Imagine a city with drones on each street, monitoring your every move. No crime goes unpunished. No criminal can escape. No place to hide. No one is ever alone.
I live in the safest city in the world... until I tried to leave it.
I lived in the safest city in the world… until I tried to leave it.
I could sense the machine on the other side as the ceiling creaked above my head. The metal drone was searching for my body signature. Finding me was its reward. It had been hours since I escaped but it was only moments before it would find me. It’s impossible to hide in the city. It’s for our own safety, but a warden says the same thing to his prisoners.
A metallic scratch warned me that the drone had turned the corner of the exterior wall. It would look for a point of weakness, find an opening into the building and break through. I moved, realizing that although a sound would alert it to my location, staying still was no longer an option. I scurried around some boxes, heading down to the stairs. I had to cover a lot of distance in a short time. My dad always teased me that I ran around like my life depended on it. For once, he was right.
The stairs squeaked beneath my weight. It wasn’t loud, but to a drone it might have sounded like an elephant stomping. The scratching outside stopped. Normally I would have taken that as a good sign, but now I ran. Hard. As I hit the bottom landing, a cutting sound reverberated from the left wall and sparks flashed in the shadows. Sunlight streamed through the crack; I had seen little of it since my base was a windowless room. But I had no time to admire the sun as a red eye gleamed in the hole. In my hesitation, I saw my reflection in its eyes and the drone registered my presence. Once it saw me, then potentially dozens more would be alerted to my presence.
I slid down the stairs like a fire pole. If I tripped now, I was done. If I didn’t get away from this drone quickly, I was done as well. What a lovely set of options. Boards splintered and cracked from the floor above; the drone had finally entered the building.
Drones come in all shapes and sizes. This one resembled a bumblebee, small, fast, and lethal. Once it sees you, you can’t outrun it. It flies through the air at 20 kilometers an hour, and no matter how fast a runner you are, it never slows down. You’re only hope is to find obstacles—doors, walls, cars—anything that blocks you from their view. But once it locks onto you, it is only a matter of time before it catches you. The damn things never stop.
I was so exhausted from the day’s escape. I would die to rest for just five minutes. The truth was harsher; if I rested for five seconds now, it would be a permanent sleep. A board snapped under my feet, almost wrenching my ankle with my forward momentum. The building was condemned, and with every step I could see why. The structure had four levels, deep in the bowels of the city. The building was made of rusted steel, well past its expiration date.
A red beam flashed from above, its searchlight inspecting the corners of the room. My feet hit the bottom level. I had run out of space, and going back the same way was not an option. I was frustrated. It’s funny what emotions take hold when you are about to die. How has this drone found me? I was so careful to stay hidden! Taking all the precautions, using several disguises, and avoiding the cameras. What did I do wrong?
Interrupting my thoughts, my foot hit a metal ring. I stooped down, thinking I had found a handle to help my escape. Instead, I triggered a trap as the floor collapsed and I fell into a watery grave.
That was when my world ended.
4 months earlier
I was halfway between the sensation of falling and floating. Warm air blew through my hair. The ground was far below but never seemed to get closer. Every few moments, a gust of wind would blow me higher. I felt like a bird, but I had no wings, no way to propel myself. I was like a feather in the wind floating aimlessly with the currents. I reached up to touch the clouds, and my hand became moist as water droplets appeared on my fingers. I wanted to go higher, to break free of the earth. I just wanted to go anywhere. To see the world. Leave the city.
My eyes opened and my dream was over. I stared up at the ceiling, wondering what I was becoming. I had been dreaming a lot lately, sometimes during school, which always got me in trouble. It’s not like I’m depressed; I have friends, my dad and a home. It’s not like I lived on the streets. I just always felt like there was more to life outside our city’s walls. Our super-safe city, no crime, no trouble, nothing out of the ordinary. Adults told me that we were lucky to live in a place where everyone was so safe. So B-O-R-I-N-G! I pushed up on my arms, turned my head and looked out the window.
A star shone, glowing twice as bright as any other object. Like my dream, I wished I could fly up to it. Grab hold of it and explore its surface. I felt confined in the city and I would do just about anything to get out of there.
