Three shadowed figures stood outlined by a green light, shining starkly against the black and grey panels of the hall. With their night sticks in one hand and detection equipment in the other, they peered through abandoned rooms in search of the fugitive. The emerald glow from their visors illuminated their paths without disturbing the building’s inhabitants.
Not far from them was their target: an eighteen year-old woman, battered and stained with dirt and sweat—recently escaped from prison. Iris Kayn crouched behind a large piece of debris, watching the lights dance across the walls until they became dim.
Peeking around the side of her sanctuary, Iris determined how much distance was between her and the pursuers. When they were approximately fifty feet away, she crept slowly down the hall, careful not to slip in the sludge that lined the floor. More than once, she was tempted to pull her twin long knives from their sheaves, but she didn’t dare risk creating any noise. In order to remain calm, she took slow breaths of the stagnant, refuse-smelling air; if her heart beat rose above a certain level, her assailants would detect it with their sensors.
From what Iris could tell, the Agents were all men; they had bulky, triangular torsos and massive upper arms. Their boot-clad feet echoed heavily through the corridor, no matter how gently they tried to tread.
The game of chase lasted a couple more moments until the three men stopped at an intersection. The tallest of the men pointed at the squat, husky one with arms as thick as his legs and motioned to the left. To the gangly, slim Agent, he nodded right. The towering figure—most likely the squad captain—headed down the forward tunnel after taking one last look in Iris’s direction.
Part of Iris wanted to turn back the way she had come, but she was sure that there were even more Agents behind her. Making up her mind, she pulled out her knives and turned the right corner towards the skinny one. She found him a few apartments in, scanning the darkness with his instruments. Without hesitation, she thrust her blades through his back. Iris grabbed the body as it fell and gently laid it on the ground.
She then turned back and went after the shorter, bulkier Agent. Minutes passed as she stepped through the filth towards her second prey, until she finally reached the green glow. It seemed like it would be another effortless kill as she tailed the unsuspecting Agent. Iris drew closer, lifting her knives and preparing to strike.
Before her blades could make contact with the man’s skull, he spun and parried her attack with his night stick. The detection instruments fell to the rusty metal floor, causing a clang to echo down the intersecting hallways. He blocked her strikes again and again, generating noise that awoke the nearby Underlings.
Iris knew it was only a matter of time before the final Agent came running up the passage; she needed to finish him quickly. With the flick of the wrist, she pinned the Agent’s night stick against the wall and sliced her free knife across the man’s throat. Blood spurt from the wound as he fell to the floor with a thump.
Foot-steps sounded down the corridor at a fast rate. Iris ducked out of sight just as just as the last Agent came into sight. The squad leader was slightly out of breath as he surveyed the scene, holding his broadsword out in front of him. He turned to resume the search of his fugitive. After a few steps, he paused.
Iris couldn’t tell what caused him to stop. She held her breath and hoped that she hadn’t left any clues as to where she hid.
A blade was suddenly at her throat. “Nice try, Miss Kayn,” the squad captain said. “Drop your weapons and stand up slowly.”
She moved as though to throw her blades down, but tightened her grip at the last moment. Iris flung her knives up to deflect the sword, but only hit air. Confused, she turned to see the captain swinging at her back. Instinctively, she fell to the floor, her face smashing into the hard metal. As she moved to roll away, something heavy landed on her shoulders. With a groan, Iris dropped her knives.
When she was no longer armed, the man got off her and kicked the blades away. The man tossed her a pair of hand cuffs. “You can either put those on or I’ll beat you until you can’t move—then I’ll put then on you.”
For a moment, Iris simply sat there on the cool metal floor. She wouldn’t obey until she figured out how he found her. She glanced around and noticed bloody footprints that tracked from the dead Agent to where she had knelt. Reluctantly, she secured the restraints to her wrists.
Her vision went blurry and then everything grew dark. The smell of grime and bodily fluids disappeared, as did the cold floor. The cuffs no longer cut into her skin and she couldn’t feel the ragged, thread-bare clothes that covered her body; there weren’t sensations of any kind.
A rush of feelings swarmed her brain. She sat on something soft and plush in a warm room. Light filled her eyes, blinding her temporarily as she blinked them into focus. She was in her study with a Simulation visor over her eyes. A curse tore from her lips as she stood, swinging a pair of imaginary knives at the absent foes.
“Iris! My pancakes are burning!”
Rushing down the hall, she yelled, “I’m coming!” Iris took the stairs two at a time and rushed into the kitchen. Her father stood over the smoking skillet. She pushed him away from the stove and began cleaning up the black mess. “Sorry, I’ll have your pancakes ready in a few minutes.” When she finished washing the skillet, she poured fresh batter into it. “Here you go.” Iris placed the morning’s news-disc in front of him before returning to the range.
Dr. Kayn took a seat at the table, slid the coin-sized disc into his OMNI, and poured himself a cup of coffee from the pot on the kitchen table.
When the pancakes were done, Iris grabbed an empty plate, took a seat across from her father, and picked up an apple from the basket beside her. She poured herself a cup half filled with coffee and half with sugar and milk.
“What’s so important about these Simulations, anyways?” her father asked, looking up from his OMNI. “There are other things you could be doing. How long has it been since you picked up a book or spent time with Claire?”
“It’s part of my Agency Project,” Iris explained, trying to eat and talk at the same time. “And I speak to Claire every night before I go to bed.”
Dr. Kayn gave her an irritated glare. “Talking to Claire is different than seeing her.” He took a deep breath before asking, “What exactly is your Project about?”
“I’m finding faults with the Agency Simulations,” she explained, confused as to why he was so interested in her work all of a sudden. “Normally, they are for strategy training, programmed to act in accordance with Protocol. In the one I was just running, I play a convict trying to escape from prison. My goal is to find holes in the security.”
“Is there another Simulation that you can try and fix? It seems a little obsessive to repeat the same situation over and over again.”
Iris clenched her teeth as she replied, “I’ve already been through all the other ones. I found several flaws, but most Sims are absolutely perfect and can’t be improved in any way.” How could she explain it in a way he would understand? “This is the last Sim and then my Project will be complete. I want to finish it before I begin Placement Testing. I don’t want to divide my time between assignments and completing my Project. Besides, Claire is probably finished with hers by now.”
