Chapter 11 & 12

Chapter 11: Background Check

 

The interior of Menta-Life is huge. What looks like three floors in height from outside is actually the lobby’s interior. There are circular pillars about every fifteen feet to support all of the floors above. All around the room are big, random relics from a history that I know nothing about: what looks like a classic sports car with racing stripes, a model statue of a huge white house, and other things from before my time. The lobby is outfitted to look like a museum.

People are walking around admiring the objects and socializing with each other in amazement over what they’re seeing. I am more concerned with getting a good seat in the middle where it’ll be hard for any familiar faces to spot me like Gene or his entourage if they show up without him. I slowly make my way through the crowds of people towards the back left corner where they have the folding chairs and presentation stage set up. Security is very tight and they have cameras posted all around the pillars.

The security cameras are set to be able to get a view of everything by circling the black tube that houses them around the pillar very fast. No one is able to see the camera through the dark tube; however, it’s the same sort of glass as a two-way mirror. The camera circles inside quick enough to get a view of everything within a two-second lapse; there’s no chance at hiding. People who came with each other are already seated in groups so they can listen and take notes together.

As the seats start to fill, I pick a spot on the center left of the stage and watch the people as we wait. There are cameramen and reporters here to film the seminar. They’ll most likely air it for the people that can’t be here. I wonder if they will be airing this live. I look around and don’t see any familiar faces; just uninteresting strangers and Menta-Life security guards. I patiently wait and stare at the stage.

A few minutes later, a man in a gray suit steps up to the microphone and says, “Ladies and gentlemen, please take your seats. We will begin very shortly.”

I look around and watch as everyone starts making their way to available seats.

The man repeats, “Ladies and gentlemen, please take your seats. Thank you.”

The man steps off the stage. I continue to look around, then see Geilium McKoy and his assistant Mitchell with two others engaged in conversation as they make their way towards the front row. What is he doing here? After a failed assassination last night, this is the last place I’d expect to see him. Of course no one knows he was up to anything except me, so that keeps him in good grace with Menta-Life.

They take seats at the corner of the second row with all four of them seated together as if there are “reserved” signs there waiting for them. Once everyone sits down, the lights go dim. The man retakes the stage and everyone starts clapping. He grabs the microphone and everyone settles down. He is the average corporate type: wavy hair, sparkling eyes, clean shaven, million-dollar smile. He clears his throat to get everyone to stop clapping.

They slowly stop and he says, “Thank you for the warm greeting, everyone, and welcome to Menta-Life. My name is Kelvin Hughes and I am one of the chief engineers here at the corporation. What I am here to share with you …”, he opens his arms and continues, “…is this gift of ‘Life’ that can be yours.” He puts his arms down, then continues. “The purpose of our Life is to allow ourselves an opportunity to restore order to our world, returning it to the way it was previously, before the war. We are all familiar with how the war dramatically set our world back, yet Life has brought us back from that brink of extinction. How?”

He steps to his left and looks back to where he was standing. A hologram of Gene Archibald appears. The crowd gasps from the sudden appearance of the hologram. It’s an exact replica of Gene, although I caught on to the way the hologram squeezed his picture onto the stage. It was fast, but not fast enough to hide the distortion of his feet.

Kelvin continues, “This is a holographic representation of our founder, Gene Winfred Archibald. The Menta-Life Corporation was never his dream, but rather his gift of salvation for our new world. Before the war, he was a professor in the study of the human brain. Using his knowledge, he started the Life project as an idea to rebuild what humanity had destroyed. Now, for those who haven’t been here before, I’m sure you’re all curious about how the Life process works. I am here to work through it with you all from start to finish. Please hold all questions until the end of the lecture.”

He looks at Gene’s hologram and it disappears, then a blue reclining chair appears in the same place. The chair has a small variety of tools attached to it and looks like something that would be in a dentist’s office.

Kelvin explains, “This is where we begin. In order for the program to work for anyone, a small chip called a ‘Microdot’ needs to be installed onto the left, or analytical, portion of the brain.”

A green hologram of a cyber-person steps into the image, then lies down in the chair. The image of a microdot appears next to him for everyone to see; it is in huge proportion and spinning around slowly.

Kelvin continues, “This is the representation of a Microdot. The actual dot is a little bigger than the size of a hair follicle. The dot’s purpose is to be used as a receiver for the internet. More will be explained on that in a second. Now, the dot is surgically placed onto the brain – not into, but onto – and it takes two days for the brain to absorb it into the cerebral cortex. Once it’s in the cortex, it simply rests there as a relay. The next step is the comfort zone. Our expert team comfortably lays each client in what we call a ‘Dreamcatcher’ which is the most comfortable recliner ever built, or so our clients say. Its attached mechanics facilitate the installation of the microdot. The Dreamcatcher is required for the procedure to keep our clients under maximum comfort while in the sleep state. We put the client into a barbiturate-induced coma with exactly enough pentobarbital to keep the client unconscious for a three-day duration. IV liquids are provided with the purchase of a Life to provide nutrients for the entire duration. And now, the last step and the most exciting, the Life stage.”

The green hologram begins releasing Z’s from its mouth indicating it’s asleep; clearly, their way of a joke.

Kelvin looks at it and jokingly states, “Well I guess we’re more excited than he is.”

The crowd lets out a chuckle. I turn my attention over to Geilium. He and his associates are still sitting down, unamused.

I turn my attention back to Kelvin as he resumes talking. “Now, with this last step, after being induced, you, the participant, are granted access to the Menta-Life server which houses all data that has ever been collected since the war, including everything else discovered that predates it. Everything is at your disposal as you live your life in Life. However, allow me to clarify one detail for those of you who are new; the ninety years are only from the present to death. One of the impossibilities of the Life is that you can never revert back to a state younger than you currently are. Those are all of the steps required for Life to work for you. Thank you.”

The hologram disappears. Everyone quickly stands and starts clapping. After about twenty seconds, they sit and quiet back down.

Kelvin asks, “Does anyone have any questions about the first stage of the microdot?”

One man raises his hand quickly and Kelvin points at him in acknowledgement. “Yes sir.”

“How is something that small manufactured to do such a big job?”

