No wildlife resides here. Hasn’t been an observation, not even a stray bird, since war resulted in widespread radiation throughout the seven continents. Mute trees. Only healthy patch for hundreds of miles and projected beyond that. The grove is an ongoing migration test. Never a buzz. Never a chirp. Never a slither. Always a failure. Limp footsteps and occasional ruffling leaves are all that sound.
Coolness swaps perks with the sunken sun. A twelve-hour light, now on the old world. Vast darkness broken by a glowing guide. City lights hue over the trees. Gharis is illuminated by electronics. Literal power to fry what’s left of the United States if an accident with the main power grid occurs. My stature heightens the dome through treetops. Still growing with incoming vision. Sixteen hundred feet high. Lights deflect, attempting escape but trapped. Every New World city is protected; sanctuary from the old world by domes. Allegedly thick enough to withstand every known natural disaster. Fortunately, none have been experienced by the post-war generation. A small world run electronically, eliminates natural disasters caused by worldly comforts. An unimportant reason is the population’s mostly upper class. Upper class citizens must look perfect. No one looks perfect drenched in rain, makeup dripping down their faces, or with dirt picking up on their cruiser.
I reach the main road. Realize my limp ended. Winter chills attack what this prison jumpsuit doesn’t cover. Continuing toward the steel wall of a gate along the lone path. Paved the same method as pre-war and remaining perfectly paved – people don’t drive on roads anymore, since cruisers hover. Transport trucks are the only exception. A couple of cruisers pass over my view of the early midnight sky. This day and age, cars are electric and equipped with a switch that sets high, medium, and low gravity. A new title of “cruiser.” Gravity ranges from zero to seventy-five to one hundred and fifty feet. Specified safe distances for gravitational patterns to avoid interruption, not causing accidents between travelers merging onto different planes. Distribution decreased accident rates by ninety-eight percent of whatever the previous pre-war number was. Allowing additional options to reach destinations in a safe and timely manner. Cruisers look like curved-surface cars. Wheel cover caps give the appearance of absence. Generally, wheels should only touch pavement when parked.
The south gate is ahead. Standing maybe sixty feet in height. Enough head room for Alpha access. At the checkpoint, cruisers must drop to street level and be greeted by guards. After occupant identity confirmation, vehicles are granted entry to the purified city.
Not having the cleanest legal standing as a smuggler and recent escapee, waltzing in isn’t on the table. I delivered city to city. One civilian driver and one civilian passenger, preferably a couple seeing each other socially to not spark suspicion. The couple would drop the smuggler and product on this road. Smuggler would navigate the grove to an underground passage that exits at an inconspicuous location within Gharis. A secretly controlled route; west of the south checkpoint, about a mile inward. Where I need to be. Avoiding capture and imprisonment.
The guard duo is too busy to notice my left swing into the tree line. A figment just that. Count fifteen minutes to a mile. Vigilant of an open area with two loving tree stumps idling side by side. A watchman is always nearby monitoring activity. Best off expressing caution of spooking them. To my surprise, no guards. No footsteps, whispers, or life presence. This tunnel is the only illegal way in. Is it operating? Slow day at the office? I approach the stumps. Face the tree where the hidden entrance lies.
A twig snaps, drawing only my ears. No chirps. No growls. Someone is watching. Due to no occupying species, a snap typically means that person knows they’re caught. An amateur skulking watchman. My hands sluggishly raise halfway for the second time today. People, armed with pulser rifles, emerge from separate hiding places to meet. Bushes, behind trees and in them. Surrounding the bullseye. Dressed in black, blended with the night. Two in front, one in peripheral. More feet lightly pat behind, too lightly for an accurate tally. Punctual on the pistol draw in defense, if the moment called.
I facetiously enquire, “Little much for one person, don’t you think?”
A man behind me voices disinterest, a veteran tone almost matching mine, “You’re armed.”
I clarify without looking, “It’s a pulser pistol.”
“What’re you looking for out here?”
A familiar voice, carrying uncertainty. I’d done countless jobs with someone who was just as skilled of a runner as me. Second best, but skilled enough to brag about. This man sounds like him. I casually spin one-eighty to reveal my face and sneak a look. His focus implies recognition.
His weapon eases, calling out my nickname, “Van?”
I immediately match face to voice. He removes the knit cap to further reveal himself. Still has that struggling ponytail. Dayio is a young man of Asian descent. I believe we’re the same age, based solely on appearance. We ran jobs for Trex, Ruler of the Tunnel. I guess Dayio’s talent is now wasted babysitting. Any normal day, a watchman guards the entrance alone in shifts. No one should need these many weapons to protect a single tree.
