A GIRL’S HOPE
I’ve survived demons and defied the Archfiend. I’ve clawed through five levels of hell and survived the fires. I’ll never stop fighting, and I’ll never break.
I had a real mother once before I was subjected to foster care. She held me, cared for me, and was proud of me. But she died eleven years ago when I was six. My memories of her are only fleeting whispers in dreams.
The years of one foster home hell after another have shaped me. My skin has become like iron, my will unbreakable, but my confidence has melted, and my anxiety dominates. For a long time, I dragged through life, trying to figure out how to eat and survive.
After a run-in with the law, I knew I needed a better way. My solution was coding, and now it’s my entire life. I went from long days and late nights of driven studies at age nine to winning the NIA hacking challenge at ten. At eleven, I designed a life-changing program, but I shouldn’t talk about that. And for the last six years, I’ve learned and practiced relentlessly, constantly striving for perfection.
I went from a half-starved wraith, wearing stained hand-me-downs, to a healthy teen with an elite reputation on the mesh-site, Progs. I have hundreds of royalty generating applications now. When I move out in a year, I’ll be able to support myself, use my resources to improve the foster care system, and hopefully, make some real friends. Maybe I’ll even find love.
My life improved even more when, six months ago, I moved in with my kind and caring foster mother, Barbra. She cooks delicious meals, talks to me, and plays games. She even has me considering opening up to her, even though I haven’t had a real human connection in years.
A loud pop and flash draws my gaze out the bedroom window to the sunny, tree-lined streets. I smile at the excited kids, too young or sheltered to be scared of the world yet. They wave New American flags and set off fireworks, too eager to wait for the night’s celebrations. I shift my position on the bed and adjust my black dress, the first new one I’ve had in…maybe ever. Barbra wanted to celebrate our first Freedom Day with style. It’s another positive on the unexpected and growing list of them.
“Fae? Are you asleep?” asks Sunny, my best friend, who happens to be a three-foot-tall humanoid robot.
I pull myself from my musings with a shake of my head, my dark curls whipping around. “Is this another one of your jokes? I know your sensory data would tell you if I’m asleep.”
His glowing green mouth stretches into a grin as he shrugs. “You’re distracted. You were going to tell me what a blockchain is and about your foster care blockchain idea.” The humanlike inflection in his slightly robotic voice indicates his genuine interest.
“A blockchain is a distributed ledger for decentralized data storage. It requires no third party. Because of that, administrative costs could be decreased to make foster care more efficient. You could even automate the financial jobs if you integrate a cryptocurrency into the blockchain. That way, foster parents will be paid directly, and children can be paid a stipend.”
Sunny pushes aside some gears and wires as he works on some mechanical invention he’s making. “That would have allowed you to buy food.”
“Right. Even though I figured out a way, I went through some rough years.”
He sparks the soldering gun he recently installed in himself and attaches a computer panel to whatever he’s building. “What would you use the saved money on?”
“Maybe give more to parents to get better applicants. Or you could put more into the vetting and training process.”
“You could also allow foster children to rate their parents on the blockchain,” he says.
He’s so clever. Despite his eleven-year-old body, his mind is only six years old and still developing. “That would be great. Low ratings would get them investigated, and several low ratings would get them dismissed.”
He solders some wires as he nods. “That would have saved you much trouble.”
Sure would have. “It will take a while to program the entire blockchain and devise the rest of the framework, but it will be the best. Then no one will have to go through what I did.”
I want to think more about it, but my current concern assaults my mind like an invading malware. Do I help my friend?
I glance at my quantum-link, the half-quantum, half-conventional computer on my wrist, and feel the pull of my game, Silent City, my other hobby. I wish I could join the imaginary world. It would be a quick escape, but then I’d be no closer to deciding.
“Fae,” I hear Sunny say. He waggles his little humanlike fingers at me.
I clear my head. “Yeah?”
Sunny pushes aside some gears and wires as he retracts his soldering gun. “Look, I built a little friend. It’s like me.” He lifts a six-inch chrome robot. “Its arms and legs are proportional to mine, and its eyes light up. And watch….”
He puts down a tiny robot, and it jogs around the carpet toward my old q-links on my bookshelf. My stomach tightens even though they’re outdated.
Sunny, always perceptive, notices my concern and motions his hand. The mini replica turns and jogs back to him. “What do you have to say, Rice?”