“I can’t give you the exact specifications, though I can tell you that it was done very carefully and mass produced to prevent flaws in physical reconstruction. Any other questions?”

A woman raises her hand and he acknowledges her. “Yes ma’am.”

“Is the installation procedure dangerous?”

“Absolutely not. It is done mechanically and has been set to operate by Dr. Gene Winfred Archibald himself. With human beings, there is always room for error. With our Dreamcatchers, there is not. Any other questions about stage one?” No one responds or raises their hand as he scans the room looking for hands, so he says, “Moving on. Does anyone have any questions about the Dreamcatcher, IV, or comfort zone?”

Two men raise their hands and Kelvin acknowledges one, “Yes sir.”

“Are the Dreamcatchers available for purchase?”

Kelvin and the audience snicker a little as he comments. “Great question, by the way. I asked that one myself. Unfortunately, no, they aren’t. The Dreamcatcher is a Menta-Life patented product that is intended for implanting the microdot with its attached mechanisms and providing our clients a comforting sleep. But I think three full days in it would be enough, believe me.”

The crowd laughs out loud at his response. He gets a good grade for showmanship.

Kelvin asks, “Was there another question?”

The other guy who had his hand up answers, “No, he asked it already.”

The crowd chuckles and Kelvin jokingly clarifies, “Believe me, more than half of the company wishes the Dreamcatchers were up for purchase, so don’t feel discouraged. Okay, any more questions on stage two?”

No one answers so he goes on. “Alright, moving on. Any questions on stage thr–”

Hands go flying up before he can even finish his sentence. Being the most illogical part of the process, the people’s curiosity is understandable.

Kelvin states, “Wow, okay. Umm… young lady down here in the front. Why don’t you start us off?”

She responds, “Thank you. Are there any types of rules that you have to follow while living a Life?”

“We all have rules to follow; it’s just like a regular life. What you choose to do with it and what rules you follow are up to you, but naturally there are consequences. Next question.” The hands fly back up and he picks someone. “You, sir.”

“How does Menta-Life control the dream?”

He hesitantly admits, “I don’t understand the question.”

“Well, with dreams, they aren’t really controlled. For example, in a dream you can walk down the street and see a giant spider driving a train, or something of that nature.”

“Ah, I see. With the microdot implanted onto the analytical portion of the brain, your brain is able to feed off information gathered on the internet. The microdot plays the role of maintaining your mental sanity by giving off the information that something like that isn’t possible.” He pitches one finger up briefly. “However, living your life a certain way can make anything possible. Like, perhaps a science experiment went wrong and a spider was in the nuclear incident, then grew and drove a train off the tracks. If you make it happen, it can be possible. Next question.” People raise their hands again and he picks someone else. “Yes, sir.”

“So, when you wake up, what happens to the information you learned in the Life?”

“It’s yours. If you learn to become an astronaut in your Life, when you wake up, you’ll have the necessary information to achieve that life goal.”

Everyone gasps and starts to chatter amongst themselves. This Life thing is pretty fascinating. I’d like to ask a question, but I can’t draw attention to myself. Hopefully someone asks them for me. So far, they’re helping me out with good Intel. Kelvin clears his throat in the microphone and everyone quiets down.

He continues. “Yes, it is true. You can pick up as much information as you want by living a Life in our facility. The only limitation is based on your discoveries and how far you’re willing to explore. Anything on our servers that anyone has ever recorded can be learned. Any other questions?” Hands raise fast and he chooses again. “Yes, ma’am.”

“You mentioned that no one is able to revert back to the stage of birth, so does that not guarantee a full ninety years?”

“Correct, and allow me to tell you why. The brain, although a most powerful tool, is still very fragile. Say you were able to regress back to the birthing stage and something catastrophic happened; your brain would have no choice but to process the false fact that you are dead, then cease to function altogether. For the safety of our clients, that has been made an impossible venture. A thirty-four-year-old such as myself would only be able to live out a fifty-six-year span, just as a twenty-five year old like you would have a sixty-five year span.”

The lady, obviously older than twenty-five years old, gets sucked in and smiles from ear-to-ear at his comment as she puts her head down. Flattery kind of saw him through that answer. No woman would cough up their real age to prove their point after a compliment like that.

Kelvin goes on, “Next please.” Hands go back up and he picks. “Yes, ma’am.”

“Are you able to live a Life within a Life?”

“Absolutely not. Having a Life within a Life could cause catastrophic failure to our systems, as well as to the client who can lose their grip on reality, destroying everything we’ve struggled so hard to build since the war of 2068.”

“Has it ever been tested?”

“No; however, the theoretical analysis of it is all we need to know not risk it. Next question please.”

There are eight hands left in the air and Kelvin picks one. “Yes, sir.”

“How do the laws and regulations work in the Life?”

“It runs just like real life. You commit a crime, you either have to pay the toll or go to jail. The implants are all from the internet, complete with Regulator response times and procedures. We’re running short on time, so I’ll have to be brief. Next question.”

Only a half an hour? Well, that works for me because I’m getting tired of sitting here.

Hands go back up and Kelvin picks. “Yes, sir.”

“How is your technology protected? What’s to stop someone from streaming it for themselves?”

“The only way to stream from our servers is through direct access to it at our undisclosed location. It feeds to only our systems and nothing else. Next question.” Hands rush up and he picks. “You, ma’am.”

“Is there any contact with the outside world?”

“Great question. Technically, yes. Anything shared on the internet is available for you to find. Are you single?”

“Yes.”

“Any single man here, raise your hand.” A hand goes up and Kelvin continues talking to the woman, “You can go through a social media profile and find this man, if he has chosen to share his information publicly. You can get to know him, fall in love with him, marry him, then grow old with him, and die together. When you wake up, you will know everything about him.”

“So I would know what he would look like as an elder before he does?”

“Only what can be generated. Certain parts start to sag; eyes start to darken. If he’s a couch potato, he’ll gain weight, things like that. Now, with other features, say there’s a cruiser accident on the street in this life that you’re driving on in that Life, traffic will be slowed in that Life, too. Got time for two more questions.” A few hands go up and he quickly picks. “Yes, sir.”

“I sleep eight hours every day and my dreams only feel like minutes. How is it the opposite with Life?”

