Authors: Jill Williamson
“Enforcers.” Papa Eli grimaced. “Killed our men … Took our women and young ones.”
Ice pooled in Levi’s heart, sending chills down every vein. “To the compound?”
“Afraid so.” He reached out and patted Levi’s thigh. “Thought we’d be safe … Thought they’d leave us alone … We were wrong.
was wrong. You have to … get them back.”
Papa Eli slapped Levi’s thigh the way he slapped the tabletop to get everyone’s attention at mealtimes.
“I hear you loud and clear, sir. I won’t let you down.”
“Good. Good.” He closed his eyes and took a few deep breaths.
“What can I do?” Levi asked. “Mason and Mother are the doctors. I don’t know how to help—”
“Don’t fret.” Papa Eli opened his eyes and focused on Levi. “My Hannah’s … gone … twenty years now.”
Levi swallowed hard. “That’s a long time to be missing someone.”
Papa Eli nodded slightly. “I was … looking forward … your wedding. That Jemma … a pretty girl. Kind too. You’re smart to grab … her.”
Rage filled Levi’s chest at the idea of Jemma in the Safe Lands. “I’ll get her back, sir.”
“I know.” He took a ragged breath. “And I’m going … leave you to it. Head to eternity … with my God and … my Hannah.”
Tears flooded Levi’s eyes.
Papa Eli patted Levi’s thigh again, this time much softer. “Good man. Lord knows best.” He closed his eyes. “Been with me all these …”
Levi watched his great-grandfather’s face as the life left it. Levi fell back onto the grass, staring up at the hazy pine trees, wondering if Papa Eli’s soul were floating to heaven this very moment. His throat burned. His eyes burned too.
No one had earned a proper burial more than Papa Eli. The man had outlived his wife and son. Survived the Great Pandemic and escaped the Safe Lands. Founded Glenrock as an answer to the Safe Land’s tyranny and governed the village thereafter with wisdom and grace, following the teachings found in the Bible he loved. Trained up three generations to follow in his footsteps.
Was Levi truly the only one left? Papa Eli had said they’d taken the women and young ones—which meant Mason, Jordan, and Omar likely lay dead on the grass somewhere too.
A fat drop of water struck Levi’s cheek. Summer storms were common, but as distant thunder crackled, Levi wondered if God had looked down on Glenrock and shed tears for the death of its people.
Levi lay on the grass, letting the rain soak him, giving in to the
tears, praying for help, for guidance, for sanity. The storm cloud passed quickly, and Levi decided he too should get moving. He pushed himself up and went looking for survivors, his mind racing, trying to piece together the truth. Omar had lied to him about Beshup’s trade, and he couldn’t fathom why.
Just when Levi thought he’d finished his tears, he found his father’s body. Elder Justin had been shot once in the forehead. Likely, he hadn’t suffered, which was some consolation.
He found no survivors in the village. There were eighteen dead—thirteen elder men, four elder women, and little Sophie, who’d been only six. No sign of Jordan, Mason, or Omar.
Levi couldn’t dig eighteen graves himself. But he couldn’t leave the bodies to the wolves, either. Over the next two hours, he moved the dead, including Grazer, to the square where he could keep an eye on them. He piled the weapons in the back of his cart. Then he decided to dig three graves in the cemetery: one for his father, one for Papa Eli, and one for Sophie.
The digging took him well into the afternoon.
Several times, the horror gripped him, and Levi lost himself in a fit of tears and rage, beating the shovel against a tree or the ground until finally the spade separated from the shaft.
Once he’d buried the three and said a prayer, he sat down against a tree. His palms stung with blisters, and his arms ached. He nodded off once, told himself to get up and do something about the other bodies, then nodded off again into full slumber.
mar was shaking now. How had everything gone so wrong? His whole body felt numb and tingly like he was going to throw up. As much as he tried not to think about it, Father’s face was burned on Omar’s brain. Closing his eyes didn’t help. Relocation was supposed to gain him acceptance with his people, not cast him out even more. He fought to steady his breath, crossed his arms to fight the shaking.
“You juicing, shell?” Skottie asked.
Skottie’s mustache looked like two strokes of paint going out from each nostril. “What?”
“Stims, joy juice, hard candy, vapes. Uh … narcots?