It was early; the glow on the horizon meant the sun was about to rise. There was no sense in going back to sleep. My dad would be up soon, and he made enough noise for ten people. I’m sure he didn’t mean to, it’s just that he had two left feet. And two left hands. But I still loved him.
I slid out of bed, grabbed a towel and headed to the shower. Maybe if I get an early start to my day, I can walk through the Marks before school. I undressed, turned on the shower and stepped in. The water was warm as it cascaded down my back. It was one of the few moments of the day when I thought about absolutely nothing. My dad always yelled at me for spending so long in the shower that when I came out I looked like a prune. I squeezed my face together in my hands and looked in the mirror. I looked old and wrinkly.
I pushed open the shower door and grabbed my towel. I wiped my fingers over the steamy mirror. My hair looked dull and lifeless, a wet mop. No matter what I did with it, it just never came out the way I wanted. That applied to just about everything in my life. No matter how hard I tried to study, I was never a top student. Worked my butt off for sports, always second line at best. Tried to be popular, never got into the in-crowd. Maybe that was why I had such a desire to get out of the city, in hopes that I would be special elsewhere.
I threw on a sweatshirt, pulled on my jeans and grabbed my knapsack. I hoped to grab some breakfast and get out of the house before Dad woke up. No such luck.
“You’re up early. Big test today?” I turned around and saw Dad reading the paper on his tablet. It was a soft question but I knew he was probing. He couldn’t help himself; he was senior counsel, an attorney with the government. Putting away the guilty—like there was anyone innocent in our court system. Everything we discussed was like a cross-examination and lasted at least twenty questions. Sometimes he asked the same question several times but changed the wording slightly, hoping to catch me in a lie. I didn’t take it personally—it was what he did for a living. I had to nip this in the bud.
“School project. Hoping to spend some time at the lab before first period,” I answered nonchalantly as I downed a glass of orange juice.
“Isn’t it easier to do that after school?” he asked and looked away from his tablet while putting down his coffee. Nineteen questions to go.
“Maybe so, but we have softball practice after school. Remember, its Wednesday?” I pulled out yogurt and strawberries from the refrigerator and sat down at the table. Nothing better than to follow up a lie with some truth; keeps the suspicious at bay.
“As long as you’re not walking through the Marks on your way to school.” There was his veiled reminder. It didn’t matter if he believed my story or not, he intended to make his point.
The Marks was where you could get anything imaginable, sometimes items that were from outside the city. It gave me hope to see items from other places, and I wasn’t going to let Dad squash my dream. I turned to face him.
“Yes, Dad. You’ve told me a thousand times. Doesn’t matter that there is almost no crime anymore, don’t go to the Marks. Don’t go to the Marks.” I walked around the kitchen like a Frankenstein monster repeating the warning over and over. I caught a half smile on his face and knew that I had won him over.
“All right. All right. Can’t fault a father for wanting to protect his daughter.” He shook his coffee cup at me and a drop fell out, almost landing on his tablet. “Just because we can track any criminal doesn’t mean crime has disappeared. It means people have gotten better at hiding it. And those people are the ones you meet at the Marks.”
“Enough sermons, Dad. I hear what you are saying.” Doesn’t mean that I agree. “I have to go. See you for supper?” I bent down to kiss him on the forehead.
“You bet—crime docket is slow today, just like every day. Are you cooking tonight?” he questioned with a brightness in his eyes. My dad can’t boil water without burning it, so I cooked all the meals in the house. Not because I’m a great cook, but my meals won’t burn the house down.
“I’ll give it a go, maybe a six-course meal?” I teased.
“Make it five. I’m trying to lose some weight.” He patted his stomach.
I laughed and headed out the door. I jumped down the stairs three at a time and felt the sunshine on my face. The morning was quiet but a security drone flew overhead, its red light scanning the ground below. I tried to sidestep it, thinking it was one my Dad had sent after me to spy on me. As soon as I tried to avoid it, it must have picked up my vibrations—since no one else was out walking—and the beam inched towards me.