Rice? “What kind of name is that?”
“You like rice. Don’t interrupt,” says Sunny as he motions to his creation.
The little robot rotates to me and says, “Take me to your leader,” in an exact copy of my voice.
Diablo. That’s creepy…but impressive. “There is no one else like you, Sunny.”
He smiles. “Nor you, Fae. Why have you been distracted lately? You made rare errors the last time you played Silent City.”
My concerns settle back around me, darkening my mood. It’s time to face reality. I need to decide if I’m going to help my friend, Blaze. Maybe I can ask Barbra. “Do you think I can trust her?”
Sunny looks down at his robot. “What an unusual question.”
“Not your robot. I thought you were smarter than that.”
“Only as smart as you made me.”
My eyes go wide, and I look toward the door. “Shhh. Don’t ever talk about that.”
He looks away. “Sorry, but I am grateful.” He puts his robot and other parts into his backpack, takes out his gray, stuffed seal, Bean, and climbs onto the bed with his extendable arms.
I smile despite my difficult decision. “How come you still carry Bean?”
He holds his seal tighter as he shimmies over to me. “Why don’t you carry Qubit anymore?”
I glance at my stuffed bear. “The trials I’ve been through have aged me.”
“I don’t understand.”
I shake my head. “It doesn’t matter.” I turn to gaze into the corner, then pull my knees up and rest on them. Should I trust Barbra? She’s been kind and seems to care about me.
But I’ve seen what can go wrong when you trust someone. I can’t even believe I’m thinking about it. Trust. The word makes my stomach turn as I remember all the times it has failed me. But what choice do I have now?
Sunny puts his hand on mine. “You seem unhappy.”
I tilt my head to look at him. “No. I’m—”
“Fae? Did you hear that?” my foster mother, Barbra, calls from the kitchen.
“What?” I yell back. “The fireworks?”
“No. Never mind, but if you hear anything, let me know.”
That’s weird. “Okay.” I turn back to Sunny. “So…”
“Yes?” he asks.
“Do you think I can trust Barbra?”
He looks back, his glowing green eyes unblinking. “How does one determine that?”
“Don’t you know anything?”
He shrugs. “I don’t have the emotional intuition you have, but maybe I can still help. Let’s analyze the situation.”
“I can always count on you.”
“You’ve wanted to be close to someone for as long as I’ve been alive…someone human, that is.”
I want it more than anything. “People are like another species to me.”
“You’ve been spending more time with Barbra, and it seems positive. Just because you’ve had negative experiences in the past doesn’t mean they will continue.”
Negative. That’s an understatement. “Don’t get overly logical.”
“I was simply stating something accurate and important,” he says.
“Always very accurate. Almost robot-like.”
“I need to figure this out soon,” I say, then sigh.
“You should take your time until you have enough data to make a decision.”
My stomach twists. “I don’t have much time.”
“You’re only seventeen. You should have another—”
I huff. “That’s not what I mean.”
“Perhaps if you were clearer.”
My friend Blaze’s plea for help slams back into my brain, like a hammer pounding a nail. I slump forward with the weight of it. Too many questions. Too much pressure. “Just watch this game footage.”
“You play a game?”
I roll my eyes. “You’re funny.”
“It seems as though my research of humor is paying off.”
I glance at my quantum-link and tell it, “Chim, access saved game footage 458.”
Holographic 3D buildings in varying states of ruin materialize between crumbling streets and sidewalks interspersed with trees. My tall, powerfully built avatar stands next to Blaze, my second in command. A bright green headband holds back her wavy dark hair, and an assault rifle is holstered on her back.
She looks at me, then away. Her full lips open and close, and then open again. “So…”
My avatar looks at the ground, saying nothing.
“We’ve had a lot of fun this last year,” she says.
My avatar nods. “We’re a good team.”
Blaze cracks a smile. “Remember that time you tricked RavenSuns into running back to their base just as they were about to win?”
“Fake heat signatures. It never gets old.”
“You saved me from de-leveling and losing my gear. That would’ve been cracked,” says Blaze.
“You’ve saved me enough times.”
She smiles, but then lowers her head and purses her lips. “I need something from you.”
My avatar squints at her. “Are you trying to trade for my K10 laser again? You know it’s my favorite. Now, if you’re interested in my Orion flame thrower, we can talk.”