“Your brain always analyzes that you’re sleeping, but with the microdot in place, your brain is also aware that it’s there and has a purpose. Therefore, your brain continues working to fill out that purpose of working with us to give you a full Life. Last question.”

Seven hands fly up and some start waving like children in a classroom.

Kelvin cruises around the crowd with his eyes and picks someone. “The last question is yours, sir.”

The man stands up from the back right corner and fixes his black suit. “Thank you, Mr. Hughes.”

He’s an African American man in his late twenties with a deep voice; so deep that it seems like if he yells, even the fiercest lion would run. He stands tall at about six feet and has a goatee with a crew cut. The averagely built man stands there silently.

Kelvin reminds the man, “Go ahead with your question.”

The man introduces himself, “My name is Paul Quentin and my question is: Who do you think you’re fooling?”

The entire audience and I twist around to look back at him. What’s this guy up to?

Kelvin timidly responds, “I beg your pardon.”

Paul clarifies, “I asked, who do you think you’re fooling, Mr. Hughes?”

“I don’t think I’m fooling anyone. Everyone in the audience today is here this morning with questions and I’m giving the answers.”

“Then tell them the answers they really want to hear, like how you monitor dreams and steal people’s memories.”

Who is this Paul Quentin? He has some nerve speaking out and throwing accusations around like that with all of these people around watching. This guy must be insane.

Kelvin laughs off Paul’s accusation as he defends, “Menta-Life isn’t capable of watching years zoom by in someone’s Life. What you’re implying isn’t possible, Mr. …”

Paul barks, “Quentin!” He dials down his tone. “Paul Quentin. Your mega corporation is stealing people’s memories and making people go insane.”

Security guards begin silently gathering around him; still he doesn’t look back to notice. He does seem angry enough to try and attack Kelvin, so they’re smart in keeping their guards up. Looking back at Kelvin, I see that his eyes aren’t squirming around looking at the approaching guards. Normally, people would unknowingly warn attackers by looking at what’s going on around them; however, Kelvin must have been through this ordeal before to not divert his attention to the guards.

Kelvin attempts to diffuse the situation peacefully. “Mr. Quentin, please calm down. Menta-Life has no purpose in stealing people’s memories. Memories are people’s pasts. We cannot steal something that isn’t there to steal.”

Paul heatedly interrogates, “What about stealing the people’s ideas you decide you want to keep for yourselves?”

“Mr. Quentin, I’m not sure where you’ve gotten your information, nonetheless citizens of Gharis City, as well as citizens at other Menta-Life facilities in other cities, have been working with us to create a better future by sharing what they have learned with us to advance our new world forward. For the ideas citizens have shared with us, they have received payment, acknowledgment, as well as an invitation to join Menta-Life as a partner or employee. We make sure to take care of those who take care of the new world.”

“What about those people who want to keep their ideas?”

“The ideas are simply theirs to exploit and do with as they please.”

Paul shouts, “How about they get their memories stolen and they become Deserted!”

The crowd gasps and begins chattering amongst themselves. That’s the same theory Hines had implied. This man seems too angry to be just some civil rights activist. He has a personal stake in this, leading with Deserted. To accuse Menta-Life of something like that is asking for a death sentence.

Kelvin denies, “Deserted have absolutely nothing to do with Menta-Life. The Deserted are simply people with an illness that can’t yet be treated.”

“You are the illness!”

“Security.”

The security guards immediately grab Paul, then begin escorting him away as he continues the racket. “You’re the ones that are destroying us all! Menta-Life is killing us! Stealing our minds!”

His voice fades away into silence as he is escorted from the building. How does that man know about the Deserted? Could he be a member of Equility? If he’s not in jail by the time we’re done here, I’ll have to find out who he is.

Kelvin apologizes. “I’m so sorry about that, folks. There are lots of people out there who look at us as a threat because we are the biggest target to fire at, so to speak.”

One woman in the crowd asks, “Is there any truth to what he said?”

“Of course not. Citizens have worked with us for years, sharing their ideas, and there are even some who haven’t and have become successful business owners themselves, most recently, the bank with their DSC technology. That technology was founded here within a woman’s dream and she is making her fortune from it. Mr. Quentin’s accusations are completely false.”

Paul Quentin seems to have an idea of what’s really going on behind the scenes here. I have to add him to my research list and figure out what he knows. Since he’s aware of Menta-Life stealing memories, perhaps I’ve found a potential ally. Being familiar with the Deserted doesn’t seem like a common thing around here, so maybe he does have a connection to Equility.

Kelvin continues, “I again apologize for having had to end this meeting on a bad note, but we really have to get back to work here. If you have any further questions about the Life system, please speak to our receptionists on the way out. Have a great rest of the morning and day, Gharis City. Thank you.”

The audience stands and starts clapping as he walks off the stage abruptly without even as much as a wave. He walks down the small set of stairs on the side and merges with armed security guards as they escort him out of the lobby. The audience stops clapping and begins to disperse, heading for the door. I join them as I look around for Geilium and his associates. I spot them ahead of the crowd, going for the front door.

They don’t seem like they’re in too much of a hurry. I wonder if Geilium took any interest in what Paul was talking about. I shuffle through the crowd and follow behind them, then exit Menta-Life. A few limos are parked outside of the Menta-Life entry gate waiting for their bosses or passengers. Finding out Geilium’s part in all this is priority one.

I can tail him back to his home or office, then break in later tonight to find out what I can about him. They reach the sidewalk then step out into the street with the limos and start walking to the right. I begin quickly making my way through the crowd of people leaving. I exit the gate and see Geilium and his group all get into a white limousine. Their limo is stuck waiting behind a black limo and it has to merge into the left lane where traffic is slowly moving because of all the people leaving. I turn right and make my way back around the corner towards the lectrocycle. I continue looking straight as Geilium’s limo cruises past me.

When another limo passes by, I start jogging across the street to the lectrocycle, then throw my leg over it and start it up. I twist the throttle, pulling up to the intersection and looking left at where the limo is as I watch it make a left turn onto a side street. I turn the lectrocycle around causing traffic in both lanes to stop as I cut them off. I speed down to the end of the street and make a right turn into a small alley. Halfway through it, I see the limo going up gravity levels, so I speed up to avoid losing them in the confusion above. I exit the alley, then follow the bottom of the limo to wherever it’s heading.

