Sunday, January 31, 2173
My feet fly over the dry grass making an absurd amount of noise. But stealth isn’t important anymore. Three pairs of equally loud footsteps follow close behind me. Endless rows of trees pass by in a blur. Their branches block out the night sky. The only sound louder than our footsteps are the purr of the hovercycle engines chasing us.
After a scan of the forest shows no sign of the twins or the five people with them, I stop running, brace my hands on my knees, and try to give my lungs the air they’re demanding. Ray, G, and Fox stop beside me, all of them breathing as heavily as I am, Ray still smirking to herself.
G gives her a pointed look.
Ray just snickers. “Worth it.”
“Is it really? Is it? You had to punch that guard that bad?” G sighs, his head sagging. I can’t tell if it’s from annoyance or sprinting. “It was going so well, so well. We could have just left.”
“I mean, you have to admit, G, it was pretty funny.” Fox gives him a crooked grin. “Y’know, stealth is overrated anyways.”
G gives Fox a similar look and checks over his shoulder. “Did we lose them?”
The purring engines keep getting louder. I shake my head and push stray braids out of my face. “We can’t outrun them.”
“I mean,” Fox shrugs, “we could.”
The headlights of hovercycles become brighter through the trunks.
I straighten. “That doesn’t help the twins or the people we’re supposed to be helping escape.”
“We do have over-powered grappling hooks.” Ray looks to me, still smirking. “Come on, Flag. Let’s show these toy soldiers how stupid they look stuck on the ground.”
“Ray, are you crazy? Did you not notice they’re all armed?” G’s voice jumps up an extra pitch. “With guns?”
“We have to buy the twins time to get those people away from here somehow,” she says. “Flag and I are the best with the grapples.”
G runs a hand through his hair. “Can’t we find a way around them?”
“Around them? They’re chasing us.” Ray turns to me. “Or are you going to let me steal your show again?”
I breathe in and out once and run a hand along the gun strap across my chest. You said you’d be the leader of this. You knew what you were signing up for. I force what I hope is a confident smile. “Let’s go give them something to chase.”
Fox readjusts the half-spheres on his hands. “Count me in.”
G sighs and silently does the same.
“All right,” I breathe, adjusting my own devices. “Let’s go.”
Ray laughs and shoots a wire right in front of the group of soldiers as they come into a clearing. They all freeze. Still laughing, Ray propels herself across the break in the trees, hitting two soldiers in the process. We follow and join her as she begins to jump back and forth across the long clearing, pushing off the trees with our legs. Fox and G speed ahead of Ray and I.
Out of the corner of my eyes, I look at Ray. She grins and winks. I can’t quite return the smile.
Almost in slow motion, I hear someone shoot. I’m halfway to whirling around when Ray careens away, limp.
I reach the other end of the clearing. Fox runs back toward the open dirt. Without thinking, I land on him, pinning him under me.
I tune him out. Barely breathing, I crane my whole torso around to look back at where Ray fell. What is she doing? Why is she just lying there?
One of the soldiers picks her up. Her head lolls toward us. Her eyes are empty, already glassing over. And in her chest where her heart should be is a bleeding hole.
I let Fox shove me off.
He sits up and stares.
G comes over and stares, too.
Gotta go, gotta go, gotta go. Somehow, I stand. I grab both boys’ arms and pull them into a run in the other direction.
When we can’t run anymore, the three of us stop. I just stand there. G slides down a tree. Fox stares at nothing, tears starting to run down his face.
The three of us don’t move for a long time. Three. Three of us. Three of us because Ray’s not here. Because Ray’s—
Over the earpiece, Kat says, “I think we lost them.”
“Flag?” Kit asks when I don’t respond. “Everything okay?”
“Yeah,” I say. “Everything’s fine. They’ve left. We’re just going to stay out here for a bit and make sure they don’t come back.”
“Okay. See you soon.”
“Yeah . . . ” I take the device out and limply let it drop to the dry grass.
Engines start again, but they get quieter.
This isn’t real. This can’t be real. Ray can’t be—
Except, she is. Ray's dead.
When it’s silent, I cover my mouth, like that’ll keep the high-pitched gasping and crying from escaping into the real world. I fold in on myself until I’m a ball on the forest floor.
A few hours later, we meet up with the twins and the five people from the city again. The twins frown at the three of us. Kat tilts her head, frowning, a silent, “Where’s Ray?”
I shake my head.
I woke up today.
Tuesday, May 4, 2173
Back pressed against the wall around the Fort, I type in midair, following my usual path between the Coalition’s attempts at anti-hacker defenses, until the security cam feeds appear on my glasses lenses. I flick through until I get to the one that shows the docks, and a dock worker leaning against a railing. The solar supply ferry sways in the water in time with the distant crash of waves.