She shakes her head, looking uncertain. “Not that. I need something out of game.”
I remember my stomach tightening at the words.
“I hate to bring you into this, but I’m in trouble.”
My avatar stands there, firm and strong, but I suddenly feel shaky.
“Let’s go to a private room where we can talk,” she says.
Seconds later, we materialize next to the expensive-looking oak desk in my virtual office at our guild headquarters.
She fidgets with her headband.
“I know we haven’t talked much about our personal lives, but we’ve talked every day for a year, and I feel like we’ve become good friends.”
I wasn’t as sure, but the suggestion warmed my heart. “I love our time in-game, and no one has more programming tips than you.”
Her holographic face lights up, then dims a second later. “I…” she says but hesitates.
My avatar taps nervously on her arm.
“I recently went through something…it was terrible. It’s why I haven’t been in-game lately. I…want to tell you, but I can’t relive the details right now. I’m in a bad spot because of it. I lost my home and income, and I have medical bills to pay.”
My heart wrenches again from the anguish in her voice. I know what it’s like.
“Now, you don’t have to help me. I don’t want to bring you into trouble, but I need you for a hack. It’s the only way I’ll survive.”
My stomach twists at hearing the words again. Do I help her or not?
“You’re the legendary hacker, Blaze. You taught me tons in the last year. Why would you need me?” my avatar asks.
She looks down. “It’s embarrassing, but I don’t program in SAS, and part of the attack needs that code. I know you can do it. This is risky for me, and if you don’t help, I might fail, but I’ll try anyway. If it helps you decide, my plan won’t hurt anyone. I would never do that. I don’t want to pressure you, and if you decide not to help, I’ll understand. It’s on in one week.”
My avatar starts to open her mouth, and I remember not knowing what to say.
“You don’t have to answer now. Just think about it.”
The hologram fades away.
I turn to Sunny. “You were in sleep mode when she asked me. I know you didn’t want me to hack anymore, so I didn’t want to bring it up.”
“Still, you’ve done it many times since I told you it was risky,” he says. “Why not just help her?”
I swallow. “I did something else you missed.”
“It was an impulsive hack,” I say, feeling sick at the memory. “I didn’t even think it would work, but it went badly.”
“Are you in trouble?”
“No, it doesn’t seem like it,” I say.
“Then what happened?”
I shiver at the memory. I swear I’ll make amends someday. “I don’t want to get into that now, but I don’t want to hack anymore.”
“What’s the problem then? Just don’t help her.”
I sigh again. “It’s not that easy. You heard her. She’s in bad shape.”
“So you want to help her?” asks Sunny.
“Yes, in a way.”
“You seem confused.”
I stand and pace around my small bedroom, dragging my bare feet on the high carpet. “I am. I don’t want to hack, but Blaze needs me.”
“I don’t think you should do it. You’re too important.”
I run a hand over my face. “Thanks, but I can’t decide that easily.”
“I wonder what happened to her?” he asks.
“Who knows, but it sounded bad.”
“Is she your good friend like she said?”
“She’s something, for sure. We’ve been on a thousand missions together. She’s taught me tons of programming and hacking tricks. Plus, we talk every day about our gaming exploits. She’s like a friend, and I call her one, but I’m not sure if it’s true. We never even met in person, and you know my second law.”
“Then why consider trusting your foster mother? That would also break the law.”
He’s right. I drop back onto the bed. Sunny bounces and falls to his side.
“Oops, sorry.” I reach out to help him up.
A static shock jolts my hand, and I jerk it back. Oww.
“You always drag your feet and shock yourself,” he says. “But we should get back to Barbra and the second law…”
I sigh, preferring the temporary distraction. “You’re right,” I say, pulling at my shirt. “I created the law for a reason, but she’s not like my other foster demons. She treats me as well as my real mother did.”
“You always speak highly of your mother. I wish I could have met her.”
“She was everything to me. The only person who ever cared. You would have loved her. Can you get me my dad’s letter?”
A small compartment on the side of his chest opens, and he hands me an envelope. I open it and take out my mom’s picture, the only picture I’ve ever had a physical copy of. I smile at the image of her in front of our red and blue family home. I keep the side with my father on it folded over. I never knew him, but I definitely don’t like him.
“You think Barbra could be like your mother?” he asks.