I stopped, knowing there was no way to outrun it. Better to let it take its reading and then be on my way. I felt the beam cover the back of my head. I closed my eyes, not because it could hurt me, but I preferred that when I opened my eyes again it would be gone. Seconds later, I looked straight ahead and it had already crossed the street, looking for another person’s presence to record. I didn’t know why they bothered; there were so many security cameras—one on every corner, as the city ads would sing—that they seemed redundant. I headed in the direction of school in case my dad was watching. I didn’t look back, not wanting to appear guilty.
Once I was out of sight, I changed direction towards the Marks. I looked up every couple of minutes to make sure no more drones flew overhead. It wasn’t like they were tracking me specifically, just thinking of me as a bar code at a grocery store. Recording everything that went through so later they could do a data dump and try to make sense of all the information. I preferred to stay hidden.
The Marks were about a twenty-minute walk to the north. Not the best side of the city, but with virtually no crime, I never understood my father’s concern. Places like the Marks have always existed. A place of barter and exchange. One man’s garbage is another woman’s treasure. Or something like that. There were rows and rows of stalls, from food to metals to precious stones. The vendors never seemed to stay in the same spot for too long, and the place was a maze of many back alleys and levels. It was always hard to find the ones you wanted, but you got the feeling that the vendors preferred the shuffling around. The most popular ones never stayed hidden for very long.
As I turned the corner, the smell got my attention first. The Marks were in a warehouse district. Hardly anyone lived in the area, otherwise they might be driven insane by the aromas of fresh foods wafting through the air. The Marks had one rule: no credits, only paper money. This was difficult since the rest of the city just scanned the bar code on your wrist and your account was billed. Because some items were a bit on the illegal side—okay, a lot on the illegal side—no one wanted to have their business transactions recorded. Avoiding paying taxes also drove customers here.
The aisles were narrow and many people were bartering with the merchants, creating an obstacle course to duck around. I was not watching where I was going and almost stepped on her.
“Bark!” A metallic, high-pitched whine came from the ground. I stepped back and looked down. “Bark!” the cry came a little louder. I reached down to scoop up the small mechanical dog. Its tail was bent and there were several spots of rust on its hindquarters. Its tongue whipped out as if trying to lick me and it made a contented sound. I patted it on the head, although I doubted it was programmed to enjoy a human’s touch.
“Hey that’s my dog, put her down!” a boy yelled over the noise of the crowd. I looked up and saw a tall guy about my age with blond hair walking towards me. He walked confidently, like someone who knew the Marks.
“Sorry, she came up to me. She looks like an old model—isn’t she illegal?” I asked, handing the little dog over to him. Usually only the police could own and operate drones, although they often looked the other way if the drone wasn’t a danger to the public. The mechanical dog scurried along his shoulder and planted her two front legs, looking expectantly at her owner.
“Yah, well, that about describes half of the things you buy here. You know, you shouldn’t pick up things that don’t belong to you.”
“Well, she came up to me. Maybe you should do a better job of taking care of her,” I shot back, being a bit rough. But if you walked the Marks, you needed to grow a thick skin. I recovered and tried to be friendly. “She’s awfully cute, where did you find her?”
He perked up at my question. “I fixed her up from a scrap heap. Don’t know how much life she has in her. There are so few living pets around these days, thought I’d program my own.” I looked at him more closely and saw a bunch of wires sticking out of his coat pocket. Typical techno geek. Probably here looking for some illegal electronics. Everyone’s got to have a hobby.
“Listen, I’m looking for a certain merchant. Seen a guy by the name of Lou? Sells unusual stuff, things from outside in the city.”
“Sounds like a lot of the sellers here. Care to be a little more specific?” he asked while holding the wiggling dog.
“He promotes his goods as ‘from another planet,’ has a bunch of UFOs and spaceships hanging from his roof. Yells from an electronic megaphone.” I could tell from his eyes that he knew whom I was describing.
“That wacko—sure, everyone knows Looney Lou. I do my best to avoid him. He’s a fraud, and most of his items are fakes. You don’t believe that his goods are from another world?” The cynic in me didn’t believe but the optimist hoped to see items made outside of the city. That’s why I liked Lou’s stall—it gave me hope.