Dunking my hands, I return a greeting, informally, “Dayio.”
He commands the crew, “Weapons down, everyone. She’s clear.” Dayio shakes my hand, speaking with a joyful and curious mixture, “Where’ve you been?”
Dayio places the rifle at his back, scanning my blue ensemble, “No kidding? It’s been two years since anyone’s seen you through here. Surprised you remembered how to find the entrance.”
I observe unnecessary reinforcements, “What happened? This used to be a one-man operation and you weren’t part of it.”
“Trex’s former made a mistake one day on watch, so I took the reins for a bit. And he thought it’d be good for me to take on trainees for when I have a run.”
“Doesn’t seem to be working. Whoever stepped on the branch handed their position away.”
“A crucial element of the team distraction. Someone snaps a branch opposite the intruder, we get a view from all angles when they turn and get the drop on them. No one was there afterward. Though the master was clever enough to give herself up.”
Dayio’s always been a great tactician. I’m okay, but much less subtle. My impatience and attitude reel more trouble than normal civilians can handle. Usually, my plans begin immaculate, until I deviate off course with wonderous curiosity. The rest is a downward spiral of chaos on simple pick-ups and drop-offs. Dayio became dominant planner.
I ask, “Trex still running things?”
“Never giving it up. And he won’t be happy to see you after being M.I.A. all this time.”
“What a coincidence. I was never happy to see him.”
He smirks and issues an order to his crew, “Everyone stay here.”
Dayio approaches the side of a regular-looking tree. Opens a secret panel and presses buttons I never bother memorizing or look at. Familiar with the entry, I wait in front of it; a disguised tree trunk that’s actually a small double door, able of fitting one person at a time. Dayio joins me as the split door tilts outward. Revealing the well-lit, blue underground passage. A darker shade than mine. Dayio enters first, marching downstairs. I shadow him, distant, in case of mistrust. Warmth shields me.
The passage hasn’t changed. Widening six feet at the bottom. Never was a fan of blinding deep-water blue. A half mile stretches, before officially entering Gharis City through a bakery’s basement. There are two rooms within this stretch: Trex’s office and the opposing lunchroom. Trex runs his entire operation down here. Safer than topside where Regs can successfully caste suspicion on his inactivity amongst the populace. For him, this is home. Essentially, off the grid. Only the most loyal smugglers are granted passage access, ensuring no outside problems drift in. I was one of the initial few. Now, seems I’m lost within a half-dozen. The approved list makes the runner a regular for city to city transport, since so few are aware the tunnel exists. Those claiming a tunnel does exist, won’t think to check a bakery basement or an entire grove. Where dueling rooms face off, Dayio enters to the left.
Trex is seated behind his desk, punching and jabbing the padded keyboard for his digital computer. An early forty-something year old man from the Islands. Dark-skinned. Always wears his dreadlocked hair in a ponytail. Living and breathing this passage, twenty-four hours a day. Office lit the same color blue as the passage. I glance at a twin bed a few feet from the desk, unable to deduce the last time sunlight embraced his skin. On no occasion seeing him outside of this office – ever.
Trex questions, “What’s up, Dayio?”
Before Dayio answers, Trex ganders up. Drawn to me. Stops typing, hovering fingers over digital keys. Staring me down, not violently but viciously. There’s that mistrust. I view from the door. In a moment, the pecking of keys continues. Dayio expected this reaction or else he would’ve answered the question: “Your good friend Vanessa is here!”
Trex’s deep voice and islander accent interrogates, “What’re you doin’ here? Come to pay off the debt you owe?”
Technically, I don’t owe a debt. Two years ago, the run went sour after civilians he set me up with, set me up. I couldn’t explain since this tunnel doesn’t have a postal address and mail slot overhead. On the other hand, I could’ve considered other means, like sending to the bakery. Needing tunnel access now, kind of feels like I should have. What am I saying? Receiving was the only option.
I enlighten him, “I just spent two years in prison for you. A bow and ‘How are you?’ would be a better greeting.”
“I’d heard a whispered-around rumor that you were locked away. Didn’t believe for a second. We both know you ran with my package and spread those rumors.”
“Why would I do that?”
“Because you can’t be trusted. And you’re smart.”
I riposte to myself, “Not smart enough.”
He steers the power wheelchair to me and reads numbers on my form-fitting jumpsuit. Then looks at my face, obviously not feeling foolish about his two-year accusation. But his eyes do show belief.
