and I fall into quiet contemplation. I wish I had more answers.

If Reznik devises more torture for me, I don’t retain precise memories. It’s another day of SIM testing. It’s arduous and frustrating. My hate for her grows with every minute. I can’t keep my mind from swirling around the precipice of Prothero’s secret AI, impending freedom, the conejos, the Contras. My brain works in loops separate from my body.

At the end I’m on my feet, barely. Instead of the guards greeting me at the SIM doors, Dr. Dawson appears. He smiles in his gentle, placating way. I’ve missed him. I suppress the urge to run over and crush myself against his chest. I like to believe he does the same.

“Here’s that chocolate bar you requested,” He holds it out like you’d hold food for a blind, senile dog. Very gently.

“Thanks,” I mutter, retrieving it with numb fingers. My whole body is numb.

“And here’s the tablet,” He says in a kinder, more genuine tone.“It’s your last night here. I thought it might be nice for you to draw if you’d like. No virtuals, if you don’t want them. No pressure, Eleni. Not from me. Not this time.”

A lump builds in my throat. Dr. Dawson is the worst kind of father figure, but he’s the closest thing I’ve got. I reach up and touch the tablet, moving past it and trapping his torso in a bear hug. Some urges are not worth fighting.

“Thanks,” I murmur into his chest.

He says nothing, but pats my upper back comfortingly in response. Good show Dr. Dawson. Good man. He threatened my friends lives and shot me up with a dangerous virus and crafted me into an unwilling monstrous human machine hybrid with the capability of doing great harm, but he’s saved my life more than once. He’s a good man, too. If you can believe those things co-exist in one person.

I trail him to my room where he leaves me unshackled, and settle down under the covers of the hospital bed with the tablet propped up against my bruised, rapidly healing knees. I draw Scarlett and Rabbit. I draw The Rosas. I draw Nurse Esparanza and Dr. Dawson and even stupid Diego. I draw us in a cherry orchard. Without my insistence, these images flicker up onto a virtual and rotate around the room. I don’t care. Dawson stands in the middle of the projections, turning in ponderous circles, watching in open-mouthed, mute fascination. He reaches out every once in awhile to touch one, dazzled at the haptic feedback. The particles don’t burst into colored fragments and flicker away like other virtuals.

He’s studying me again, but the overwhelmingly positive feedback, after weeks of punishment from Reznik, is much appreciated.

“It’s good to see you drawing again. You look happy,” Dawson says with informal candor. A lime drops from a cherry tree to his right. He leans over and plucks it from the floor, turning it over, admiring.

“Well, my time with Reznik expired today. That’s something to be happy about. You coming to KERN with me? For a little while, at least?” I reach towards him, for the lime. He sets it in my open palm.

“No Eleni, I’m sorry. This is a solo journey. You might not believe it now, but KERN will be a positive learning experience. You’ll be with people like yourself. With abilities similar to yours. I might visit in order to chart your progress, but you won’t need me there,” Melancholy flickers across his features. He’s actually going to miss me.

“I haven’t stopped needing you since my parents died,” I inform him. I squeeze the lime too hard and it bursts into fragments, briefly illuminating the bed sheet fabric and my fingernails before sputtering out.

Dawson pulls the glasses from his nose and runs the back of his hand over his forehead in a gesture I’ve come to recognize as annoyance. But that doesn’t apply here.

“Are you tearing up Doctor?” I ask, teasing.

“Maybe. I’m tired, Eleni. The last couple of months have been arduous and I’m ready for a much needed vacation. Somewhere warm and tropical with a little umbrella in a big glass. Maybe South America. I’ll be accessible through the intranet, whenever you need me,” He pats my shoulder affectionately. Moisture glitters in his eyes. He’s definitely going to miss me.

He turns and walks towards the exit with none of his customary enthusiasm.  

“Goodnight Dr. Dawson,” I call out. “I’ll miss your face.”

He casts a look over his shoulder, my heart dipping at the baleful expression he wears.

“Goodnight, Eleni Garza,” He responds, shutting the door. “I will miss yours.”

The mechanical locking gears of the door grind together, a lonely sound.

I smile in the solitude, taking solace in Dawson’s emotional upheaval at my departure. After three or four minutes of silence, I exit the bed and creep into the bathroom. Switch the fan and water on to provide a limited measure of cover. The left band thrums to life, flushing the purple shade I’ve come to associate with hacking. Band schematics spill out on the virtual and I flick past them until I find the needed code embedded in the security features. I type it into the projected keyboard and wait for the beep of an error message.

Nothing happens. The bands don’t magically fall from my wrists but I sense a change. The tech softens, becomes pliable. I pull up the wave application, holding my breath as a loading icon rotates on the virtual. With a considerable reluctance on the part of the band, the wave app slumps open.

That powerful, sibilant voice crackles in my ear, “We’re watching.”

Mountains of goosebumps clamber over me with such strength, a dull ache registers in the base of my skull. Black, thick blood slips from my left ear and I wipe it away distractedly. The high pitched whine accompanying the voice squeals out and recedes.

A final wall of resistance melts away and the wave storage box behind it registers over 500 waves – the majority from Scarlett. The most recent sent yesterday around 2am. My metal heart wrenches at the sight of these stockpiled, unanswered communications. At the thought that up until yesterday, Scarlett attempted to contact me. She must be so worried. There are several from The Rosas. Even one from Nurse Esperanza.

There are none from Rabbit Santiago. Not a single wave. It’s a… I’m not sure what it means. I don’t know what I expected or how to feel that he hasn’t tried to contact me once in the last three months. My stomach heaves a little and a wave of nausea passes over me. I gulp back bile.

It doesn’t matter. Who cares what Rabbit Santiago does. Who cares.

I want to prioritize Scarlett’s loneliness, as indicated by her messages, but my pragmatism weighs out over everything else. A suspiciously titled wave from Emilia Rosa grabs my attention, pulling it away from Scar and Rabbit. The title text, “ Testing. testing. ” This oughta be good.

That thing we disposed of didn’t end up being the subject of numerous tests. We didn’t synthesize an unverified vaccine from it. We aren’t working with anyone else to secure test subjects. We don’t need anymore samples, so don’t worry. Hope that eases your mind. Wherever you are. If you still are.

A cold boulder rolls into my stomach, replacing the nausea. I chew on the inside of my cheek. The Rosas risked their lives sending that message to me. If I’m to believe the opposite of the message, my blood sample, the NV2 in my system, yielded a possible cure. A vaccine. This is huge. This cannot be ignored. There is no way I can turn my back and slink off to KERN for more torturous training with Professor Reznik. Not with this new development. My attention returns to the wave storage.

450 messages from Scar. I tackle the first. Looking at the subjects of her worried, angry, bewildered messages from the time period of my attempted base escape hurts more than the absence of communication from Rabbit.

The subject of her latest message reads, “ I have no one else to send this to .” I swallow hard and pour over the text.

“ [_It’s late at night. I don’t think you’re receiving messages anymore. Maybe you never were. I don’t know if you’re alive. Isn’t that stupid. But I had to tell someone. The Rosas wouldn’t understand and you know what happened with Diego. I mean, maybe you do, if you read my waves. But whatever. There’s no one I can talk to about this. No one I trust more than you. _]

[_So here goes… my friend Sarah tracked down Logan outside of New Orleans. She said he’d fallen in with a bad crowd. People scrapping tech, dealing Flash and worse. Worse things. He got picked up by the Peace Officers two months ago and showed up last week spouting all sorts of crazy nonsense about experiments. About Prothero. He’s got NV Len, but it’s bad. Worse than any strain they’ve ever seen – it’s spreading all over the South and people are calling it another outbreak. _]

[_I’ve got to help him. I can’t get him any academy stipend – not if he’s off the grid and on the run from a labor camp. He’s homeless and sick Len. I don’t know what to do or who to talk to… I wish you were here. I really do. You would help me with a plan. I don’t have a plan Len. But I need to get out of here. You escaped. Or you’re dead. _]

But if you can get out of the Academy, I can follow right? I can find a way out of here. It sounds crazy. But I can’t stand the idea of him dying alone on the streets. It’s a hard world out there Len, but it doesn’t have to be that hard. It’s not that hard.. .”

The text cuts out where her voice fades off. That’s it. That’s the last message she sent me. What the hell. What am I supposed to do with that? Scarlett trying to escape Fort Columbia. Logan sick from one of the new strains of NV. And I’m being shipped off to KERN in the morning. Far away from the Rosas and the cure that Mateo, and Scar’s brother need. Looks like I have another tough decision to make.

 I limp back to bed and rest my swimming head on the fluffy pillows. It’s not too late. I can change everything. I’ve gotten this far. I’m alive in the belly of Prothero with full access to my band. With powers I’m more capable of controlling thanks to Dawson and Reznik. I survived a bombing, a brutal attack by Clinton in the SIM and a plane crash. I survived three weeks under the cruel guidance of a sadistic mad-woman. I’m fighting a disease that has killed over 2.5 billion people on this planet. The Rosas synthesized a cure from my blood.

I can save myself. I can take back control of my life. I can escape from this lab. I can subvert Prothero’s desires for my body and soul. I can help Scarlett escape the Academy. I can even save Matty and Logan. My lids close and the heavy weight of sleep presses down upon me.

I can save myself. I don’t need Clinton’s connections or Rabbit’s sacrifices or Matty’s terrorists to do it. I never did.

An alarming buzz from the bands wakes me at 7am. I’m instructed by a disembodied voice issuing from the ceiling to gather my belongings in a duffel and await transport. Two morning duty guards arrive and whisk me away to the food window. After a tube of nutritious sludge, we begin the endless repeating walk down the dreary halls from my nightmares. Excitement and horror stews acidly in my stomach, a nervous anticipation rolling around with the yellowish breakfast substance, tasting vaguely like bananas and toast. My state of euphoria casts a bizarre glow in the building, the walls shimmering and pulsing around us. We walk down a brilliant white hallway, the white so glaring it hurts, making me squint. It is uncannily reminiscent of my nightmares – the world overwhelmed with a hazy, unreal quality.

The guards drag me past the open door of a room, and a young, bulky white man strapped to a hospital bed streaks past my vision. Clinton Fuller. His eyes meet mine for a brief instant, lacking solid human warmth, filmed over with a limpid mechanical blue. His smooth, sun kissed body is marred by circuitry, similar to that of my temple, but this tech appears joined with his flesh, rather than implanted on it. The circuits are not confined to his temple – they are embedded everywhere. His face, neck, and arms. It makes no sense.

This cannot be Clinton Fuller. He’s failing his last term at Fort Columbia. Or home with his father in the great state of Texas. Or at the KERN facility in the black mining hills of Dakota or desert wasteland of Arizona or frozen north of Old Canada. He’s not supposed to be here. He’s not supposed to look like this.

His mouth forms my name, lips pulling into a grimace of pain and recognition. My body goes weak, legs giving out from underneath me. I call out to him, collapsing around the pulling, lifting arms of the guards. They respond gruffly, shaking and yelling at me to get on my feet. We make a sharp turn down a glass enclosed hallway between two buildings and into a separate warehouse structure housing Prothero’s Telepad. I shout Clinton’s name as they drag me through the doors.

The rushing adrenaline in proximity to this powerful piece of technology rips the image from my mind. Refocusing me on the current problems and solutions I’ve devised. My vision of Clinton Fuller was a panic induced illusion, brought on by nerves over the revelations of the last 24 hours and the anxiety of what I’m about to do. Clinton was not here. I didn’t see him. I can relax now. I can breathe again. I perk up and walk on my own feet. The guards don’t miss a single step or show any sign of surprise at my instant composure. Unpredictability is the norm here.

In the giant transporter room I undress quickly at the base of the Telepad. I’m directed to the center of the glowing rings. They produce an extraordinarily potent humming. It vibrates up into my teeth. A whirling mechanism gyrates below my bare toes, an enormous centrifuge spins up, faster and faster. I crouch down to examine it. The thick glass tubes and the dazzling blue luminosity obscure any coherent visuals, but I sense its composition. The expansive baritone of the machine booms up my into the balls of my feet and radiates through my legs, abdomen and arms. There is power here, immense power.

“Telepad charge: phase one. Please remain still,” The computerized voice requests.

I lay my palms flat against the glass separating me from the inner workings of the machine. My eyes roll up into the back of my head and a horrid pain slices my temple. The bands emit a high frequency squeal, like bad audio feedback, cooking my flesh, letting off an acrid smoke, but I am no longer dominated by Prothero’s stifling AI. The telepad is stronger than whatever mutes and contains me. It’s stronger than me. And it can make me stronger. I can use its power.

I focus on the CPU, digging frantically amongst the codes to locate the correct latitude and longitude. I need to make a slight adjustment to the coordinates.

“Eleni,” Dawson’s voice cuts through the din of the telepad charging. “I see you in the system. What are you doing?”

I glance over at him, blue heat zapping towards the control room where he stands, protected by metal and concrete and glass.

“Going home,” I answer.

The bands grill my skin but I push through the tech wall anyway, riding over the pain like surfers cresting a wave. A door left of the control room slams open and guards, dressed in combat suits akin to those we wear in SIMs, hustle out, rifles drawn. I throw my mind out to the electrical currents running through their weapons, disabling them with a wrenching gesture of my forearm. The nanites brushed into the hard ceramic plating of their uniforms fizzle out before they can generate shielding. I don’t want to hurt anyone here. I just don’t want them to hurt me.

The guards press forward, moving towards the platform. They’re going to physically subdue me before I port out of here.

“Telepad charge: phase two. Please remain still,” The voice urges.

My attention spins towards the foundational elements of the room. The lights blink out. I pull the sprinkler system, water falling down on us in sheets. Projections rip from my bands, ghostly images of Clinton Fuller, Corazon Ortega and Brian Holmes circle me, rifles drawn on the approaching guards.

“Eleni! Stop this!” Dawson shouts. I flick on the overhead siren to drowned him out, flashing red lights blaring on simultaneously.

“It’s too late Dawson! You had your chance!” I bellow, assuming a cross-legged, meditating position on the glass tubes.

All around me, the ring of virtual projections form a solid shield the soldiers cannot penetrate. The slip and squeal of their boots and their shouted comments to one another rise above the scream of the sirens and patter of sprinkler water. The pound of more boots stops outside the locked telepad doors. They’re gonna bring the whole lab down on me if I don’t move fast. It’s now or never.

“Shut it down! Shut the damn thing down!” Dawson barks over the chaos.

The siren and warning red lights cut off. Water still cascades from the ceiling in sheets, but the flourescent lights overhead snap on. Beneath me, the centrifuge moans and reverses direction, enormous kinetic blades and the undulating lights they produce incrementally slowing. Dawson is sucking all the power from the room. It’s a smart move. If he’d done it three minutes ago.

“Telepad powering down,” The computer alerts.

“Oh no you don’t,” I grimace, digging my heels into the machine.

I shift slightly on the glass and clear my mind, drawing more energy up from my feet and legs and torso. Dawson and Reznik taught me how to channel the nano electricity and move it into different parts of my body. How to collect and store it. This entire telepad is a giant battery and I’m charged to capacity.

White fulgor explodes up from the telepad core and through my arms and head, heaving past the virtual projections and engulfing the entire room in a fury of light. With everyone sufficiently distracted and the telepad engines back online, I reach out into the mainframe of the control room, and alter the course.

There’s no stopping Dawson from seeing the coordinates. My cards are on the table now. I am heading back to Fort Columbia whether they want me to or not.

“Telepad charge: phase two. Complete,” The voice reassures me. “Course alteration accepted.”

Good, we’re back on track. My second to last act of sabotage occurs at the base of my neck, an RFID implanted next to my spinal column. I reach out with all the power gleaned from the telepad and the concentrated kinetic distortion flowing through my veins. I crush the life from the implant, its signal wavering and dying with a popping, frying hiss. A trail of smoke rises from the burn wound on my neck. It’s painful, but there’s so much energy and adrenaline running through my veins, I barely feel it. Later. I can feel all the pain later.

The bands sputter and fail to singe my flesh, no doubt forced by Dawson or Reznik or whoever is on the other end of the tech, a final, desperate attempt to trap me in Prothero’s grip. But I’m free now. They can’t keep me here any longer.

“Telepad charge: phase three. Please keep all hands and feet within the vehicle. Enjoy the ride,” The voice coos.

A brilliant flash of blue shines all around me. In my final act of sabotage, I plant a destruction sequence into the DC telepad. It crushes me to do this, but disabling the telepad will slow them down. I dig a hole into the telepad software and bury the code, covering it with layers of encrypted data. I link a shortcut to the command immediately following the completion of my port. The thick, angry noise of the AI rolls through my ears like sludge, “We remember.”

“Eleni, don’t do this,” Dawson advises in a tired, beaten voice. “I won’t be able to fix this for you. Not like… everything else you’ve done in the past.”

“I know,” I whisper. But it’s more like a whimper. It’s more like my heart breaking. I’m always going to disappoint someone, no matter what I do. At least this time, it’s not myself.

A second, dazzling flash obscures my vision. How long it will take Prothero to find me? Minutes, hours, days? The telepad de-molecularizes, shooting me through time and space.