The thought of it sounds crazy. I’ve wanted someone in my life for years but never thought it could be possible. “I don’t know. I’m going to have to feel it out.”
His glowing green mouth dips down. “So you’ll use intuition to decide? I can’t help you then. I’m not human.”
I know he can’t get upset, but it seems like he does whenever he talks about not being human. “You’re just as human to me.”
“Then why do you always say you want a human connection?” he asks, his frown still present.
Oops. “I’m sorry, Sunny. You’re everything to me.”
I drag myself off the bed, the stress sapping my energy, and hold out my hand to him. He accepts, then hops off the bed, his stuffed animal, Bean, still in his other arm.
I rummage through my messenger bag, moving my steel water bottle aside to find a letter. I stuff it into my pocket. “Come on.”
Sun streams in through the skylights, illuminating Barbra’s many oil paintings adorning the walls. My eye catches the large rendition of Samuel Adams in his colonial clothes. He holds the New American flag in one hand and the new constitution in the other.
Red, white, and blue streamers crisscross the kitchen, and a flag hangs from a pole. The smell of frying potatoes and vegetables fills my nose. The morning news chatters in the background as holograms project from Barbra’s old q-link that lies on the counter. The decorations are new, but the smell of delicious food and the morning news are mainstays.
Barbra is at the door checking the locks, something she started doing more often lately. She turns around, and her standard affectionate smile makes her chubby cheeks puff out. The bags under her eyes are even darker today, though. “Happy Freedom Day, Sweetheart. Can you believe it’s been eighty years since the 2040 revolution?” she asks, her voice muffled from the flu.
Barbra stumbles, looking like she’ll topple over. I dart to her side and stabilize her.
“I’m fine. I’ve just been a little dizzy.” She hugs me. Her lavender and citrus perfume stays behind as she releases me.
Her hugs used to feel suffocating, but over the months, that has changed. Now, I find myself breathing instead of holding my breath.
She studies me. “You’re so beautiful with those big brown eyes and that copper skin.”
I wave away the compliment.
“Your parents must have been quite the pair. What was their ancestry?”
“My mom was Dominican. I have no idea what my dad was.”
“Dominican. That’s what I see in you.” She brushes her long bangs from her eyes and stirs the sizzling potatoes. “I’m making extra breakfast since it’s a holiday…and to fatten you up.”
I look at my bony wrists, then grimace as my eyes land on the knotted burn scar. Barbra glances at it but says nothing since I’ve told her I don’t want to talk about it.
“What do you think about my decorations? If I didn’t have this darned flu, I would have done more.”
I look around the festive room again. How much more decorative could it get? “They look great.”
“According to the news, the flu is really spreading this year. I even got the flu shot. Can you believe it?”
Even though I never get sick, I tuck my hands into my pockets.
Barbra shrugs. “What are you going to do? Ooo, we should watch fireworks from the roof tonight.”
It would be the first time in years that I’ve celebrated anything. “Sure. You’re feeling well enough?”
“I’ll lie down for a while after we eat. I’ll be just fine,” she says, then adds egg substitute to the home fries.
Barbra’s q-link emits a familiar electronic jingle. “Do do do. Evo, the next stage of evolution.”
I roll my eyes at the holograms floating above it. Looks like they have a new commercial.
An older woman with crow’s feet glances at her wedding ring, then frowns at a balding man with a round stomach.
“Unhappy with your partner’s declining appearance?” asks a disembodied male voice.
The couple nods.
With the Evo’s augmented reality program, everyone is attractive.”
The woman’s wrinkles vanish, and the blonde in her hair chases away the gray. The man’s stomach flattens, and his hair fills in. They smile at each other. The image fades as he leans in to kiss his upgraded lady.
Another scene appears. A man in a crumpled business suit sits at a cubical and sighs.
“Does your job have you burned out?”
The businessman nods.
“With the Evo’s direct brain link, you can learn anything instantly, communicate telepathically, and finish your work in a quarter of the time.”
The scene fades to another with the businessman leaning back in his chair, his feet on his desk.
A hologram of a man opening a package appears. He pulls out a thin, half-centimeter device with a huge smile. Seconds later, he holds the device to his temple, and it disappears into his head.