“Narcotics?” Omar asked, recalling the word from Old movies.
Skottie bobbed his head. “That’s what I said.”
The guy thought Omar was on drugs? “Someone killed my father! And it was because of me.”
“Ahh, premie lib,” Skottie said.
Omar looked over at Skottie. “Premie what?”
“Going on to the next life before reaching your age limit. I hear having someone go through that can be tough. How old was your friend?”
Omar rubbed his scar. “My father was forty-six.”
Skottie shrugged. “Past his time then. Safe Lands used to liberate at fifty, but they changed it to forty back in seventy-two. It’s for the best. No one wants to get old.”
The best? “But I just left him there. I should go back. Bury him maybe. And the others. Can we turn around?”
“Walls, no, shell.” The truck bounced over a hole in the dirt road. “Ask the Tasker G when you take in your fancy gold ticket. No way I’m putting my skin under fire for an ancient.”
Would Omar ever understand what these people were saying? “You keep calling me a shell—what does that mean?”
“It’s a name we use for someone who’s so sick with the plague that their mind is gone. They do weird things like eat dirt or forget to get dressed. But we also use the word to describe clueless outsiders. Hopefully you won’t be a shell for much longer.”
As they drove through the forest, it was silent but for the air conditioning and Omar’s raspy breathing.
“So.” Skottie tapped his fingers on the steering wheel. “You tasked a deal. What did they promise?”
“Uh … I’m supposed to get a position with the enforcers.” A position that would have shown his father he wasn’t worthless. A position that didn’t seem to matter as much anymore.
“Ah, we’ll be seeing each other then. You’ll have to take basic. I’m in there now. Then you’ll be assigned a task internship somewhere. They made me a driver. But they let me carry a gun, which about liberated my friend Charlz when he found out. Charlz collects guns, but he’s interning in patrol and only gets to carry a stunner. Charlz already has ten different stunners.”
The task director had promised Omar an officer’s rank within the enforcers. He hoped Skottie wouldn’t be offended when he found out that Omar was jumping ahead of him in rank. Now that he’d alienated his entire village, he needed any friends he could get.
“What else? Got to get your mind off your friend. What do you like to do for fun?”
Omar forced the image of Father’s face away. “I draw and paint.”
“Ooh, artist, eh? You’ll have to check out this store called Task for Art in the Highlands. They’ve got all kinds of real paint in there. I’m assuming you meant Old art and not SimArt.”
“It’s like the window of my truck. SimTech illusion.” Skottie tapped the iridescent number seven on his cheek. “Same way this does. Same way that black hand on Kruse’s head works.”
They left the forest, and sunlight brightened the cab. “I don’t understand.”
“I’ll show you.” Skottie unbuttoned his jacket and shrugged it off his shoulders. He held out his right arm. “Pull my sleeve.”
Omar did. Once Skottie’s arm was free from his jacket, he held it out again. It was solid with bright tattoos. Green, red, yellow, blue, silver images melded together in a combination of abstract art: a cat’s face, a dagger, a pair of dice, a skull, a net stocking, a thorny rose.
“Did it hurt?” Omar asked, still studying the colors. “The needle?”
“No needles. SimTags itch a little when you get them, but that’s it. No one wants to be tagged for life. It’s all simulation. Electronic ink.”
Omar studied Skottie’s arm again. “How does electronic ink work?”
“I’ll do my best, peer, but there’s a reason I don’t task in tech.” Skottie turned the wheel, following the truck in front. The Safe Lands walls rose in front of them. “Every national gets two SimTags for identification. One here”—he tapped his cheek—“and one here.” He held up his fist, and Omar could see another number seven on the back of his right hand. “Each SimTag covers a three-inch diameter. You can get more, then they ‘talk’ to each other to create bigger images.”
Like tiny computers? “How many did it take to do your arm?”
“Twenty-five. I also got ten on my chest and twelve on my back.”
“How do you choose the pictures?”
“In any SimArt store, or, if you like art and get the right adds, you can change them yourself. Some people even design their own.”
Omar already had ideas for what he could do with SimTags.
The truck slowed to a stop before a massive gate. On either side of
the road a concrete pillar rose into the sky like a grain silo. Enforcers stood on the tops, weapons pointed down toward the truck. A concrete wall stretched from each pillar into the distance.