My body disappears.


I reappear on the other side five minutes later and collapse forward, curled in a fetal position. The human body doesn’t take kindly to being disassembled and reassembled in short order. Or ever. But I can’t remain inert for long, so I push myself to my shaky hands and knees. Unfortunately, the cloak didn’t survive the journey. I crouch, naked, in front of the guards.

“Uh, what the hell?” One of the female soldiers asks. She and three others, dressed in standard combat attire, pause in the middle of their conversation at the base of the telepad, rifles slung over their shoulders. “Is this a scheduled port?”

"No. This is- no. Who are you?" A male guard squints towards the platform, reaching for his weapon. “Wait, you look familiar.”

“Get out,” I suggest in a wobbly voice, the blue glow engulfing me. I absorbed too much energy from the DC telepad. It’s got to go somewhere. “Get out now!”

I convey the urgency with a motivating bolt of blue fire aimed in their direction. It sizzles out my fingertips, cascading in an arch dying limply at their feet. The guards reach for their rifles in response. Not exactly what I had in mind.

“This thing is going to explode,” I say.

“Down on the ground!” A male soldier commands.

“Whatever. I warned you,” I grit my teeth, using a small portion of the barely contained energy to overwhelm their weapons.

I lose it. I lose control. It’s too much power for me – I can’t maintain it. I shuttle the excess electricity through the core. The voltage shoots from my palms down into the glass tubes and centrifuge, overloading the central processor.

“Warning. Core breached. System meltdown imminent,” The sultry female voice announces.

“Dammit. Get out. Get out now!” A male soldier shouts, dropping the rifle from his face and waving his squadmates back.

“Told you,” I mutter, arms slipping out from under me. My chin hits the glass casing and stars twinkle in my vision.

With my remaining strength, I tip and roll down the platform steps. The guards, further alerted to the danger by the groan and whine of the telepad hardware ripping apart inside the tubes, shuffle backwards, yelling out orders.

Someone hits the siren and red warning lights flash. Exhausted, reeling with the effort, I reach out and click off the overhead fluorescents. The energy spilling from the disintegrating telepad boosts the blue glow and I cloak into the dark.

“Where’d she go?” A different male soldier asks. His female companion shrugs.

Lost in the chaos, I crawl towards the privacy screens, stationed near the double doors at the front of the room. My searching hand brushes the ankle of a guard. She stiffens and looks around suspiciously, kicking her boot towards my position. I roll away, cursing under my breath. I need to be careful here. This isn’t like SIM training with Reznik. Humans don’t need heat signatures to locate their enemies, we possess far more finely tuned senses.

“Warning. Core breached. System meltdown imminent.”

The other guards, rifles trained on the telepad, back away from the frightening metal gurgle of the machine. They head towards the large blast doors, concerned with my location, but motivated by a keen desire for self preservation.

Behind the privacy screen, I find a pile of resident uniforms stacked on a chair, waiting in limbo for a naked, freshly transported individual to change into. I grab the clothes and slip them on. The unisex underwear, a pair of tight boxer briefs, doesn’t even phase me. At least they offered three sizes of sports bras. No shoes though.

“Warning. Core breached. System meltdown imminent.”

I dart through the metal doors as they slide shut, close on the heels of the guards.

“Containment shield activated,” The voice announces through speakers that project into the hallway.

“Oh shit!” One of the female soldiers shouts.

Blue kinetic barriers, similar to the glow that flares out of my skin, roll down from the ceiling, shuttering the hallways intersecting the telepad, blocking the guards from entering the blast area and us from escaping. Another sheet of azure flickers over the blast doors. The guards, panicked and confused, huddle in the middle of the box created by the kinetics.

“System malfunction. System malfunction,” The voice sputters, heat warping the last word.

“Oh shit,” A male soldier murmurs.

Behind the heavy blast doors the telepad explodes in a flurry of metal gears and shattering glass. The concussive force of the electric wave picks me up off my feet, slamming my left temple into the white concrete wall behind me. My eye blips. The sharp tang of metal and blood hits my tongue. The wires on my left temple snap and crackle. The cloak sputters out like a dying candle. The guards to either side of me are knocked prone. I lean over to check their pulses, but pause when I see them breathing. OK, not dead. Not dead is good.

Shouting and pounding echoes down the hallway outside the barriers. I have to regain control, I can’t let them catch me like this. I can’t let them see me. Need to charge the batteries.

I scramble over the inert guards and press both palms against the far right kinetic barrier. It convulses and electricity roars in my ears, peeling off from the barrier and folding over me. I summon the cloak and slump against the wall for support. Just need to catch my breath.

“Core meltdown complete,” The computer warbles overhead. “Containment barriers de-activated.”

The filmy blue shields vaporize into thin air and the waiting guards rush past, their immediate concern and attention paid to the soldiers littering the black tiled floor. I press myself up against the wall to avoid coming into contact with anyone in the crowded area. Then think better of it. There’s enough chaos happening I don’t need to worry about bumping into someone. I just need to get the hell out of here. I race down the newly liberated hallway, pushing past the guards.

The security door at the far end of the hall presents another kind of problem. Since my RFID and band clearances were wiped when I rebooted them, the only solution to escape the telepad building is to hack the system. With the red alert on full force, the mainframe will be on lockdown. I approach the silver sweeping light, reaching out through the tech channels and de-activating the cameras near the door. I decloak, the nanos falling away from me like a snake shedding its skin. The light filters over me, analyzing my body with its greedy, sticky fingers.  

“Subject: Unknown. No scan available. Please identify,” The computer voice requests, cheerful yet unyielding.

I turn my attention towards the security console. After a full minute of slippery grasping within the software, it becomes clear mental manipulations are not going to work. I press my left hand against the hardware instead, nanos plucked from the ripe kinetic barriers, bursting out through the sweatshirt fabric. The wires in my temple light up like sparklers on the fourth of July.

“Security clearance granted. Have a nice day,” The voice purrs, the door slipping open to reveal the muted, earthy landscape of Fort Columbia.

A sigh heaves from my chest. It’s something like coming home.

When I step outside, the sunlight assaults me. Weeks have passed since I tasted fresh air. I deeply inhale the dry wind. It rustles my hair, the moment punctuated by a distant hawk scream. Towards the barracks and common area looms the Chenowith Rim rock wall. We often climbed it during outdoor field exercises. I especially loved crawling into the Eagle Caves and looking out over the vast loveliness of the Columbia River Gorge.

The air temperature is balmier than when I left. The sun momentarily muscles its way past the thick layer of clouds above, welcoming me back to the Pacific Northwest. The first traces of spring show themselves, grass peeking up in patches between my bare toes. No guards roam this part of the base so cloaking for the trek back to campus is a moot point. It’s too mentally and physically exhausting to keep up at length and it would be a waste of energy. I’ll make use of the other tech skills until I can recharge my batteries.

I turn my attention first to the buzzing static of the radio communications rushing overhead. I sift through them, searching for my name, an emergency report, anything that would alert Fort Columbia to my presence. I'd wiped out digital and radio comms at Prothero before my final exit, another delicious surprise embedded in the code I’d dumped into the telepad computers. Realistically there is no way to catch it all. No failsafe to be certain I am 100% in the clear. I'll have to monitor everything in and out of this military base that possibly has to do with me and delete it. I don’t want to kill all the communications here - that would raise more alarm. More alarm than melting the base telepad. My hope is to avoid a full lockdown.

There are no messages so far, but once the comms are up and running on the other side of the country, I will have a hard time keeping track. My time here on base is limited. Less than a day. Maybe only a few hours. Destroying the comms towers clustered in the middle of base might be my only option later on. The waves though – I can’t stop the waves. I will have to stay well hidden. From the officers, from the cameras, from the guards, from other residents. I bite the inside of my lip and push forward. Can’t waste anymore time loitering out here.

As I make my way across Fort Columbia, I pull up the band display to orient myself. The time and date appears. It’s the middle of May. I was gone for a little over three months. And it’s 12 in the afternoon. I’ll arrive at the mess hall right at lunch time. I contemplate waving Scarlett and decide against it. I should avoid electronic communication if I want to remain hidden from Prothero and the Academy. Matty was right about that. But I can turn on the GPS tracker and map her coordinates.

It’s a long walk, and 45 minutes pass from the time I exit the doorways of the telepad building to when I reach the Academy campus. Progress is further hindered by the need to sabotage every security camera in the vicinity as I pass. It’s a subtle shift, a turning of the lens, and hopefully no one will notice the trend.

I slip in the main doors, cloaking to conceal my body, and disrupting the cameras as I move. I stop by the Commons to relieve my anxious bladder, dropping out of the cloak, muting the audio recording devices embedded in the walls and locking the doors behind me.

First I visit the sinks and take a long look in the mirror. My face is paler and thinner than before, with deep circles tucked underneath my eyes. A patch of hair has changed color, melting from a dark brown into a downy gray. I wince and suck in my breath as I pull out a single hair and lay it on my palm, examining it. Tipping the strand back and forth, catching the gleam from the fluorescents overhead. I don’t look so hot. I dunk my entire head under the running water in the sink, letting it cascade down over my neck and dribble into my ears. Letting it block out my hearing. Wondering if it’s possible to drown under a faucet.

A tickling sensation on the band distracts me and I check the projected message. A GPS tracker informs me that Scarlett is nearby, walking through the halls outside the Commons. Now would be a good chance to reveal myself. I rush to the door, twist the lock, and push it open a crack, peeking out beyond it. Scarlett and Brian Holmes move past, hands intertwined.

Well, that happened while I was gone. I should have read more of her waves. They pause briefly near the Commons to exchange a passionate kiss, continuing on their way. I let the door click softly shut and press my head against the cool metal.

This is not going to be as easy as I thought. But I can’t wait for another opportunity. An abundance of time is not available. Prothero will find me if I linger at Fort Columbia. I have maybe eight hours here on base to reveal myself to Scarlet, formulate a reasonable plan, get the cure from the twins, and make an escape. I can’t wait. There is no time.

I push the door open again and stalk out into the hall. Scarlett and Brian are visible, but they’ve made substantial progress down the hall. I can’t run, my footsteps will give me away, so I opt for ungainly leaping from foot to foot, doing my best to minimize the noise of my bare feet hitting the polished floors. Since they are moving at a leisurely, romantic stroll towards the kitchens, it’s easy to sneak up on them. They’re talking about current events, as in things you might watch on the news waves. That’s unlike Scar, who would rather dive into smutty romance or celebrity gossip sites. This sudden interest in the real world must be Brian’s influence.

But now that I’m behind Scar, poised to tap her shoulder and reveal myself as not dead or permanently imprisoned, I pause. Why would I drag her into this? I don’t need her to obtain the cure or track down Logan. It’s selfish bringing her into this. I pull my arm back and turn on my heels, heading toward the barracks. I will not risk anymore lives. I’m almost out of ear-shot when I hear something that makes my heart thud hard. It doesn’t stop – not like before. All that time at Prothero taught me a few things. How to control my body. My temper. Myself.

“Fucking terrorists,” Brian finishes his sentence with heated enthusiasm.

I stop dead in my tracks, swivel and match pace with them again. Those terrorists are my friends. I’ve been in the dark for months and this could be valuable intel. And maybe it’s harder than I thought walking away from Scar again. I might have used any excuse to turn around.

“You get too worked up about that stuff. Look at you, you’re about to pop a forehead vein,” Scar laughs and taps a finger against his skull.

“Yeah, I guess you wouldn’t care too much either way, given what your best friend did,” Brian snaps, batting her hand away without any real force.

I steel myself for Scar’s defense. She wouldn’t tolerate anyone talking like that about me. Not even Brian Holmes.

“Yeah, she really screwed everything up,” Scar responds.

I stop moving again and close my eyes tightly to gain equilibrium. This isn’t Scar. She wouldn’t openly disparage me. She’s the only person left in the world to trust. I want to call her out, but I bite my tongue until I taste blood. I can’t reveal myself to them, Brian especially.

“She sent you to some kind of jacked up Prothero prison for over a week. She endangered your life and nearly killed hundreds of people on this base. She’s a traitor. She’s a terrorist ,” Brian spits the word out with real anger.

“I didn’t know, “ Scarlett says, voice soft and hurt.

My hands clench into fists. We’re almost to the kitchen. I need to hold my composure for another twenty feet.

“Thank God for small favors. You would have been so screwed otherwise. Reckless. Garza was reckless and she nearly took you and Rabbit down with her,” Brian says, shaking his head.

“Bear, you didn’t see her that night. She was terrified. I’ve never seen her like that. Ever. Grumpy and sullen, yes. She was totally different that night, like, possessed. Whatever she was running from, she risked her life to escape it,” Scar explains, distressed by her recollections of our last few moments together.

“She got the opposite,” Brian pushes the door open with a fist, entering the kitchen first. Scar trails behind, lost in memories. “She got a lot of people hurt.”

I’m so close on Scar’s feet she can probably feel and maybe even hear the angry rasp of my breathing. She whips around, staring me boldly in the face. Of course, she doesn’t see me, but I know she can sense me there now. I shut off the security cameras. Things are about to get weird.

I grab ahold of the shoulder of her long-sleeve shirt with my robot arm, hauling her forward, towards me. At the same time I slam the kitchen door closed, trapping Brian inside. The band ignites as I wrench the handle. Brian pulls hard but the electricity transfers through the metal, shocking him. He curses against the door and bangs on it.

“What the hell!?” Scar exclaims.

“Scarlett, are you alright? What’s happening!?” He asks.

“I wish I knew,” She murmurs, as the cloak drops away and my body comes into view. She quickly regains her composure. “But you need to stay in there. I’ll be right back. I promise.”

Scar barely skipped a beat. Her calm and ability to lie under pressure are almost eerie.

“Did you do this?” Brian calls out.

“No. Why would I? The security field malfunctioned. I’ll run and get a technician to check it out. Start cooking without me,” She insists. She doesn’t turn around to speak to the door, just slightly tilts her head. Her eyes are still wide open, absorbing the shock that doesn’t register in her voice. Her body is rigid under my grip.  But otherwise, she is cool and sedate. It’s un-nerving.

“My hand is burnt like a damn Christmas ham. I need medical attention,” Brian jiggles the knob to test it. “There’s nothing you can do on your end?”

“There’s a med kit next to the door. You’ve got to trust me on this Bear. I’ll explain everything. Just give me a minute. Maybe five minutes,” She says with soothing delivery, her gaze not leaving me for a second. Her eyes are now angry slits and her nostrils are flared. She is done with shock. She’s outright pissed.

Brian relaxes his grip on the handle and the opening scrape of the medical kit can be heard from inside the kitchen.

“Security field my ass. How am I supposed to do anything in the kitchen with only one good hand?” He mutters, banging the contents of the kit around in irritation.

“You’ll manage. Be right back,” She calls out. “Be careful.”

“You be careful,” He grumbles.

“What the hell are you doing here?” Scar whispers fiercely, seizing my shoulder as I grabbed hers. Her grip is surprisingly strong for possessing a petite frame.

“I thought you were dead! Where were you? Why didn’t you wave me? What happened!?”

I open my mouth to speak and then decide it would be smart to mute the audio recording devices as well.

“Wow, really? That’s all you’ve got to say for yourself?” She rolls her eyes at my gaping response.

“Can we please talk somewhere safe?” I request, my voice strained. Speaking and monitoring the fort’s digital transmissions and disabling the cameras and now muting the audio is taking an extraordinary amount of concentration. A bead of sweat stings my eyes and I’m aware of how exhausted and shaky I feel.

Scarr’s eyes dart around the hallway and light upon a janitorial closet, used to store the tools and chemicals for cleaning the kitchen. She jerks her head towards it with a frown. So far this reunion is not going how I imagined. I imagined Scar would be happy to see me. I didn’t imagine she and her new boyfriend would be discussing my status as a terrorist.

We hustle to the maintenance closet, enter and shut the door. The claustrophobic room is filled with sanitizing chemicals and dusty stacks of cleaning droids, designed to scrub the Academy from top to bottom. Before the resource wars and NV and the end of the world, we possessed enough power to let robots do all our work for us. Now they collect dust in closets and we’re back to doing the dirty jobs ourselves. I breathe a deep sigh, releasing the hall cameras and the electricity wrapped around the kitchen door handle. I keep a firm grip on all the audio devices in the area. Vocal imprints might still be a weapon in Prothero’s arsenal. Can’t be too careful here. I snatch a few more messages from the cloud and delete them. From the frequency and urgency of the pings coming from D.C., their systems must be close to coming back online. That was fast. That was almost too fast. I might not have two or three more hours. Or even half an hour.

“Are you OK?” I ask, panting in the dark.

“Of course I’m not OK!” Scarlett shrieks, bordering on hysterical. “My friend just magically appeared in front of me. My friend who should be dead or imprisoned.”

I bite my bottom lip, “There’s a totally reasonable explanation for all of this. And I will explain, but first… I got your wave, about Logan. I came to help you find Logan. Well, sort of.”

“Logan,” Her voice breaks around his name, pupils going wide. “You came to help me find Logan? Sort of .”