“The Evo installs in seconds, and you can easily uninstall anytime you like,” the narrator says. “Upgrade your brain in the next stage of evolution with the Xyphotech Evo. It’s the only unhackable brain device in existence. No credit, bad credit, no problem. And now, with the twenty percent discount, the Evo is affordable for your entire family.”
A hologram of a well-dressed mother and two young boys appears in the air. They’re sitting in what looks like a tech mogul’s mansion and smiling at each other as if they just won the lottery.
“Think smarter, faster, better. Evo: the next stage of evolution.”
I shake my head, my eyes narrowed. “You can watch the news directly inside your brain with your Evo, you know.”
“I know,” says Barbra. “I’m just used to this. Did you get to see my Navin painting? I did a lot last night.”
I don’t know why she likes the dead revolutionary so much. Are things even better now than they used to be? “I’ll check it out.”
“He was so handsome, and I’m doing him justice,” she says with a big grin. “I’m excited to finish it now that I have the time after leaving my job at Fort Stroudsburg.”
It’s weird that she left her job. She always talked about how much she loved contributing to our great country. “How come you quit? I thought you loved being an analyst.”
She stares off for a moment. “I realized what’s important in life. It’s not a job or an obligation, it’s health and happiness. And you just hear so many distressing things being an analyst. Plus, now I can spend more time with you before getting a new job.”
That’s nice of her.
“Luckily, since I have the Evo now,” she says, pointing to her temple, “I can get a job anywhere. It’s strange to be one of the evolved. Even President Toscano and VP Garza are norms.”
I look down to hide my distaste. I’m sure they’d become evolved if allowed.
Sunny hugs my leg. He knows how much I hate the Evo.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” says Barbra. “I know you don’t have one. You know, they’re cheap now. I could get you one.”
I shake my head more violently than necessary. If she only knew what happened to me, she’d never talk about it. I’ll always remember when my dying mother made me swear never to upgrade. I was only six, but I take the pledge as seriously as ever.
As if I didn’t have enough of a reason to hate it, it allows for programming speeds of up to eighty percent faster than q-links. I’m fast, but I can’t even imagine how good I’d be with that increase. Not fair.
She covers a sneeze. “If you change your mind, tell me. I know how much you like to program.”
The teakettle whistles and Barbra jumps, looking startled. She grabs it and turns it off.
The holographic newscaster appears again. “And now, an update on the unfortunate NIA spy blimp crash at a Stroudsburg, PA wedding reception, which left the groom dead and the bride injured.”
My stomach sinks, and I feel queasy. I don’t want to watch this again, but I can’t turn away.
“After a two-week investigation, the crash was ruled an accident. The blimp driver, who escaped with minor injuries, claims to have lost control because the bride’s father possessed him. Investigators believe that the father’s protest against the National Intelligence Agency’s presence may have distracted the driver,” says the newscaster.
My eyes widen at the possession remark.
The newscaster continues, “The driver is being charged with manslaughter and has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. Here’s the footage.”
A hologram of the wedding reception materializes above Barbra’s q-link. A powerful-looking Indian man with a full, graying beard shouts at an NIA blimp with other guests. Suddenly, the blimp accelerates and veers into the crowd. Men in suits and women in gowns scatter. The bride trips on her dress, and the groom runs to help her. The blimp crashes into them.
“The bride’s father left us with this quote,” says the newscaster.
The camera zooms into the horrified look of the gray-bearded protest leader. “The fourth amendment prohibits the government from limiting our right to privacy. The NIA blimp program is a violation of this right. It’s unforgivable that it led to my daughter’s injuries and her husband’s death. The rule that people can’t sue the NIA is absurd. There will be no justice for this.”
I’ve hated the NIA ever since my mother told me what they did. Or, at least, since I realized what it meant for her. But now, I hate them twice as much for disrupting that wedding.
When the father of the bride’s protest went live on local news, I remember being so angry that they’d ruin someone’s fairytale day. I imagined myself at the wedding, somehow lucky enough to be getting married. I would have been furious at those devils. Now, a man is dead.
I grab my stomach, feeling even sicker. Sunny frowns up at me and clutches my other hand.
The image of the reception disappears and is replaced by a blonde news anchor with unnaturally plump lips.
“Director Tempton of the NIA has left us with this statement, ‘The use of blimps for surveillance has been ruled constitutional. Although we mourn the loss of life, the NIA protects your children from the ever-present threat of missile strikes from the Republic of South America. We all must remain vigilant for our loved ones. Surveillance saves lives.’”
