Chapter 0 — Ninety Seconds
The backlight of her wristwatch begins to glow, casting a green hue on her hand. She glances at it even though she knows what it will say: nine zero. One second later the micro fluid changes to eighty-nine. At eighty-eight she closes the book, holds it in her hands for a few seconds longer. Her fingers trace the slight indentation of the almost indecipherable title. The stamped feathers in the center have lost their coloring decades ago. Long before she was born. Even before the ban.
She gets up. A touch on the screen of the watch changes the walls of her room from an image of a forest to a regular room with a large window, showing the darkened skyline of a city in the distance. Eighty-three. In truth, there are no windows in her room. She crouches on the ground next to her futon, removes the thin cover in front of a rectangular opening and crawls inside. More frequently, now, Aries has begun to wonder how long she will still fit into the tight space. She’s slim for a fifteen-year-old, but knows that one day the ducts will no longer allow her to roam the building.
Sixty seconds. The high-resolution display of her watch begins to pulsate in one-second increments. Eight feet into the air duct she turns on her back and looks up. The secondary channel, perpendicular to this one, disappears into its self-reflecting mirror image far up into the building.
Thirty-six seconds. Aries pries open the panel in front of her. Behind it sits a conductor, generating the power to periodically sterilize this section of the air duct system. As a side effect, the high-density ray kills any other life forms that are present in the ducts. It’s been rumored that the primary function of the sterilizers is to prevent the inhabitants of the building from escaping to the outside world.
Twenty-eight seconds. She pushes the book behind the conductor and closes the panel. By her estimate, there are six hours and thirty-two minutes before the next duct cleaning. But the one-hour video loop feeding the cameras to her room will only hold for eighteen more seconds. When she had hacked into the mainframe a few years back she didn’t want to risk more than an hour for herself. There would be serious repercussions should she be caught. The Law of the Corporation demands house arrest for first time offenders. But she isn’t a first time offender. She isn’t even a second time offender. For her, it would be the third time. She would be in prison for up to a month.
She turns on her stomach, slides backward while pushing off with her hands. The green screen of her watch pulsates in the semidarkness of the duct. Her feet reach the opening. Seven seconds. Her knees come out. She lifts her stomach to avoid getting caught on her belt lock. Three seconds and her head is out. She closes the panel, slumps onto her futon and pulls the blanket over her head. Zero seconds. Her wristwatch goes dark and she’s live. Her heart rate is still higher than she wants it to be. It can’t be helped. Let them figure it out.
Her thoughts drift back to the book. After she read it for the first time, she’d felt something she had not allowed herself to feel before. The artificial intelligence software analyses each frame of video surveillance and decides what steps need to be taken. Strength and pride are the main pillars of the Corporate Education System and weakness, especially in her age group, is not tolerated. Aries decided a while back to give them what they want. For twenty-three hours a day she’s strong for them. But for one hour a day she allows herself to feel. And sometimes—mostly after reading—she cries. She cries for her mother and her father and she cries for her freedom and she cries for all the other children with her who are Wards of the State and who landed on the outskirts of a society that has gone too far in the wrong direction.
How can the human spirit be captured? How can it be diminished almost to extinction? How can it be made so small and almost insignificant that the thought of fighting for it is nothing but an idea and easily dismissed as foolish? She’s asked herself these questions many times over. She knows the answer. She knows that whoever, whatever, stands behind the Corporation has perfected it and has made it their goal—pursuing it by any means necessary—to break the human spirit, to hold it prisoner and eventually to extinguish it completely. And suddenly she knows she needs to do something about it.
Chapter One Seth
“You will first dream of freedom.”
The Book of Croix, Vol 1
Aries opens her eyes. The clear night sky reflects the light in a myriad of stars. The trace of a dream lingers, not quite ready to disappear. In it, she found herself soaring high above the desert plains, dropping in and out of the clouds, while traveling toward a cluster of structures in the distance—mirages in the glimmering heat.
She takes a deep breath, as if to ready herself for the day. Her right hand finds her wristwatch; her fingers trace the invisible line on its screen. The night sky disappears and the default room design comes on. This one is free. It’s a plain room with a nice window looking out over the skyline of a city. Of course, one of the buildings has the SELKom logo on it, but Aries doesn’t mind. She’ll be out of here in five minutes.
She checks her pad, wondering why she hasn’t had a message from C.J. this morning, but decides that she can ask her later. At the touch of a sensor in the wall, a door slides open and she steps into the shower stall where she undresses and folds her clothes onto a small shelf. A blue horizontal laser line appears at her feet and from there travels upward. When it reaches her head, she opens her mouth. The laser moves through, scanning her gums and teeth, then her eyes.