“Yeah. I thought you wanted to escape. And track him down,” I remind her. “In your last wave, you said that.” My tone turns helpless and dismayed. I feel all my limbs growing heavier under the weight of my decision. I thought I was doing better with my life choices. Now I just feel wild and erratic. I feel out of control. I’m counting on Scarlett to inject this situation with a healthy dose of sanity. And maybe a bit of validation. I can’t be wrong about this. I’m so tired of being wrong.

“I was high as a damn kite when I sent that. I thought you were dead.”

I hold both arms open, “Not dead.”

“Did you come up with a plan? For us to help Logan?” She looks hopeful. “One that doesn’t involve lots of explosions?”

Sort of . I have friends working on an NV2 cure. But we’d need to go to Mexico City first,” I inform her. “To get the cure.”

An incoming transmission from Prothero barely avoids detection and I bite down hard on the inside of my cheek. I’m not going to last much longer here if I can’t keep focused. I should have set up some code to automatically spam or trash any emails. Or instantly garble messages originating from specific IP addresses. I should have thought this through a little better. Too late now. It’s always too late.

“Mexico City. That would not be a good idea,” Scarlett murmurs. She is oscillating away from anger now and back to those initial moments of dazed and confused. This isn’t the reaction I expected from her. Something is wrong.

“Why not?” I ask, ice water dumping into my veins. My hope is now a ship at sea – rising and falling on big waves.

“Cause the Contras blew up the Prothero lab there. This morning,” Her eyes flicker to the band on my right wrist, narrowing in suspicion. I’m not used to seeing this look from Scar, directed at me. It’s disorienting. “Where were you? How did you get here?”

“I escaped from a Prothero lab. Not the one in Mexico City. The one in Washington DC. I’ll explain everything,” I start. Scarlett holds up a hand to stop me.

“Len, what the hell were you thinking?”

“I wasn’t,” I answer. Another Prothero transmission barrels towards the base and I delete it. They send another almost immediately. They are pinging now – steadily. The effort required to maintain this radio silence is breaking me.

“You’re a terrible friend, Eleni Garza,” Scar says.

I nod in agreement. She’s using my full name and that means trouble. Plus – nodding is the easiest and most effortless form of communication available to me. I hold her gaze, but inside, I am crumbling.

“You lied to me.”

I nod again, the most prudent course of action.

“I was detained and tortured in a weird prison because of you. OK, well, that’s an exaggeration… but they held me for days at some secret Prothero location. Days . Of course, I didn’t know anything so they let me go but you could have warned me . There is no excuse for not warning your best friend. I mean, you are life-flighted into the base one day and blowing it up the next. It was a mess. A huge mess.”

“I’m sorry. I did it to-” With this utterance, I lose my battle with the pings and a message slips through to the admin offices. Urgent classified message re: Garza, Eleni.  I swallow hard.

“The worst part was realizing how many secrets you kept from me. That hurt more than all the lame interrogation tactics used by Prothero. I trusted you. You obviously don’t trust me,” Her shoulders sag.

“I thought I was protecting you,” I say, the best answer I can give with limited attention.

“That’s so stupid. You’re so stupid!” Her voice pitches up an octave.

“I’m sorry Scar. I’m not sure what to say.”  

It all falls down. All the safeguards and monitors I’d erected in my brain to halt the flow of data buckles under the pressure and messages flood through to the base. It’s a relief, actually, to let go of all that control. I feel a slight swoon – like that strange effect of standing up too fast. A little dizzy. I reach out to the nearest stack of droids and lean my weight against it. Scar mistakes this display of physical weakness for genuine emotional upheaval.

She pulls a salt cigarette out of her pocket along with a lighter, takes a hit and passes it to me. I inhale and exhale a cloud of bitter smoke. The hard work of monitoring communications is over, but now the even more difficult task of remaining hidden begins.

“Scar,” I lean more heavily on the droids, exhausted and now warm and limp from the salt, “This is dangerous. I didn’t tell you the truth because I didn’t want to get you in trouble.”  

“I’m already in trouble by association. Why don’t you let me worry about the consequences? I’m a big girl, I can take responsibility for myself,” She says, lips pursing.

The way she says it, with calm assurance and a hint of defiance, makes me believe her. I hesitate for a brief moment, teetering on the edge of a precipice. I’m losing my balance and grabbing hold of her, dragging her down with me. We’re going to fall together. This is not what I wanted here. I don’t think. I guess I thought we’d be more partners in this newest crime. Instead, I feel like a criminal converting a good, honest citizen. This is so much more complicated than I’d hoped it would be.

“I guess I’ll start at the beginning,” I say, gesturing for another drag on the cigarette.

And I tell her the whole story. Almost everything. I tell her about the cancerous tumor, the mutated nano virus, and all the curious symptoms of my emerging tech abilities. I stop short of the letters and Mateo. That is a conversation best held outside of the base. And I don’t currently possess the tin anyway. That is problematic, but not high on my priority list.

Scarlett’s first cigarette burns down and she lights another. The second dies along with the words in my mouth. She flicks the butt to the ground and stomps it out, stretching her arms above her head. By then – a silent alarm has sounded across the base and waves have been received with my description and a summary of my transgressions – arrest warrants. I’m a full fledged terrorist now. There is no Prothero to swoop in and protect me. I should feel worse than I do. Strangely, I feel better, almost. Whole. Like my outside finally matches my insides. My secrets are all public knowledge, just like my personal life was exposed to the world after Paris. No more lies and subterfuge. I’m just me – Eleni the Liar. The Contra. The terrorist.

“Well, that was a lot of terrible information to absorb in one sitting,” Scar announces.

She fishes around in her pants pocket and pulls out a clear plastic pill bag heavy with tiny white pills.

“I need one of these. I definitely need one of these,” She mutters, dumping two into her palm.

“Scar,” I say, but it’s too late. She’s already swallowed one.

She holds the second out to me. I pluck it up and stare at the tiny E etched into the center.

“These are new. How long have you been into Ecto?” I ask, rolling it between my fingers.

“For awhile. I branched out while you were gone. Bear- Brian has been a great business partner after the whole fiasco with Diego. And of course I sample the merchandise. It’s a classic rookie mistake. But, it helps me… forget,” She says, smiling placidly.

“Salt does that trick too,” I remind her. “And what do you need to forget? What happened with Diego?”

“Long story. I gotta get back to Brian. You wait here for me. We’ll figure something out when I get back,” She moves away from me.

“Wait,” I call out. “Do you have my tin?”

“No. I went by your bunk afterwards but all your stuff was gone. Guess your bunkmates divided up the spoils. Sorry Len, I know that tin meant a lot to you. But they took everything,” Her words ripple with deeper meaning. _They took everything. _

I haven’t told her everything. Not the really important stuff.

“Scar, there is more to tell you.”

“I don’t want to know,” She says. “I don’t want to know anymore.”

“You need to. Those communications are from a man named Mateo. He’s part of the Contra terrorists in Mexico City.”

Her mouth twitches. She laughs nervously.

“You’re joking right? That’s insane.”

I shake my head. No more secrets. All my insides on the outside now.

“You’re not joking. This is real. You really keep letters from a terrorist named Mateo. Eleni, are you crazy? Are you stoned!?”

“You’re the only one stoned around here,” I say, fumbling with a teasing half smile. This isn’t as easy as it used to be. She glares in response. This isn’t like it used to be at all.

“Sugar, you are dumber than a box of rocks. What if Prothero finds out!? They are going to kill us both! You are worse than a terrible friend,” She drops to the linoleum, pulling her legs up to her chest, wrapping her arms around them. “You’re just an all around terrible person.”

I walk over to stand above her. She blinks up at me. Her silence unnerves me and my teeth grind into the mushy folds of my cheek, waiting for her response.

“You aren’t gonna report me?” I ask finally, half joking, half earnest.

She scowls. Nothing I say right now is making any of this better for her to hear or accept. I want to leave. I want to run away. But that’s not an option. I came here for Scarlett. And I’m not leaving until I know absolutely that she doesn’t want to go with me. I’m not leaving until I make things right with her.

“No. Len, I’m not on anyone’s side but my own. And Brian’s. And yours. Well, I used to be, before you went batshit crazy and brought the wrath of Prothero and the Academy down on your head. My head too, by the way. You better have a good reason for all this,” She stares up at me with hooded, searching eyes. “For what you did.”

“I do. I have a good reason this time, I promise. I missed your stupid face,” I say, voice watery with barely suppressed tears.

Scarlett sighs, climbing to her feet, using my extended arm as an anchor.

“I missed your stupid face even more. Now, if I don’t report for KP, Prothero with their infinite surveillance tech, will notice I am not at the appointed place at the appointed time,” She says, turning to the door.

There’s something else I need to do. Before anything else.

“Wait – before you go. I need to meet up with the Rosas,”  I admit sheepishly.

She presses her palm to her forehead. “You’re dragging them into this?”

“No, not if I can help it. They won’t get in trouble. I promise,” I offer.

“A promise you can’t keep is a bad promise,” She grimaces. “They’re in a molecular biology class right now. I guess I could wave them. Where are you going to meet up?”

“I could meet them outside of class,” I suggest.

“What?” She laughs, amused at my ludicrous proposition. “You are a fugitive. You cannot, I repeat , you cannot wander around a heavily fortified military base. No matter what your mutant powers are,” Scarlett admonishes.

“My mutant powers are actually perfect for doing just that. And the base is not as heavily fortified as it used to be,” I say with a lopsided tug of my mouth. It’s too painful to be amusing but I’m trying to keep some levity in our conversation. I’m trying to re-establish the jovial friendship we once had. I don’t mention the fugitive waves. Probably best to avoid that for the moment. She’ll see them soon, anyway. Everyone on base will.

She sighs loudly, not amused, “They can meet you in this supply closet in fifteen minutes. I’ll be done with my kitchen rotation in an hour. I’ll pack our bags. We’ll meet up at the shed in two hours.”

It will be less time than that. But again, I don’t have the heart to tell her that. I just want her to be nicer to me. Feel nicer to me. I want her to really hear me.

“Hey,” I say, grabbing her shoulder and squeezing it. “I’m sorry. Again. For leaving you. For lying to you.”

She favors me with a lopsided smile, but her focus is on some distant point inside herself. She shakes loose from my grip

“It’s fine. Doesn’t matter anymore. I’m happy you’re alive. We’ll meet up later, OK?” She says, hand on the door knob, squaring her shoulders to head back into the real world.

Apologies don’t matter here. Only my actions are going to make up for what I did. I left under those crazy circumstances without saying goodbye to my best friend or informing her of what was going on. I know that now.

I spend the next fifteen minutes turning my full attention to the communications flowing in and out of the base. There’s nothing I can do to stop the initial reports, but I can divert the current communications. From what I gather, they’ve initiated a full lock-down of the base. Nothing in or out.

Rustling from the other side of the door startles me out of this task and I lose my mental grip on a handful of messages I was about to delete. I curse under my breath as they slip through into the proper channels.

I cloak, just in case it’s not the Rosas, but instead some poor Academy resident starting their maintenance rotation. I would need to electrocute them. And maybe steal their shoes.

“Guess we’ll just get a broom from this supply closet,” Emilia says with too much force, an obvious attempt at deception.

“That was terrible. You are terrible,” Emmanuel mutters, twisting the knob and entering. “You would be the worst virtual actress EVER.”

The twins pass into the small, shelved room together, both of them slim enough to fit through the door frame side by side.

“Empty,” Emilia says, mouth twisting in annoyance.

“Hi guys,” I decloak, raising a sheepish hand in greeting.

Both take a step back in surprise. Emmanuel reaches for a broom and holds it in front of her for defense.

“Relax. It’s just me!” I try for a soothing smile. Emilia crosses her arms with a haughty gesture.

       “Eleni?” Emmanuel blinks, stepping forward, dropping the broom.

“You said there wouldn’t be any surprises,” Emilia says, her tone vaguely threatening. “This is surprising.”

“You told me you got rid of that blood sample,” I counter.

She screws up her nose and brows in resignation, “Yeah. I didn’t do that.”

“Where is it?” I ask.

“I’m not stupid. I took it someplace I knew it would be safe, innocuous. Overlooked.”

“She gave it to Nurse Esperzana,” Emmanuel interjects. Emilia turns her dark eyes on her twin sister.

“Why would you do that?” I inquire, keeping my gaze steady, my heart thumping loudly in my ears.

“We trust her,” Emilia says. “More than we trust you. She’s helping us with storage and testing. She wants the same things we want.”

“I want those things too. But I need the sample. I need it back,” I say, anxious.

The Rosas exchange a long glance, “That’s not possible. This isn’t just about you anymore. We stumbled onto something incredible,” Emilia says. “Our findings could help a lot of people.”

“Exactly – that’s exactly what I want to do. I want to help a lot of people. I’m going somewhere they need a cure. Can you help me?” I ask, stepping forward, gripping her forearms.

She nods.

“You may take one vial . One vial is all we can spare. We don’t need a cure _somewhere _ Leni, we need a cure _everywhere,” _ Emilia says, voice heavy with emphasis. “And there’s a caveat. You will be required to share your findings with us after you distribute it.”

“That would be imposs-”

Emilia holds up a finger to stop my words, brushing my hands away in the same movement.  

“Not my problem. Getting the information together and sending it – that is your problem. We don’t have access to a supply of test subjects to determine how effective the vaccine is at this stage. Report your findings. Or I will report you to Prothero.”

It’s my turn to take a step back. These are not the same Rosas I knew a few months ago. What changed them? What happened while I was gone?

“Prothero already knows I’m a terrorist with ties to the Contra. You won’t be telling them anything new. And anyone, once I leave here – how will you be able to find me?”

Emilia crosses her arms.

“But they don’t know yet that you have the cure for NV2. That will be more than enough incentive to throw weight behind a full on man hunt. And you forget – we’re smart, Eleni. We can figure out where you are,” Emilia says, her face revealing nothing, a solid mask of intellect and sound reasoning. I glance over at Emmanuel. Her eyes are cast to the ground, avoiding contact.

“What are you going to do with the data?”

“Help people. Make a better cure. Isn’t that what you want to do?” Emilia cocks a brow.

“Fair enough,” I concede. “When can I get the sample?”

“We’ll wave Nurse Esperanza. She should be ready for you in the next 15 minutes. Don’t worry so much. Emilia likes to play hardball like the detectives on the virtuals. We trust you. You have a good heart Eleni. Fake, but good,” Emmanuel offers a compassionate pat on the shoulder and withdraws to the door.  “So don’t screw this up like you did last time.”

“I do trust you,” Emilia admits, approaching for a hug.

We embrace and with her lips pressed close to my ear, she says, “But I don’t like surprises.”

My throat constricts around her words. The wane, strange twins with their matching gaits and hair-dos and even-tempered personalities are threatening my life. This day is turning more surreal with each passing moment.

Emmanuel approaches for a brief but warm handshake, imbuing it with as much emotion as the gesture possesses.

They are about to exit the closet when I call them back in to answer a stupid question when there are more pressing matters to attend to, but I can’t help myself.

“Hey, you guys seen Rabbit Santiago around lately?” I try to keep my question casual but a surprising amount of earnest emotion creeps in to my voice.

Emilia spins around with a crooked smile pulling at her lips, “The cute one?”

“Is there another Rabbit?” I ask. “He-” I choke and cough on the next revelation,” He didn’t wave me while I was gone.”

Emmanuel’s forehead wrinkles, “He’s dating Layla Danvers.”

“Ah. That is… That’s fine. I thought… Never mind. That’s fine.”

The twins exchange another loaded glance. “His relationship with Layla seems to be Clinton’s influence, if that makes you feel any better. He moped quite a lot after you left,” Emmanuel says, brow crinkling again.

“Clinton?” I gasp, grabbing her bicep and squeezing with brutal force.

“No. Rabbit,” Emilia says. “Rabbit moped after you left.”

“No. Not Rabbit. Clinton. Clinton Fuller is here?”

“Yeah, Clinton showed up two months ago. Totally weird. He looks skinnier, he lost at least 50 pounds. I would guess they weren’t feeding him much in the brig. Rabbit went back to their table pretty quick. It was a relief because he hardly interacted at meals. He stared at his tray with big puppy dog eyes and moved his food around. Scarlett was so annoyed. She said he was scaring off customers. I think he wanted to be close to us, in case we heard anything. About you,” Emilia comically waggles her brows.

I would laugh if I could get around the mental roadblock that Clinton Fuller is not back in the DC Prothero Lab where I saw him. In that room, with the robotics woven into his skin.

“Clinton is back. Are you sure?”

“Yeah, he came back like two days after Rabbit,” Emmanuel confirms.

“After Rabbit what?” Now my attention re-focuses.

“Came back,” Emmanuel repeats. She side-eyes Emilia.

A pain shoots through my left temple, the lights above surging on and fading. The twins looks up as they dim.

“Where did Rabbit go?”

Emilia shrugs, “I don’t know. The same place Scarlett disappeared to after you blew up the base, I guess. That’s what we all assumed. He was gone a lot longer. A LOT longer. A month, give or take a few days. He wouldn’t talk about it around us, even when Scar asked him. He sat at our table, ate in silence, stared at his tray. He asked about you a couple different times. We had no news to tell him. Then Fuller came back and Rabbit switched tables. I do miss Rabbit’s eyes. He has nice eyes,” Emilia ends with a dreamy sigh.