With joyful surprise, he laughs at my expense, stating, “You really were in prison! What’s with the jumpsuit?! You break outta Ori?!”
The laughing transforms to snooping worship, “Seriously? How? Ori is aerial access and like two hundred feet off the ground.”
“Does it matter? Run the prison number or check my IDN for proof. I need tunnel access, if you want your stuff back. First, I need clothes and food. Then I’ll find the couple who stole the package from me and deliver it to you.”
“You’re two years too late. The package is useless now, and the couple disappeared. No trace. However, if you’re as sharp as you used to be, you and Dayio can do a run. Tonight.”
Dayio lightly elbows my arm, “Like old times.”
“Can we start with food first? I’m starving.”
Trex approves, “Sure. Go next door and I’ll give Dayio specifics.”
Trex calls out, before my start toward the door, “Hey. My steak’s on the right holder. Don’t touch it.”
I raise my eyebrows once. Pass six feet into the opposing door. The lunchroom is a little bigger than Trex’s office. Blue glow, full bathroom, cabinets, tables and chairs. The highlight, glowing brighter in my eyes and singing a delightful song in my ears, a foodie box. A rectangular food storage, like the classic deep freezer but less wide and doesn’t freeze. The center button tilts the lid upward, freeing a chill I don’t mind being hit with. Wheels rise; two right, two left. Rested on metal holders, full meal selections peek halfway out. Teasing. I hold the right button to turn the corresponding wheels, revealing other meals keeping each holder company. I hold the left button for the next wheels. Watch more choices revolve. At first sight, a steak dinner wrap seductively connects with my brain. Trex won’t realize until I’m gone anyway. The box seals on my way to the table. Starving, and don’t feel like taking ten seconds to warm it, I dig in. The stomach relief is extraordinary, admitting it would taste better hot. It’s been at least fourteen hours since my last meal. That thought increases my hunger. Finishing, I return for another something. Devour that too. Keeping great shape, I’m not worried about laziness silently striking after overeating. Dayio strolls into the room without his rifle.
He examines the clean plates and comments, “Someone filled a hole.”
“You have no idea. I haven’t eaten since last night.”
That isn’t exactly accurate. My last night was his this morning; an irrelevant topic. I’m ready to work.
He commands, “Pulser stays here.”
I detach and leave it on the table. We resume the half mile to the passage’s other end. Is everything arranged for myself and the job?
I ask, “What about clothes? I can’t roam the streets in my prison outfit. And probably have no aers on my revoked IDN either.”
Aers are the new form of digital currency that synchronize with the IDN; abbreviation for Identification Data Network. Using the human body as an I.D., everything that has anything to do with the individual is accessible. People in every domed city have an IDN, usable anywhere to prove citizenship and spend aers. Deeper access by Regs show criminal records, debts, and everything else. An IDN is almost impossible to live in a city without.
Dayio addresses my concerns, “Trex is working on that as we speak. For now, I’ll use my IDN to get new threads. He should have your new IDN created and in the system by the time we get back.”
I comment with relieving enthusiasm, “Nice. What’s the job?”
“There’s a courier delivering a package that Trex needs intercepted.”
“You mean stolen? We’re stealing for Trex now?”
“Not exactly, Trex wants to know who the courier is. They found a way to smuggle without using the tunnel. He wants to know how. In addition, we’re procuring the package and doing the handoff ourselves.”
“So we’re stealing for Trex now?”
Dayio smiles, “Securing clientele and eliminating competition. How sharp are your running skills?”
I boast, “It’s been two years for the best runner that ever was. I’m always top shape. What about time?”
“Trex has eyes on the courier. We prep you, get in position, and wait for the call.”
We ascend an equal-number of steps, entering the bakery’s basement through automated floorboards in the back-left corner. The basement is lit blue from the passage, otherwise, dark. No one ever tends storage. The floorboards are gradually closing. Remaining light helps guide us up stairs centered on the wall ahead, before sealing perfectly. Obscuring light from anyone who may wander down here. The basement door is outlined by slits of yellow-ish light. Our ears hone on a classical melody seeping from underneath. Doesn’t surprise me.
Socialite ball. A large gathering of guests are mingling in the bakery’s ballroom; an area the size of a small mansion’s first floor with no walls. Very fancily decorated. Striped red and yellow carpeting in huge rectangles, stretching across the entire room, including upstairs. Two wide, sparkling chandeliers hang. A long table with delicious looking hors d’oeuvres. I lead the way, merging and scanning for Feegle Tolen.
