“This is a stupid idea.”
“Thanks, Roh,” Kai said sarcastically, rolling his eyes. He pushed a button in one of the panels next to the window, and a small lid swung open to reveal a compartment.
“Will that protect us from the pulse?” She asked, pointing to its contents.
“Yeah, sort of.”
“The side effects Roh was talking about- what are they?”
“The pulse will knock everyone out within a half-kilometer of this place. These modified earshields will protect us from that part, but there have been other incidents.”
“Yeah. Sometimes the side effects aren’t that bad; nausea that lasts a couple days, not a big deal. But I’ve heard stories about comas. That’s rare, but it’s enough for this to be illegal,” he said, quietly, tapping on the panel. “Like I said, it’s our only option right now if we want to make sure everyone gets out of this alive.”
Yasmine ran her fingers through her hair and looked at the rifle. The choice was clear. But what if it were Kai who fell into the coma? What would she do then?
“What kind of odds are we talking?”
“One in a hundred thousand.”
“Same odds as being stung by a bee in the twenty-first century,” she warned. “That’s not good.”
“If anyone’s got any better ideas...”
She sighed. “Once we’ve set off the pulse, what? We’re assuming that Roh and whoever’s with her have got some sort of transportation for us?”
“She said they aren’t driving, so it’s got to be some sort of air transport.”
“Where would they have gotten anything like that? The grid?”
“Xalyn must’ve done something.”
“I’ll explain everything when we’ve got you, but for now, focus. Five minutes,” Roh said solemnly.
“Show time,” Kai mumbled. He trained his attention on the perimeter out the window, and touched a part of the panel to reveal a switch. When he flipped it, they heard a distinct whirr, as though the house were coming to life. The ground vibrated very slightly- the pulse was probably charging, gathering enough energy to be ready for activation, Yasmine figured.
“I’m gonna hit this button,” he said, motioning to the blue button next to the switch, “and we’re going to run like hell to the back lawn.”
“Roh, did you get that?” Yasmine asked.
“Loud and clear,” the voice said. “A second wave will come once their-”
“Once their vitals drop, I know,” Kai finished.
They crouched in silence by the panel, waiting, watching. The only sound in the room, other than the whir, was their breathing.
At first, nobody noticed much of anything. The running assumption was that plastic surgeons had become masters of their trade. Some celebrities looked as though they had been frozen in time, and others continued to age as though nothing had hit the population at all. But then there were the children, the ones that never matured, and the worried parents who rushed them to doctors all across the world. It wasn’t until years later that people had realized what was happening, but nobody could explain it. Aging had, somehow, become genetically variable. A man could physically reach his terminum at 21, and his neighbor might continue to deteriorate into his late 90s and die a natural death. There was no way to predict the year that would be an individual's last spent changing.
Hand in hand with a longer life is prolonged consumption. Turbulent decades filled with a growing concern over resources, passed. The masses migrated away from those areas where resources had finally run out, to countries that boasted a tight but fair grip on what they had to offer. Children were lost, and families were torn apart without hope of being put back together again.
Then came the year that changed everything; documents from government-commissioned labs were recovered. Multiple nations were implicated. Researchers simply hired to find a cure for cancer had made discoveries along the way that took their work in a darker direction (allegedly without the consent or the knowledge of the governments involved). The truth about the new state of the human race spurred on a war that tore through the world. This war, which spanned 15 years, blurred the lines between nations.
The Concordis Peace Treaty was signed by a council composed of government officials, scientists, and military personnel in 2100. The public was assured that the men and women from the “cancer” lab were awarded a life sentence for creating a virus that could stop nature's course in its tracks- and leave no trace of its physical existence behind.
Even the discovery of a sustainable power source, however, did not relieve the need for a cure. Since 2015, many unexplainable, sudden deaths had been recorded. The hypothesis was that it was linked to the virus somehow. Scientists scrambled to figure out what had happened to the dead in order to take care of the living, but they couldn’t find much. The odds of this unexplained death seemed to decrease after year 50 of an individual’s life, however, death still loomed. From that point on, the search for a cure to Sudden Death Syndrome, or SDS, was of dire urgency.
Yasmine Holloway and Leo Genix had found it. Well, not the cure, exactly, but the path that lead to it. She and Leo had managed to crack a code that mystified scientists for years. With their research, they would return humanity to its natural state of being, and free the world of the SDS that could kill anyone, anywhere, without warning.
The virus had changed everything. It was 2163. Recycling retired its position as an afterthought and became a major priority. A couple could only procreate once- and only after a long and rigorous application process that examined their ability to raise a well-rounded individual that would contribute to society. Agriculture was unrecognizable; the ancient anti-GMO movement had become the butt of most jokes. Science became more than just a 5-minute health story on the news or an interesting did-you-know at a party... it had enveloped the world in its concerns and discoveries. It was everywhere, constantly talked about by the young and the old alike.