I nod and the pain in my head eases. That image I saw of the monstrous Clinton Fuller at the Prothero lab, it was a hallucination. I didn’t really see him. There’s no way he could be in two places at once. The Rosas wouldn’t lie to me.

Rabbit though, he left somewhere for an entire month. And never wrote me. He’s back together with Clinton Fuller and Layla Danvers. My heart ruptures and burrows deep in my chest like a wounded animal retreating into a cave. Who cares? I can’t care about that right now.

“Bad news, Len. But if it makes you feel any better. I think Rabbit still does,” The bubbly smirk is back on Emilia’s face.

Both twins turn towards the door.

“Still does what?” I ask, absorbing the weight of the news they’ve delivered.

“Cares about you,” Emmanuel says with the sweet bedside manner the Academy hasn’t stolen from her yet. “Take care of yourself Len. You’ve become a very important person.”

“I’m not gonna let you guys down,” I insist. “Things are going to be different this time. It’s not just about me. It’s about helping other people. I promise.”  

“Good. Hey – did you know you’re not wearing any shoes?” Emilia points towards my feet. The door closes.

 I let a few minutes pass, releasing the audio recorders and curling myself up in a meditative yoga pose to monitor more communications. I lost the thread when The Rosas mentioned Clinton. I tune back in to hear the bad news.

Fort Columbia picked up the warrant and emergency report transmissions from D.C. The orders are to subdue and detain with non-lethal force. Prothero wants me alive. A shudder ripples through me. My eyelids flutter as I hone in on Fort Columbia security channels, trying to determine their response aside from the silent alarm and base lockdown.

How many soldiers and weapons? A high pitched whine ripples through my left ear, steady gaining in strength as I compile the data. It’s not coming from outside. It’s an internal function of my body, like my brain is a tea kettle rapidly gaining temperature.

Soldiers have been deployed to secure critical areas. So far the residency buildings are low on their priority list. Security has been tightened around the newly constructed armory, the airfield and the sim building. The warrant lists known associates – Scarlett’s name is first, Rabbit second. The Rosas are absent from this list. And neither twin mentioned being detained or questioned after my attack on the base. Something weird is happening with them. I wish I had more time to…

A tickling sensation burns deep in my nose and I rub at it, fingers coming away slick. Thick black blood dribbles out over my top lip. I wipe off my fingers and brush the fluid away with one of the rags from a nearby bucket. I can recharge the nano batteries at any old outlet, but I need to bring injectors along on this trip or I won’t last 24 hours. I cloak and exit the closet, heading left away from the mess hall.

The tickling sensation grows stronger and dizziness spins my vision down to the linoleum, where I notice dark blood dotting the floor. The drips trail my path, revealing my current location. Worse yet, the drops hitting the cloak aren’t absorbed by the nanos. I’m revealing my exact position, drip by drip.

The infirmary is about a thousand feet from my position and I’ll be lucky if I make it another ten. I slump over to the wall and lean the upper half of my torso onto it for support.

The rest of the thousand feet passes in a blur. I’m grateful classes are in session around the Academy or I’m not sure I would have survived the ordeal without being spotted.

I reach the infirmary and throw my weight against the door. It groans open and Nurse Esperanza slides into view, a quizzical expression on her face. It makes sense, given no one is on the other side of the door.

“Hello?” She calls out into the empty hallway, squinting at the small drops of blood left in my wake.

“We’ve got a bleeder,” She mutters under her breath, moving to shut the door.

I limp out of her way, but not in time. Her shoulder catches me off balance and I lose my footing, crashing into a pair of waiting room chairs off to my right. Exhausted, I don’t even bother getting up.

“What in the holy hell?” She curses.

I reach out with the remaining energy from the telepad and overload the fuses on the security cameras and audio devices. Thin lines of smoke trickle from the ceiling, the scent of burning electronics. The cloak sparks and dies, revealing my haphazard perch on the furniture.

“Gar-” Nurse Esperanza clamps a hand over her mouth and rushes over to my side, dropping to a knee.

“Hey, you look nice. Kinda blurry,” I murmur, slow blinking to regain proper sight.

“You look terrible. Come into my office,” She turns her head and motions at the front desk clerk and pharmacist.

“Take a break kids,” She orders.

They exchange a loaded glance, shrugging out of their respective duties with the apathy of youth and forced servitude. I wonder if they’ve seen my picture flicker onto their bands. I wonder if Nurse Esperanza knows what she’s risking offering me this assistance.

Regardless of the consequences, she fireman lifts me from the chairs. I roll onto her back and will my feet across the floor. Between the two of us we make it into the first exam room. She flops me down on a bed and studies my countenance with the friendly suspicion I’ve come to accept from her.

“Are you running a fever?” She takes my forehead temperature. “You’re burning up. When did you take your last injection?”

I allow her to touch me. It’s calming, whisking the fear and nerves from my system.

“This morning. In DC,” I favor her with a ghastly grimace.

“I assume you’re not here with the blessings of your corporate benefactor?”

“You assume correct. Didn’t you get the wave? The base is on lockdown, right?”

“Yes, but I hoped it was a false alarm. I didn’t think you’d be stupid enough to come back here after what you did. I thought wrong.”

“Yeah, I’m not a great terrorist,” I concede, wincing as she roughly takes my pulse and throws my arm down by my side.

“You can’t stay here,” She says bluntly, hands on her hips. “The orders are not to kill you but you have no friends here. Prothero’s reach doesn’t extend all the way to the soldiers you maimed in your ill-conceived escape attempt. They will kill you and claim you resisted arrest and forced their hand. This is a dangerous gamble, Garza. You better have good reason.”

“I know. I just, you’ve got something I need. That’s it. And then I’m out of here.”

She snorts skeptically. “First, you’re gonna need some of these.”

She turns her back towards me, opening an overhead cabinet and fishing out a medical kit and box of injectors. She sets them on the counter, and hesitates. Then reaches back in the counter and pulls out a vial of pain medication. She opens one of the injector packets and tosses it towards me. She hands me the vial next.

“It never occurred to me until now they would program you with a kill switch,” She says as I send a dose of nanos flooding under my skin. “But you really look like death warmed over.”

“Huh. You think they’re using the nanos to kill me? I thought this was a reasonable physical reaction after destroying two very large, powerful machines,” I slip the injector in the sweatshirt pocket. Then I tip my head back and drain the pain medication vial down my throat, falling back on the pillows. A heavy weight descends over my brain and limbs.

“Could be. You want to rest up here?”

“I would, but I’ve got miles to go before I sleep,” I close my eyes, heaving a contented sigh. It’s nice here. Safe. Nurse Esperanza has always had that effect on me. Well, that and the drugs.

“Do you have an escape plan or is this a repeat of last time?” She asks. It’s a reasonable question. One that keeps coming up.

My lids creak open against my will. Nurse Esperanza surveys me from across the room, leaning against the counter, arms now folded over her chest. She looks simultaneously annoyed and sympathetic and curious.

“It’s not gonna be like last time,” I assure her, hoisting myself off the bed. It’s like climbing a rock wall to move under the pressure of the drugs. Maybe the Nurse is right. Maybe Prothero remotely triggered the nanos to poison me. I wouldn’t put it past them. But somehow, I doubt it. They want me alive. For some reason.

“Good. We’re counting on that,” She uncrosses her arms.

We ? There’s a we  in this scenario? Just how much do you know?” It’s my turn to narrow my eyes at her in suspicion.

“Enough to be dangerous,” She smiles without humor, the corners of her mouth turning down.

“Do you work for the Contras? Does Rabbit?” I ask, desperate to fill in the blanks about his past. To ease some of the anxiety surrounding his loyalties.

“No I don’t work for the Contras. Rabbit Santiago?” She replies. “What does he have to do with anything?”

“Have you met-” She interrupts me by holding up a hand. She retrieves a clear plastic vial filled with red liquid from her pocket. She holds it out to me and I accept it, tucking it into the pocket with the nano injector. I pull out the medicine and zap the RFID tracker embedded in its hardware. I’ll do the same with the rest of them.

“It’s better if we don’t share too many secrets with one another. Don’t you think?” Nurse Esperanza says, her voice warm against the cold arch of her words.

I hop off the bed and grab the medical kit, unzipping it to check the contents; bandages, field surgery supplies, peroxide. It’s perfect, filled with exactly what we need. Nurse Esperanza possesses her own uncanny abilities. I set my hand on top of the nano injector box and work my tech magic. Esperanza watches with an ambivalent expression.

“I’m sorry they did this to you, Eleni,” She says, offering me a rare display of compassion that extends beyond the physical care of my person. My heart and face warm.

“Thanks, but I’m not that sorry anymore. I just hope I don’t die before this vial gets to where it needs to be,” I offer her a crooked tilt of my lips. “Be careful. Are you- are you going to be alright? Are they?” I ask.

I can’t stand the thought of her or The Rosas facing repercussions, even if the Rosas threatened my life less than an hour ago. Hopefully Emilia understands the stakes if she reveals the extent of her connection to me. So far they’ve managed to go undetected, but the idea of losing good people to this terrible secret gnaws like sharp teeth in my gut.

“I’m going to be fine. Don’t worry about me. Our girls will be better than fine. I’ve made sure of that,” Nurse Esperanza’s dark eyes shimmer at me, radiating an infectious, beatific calm.

“You’re not going to let anything happen to them?” I ask, brow raised.

“Of course not. Aside from you, they are the best chance of getting a cure to the masses. And no offense, but I wouldn’t put my money on you. Not in the shape you’re in. But if history has proven anything, you’re full of surprises. You’ve come back from the dead on multiple occasions. You may actually be able to pull this off.”

“I don’t like surprises,” I mutter, reviving Emilia’s earlier sentiment.

“Nobody really does,” Nurse Esperanza says.

I stop at the door, laden with the vial, a medical kit, and a box of nano injectors.

“Is this cure going to work? I’m not going to travel all the way to Mexico City for nothing?” I ask, steeling myself for the cold burning sensation of the cloak and the dizziness it now produces.

Nurse Esperanza watches me disappear into thin air with a quizzical expression.

“Fifteen minutes ago, I wasn’t sure invisible people existed. I’m willing to believe anything at this point,” She ushers me out into the hallway with a wave of her arms.

“Thanks for not turning me in to Prothero,” I say, voice subdued.

“Thanks for not giving me a reason to. You should really find a pair of shoes,” She whispers back, closing the door.


The moment I’m in the hallway ,  a wailing assaults my ears. It’s just the siren alerting all the residents on base to a General Assembly. The band’s digital read-out tells me it’s 2pm. Far too early in the day for this to be a normal GA. I turn and follow on the heels of a national service member like a ghost drifting through a hallway. Like a pavlovian dog responding to a whistle. No one sees me in the haze of the cloak. Residents crowd the hall and push in all around me, making a sedentary stance impossible.

I lurch forward, a fish carried downstream, and let myself float. The drug, the beautiful wonderful drug courses in my veins and I drift with it. Eyelids hanging at half mast, I observe the bodies of the residents animated with excitement, talking loudly, teeth flashing, gesturing quickly. The fluorescents overhead wane, throwing haze on the edges of the world, pulling the tempo down to something relaxing and manageable.

The virtuals on the band hum, flaring in response to internal stimuli. An old folk song sputters from the band and I hum along to the music, carried in the surge of the crowd, blissfully unaware of what is happening around me. The virtual displays images of Scar and The Rosas sitting around a firepit, singing lyrics. Scarlett strums a guitar to provide the background music.

A female resident in the crowd asks, “What are you watching?”

Oh, she can see me. I came uncloaked somehow. I try to cloak again but I can’t concentrate. I can’t remember how it’s done.

The resident waits for my response.

I shrug and chuckle, “I dunno. Isn’t it nice?” I break out into a grin.

The female resident nods in confusion, offering up a placating smile. I become aware that her seeing me is a bad thing, but the sense of urgency I should feel does not materialize. I do notice that she nudges another resident next to her and whispers in his ear.

I draw the hood up over my head and try to determine where the security monitors are located. But I can’t reach them. My thoughts are cloudy, my hold on the abilities as tangible as sand. Fine, hot sand. I wish this sensation would last forever. The drifting. The images on the virtual swirl and dissipate without my control. The expanse of the Columbia spills out before me, with the sun shining on the churning water. In the scene, a group of us splash on the banks of the river during a 100 degree day, tossing around a frisbee.

I gaze around to see if anyone else watches our adventure, and aside from a small cluster of residents who are growing less curious and more suspicious – I catch a glimpse of Mateo weaving amongst the residents, bobbing along in the crowd. He moves in my direction, fighting the human current and making no gain. His mouth is a slashed line. He doesn’t see me. I throw an arm up and wave frantically. He doesn’t look over this way. A body moves between us, blocking my view for a fraction of a second and now I’ve lost his figure. He’s melted back into the tangle of people and I can’t pick him out. Where did he go?

The female resident moves forward, her arm poised to curl around my bicep and draw me close, “Hey, aren’t you-”

Rabbit Santiago grabs my shoulder from off to the left, pulling me towards him and away from where Mateo vanished, and away from the inquiring female resident. I don’t witness Rabbit emerge from the crowd, he’s silent and stealthy as a fox. I’ve noticed this before, his speed and grace. He pulls me towards him and I’m smiling drunkenly, gasping for air. I can’t catch my breath. He possesses Mateo’s brooding demeanor and curved, soft lips. Even his shaggy hair. I remember killing Rabbit over and over again in the lab SIMs. The way the light looked leaving his eyes. I press against his chest. This Rabbit is real.

“Eleni? How-How are you here?” He demands, gripping my shoulders with long pincher-like fingers.

“Like this,” I snap and the left band sparks, the virtual and music cut off. I laugh at the sudden absence of noise and light. “Easy.”

“What are you on?” He asks, disapproval weighing down the corners of his mouth. “What did Scarlett give you?”

“Pain medication. Totally legal,” I wriggle away from him and attempt to join the crowd.

“You’re standing in the middle of the hallway waving at nothing. There’s no one there. You’re drawing attention to yourself. You need to…” He catches hold of me again, locks both hands around the wrist bands and draws closer. “You need to be careful.” He’s strong and warm. Like the last time I felt his hands on me. I missed them. I missed him. Which is stupid.

“Eleni, you shouldn’t be here. You- if you get caught here they will kill you. How did you escape?”

“I was waving at Mateo. You’re not Mateo. Are you?” I ask, twisting my wrists in his grip. There is a satisfying element to the gentle burn the friction produces. “No, you’re a conejo. You’re a silly Rabbit.”

“I’m not a conejo,” He loosens his grip and his gaze darts to the rosary bracelet he wears. He got it back. How did he get it back? “I’m not Mateo either.”

“Then who are you?” I ask.


“Nope, that’s me. You’re not Eleni and you’re not Mateo because Matty lives far, far away. In a land of hot limes and sun and stone. He needs me,” I murmur, my lids flagging. The warmth from the bands and his fingers weighs down my bones, deep into the marrow.

“What does he need you for?” Rabbit asks, stepping closer, towering over me.

“For the nano virus,” I answer. “I’ve got it. I’ve got the cure.”

“The nano virus or the cure? What are you talking about?” Rabbit swallows.

A wild craving to kiss his adams apple thrums against my lips and fades when I recall the image of him dying in the lab SIM. He is my enemy. He can’t be trusted. But he’s a nice looking enemy.

His fingers distract me. They are so much larger up close, long and thin like living branches from a tree. I can’t stop staring at the perfect pink and white ovals of his nails juxtaposed against the tan of his flesh. I’ve never noticed them before. Little moons on his fingers.

“Please. Focus. This is important,” He gives me a firm shake. My head lolls up and I blink at him, trying to do as instructed. “None of that matters. Get out of here Eleni. If anyone sees you, they will-”

“Where’s everyone going?” I interrupt him, my vision catching on the crowd parting around us. “They’re moving so fast.”

“To a General Assembly. The base is on lockdown. Your image and an arrest warrant went out over the wave an hour ago. And – Contras bombed a Prothero lab in Mexico City. They’re deploying Academy residents. I think we’re headed into a debrief,” He says, eyes hooded, voice distant.

“Are you going with them?” I ask, my voice raising a frantic pitch, then I remember he does not share the same fate as most potential soldiers. “No. You’re not going with them. You’re going to Mars.”

“I- I’m not sure. Things changed when you left. Y- you can’t be here. Not after what you did,” He punctuates his last words with a Rabbit scowl that would be charming in its ruefulness if it wasn’t directed at me.

“I need to meet with Scar,” I murmur, turning from the heat of his gaze.

He pushes away and at the same time I wrench my arms free. The left band clicks on and I cover it, the projection filtering out anyway. An image of Rabbit as Mateo shivers to life. We embrace under a lime tree, the stars winking in the night sky above us. Rabbit takes a step back, shaken by the scene.

“What is this?” He asks, bewildered.

“Nothing. Nothing!” I swipe at the entwined couple.