“Her plans to improve the Optimized Media Network Interface?” Dr. Kayn pinched the bridge of his nose. “And would Claire’s parents be okay with it if she sat for hours each night with her brain synced to a computer?”
“The Birch have too many children to know or care what they’re doing.”
“I know.” Air quoting, she said, “It’s rude to talk about friends in that way.” She had only said what she did because she was jealous. Sometimes she wished she had seven brothers and sisters like Claire. Iris knew that there would have been more Kayn children if circumstances were different.
As he gulped down the last sip of his coffee, Dr. Kayn asked, “Have you taken your medicine?”
She cleared her plate and placed it in the dishwasher. “I’m about to.” From a drawer next to the sink, Iris pulled out a box of syringes. “You do realize that I’m eighteen, making me old enough to remember my injections, right?” She tightly secured a band of rubber around her upper arm.
“Of course. I only ask out of habit. Starting tonight, you won’t have me to remind you.”
“And starting this afternoon, you’ll no longer have someone to cook for you.” Iris removed the cap off a syringe and then placed the three-inch needle in the crease of her elbow. “Have you figured out how to cope without me?” She pushed the plunger in and the clear liquid poured into her veins.
Dr. Kayn picked up his dirty plate and walked up to her. He took the syringe from her and discarded it in the trash pipe. “I was going to have Audrey do whatever I need.”
“Dr. Taledon is your lab assistant, not your servant,” Iris protested while flexing her elbow. “She won’t like being told to cook, clean, and do your laundry. Remember what happened the last time you asked her?”
Leaving him to contemplate that memory, Iris went back upstairs. She dressed in her light grey Candidate uniform. The tailored blazer and pants fit snuggly. She had spent the past month breaking in her leather boots, wearing them around the apartment as much as possible. There were gloves that came with the uniform, although it was optional to wear them; they were meant for sparring and were strapped nicely to a utility belt when not in use. She tightly pulled her sandy-blonde hair back into a neat ponytail.
She arrived downstairs to see that her father was surprisingly ready for the day. He had dressed in his finest casual clothes: a blue and white striped collared shirt, khaki slacks, and black leather loafers. His light brown hair had been carefully combed over to hide the bald inches of skin above his forehead.
Dr. Norman Kayn stared at a picture of Iris’s mother. Dr. Teresa Kayn was posed as though she were dancing, her blonde, flower-decorated hair flowing to the side of her smiling face. He placed the frame into the packed hover cart that took up the entire living room. “Are you sure you have enough syringes?” Norman shuffled into the kitchen and pulled out the box of needles. “Remember what happened that time that you missed a dose?”
She shuttered, re-experiencing the memory. “Yes, I remember. I have a four-month supply. I’ll make sure I come and visit you before I run out.” She took the box from him and placed it on the coffee table.
“Miss Birch still doesn’t know, right?”
“No, she doesn’t,” Iris assured him. “Claire knows that I take supplements, but not the exact reason why. The prescription labels you made should help disguise them.” She grabbed her pack and flung it onto her back so that it rested snugly between her shoulders. “Since they’re simply high doses of calcium, Vitamin C, and other nutrients, I could just say that I need them for my rigorous exercise regimen. Relax. No one will discover our secret.”
Dr. Kayn looked his daughter over. “It seems as though you’ve thought of everything.”
He moved behind the hover cart and activated the hover consol. A soft whirl sounded from the mechanisms in the base that produced the propulsion to lift the load. The cart rose two inches in the air. Iris opened the front door and Norman pushed the cart out into the hall.
They strolled down the enclosed passage toward the main stairs. The floor was moist from the Morning Shower. A little river flowed down the sides of the walkway, washing away the daily accumulation of dirt and human dander. The warmth of overhead Solar Lamps evaporated the remaining puddles of moisture.
About every minute or so, Dr. Kayn diverted his eyes from the walkway and rested his gaze on Iris’s face. Uncomfortable by his stare, Iris turned her attention to the plant beds in the neighbors’ windows. Most contained genetically altered plant hybrids, like lily-bonsais, rose-vines, and daisy-bushes.
“Look, dad, I know you don’t want me to go to the Agency,” Iris eventually said. “But there was nothing he could do to change her mind. Being a Candidate for the Agency Training Program is an honor. I need to do this.”
Dr. Kayn sighed, “You let me think that you only wanted the acknowledgement of being good enough for the AT Program. That’s the only reason I permitted you to apply. I wouldn’t have signed the parental consent form if I thought you seriously wanted to attend. I just worry about your health; what if you aren’t good enough? You should have enrolled at the Conservatory as well, just in case the Agency doesn’t work out.”
Iris knew that her father had always wanted her to join him in his pathological disease research. He had dreamed they would work side by side, curing the Plagues that ran rampant through the Lower Regions of the Megacity. In an effort to persuade her, he had scattered applications to the Conservatory throughout the house. Iris always made a show of throwing them down the trash pipes when she discovered them.
Norman shook his head in defeat when she refused to reply. He adjusted the settings on the control panel to allow the hover mechanisms to float above the stair steps. At the top, he switched it back and entered the Sector Plaza.
The Plaza was a perfect cube, measuring one mile in all directions. Nanite-enforced steel support beams held up the Train portion of the Transit System. The bases of these structures housed little independent food, beverage, and other commercial shops. Tables were set up around these areas for people to eat or unwind at after a long day of shopping. Larger establishments were arranged into a grid of networks that filled the remainder of the Sector; they rose four stories above the ground to the ceiling of the Sector. Narrow walkways connected the buildings at every floor level. At the heart of the Plaza were the Elevators—half a dozen traveled Down while another half dozen went Up.
The Kayns passed a few pedestrians on their way to the Transit Station where the Trains and Elevators intersected. Some eyed Iris’s simple grey blazer and slacks and turned their noses up at her; there were people in the city that felt the government held too much power and that the AT Programs should be abandoned. Conversely, others smiled encouragingly at her as they passed.
When they reached the Transit Station, they went separate ways for a little while. Iris left to find Claire Birch at their designated Elevator and Norman took the hover cart to the Postal Booth.