“Not really, but it’s a lot of fun to go through his stuff. Can you take me to him?” I asked. He reached down and depressed a button on his dog. She immediately perked up and disappeared into the crowd.
“Lola can find anyone. Just follow her nose. I’m Austin.” He offered his hand.
“I’m Pene.” I shook his hand. His skin was tough and calloused; he must do a lot of work with his hands. “Where do you go to school?” I sidestepped a couple of people yelling at a vendor.
“Armbrae—out on the north end. School’s small but they have a great electronics class. Spend some of my time in the lab.” He blushed. “I guess that makes me sound like a geek.” His dimples made him kind of cute.
“No, it just means you’ve found something that interests you. A lot of the guys at my school barely show up for class.”
“Where do you go?” Austin asked.
“Vestbrooke—I headed out early so I can spend time here before first period.” Up ahead I could see Lola barking at someone.
“Your parents must be pretty open-minded to let you walk around the Marks by yourself.” I looked away, not wanting to explain my family dynamics. He wouldn’t understand. “Hey, Lola found your vendor!” Austin pointed and I was glad for the change of conversation.
As we approached, Lou turned towards us and smiled. He was a heavyset man with black hair and a beard, slightly balding and always with a huge smile. I wasn’t sure if it was a smile for enticing customers or if he really liked people. I had a feeling it was a bit of both.
“Pene! My favorite customer!” The liar—I’ve seen him say the same thing to other customers. “I see you brought a friend with you. Please come with me.” He grabbed my hand and gestured me into his stall. He pulled us around a stack of boxes to a table with outer-worldly artifacts and metal objects. He motioned to us to sit. “Several new items this week.” Lou reached into one of his boxes and pulled out a strange statue made of iron. It was a creature with multiple limbs and eyes. I ran my hand over its hands. “The man I bought it from says it depicts an alien life form he was captured by.” Lou leaned into me. “Apparently he barely escaped.”
Austin made a motion twirling with his finger at the side of his head. He obviously didn’t have any faith in Lou’s products.
“No,” I answered. “What else do you have?” Lou proceeded unperturbed. He was the ultimate salesman. He reached into a bag and pulled out an electronic box.
“What’s that? I asked.
“This fell out of a spaceship. It has advanced technology.” He beamed, seemingly believing it wholeheartedly. “If you touch this button,” he clicked on a raised red object, “it will open the spaceship.” Unfortunately, there was no way to prove Lou’s claim. It didn’t interest me, so I waved my hand to pass.
The truth was that I wasn’t sure what I was looking for. I wasn’t trying to find an object from an alien culture, despite what Lou sold. I wanted an object from outside of our city, recognition that there was more than where we lived.
As I scanned Lou’s stall, the sun reflected off glass in the corner. I walked over unobserved as Lou went to work trying to sell to Austin. Several colors shimmered on the wall as the glass acted like a prism. I picked the object up. It was about the size of my hand but looked like a section of a much larger object. It was concave, the glass honeycombed, mirroring a dozen of my faces.
“Where did you find this, Lou?” I held it out. He turned, since Austin had proved very unreceptive to his sales pitch.
“A mountain climber from Logan’s Peak sold it to me. He found a few of them on a plateau. Most of the other pieces were shattered but this piece had sunk into a depression. Is it something you would like to buy?” he asked expectantly.
When it comes to the Marks, you never want to look too interested. If you do, the buyer knows he’s got you hooked.
“I’ll think about it. What’s in these boxes?” I pointed to the far corner to divert my interest. Lou wasn’t fooled.
“If you take it now, I can let you have it for, let’s say twenty credits?” Only a fool or a desperate customer takes the first price offered at the Marks. Some vendors are even offended if you take their first offer; it is an art to bargain and try to read the other’s person price.
“Twenty credits? That thing’s not worth five,” Austin interceded on my behalf. He guessed my price exactly.
“What he said.” I gestured to Austin but looked at Lou.
“I couldn’t part with it for less than fifteen. I paid the climber a fair price, you know.” Lou’s smile was fake and we both knew it.