The primary point of controversy here was that as far as their research had gone, a cure for SDS and a cure for the immortal state would be, essentially, the same thing. Yasmine and Leo hadn’t been able to follow any leads that had led them to only one or the other.
Yasmine swept her short, black waves out of her grey eyes and pulled a navy sweater over her head. Her skin had a russet tan to it, and it seemed that whenever anybody saw her, the areas beneath her eyes were just a little darker than the last time they’d spoken. She had a strong jaw but a small chin, with a nose that made her face seem lion-like. Along the right side of her jaw was a thin scar that ran half its length, but it wasn’t very prominent. Her movements were quick, as though she were always late- although she rarely was.
Yasmine slipped on a pair of boots and secured the magnetic straps before stuffing the photontab, which resembled a very thin-looking steel ruler, into her charcoal-colored shoulder bag. She slung the beat-up plant leather across her torso after pulling on a thin, black windbreaker. A piping-hot travel mug full of milky coffee awaited her in the taupe kitchen downstairs, where she let a mouthful warm her from the inside, out.
Both her mother and her father were still asleep- it was, after all, 7:30 a.m. Sora and Thero Holloway were two of the most celebrated neurobiologists in the world. Their success had afforded them the opportunity to set up a lab at home, and they’d opted to renovate the old greenhouse on the property. This allowed them to avoid the long, crowded commute into the city. Over the years, their workspace took on new forms as methods evolved and equipment grew outdated. It seemed more like a small-scale state-of-the-art facility, now.
Yasmine, on the other hand, didn’t mind the trip. They’d offered many times to set up the lab to accommodate her as well, but she’d politely declined. She did live with her parents, though. Much had changed in the three hundred years since the virus was first discovered. Families that survived the virus stayed together out of respect for the families that did not. Yasmine spent 50 years on the old farm with her parents. At least, it had been a farm when they’d bought it.
The phasing out of traditional agricultural methods in favor of something more efficient created a surge in listings on the market- and the low prices were just too tempting to overlook for the young Holloways in 2084.
That year, after making the purchase, they donated the endless acres of land the white stone house had come with to the local orphanage, knowing that the many children lost in the mass migrations deserved better than the 1500-square-foot house they’d been crammed into. A real home was built just about a hundred meters from the Holloways, where the children would have enough room to play and grow, completely oblivious to the death outside their walls.
Yasmine and her mother were only two years apart, physically. Yasmine had reached her terminum at 29, and her mother at 31. However, at 176, Sora had lived through peace, turbulence, and the war that followed it. She was often mistaken for Yasmine’s sister; same ebony hair, same dark circles around her eyes, but her irises were closer to blue than grey, and the quickness in her movements had disappeared long ago.
Sora and Thero had narrowly avoided tragedy. Though he had lived just as long, he hadn’t stopped aging until his body reached 48 years of age. He had good genes, and managed to stay healthy enough to keep up with her, but it still put a strain on their relationship, at first. Sora was terrified. Every day she’d see time’s effects on him: his hair took on two grey streaks on either side of his head, and lines settled into the skin on his face. She felt entirely helpless.
Yasmine pressed her hand onto the clean, white panel on the wall next to the front door, barely noticing it when it slid out of her way. She walked out into the misty morning, taking the stony steps two at a time to get to her car.
She was so excited it was blinding. Finally, she and Leo would have the opportunity to present her research to the Board of Approval. Soon, this group of esteemed scientists would judge their work, and either allow them to proceed (with incredible funding, of course) or shut them down.
Leo had just landed last night. Their work arrangement was long distance.
“Holloway six. Engage,” she thought to herself, as she approached the vehicle. As soon as it received the command sent from the nanoparticles in her skull, the door rotated up and out of her way. Classical car doors that opened outwards were no longer manufactured because of their impractical spatial requirements.
Individuals, through the use of these nanoparticles, had unique signals. The invisible technology read brain waves and could transmit instructions to other technology. They also happened to be connected to the network. In order to sift through the intense activities of the human brain, users of the nanoparticles would have to choose a word or phrase that would differentiate thoughts from commands. Nanoparticles had become an essential part of everyone’s lives since the war, and had an endless number of applications.
She eagerly started her charcoal-coloured car, feeling it slowly pull off the ground to a hover. Although it had originally been a gimmick, hovering cars saved millions in road maintenance, cementing their position as another widespread technological tool. When her research institute had given it to her, it was a terrible shade of yellow, but she’d easily reprogrammed it to be less conspicuous. Giving employees cars had become a matter of liability and asset protection, a policy with which Yasmine had no qualms.