Her friend was on her OMNI. Claire said good-bye to whoever she was speaking with and ended the call. “What’s wrong?”
“Oh, I’m just a little frustrated with myself. I thought that I’d have my Project completed before moving to the Agency.” Iris realized how irritated she really felt. It bubbled up in her as she confessed her feelings to her best friend. “How can I call myself a strategist if I can’t think my way out of a prison Simulation?”
“You’re being too difficult on yourself, Iris,” Claire chided, slipping stray strands of her chestnut brown hair behind her ears. “If it were simple, someone would have figured it out already. Don’t put yourself down just because you don’t meet your high expectations. I could never do what you have done.”
Iris scoffed and shook her head. “Of course you wouldn’t be able to do my Project, just like I could never do yours. You’re going to be an Engineer, and I want to be an Enforcer; they are two completely different areas of expertise. What if I don’t have what it takes? There’s no way to know how good my competition is; I have no frame of reference of where my abilities lie. What if I lose all my sparring matches? What if all the other Candidates are stronger, faster, and more experienced than I am?”
“All you can do is your best,” Claire said, paraphrasing Mrs. Birch’s favorite expression. “Try and be a little more excited. You don’t sound like someone that’s been accepted into the most elite vocational program in the Megacity.”
Dr. Kayn appeared with the Birches. He gently pulled Iris away from Claire. “Your Elevator will be here soon. Can we chat until it comes?” He led her away from the rambunctious Birch children. “I know I haven’t been very supportive of your decision. But I’m proud of you and I faith that you have what it takes to become an Agent.” He wrapped his arms around her and held her tight.
A few feet away, Mrs. Birch wept hysterically. She clutched her eldest child so tightly that Claire’s face turned purple. “Oh, Claire-Bear!”
Mr. Birch tried unsuccessfully to pry his wife from his daughter. The rest of the family was obliged to hug her from behind and awkwardly pat her back in farewell.
The 8:43 a.m. Transition occurred and the young ladies took out their OMNIs. One at a time, they pressed their OMNIs to the scanner on their designated Elevator. Their ticket files were transferred to the mechanisms in the door and they were admitted into the compartment. Iris and Claire entered after first waving one last goodbye to their loved ones.
As their Elevator ascended out of the Transit Station, Claire Birch screamed, “Oh, Iris! I’ve never been so happy in my entire life.” She giggled uncontrollably for several seconds. Her fit only ceased when she took a seat next to her best friend. “I no longer have to watch my brothers and sisters, help them with their school work, or deal with their pestering.”
“Yes,” Iris replied calmly. “There’s something liberating about moving away from one’s parent. Well, ‘parents’ in your case. We only have to deal with our own problems.”
Claire gave her friend a slap on the shoulder. “Stop looking so forlorn. We’ve been selected for the honor of going through the Agency Training Program. Millions have applied, but only a few thousand are accepted.” She was quite proud that she could quote the text she had read only the night before.
“I had no idea that you knew so much about it—let alone could quote the introductory information,” Iris laughed, shaking her head.
Tying up her rumpled brown hair, Claire said, “It wasn’t until last night that I learned those facts. There’s still plenty that I don’t know, which I believe you’ll be happy to fill me in on during our journey.” She gave Iris a sly smile.
With a groan, Iris rolled her eyes. “Alright. Where would you like to start?”
“Wherever is fine,” Claire shrugged, waving her hand passively as if she were sweeping something away. “Just keep it relevant and entertaining.”
Iris rummaged through her pack and removed her OMNI and a case of data-discs. After flipping through the container, she slipped one of the small circles into the hard drive. “The Agency of the Rygom,” she read, “makes, enforces, and interprets laws for its citizens. Without the Agency’s ability to regulate life, the Megacity wouldn’t thrive. For the past one hundred years, the Agency Training Program has readied young people for positions in the top occupations of Rygom.”
“Yeah, yeah. I already know those things. Skip to the interesting stuff!”
Iris put her OMNI in her lap. “This is important information. You weren’t raised in Upper Society, so you didn’t grow up knowing anything about the Agency.”
“Oh, you’re going to bring that up, huh?” Claire turned away with a scowl and folded her arms.
It wasn’t her fault she had been born in the Middle Zone. The Birches had moved to Society when Mr. Birch received a promotion at work five years ago. In order to help her acclimate to Society, Oscar and Helen had devised a plan.
Claire walked alongside her Aunt Audrey as they made their way to the Kayn’s house. Bored, she pulled out her OMNI and began mindlessly blasting alien creatures with her trigger-happy fingers. “I still don’t see why I have to spend time with this Iris Kayn. She’s probably just some rich, fancy girl who’s got her head stuck so far up her—”
“That’s enough, young lady!” Her aunt’s face turned bright red, the way it always did when Claire or any of her other nieces and nephews were aggravating. “Iris is a very pleasant young lady. She’s also—” Audrey yanked Claire’s OMNI from her hands. Without finishing her former thought, she said, “She just needs a friend her own age.”
Upset at having her source entertainment taken away, Claire said, “That’s the saddest thing I’ve ever heard: a thirteen-year-old that’s unable to make her own friends? She needs her daddy to arrange to have some stranger come over to play?”
“Look, Claire, your family has a rare opportunity of moving up in life. Your parents think that the best thing for you is to make friends with Miss Kayn. Her father has a lot of connections in this Megacity, as well as all the others. If you get along with Iris, it’ll put you in circles you never knew existed.”
Claire still wasn’t thrilled with the idea, but she was beginning to see why it was so important. Putting on her best fake smile, she replied, “Yes, Aunt Audrey.”
She wasn’t really her aunt; Audrey was her father’s cousin, but it was just easier to call her “aunt.” Saying, “Second-cousin Audrey” was more than most of the Birch children could handle.
Audrey glided down hall after hall, dragging the unenthusiastic girl. At the Kayn’s residence, she pulled out her OMNI and held it up to the door lock. They passed by half a dozen empty rooms before they reached a staircase. As they descended, Claire heard a series of thuds, grunts, and shouts. Turning into an open doorway, she saw the source of the noise.