 

Chapter 12: Normal Work, Abnormal

 

It’s fairly difficult keeping an eye on the limo and not being able to go up to gravity level seventy-five with them. The advantage is that they can’t keep an eye on me at all. I follow them through the mid-morning traffic for about a half hour until they begin to drop gravity. I slow down to keep a nice distance from them as the limo sinks slowly between two cruisers. I stay one cruiser length back as I tail them to their destination through the light traffic.

As they make a left turn, they pull over in front of a building on the right side with the letters GCN on it. I stop at the corner where they turned and observe the limo. I have seen those letters on television before. This must be the Gharis City News building. It’s quite far from the Menta-Life building, so its height is about half as high by the city standard. It stands tall at about forty stories.

There are smaller stations all around the city, but they all must feed here for approval and airing, like a home base of operations. Does Geilium run this building? This building seems too large to be just a news network even if it is a base for all the stations. He mentioned at the party that every network has to go through him for approval, though I still want there to be something wrong here anyway. The building has a wide set of fourteen steps leading up to a revolving door.

The steps cover the whole front of the building and there is an outer square that seems to go all the way around it. From my diagonal view, I see a small set of stairs in the northeast corner that leads up to the outer square and a few feet to a back door. The windows on the first seven floors are clear, yet the rest, all the way up to the top, seem darkened. The male driver of the limo gets out and speed walks around to open the back door. Since he parked with the passenger side facing the building, he has to go all the way around to the rear passenger door to open it.

I look around and see the emptiness surrounding the news station. Granted, it is noon, nevertheless to increase the economy and jobs, mostly everywhere has in-house amenities that fills up around lunch time. I begin feeling like I may be standing out a little bit here on a lectrocycle. The driver opens the rear passenger door and the men start exiting the vehicle. I notice the revolving door at the top of the stairs begin rotating.

A petite blonde woman steps out with a MechCi behind her. She’s wearing a navy blue pencil skirt and blazer to match with a pair of black stilettos. Her hair is straightened, so I can’t get a good look at her face from here. The MechCi stops at the top of the stairs as she walks down. The men walk up the stairs in a two-by-two formation and the woman merges with them, turning around next to Geilium to walk back upstairs.

They begin talking, then the MechCi joins them and they all enter the building. I guess I was right about this being his building. If he were a guest here, a receptionist wouldn’t come out to meet him. No one is ever that important except for the boss. The place isn’t tightly guarded at all; still, just in case, I’ll ask Dayio to come and back me up later tonight.

I tap my Econ, “Call Trex.”

Trex joyfully answers, “Hey, Van. Just the girl I was thinking about. How are you?”

I get a strange feeling he wants something. Who am I to criticize? At least he sugarcoats it. Me, I just come straight out and ask.

I bluntly speak, “I’m fine, Trex. How are you?”

Trex answers, “I’m good, thanks for asking.”

I tiredly ask, “What can I do to make your day great?”

“I’m glad you asked. I need a second runner for a job.”

He made it fairly obvious that he wanted something. Since I need him to find Paul Quentin for me, I can do this for him in exchange, and to pay him back for everything else. It wouldn’t seem fair to anyone else, though any favor I needed never required him to get out of his chair, as if he could anyway.

I ask, “What’s the job?”

I start driving towards Feegle’s as he answers, “A simple pick up and drop off in the city. Dayio has all of the info already.”

“I need a favor in return.”

“Ah. The percentage for this one will be set at an even division between the three of us.”

“I’d like to forfeit payment in exchange for some more information as well as for what you’ve given so far.”

He quickly accepts. “Done.”

I knew he’d like that idea. He’s as greedy as they come and would do anything to not pay someone, except pay someone. His type can’t be trusted and, obviously, neither can I.

I say, “I need you to find someone. A man named Paul Quentin. A black man. Middle-aged. Goatee. Bald. Angry. That’s all I’ve got on him.”

“I’ll get working on the search straightaway. Meet Dayio inside Feegle’s and he can fill you in on the job. Paul Quentin will be yours when you return.”

“Thanks Trex. Disconnecting.”

I tap my Econ and continue my long drive to Feegle’s bakery. When I arrive, I don’t see Dayio waiting outside for me. Where is he? I don’t imagine he’s at the other end of the tunnel on the forest side waiting for me; not for a job that needs to be done in the city. I get off the lectrocycle, then enter Feegle’s bakery to see Dayio and Feegle in an argument. They are two feet away from each other, shouting.

Dayio yells, “No, it is not!”

Feegle loudly clarifies, “Young man, I have been working in this city for a long time and I happen to know much more about business than you could have learned in your entire existence!”

I step in and stop them. “Hey, both of you calm down. Now, what is all the yelling about?”

Feegle quickly explains, “Well this buffoon insists–”

Dayio rudely interrupts, “Who are you calling a buffoon?”

Feegle asks, “Do you even know what a buffoon is?”

Dayio swiftly responds, “Of course not.”

“Well, Ms. Pheros has more common sense–”

I sternly interrupt, “Hey… What!?!”

Feegle explains, “Your friend here seems to think that my Sugar Crème Pie is too sweet. Please set young Dayio straight.”

Seriously? I can’t help standing there with the stiffest expression on my face. They both stare at me like they really expect me to pick a side in their stupid debate. Instead of choking them both, Dayio and I have work to do because I need to find Paul before going back to GCN.

I turn to Dayio and demand, “Let’s go. Come on.”

Feegle begins to speak to me, “I made it for you once, and I recall–”

I absolutely refuse to entertain this argument, so I turn around and walk back out of the bakery to the street. I approach the curb, then turn back and see Dayio exit the bakery with a black duffel bag hanging by a cyber strap off his shoulder. Since it is not placed over his shoulder, it will not shrink to fit and toggle camouflage.

He approaches me. “He made me try–”

I cut him off. “Dayio, we have a job to do for Trex, remember? Where are we going?”

“Right. It’s a simple pick up and drop off.”

“I think the last one was supposed to be simple, too, as I recall.”