“Up next,” says Barbra’s q-link, “President Toscano’s Freedom Day speech.”
I turn to Barbra, considering what to say to see if I can trust her. The demonic image of my first foster father, the Archfiend, creeps into my mind.
A shiver runs through me.
I force away the memory. Something smaller. Maybe something about my mother…yeah. “Barb—”
“Hold on,” she says. “Can you check the door locks? I want to see this.”
I frown. Paranoid much? I go to check the back door, and Sunny follows me. It’s still locked. Next to the door, a baseball bat is propped against the wall.
“Just be careful with the carpet. I just cleaned them.”
I laugh to myself. She cleans them like every four days.
Next to the bat, at Barbra’s painting station, is a huge, mostly finished portrait that rests on an easel. Barbra has been working on it sparingly for the last six months, but as she said, she made good progress last night.
I admire the realism of Navin’s partially finished face and his pet raven, Ron Paul. I take a moment to appreciate her work, then leave for the kitchen.
“In this year 2120, we are blessed to live in the freest country in the world,” says President Toscano on the news.
The audience cheers.
Her sharp features and animated hand motions make her look like a natural leader. Her skin is smooth like someone in their thirties despite being in her forties. Vice President Garza stands to her right, his dark eyes fixed proudly on her.
President Toscano smiles as she waits for the applause to die down. “Today, we celebrate the Great American Revolution where General Navin Briggs and other patriots saved fathers, mothers, and children from oppression and corruption. We now have unprecedented freedom, gold-backed money, and our median income is higher in real terms than ever before. We have learned the importance of antitrust laws, political spending limits, lobbying bans, and competition for a free and prosperous society. We have almost no corruption because of our small transparent government, strong whistleblower policies, and watchdog agencies. And we’ve had zero armed conflicts since the revolution.
“Like all nations, we have challenges. The Republic of South America has made great strides in computing and technology, rivaling our very own Xyphotech. But our Evo is superior to their Eletron, just as we are the superior nation. We will overcome these challenges thoroughly but peacefully and usher in our next great era.
“Through our remembrance of General Briggs and the new stronger constitution he brought us, we remain free and prosperous. Happy Freedom Day, everyone!”
The view pans out to a vast audience of excited people who clap and cheer.
Barbra whistles in celebration. “Freedom! Toscano is wonderful. She’s really stayed true to our traditions of liberty and limited government, especially since she’s critical of the NIA. Garza’s tech trade war with the RSA is going to hurt everyone, though.”
I nod to her. I never listened to one of the president’s talks before and cheated my way through American History. I suppose it must be much better for people now, but why didn’t they fix foster care?
Maybe they weren’t capable. Looks like it’s up to me.
I return to the living room to do some programming. “Chim, activate sub-routine two-hundred-ten and lines thirty through fifty of protocol B.”
Lines of code and graphical interfaces rise as holograms from my q-link.
“Programming your blockchain?” asks Sunny.
“You know it,” I say, then continue rattling off predefined command words, which build lines of code.
Holograms zip around as my fingers and hand fly through the motions of moving, deleting, duplicating, and altering snippets of code. I use an enhanced coding program of my own creation, designed to make the process even faster. I quickly compile various sections, and the general framework of my blockchain begins to form.
“Boy, do your fingers move fast,” Barbra says behind me.
I flinch and look back. “Do they?” I ask, with a nervous laugh.
She shakes her head fondly. “You don’t even know how special you are.”
I look down as a smile tugs at my lips.
“Well, breakfast is ready.”
I accept the warm plate from her, and the aroma makes my stomach growl.
With a knowing look, Barbra takes the plate back to heap more food on it. “I hear you talking to your Foster Buddy all the time. You know I’m here to listen. I mean, if you’d like a human ear now and then.”
I sit at my usual place, where a steaming cup of tea waits. What she doesn’t realize is that I talk to her more than any person in the last eleven years. “I’m just shy.” And careful. “Sunny, will you wait for me in my room?”
With a nod, he waddles down the hall.
Barbra sneezes again.
“Bless you,” I say around a mouthful of food. It’s delicious.
“I noticed Sunny sounds creepy smart sometimes.”
My breath catches in my throat.
“Not like those horrid AIs, but smart,” she says. “I thought those Foster Buddies were supposed to be dumb.”