I move the camera back and forth until the worker notices. Looking over her shoulder, she taps the railing twice: wait. Wait. Wait. She looks the other direction and taps once: all clear.
Freezing the cam’s feed, I wave the others over from the edge of the forest. G, Fox, and the others lead the sixteen newest escapees to where the edge of the Fort’s wall slopes down into the ocean. I leave the cameras and go to help, boosting people over the slanted wall.
On the other side, I motion for everyone to follow me. Glancing around, the group from the city leaves the shadow of the wall and we all hurry across the open space, onto the dock and to the boat. Hovering lights cast moving shadows as Milo helps me pull open the escape hatch we rigged to open from the outside.
“There’s enough food and water for the whole trip and then some,” I say. “And the crew knows you’re here.”
One by one, the escapees climb into the ship’s hull.
“And what are you all up to?”
The people from the city all freeze, but Fox spins around to give his older brother a toothy grin. “Just out for a late-night stroll. Taking in the air, y’know?”
Reggie chuckles and goes to help the other dock workers get the ship ready to leave.
I roll my eyes and nod for the escapees to keep going. Once inside, lots of the kids our age start murmuring to each other excitedly, and the few parents with young kids coo and hush. Someone quietly starts singing a lullaby to a restless child.
Blake, Kit and Kat help another worker bring some final containers of food aboard and lower them into the hold after the last person.
“G, help Milo with the hatch,” I say.
G pulls his eyes away from watching for patrols and he and Milo lower the hatch and seal it.
I flag down Reggie. “Well?”
He pauses checking the ship's solar panels, sucking in a breath through his teeth. “I have some . . . unfortunate news.” Of course. Because if there was good news for once, the universe would come apart at the seams.
“What is it?” I sigh, adding “now” in my head.
“I got a buddy of mine to talk to some of the higher-ups who know about your undercover exports.” Reggie shrugs and shakes his head. “They won’t talk to you. And I don’t know that I’d push it. He got the impression a few of them are looking for an excuse to stop helping you at all.”
I sigh again. Good to know the Coalition is still a bunch of useless assholes. While they officially “oppose the militant and dictatorial regime” of the people known as Japincatch that have taken over half the world, the Coalition has yet to do anything other than letting us stay at the Fort and use their boats. And even then, it’s still an undercover operation that most of the people at the Fort don’t know about.
“All good here, Flag,” Milo says.
I nod and wave everyone off the boat, Reggie following after me as I leave the ferry. “They do realize if we can’t use their boats, we can’t send the smuggled people off the continent, and we can’t do anything here? That we’re risking our necks for nothing? It’s not like the people we bring from the cities can stay here, even if the Coalition would let them. The Fort is overpopulated as it is. And have you looked at the price of food?”
“Flag, I’m serious,” Reggie says. “I know the Crucible Coalition has kind of let you do what you want so far, but the Fort is only safe as long as Japincatch doesn’t know you guys are here. The Coalition’s worried any more help is practically asking Japincatch to cause problems for them.”
I scoff. “Maybe then they’d actually do something instead of hiding across an ocean.”
Reggie shoves his hands in his pockets. “Hey, don’t shoot the messenger.”
I gesture to the direction the ferry is pointed, towards Asia and Europe, the last parts of the world not under Japincatch’s control. “They have entire continents of people and recourses. If we could just get a little of it, we could do so much more. I’m asking for food, medical supplies and some tech, not a full-on invasion force.” Although they could probably do that, too, if they wanted.
“They didn’t do anything even after Japincatch blew up most of South America.” Milo holds his hands out to the sides. “Unless you count the Fort.”
“What? Japincatch didn’t blow up South America,” Kit drawls, stepping off the boat.
“Yeah, it was an accident,” her twin Kat continues with equal cynicism. “Mass failure of nuclear power plants.”
I roll my eyes. “Right. Funny they had time to relocate all the important and “valuable” people here before that “accident” happened.” And it only happened after the people there tried to kick Japincatch out.
“Hey, I’m sorry.” Reggie gives me a half-smile. “I’m sure you could convince them if they’d let you talk to them.”
I shake my head and throw my arms in the air. “They’re only a multi-continent coalition, what could they possibly do? No, just leave it to us. The seven of us will take care of it.”
Fox laughs and elbows me in the side as he passes. “Damn right we will. And imagine how dumb they’re gonna look then.”
“You’ve gotten this far without ‘em, haven’t you?" Blake asks. “Who needs ‘em?”
A nervous laugh bubbles out of G. “As much as I’d love to jump on the ‘dissing the Coalition’ hovertrain, I don’t think insulting them is going to convince them to do anything.”
I sigh, shake my head and grin. “I could try.”