The images slide into my flesh, down through my pores and deep into my bloodstream. Illuminated scenes play across my fingers and hands as if I’ve morphed into a virtual. The nanos surface and bend the light until my arm cloaks from view. I struggle to reverse the process but I can’t control it. Not like this, not with my emotions tangled like a knot of hard wires.

Rabbit reaches out, touching my arm to confirm it still exists in the space he last saw it. “What did they do to you?” Pity and muted fascination replaces his anger.

He draws his hand away and the nanos come with him, sparking harmlessly. For a brief moment the skin on his hand turns translucent. He lets out a soft, surprised noise, twisting and flexing his fingers. The glow dissipates, his hand returning to normal. I look down, watching my own arm become visible again.

“How did you do that?” I ask, reaching for him.

That never happened at the Prothero lab. I never passed the nanos to anyone before. I didn’t think it was possible. Shocking and hurting them, yes, that was possible. But this benign gifting of the nanos. This is new.

“How did I  do that? How did you  do that?” Rabbit asks, brows raised like two fuzzy question marks. I have the sudden urge to brush over them with my lips and place a kiss on his forehead, to melt away the wrinkles of distress and confusion.

“I need water,” I duck away from him.  

Everything confuses me. Rabbit confuses me with his turbulent attitudes. Angry and dismissive and caring and compassionate. I need to think. I can’t think properly. I dash over to the nearest drinking fountain, taking five large swigs. Dunk my head in the water. The liquid doesn’t clear my mind. Santiago stands behind me, waiting. I sense him breathing.

Before either of us can speak, an officer interrupts, shouting an indecipherable order and shoving us along. I glance over at Rabbit, panicked. The officer caught me without a protective cloak. But he doesn’t notice my appearance, he isn’t even really looking at us. His attention is focused instead on the rapidly filling assembly hall. Rabbit, an equal expression of concern on his face, reaches for me. I grasp his outstretched hand, popping the hood of the jacket up over my head to provide a flimsy disguise. The officer moves away as a scuffle breaks out between two female residents. The stream of the crowd catches up with us, dragging us forward in the undertow.

We jostle across the threshold of the assembly hall, our shoulders bumping together. The doors clang shut behind us. I’m certain I hear the sound of gears locking into place, but it’s probably a symptom of the drugs. Rabbit leans in towards me, his breath smelling like limes and chocolate. It echoes the scent of chocolate treats my mother purchased during holidays. She put them in my Christmas stocking, the last treat at the bottom of a day of gorging and gifts. They were wrapped in a ball of green foil and you smacked them against the table or counter, the chocolate falling apart into individual wedges once the foil came off. Rabbit smells like key lime chocolate and a bubbling desire to take a bite of him to test the theory rises to my tongue and teeth. I beam stupidly at this thought.

“Stay close to me,” He says, barely audible.

I lean into him, “You stay close to me.”

Lieutenant Gutierrez’s booming baritone fills the assembly hall, reverberating off the walls. He announces all inoculations will be suspended until further notice. He wants to show us special footage from today’s Contra terrorist action in Mexico City. My heart implant thuds faster and louder.

“Terrorists bombed a critical Prothero lab in Mexico City. We quarantined the city due to concern over nano virus samples leaking into the water supply. Despite the greatest efforts of our urban peace officers, an increasingly hostile gathering of citizens continue to riot in the streets, endangering the other residents and exposing themselves to the virus. A notoriously dangerous Contra group embedded itself within the city walls and whenever we get close to eliminating this cell, they elude us. We believe an informant exists in our ranks, but are unable to locate her at present.”

“This is our target.”

My image appears on the virtual projection over our heads. It’s unsettling to see this large, pixelated version of myself – my stern face, dark skin broken with scars, a red robotic eye gleaming from a shimmering metal skeleton, my short black a-line hair streaked with silvery grey framing my face and partially obscuring the nano tech spidering down my neck and diving below the collar of my shirt. I’m in the Prothero lab uniform. This is a recent image.

“Her name is Eleni Garza. Until three months ago when she declared her allegiance with the Contra terrorists by blowing up our arms depot and destroying our helos, she was a National Service resident. You may remember her from the Paris bombing, the death of her parents and Prothero’s revolutionary medical interventions that saved her from a similar fate were global news for a few weeks. Despite the losses she suffered, and the assistance provided by both Prothero and the National Service Academy – Garza chose a different path and allied herself with those who would seek to destroy our freedoms.”

“Eleni Garza escaped from Prothero custody early this morning – and teleported here to Fort Columbia, destroying two telepads and wounding several officers and soldiers in the process. We believe she is here, somewhere on base, at this very moment. We are instituting a full lock down until she is recovered. Our orders are to find her and remand her to the custody of Prothero once more. Alive .”

His emphasis on the word and the hard glint in his eyes betrays the meaning of his statement. Dead or alive would suit him just fine. And the entire room knows it. I exchange a loaded glance with Rabbit. He swallows hard and the adam’s apple bobs on his throat.

“Should she prove a clear and present danger to herself, this military installation, or your fellow soldiers and residents – I am authorizing lethal force. I’m not losing anymore good people or valuable property to this terrorist. Do not directly engage, if at all possible. Report any and all sightings to your superior officer immediately.”  

“All residents are to report immediately to their afternoon assignments or to their barracks. Your team leaders will take headcounts every half hour until we are assured that Eleni Garza is not being harbored within this residential academy. Is that understood?”

The residents snap to attention and salute the stage and podium. I follow suit, making sure to keep my face shielded as much as possible.

       “Sir, yes sir.”

“You may only travel about this facility after hours under the watch of a team leader or superior officer. Is that understood?”

“Sir, yes sir.”

“All technology will be monitored for incoming or outgoing messages pertaining to Garza and her whereabouts. Do not assume that anything you do on your bands is personal or private until the lockdown is lifted.”

“The elimination of terrorist threats at home and abroad is our top priority. We will not rest until this uprising is quelled. We will find and neutralize Eleni Garza. We will overtake Mexico City with ground units and ferret out the location of the terrorist cell once and for all. We will need an extensively trained urban combat unit, with access to innovative technology the enemy has not seen yet. We are going to need all of you. Ladies and gentleman, training is over. You are no longer residents. When you ship out in a week, you will be soldiers.”

He announces more instructions are forthcoming from our group leaders. We will be issued tactical assignments based on our field training SIM units. Further information tumbles out of the speakers but it’s lost on me. I can only concentrate on the last horrible words he uttered. The images of the Mexico City bombing and its aftermath flicker above us. Rotating with an image of the terrorist Eleni Garza – me. Only after the virtuals click off and the lights swell back on do I realize tears leak from my eye. Rabbit squeezes my hand tightly in his grip.

“You OK?” His question brims with concern. I offer him a weak grimace and shake my head.

Behind us the doors groan open, and I turn to face the light flooding into the cafeteria like a prisoner accepting her death sentence.

       “What are we gonna do?” Rabbit asks softly. I’m momentarily stunned by his use of the word “we,” but toss the term aside in the face of mortal danger.

“Should I run?”

“That didn’t work out so good for you last time,” Rabbit intones, with an undercurrent of grim humor. “Can you do the thing?”

“The thing?” I ask stupidly. My brain reels from sensory overload.

“The invisible thing,” Rabbit says, exasperated. We are being pressed forward through the crowd. I’m trying desperately to dig my heels in and throw elbows to keep us back but the academy residents are relentless. They want out.

“No. I don’t know. It’s not working right now.”

“Well, how does it work?” We are near the doors where two guards stand to either side, scanning bands and faces with recognition software. No one leaves until a green light flashes on the scanner.

“I don’t know. I can usually concentrate. But, right now,” I gesture frantically ahead of us.

“What helps? Something must help,” Rabbit insists.

I bite down hard on my lip. Our palms are pressed together in a hard bundle, our fingers slick with sweat.

“Well,” My mind flashes to the image of Rabbit Santiago under the stars. I wince painfully and draw a deep breath, my gut filling with a spidery sensation. “You do. I mean. I sometimes think about you. And it helps.”  

“Huh,” He blinks and then looks over at me.

I can’t meet his eyes or look him in the face. I just take a deep breath and concentrate on our clutching hands and for a moment my heads starts to spin and reel out towards that pleasant fuzzy abyss I was enjoying only mere minutes ago. But then, somehow, Rabbit manages to clamp down even harder with his fingers. It’s a firm, reassuring, comforting squeeze and it flips a switch in my brain. I breathe out through my nose and the shivery cool of the nano cloak rushes over me.

Rabbit’s hand disappears along with mine and I drop it when he lets out a surprised grunt. He holds his hand in front of his face and watches with intense fascination as his limb materializes again. He doesn’t have long to contemplate the sensation because we’re shoved into the left scanning lane and I shift up against the wall, trying to avoid further contact with anyone else.

Rabbit side-eyes the empty space where I stand, scooting forward with a sense of impending doom as we are herded closer to the door.

“Len?” He stage whispers too loudly.

“Shhh!” I hiss and my voice comes out all weird and digitized.

“How?” He nods towards the guards.

I shrug even though he can’t see me and chew the inside of my cheek in contemplation. I’m not sure, now that I’m cloaked, how I’m going to get past the soldiers who are blocking the doors. There is very little room to manuever in this wall of bodies.

As we inch closer, a familiar grizzling sensation crackles through my head. I could overload the scanners. But that might give me away. Or put Rabbit in danger. I survey him standing there with his rigidly held frame and scowling features. He looks suspicious enough without my meddling. I remember he was labeled as a number two potential conspirator. And then I remember his month long vacation with Prothero. My stomach clenches.

The line surges forward. Rabbit is next to be scanned. He glances over at where he thinks I might be, a foreboding expression lighting his face. It’s so challenging to read him in moments like this when he could be thinking anything and I would have no clue. From what I can surmise, he looks terrified and determined. But that could mean anything. For a heart-stopping moment I consider how easy it would be for him to turn on me, and turn me in. I mean… it would be easy for him to reveal my location.

Not so easy to catch me. I would put up a fight.

Rabbit shifts his weight and steps up to be scanned. I tense and shuffle closer, as close as I dare. I’m still not sure how I’ll pass through these particular gates. Maybe I should just wait here until the entire crowd has been scanned. Safe and silent and hidden under the weight of all these nanos. The thing is – I don’t think I can. It takes tremendous energy and concentration to remain invisible, especially once people are looking for you.

The soldier lifts the scanner and at the same time Rabbit pitches forward, loud coughs wracking his body. The soldier grabs his arm to offer support and waves her partner over. The line and scanning halts. Rabbits cough deepens and grows hoarse. It’s the perfect opportunity to slip past un-noticed.

I press my shoulder blades hard up against the wall and scoot sideways. There’s not much room between the Rabbit chaos and myself. I come within inches of the scanning soldier and just as I pass, she drops Rabbit’s arm and whips around to stare directly at me. She draws her weapon and glares at the wall above my head.

My heart thuds deep in my chest. Sweat blooms and trickles down my armpits. Impossibly, Rabbit’s cough grows worse and he reaches out to the soldier to provide balance. The soldier, her arms straight and steely, squints, finger relaxing on the trigger.

“What’s up?” Her partner asks.

"Nothing. I thought- never mind. Kid, you OK?" She turns back to Rabbit and pats his back. He takes a deep gulp of air and nods.

The soldier shrugs then, and returns her weapon to its holster. She waves her partner off, who returns to his post. With a final disgruntled glance over her shoulder to where I stand, rooted to the spot, she turns and scans Rabbit’s band and face. A green light washes over him and she raises her chin slightly to indicate her approval. Rabbit steps through the gates and stumbles away, nodding again as the soldier admonishes him to get some water.

He shuffles off down the hallway crowded with residents, urging him to keep moving. I pull the nano cloak tighter around my skin and bump towards him. He turns back once, eyes searching the sea of people for me. He doesn’t find what he’s looking for but seems to know that I’m watching because he inclines his head slightly right, indicating a side hall that connects the barracks to an abandoned library building filled with mouldering books. I check for surveillance technology in the darkened hall. Aside from an electronically locked door which I can easily bypass, there are no cameras or audio recorders there.

The only roadblock to gaining entry to the abandoned hallway is the soldier posted at the door. They’ve decided to search the residents barracks now. Panic surges through me. I feel like the walls are closing in.

       “Not there,” I whisper frantically in his ear.

He reaches up a hand to brush at his neck where my breath tickled the hairs and I sense some of the rigid stance of his body relax.

“Where?” He stage whispers and I immediately wish that my friends were better terrorists or better liars.

And for a brief moment that makes me think maybe I’m just a terrible human being but then I remember the vial of blood and I think – well, maybe I’m not all that bad afterall. If I can do one thing right in my life, this might be it. Redemption for leading a double life all these years.


Rabbit nods without turning and keeps moving ahead. There is a Commons about 30 meters away, on the left. He angles his way towards the open doors. Thankfully, no soldiers are posted there. I guess the Academy doesn’t see a purpose for limiting bathroom visits. Yet.

We pass through the doors un-noticed and shut them firmly behind us  I switch on the automatic locks and mute the audio devices.

Rabbit pushes through the third stall door on the right. The sight of it is something akin to home and I sigh with relief when we’re finally shut off from the world. I de-cloak and sag heavily against the metal frame, wiping absently at the black goo trickling from my nose. I can feel the heat from Rabbit’s stare but I hesitate to answer it. This boy and his tough questions are relentless.

“You OK?” Rabbit breaks the tense silence between us. He stands close, not touching me.

“Not really,” I say with a harsh laugh that makes Rabbit wince. That new Eleni voice keeps sneaking back into my dialogue at the oddest moments. “But I’ve been worse.”

“That’s… not very reassuring.”

“Sorry,” I snuffle, swiping the goo off onto the thigh of my pants.

“Are you?” Rabbit asks in a soft, wounded voice.

My stomach swoops. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

He pauses. It feels like forever.

“I built a good life here. I worked hard and sacrificed so I wouldn’t end up like-” His voice breaks and he staggers back a half-step as if dodging a slow-moving bullet. “I sold my soul to the Fullers to get into SAI. And you come along. And you- you confuse me. You make me feel things- do things-”

“I’m sorry if I messed things up for you. I screwed things up for a lot of other people too, but I’m trying to make it right,” I insist. “You don’t have to tell me I was wrong. I know that now.”

“Oh well, you should have just said that in the first place. Except, I don’t think you can just apologize for being a terrorist. For blowing shit up and hurting people. There are consequences, Eleni. How are you going to fix what you’ve done?” He asks, voice raising, taking a step closer.

I hold my hand up to stop him, against his chest and my fingers hit on a hard, round, metal object beneath his shirt. My stomach drops to the floor and an all-over tremble bounces up from my toes. I press my palm flat against his chest. I don’t need to lift his shirt to guess at the object. I can feel it through the material. My eyes follow the barely visible outline of the chain looping his neck. He wears the coin, the key to only one kind of lock. I don’t need to see it because I already see him opening the tin and reading the first letter. He fishes the necklace out from under his shirt and it bumps against my skin, warm from contact with his.

“You’re looking for this,” He states, his voice deathly void of emotion.

“The tin wasn’t for you,” I murmur.

“Believe me, I don’t want it,” His hard, cruel voice again.

I press the heel of my palm to the wires on my temple. Bright lights burst behind both eyes.

“Why are you here? Really?” He asks.

“I’m not here to cause trouble, I swear. I can’t tell you why I’m here Rabbit. I don’t want to-”

“Get me in trouble? Implicate me in a terrorist plot?” He interrupts. This isn’t the same Rabbit from three months ago. The old Rabbit would never interrupt. The old Rabbit could barely finish a sentence without trailing off inside himself. “It’s a little too late for that.

“Rabbit, look – I can’t tell you why I’m here. And I’m not trying to fix everything. But this thing I’m going to do, it’s going to help a lot of people.”

“Contra people or regular people?”

I shrug. “Everyone. I don’t know if it will work. But I have to try. It’s all I have left.”

“It’s all you have left,” Rabbit repeats.

       “I have to make things right,” I insist. “The truth is I’m sorry,” I offer, fighting the urge to trace the edge of his trembling jaw with my fingers.

“You keep saying those words like they mean anything coming from you. The things you’ve done Eleni, the lives you’ve destroyed. It’s selfish. You’re just so fucking selfish,” His voice hitches and seeing Rabbit Santiago close to tears makes my eye burn.

I offer him a drugged smile brimming with tears, “I’m going to save the world.”

He scowls in response, dragging an arm across his face, rubbing the tears back with a manly sniff. I notice the rosary bracelet again. Rabbit Santiago is not my friend anymore. He belongs with Clinton. He disappeared with Prothero for a month. He never sent me a wave. He never tried to contact me. He forgot all about me. He wears the rosary of the conejo. He’s a Rabbit spy. He never tells the whole truth. He’s not to be trusted.

But I still trust him.

“What does that mean?” He asks. “How are you going to save the world?”

“It’s better if you’re in the dark about this. You’ll see though, you’ll see what happens. Maybe you’ll forgive me,” I say, hoping there is truth to my statement. “I’m not a bad guy.”

I put my hand up and close it around the necklace resting against his chest. He steps into me and my skin brushes against his hard collarbone. The band snaps to life, glowing blue and eerie in the dark.