It was angular, with no round edges, and it had one-way windows that appeared to be black on the outside. Although one-way windows had been frowned upon by police for a long time, they’d finally been approved for the safety of the driver; especially after the third war. That way, easy targets for what was literal highway theft could not be picked out of a sea of motorists.
Backing out of her spot around the rear of the house, Yasmine navigated her way back to the dusty country road. She’d always been given the opportunity to let her car drive itself, but she loved driving too much to let a computer do it for her.
The Anaxagoras Institute for the Advancement of Science, otherwise known as TAIAS or simply Anax, was Yasmine’s home away from home. Her lab was hers and hers alone. Nobody shared the space with her; it was housed in the basement of the 45-story building, 8 levels below the ground. Although she wouldn’t complain if they’d given her a room with a view, her research was largely confidential and had to be out of the way.
Country road gave way to clean suburban streets. Houses of modified concrete were shielded from the elements by black, white, and beige protective panelling. Roofs slanting in a single direction gave them a clean feel. The structures around her slowly grew in height the farther she was from home
The roads sprouted more lanes, and an increasing number of cars wove their way into and out of her path. You knew you’d be hitting the city soon when ads began to light up the sky. Billboards that had been damaged in the war gave companies the idea of creating a sort of advertising that could be easier to update and maintain. Dancing soup containers and pouty models obstructed the sky in patches along either side of the highway.
Once in the city, the sky ads covered the sides of buildings instead, since so little sky was left unobstructed as it was. Sidewalks were often used as projection surfaces as well; the faces of movie stars striking a graceful or exciting pose for upcoming films would be trampled on a daily basis by people trying to get to work on time.
Yasmine pulled into the private parking lot across the street from TAIAS and took her usual spot on the first level. Once she’d reached the major intersection across from the facility, she waited patiently for the pedestrian crossing signal, standing atop a projection of a child eating a jar of something or other. The little traffic person finally lit up, and Yasmine stepped out into street.
The car came out of nowhere. She heard it before she saw it. The loud roar of the engine shook her from the inside as the dark blue van failed to slow down at the red light. She momentarily hesitated, scrambling to decide whether or not it would stop or hit her- and when her appraisal indicated the latter, she had two options: run forward, or run backwards. All these thoughts sped through her mind in just under a fraction of a second.
Before Yasmine could react, a white sedan raced into the intersection. She froze, her eyes moving to the driver of the second car. As if everything were in slow motion, she made eye contact with the woman behind the wheel just before her car T-boned the dark blue van.
The metallic crack was deafening. She jumped violently at the noise, wondering what exactly it was that just happened. Debris flew in every direction. The woman became obscured by the SafeFoam that had inflated to cushion the blow. Usually, AcciDroids and Insurance Robots would flood the scene as though they were white blood cells swarming an injury- however, this time, they stood dormant in their places, as though the accident had never even happened. She waved a hand in front of an AcciDroid stationed at the corner, but it simply looked straight ahead, uncaring.
Yasmine started towards the scene of the accident, but before she could make it too far, she received a call on her nanoparticles. It snapped her out of the daze she was in, and brought her back to her situation.
“Farrah,” Yasmine managed to say. Farrah Willus was the link between the scientists at Anax and the Board of Approval. Yasmine couldn’t hear anyone on the other end.
“Yes, sorry, I’m here. Where are you? Everyone’s already inside!”
“I’ll be right there… it’s just- there was an accident, you wouldn’t believe how it happened it if I told you.”
“Just hurry, please,” Farrah replied, agitated.
“I’m not late, yet,” Yasmine pointed out. Something in Farrah’s voice was different. “Anyways, give me two minutes. Is Leo there?”
“No, not yet.”
“Okay. Keep them busy for me, will you?”
Yasmine hung up the call and, reluctantly, backed away from the scene of the accident. Plenty of other bystanders had rushed to their aid, so her absence wouldn’t necessarily be missed. She couldn’t even see the scene through the crowd anymore. Still, though, she wished she could stay- maybe even find out what happened.
She made her way down the crowded street to the Anax building. The sensors read her INS – innate nanoparticle signal – and allowed her through.
“Welcome, Yasmine Holloway,” a voice greeted her.
The Anax building, Yasmine often told people, was the most beautiful, modernized building she’d ever seen in her life. The building was the shape of a tall trapezoidal prism with very thin rectangular faces on its left and right sides. On top, a white A was projected into the air, floating above the seamlessly mirrored building. No ads dared cover its sides.
Inside, white marbled flooring stretched from one end of the ground level to the other. The matte-white polymer walls made the place look like something from the future- but the roof was her favorite part. The holographic projection would change every day. On Fridays, they’d be under a sky partially obscured by the leafy canopy of the rainforest. On Mondays, it was the northern lights. Today, a Wednesday, there was a soft, comforting rain that seemed to accumulate on a glass roof overhead. Wednesdays were her favourite.