A small, blonde girl stood opposite a tall, lean man with dark hair. They circled each other, their fists raised. The man threw some punches, which the girl easily dodged before throwing her elbow at him. They went back and forth, alternating between attacking and defending. The girl was fast—zigzagging in and out of the man’s reach. She kicked at him with her legs or knees and then quickly spun away quickly if she missed. A few of the strikes landed on her opponent, but they didn’t seem to do any damage.
“Focus, Iris. Aim a little higher for the kidneys.” The man gave all sorts of advice when the girl messed up, which she did quite a bit. She stumbled over her feet, kept her hands too low, or had a shallow stance. But every time the teacher corrected her, she seemed improve. “Enough flailing, Iris. Punch me!”
She sent her fist it at the man’s ribs; there was a crack and then a high-pitched scream.
“Let me see.” The self-defense teacher grabbed her hand and examined it. “Nothing is broken; it’s just a bruise. Make sure you soak it in Epsom salt water. I’ll be back tomorrow.” He grabbed a duffle bag from the far wall and waved as he left.
The girl approached and held out her uninjured hand. “Hello. I’m Iris Kayn.”
“Claire Birch.” She politely shook Miss Kayn’s outstretched hand.
Iris wiped a lump of sweaty hair from her brow. “What would you like to do today?”
Looking up at Audrey, Claire was uncertain about what to say. Her aunt gave her an encouraging nod before leaving the two girls alone.
“Well, what do you usually do for fun?” Claire asked.
“Fun?” Iris replied with uncertainty, the naïve smile disappearing.
“You know, things you enjoy doing. Recreational activities? Watching movies, shopping, playing games. Do you do any of those things?”
Iris gave her a blank stare. “I just started learning self-defense. Does that count?”
Claire sighed, “No, self-defense doesn’t count as fun.”
“But I enjoy it. I thought you said ‘fun’ was something you enjoy doing.”
Speaking slowly, the former Zonese girl said, “Anything that requires work is not fun.”
“Everything requires work,” Miss Kayn stated, matter-of-factly. “Your muscles are always working to keep your body upright, to inhale oxygen, to pump blood, to blink—”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Claire interrupted, shaking her head with a scowl.
“It’s basic physiology.”
She stared at the strange girl, trying to figure her out; Claire had a bizarre theory. “Are you a robot, or something?”
Iris laughed as though Claire had told a joke. “Silly! Robots are only used by Agents!”
Already regretting this arrangement, Claire took a step forward and put her arm around the girl’s shoulder. “Iris, you have a lot to learn about the world. Now, take me to your room and I’ll introduce you to on-line gaming.”
Iris’s frown disappeared. “Sorry I upset you. I know that you still struggle with—”
“No,” Claire interrupted. “You were right. We’re beginning our Training at the Agency; I should know what the Agency is all about.” She gave Iris an encouraging smile. “Would you please continue our lesson?”
Claire tried her best to listen diligently as Iris gestured at a three-dimensional model of the Sectors above her OMNI. She wanted to point out that the layout of the Agency fell under the boring category, but she didn’t want to risk upsetting Iris any further. They were going to spend the next three years rooming together; bickering the whole way to their new life wouldn’t be a good start.
They exited their compartment when it stopped at a Transit Station on the bottom Agency Sector.
A woman in a black uniform greeted them. “Welcome to the Agency.” She eyed the grey hue of their clothes. “May I see your Identification?” They held out their OMNIs as the woman scanned their ID files. “Good. Please wait over there for your Mentors.” The lady pointed to a group of other eighteen year olds in light grey blazers and slacks.
Iris moved toward an empty table in the Plaza, but Claire stopped her. “Where are you going? People are this way. It’s time to socialize.” She meandered to the nearest huddle, pulling Iris along with her.
“Hi.” A woman with short, red hair greeted them. “I’m Evelyn Sanders; call me Eve.”
“The Evelyn Sanders? As in the daughter of the OMNI tycoon, Byron Sanders?” Claire exclaimed in the form of a question. “And your uncle is Mayor Cromford, right?” She smiled and extended her hand to the newcomer. “My name is Claire Birch. The quiet, timid girl beside me is my roommate, Iris Kayn.”
“Ah, Iris Kayn!” Eve exclaimed without looking at the offered hand. “The daughter of Dr. Norman Kayn, the Plague Curer? Are you following in your father’s footsteps?”
“No, I’m hoping to get into the Enforcement Program,” Iris replied, smiling awkwardly.
“Well, that makes two of us. But now I see the knives at your sides. I’m assuming that your ideal career lies in Local Police or Military Combat? I’d like to have some sort of administrative position; I’ll probably be Placed as a Coordinator.”
Iris wrung her hands and looked down at her feet, obviously forgetting the eye contact was the most important rule for socializing. “Actually,” she sputtered, “I want to go into the Special Operations Branch. But I don’t know if my skills are up to par for Spec Ops, so Security Patrol is my second choice.”
“We must all do our best this summer during the Placement Tests.” Eve turned to Claire and asked, “What about you, Miss Birch?”
“Engineering. I’ve been learning from my father’s cousin, Dr. Audrey Taledon.” Claire waited for some sign that Miss Sanders recognized her aunt’s name, but there wasn’t any. She continued, hoping to establish credibility of her skills. “I’ve worked in her laboratory since I was four.”
“I imagine that there aren’t very many handsome young men in the sciences,” Miss Sanders frowned, changing the subject. “I admit that I choose the Enforcement Program because of the physical stature of the males. My cousin, Viola Cromford, assures me that there are many good-looking men in the Enforcement Program.” She paused briefly before adding, “There’s one in particular that I’m looking forward to spending time with.”
Claire had begun to think that she wouldn’t find anything in common with the young woman. However, the last comment tore away all hesitation about becoming close friends with her. “And who is this hunk of a man?”
“Alastair Vega,” Miss Sanders replied with a swoon.
Pretending to not have heard of him, Claire asked, “Oh? Who is he?” She risked a side-ways glance at Iris, who was beginning to look even more nervous than usual.
“He’s only the most successful Third-Year Trainee in the AT Program!” Miss Sanders said rather loudly. “Alastair has received top marks in every Advanced Class. Not to mention, he is the most gorgeous man you will ever see. Surely you have heard about him, Miss Kayn. Didn’t your father use to work for Vega Industries?”