“You’re going to ruin me,” He whispers, erratic flashes dancing around us, illuminating his mouth and his large, hawk nose. “You’re going to ruin everything.”

“I’m sorry,” I say again. My hand curls around the coin and pulls. He leans down and his mouth melts into mine. I was right. He tastes like chocolate and limes. His lips are crushed velvet and burn hotter than the Mexican sun. Blue fire pulses and crackles in the air between us. I give a sharp tug on the chain. It breaks off from his neck and I break free from him, cloaking until I’m invisible.

As I dash out of the bathroom into the hallway, the lights pop back on above. Rabbit mutely watches me go.  I run fast, breezing past a startled guard. I pass by whole platoons of soldiers searching buildings, kicking through scrubby bushes, peering with rifles drawn into the leaves of blossoming trees. There is something ominous about their hard faces and institutional gaits – hard against the sumptuous spring landscape.

I race past them, and wander deep into the silent lakes, hiking up over the rocky terrain and dusty shrubs and red, sandy dirt. My bare feet are cold and dirty, but the revived nanos make quick work of healing the cuts and bruises. I hardly feel anything. I settle into a spot with a full view of the river.

Rabbit read all the letters from Mateo. He knew about my involvement with the Contras, the inoculations, Javier. He knows everything. And he still kissed me.

I kissed him back.

Far away from any meddling humans or surveying technology, I click on the band and access a Fort Columbia administrative database, masking the band IP with a proxy server address from Paris, also routed to a hub in Portugal and another in Pennsylvania. Hacking brought to you by the letter P. It will take them awhile to uncover my actual location. I dig into the personal folder and access the dossier on Rabbit Santiago. Resident personal information and net presence is scrubbed as soon as we enter the Academy, replaced by whatever public relations articles the information officers disseminate.

I hesitate over the file, drumming my fingers against the projected haptic keyboard. This is a huge violation. But I’m tired of being in the dark. I’m tired. I rip the files open, devouring the contents. It’s only fair if we reveal our secrets to one another. He took mine. I should be able to take his.

What I discover leaves a splash of acid in my gut. Rabbit lived with his parents and six other siblings in Mexico City until he was 10 years old. His family fled the country during the worst part of the NV outbreak, with the rioting at its peak. He took up residence in Houston, Texas where his father, Hector Santiago, worked as a hovercar technician and his mother labored in the kitchens of Prothero’s Johnson Space Center.

When he was 15 years old, six years ago, his sister, Luna, died as an innocent casualty in a shoot-out between Peace Officers and a Contra terrorist group in the streets of downtown Houston. Shortly thereafter Rabbit started work at the Johnson Space Center, first in the laundry department, then as a server, and finally as a lifeguard until 16. Personal stats indicate he is now 21. Huh. Nothing between 16 and 19, when he joins the Academy. Older than I thought he was. He has a young face, I guess. School records are impressive in an eerie way, belying his parents level of education and his socio-economic background. Athletics are on-point with what he mentioned months ago, basketball and track and field. Rabbit can hop.

What happened in those three years? The Fullers and prison camp, I suppose. But of course, that’s not going to make it into anyone’s National Service file because residents cannot possess prior criminal records. Or if they do, they get scrubbed. From the net and from the administrative database. From everywhere but the memories of the people who lived those experiences. Prothero develops such powerful tech, maybe they can wipe those memories too.

I flip through the rest, hoping to find another connection. Some obvious statement or odd fact or anything that will give me a better picture of Santiago. Something explosive – like a tin of letters from a terrorist.

His medical records appear standard at first glance. Vaccines as a kid. NV but it’s dormant. Measles when he was 11. Dental images and x-rays of a broken arm at age 12. Pictures of a cast and a young Rabbit with a closed, unsmiling face. A black eye. Another picture of a slightly older Rabbit with a split lip and taped nose. Rabbit at 13 admitted to the emergency room with a broken rib and internal bleeding. Rabbit at 14 with a series of dark bruises punctuating his spinal column. Rabbit at 16 with a knife wound on his chest. Near his heart, where a prison tattoo would go. Gang violence – the chart reads.

There are no more pictures of Rabbit Santiago.

        A wave chimes on my left band from Scarlett: It’s time Len. Let’s go.  


I spy Scarlett waiting outside the Academy main building, standing by a blooming cherry tree, shivering despite the temperate weather. Relief kicks the remaining fog from my brain. I wasn’t sure she would join me. It’s been a weird day. I release the nanos, the cloak falling away, and adjust the video and audio recorders. I should have spent all that time with Rabbit charging my batteries instead. We’re going a long ways before we reach anymore electrical stations powerful enough to feed me.

“Where did you disappear to?” I ask, noticing mascara smudged on her cheeks.

“I was putting this together,” She holds up a pack bursting with military supplies and rations.

“How did you get past security? The whole base is on lockdown.”

“Are you kidding me? I’m Scarlett Buford. I can do anything,” She winks.

I show her the care package from Nurse Esperanza and her pupils go wide with the revelation that Our Lady of the Infirmary is a Contra spy. Not a Contra spy, actually. A concerned citizen with ambiguous morality when it comes to curing a deadly disease. There’s a difference.

We cram the medical kit inside the already over-full pack. I keep the vial of blood tucked in my pocket. Scar doesn’t need to know about that yet.

“Great. Where’s your bag?” I ask.

She kicks a leg behind the trunk of the tree and it bumps up against a second pack.

“What’s the plan, Stan?” She asks with forced cheer, face a translucent mask of fear.

A wave pops up on the left band, distracting me from answering. I open the message. A cold snake strikes my stomach as an image loads of my open tin box gripped in a pair of chunky hands. Clinton’s hands. Text underneath the image reads: Clinton wants to negotiate . The message is coded from Rabbit.

I tap on the keyboard: For what?

A minute passes. More text appears: He wants you. And Scarlett. To meet him at the Commons in half an hour.

“Like hell we will,” I growl in indignation.

My features harden. I would have no problem turning myself over to Clinton but the request for Scarlett is untenable. I will burn for this, not her.

My finger hesitates above the screen. I write: _Negative. _

I wait for a response.

The wave is quick: He says no. Be reasonable Eleni. If you do what he wants…your ties to the Contras will be destroyed. Otherwise, he’ll report you to the-

It cuts off. I hesitate for a moment, then type and send the final words. They feel fitting: I don’t negotiate with terrorists . The band clicks off.

“Clinton Fuller has my tin, with the letters,” I tell Scarlett. “He got it from Rabbit.”

I try to feel something about Rabbit’s betrayal. Anything. But I’m numb again in the sad Prothero way. You can’t feel pain if you can’t feel anything. It’s a coping mechanism. Not healthy, but it will serve me. For now. For tonight, until we’re far away from here.

“Well shit. I always thought he seemed shifty and weird. What happens now?”

“He wants us to meet him outside the base…”

“We aren’t going,” She insists. “I don’t trust Clinton. He beat you in front of all those people in the SIM. What do you think he would do to you on a secluded part of the base?”

Kill me. Killing a terrorist spy would be his ticket to glory. It wouldn’t matter if he’d failed Aeronautics and flunked out of National Service. My death would make him something other than Senator Edmund’s son. He’d be a hero and I’d die a martyr.

The idea curdles my stomach and a concentrated rage wells up in response. No more. Death and destruction is not what I want. My fingers come down hard on the vial of blood in my pocket. _This _ is what I want. And I will stop Clinton or Rabbit or Scarlett or whoever gets in my way.

Scarlett reads my series of fluctuating facial patterns as these thoughts whiz through my head. She clears her throat with the authority and calm composure of a best friend.

“Don’t you even consider it,” She says. “You’re not going out like that. You’re not leaving me here again.”

“What other choice do I have?” I snap. Angry at her, angry at the fear riding through me.

“Len, you’ve had the same choice forever. Same choice we make every day. Stay. Or run.”

“Running is dangerous. I tried that once. It didn’t work out so hot,” I mutter.

“That’s because you didn’t bring me along to help you. In case you haven’t noticed, you are kind of terrible at making plans on your own,” She chastizes, something like a real Scarlett smile drifting to her face.


“ Just b eing honest. Look – you can’t back out on me now. I’ve used up all my good goodbyes and it would just look pathetic to go crawling back now,” She admonishes. “Plus I waved my parents that I was going to find Logan. I don’t make promises lightly.”

“Well in that case we must press on,” I mutter, examining the cool spring grass poking up between my bare toes. “Maybe with socks and shoes?”

“Yeah, I noticed that. I packed footwear for you. Put them on. I also got us rations. No rifles since you blew most of them up in the armory. They keep a better account of them now. But we did score EMPs and tasers,” She watches me unzip the pack.

The shoes she selected, the ones I retrieve and toss to the ground, are not standard issue Academy boots. It’s a pair of heeled leopard print Mary Janes.

“Heels?” I look up at her, incredulous.

“It’s the best I could scrounge up on short notice,” She shrugs, a satisfied smirk lighting her face. “OK fine, there’s a pair of boots tucked deep in the bag. But pack those heels. We might need them later.”

“I can only imagine,” I say, digging in the bag until my hand hits boot. A full fledged grin breaks out on Scar’s face. “Heels are not gonna happen Scar.”

“You can’t blame me for trying,” She shrugs, gaze wandering off into the distance.

I busy myself with putting on socks and tying boot laces while Scar casts her eyes towards the base gate, gnawing at her bottom lip, deep in thought.

“We gotta get past the guards. My preference is to exit without fireworks or explosions and you haven’t exactly wowed me with a brilliant, non-violent plan. What I’m thinking is this: I’ll explain to those two how I’m going out to the Salt patch to prep it for our deployment to Mexico City. It will be a tough sell since the base is on lockdown and I’m like a number one suspect thanks to you. But, I know the guards on duty. I’ve dealt with them before. You can go invisible and slip in front of me,” She says. “How’s that for a sweet plan of action? I came up with that while you were tying your shoes.”

“I could  blow the gate if need be,” Scarlett frowns at the suggestion. “Just the electrical components, though that might trip the metal security door – the failsafe. Actually, your plan is good. I like your plan. I’m all about nonviolence,” I reply, cloaking out of sight. “Nonviolence is my thing now. No more explosions.”

“Uh huh. Hey, you’re invisible again. That’s disconcerting. I’m not gonna get used to that,” She reaches out to touch the empty space where I still stand.

She grips my arm. The nanos don’t detach from me and cling to her the way they did with Rabbit. I don’t understand the difference. There’s so much I don’t understand. I wonder if the Contras will provide the answers that Prothero wouldn’t give me. I wonder if there will be any difference between living in a terrorist cell or a military base.

When we reach the gates, Scarlett extracts cigarettes from her pocket, offering them to the male and female guards and plopping the other in her mouth. She chats amiably about our impending deployment to Mexico City, mentioning her need to check the Salt crop to be sure it will survive an extended absence. The soldiers exchange doubtful glances. Scar bites her lip, musing.

“Look, I know you both pretty well, right? We’ve had a mutually beneficial arrangement for awhile. It works. But I’m gonna be gone for a long time. Maybe I won’t make it back from Mexico. Which means there won’t be anymore Salt. If you let me out tonight to check on things, I promise I’ll give you guys all the information to maintain the crop and plant more. I’ll turn the Salt business over to you,” She assists them with igniting their cigarettes, smiling coercively.

Another look passes between them, their interest piqued, and they move off to discuss quietly amongst themselves. Scarlett stands there, flashing a thumbs up in my direction. I approach, treading softly over the scrubby grass and standing a little ways off from Scar. She squints in my direction and says nothing. We wait out their deliberation in silence.

The male guard returns to Scar, delivering the verdict. I don’t recognize him. His name-tag reads Romero. Romero wears a helmet obscuring the top of his face, only his nose and lips are visible when he speaks.

“We want more than the Salt patch. You’ve been running Ecto too. Our buddy Diego says you’re turning a nice profit and won’t share, even though he got you in the business. He says you cut him out and hooked up with Holmes. We have loyalties to our friend, but we’re willing to overlook it, if you give us both. The Salt and the Ecto,” Romero says, a gross sneer exposing two crooked front teeth.

Anger boils up from deep in my chest. I grip down on the taser in my pocket, contemplating its heft, considering jamming it into Romero’s exposed neck.

“Diego,” Scar’s jaw clenches and she works her teeth around his name like it’s a piece of sour fruit. “Why am I not surprised? You tell that little asshole, and I do strongly emphasize the word little , he gets nothing. He tried to take over my operation when I went on leave and nearly ran it into the ground. Is that what you want?”

Romero shrugs. The female guard watches the exchange from a distance. I can’t read her expression. Ambivalence. I don’t like her. I don’t like Romero either. I don’t have time for this.

“Diego’s deploying along with you. Neither of you get to keep the drugs. So, why not hand them over now?” Romero tilts his head. The movement is eerie, robotic. “Save yourself from trouble.”

“They’re still my drugs,” Scar says in a dangerous, even tone.

“Not anymore,” Romero says, a malicious smirk rippling over the bottom of his face. “Not if I turn you in. Who are the admins and officers gonna believe? Me or you? I mean, you’re friends with that Garza chick who turned out to be a Contra spy. Why should anyone believe anything you have to say?”

With surprising speed, Scarlett delivers a swift kick to his groin and he crumples to his knees, moaning. She punches the portion of his nose visible below the helmet and he grabs at it, toppling to the ground.

The guard behind him watches in mute outrage as her friend goes down. She readies the plasma rifle to shoot, and it bursts into electric fire. The energy explosion happens so fast, it was almost like a tick, an involuntary reaction. She tosses the gun to the ground and steps toward us.

“What did you do to Romero?” She calls out, angry.

“He failed at negotiating. Are you more amenable?” Scarlett asks.

The guard targets us with a blast from an EMP device. As before, the static electric shock and mild disorientation by-passes me. It warps the cloak, casting strips of colored light in all directions, revealing my position. My new, weaker eye implant registers a brief interruption, rolling with a bar of static, resetting itself.

The guard stares in horrified fascination at the spot where I briefly emerged in a phantasm of light. Still cloaked, I snatch her EMP device and Scarlett sweeps the guards legs out from underneath her with seemingly little effort. The guard drops to the ground, receiving another taser jolt from a fiendishly grinning Scar.

“Where did your martial art skills come from?” I demand of Scarlett.

She raises her brows with a comical grin,” I’ve got secrets too. You’ve never seen me in field combat exercises before. I can hold my own. And I barely chip a nail.”

“Yeah, I’m starting to realize. Let’s get the hell out of here,” I insist.

We assaulted soldiers who outrank us. We drew attention to our positions with just the kind of dazzling fireworks display we were hoping to avoid. There is no turning back now.

I scan my band at the terminal built into the gate wall. An authorization request pops up on the screen. I glance frantically back at the groaning, inert soldiers on the ground. Extracting information from them is not an option. Scarlett pokes me.

“Come on Len. It’s now or never.”

I close my lids, placing a hand on the tech, reaching into the recesses of my mind to connect with the device. Willing a miracle to happen. In the stillness, I listen for the transmissions of the machine. The buzzing current of digits and electronic pulses that will carry us through this security system. It’s a brisk, official signal accompanied by a mutter of perfunctory boredom. I push more heavily onto the pad, allowing the connection between my nano infused body and the screen to work its full magic. The purple code rolls over my vision and I tap it into the keypad.

With a sigh of resignation, the doors slide open and we pass out the other side. The sequence I enter falls into place and the failsafe gates swing down. One after another, all along the fence surrounding the perimeter of the base. It will take them awhile to untangle the codes to get them up and running again.

I de-cloak with a full body shudder of relief. Sustaining the cloak is as physically exhausting as running in place with twenty lb weights strapped to each arm. The night is cloudless and there’s a full moon above. We break into a run. It’s not as if we could outrun either the cycles or the hovercars, but we run into the darkness anyway.

For the next 20 minutes there is nothing but the chirp of crickets, the crunch of dry grass and rocks under our feet, and the panting of breath. We stop when we reach the half-way point to the Salt crop. I look off to the left, where the high speed train grumbles by, flicks of electricity spitting off the tracks and cables. We need to hop aboard.

“This way, Scar. We can hop the train before the base recovers from the failsafe activation,” I motion towards the tracks.

“OK, the thing is – I need to get an item from the shed first.”

“We’re gonna waste valuable time on-” I complain, Scarlett interrupting me.

“It’s important,” She says, voice raising.

I don’t press any further. After witnessing her take down the guards at the gate, I’m starting to think perhaps she knows what she’s doing.

Scarlett stares up at the darkening night sky, a melancholy sway to her head.

“I thought if I ever escaped National Service alive, the first thing I would do is go back to Biloxi. Find my brother. Pay off all my parents debts. There’s no chance we could just go there first, right? It’s only a detour of a couple thousand miles.”

I shake my head at her. She nods and moves away, but I grab for her.

“Scar, promise me if anything should happen-”

She interrupts, “Oh I do not believe we’re talking about this already. We’ve only been on the lam for like ten minutes. I don’t want to hear your g-d death speech.”