She stepped into the elevator, which was made of clear, shatter-proof panels, allowed it to read the authorization from her nanoparticles and selected the 7th floor. Just as the elevator doors were closing, she spotted a man in black rushing to catch it. She tried stabbing at the manual override button that would hold the doors open, but it seemed to be too late. She didn’t recognize him, so she figured he was probably new.
She shook her leg impatiently, leaning against the silver door. Finally reaching the seventh, she travelled down the spotless, carpeted hall, past the glass-panelled offices, and entered the board room.
Half of the people she’d expected to see weren’t even there. Those that were present had been standing in scattered groups about the room, talking hurriedly in hush tones, but they’d all fallen silent when she’d entered. Some stood with an air of self-importance, while others stood with a posture that was far from anything like that.
The walls were colorless and bare, and the large brushed metal table seemed to belong in a lab more than it did in a board room. The matching metal seats seemed to twist upwards out of the ground to form a slightly concave surface to sit on. She looked to Farrah questioningly, who had a frazzled look to her. The same expression was mirrored on half the faces in the room, while the rest of them just seemed surprised. None of those faces belonged to Leo.
“Good morning,” Yasmine said as she made her way over to the head of the room, confused. “Will anybody else be joining us?”
Farrah cleared her throat. “Nobody else could make it.” She was a tall, scary-skinny woman with shiny, polar blonde hair and sunken eyes that you’d barely notice the color of. She wore a bright white pantsuit, and stood at the head of the table.
“This meeting has been in the books for weeks,” Yasmine countered. Farrah gave a small shrug in response. It seemed that Farrah was just as confused as she was.
“Has anyone heard from Doctor Genix?” Yasmine asked hopefully.
“He’s informed us that there’s been a family emergency,” Dr. Taug replied. Red flag. A family emergency? Why he hadn’t called her, at least? There was no way he wouldn’t. None of this was right.
It was happening. Today was the day.
“I’ll leave you to it,” Farrah said, shooting a look at Dr. Taug before leaving the room. Everyone was still standing.
“Shall we re-schedule, or…?” Yasmine trailed off, looking for any excuse to leave the room and find Leo – in whatever state he might be in.
“The people in this room are certainly qualified to handle your appraisal,” Dr. Taug assured her, an edge of irritation in his voice as he took his seat. The rest of the group followed suit. His hair had lost pigment to the point where it was translucent. His 63 year old body had carried him through an incredibly impressive lifetime, and although there were rumors about his true age, nobody really knew for sure. The way he looked at her now, the contempt in his eyes, made all the sense in the world.
“Okay, then,” Yasmine replied, forcing a smile. She dimmed the overly-bright lights by sliding her finger along a short stretch of the wall by the entryway and pulled her photontab out of her bag. Upon activation, the light-based interface glowed to life, and she sifted through her files to find the folder with her presentation inside of it. She sent it to the main holoconstructor, a small, back metal box in the center of the board room table, with the flick of a finger.
When she saw the colorful chart projected by the holoconstructor floating mid-air surrounded by her appraisers, she felt the panic settle into her chest.
The data was all wrong. This was it.
“Uh, sorry, just give me a minute…”
It was the correct file, but she’d never even seen this data before. Leo didn’t have access to this folder, so it couldn’t be anything he might have changed. Not that he would have, anyways. She double checked the file path… and it had to have been their doing.
Despite of the fact that they were household names within the scientific community, Leo and Yasmine knew this day would come. Conspiracies, these days, were abound. Yasmine herself had extensive experience with such things. They knew that there could be those who were unhappy with their discovery, and that one day, those unhappy people would be at their doorstep – and they had a plan to deal with it.
She composed herself.
“Ladies and gentlemen, it would seem that I’ve loaded the wrong file,” she said, feigning disappointment in herself. “Please allow me ten minutes to retrieve the correct one from my lab system, and I’ll be right back.”
“If you must,” Dr. Taug accepted, nodding towards the door. She smiled at him thankfully and left the photontab on the table to make them think she really did intend to come back. Of course, she had no intentions of anything like that.
A third contingency plan. If she hadn’t been killed by the car that morning, the man would have undoubtedly gotten her in the elevator. If that didn’t work, altered data would drive her back to her lab where he would be waiting.
She did her best to walk naturally out of the board room and in the direction of the elevator, and once she was out of their view, she broke into a sprint. She found the nearest fire alarm and smashed the glass, yanking the little red bar downwards, and threw herself at the stairwell door.
“Holloway 6, power off,” she commanded silently as she flew down flight after flight of stairs. With her nanoparticles offline, she’d be slightly less vulnerable.