“Trust me. This one will be easy. It’s from one of our regulars. Same job every time. Pick up the bag from the park. Drop it off at the train car by three.” He notices the lectrocycle. “Nice bike.”

“It’s a rental.”

I walk over towards the lectrocycle and hear Dayio’s voice, “Let’s go.”

I turn my head back and see him walking away. “Where are you going?”

“They call us ‘runners’ for a reason, Van.” He stops walking, then mentions, “We gotta get this done before that train car leaves. Chop, chop.”

It is less conspicuous on foot and easier to escape sticky situations, also; there’s no way to get cornered by a cruiser if we can just jump over it. I’m still in a rush to get this done; however, it’s bad luck to not follow the rules of running. I still can’t leave this lectrocycle idle for too long on the streets with the people and MechCi roaming about.

I say to him as I begin moving the lectrocycle towards the alley near Feegle’s garage, “Hang on. Let me tuck it back here.”

I jog the lectrocycle into the alleyway and lean it up against the wall behind a big blue dumpster. I exit the alley and rejoin with Dayio as we start walking west of Feegle’s bakery.

I ask, “Which park are we making the pick-up at?”

“Montponery National. That’s the usual pick-up point for this client. Someone leaves the bag next to a trash can, under a bench, and then we pick it up and take it to the Kaeward Street underground subway station. We wait for the three o’clock train to arrive and put it onboard car five, then the job is done.”

We cross the street going north and continue straight as I ask, “What if someone picks it up?”

“That’s not our problem. We just place it on the train and leave.”

“What’s in your bag? Dropping it off to replace?”

“Nope. Decoy bag. We don’t have too many experienced runners like you and I. Some of the newcomers would either lose the product or the payment by dropping it or getting caught by the Regs. We needed a way to kind of fake them out. If the Regs catch us with a bag of clothing, they’ve got nothing to pin against us. The more experienced runner can escape with a package instead of getting trapped.”

“Is it really that bad now? When we were running–”

He cuts me off, “When we were running, we didn’t have to worry about thieves, just Regs. When we did the first run the other day, those guys were trying to steal from the courier we were supposed to follow.”

Thinking back on it, the buyer was Menta-Life; we’d never have survived that encounter with their security. Hines wanted that package and knew who the recipient was. What did we hand over to them?

I ask, “Hey, did Trex ever mention who his client was for the package that night?”

“It was anonymous. The guy paid Trex before the job was even started. And get this; they were some kind of fake emeralds. Trex and I checked it out when I got back. They were green and looked like jewels, but they were filled with something dark, like a kind of thick fog. We don’t know what they were, but we saw a note inside for Menta-Life. We contacted them, they threw out a price and we got paid. Why, what’s up?”

“Just some stuff that I’m looking into.”

“About Menta-Life?”

“Yeah.”

“Why?”

I want to keep him out of the loop as much as possible because this isn’t his fight. If I ask him for help infiltrating Geilium’s offices, he’d deserve to know at that point anyway. I realized a long time ago that people are different from me. As long as I get paid, I don’t care what needs to be done or to whom; it’s not my place to ask. Dayio isn’t as cold-hearted as I am, and he has morals of his own. Morals I’d never betray or take advantage of by lying. I am, of course, allowed to be a little vague.

I answer, “I’m hearing things about them and my curiosity is setting in. I don’t think they’re as good as they say they are.”

Dayio sticks up for them, “Menta-Life founded our entire city. The new world began here in Gharis City and is spreading around what’s left of this state. Whatever you heard, I’m sure it’s just rumors.”

I correct him, “Like Menta-Life smuggling fake emeralds into the city?”

Dayio looks over at me. I puzzled him with that one. I can’t picture Menta-Life needing to have anything secretly transported in, and I can’t imagine from whom, but they managed to get through the checkpoint with it. The security checkpoints are very relaxed and they don’t check for people as much as they check for cargo, unless told otherwise. Another Menta-Life Corporation in another city probably sent them and paid off the city for clearance; if they don’t secretly run the city already.

Dayio questions, “What else have you heard?”

“Enough to make me not trust them.” I notice we’re approaching the park, so I change the subject. “We’re here. Who gets the decoy bag?”

“I don’t know. Who’s better out of the two us?”

He smiles at me, then I answer his question, “So I guess I get–”

He quickly finishes, “–the decoy bag.”

He takes the bag off. He dangles it in front of me by its strap. I smile as I grab the strap and whip it over my shoulder with the strap going across my chest. The strap glows, then shrinks to fit snugly around me.

I ask, “Where’s the delivery bag?”

Dayio answers, “We’ll get there. Come on.”

He starts walking in front of me and I follow behind him as we approach the intersection. We are standing diagonally across from the park while we wait for one of the two crosswalk’s lights to change. When the light changes, we cross the one side then wait and cross the next to enter the park. The park is the size of a city block and is surrounded by tall buildings. There are a lot of fake trees, a couple of fountains, a pond where realistic looking ducks are cruising over the water, and different things for children to play with or on.

The park has a lot of people in it. Parents are playing with their children, couples of all ages are talking happily, and people are reading and playing board games. Montponery Park is a true place of peace, indeed. Leaving a package here unattended wouldn’t be too smart with all of these people around. My best guess is someone must be keeping an eye on it from somewhere close by to make sure it doesn’t get taken by the wrong person.

I follow Dayio through the park, not looking for a stray bag, but looking around for things that don’t add up; and a lot of things don’t add up at all. I notice a middle-aged man sitting alone wearing all black. His lips are moving, so he’s on an Econ, yet his lip movements just seem like he’s not making sense. There’s no smile or look of interest in what he’s talking about. I look back at him, then notice he’s still talking and his Econ in his right ear flashes green, proving he is on a call.

When an Econ is on an active call, it flashes green every ten seconds until the call is disconnected. We start following a different pathway between a huddle of trees. I notice a man sitting up in a tree on a branch with a book in his hand. I can’t see the title of the book because it’s covered by his thigh. I continue to stare up at him relentlessly and when we get under him, I notice his eyes quickly shift at us, then away at the book again.