I dig the vial of blood out of my pocket. “Stopping being so melodramatic. If something happens to me, please take this to Mexico City. I want you to find Mateo – The Matador. He can help you and keep you safe. Well, safer than you are now. Safe is a relative term for us.”

Scarlett’s fist closes around the vial and she grimaces down at it.

“Is this blood?” She asks. “Are you seriously handing me a vial of blood right now?”

I nod. “This is important Scar. More important than either of us. More important than Mateo or Logan or Prothero or the Contras. OK? You have to take this vial to Mexico City.”

“OK. I’m creeped out. But OK.”

We walk in silence. The field with the Salt plot is up around the bend in the road, about halfway between the base and the dam. Tucked away from a clear line of sight but easily accessible if you have an idea of where to look.

“I can’t believe we beat up those guards,” Scarlett says, breaking the quiet.

“That was mostly you,” I remind her.

“Yeah, but you hacked into the base gate back there using nothing but your brain. You can do things I’ve never seen anyone do before,” Scarlett reaches over and touches my wrist. I contemplate this affectionate interaction. She is concerned and compassionate. Scared, but not scared of me. Her fingers fall over the band and shrink back.

“What are we gonna do about these?” She asks, tapping on her band.

I smile. “I’ve got a solution for that.”

Scarlett’s brow crinkles.

“Hold up your band.”

She does as instructed. I grip it and the blue electricity flickers between the bands. The purple schematics pop up and I type in the security code. The notification chimes. As it fades out a stream of purple threads over Scarlett’s band and pulses between us, then flickers out.

“There. Disabled.”

“What about this?” Scar lifts her hair, tapping on the back of her neck, where the RFID hides.

“That too,” I touch it and the band gives off another hot spark.

Scarlett shivers. “Len, what will happen if they catch us?”

“We’re dead. They’ll kill us,” I answer. But I avert my eyes. They won’t kill me. Scar’s fate is not so assured.

Us , ” She mutters, rubbing at her neck. “Huh. Right. They’ll kill us .”

I pretend I don’t hear her and we continue walking in another bout of silence. We’re almost to the field. Scarlett motions to me and I move up alongside her, dropping the hood off my head for full visibility. There’s a tented shack structure at the front of the field where Scarlett keeps supplies and she moves in this direction. The field isn’t large but around the Salt plot, grass grows knee high and in places, higher. I missed the majority of the spring rains. Scarlett points towards the tent and I nod. We dim our bands and approach at a slower pace, limiting the noise we make to nothing but the rustle of our boots over the grass. Scarlett elbows past and takes the lead, indicating she will enter the tent first. I shake my head firmly and push her aside. If I’m stronger, I’ll go first.

A faint breeze is always present on the Gorge. It rustles the gap in the tent, so the material flaps, inviting us in with waving arms. The scene looks ominous. I move the light around the entrance, noticing the trampled, flattened grass in front of the tent. I look back at Scarlett.  

“What are we looking for?” I inquire.

“Don’t laugh,” She requests.

“I’m not laughing. Tell me what it is,” I say impatiently.

“You’re gonna laugh,” She insists.

“I’m not  gonna laugh. I am  gonna kick you in the crotch if you don’t tell me what I’m looking for,” I shine the light back at the tent.

I attempt to discern what about this scene feels wrong. In the pause between my question and Scarlett answering, I realize what it is. The crickets stopped chirping. It’s unearthly quiet. The breeze shifts the dried grass, but the noise of animals has ceased.

“It’s a stuffed animal. It’s my stuffed dog. I brought it with me cause I got lonely out here tilling and planting and irrigating by myself. There’s a story behind it,” She admits.

“A stuffed dog? We came out here for a stuffed dog!? Scar, you’re ridiculous.”

“A dog stuffed with ten pounds of Salt and Ecto. Don’t you make fun of me! We need the drugs. The stuffed animal…is a bonus,” She strides forward, attempting to cut me off.

I hold her back.

“I’ll go in. You wait here. And pull out your taser. I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” I inform her.

She snorts, “All the Salt is making you paranoid.”

“All the Ecto is making you stupid.”

She sticks her tongue out at me.

I arm myself with the taser again. It’s an inappropriate weapon out here. Carrying rifles would be nice. I make eye contact with Scarlett and she moves to one side of the tent, facing out so she can keep watch over the field. I poke the taser inside the tent opening and peer after it. The quiet interior looks non-threatening and inanimate, so I move into the tent. I don’t see Scar’s stuffed animal on the table in front of me, so I skirt around it. There’s a wood cabinet with a small counter-top near a fabric wall off to the right and a couple stacks of fertilizer piled up next to it. The cabinet seems a likely place. I drop to one knee and open the door, spotting the stuffed dog on the top shelf.

Scarlett’s muffled grunt sounds from the front of the tent.

I swing toward the tent entrance and a foot knocks the taser clenched in my fist flying into the air. It lands and lays dormant on the ground ten feet away. My head swivels. I can see perfectly. It’s Luis, one of Clinton’s friends. His fist is doubled back to sock me but I aim a kick for his knee and he crumples. I kick him again, in the head, for good measure and he goes silent. Outside, I hear more commotion and males shouting at each other. I jump over the unconscious body beneath me and peer through the tent opening, obscured by the material.

Clinton stands just outside the tent, with a plasma rifle aimed at Rabbit’s forehead.


Rabbit kneels in front of Clinton, hands in the air. Scarlett stands off to the side, cheeks smudged with tears. Rage boils inside me. The bands warm, threatening to reveal my position. I retreat further back into the tent, keeping the scene visible, dousing the light.

“You’re pretty noble, aren’t you Santiago?” Clinton demands.

Rabbit swallows and wipes at a bead of sweat lining his brow.

“We should let Scarlett go. Both of them go. And call the authorities,” Rabbit replies, voice shaking.

“It’s too late. First, I want them to apologize for what they did to me,” Clinton insists.

“What are you talking about!?” Scarlett interjects, scared and angry.

“You and that stupid freak destroyed my entire life,” He points the gun in Scarlett’s direction. Fear and anger warp her features. “Garza ruined my life. Maybe I should take yours. A fair trade, right? It’s not like anyone would miss a nobody like you.”

I notice the tin, my terrorist letter tin, curled in one of Clinton’s meaty red fists. My heart skips a beat and I steal a glance at Rabbit, who closes his lids like a man deep in prayer. Grateful not be staring down the barrel of a rifle.

“You did that yourself,” Scarlett responds acidly.

Rabbit’s sharp brown eyes open, studying the two of them with the calm, removed detachment I’ve observed on the battlefield.

“Clint, this is a bad move. Let the authorities take care of it,” He says, voice still shaking but reasonable. The soothing speech you’d use to talk a madman down off a ledge.

“Fuck off Rabbit,” Clinton kicks Rabbit’s chest and he’s thrown back into the dirt. Clinton drops the tin, stomping over to Scarlett and grabbing onto a fistful of her hair, jamming the gun in her face.

“After tonight, the only thing people will remember about you is that I killed you,” He says to Scarlett.

Clinton’s back is to the tent and I stride out, unsure of what I’m going to do. I possess no taser, no EMP, no rifle. I’m not stronger than Clinton. I’ve nearly passed the inert form of Rabbit when his hand snakes out and grabs at my ankle, flipping me off my feet. I fly forward and my chin hits the hard turf of sandy dirt and grass. The coppery taste of blood bites my tongue. I glare over at Rabbit, who studies me with a bleak grimace.

“You’re going to get her killed,” He whispers.

Clinton spins around, swiveling the plasma rifle in my direction. Before he can fire, I overload the circuitry. It explodes in his hands and he drops the hot metal object, cursing. Rabbit uses the opportunity to pounce like a cat from the ground and barrel into Clinton, knocking him over. The two bodies wrestle to the ground, next to Clinton’s sizzling, popping plasma rifle. The opened tin box rolls back towards me, across the grass. Letters spill out onto the ground, the red silk interior exposed for the world to see. A screaming red mouth.

Scarlett shouts. The sound snaps me back to reality and I look towards the wrestling figures. Their illuminated bands send light slicing back and forth in the air. It’s disorienting. With a reverberating boom Rabbit launches in the air, a bolt of orange trailing from his body. He lands five feet away up against a tree, hitting the bark with a horrible thud. Amber projections pulse off Clinton in wild, frenetic patterns leeching from the metal bands around his wrists. He glowers over at me, his eyes orange, blazing lamps of fury and power. Blue electricity pulsates in the distance between us and without a second thought I cloak into the darkness.

I sprint towards Rabbit. I just need to check and see if he’s still breathing. Still be breathing Rabbit. Please still be breathing.

Before I can reach him, Scarlett dives for another rifle close to her feet and I call out to her, warning. Clinton diverts his attention, the gun exploding in Scar’s grip. She drops it, shouting in anger and surprise. Clinton lets out a guttural cry. He attempts to run and tackle Scar but I meet him halfway there, tripping him with an outstretched leg. He hits the ground and I’m on top of him, pummeling with my fists. My fingers are bloodied and bruised within seconds. Good , I think, looking at the red liquid. I hope Clinton likes contracting NV-2. If he hasn’t already.

All the activity and mental distraction breaks the nano cloak, it flares and sucks back up into my clothes and skin. Clinton’s pupils widen as the light dims and I appear, straddling his body.

“Enough!” He roars, reaching up and grabbing the bands, squeezing them.

They emit a horrible squeal and a wracking pain pummels my wrists and forearms and roars over me. I’m on fire. Clinton electrocutes with orange fire and it burns through me, frying all my thoughts.

Scarlett screams my name. She delivers a swift kick to the side of Clinton’s head, receiving an electrical shock in the process. She yelps in pain, falling to her knees, but the direct contact breaks Clinton’s concentration, releasing me from his grip. I collapse off his chest and hips, falling hard onto my side, my ribs aching with the jolt. I try to pull a cloak over myself so I can crawl to cover and gain my bearings but the nanos half form, then dissipate, leaving nothing but points of light dotting me, making me a brightly painted target instead.

I glance to my left and see Clinton reeling from the jolt to his temple. It’s a weak spot on a normal human, but I wonder if we share the same wiring. If this is a sensitive area for the same reason it would be especially damaging to me. Even in the midst of this chaos, with the high level of pain shaking my muscles, I am insanely curious about Clinton’s enhancements.

Scarlett produces pepper spray from her pants pocket, blinding Fuller. He claws desperately at his face. Snot pours from his nose. He gags and retches.

I hoist myself up onto my feet, kicking his ribs with the metal toe of my boot. He wheezes in response, unable to open his eyes.

While Scarlett rips a shoelace from her boot, I roll Clinton over. It takes considerable effort and he administers a jarring orange pulse for my efforts. The pain is as intense as before, but I keep my bearings this time. Clinton has been defeated.

The smell of burning hair makes me gag and I notice my bands fritzing, nonsensical virtual images stammering off and on. Buildings exploding. Bees buzzing in an orchard. Emmanuel drinking whiskey from a glass bottle. Rabbit whispering in the shadows of the farmhouse. Clinton is shorting out my system. While the images stutter in wild patterns around us, we restrain and tie Clinton’s arms behind his back.

Off to our right, Rabbit stirs, emitting a low groaning noise. He landed up against one of the few trees dotting the landscape and he could be seriously injured. I leave Clinton tied up with Scarlett standing guard. She holds the pepper spray and managed to locate another plasma rifle. She aims both devices at Clinton’s head. He is too disoriented to attempt another confrontation right away. She should be fine for a minute while I check out Santiago.

Rabbit lays on the ground holding the side of his skull. Crimson liquid seeps out between his fingers and trails down his arm. He watches me stride towards him with a sad, frightened expression. When I squat down next to him, he won’t meet my gaze.

“Move your hand,” I order.

I push back my sleeves and light pulses from the bands. I keep my bleeding wounds a good distance from him, avoiding direct contact. It would be signing his death warrant.

“You brought this on yourself,” I hiss at Rabbit, tilting my wrist to examine his wounds.

He doesn’t respond, keeping his eyes averted from my steely, penetrating stare. I hate him for it. I hate him with every ounce of my being. More than I hate Clinton. The glow from the band intensifies and blue luster bathes our bodies. The nanos are kicking back into gear and healing me from the evil orange fire. The extra illumination provides more visibility and I lean in to inspect Rabbit’s wound. His ear is mangled and a patch of hair and skin are peeled back, revealing bone beneath.

I wipe the right band against my pant leg and tell Rabbit to hold still. The band glistens red hot and I press it to the side of his head where blood flows freely. A sizzling sound and the salty smell of frying flesh fills the air. I gag again. Rabbit hisses in pain and he reaches up to claw at my jacket in response.

A good portion of the wound cauterized but blood still dribbles from the side of his head.

“Damn,” I peer back at Scarlett, who has the gun trained on Clinton.

“Is it bad?” Rabbit asks, face turned away.

“Don’t talk to me. You lied to me. You betrayed me. I should let you die out here,” I respond furiously.

“I betrayed you? Wow Garza, your logic is impeccable,” Rabbit scowls hard, wincing as the wound re-opens.

“Stop scowling,” I order, heating up the band again.

“Last time I checked, you were exchanging communications with a terrorist organization. Not me. You betrayed everyone. I didn’t do anything but tell the truth. Prothero locked me up and tortured me despite my innocence. So, I don’t feel-” His words break off in a hiss of pain as the band fries his skin once more.

“I don’t feel bad,” He murmurs, reaching instinctively for the wound. I bat his hand away.

“You, Fuller, and Luis are the only ones who got hurt here, so I don’t feel bad about this either. I’m taking my tin and my terrorism. And I’m leaving. You won’t have to worry about me screwing up your best laid plans anymore,” I wipe the band on my pant leg again. “And I’m sorry they hurt you. I- I was trying to avoid that. I wanted out of here. I was scared.”

“Yeah, I noticed that,” Rabbit says.

“I’m not scared anymore. I mean, I am, but what I’m doing is the right thing. This time,” I stop talking when Rabbit closes his eyes, leaning his head back against the tree.

“Hey!” I shout, shaking his shoulders. “Don’t do that. You probably have a concussion.”

“I just feel- I just feel really, really warm,” He murmurs, reaching up towards his wound again. I smack his hand this time.

“Scar, you want to grab the med kit in my pack?” I ask, looking over my shoulder. She stands over Clinton, pressing a boot against his ear, keeping his head to the ground.

“Don’t leave,” Rabbit wheezes, his hand brushing against my cheek and resting there. I turn back, startled. “Don’t leave me,” His eyes slump open.

“I need to get medical supplies. You need a field grade bandage,” I try to shake his hand off with my shoulder but it clings there. He smells like dirt and copper and chlorine. I hold my breath.

“Just give me a second. I need to tell you something,” He insists.

I reach up to remove his hand from my burning cheek. But once my fingers touch his, I forget why I did it in the first place. What I was doing at all. I just sit there, holding his hand against my face and he watches me with a fire in his eyes.

Behind us, Scar clears her throat. She tosses a medical kit in Rabbit’s lap. He winces as it hits his crotch. Our hands come untwined and fall back to our sides.

“There ya go,” Scar says, conveying her infinite displeasure in only three syllables. “Could you stop mooning at him and please fix his stupid head so we can get the fuck out of here?”

“Mooning? What the hell is mooning?” I mutter, reaching for the medical kit. Rabbit grabs and moves it away from my searching fingers. I glance up at him sharply. “What are you doing?”

“Eleni, I lo-” He raises his brows, earnest expression and tone of voice dropping like a lead weight in my stomach, spinning my head. I have to stop him. I have to stop him right now.

“Don’t. Don’t do that. You’re not gonna die out here so stop acting like it,” I say, putting a hand to his chest, over his heart, over his prison tattoo and the scar I can feel under the surface of his shirt material. His heart is beating fast. Faster than mine. “You’ve survived worse things than a little head wound, Santiago.”

He looks down at his chest, then back up at me, expression quizzical.  

“What do you-” His gaze shifts past my shoulder and his expression hardens.

I sense the electric charge radiating off Clinton, the enormous power he generates, before I even see him. I swivel around as Clinton breaks free of the shoelaces, burning through them with his bands.

They snap orange and the color dances across the material of his jacket, reflected in his red, leaking eyes. He knocks Scarlett over with an ember fist and the pepper spray and rifle fall to ground, along with her gasping, crumpled form. I cock my head, the blue electricity firing up and sizzling over me, building a protective barrier around my body.

“I’m stronger than you,” Clinton calls across the distance.

I drop my gaze to Rabbit. He shudders in the chilled night air, eyes darting between Clinton and myself. He squints up at me.

“The only way out of here is through him,” Rabbit says fiercely.

I dash several paces away from Rabbit and fire off a bolt of electricity which strikes Clinton in the chest. Instead of knocking him backwards, the blue expands and he absorbs it, laughing.

“I told you,” Clinton says, shaking his head. “I’m stronger than you. They made me stronger than you.”

He sends his own bolt of electricity through the air in my direction. The orange light dances over me, burning like a thousand suns. Rabbit shouts behind me. I wave him away but he rises shakily to his feet and stumbles over. He touches my shoulder, a surge of energy rolls over me, over-riding the red fire and burning it out. Rabbit’s band ignites, bursting a lime green color. A virtual pours out of it, an emerald torch climbing towards the stars. It’s me. It’s my face against the backdrop of a night sky. I’m peering into a telescope while meteors dash by in the background.