All the exits would be unlocked because of the fire hazard. People from the other floors began filing into the stairwell too. Each new face sent her mind racing, but she knew the face she wanted to see wouldn’t be in the building. He would be at the rendezvous, waiting for her… he had to be.
She tried her best to stay balanced, gripping the handles for support. So far, nobody making their way down with her seemed to be a threat- it was obvious that once the fire alarm had been triggered, they’d know. The sudden disappearance of her signal would tip them off, too. This way, at least, she’d be almost invisible to cameras.
Thinking quickly, she knew she’d need some sort of disguise. At the third floor now, she took a quick look around her. The man in front of her was wearing a grey baseball hat. She tapped on his shoulder.
“Excuse me,” she said. The man looked back over his shoulder. “I’m mildly photosensitive, and I left my stuff upstairs, would you mind?”
“Of course,” he grinned. He’d probably bought it for the price of a coffee.
“Thank you so much,” she said quickly, pulling it off his head before he could say anything more and securing it to hers.
“Uh, you okay?” he asked.
“I’m fine,” she said. He turned back around swiftly and sped up.
They streamed out of the door and she pulled the hat down a little further onto her face. She chose the back exit, hoping that they’d think she knew they’d check the back, and instead, they’d check the front.
She was wrong.
On her way towards the corridor that led to the back entrance, she made eye contact with the man she’d seen rushing to the elevator. He was only feet away, and the minute his beady eyes landed on hers, he began to inconspicuously push his way through the crowd. She, on the other hand, turned on her heel and tore through the oncoming human traffic, trying desperately to make her way to the side entrance. She’d be visible to cameras there, but at that point they already knew where she was, so it didn’t matter.
“MOVE,” she yelled urgently, elbowing people out of her path. She looked back. He was gaining ground, also rushing to cut through employees at a quicker pace. She faced forwards and pushed harder, trying not to hurt anyone in her desperate attempt to escape. She made it out of the back corridor and into the main area, which was less packed than it had been earlier. She was able to move much quicker, darting around people on their way out.
The witnesses to the scene would later turn on the news and hear all about the sort of criminal they’d paint her to be… but she could only hope that she’d live to find out what they would choose.
Yasmine sped into a maintenance room and locked the door behind her before crossing to the back of it. There, she knew a door opened into a garage. She wrapped her hand around the old-fashioned handle and twisted.
It was locked.
They’d found her, and had probably activated the lock override. In fact, they were likely working to unlock the one through which she’d entered the closet. Why hadn’t they done it already?
She tried not to let the panic cloud her judgement and looked around the room. What could be weaponized? She found a fire suppression device just as she heard someone outside the door, trying to get it open. She stood at the ready, terrified, hoping that she could disorient him with the spray and hit him hard enough to go down.
“I have lost my mind,” she mumbled to herself. Chaos was not part of the plan. She looked at the thing in her hands and shook her head.
Before long, she heard a loud thud outside the door; it was different than the sounds she heard when he was trying to get in; it sounded like something hitting the ground.
The door slid open to reveal a black-haired woman standing over the man that had been chasing her, but before she could even get out a word, Yasmine activated the spray on the fire suppression device. The woman stumbled back as the thick mist invaded her eyes and mouth. For all Yasmine knew, there was a bounty on her head, and independent guns were clambering over top of one another to bag it. She delivered the final blow, connecting the butt of the device with the side of the woman’s head.
The hit was just hard enough to knock her unconscious. Once the woman was on the ground, Yasmine paused for a moment, in total disbelief that her stupid stunt had actually worked. She dropped the canister and ran out of room, nearly tripping over the man and woman lying on the floor. She rejoined the thinning crowd on their way out of the front exit, pulling her hat down further on her head once again. Her hands shook uncontrollably, and the air seemed freakishly thin.
She made it outside, her head snapping around in different directions, fuelled by intense paranoia. Then, an arm linked with hers.
Yasmine shoved against the contact immediately, before looking up and realizing that Leo had found her. He wore a hoodie over his dress shirt, the fabric doing well to obscure his face.
Yasmine always felt a sincerity in him, and an acute, composed chaos. His face was on the long side, and his skin was a few shades darker than hers. Kinky curls crowned his head and a layer of lazy facial hair framed his rounded features. His mind moved at Mach 7 at all times, however, he was considerate enough to feign Mach 2 as a comfort to everyone else. All of this, and he had only reached his terminum at 35 a few years ago. He was about 38.
“Why aren’t you at the rendezvous?!” she asked.
They rushed along with the crowd, heads down, darting into an alleyway. There, an older car awaited them, as anticipated.
He tossed her the keys – which were practically relics – and she sped down the alleyway, flying around a corner to join the street parallel to the one that Anax opened up onto.