We all leave the docks and disperse, Kit, Kat, Blake and Milo going to the house they share while we’re here, and G and Fox heading for their families’ houses. As they leave, G takes Fox’s hand and Fox gives him a kiss on the top of his head.
I swear a phantom hand takes mine. Shoving my hands in my pockets, I start for the boarding house, alone. I sigh. I wish I believed in ghosts. So I could tell myself at least some part of Ray is still here with me.
Wednesday, May 5, 2173
My eyes are straining to keep staring at the laptop, but I can’t tell if it’s from looking at a screen for too long or because I haven’t slept. Rubbing my eyes, I put away the lines of code for now and pull up statistic reports from Japincatch cities. While I can’t get them to show the exact numbers, the graphs still tell me what I need to know.
Arrests for unpermitted travel: increasing. Arrests for insubordination or dissident behavior: increasing. Civilians marked for escort: increasing. Police hired and soldiers recruited: increasing. Students transferred to specialized schools: decreasing. Students transferred to Institutions: increasing. Suicide rate: increasing. I stare at the last two graphs. They run almost parallel to each other, the number of people looking for another way out going up as more people get shipped off to glorified underage prisons.
At the bottom of each report is the electronic signature of the unofficial leader of Japincatch, Juliet Andrews. The letters of the signature are sharp—rigid and precise enough they could have been typed. Her obsession with perfection leaks into even the smallest details, even when it comes to her. At least she’s not a hypocrite . . . I scoff. Because that makes up for everything else she’s done.
I look out the boarding room window at the Fort. While Juliet’s been busy conquering continents, all the Coalition’s leader, Nuwa Dai, has to show is a fort named after her, founded on the pretense of making sure Japincatch wasn’t making weapons of mass destruction or something. I look back to my laptop. The numbers on the screen. Not that Japincatch needs bombs to destroy lives.
Standing, I close my laptop and grab my trombone from beside my bed. It was shooting off-target on the last run into the Japincatch cities. The gun was a trombone at one point and as I open its inner workings, there are glimpses of dull brass under the micro-robots and machinery that power it. But I still refer to it as an instrument. Hence the nickname for me and the others who help smuggle people out of the cities. Once a band nerd, always a band nerd, Ray used to say. I haven’t played in a long time, though.
After I’m done tinkering with my trombone—some of the targeting sensors had shifted around—I close up my toolbox and put it in my backpack, along with the last of my clothes so I’ll be ready to leave tomorrow. Emptying my coat of used matches, I throw in some new ones from the drawer beside the cot. Before I go, I double check the safe is still stocked and under the cot where it belongs. Gravity rigs, hologram necklaces, grapples, hoverboards. Everything the Trombones need to run away and disappear at a moment’s notice.
A polaroid picture falls out of the safe when I stand.
I pick it up. It’s the one Ray took of the four of us on the beach. It’s a scenic picture, sunset in the background and everything. G in a T-shirt and Fox in a tank top are behind me and Ray, both grinning wildly. Ray’s in her red crop top. She has her arm wrapped around my shoulder and is winking at the camera. I’m in my yellow tank top. My eyes are closed. I was laughing.
I can’t remember the last time I laughed like I am in the picture. Well, I can. It’s been a while.
The picture is nothing more than a relic now. An antique from before. Before a ten-person military dictatorship decided to take over the world to “reshape the new generation,” and they didn’t care how many people it hurt. Before they shoved us into their cities and shot the ones who wouldn’t go quietly and turned our lives into a totalitarian hell.
Before Ray was killed.
I pull my eyes away from Ray’s face to look at mine.
In the photo’s glossy surface, I can see the faint reflection of myself. The same features look sharper. Harsher. Or maybe that’s just the weeks of eating stolen soldier’s rations while out on runs that make my high cheek bones stick out more than they used to. And I’m pretty sure my eyes didn’t always look this weighted. My hair—in dozens of small braids—and lips—still full, but chapped from weeks of hoverboarding across the continent—are the only things that have stayed the same. Well, that and the metal ring through my septum and the black, square glasses I don’t need. Ray’s death left its mark on me and it’s still here four months later.
I frown and put the picture back, slamming the safe shut. My hands are shaking. I brace them on the cot.
“Flag, what did the poor safe do to you?” G leans on my doorframe. His attempt at a joke doesn’t cover up his concerned tone.
“Since when did you become part of the people for the ethical treatment of inanimate objects?”
“Since when is that a thing?”
“It’s not. But People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals was a thing, founded in the . . . March of 1980.”
We’re both seventeen, but that’s where the similarities end. He’s barely tan with chestnut hair and hazel eyes—he takes after his dad, who’s of Middle Eastern decent, but his mom’s European—while my skin’s a dark umber and my hair is so black it makes G’s looks light. Ray said once my eyes reminded her of the brown you see in old, sepia photos.