Intelligent AI are banned. She can never know about Sunny. A lie rolls off my tongue, “I did a minor language adjustment to make him sound smarter.”
Barbra puts her hand on mine in a motherly way. Various colors of paint are flecked on her fingers. “You’re so clever.”
My first instinct is to pull away, just like any time someone touches me. I don’t because I know she cares, even though she’s exposing me to her flu.
I consider opening up to her about my past, but when my stomach flutters, I chicken out. Instead, I grab my letter and hand it to her. “Here’s my final report card. It came in the mail yesterday.”
Barbra rips it open and scans it. “Let’s see. Fae Luna. Junior. Would you look at this? All As.”
I smile at her, loving that she’s impressed. I never got anything worse than an A after the foster demons in my second hell made me sleep outside for a night when I failed a class. I even got A’s in history without reading anything. I wonder what I’ll do next year though if I’m not hacking the teacher guides and test answers.
“Oh, it says here you don’t participate in online discussions.”
I consider lying again. I have my whole life to avoid problems, but I want things to be different with Barbra. “I’m just too nervous to speak to so many people.”
“You’ll get there.”
“…and that is why we’ve commissioned a new Navin Briggs statue,” says the president. “And it’s right here at the National Mall!”
Barbra gasps and twists to watch the projection. “What a great surprise.”
I roll my eyes behind her back.
“Did you know that General Briggs once had information to cripple a key military base if he acted quickly,” says Barbra. “He also learned they planned to strike a hospital they believed to be a rebel stronghold. It wasn’t, and Navin gave up his golden opportunity so he could evacuate the hospital. That’s the kind of man he was.”
My eyebrows rise. “Not bad.”
“He was also a huge environmentalist and animal lover,” she says. “Before the revolution, our water and air were poisoned, and millions of animals were dying. Navin turned it all around, and now we have the healthiest environment in the world.”
He does sound impressive.
The camera slides to another section to show an immense statue covered in a tarp. Holograms of Navin Briggs and his historical moments, like when he stormed the Pentagon, project behind the monument.
“And here it is…Navin Briggs the Bringer of Freedom,” says President Toscano.
The tarp zips off the statue and reveals Navin Briggs dressed in a military jacket, his medals showing proudly. His raised fist glows with holographic radiance, and his raven stands guard on his shoulder, its wings spread.
Looks great. I glance at Barbra to see her reaction.
She’s staring into the corner, her brow furrowed.
I wait for her to turn back, but she just keeps staring. “Barbra?”
She starts and turns back to me. “What were we talking about? The garden?”
I squint at her. What? “No. You were watching the unveiling.”
“Oh, yes.” She turns back to the holograms. “That’s wonderful. Have you ever been to the National Mall?”
I shake my head. Not there or anywhere else.
“I’ll take you on a trip there now that school is over.”
I smile at her. My first vacation.
We finish eating, and I start washing the dishes. “Barbra, can I tell you—”
“Hold on. I heard something.” She jumps up and jogs to the living room with a surprising amount of energy for someone who has the flu.
What? I didn’t hear anything.
“You’re not getting in here,” she shouts.
Adrenaline shoots through me. What the hell? I grab a kitchen knife and sprint into the living room.
Barbra holds her bat ready, scowling out the window unlike I’ve ever seen her.
“What’s going on?” I ask, my heart pounding.
Barbra wheels on me. “How did you get in here?” she demands, her typically cheerful smile lines suddenly looking menacing.
I twist around, my knife ready, expecting to see a burglar.
There’s no one there.
“Get out of here now, or you’re going to get it,” she shouts, looking right at me.
“What? It’s me, Fae.”
She seems to recognize me for a second, but then it’s gone, and her eyes fill with anger. “Die!” She lunges toward me and swings wildly.
Diablo! I dodge away reflexively. Though I’ve never had to dodge Barbra before, it’s clear my instincts are still sharp.
She smashes through a lamp and into her Samuel Adams painting. I stare at its ripped surface in horror.
She swings again.
I try to leap backward to avoid the strike but slip to the ground. My knife flies from my hand. The bat whistles just above my head.
In a flash, I bolt up and into my room. I press myself against the door, panting and wishing it had a lock. Oh hell, this is crazy.