“Are you okay?” She asked rapidly, beating a yellow light.
“I’m fine,” he confirmed. “You?”
“So do we know who’s trying to kill us?” Leo asked, holding onto the sides of his seat. He tried to contain the rattling in his chest.
“Yes,” Yasmine agreed. “Orders from somewhere higher up at Anax. And Taug’s in on it.”
“We can’t trust anyone in that place. I knew we should have taken that offer from the university.”
“They would have gotten to us anywhere.”
“I know,” he sighed.
“Only half the board was there this morning. You know they tried to sell your absence as a family emergency?”
“That’s pretty pathetic. Everyone knows you’re my first call.”
“Grateful that they don’t,” Yasmine replied.
“How the hell did you even make it out of there?”
“It was a collection of things,” she said, slamming on the breaks behind another sedan at a red light. “I think they tried a few times, if I’m being honest.”
Leo only now noticed the subtle shake in her voice, and one to match in her hands.
“Well I think there were two teams, separate.”
“So it’s a bounty?” He asked, skeptical. “That would be too sloppy. Even for them.”
“Well I don’t know what it is, but I mean this morning-” she paused to accelerate when the light turned green and wove around the car obstructing her way. “This morning a car almost drove right into me, but before it could, it was hit by someone else.”
“I wasn’t sure at the time, but now I am.”
“Because after the elevator button failed, essentially saving me from another attempt, I realized when I was starting the presentation that they’d gotten to our files. Changed them so that I’d go back to the lab-”
“Where someone would probably be waiting. The switched file is what tipped me off this morning, too.”
“I figured as much. I’m glad you didn’t try to contact me.”
“Not calling you was… extremely difficult. But I knew you’d figure it out.”
“Yet here you are, instead of hiding out at Dorian’s like we agreed.”
“My paranoia’s paranoid. I’ve never been so happy to hear a fire alarm in my life.”
“Even after I pulled the alarm, they chased me into the lobby supply, and this woman took down the man who’d been on me.”
“Where is she now?”
Yasmine bit her lip. “Well, she’s probably still unconscious.”
“Wait – you took her out?”
“What was I supposed to do? Stop her to have a conversation about it? And what the hell do you mean you?”
“The boxing bag you bought is more of a contemporary art piece.”
“Devil’s advocate, here, but what if she were friendly? I mean, connecting the dots, you’re right. She could have been competing for the bounty. But at the same time, this may have been-”
“A rogue agent or something,” she said quickly as she turned onto the highway. “I realized that after I’d gotten her in the head with the fire suppression device.”
“We can’t trust anyone, anyways,” Leo said. “A fire suppression device, really?”
“I was stuck in the freakin’ supply! It was that or toilet paper rolls.”
He smirked and looked out the window.
“You haven’t gotten word to Sora and Thero, have you?”
“No, I haven’t had time to do much of anything,” Yasmine said, frustrated. “We’ll get a message to them from Dorian’s.”
She sped into the fast lane.
“You’re driving like a maniac, traffic droids will notice our speed,” he warned, noting that they were kilometers over the limit.
“Fine,” she allowed, slowing a bit. “Do you remember the exact address?”
“I’ve got it, don’t worry.”
Yasmine obsessively checked the rear-view camera feeds on her windshield.
“The elevator buttons scream archeology, don’t they?” She said.
“Exactly what I was thinking. It’s a better explanation than rogue agents, and it tells us why they’d have known about us. Maybe there were some that remained active after the Third War? I don’t know.”
Yasmine considered this. “It’s possible.”
“If they are, then they’ll be good enough to find us again.”
“Probably. Dorian won’t be thrilled about that.”
“Understatement,” Leo mumbled.
They drove along for about ten more minutes before Leo pointed out their exit. They ended up on a neglected suburban street.
“Dammit,” she said quietly. The uncomfortable quiver in the center of her abdomen had persisted for a little too long.
“You too?” She asked.
“Feel,” he said, holding the back of his hand up to hers. She cringed away from his icy skin.
“Left here,” he said.
She took the turn onto a shady street surrounded by old bungalows.
“It’s the fifth one, isn’t it?” she asked, only just recognizing the nearly-dead trees who’s branches twisted out of front yards to hang over the road.
“Yeah,” he confirmed. She pulled into the driveway of the fifth house.
It appeared as though it would fall over at the slightest contact. Broken shingles dotted the roof, some missing altogether. The path to the front door was cracked and worn. The white exterior had, over time, grown to take on more of a greyish-beige color. The only sturdy looking part of the house, which was surrounded by half-dead shrubs, was the front door. It opened before either one of them could knock.
“I hate you both,” Dorian said, pulling them inside before slamming the door shut behind them and securing his seven locks.