“Yes,” Iris replied, wiping her hands on her uniform. “I have met Alastair Vega.”
“That’s so wonderful for you. I’m sure you’ll get to have a lot of time with him, since you know him so well.” She spoke with a lot of energy, but there was a tone of agitation in her voice.
“It’s nothing like that,” Iris assured her. “I mean, I met him about five years ago. It surprised me that you said his name. Mr. Vega and I had a bit of a tiff and—”
“Aw, that’s too bad,” Miss Sander said, smoothing strands her short red hair. She smiled widely. “I’m sure there are other men that might prove to be more suitable boyfriend material.”
At this point, Claire was tired of being ignored. She glared at the rich, overexcited woman, trying to think of something she could talk to her about. And then she saw the small, pink stud below Miss Sander’s ear. “Is that an implant?”
“Yeah, it’s a verbal-converter; it transcribes my speech into a text file,” Eve explained. She scanned Claire’s face and neck. “Why haven’t you had one installed yet? They make life much easier. For my nineteenth birthday, my mom is going to buy me another one. I haven’t decided what to get. Maybe a radio or a dream-scanner. Hey, we should go together.”
Claire was dumbfounded. She had worked hard for years to hide her parents’ financial burdens from those who knew her. She wanted to say that she was going to wait until she had earned an Agency implant through Service Hours, but she was interrupted by a loud chime.
The Candidates directed their attentions to the entrance of the Transit Station. A number of people clad in dark grey uniforms approached.
A young man with dark brown hair advanced and addressed the cluster of new recruits. “Greetings, Candidates. I hope everyone is having a great morning. The Third-Years behind me will be your Mentors this term.” He motioned to the older-looking group. Many of the men and women had a set of two grey implant studs placed somewhere on their face, neck, or hands. “As I call out roommate pairs, listen for your name. Then come forward and meet your Mentor.”
As groups of two were announced, the crowd began to shrink as the duos took off behind their Mentors. Eve Sanders and Beatrice Cromford followed their Mentor, Viola Cromford, to a stairwell and walked downward. There was a Vega mentioned—a giant of a man with an amused look on his face—but it wasn’t the one Iris had told Claire about. After a few minutes, only the two friends remained alone with the apparent leader of the Mentors.
He pulled out his OMNI and pressed a number of buttons. Clearly, he was assigned as their Mentor. Claire took a moment to study him. His brown curls were neatly gelled to his head and tucked beneath his ears. Two grey implant studs sat behind his right jaw, one a lighter shade than the other. Miss Sanders had been right when she said the AT had attractive young men.
He looked up from his OMNI and moved toward the girls. “Iris Kayn? Claire Birch? I’m Alastair Vega.”
Claire gave Iris a nudge as she stepped forward. “It’s nice to meet you, Mentor Vega.”
“Likewise, Miss Birch.” He turned to Iris. “And, Miss Kayn! It’s a delight to see you again. How long has it been?”
“Just over five years,” replied Iris, coldly.
He didn’t seem deterred by her unfriendly response. “That long? Well I hope we can get reacquainted during Placement Testing.” He spun on his heel and turned towards the Elevators. “If you two ladies will please follow me, I’ll take you on a little tour before we go to your Living Quarters.”
They situated themselves in the Elevator, sitting in silence during the brief trip Up. Alastair spent most of the ride staring at Iris, making her even more uncomfortable. She kept her gaze on the blinking lights of the Elevator’s control panel.
“You’ve been very quiet, Miss Kayn,” her Mentor said as they exited the pod.
“My friend is often like that,” Claire commented, steering the man’s attention away from Iris. “She seems happiest when in silent contemplation. I’ve found it’s best to just leave her to her own thoughts.”
For the first time since they were reacquainted, Alastair Vega’s face wasn’t the model of pleasantry. “The Agency Training Program is a place to socialize, network, and meet new people; she won’t get far if she shies away from conversation.”
Without looking at Iris, Claire flippantly said, “She’s quieter than usual today; Iris really can be a chatter-box, when she’s in the right mood.”
The trio walked through the Plaza while Mr. Vega pointed out the information desk, the closest cafeteria, popular meeting spots, the shopping locality, study areas, and other important places.
He motioned to a building at the end of the avenue. “I’ll be with some friends at The Grey Circumstance club tonight. Come by and I’ll introduce you to some of the other Mentors.”
“Should I drag along Miss Melancholy over there?” Claire inquired, pointing at Iris.
“Of course. Hopefully her spirits will improve by then.”
“I’ll be there,” Iris retorted.
“That concludes the Plaza tour. I’ll take you to your apartment now.” Alastair gestured toward the West side of the Plaza and began walking in that direction. After heading down a series of passages, Alastair stopped at a door. He pulled out his OMNI and pressed it to the controls. The door opened and he strode into the room.
“You can get into our Living Quarters?” Iris gasped.
“Only this one time,” Alastair explained, gesturing for the girls to enter. “Your OMNIs need to be configured to the lock.” Once inside, he moved to a three-foot square screen on the wall. “Good morning, ARHA.”
The dark screen suddenly turned on, adding to the illumination of the room. A female voice came out of the speakers beside the screen. “Good morning, Alastair Vega.”
“This is Iris Kayn and Claire Birch.” He motioned to each girl as he said their names.
“Welcome Iris Kayn and Claire Birch. I am ARHA—Automatic Regulating House Assistant.”
“Hello!” Claire said, ecstatic about meeting an artificial intelligence.
Alastair asked the screen, “ARHA, could you please configure their locks?”
“Very well, Alastair Vega. Iris Kayn, place your OMNI to my sensor.” Iris did as she was told. ARHA asked Claire to do the same.
“Thank you, ARHA,” the Mentor said. “That will be all for now.”
“Good bye, Alastair Vega. Iris Kayn and Claire Birch, you may ask for my assistance at anytime.” The screen went black.
Alastair Vega smiled at the empty monitor. “If you have any questions, just ask ARHA. For some reason, if she is unable to assist, she will call me and I’ll help you if I can. I’ll see you ladies tonight. Have fun moving in.” Mr. Vega gave a slight bow and left the apartment.
Claire chuckled. “I had no idea that a scum bag could be so handsome!”
“I don’t want to talk about him,” Iris snapped, walking around their Living Quarters.