“What are you doing ?” I ask him, confused.

“I don’t know. I had an idea. Thought it might work,” He shrugs, and that strange, fascinated expression fills his face.

Our combined energy turns an aqua, turquoise color. The electricity pools and wraps over Clinton, he staggers but remains upright. The static increases in volume and size.

“Len, what the hell is going on!?” Scarlett shouts above the roar of the energy.

“We don’t know,” But it gives me an idea. I walk a few tentative steps closer to Scar. Rabbit trails behind me, transfixed by the electric storm we’ve created.

Scarlett shifts on the ground and rises, her band snapping on, shining a familiar purple color. I throw my mind out to it, whispering to it with all the sugar-coated nanos it could possibly want. It responds in kind.

“Come here,” I gesture frantically to Scarlett. “Come closer.”

She crawls away from Clinton, the energy from her tech rising in the air like a wave. It mingles with the aqua pulse, mutating into a throbbing shade of silver. The smell of burning ozone fills the air, the light blazing with painful radiance.

Clinton cries out, the orange hue in his eyes dying away, snuffing out with the combined force of our bands. He falls to his knees, calling out for us to stop. I bear down harder on the glow, pushing it at him with full force. It feels good in the center of all that compounding energy. Like there’s no more gravity. There’s a weightlessness and a dull roar in my ears. A whining. A thin reedy whining. It grows louder, drowning out all other noise until it’s all I hear.

The world in front of me tilts and swims off in my vision. A scorching pain boils inside my skull and the horrible whine lances like a shockwave through me. I cry out, crumpling to my knees. The glow clicks off, absorbing back into the individual bands. Thick, dark blood trickles from my nose and ears.

Rabbit’s arms enfold me. He whispers indecipherable sounds into my ear. I can’t distinguish individual words, but the rumble of his pleasant voice pulls some of the agony out of me.

I push away from him, scrabbling to my feet and catching sight of my hands lined with inky veins. The NV is fighting me and winning. I’m too weak.

The left eye blinks out of commission. The metal heart seizes.

Behind me, Scarlett shouts, the concern and hysteria in her exclamation sending a bolt of panic through me. Rabbit’s eyes slide to where she crouches, his mouth falling open in horror. Fear grabs and squeezes the metal heart in my chest.

I turn to her.

Clinton holds Scarlett locked in his grip, the plasma rifle pointed at her right temple. Her pupils are wide, tears rolling in lines down her cheeks. A strand of blonde hair worked its way loose from her ponytail and flops down over her forehead. Despite the circumstances, this little detail absorbs my vision. I can only see the curling wisp of straw colored hair. I remember all the times I tucked it behind her ear, trying in vain to tame it. Scarlett’s wild, curling blonde hair cannot be tamed. I smile at the thought.

Clinton fires the plasma rifle. It hits my stomach, the force of it carrying me backwards, air rushing out of me. I fall onto the ground next to Rabbit, who helplessly watches me drop. My abdomen erupts in a stabbing hot pain when I land. Scarlett screams. Clinton shouts. A burst of rifle fire erupts. Then silence. All other noise dies away. Black rushes in and I tumble down into it…

I regain consciousness and hands are on my shoulders.

I reach up absentmindedly, my grip falling on the strong, skinny wrist of Rabbit. His hand has always been there, on my shoulder, waiting for me to reach for it. I blink lethargically. His band warms to a soothing green and disappears under my touch. He speaks to me in a running dialogue of phrases I can’t comprehend. It sounds like a prayer, and my gaze falls on his damned rosary bracelet.

Rabbit Santiago is a religious saint, praying over my dying body. Salty tears drip from him, anointing my stomach like holy water. His prayers are this, “Please don’t die. Please don’t die. Stay with me Eleni. Stay here with me. I’m so sorry. I’m so so sorry. Stay here with me. Don’t die. Don’t die.”

Mateo’s letters are scattered on the ground by my head, spattered maroon with blood. I reach past Rabbit and grab one. It sticks to my palm. I shake my hand once to free it but the letter stubbornly clings to my fingers. I can’t let it go.

“Eleni, can you hear me?” Rabbit talks to me in his feverish prayer whisper, cupping my cheeks with bloody fingers. How…how did they get so bloody?

“Where’s Scarlett?” I ask, words dry and scratching out of my throat.

“Leni,” She whimpers, off to my right. I look over at her. She’s bloody. I can’t discern if the blood is hers. We are all bleeding.

“Don’t come closer!” I say harshly. “I’m contagious!”

She winces as if struck. Her bottom lip trembles. A tear winds its way down her cheek and falls to the ground, moving slowly at first then taking off at an incredible speed. I grow dizzy watching it. To ward off the swooning sensation, I close my lids and the world around me recedes in a pleasant black splendor.

Rabbit shakes my head and my eyes pop open.

I try to sit up and they both hold me down. I push past them anyway into a sitting position so I can survey the area. Throbbing fills my gut but I ignore it. I look out over the field and see Clinton crumpled in the grass. I let myself fall back towards the earth, sated he cannot hurt anyone anymore. At least one monster has been eliminated.

“I’m sorry,” I murmur, to no one in particular.

Scarlett tells me to be quiet.

“No,” I slur defiantly. “I’m not a monster. I’m not a monster Rabbit. I’m not.”

His lips touch my temple and he whispers against my fake ear, “You’re not. I never thought you were. Just hold on for a little longer. You’ll be fine Eleni. You’re not gonna die out here. You’ve survived much worse.”

His tears land on me, rolling into my mouth and over-riding the taste of copper and metal.

“Rabbit,” I say with a heavy sigh. More shadows fold in.

My eyes open once more and Mateo swims into view above me. I reach out to him. He shifts towards me, presses against me and warmth spreads over us like a blanket. My body burns with cleansing blue fire. My hand, still clinging to one of his letters, closes around the back of his neck. My fingers trace up past the curls and into the short hairs on the nape of his neck. I can feel Prothero there. I can feel it everywhere, its evil signature lurking in all the technology I touch. I will burn it out. I will destroy Prothero if it’s the last thing I do.

Mateo’s mouth meets mine and the world recedes, all thoughts of Prothero vanish in our kiss. The wrist bands fry the already damaged skin beneath. I don’t open my lids but light brightens around me. Mateo’s lips are scorching. His lips and arms and hands are hotter than the Mexican sun.

My implant skips every other beat. A heavy weight builds in my chest. The pain in my wounded stomach disappears. I don’t let go of Mateo. I don’t let him go this time. Scarlett cries and pleads in the background. Copper and wires and limes and chocolate assault my taste buds. Sweat fills my nostrils.

The fire in my veins is unbearable. It’s all I have left. If I stop kissing Mateo, when I stop kissing him, I’ll be dead. The panic and weight of this knowledge drives me upwards. The electric pulses explode out of my veins like millions of microscopic rockets. My body explodes and Mateo goes flying away from me. He disappears into the night. I let him go. I’m sorry Mateo.

Scarlett rises above me in the night sky, pale and white, like a far away moon orbiting the earth. Her voice ebbs and flows around me, singing in all the beautiful timbres I remember. Singing like the sweetest machines and happiest memories. My lids close and I don’t open them again. Colors and shapes drift, with random scenes crashing into view.

My parents exploding. Scarlett laughing. A meteor shower. The Eiffel tower. Mateo under the lime tree. Rabbit Santiago framed in the blaze of a firefight. The Rosas twin ponytails swaying out from under their hats as they walk down the hall. Nurse Esperanza setting the medical kit on the counter. Dr. Dawson steepling his fingers and leaning towards me. The biting plunge of a needle into my right bicep. The tin box yawning open, the letters spilling out. The vial of blood resting in my open palm. I’m collapsing inside myself. My limbs too heavy to lift. Every second stretches out into minutes and hours and days and years.

I don’t want this. I don’t want to die. I didn’t cure the virus. I didn’t save Mateo. This is wrong. I’m a dying star, burning a hole through the galaxy, sucking everything up in my gravity. My eyes close for an eternity. I’ll never open them again. A heavy, familiar hand covers my heart. It pushes down with all its strength, crashing into my chest, down past my ribs until my internal organs are exposed. The hand pushes me down further into the inky blackness, where the moon and stars can’t reach anymore. My metal heart stops beating. I don’t want this. This isn’t how it’s supposed to end.

I’m dying.


I’m sitting in the middle of dead bodies. My best friend, Eleni Garza is dead. The boy who killed her, Clinton Fuller, is dead also. I killed him. Rabbit Santiago, the kid who started this whole mess, he’s administering CPR to Len’s lifeless body. It was the first thing he did after she went all blue and glowy and propelled him into the air like a rocket. He scrambled back to her on hands and knees, pushing down on her chest. Cracking her ribs. Gasping his hot air into her lungs.

I’ve been useless since shooting Clinton’s brains out. I could have called someone over the waves. I could have grabbed the med kit and…did what exactly? Made a tourniquet. I’m not a medical resident. Not smart enough for that. I can’t remember most of the basic triage we all learned. First Aid certified and what good are those skills now when I’m reduced to sobbing and rocking and hugging my knees like a five year old. There’s the med kit from Len’s backpack. It’s tossed to the ground three feet from the tree Santiago landed against and I can only stare at it like an idiot child. I’m so close to fetal I should suck my damn thumb.

Santiago stays busy, buzzing around the scene with nervous, frenetic energy. If he stops moving he will collapse and pass out. He keeps going back to Eleni, touching a new spot on her. Cursing. Speaking out loud but not uttering coherent phrases. It’s exhausting to watch, so I tune him out and concentrate on breathing through the wash of snot and tears.

It’s Rabbit who snaps me out of it. He calls my name, sharply. The urgency and authority in his voice cracks like a whip against the slower, sludgier parts of me. I draw a bloody arm over my forehead. I don’t stop to consider what crusty parts of Clinton cling to me. We’re all a gross mess. We’re all bloody and broken. But only two of us are alive.

Eleni. I can’t look at her empty shell anymore. I rise up from the ground. There’s a tarp folded in the back of the tent. Without stopping or thinking or speaking I retrieve it and fold it over Len. This is right. This is the right thing to do. Rabbit disappears from view, but I hear him near me, vibrating on some awful key, raising goosebumps across my body. Touching and moving objects around. Muttering to himself? I dunno. I almost wish he would disappear entirely. It’s easier to focus once the cerulean blue tarp is laid over Len. I’m sitting on the ground with my legs folded and touching the top of the tarp. Smoothing it down. Holding it down. We need rocks. We need to secure this tarp.

Rabbit emerges from the tent behind me, I turn when the rustling of the material distracts me. How did he get in there without my noticing? He’s wearing Len’s bag. He’s carrying a plasma rifle. He drops a soft, bulky object in my lap. My pack. I lean my head back and look up at him. His stupid floppy hair drapes over his features like curtains drawn in a darkened room. He looks funereal and positively ghoulish from this angle. I shudder and hug myself. I’ve been praying down here next to the tarp and I don’t even know how long.

“Scarlett,” Rabbit says blankly. I’m surprised at his calm. It’s eerie. “You need to get up.”

He extends a hand to me and I nod vacantly, accepting his help onto my feet. I wobble and he steadies me with a strong, steel grip. His long, alien fingers dwarf my midget shoulder. He looms over me like a scarecrow in the middle of a cornfield. If I only had a brain, I think, blinking at his empty face. We couldn’t rub two brain cells together.

Len is dead. A wave of panic and emotion threatens to level me, but Rabbit’s grip intensifies and holds me in place.

“Scarlett,” Rabbit says my name again.

He holds up a piece of cloth and I accept it blindly, scrubbing it across my hot cheeks. My vision clears. He nods. He’s good. He’s good with trauma. He makes use of himself.

“What are we going to do?” I croak around the frog sized lump in my throat. Speaking out loud here, amongst the dead, has a sacrilegious undertone. I’m not sure how I’m going to make it another five minutes in the silence. Poor Len. It’s dark forever under the tarp. I want to lift the material and look at her one final time.

“We should move her,” I whisper. “We should put rocks on the tarp to hold it down. We should send a wave to Nurse Esperanza.”

Easy as that, all the plans of action slip into my brain, one after another. Diving in on top of each other in an avalanche of reason. Rabbit shakes his head slowly, absorbing each of my statements and refuting them with a flop of his hair.

“Scarlett. There’s no time. We’re going to run,” Rabbit says. I nod. This makes sense. This is the perfect plan of action. No. No it’s wrong. The idea of leaving Len here, abandoning her to the cold for wild animals to…

“We can’t leave her,” I insist, sinking like a stone to the tarp. Didn’t it look like she was sleeping? Maybe we should check again.

“You can’t stay here,” He informs me. Yes, that’s true. “You killed Clinton.” Yes, that’s also true.

“We have to leave now?” I hear myself ask around watery hiccups.

“It’s our only chance,” He answers. “Let’s go.”

He pulls my arm up and I drift with it, clutching the handle of my pack. He drags me away from the Salt patch. Away from Eleni. He’s stomping and dragging and I’m flopping along in his wake, watching her body recede to a distant point on the horizon.

“Someone will find her,” Rabbit assures me. “The bands. They track our vitals. They’ll know their hearts stopped. They’ll send an ambulance. It will be here soon. We can’t be here.” He’s not talking to me. He’s muttering in that same frantic tone he’s used for the last twenty minutes. “They should be here by now. Shouldn’t they? Clint was important. She was important.”

He rustles his hair and it sticks out at odd angles from his head, the follicles coated with sweat and blood. I stifle a nervous laugh burbling up from my belly. Who laughs at a time like this?

“Where are we going to go?” He frets, stumbling over clumps of grass and stones as we move north through the dark. I’m waking up. Hearing his statements, turning them over like flapjacks on the hot griddle of my brain.

“Len wanted to board a train to Mexico City. Before we took this stupid side trip. She wanted to board the bullet train going South,” I whisper.

Rabbit stops in his tracks. I stop too, because he was providing all the forward momentum. It’s all I can do not to collide and become entangled in his thin, wiry frame.  

“Mateo,” He spits the word out like it tastes nasty. The name pushes a button in my mind. “The Matador. Mexico City.”

I shake my head sluggishly. We can’t go there. I don’t wanna go there. Eleni wanted to go there. She made me promise her. I dig around in the pocket of my uniform pants, bringing back the vial of blood. Rabbit makes beady eyes in its direction.

“What is that?” He asks.

“It’s from Leni. We need to take it to Mexico City to help the Contras and my brother,” I say. “It’s a cure for the new strain of the nano virus. She thought she was gonna bring it to the Contras and save the world. Heh. Save the fucking world, right?”

Rabbit reaches for the vial and I give it over. He cradles it in his palm, taking a long glance back at the blue tarp. Tears spark in his eyes like fire against metal.

“I called her a terrorist,” He chokes on the term. A tiny piece of sympathy builds in my heart for him. “I betrayed her.”

“Yeah. You’re a jerk,” I say in a flat tone.

He nods and pockets the vial of blood. “Eleni wanted to go to Mexico City. She wanted to cure the nano virus. That’s where we’re going. We’re going to Mexico City.”

We could be safe there, if we could find The Matador. We could find The Matador and save the world.

Rabbit and I exchange a heavy gaze. We are the pallbearers of a double funeral, moving away from the grave site, catching a midnight train to a warzone. It seems inevitable we should end up there. Cosmic. The planets of fate aligning in two deaths and us here tumbling across the open field, radiating a signal to Prothero authorities we survived and Len didn’t.

We need to escape.

We’re going to Mexico City.


         Wake up.

[_        _] A voice like a bolt of lightning crackles through my brain. Sings up my veins.

         Wake up.  

        Another jolt that feels like a rough, tearing gasp of air into my lungs. Like the unpleasant burn of oxygen. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe under here. Under here? Under where?

         _You cannot sleep, Eleni Garza. _

        Sleep? Was I asleep?

         WAKE UP.

        My eye pops open. Just the one. The robot eye. And everything is blue. The stars have gone out. I can’t breathe. My left arm lifts and pushes against something cold and it crinkles. It’s plastic. I push and lift. The stars swing into view.

I want to get up. I need to get up.

_Not yet. _

The voice drives my arm down, back to the ground. My eye snaps shut. The tarp falls over my face. But I can still breathe. It hurts but I can still breathe.

_Soon. I will see you soon. _

The voice whispers. And it’s the last sound I hear before the darkness takes me again.

I’m alive.


I’m alive.


Metal Heart

In a dystopian future ruled by fear of a deadly virus, a young woman is orphaned after her parents die in a terrorist bombing. She is horribly disfigured by the same bombing and taken in as a ward of the global corporation, Prothero. They use her to test experimental nano-technology, implanting her with artificial organs. She participates in mandatory national service while plotting a way to extract herself from Prothero’s clutches and rescue a friend from her past. And maybe find a cure for the virus in the process.

  • ISBN: 9781370805167
  • Author: Melinda Crouchley
  • Published: 2016-12-15 18:22:00
  • Words: 123754
Metal Heart Metal Heart