Dorian was just taller than Yasmine, but just shorter than Leo. He had long brown hair that was pulled into a bun, and huge, blue eyes. His skin was incredibly pale. He seemed to drown in the oversized sweater he wore, which hung halfway to his knees over dingy sweatpants. The inside of his house was equally as neglected as the outside, with stained carpets and peeling oxblood wallpaper.
“So you’ve heard?”
“What do you mean, so you’ve heard? You’re all over the damned news!”
“What?! Already?” Yasmine exclaimed incredulously as he unmuted his ancient television set. It was a 40-inch flat screen that sat atop of two stacks of history textbooks in a corner.
“-ctor Yasmine Holloway and Doctor Leo Genix, former employees at the Anaxagoras Institute for the Advancement of Science, have been implicated in the sale of confidential government information to enemies of the United North West. The doctors fled from TAIAS this morning, resulting in a police chase through the area. Three people reportedly sustained non-life-threatening injuries when the day’s events unfolded. The doctors’ current whereabouts are unknown. Anyone with information should contact communication code 87A3JL8. In other news, the military budget has been expand-”
He muted the television again and shot them a look. The pair were numb. None of it seemed real.
“You idiots couldn’t just keep to yourselves and study some three-eyed plant at the bottom of the sea, could you? You had to go curing SDS and wrecking immortality for the big shots?”
“Is this the time, Dorian?” Yasmine said, rolling her eyes.
“The father of sustainable, plant-based leather! Meera Khanil, the first human on Mars! The Jahni twins and their cure for goddamned depression!”
“Okay! We get it, Dorian. Idiots,” Leo stopped him. “Can we please get on with it? We need to wreck our nanos – they could access the remote boot sector and find us at any minute with the right archaeologist.”
“Gee whiz, Doc, really? Got any more words of wisdom for us, then?” Dorian mocked, angrily motioning to the beaten-up corduroy couch. The two seated themselves without a word. Dorian pulled out what looked like a red magnet bordered by black plastic from the drawer he’d opened and rushed over to them.
“This is gonna sting,” he said, holding the thing up to Yasmine’s temporal bone. Leo shoved his hand between the device and her head as she ducked away from the thing.
“Are you sure about that thing?” Leo asked, his voice tight.
“Do you really think I’d risk having to deal with two very stupid, very dead bodies in my living room? Now get your bloody hand out of my face!”
Leo let his hand fall.
“I’m going to count you in, Doctor,” he said to Yasmine. She nodded once.
A high-pitched frequency tore through her ears, drawing a loud, involuntary groan from her. She almost fell off the couch, but caught herself by clutching to the fabric.
“Sting a little?! Are you kidding me?!” She yelled.
“That was a bit dramatic,” Dorian muttered.
Leo helped Yasmine sit back. Dorian positioned the thing at his head, and pushed the button without warning, again sending a ridiculous, slicing pain through Leo’s brain.
Dorian got up, retrieved a small, black patch from the same drawer he’d retrieved the modified magnet from, and also fished out two jelly-like balls before handing it all over to Yasmine. When their hands brushed against each other, some of the darkness in his face crumbled away. He disappeared into a room and emerged in almost no time at all with a tattered blanket. It smelled like a strange mix of soap, dust, and coffee.
“You know the drill. Tap the usual doorbell pattern onto this thing and it’ll spit out an address,” he said, pointing to the black patch.
“Wait a minute, what address?” Yasmine asked. “Where are the travel chips?”
Dorian bit his lip. “There’s been a change of plans.”
“What do you mean, a change of plans? We need to get out of the country, Dorian.”
“I received an encrypted message while all hell was breaking loose at Anax. They warned that travel chips were no longer a viable exit strategy.”
“And you believe them? Who sent you the message? Couldn’t it have been the people trying to kill us?”
“There are only two archaeologists in history who could’ve hacked me blind. Only two people that could’ve sent me that encrypted message. One of them is dead. The other is an ally.”
The doctors looked at one another.
“We do have a plan B, you know,” Leo pointed out. “It’s not as good, but it will suffice.”
“What’s your plan B?”
“I can’t tell you, obviously. The less you know, the better.”
“You idiots need to trust me, right now,” Dorian replied. “Forget your plan B. You need to go to this address,” he said, pointing to the black patch again.
“Why should we choose your plan over ours?” Yasmine argued.
“Because if your first plan’s fallen through, there could be unforeseen pitfalls in your second one. Just bloody listen to me, will you?!”
After a moment of quiet contemplation, Yasmine gave a small nod.
“Our families?” She asked.
“The arch that sent me this message has also contacted them. They’ll get your parents to safety.”
“They have our parents?!”
“This is insanity, Dorian!” Leo retorted.