Whatever he’s reading must not be too interesting for him to break focus like that. We continue walking past the tree and I look back at him. I see a slight green flash in his ear from an Econ. Why is he on the Econ and not talking? I stop Dayio by grabbing his arm. He turns around and looks up in the tree with me. I wait for the guy’s Econ to flash again, but it doesn’t happen.

Dayio asks, “What’s up?”

I look down at the guy on the bench and see him looking at us, but he quickly turns away when he notices me notice him.

I ask, “Which way is Kaeward Station from here again?”

He points behind him with his answer, “That way. Don’t worry; we still have plenty of time to get there.”

We turn and continue walking the path. I hope I’m just being paranoid. He said he does this run often, so it shouldn’t be a problem now that I’m here. We pass by a pond with a fountain in the middle that is shooting water up; there are also benches around it where people are sitting.

I look across the pond through the shooting water and notice a female watching us from the other side as she jogs around. Most people these days don’t try and stay fit, especially here in Gharis City. There are the select few; however, her staring still strikes as odd. Why is she watching us and what does she know? The water is making her appear blurry to me, so I can’t really see her anymore as she jogs away.

I continue looking back at her and when she jogs out from behind the water, she is looking straight ahead. I look straight ahead and see Dayio is a little ahead of me, so I catch up with him. There are way too many people here. Perhaps that’s why the client likes this location; there is a crowd to get lost in, in the event something does go wrong.

I continue trying to examine people and Dayio coolly calls out, “Hey.” I look over at him. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

I facetiously respond, “Yeah, never better.”

We approach a bench and he informs me, “It’s right over here.”

I notice the black duffel bag under the bench that matches the one we have. He reaches under the bench, then picks it up and throws the strap over his shoulder.

He faces me. “See? Piece of cake. You’re worried about nothing.”

He continues talking as the strap adjusts to him. I continue to look around to make sure everything is clear. We are a third of the way through the park, towards the north end. I look at the left side of the park and notice a gleam from an apartment building window across the street. I can barely see into the window; however, that shine doesn’t happen unless something reflective moves and that’s no coincidence. I squint my eyes, then see that something is in there watching us through the scope of a rifle. They have a good shot on us.

I call out, “Dayio…” I turn to him, then realize I called out to him in a low tone, so I jump into him as I shout, “Dayio!”

The rifle goes off as I push him. We both fall to the ground in front of the bench. A loud echo that sounds like a pop is soaring through the park. That echo is from something of a high caliber. Most weapons don’t sound so loud as to carry an echo with them, since there are no gunpowder weapons. I look up from the ground. People have stopped and are now looking around. They must have heard it and don’t know where it came from, but I do. Someone has made the exception to using a gunpowder weapon and is shooting to kill.

I state, “Rifle shot.”

I quickly get up and Dayio does too. We start running. We hear echoing gunfire as we rapidly run across the park towards the north end. People are running and screaming in a panic, trying to find a hiding place for safety. I look back to my right and see the dirt puffing up as the bullets are hitting the grass in a trail behind us. Who is shooting at us and why? What’s in this regular package that makes it irregular, and what would make someone want it so badly as to open fire in a park filled with civilians?

Looking back slowed me down a little bit and Dayio speeds in front of me. I face forward to see people are in front of us running away, but not as fast as we are. If we run past them, they’re surely going to get hit with the barrage of bullets behind us. We reach a grove of trees near the right end of the park. The canopy would make a great cover. Dayio and I have to duck in there or these innocent bystanders will get hurt before we do.

I scream to Dayio, “Get in the trees!”

Dayio turns off the path and takes cover behind the closest tree, which isn’t more than five feet away. I continue running to the next tree closest to the path, which is three trees away from Dayio. I turn off the path, then drop and slide into it like a man stealing a base at a ball game. I stop myself with my feet by pressing them against the tree. I then shift around to the right of it, shielding myself from the bullets.

Once we are both safely in cover, the firing stops. I begin catching my breath from the unexpected run as I look around for any other shooters, in case the person in the window isn’t acting alone. The park is clearing out from what I can see on my left and right. There are also people hiding around in the forest area, much further in than us. That was a smart decision for them, but unfortunately for Dayio and I, we have a schedule to keep. Seeing as we took our time getting here, we have to rush now that we’re wasting time in cover.

I shout, “You failed to mention this part of the job!”

He shouts back, “Because this part isn’t usually in it! You jinxed us!”

“Being cautious isn’t a jinx!”

I hear the rifle go off and the high-powered bullet soars through the air, then hits the tree. The bark on my right breaks and the residue blows at me as I shift a little to my left. Is this person firing at me? I pushed Dayio when the first shot went off, yet it didn’t hit me in his stead; it should have. Either this person’s aim was off or I was mistaken about Dayio being the target. I figured it to be obvious; Dayio grabbed the bag, shoot him. Maybe it’s not so obvious.

Dayio shouts, “We have to go!”

“You first!”

He stands up, still remaining shielded. I stand and stay in cover also.

I ask, “Any ideas?!”

He quickly answers, “Move from tree to tree! These trees continue all the way to the northeast exit of the park! The shooter won’t be able to see us after we pass these next few trees heading east! After that, we’re smooth sailing!”

He runs straight to the next tree in front of him then hides behind it. No shots were attempted, nevertheless I can’t be sure if the shooter is aiming for me or not. Hopefully the shooter doesn’t know we’re taking turns on this tree running, but just in case, Dayio should go again.

I demand, “Go again!”

Dayio runs forward to the next tree in front of him, then I quickly run to the one in front of me. We either tricked him successfully or he’s not there anymore. I hate not knowing where people are when they’re trying to kill me. Heading in opposite directions should fake the shooter out again.

I shout to Dayio, “Head to the opposite tree!”

He returns with confusion in his tone, “What?!”

“The tree on the right! I’ll go first!” I take a deep breath then shout, “Go!”

I run to the front-left tree from me as Dayio runs to the front-right one from him.

I don’t hear any gunfire, so I command, “Keep going!”

We both continue running, then enter the more shaded area of the forest, meaning the shooter can’t see us through the leaves and branches. Instead of stopping to make sure our backs are clear, we keep running and meet up, then jog northeast towards the park exit.

I request as we jog through the trees, “How much time do we have?”