“Maybe seven. I don’t think I brought anymore,” I lied and then turned away. I’m not the best liar and I thought he could read my face. Lou, on the other hand, was so over the top in his response, I felt he deserved some award.
“How can you do this to me, Pene? We have been friends for many years. Do friends steal from each other?” It was a rhetorical question. “Of course not. I’m beginning to think that our relationship has come to an end. Perhaps I should not try to look out for your special interests anymore?” The look he gave me as I turned back was priceless. His performance was almost worth the price.
“Lou—final offer. Ten credits. Take it or I will never darken your door again. And that’s a promise!”
“Sold!” he answered enthusiastically and rushed to wrap it up for me. Austin leaned closer.
“If you ask me—” he started.
“But I didn’t,” I interrupted, knowing that no one shared my interest of items outside of town.
“Hey, no fair, let me finish,” he complained.
“So you can tell me how I wasted my money?” I snapped. “Now I have to hide this from father. He thinks that I should be helping improve the city, not trying to leave it.” I didn’t mean to take out my frustration with my dad on Austin.
“You’re misunderstanding,” Austin replied, gathering up Lola in his arms. “I was trying to say that you should always go for the things that are important to you. Most girls find the electronics I buy weird.” His phone rang and he turned away to talk. A jealous girlfriend? I asked Lou to wait a few minutes and intended to apologize to Austin for acting like a drama queen. But as I turned around, he had disappeared into the crowd. Me and my big mouth.
“Hey Lou, hurry up. I have to catch up with my friend.” I laid out my money on the table and he handed me my purchase.
“Come next week,” he urged as I dashed away. “I have some items coming in from the underground.” His voice melted into the noise of the Marks. I saw Austin disappear into the west end of the stalls and I tried to catch up with him. As I dodged a large woman arguing with a vendor, a head-splitting siren began to screech.
A rush of air gushed past me as a drone flew by. It was the shape of a small motorcycle propelled by jet engines. The heat it gave off was immense. Its robotic driver had head and arms, but the rest of its body merged with the machinery. As people scattered, it hovered above a food stall further down, blowing skewers onto the ground. The robotic head swirled left to right, scanning the crowd. Everyone froze, looking like students in a classroom; no one wanted to be picked by the drone. Behind me a stack of crates fell to the ground. I turned and saw a horrified look on Lou’s face as he attracted the drone’s attention.
“You!” The drone pointed directly at Lou. “You are charged with theft. Step forward to accept your sentence!” Lou backed away, shocked by the command.
“You’re mistaken, I’m a simple shop owner. I have stolen from no one,” he answered, almost sobbing. The drone hovered closer to Lou while everyone else tried to blend into the surroundings to avoid detection. Lou’s eyes scanned the Marks, looking for some point of escape. He seemed to focus on the right side, which went around a nearby warehouse. The drone’s eyes followed his glance, almost daring him to run, knowing that escape was nearly impossible. But common sense was not one of Lou’s strong points—he decided to run. Being a large man, he wasn’t graceful or fast and the drone merely watched his escape. I looked around; all of the vendors and buyers watched like zombies. No one offering to help, all of us assuming that justice was being served. Or none of us wanting to be recorded for questioning the law.
Lou turned a corner and slammed into another drone. This one was humanoid but a good foot taller and probably a hundred pounds heavier. The drone picked him up as if he was as light as a pillow. The motorcycle drone circled above the stalls, making its announcement.
“Your streets are safe again. Continue your business—know that no crime goes undetected. You are watched for the greater good.” Everyone watched the drone as it repeated its message several more times, its voice fading as it disappeared further into the Marks. The larger drone carried Lou unceremoniously, like a sack of flour. I watched as they passed me, Lou’s big eyes popping out of his head. As his line of vision crossed my position he begged me, “I’ve never stolen from anyone. This is all wrong! You said your father was a lawyer. Help me!” And just like that, Lou and the drone disappeared into the crowd. The Marks returned to an uneasy rumble of voices as people ventured back to their business.
There’s no way I am mentioning any of this to Dad. If he knew I was here, I’d suffer my own punishment. Sorry Lou, you’re on your own.
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