“ARHA?” Claire called out.
The wall screen changed from black to white. “How can I help you, Claire Birch?”
“Where’s all our stuff?”
“According to the tracking signal,” began the artificial intelligence, “your hover-carts shall be here shortly. In the meantime, perhaps I can answer any questions you may have.”
Iris approached the screen. “When do we get our implants? I heard that the Agency gives out free ones to the Trainees.”
“That’s true, Iris Kayn. If you pass Placement Testing and become a First-Year Trainee, your Instructors will have Service Hour options that you may complete. Once you have completed enough Hours, you will be eligible for an implant. You may only earn one free implant each year that you are a Trainee.” ARHA’s screen shifted from white to purple. “Please open your door; your hover carts are here. Enjoy the rest of your day, Iris Kayn and Claire Birch.” The screen faded to black.
The roommates retrieved their carts and pushed them into their Living Quarters. After pushing the carts down a wide staircase, they chose their rooms and then left each other to get settled.
Claire had started putting her clothes away when she had a thought on how to arrange her video games. She was halfway done with that when her focus shifted to checking her social media sites. After that, all thoughts of unpacking left when she had an epiphany about her Project.
A clanking sound started Klev awake. Slowly, he blinked his eyes open to see a pair of Agents unlocking his cell. “Lom! Something has changed.” He banged on the top of his bunk bed. “Look alive!”
Lom’s snoring ceased, replaced with a gasp as he rolled off his lofted cot. “What’s happening?” He scratched at his thinning, grey hair.
“We’ve got company.” Klev abruptly stood. “What are you doing lying around still?”
The two Agents were stark contrasts to each other, and yet both had the same eyes, nose, and jaw line. The lady had dark curls that reached the middle of her back; she held herself as though she were the most important person in the Megacity. However, the male Agent had short, dark blonde hair and seemed bored with his situation.
“Your time is up, boys,” the woman Agent said as she swung the barred door open. “You get to rejoin civilization.” She stuck an index finger in the air and bent it toward her. With a smirk, she turned and walked away.
The man Agent gestured after the female, holding the cell door for them. “After you.”
Klev and Lom shared confused stares, but followed the intimidating woman. They passed dozens of prison cells; the other inmates whooped at them, cheering them on as they headed for the next phase of their lives.
“I can’t believe it is over,” Lom admitted, dusting off his prison uniform. “The past five years are all blurred together. Most days, I can’t even remember why we were put here in the first place.”
“Oh, I remember! We, um—I think that—” Klev racked his brain, but the memory escaped him. “We must have gotten sloppy! How could you have let that happen?”
Ignoring his friend’s sudden outburst, Lom said, “I hope they kept our notebooks. Maybe that will help fill in the blanks.”
Once at the Administrative Center, the Agent woman handed them each a large box. “Here’s your stuff. I still think we should have confiscated your weapons, but I guess the Agency Board wants you to have a shot at surviving.”
“Stella, you don’t have to tell them everything,” the Agent man sighed.
“Oh, save it, Drew. They have the right to know that their lives might be in danger.” The woman took off again. As she walked, she often glanced at Klev and Lom and gave them menacing grins.
Eventually, they made it out of the prison. Klev and Lom studied everything, trying to find something that looked familiar, but it was all new. They knew enough about Rygom to know that it wasn’t Upper Society and nor was it the Lower Region. By process of elimination, they reasoned that they were in the Middle Zone.
Lom rummaged through his box; he picked up various notebooks and then threw them back when they weren’t the one he was searching for. After looking at a couple dozen, he discovered the one written just before their prison sentence. “Here it is, Klev!” He showed his colleague the notebook.
As they walked through the Middle Zone, they skimmed through the details in the notebook. It was all foreign at first, but then the memories began to resurface.
It was a refreshing change of scenery to be doing business outside the enclosed walls of the Rygom Megacity. Klev and Lom had enjoyed their previous task. They were sorry that they were so efficient that their expedition took two days less than anticipated. Klev scanned the valley surrounding the Megacity and scribbled a quick picture into one of their notebooks. On the horizon, the sun began to set behind the mountain. The dusk light bounced off the exterior of the Megacity.
“Do you think we’d get away with spending an extra night out here?” Lom asked, writing up a quick summary of their morning.
Klev turned away from his sketch. “I’d like to stay out here longer, too, but I’m sure the Agency would find out. It’s best to finish the job and move onto the next assignment.”
There was a thump from their cargo crate as they moved to pick it up. Muffled, indistinct shouts came from inside. Klev and Lom readied their stun batons in case their captives managed to escape their bonds.
“How are they awake already?” Klev growled. “They should have woken tonight.”
“Perhaps we lost a day?” Lom replied, rubbing his forehead. “Our memory isn’t as good as it use to be.” As quickly as the thought appeared in his head, it disappeared from his consciousness.
The pair of mercenaries carefully opened the crate and zapped their captives with their batons. The first strike made the girl child fall unconscious, but the woman remained awake.
Shaking her head with a groan, the woman said, “We’ve been taken before and we always get away.” Her thick accent was difficult to understand, but Klev and Lom had experience dealing with Torleans.
“Taken?” Klev shook his head. “You’ve haven’t been taken. You’re being returned.”
The woman from the Torlea Megacity let out a deep breath. “I’ll give you one chance to set us free, or you’ll regret accepting the job to bring us in.” When she finished her threat, the mercs smacked their stun batons at her once more. The woman’s face fell to her chin, her black, matted hair covering her dark-skinned face. The rest of her body hung limply in the restraints.
Lom stared guiltily at the small child beside the Torlean. The nameless girl—not more than six years old—was from the Dakon Megacity; she looked so helpless and innocent. It was hard to believe that the bronze-skinned girl was a dangerous fugitive. “I wonder why our employers want these two foreigners?” Lom thought out loud, holstering his stun baton.
“How should I know what they want with a Torlean and a Dakonite?” Klev responded, shutting the door. “We’ll move the crate inside once I finish my picture. Who knows the next time we’ll be outside?”
The mercenaries enjoyed the sunrise before turning back to the task at hand. They lifted the crate and moved towards Rygom’s entrance. As they approached, a group of black-clad Agents approached them.