Guests are dressed colorfully: bright green suits, bright yellow dresses, bright purple robes with bright orange sandals. Gharis’ fashion sense has never been of interest to me. Why I always manage to stand out. At this moment, it’s more Dayio. Wearing all-black clothing that masks well in the grove. A differing outcome indoors. My blue prison jumpsuit somewhat blends, minus the black numbers and lack of flowy elegance. Needless to say, a lot of eyes are on us unhurriedly surfing the room. Holding attention for minor seconds. Not a peek from MechCi guests, which will bring trouble if they read the numbers. My arms fold, blatantly covering high. We stop. Observe small groups parting a path for the bright pink suited Feegle. An older Caucasian man. Thin, trader style mustache. Blonde hair. Chubby, not exactly overweight for his height. Standing low at almost a foot shorter than me. I’m five-seven so that’s saying something.
Feegle’s heightened and inbound voice politely approaches, “–me. Pardon me, thank you. Excuse me.” His slicked-up hair maneuvers the crowd, reaching us with a stern demand under firm breath, “You, follow me!” He leads toward stairs at the back wall, politely acknowledging guests, “Excuse me. My apologies. Thank you.”
Word travels fast. For how long it’s been, I would expect more of a happy reaction, from him, to see me. With my long hair and his stress over judgment, perhaps recognition hasn’t processed yet. Feegle always held a soft spot in his heart for me; one I don’t even hold for myself. We ascend the tall, semi-circular staircase. I glance over the railing at guests enjoying themselves, without distraction, again. Socializing over serene classical music. Their weirdly bright clothing makes the main floor look like a herd of rainbows at a disco. Some have matching colorful hair.
Mechs able to communicate in a formal manner like humans, are called MechCi; Mechanical Civilian. Built and sold as counterparts, becoming what personality the buyer molds. Integrating perfectly amongst civilization. MechCi are purchased as male or female and in the form of adult or child upon buyer’s request. Originally, purposed as assistants. Others more kind-hearted split ownership as business partners. Friends to share life experiences. Children they can’t give birth to. All manufactured with a chip that prevents initiation of any illegal action. Few owners with criminal intent attempted dismemberment of purchased MechCi, removing the chip. In hopes that illegal action could become an available option. Unfortunately, the chip is needed for models to function and fries upon exposure to outer elements; destabilizing its environment. Expensive mistakes.
Feegle unlocks the second door on the left, quietly rushing, “Come on. In. In.”
Voice lightly toned as if he is shy. Not a day was I ever fooled; this man is quite a chatterbox. Feegle shuts us all in the bedroom. A moderate size for a famed baker. During reconstruction, it was an easy choice over sacrificing space elsewhere. Adoring social life required accommodation for big social circles and then some. Ballroom crowned monarch, meeting predicted occupancy, whereas the remaining interior hardly grazes standard. Compared to where I live, the bedroom is comfortably livable. Queen-size bed, nightstand on both sides, armchair right of the bed by the balcony, vanity with a simpler chair babysitting between myself and the closet. Bathroom, balcony, and closet beyond closed doors.
Feegle shares thoughts with minor agitation, “You know, I truly wish Trex would conduct counsel so much further in advance before deciding to send–” Recognition chucks his attitude and breaks words, spawning an amazed expression, “Miss Pheros?”
Wondering what great feat I accomplished, I half-smile at the facial strangeness, “Yes, Feegle?”
He excitedly greets with a tightened embrace, “Oh my dear, how are you?!”
From childhood to now as an adult, Feegle’s always been fond of me. Perceiving my beauty outside, and inside; whatever that means or wherever that is. And from late teens into adulthood, I would occasionally do the favor of accompanying him to events around Gharis or here. Doused with coats of makeup and fitted for fancy dresses. Elegant styling for those with curves. Sauntering about on his arm, as a platonic date or eye candy, for profit. Extra pay, if I further sold elegance using a full English accent during conversation. Feegle Tolen’s the man to know in Gharis City, gathering an overload of popularity. A lot of wealthy men and women love his outgoing personality. I’m biased.
He loudly queries, “Where have you been, my dear?! Skipped on to another city without so much as a goodbye?” He reverses into a frowned expression, “And, gosh, what is that awful aroma permeating from you?! And what are you wearing?!” He swipes my hand and pulls me toward the closet, “Pee-ew. Come here my dear. We will get you sorted i–”
Dayio leans against the nightstand, smiling while watching me get dragged. I would entertain this, if actual relaxed-wear were stored. Feegle’s idea of sorting has no relation to coziness. More dresses, and being generous, wedges.