A huge boom of metal made Omar jump. The noise was followed by metallic clicking. When the sound ceased, the truck rolled forward again. They passed under a gate. All went dark, and then the bright sky appeared overhead again, separated by a tunnel of mesh wire the truck was driving through. The Safe Lands in the daytime was all new to Omar.
He peered out his window at blurred figures that were wading in a vast field of green that reached their knees, stooping to pick from the plants. The scent of livestock was thick on the air. Every so often they passed a mishmash of buildings and intersections before returning to endless fields spread out on either side of the tunnel.
“Some people work in the fields?”
“Sure. Not everyone can get tasked to the enforcers, right?”
The truck passed under another gate and tunnel, this time without stopping. On the other side, they drove through a grid of streets similar to the Old neighborhoods in Crested Butte, just in much better condition.
A massive TV screen, bigger than the truck, loomed on the side of the road. It showed a man and woman in matching outfits. The woman had chin-length, smooth black hair and was wearing a pale yellow dress with black dots. The man wore a black suit with a ruffly yellow bow tie. Words scrolled beneath their image:
Finley and Flynn discuss Lonn liberation.
“They show movies on the road?” Omar asked.
“Expos,” Skottie said. “That’s a DigiBoard.”
“What’s a Lonn liberation?” Omar asked.
“Ooh, Richark Lonn the rebel. He Xed out years ago, but they finally caught him. He’s way overage, so he’s due to get liberated and move on to the next life.”
“They’re going to execute him?”
“Death is life, peer.”
Omar had no response for that. He wished Mason were here. His brother was smart and always knew what to say.
They were traveling uphill now and soon stopped before a third gate. This one had pillars like the main gate and a dividing wall that ran across the land.
“Why so many gates?”
“The people in the three areas keep mostly to themselves. A lot of Midlanders task in the Highlands, since no one who lives in the ritzy Highlands ever manages to test for service positions—nothing suspicious there, ha ha. But there’s only so much room up here, so lots have to live in the Midlands and commute in. The gates keep everyone where they belong at the end of the day.”
The truck lurched forward again. It passed between two massive steel doors that were as tall as the concrete pillars, then they entered a thick forest.
They approached another DigiBoard, but this one flashed still images. One showed a woman with pale blue, sparkling skin. Text flashed across the screen that said, “Veins showing through your makeup? Try Roller Paint. Available in over two hundred colors, textures, and prints. Smoothes all flakes and completely covers varicose and spider veins.”
The truck departed the forest and made its way toward the buildings clustered at the top of the bell—buildings taller than the concrete pillars at the last gate. The city rose against the bright sky; the sight stole the breath from Omar’s lungs.
The truck carried them into the middle of the towers, joining more vehicles on the road. People walked along the sidewalks, many wearing black and pale yellow like the people from the DigiBoard. Omar swore he saw someone with green skin, then realized that with SimTags and Roller Paint, he probably had.
Electric signs displayed words in lighted, moving letters:
Savoy. Westwall. Golden Lily. Monogram Room.
Omar could only assume they were the clubs he’d been told about on his first visit. Skottie turned into a bright, covered loading zone—the ceiling solid with
round lights the size of apples—and stopped before a wall of dark glass doors that reflected the massive vehicle. Omar could see his own eyes looking out through the grid illusion. Two men dressed in gold and blue uniforms with shiny gold buttons stood on either side of the glass doors, staring ahead as if they were statues.
“If you wait, I’ll drop you by City Hall,” Skottie said. “It might be a while, though. Or you could walk. It’s just two blocks to the right from the end of this driveway.”
Omar didn’t want to stand around and watch the enforcers carry his kin into the building. Or to be seen by anyone from the village. “I’ll walk. Thanks.” He turned to the door and realized again that he had no means of opening it.
Skottie laughed and tapped his fist on a square on the dashboard. Omar’s door started to rise. “You want me to show you around tonight? I can take you to a glossy dance club.”
“Really?” Had Omar made a friend? “Sure. Thanks.”
“You’ll have to tap my number. If they don’t give you a Wyndo, ask your doorman to tap me. The number’s 7–67–18.”