Lom waved to them. “It’s nice of you to help with our load, gentlemen. It’s quite heavy.”
But the Agents made no move to help with the cargo. They unsheathed their weapons.
One of the men stepped forward; he had a couple dozen pins on his black blazer, clearly the captain of the squad. A long scar ran down his left forehead, skipped the eye, and continued across the check to his jaw line. “Put your hands up.”
Klev, who still clutched his baton, removed a knife from his belt. “You got the moves to back up your words, worm?”
“I think there has been some miscommunication,” Lom said in a calm voice. “You see, we’ve been employed by—”
“Step away from the box,” interrupted the Agent as he removed a gas grenade from his hip. When they didn’t move, he hurled the can at them.
Smoke filled Klev’s eyes as he clenched his mouth and nose shut. Lom had closed his eyes in time, but he had forgotten to hold his breath before fleeing. They rammed into each other, falling to the ground in a coughing fit. Their lungs burned and their eyes stun, but the pain didn’t last long. Less than a minute after the grenade exploded, they lost consciousness.
Lom searched for information about their last mission, but the pages were missing. Prison must have done something to his brain since he couldn’t remember his former employers. He had memories of working with Klev on countless missions, but the names of the other operators were gone from his mind. Rubbing his temple, he asked, “What are we gonna do, Klev?”
“I’ll figure out something, Lom.” Klev nudged his colleague. “I always do.”
Klev was the brighter of the pair; both of them had agreed on it many years previous. His superior intellect helped him and his partner to get out of many a tight spot. In addition, his fierce demeanor made him a more effective leader than follower. Lom was a typical side-kick. Although his skills were also legendary, his mind was nothing compared to Klev’s. To make up for his inferiority, he followed his friend more loyally than any other person alive.
“There will be plenty of work in the Zone for us to do,” Klev continued, motioning at the simple but comfortable-looking buildings all around him. “We’ll have so many people wanting our services that we’ll have to turn people away!”
The female Agent named Stella laughed uncontrollably. When she was finished, she said, “Oh, we’re not leaving you in the Middle Zone! You’ve been in jail; the only place for dangerous convicts is the Lower Region.”
“The Region?” All Lom had were faint wisps of memories of that place, but it was enough for him to know that he didn’t ever want to go there again.
“We’ll be fine!” Klev sighed as he realized that jail had made his friend go soft. It was perhaps best that they were headed to the deadliest area of the Rygom Megacity; it would refresh Lom’s long-lost ferocity.
Drew, the male Agent, stepped past them when they arrived at a private Elevator. He entered a code into the panel and said, “Have a seat,” as the pod opened.
Klev and Lom did as they were told. In the corner, they whispered as quietly as they could manage while the Agents pushed buttons on the Elevator’s control screen.
“You think we can take them?” Klev asked, reaching for a knife hilt in his box.
“I—” Lom was interrupted as a strip of leather wound around his wrist, tying him up with Klev.
Stella pulled her whip tighter as she said, “No funny business.”
Drew in turn removed throwing knives from his belt and held them nonchalantly in front of him. “We might not be as famous as The Klev and Lom Duo, but I guarantee you that the Harding Siblings can take on two old geezers that have spent the past five years rotting in a prison cell.”
Klev groaned as he held up his empty hands; Lom complied as well. Stella released her whip and chatted quietly with Drew. The former prisoners were silent as the Elevator descended through the Middle Zone, past the Market levels, and into the Lower Region.
It was worse than Lom had thought. Even without a lot of light to see everything, he could still make out shapes of discarded metal and plastic that cluttered the floor. Glass-less windows showed the empty interiors of dust-filled buildings. The smell of body odors and refuse filled thin stale air.
“Where are all the people?” Lom asked as he scanned the deserted Plaza.
“There’s a small community of Underlings two Sectors West of here.” Drew nodded in the direction. “I’d start there.”
Stella gave them a wink. “Good luck, fellas!”
Klev put his box down and searched for his weapons. “I wonder what kind of valuables the Underlings have.” He began strapping his various blades to different parts of his body. “I’m sure we’ll find something to sell for supplies.”
Something about his friend’s enthusiasm perked Lom up. “I think it’ll be nice to meet decent folk again, Klev. Perhaps it’ll be just the thing to help us get back on our feet.”
“Yes, Lom. We’ll just do what we have to to get out of Rygom. I miss Wexar outskirts—the warm beaches, clear blue oceans, and incredible sunsets! I’d like to retire there.”
Lom nodded and picked up his box. “Yes, it was beautiful. But didn’t we get into trouble with La Policía?”
Klev began walking in the direction the male Agent had indicated. “We’ve gotten into trouble with the governments of every Megacity, Lom. That shouldn’t deter us from our dream.”
“What about Moryth? I liked it there.”
“No! That is the absolute one place we should not go. That and Torlea and Dakon.”
Lom thought a moment before saying, “So that only leaves Rygom or Wexar.”
“And we decided that we didn’t want to stay here in Rygom, so than it must be Wexar.” Klev looked expectantly at Lom. “What do you think, Lom?”
“Perfect, Klev! You always know best.”
They chatted about the fragments of their scattered memories as they made their way to the Underling community. Occasionally, they disagreed about what happened on a particular mission. They would stop briefly to look through their notebooks to discover that they were discussing two or more different events that had become jumbled in their brains.
“No, no, no!” Klev shouted in frustration. “We never met Alterations that could control elements. Maybe we heard rumors when we were in Moryth, but I don’t think they actually existed.”
Lom shook his head. He flipped through the notebook in his hand. “It’s in here somewhere. The fire guy burned my arm.” He awkwardly shifted his box so that he could pull his shirt sleeve away. “See that?”
Klev barely glanced at it before saying, “That’s not a burn; it’s a cut. You nearly lost that hand in a duel with that Rygom Agent.”
“Wasn’t that you, Klev?” Lom selected another notebook and began pursuing the paper pages. “The thing with the element Alterations was after we impersonated scientists in Torlea.”
“I thought that was in Dakon.” Klev snatched to notebook from him.
“I’m pretty sure that we hadn’t had an assignment in Dakon yet.” Lom didn’t like fighting with Klev, but his head hurt from trying to fit the memory puzzle pieces together. The notebooks helped, but he was sure that many pages were missing.