Dayio taps his Econ then asks, “What’s the time?” After a couple of seconds, he says to me, “Eighteen minutes.”

“How far away are we?”

“Four city blocks.”

I quickly shout, “Are you kidding me?!”

He sarcastically apologizes, “I’m sorry I didn’t factor being shot at by a psychopath into our time schedule.”

“Apology accepted.”

We continue jogging through the miniature forest. By now, all of the people have cleared out of the park. Surprisingly, the Regs have not arrived yet, but there were a few MechCi around so they must be notified and on their way. It won’t work out in our advantage if they do show up since we have no idea what we’re transporting.

A couple of little trinkets can always be passed off with a warning or confiscation of the contents; a major stash of illegal content could naturally get Dayio and I thrown in prison; notwithstanding the extension of my sentence for alleged murder. We keep moving towards the end of the forest, cutting between the trees. I move left around a tree in front of me, then see something pierce the tree.

As I take cover behind the same tree, I yell, “Down!”

I remain standing and look over at Dayio, who is taking cover a couple of trees away from mine. He’s staring at me like he’s waiting for my idea on what to do next. We’re pressed for time, so there’s only one sure-fire idea that I can guarantee I can pull off.

Dayio says to me, “We’re going to run out of time.”

I ignore him and proceed with my plan. If I can’t beat the shooter, I must fake the shooter. I slowly poke my head over to my right and hear a gun go off. I tuck my head back in as the bullet shaves the edge of the tree. I quickly crouch down, then move out of cover towards the shooter and point my hands out like I have a pulser.

It’s not the sanest idea, but it won’t be the first time it worked either. I don’t see any movement; however, I catch glimpse of something I never thought I’d see; an everyday average MechCi is pointing a gunpowder rifle at me. How is this possible? I see a flash from its weapon. Crap, it didn’t take the bait.

I shift back into cover then watch three bullets pierce the tree in front of me. That MechCi is using live rounds and trying to kill us. Why is it shooting at us? I can’t even begin to think how this is happening, but without a weapon I’m not getting past it. MechCi are manufactured with plastic and easily breakable. If we want to make it on time, there is no other choice but to just dart straight for the train.

I shout to Dayio, “Stay in front of the trees and people!”

I take off running straight towards the north to reach the sidewalk. No one seemed hurt in the park, so maybe it can’t shoot civilians, like normal mechs, or it’s just cautious. People are still occupying the streets and I just have to hope the MechCi isn’t planning to get this package by any means necessary. In that case, we won’t make it far, even with the civilians as cover. Looking back, I see Dayio behind me, but I don’t see the MechCi.

Not knowing where it is won’t stop me from getting to that train. We continue on and exit the forest into the busy traffic. Dayio catches up to me and we both stop. The intersection is only a few feet away from us to the right and people are walking around as if they don’t know the park is under attack. The park is the size of a city block, so maybe they don’t know; that works in our favor.

We can probably keep the MechCi confused and searching for us amongst the crowd on the streets if we casually walk out of the park’s vicinity, then jog forward. I notice a shadow cross over top of me, blocking the sun for a brief second. I look up towards the sun and notice something falling in front of me. I look back down and see the MechCi glide across two lanes of traffic, then land on top of a cruiser in a kneeling position, slightly crushing the roof. It looks straight at Dayio with that plain robotic face.

Did someone send this MechCi to steal the package? There is no other reason why it would be attacking us. Someone must have found some way to get around the programming and alter the MechCi’s functions. Everyone is staring at the MechCi, including Dayio and I. The MechCi leaps off the cruiser towards us. I turn to the right and push Dayio forward to get him going.

We start running through the crowd to the intersection, then head across the street before the light changes. I’m leading by a couple of feet. I look back to see how close the MechCi is. It’s running in the street beside us, dodging cruisers. For the MechCi, its current method is safer for everyone than pushing down people to get to us. At that moment, I notice that it no longer has the rifle.

These types of mechs don’t have compartments for weapon storage, so what happened to it? The MechCi is after Dayio because he has the bag. We gotta lose the MechCi for a second so we can switch and I can make a run for the station. As we are running, I notice someone dressed like a chef exiting a side door in a small alley. He is holding the door open as he’s yelling at someone inside. I turn left into the alley and run to the door, then push the man down.

The man barks, “Hey!”

I hold the door open for Dayio and notice the MechCi is right on his trail. Dayio sprints to the door’s threshold. He stops abruptly and dives in for a quicker entry. I quickly shut the door as Dayio rolls up to his feet from his dive. Shortly after, I hear the MechCi bang on the door twice. As I back away from it, the banging stops. It can’t do too much because its hardware isn’t that durable, thus it might be going for another way in. Dayio and I turn around to see that we’re in the kitchen of an office building. The workers are staring at us.

I start walking through the kitchen as I demand, “Give me your bag.”

He takes his bag off as I remove mine as well. We trade. I throw the strap over my shoulder and it tightens to my body. We approach the door to exit the kitchen. I pull it open and see the MechCi standing at the door. It lifts its arm up very fast and I quickly shut the door again. I turn around and walk further into the kitchen, turning back again. I start running back towards the alley door and burst through it with Dayio close behind me. We turn and continue running back out to where we came in.

Once we exit the alley, I tell Dayio, “We have to split up. Follow me.”

I turn left and run towards the front of the building we were just in. If the MechCi still thinks Dayio has the bag, it’ll chase him and give me time to make the train, then hopefully board it to escape. When we pass the building, I hear a loud crash of glass breaking so I look back. The MechCi rolls on the ground and uses someone’s cruiser that is parked out front to stop itself, then bolts towards us. We commence sprinting faster; nevertheless, it is rapidly gaining on us.

We approach an intersection and I ask, “Which way is the station?”

Dayio points diagonally right. “Just on the right up here.”

“Okay, split.”

I turn right into the oncoming traffic. The cruisers begin halting as I diagonally run across the intersection. Once I reach the other side, I look back and see no one behind me. I try looking through traffic to the other side to see if I can spot Dayio or the MechCi; they’ve both completely vanished behind the hordes of people walking the street. I keep running and see the stairway entrance to the underground subway dead ahead.