“Listen to me,” Dorian argued. “The fake profiles loaded onto the travel chips would have fooled the old software, but there’s a new system in place. Just rolled out a few months ago. It would have chewed you up and spit you out. I wouldn’t have even known about that if she hadn’t told me, and I’ve confirmed it myself. This is your best shot. You can trust these people. I think. No I know you can, yes. You’ll be fine.”
She? Yasmine thought to herself as he rambled.
“When you need to ditch the car, toss these things in through one of the windows while you aren’t inside and all the windows are rolled up. It’ll zap away any fingerprints or DNA you might have left behind.”
“Thanks, Dorian,” Leo said, uneasy.
“I really, truly, don’t want your thanks. Please, just go before you get me shot in the face.”
Dorian ushered them to the front door and cracked it open. Just as they were about to open it further, Dorian stepped in front of them.
“You two might be idiots, but you’re… good. You mean well. So I’ll tell you this: They will not stop. Not until they’re dancing on your damned dematerialized molecules. So don’t even think about trusting anyone other than the people that I’ve pointed you to, for both your sakes,” Dorian said laboriously. “Now get out of here.”
He stepped aside so that they could leave, and again slammed the door shut behind them. Yasmine held the blanket out to Leo as they fast-walked back to the car. He shook his head. “You need it more.”
“Why should I need it more?” she asked.
“Because you’re driving,” he argued. She shrugged and un-crumpled it before they clambered into the car. She wrapped it around her shoulders hastily and pulled out of the drive to head back towards the highway.
“Do you think they’ll have road blocks up yet?”
“Definitely,” Yasmine sighed. “I’ll avoid the highway, just in case.”
Leo tapped at the little black patch, and watched as it projected an address into the air in front of him. “We won’t get to this place until midnight, at least, if we take inner streets.”
“Beats custody,” Yasmine said, intentionally missing the ramp onto the highway. Leo let his head fall back against the headrest.
“We are neck-deep,” he sighed.
“Indeed we are.”
“This place is far-enough out of the way, at least.”
“The surveillance cameras are what worry me, right now.”
“We’ve stuck to dark patches of the city.”
“Dark patches are quite an optimistic concept, aren’t they,” she muttered.
“Don’t remind me. But if we’ve got archs on our side… maybe optimism is warranted.”
Quiet settled into the vehicle as Yasmine wove through the surveillance-free zones they’d mapped out a long time ago.
About a half an hour later, still on their way to the address Dorian had given them, Leo touched a button on the dashboard to stay updated with the news. They were basically just repeating the same story over and over, pulling in analyst after analyst to discuss the traitors. Why have they done this? Where might they go? Are they part of a cell, and if so, how many more are there? Did their neighbors like them? Did their coworkers find them especially strange?
“Vultures,” Leo muttered, turning the volume down so that the stories were just background chatter.
“No, this is a good thing,” Yasmine said sadly. “It might get people thinking, if it stays in the spotlight for long enough.”
Quiet radio gossip filled the car for a while.
“This place that Dorian’s sending us to…” Yasmine began again, a warning in her voice.
“Dorian wouldn’t have sent us there if it weren’t, well, unique. Especially since if we’re caught-”
“He could go down, too,” she shrugged, finishing his sentence. Yasmine stretched out at a red light, pulling herself up against the steering wheel before plopping back against the seat.
“Not yet,” she said. “I’m good, just stiff.”
Hours flew by. The earth turned away from the sun, and before they knew it, they were caught in an ironically beautiful sunset between cities; they were approaching Sonsavas, a city founded during the Third War.
Yasmine drove them down a two-lane road, surrounded by government-protected fields on either side. Everything in her back was incredibly tense. Each muscle was twitching separately. The anxiety mixed with the impatience and the awkward driving position made for a harsh journey.
“Yeah, okay,” she agreed finally.
“Here,” he said, motioning to a neat dirt path leading off of the main road. She took the turn and, putting the car in park, she slowly slid away from the driver’s seat. Her joints complained obnoxiously as she stood.
“Alright?” he asked as she pushed against the car to stretch herself out.
“Fine,” she said, dusting her hands off after touching the dirty metal. Leo, too, pulled himself loose.
“We’re almost there,” she said, passing him on her way to the passenger’s seat.
“Wonderful,” he said unenthusiastically, taking her place in the driver’s seat.
They sat in their new spots, watching the sunset in front of them. She pulled the blanket off her shoulders and handed it off to him.
“It hasn’t hit me yet, either,” Leo noted, taking the blanket. She looked at him, her head resting against the seat.
“Could be worse,” she said. “I just wish we knew what we were walking into, here.”
“We’ll find out, won’t we."
Leo pulled them back onto the main road, and they were on their way.