They were too busy bickering to notice that they had arrived at their destination. Klev realized where they were as he collided with an orange, plastic tent.
“What is that?” Lom asked, peeking inside. “Oh! Klev? Something’s not right.”
“What are you talking about?” Klev slipped under the tent.
Figures in over-sized white bio-hazard suits rushed about, moving between decrepit buildings. Dirty people wearing tattered clothing lay on the ground, letting the suited people prick them with needles. A poor person passed by them, a sterile mask was over her mouth; she joined a group of others wearing the same face-coverings.
Lom followed him inside. They stuck to the shadows as they observed the Regioners. The people in the suits continued organizing the tattered people into two groups—people who were given masks and people who were denied them. The mask people were ushered away in groups, leaving the mask-less crying in their filthy homes.
“What are they doing?” Lom asked.
Removing a pair of binoculars from his box, Klev moved to get a better look. “The white suit guys are testing blood, probably for some kind of disease. The people with the masks are healthy and are being taken away. The sick ones have to stay.”
“Should we get out of here?”
Klev didn’t answer right away. He waited patiently for Lom’s short-term memory to vanish. When his partner’s expectant expression changed to one of confusion, Klev said, “I think we should leave, Lom. We don’t want to be taken, too.”
“You have the best ideas, Klev!” Lom smiled as he followed him back to the tent flap.
When they reached the barrier, a light blinded them. Klev removed the knife from his hip and assumed a fighting stance. Lom stood casually behind him, his hand holding his own blade.
“We don’t want to harm you,” a female voice said. “Please put your weapons down.”
“Let us leave and we won’t kill anyone,” Klev threatened, slicing the air.
A figure in a biohazard suit approached them. “I just want to see if you’re sick.” The woman held up a syringe. “You’ll barely feel a thing. I promise.”
Klev glared at the needle. “The promise of a woman means nothing to me.”
Lom put a hand on Klev’s arm. “Perhaps we should hear her out.”
“We can always leave if we don’t like what she has to say,” Klev said as he sheathed his knife. He looked at Lom’s blade with a frown. “Put that thing away! You wanna scare our host?”
The woman stuck each of them in the arm with a needle. She put their blood samples into a strange machine. When a small light turned green, she grinned. “You’re both clean.”
“Does that mean that we get white masks?” Lom asked.
The woman gestured at a canvass, orange tent. “Please follow me.” Once inside, she removed her biohazard suit. “I’m Nasiram Rush. I run this relocation clinic.” She extended her hand and Klev shook it.
Without introducing himself, Klev said, “What’s this on your wrist?” He pulled her hand closer to his face. A line of orange dots and dashes was inked into her skin. “It’s your first name in Morse Code.”
“Yes,” she replied slowly as she ran a hand through her short blonde hair. “It’s my Signature.” Nasiram paused, tilting her head as she looked them over. “You don’t know what that is?”
“Well we know how to read the code,” Lom replied. “We just don’t know why you felt the need to permanently tattoo your name on yourself.”
“All Clan members must have one. It acts as an electronic identification marker. Signatures are required to enjoy certain facilities in the Lower Region and Market Levels.”
Klev frowned. “That still doesn’t make any sense. Start saying things we’ll understand.”
Nasiram’s pleasing demeanor faltered for a moment. Before she answered, she took a breath and gave them a sympathetic smile. “I know this is all very confusing, but your questions can be answered later. Right now, I’d like to discuss with you some possibilities for your future.”
Lom’s ears perked at the mention of the future. “Oh? What did you have in mind?”
“Well, you two could come join the Amber Clan,” she explained. “My husband is the Clan Lord, Dagnos Rush. We’ll put you to work—help you get your life back on track. In the Amber Head Quarters, you’ll live out your life safely away from the deadly Plague.”
“Safe?” Klev sniffed. “We like to live on the edge!”
“What’s this you say about work?” Lom asked, intrigued by a way to support themselves.
The woman removed a brochure from a briefcase and handed it to Lom. “The Amber Clan has many exciting entry-level jobs available for new recruits. If you work hard, you should receive a promotion within a few months.”
Klev snatched the papers from Lom and looked them over. “All the pictures are of men and women stomping through the pipe-works. Do you expect us to be plumbers or something?”
“Plumbers?” Nasiram laughed. “Goodness, no! It takes at least five years to work your way to that position. You’d start off in sanitation and move up from that.”
Lom was intrigued by the idea. “We’ve never worked with sewage before. It’d be a great addition to our resume.”
Turning a bright shade of red, Klev growled, “After all our years of experience in the most prestigious occupations, you’re willing to throw all of it away to clean toilets!”
Nasiram put her hands up and softly said, “You haven’t heard all the amenities we offer to our Clan members. If you let me finish explaining, I’m sure that you’ll—”
“We’re leaving,” Klev interrupted. He hefted his box and walked away.
Lom nodded his head in respect to Nasiram as he departed. As he caught up to Klev, he whispered, “Are you sure it’s wise to turn down work? It didn’t have to be forever. I’m sure we could have left as soon as we had saved enough to retire.”
“No, Lom. That sneaky woman wanted to mark us; those tattoos are a way of claiming people as property. Even if we had gotten away and had the ink removed, there would still be scars etched into our skin. I wouldn’t want to live the rest of my life with a permanent reminder that I was owned by someone.”
“I didn’t realize all that,” Lom apologized. “It’s a good thing you made that decision for us. I suppose we should seek employment elsewhere.” They walked in silence for several minutes. Lom eventually stopped and asked. “Where are we going?”
“I decided that we need to look for work. But we need to find people in order to find jobs.”
“Fantastic idea, Klev! You always know what to do.”
“Of course I do, Lom. So we’ll just roam until we find some—” He paused before suddenly saying, “Hide!” Klev pushed Lom into a dark, empty building.
A group of people passed by. Lom thought it strange that everyone in the group wore different shades of purple, accented by gold jewelry. Their wrists were inked with purple dots and dashes.
“Who do you suppose they are?” Lom asked.
“Perhaps more of those Clan people,” Klev answered. “They look rather fancy. Maybe they’ll have better job opportunities. Let’s see where they’re headed.”