The sign above reads “Kaeward Station”. I have to find the train that’ll be arriving any minute. I skip down the stairs quickly and maneuver around the people walking. I go through a small gate, then reach the big lobby area where people are purchasing tickets and walking towards their departing terminal. Looking around, I see a bunch of time display signs in front of each tunnel leading to a terminal. I start quickly walking the lobby as I look at each sign to find the matching numbers: 3:00 p.m.

My Econ beeps with an alert, “Call from Dayio.”

I tap my Econ, then call out his name, “Dayio?”

I’m picking up nothing except static down here in the subway.

I call out his name again, “Dayio?”

Nothing is coming through on the other end, then the call drops and my Econ notifies, “Connection Lost.”

Whatever he was calling for, it better have been good news. At least if he’s calling, he’s okay. I should get to that subway car. I continue looking around quickly, then see the third tunnel on the right has the correct time and I’m too late to buy myself a ticket. As I face the tunnel, I hear a loud bang come from the direction of the entrance and people appear startled.

I look to my right and see the MechCi standing at the opened gate, its head quickly twitching around; it’s scanning the station’s entry looking for me. What happened to Dayio? He must have lost the MechCi, but how did it know where I went? Now is not the time for solving that mystery. I look to my left at the station’s huge digital clock and see it is 2:57.

The MechCi will notice me right away if I move too fast; however, I don’t have a choice unless I want to miss the train. I take off to the tunnel and jump over the small partition to get in, which sets off a small alarm. After two beeps, the alarm cuts off and I’m sure the MechCi heard it. Hopefully security can get to me fast enough to witness this rogue MechCi trying to steal from me. I can hear and feel the strong wind from the train arriving at the platform two flights down the long stairs.

The stairs are divided in half by a metal handrail. I start down the stairs and, when I reach the third step, I jump up then sit my butt on the railing. I begin rapidly sliding down the rail towards the next flight. When it comes to an end, I let myself slide off. I run straight ahead to the next rail and plant myself on it. I continue sliding as I look back and see the MechCi at the top of the stairs in a squatted position.

There’s no way that it can catch me now that I’m halfway down this next set of stairs. I smile at the MechCi, since I’ve got the thing beat. The MechCi pounces off the stairs towards me and drops halfway down. My smile disappears as I then watch it pounce down the rest of the first flight. I look ahead and see the rail coming to an end, so I slow myself down, thanks to these gloves, then get off.

I run down the last two steps and turn left towards the train; I see it with all of the doors open and two people still boarding. I’m not going to make it. I start counting the train cars from the front and see the fifth of eight. I turn my head, then see the MechCi right behind me, close enough to where it can almost touch me.

I won’t make the train. I sprint as fast as possible to get ahead, then take the bag off me. I throw my arm back then launch the bag towards the second of three doors on the fifth car. My throw is so strong that it swings me around and I see the MechCi’s plastic face right front of mine as it pins me to the hard ground. I look above me and see the package slide into the door as it is closing.

That’s a relief to see. I just barely made it, although I still have a problem that I’m not equipped to deal with. I look up at the MechCi and see it staring at the train. Just before I am about to try and fight it off, it releases my arms then quickly bolts, aiming for the front of the train. What is this MechCi doing now?

The train begins pulling away as I roll over and bawl, “Hey!”

When the train is close to reaching the long tube to the next station, the MechCi dives out onto the track and gets crushed by the train. I stare and watch the blue sparks from the broken MechCi as each car rolls over it. I get up and start jogging over to the MechCi. Now I believe I’ve seen it all; a MechCi tried to kill and steal from me, then committed suicide after its failed attempt.

As the last car zooms by, I stare at mech pieces on the tracks. Whatever was in that package has nothing to do with me anymore, but a MechCi can’t grow a conscience and that puzzles me. Someone must have been controlling it somehow. No hacker I’ve ever heard of has ever wirelessly broken through the circuitry of a mech of any kind, not even the baby ones.

Between the Alpha and I, its critical state is the only thing that allowed me to get close enough to hack it without it beating me down. My day’s work is concluded. I need to get out of here and find out what happened to Dayio. When I turn back toward the stairs, I see two security guards approaching me rapidly, but they don’t have any weapons in hand. It seems very odd since I just let a MechCi kill itself on their subway tracks.

I stand my ground as they approach and one guard questions, “Miss, are you aware that you intentionally neglected to pay for your ticket fare?”

Ticket fare? The security guards here must take their funds seriously.

I answer, “Of course I am, it was intentional.”

The security guard politely demands, “We’re going to have to ask you to come back with us and pay the fare before you board the next train.”

I hesitantly respond, “Okay… is that all?”

“Yes. This first offense will be a warning; however, next time will be a citation. Please come with us.”

The guard turns around and starts walking away. The other guard remains staring at me, waiting to follow. I start looking around the subway platform and notice that there are three cameras, all pointing at the empty platform from different angles. I start following the first guard and the other starts walking behind me. They begin escorting me back upstairs. I notice another camera directly above the entry, pointing down the stairs.

Rogue MechCi’s must commit suicide down here quite often for these guards to completely ignore what just happened; to even ignore the fact that I could have slid a bomb onto one of their trains. Call me ungrateful for wanting to solve my own crime and wondering why I don’t have to fight my way out of here. We reach the top of the stairs and walk back to the steel exit gate on the side of the partition, then exit to the lobby. We approach a small PAMech strolling around the lobby.

Payment Arrangement Mechs are used to assist people in their traveling by answering questions and accepting payments if they don’t want to use the wall kiosks. They are small quadrilateral machines with four wheels at their base. They are shaped like a standing rectangle with an oblique triangle on top; also they’re only four feet in height to make it easier for people to insert payment and see the options on their monitor or face.

We stop in front of the PAMech and it greets in its cheaply manufactured male vocals. “Greetings. Where will your destination be today?”

I turn to the guard and lie, “Actually, I’m short on aers today, excuse me.”

I start walking towards the exit where I came in and the PAMech wishes me well. “Safe travels, citizen.”

I don’t bother to look back at the guards as I leave the station. They saw me not pay to enter the platform, but have nothing to say about the MechCi chasing me, which I doubt was able to pay a fare at all. Trex won’t believe this.