I retract my hand, “Feegle, this isn’t a social visit. We need your help.”
“Darling help is precisely what I am trying to do.”
“We’re on a job. I need to lay low for a while so Dayio can get me a comfortable change of clothes and I can clean the permeation.” I face Dayio and request, “Can you get an outfit from Lynn’s shop? Just tell her it’s for me. She’ll know.”
Dayio confirms, “Got it. I’ll be right back.”
Dayio departs. Alone with a happy Feegle. I go to his balcony and relax at the rail. Chill air. Gharis becomes interactive at night. Numerous lights flashing on and off make moonlight seem nonexistent. Electricity going twenty-four hours a day. Shops managed by an owner’s MechCi while said owner is away doing things; like attending a social gathering at a certain bakery. Below and above, cruisers drive through the sky; hovering to be technical. On sidewalks, humans and MechCi stroll together, conversing en route to their destination. Blinding advertisements do deactivate during daylight hours. Then everything is still. A calm normality of corporate warfare and errands. The New World’s alive in Gharis City.
Feegle joins with a question, “Is it as you remember?”
A low pitch exits, “Same flashy crap? Yeah. Right on the nose.”
“Why do you abhor this city so? There are too many attractions and wonderful citizens, present company included, to detest such a fine place.”
“Apparently, you’ve never been underground with the Deserted.”
“My dear, why on Earth would anyone want to go down there?”
“A taste of what the rest of your fine city has to offer.”
“Deserted migrated underground because it is where they want to be.”
Sarcasm touches my tongue, “Oh right. Groups of Regs with rifles had nothing to do with that.”
“Deserted are welcome to rise and join us civilized inhabitants whenever they so choose. They choose to stay underground, happily sulking in their own malevolence and kindly leaving us peaceful folk alone. Ugh, I despise them all.”
“And the despise is mutual.”
“Well, it is good they continue committing meaningless atrocities below ground, amongst themselves, instead of causing turmoil above ground, yes?”
I agree to shut him up, “Yes, Feegle.”
“I will attend to my many guests. Please, help yourself to any facilities, Miss Pheros.”
“Thank you, Feegle.”
His head bows toward me. A middle ages gesture of departure. I watch pleased people below. Deserted were citizens, still legally are. Deemed too unstable to reside above ground amongst a normal population. The city is not wrong. Inhabitants forced underground have, literally, lost their minds. Suffering from some undetermined mental condition or plague. Feegle would be pissed to know I live underground too. Why is that home? Without direct contact, Deserted are no harm. Normals pester too often to see that. Pestering is something I don’t do unless profit is involved. There are lots of theories and rumors. Following either is looking for a problem that someone will be tempted to keep buried. And I don’t solve problems… unless profit is involved.
I leave the balcony. Strip my prison outfit and pick out a new pair of underwear from the closet. For women Feegle dolls and flaunts, he stores varied supplies of spare clothing. Catering most sizes. A guest experiences a spill, replacing won’t be hard, likely providing an outfit better than what they arrived in. I enter the bathroom, sparking a nice hot shower. Determined to enjoy it longer than the two minute prison schedule permitted. Dirt, sweat, oil, blood; all seeped onto one lone person. Not smelling what Feegle did but won’t expose my armpits for proof. I step into the shower. Rinse as scorching water streams onto my semi-bronzed skin. Snatch a pair of scissors from the sink and blindly chop away unwanted lengthy hair. Watch each chunk waterfall into a nasty combination of liquids at my feet. After sloppily chopping a couple inches above my shoulders, I wash it. Then let it sit while scrubbing my skin rigorously. So rough it should be peeling off.
A knock demands my response over thumping water, “Yeah?!”
Dayio’s tone mimics, “I have your gear stacked on the bed!”
I thank him. Rush a conclusion to the shower. Wipe fog from the small mirror above the sink and examine a rejuvenated Vanessa Pheros. It’s been so long since I’ve last spectated any mirror. Kind of forgotten what I look like. Light skin. Hazel eyes. Brunette hair. Small lips. An unbroken British accent would mesh perfectly with a high-class background. Bruises demean the appearance a bit.
I exit the steaming bathroom. An experiment emerging from tanked preservation. A woman reborn. My clothes are placed on the bed, neatly folded on top of each other. Instantly, recognizing the leather jacket. Dayio got the correct stuff. Lynn accepted a commission once, complimenting my personality and habits. Love defined since the first time worn. It’s time to feel my version of normal again; to feel home.