Barbra throws herself against the other side. Her weight sends me sliding back slightly. Not enough to allow her in but enough for the carpet to burn my bare feet.
Sunny, seeing me hold the door, jumps off the bed and runs over. He braces it with his extendable arms, and although he’s small, he’s stronger than he seems.
“How dare you threaten my child!” Barbra slams the door again.
It hits my head, but I barely feel it. What’s going on?
She pushes again with sustained strength. Sunny and I slide an inch but manage to hold.
“Diablo,” says Sunny. “What happened, Fae?”
I ignore him and shout, “It’s me. It’s me.” My eyes dart around my room, looking for a better solution to hold the door. The bed would help, but it’s too heavy to move quickly. The chair!
“Sunny, hold the door.” I jump up and bolt over to the chair.
Barbra pounds the door again, and Sunny falls backward.
My heart leaps. “No.” I sprint back and push the door shut, hoping I don’t hurt Barbra in the process, but terrified she’s going to hurt me.
I wedge the chair under the doorknob and hold it with both hands. Sunny pushes himself up and helps me.
A second passes. Then another.
Maybe she left—
Something crashes into the door with a loud bang, and then again, louder. “Don’t you hurt her!”
The hollow door shakes with each impact. Bang. Bang. Bang.
I was a fool to let my guard down.
The bat smashes through the middle of the door and slams into my chest.
I lurch back in shock and gasp at the pain, then in desperation, I regain my footing and secure the chair. “Stop. Stop. Go away!”
Sunny lets go of the chair and runs over to his bag.
“What are you doing?”
He ignores me, rummages around in his bag, and pulls out the tiny robot he made. He dashes back and throws the robot through the hole.
Sunny moves his mouth, but no words come out. Instead, a deep voice sounds from somewhere behind Barbra. “Ma’am. This is the police. We’re here to help.”
I jump at the voice, but then realize what’s happening.
“Thank God,” says Barbra. Her footsteps cross the room.
I hold the door, still tense, my heart pounding. I listen carefully for any indication she might come back as I glance at the two windows for a possible escape.
After a few minutes, I ask, “Do you think it’s over?”
“Impossible to say. I recommend we keep holding the chair.”
We hold the chair for twenty minutes, barely moving.
Eventually, I drop down with a tense sigh and rub my temples. I’m exhausted and frazzled.
“That was not consistent with her personality,” says Sunny.
I shake my head, feeling like the world is spinning. That was cracked. “I don’t understand. She thought I was an intruder.”
“She saw you as someone else?”
“It seemed that way,” I say.
“A hallucination, perhaps.”
“There are several medical conditions involving hallucinations, as well as several hallucinogenic drugs…LSD, psilocybin, mescaline—”
“No, not drugs.” I know what that looks like.
“Schizophrenia, perhaps. Does she have paranoia?” he asks.
“Apparently now she does.”
“Without more data, I can only assume it’s schizophrenia.”
I run my fingers through my thick curls and hold my head. “What do we—”
I jump, but as I see the shimmer of another firework outside, I relax. “I could call child services, but they’d take me away.”
Sunny extends an arm to grab his seal and holds him in one arm. “Maybe that would be for the best.”
I wring my hands. “Is this treatable? Could she be normal again?”
“Yes, there are several effective medications. Trioxidine, Statrenadol—”
I wave my hands. “That doesn’t matter now. I don’t want to risk calling child services.” Barbra cares about me, at least.
“Take her to the doctor then.”
“I can’t drive until I’m eighteen. Plus, we’d have to get her to agree to go.”
“Sounds dangerous,” he says.
“Ambulance,” I say. I’ve never called one and, somehow, it makes me even more anxious. I suck it up and lift my q-link closer to my mouth. “Chim, call nine-one-one.”
After the call, I rub the dent on Sunny’s head that he got protecting me. I flash back to my fifth hell.
An old burly demon raises a belt. Sunny leaps in front of me to block the strike. The demon growls and swats him aside. Sunny smacks his head on a metal table. I try to run to him, but the demon’s claws gouge into my arm.
He leans in, his breath sour. “Don’t do it again. Go pick up your toy.”
I jog over to Sunny and help him up. “Are you okay?”
“I don’t feel pain, but you do. I didn’t want you to get lashed by the belt again.”
The memory fades, but Sunny’s love and dedication remain. I rub the dent again, and tension flows from my body.