The impulse to close her lids during this is always very strong. She thinks that in looking into her eyes the software can detect her thoughts and somehow see into her soul. All she can do is attempt not to think about anything at that moment. Most of the time she tries to solve a math problem—like a transcendental function involving sine, cosine, and tangent. She finds comfort in geometrical patterns and fascination in the fact that the inside angles of every triangle, independent of its shape, total one hundred eighty degrees.
The laser turns off and a low humming sound comes on, a sign that the UVL shower has been activated. Eleven seconds. For a few moments afterward the stall smells like iron until the air has been exchanged and a door on the opposite side opens. Aries steps into a small closet where she dresses in a dark blue jumpsuit and heavy-duty working boots. She ties her hair into a ponytail and steps through another door that spills her out into a hallway. The corridor stretches in both directions in a slight curve with doors on either side, all leading into units similar to the one she currently occupies.
Before she can see it, she can hear the noises coming from the wide opening in the corridor that leads into the dining hall. Aries collects herself. The knot in her stomach appears like clockwork each time she enters. There are usually about two hundred kids spread out over twenty tables. Aries scans the room then goes to the large wall of narrow glass panels, each of which contains ten square compartments containing a variety of food. She stops before a screen and generates a smile. Her picture appears. Good morning, Egan, Aries, D. ID#: 4746-POC-201-0017485. Two of the small compartments open. She takes two bottles from one and a piece of bread from the other.
One of the tables has only one kid sitting at it so far. The boy is about her age, maybe a year older. She thinks Kiire Understaad is his name, but she could be wrong. She remembers he’s been here for at least as long as her. As a girl, not belonging to any of the groups here is bad. As a boy, it must be nearly unbearable. And for a boy with that name and his stout stature, it’s impossible. She heads for the table, seeing in her periphery three older kids get up from two other tables and nonchalantly make their way toward this one. By her estimate, they will arrive at the same time. It’s a game—every morning, every midday break, and during free time in the evenings. They remind her of vultures waiting for the slightest sign of weakness, anything they can use to create trouble without it being recognized as such. The monitoring system does not allow for any social misconduct. But there are ways to cheat the system and some of the kids excel at it.
Aries slumps down at the bench, diagonally across from Kiire. Simultaneously, the three other boys sit down at the same table, two across from her and one to her right and across from Kiire. They are a year or so older than her. Maybe sixteen. Their jumpsuits are orange. Rodent Control.
“Hey, Scarlip, can I kiss you?” the boy across from her whispers, his hand covering his mouth so the monitors can’t see what he says. His hair is dark with gelled spikes sticking up in all directions. “Scarlip, O Scarlip, just one little kiss. Scarlip, my Scarlip, I beg of you, please!”
The other two try to contain their laughter. His name tag says SETH. He’s easily a foot taller than her, his eyes and demeanor telling her that he is going to push it today, push it to the limit of what the software considers appropriate social conduct. She’s been called names before. Many times. Her father had made enough money to pay for the four operations to join her upper lip and close the cleft. As a result, the tip of her nose is now slightly pushed inward and there’s a small scar below it in the space between her nose and her upper lip. She doesn’t see it when she looks at herself. She never did. It was always normal for her. She remembers her mom telling her that she was the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen. And Aries believed her. She doesn’t really feel hurt when someone says something about it. She did in the beginning. Now it’s just annoying.
She glances over at Kiire. He is involved in his own battle with the boy across from him. The boy stares at him relentlessly while repeating, “I will crush you,” without moving his lips. She can’t read his name tag except the first four letters. TERR. For a second she thinks about what could possibly drive someone to perfect the art of belittling someone to that extent. What inner demons he must be fighting each night when he lays in his two-foot-wide bunk bed in the darkness. Does he think about his parents? Does he think about his future and that he will probably never get anywhere, never see the sun, never stand in the rain or smell the earth under him? That he’ll most likely die fifty or sixty years from now within two hundred meters of where he sits? That he’ll work in Rodent Control for the rest of his life? She pities him. Until Kiire lets out a gasp. His hand goes to his knee under the table. He tries to swallow the pain. The tears come out of sheer reflex.
“Make a sound and you’re dead,” Terr whispers. “Cry and you’ll spend two weeks in medical and afterward you’ll eat what she’s drinking.” Kiire lowers his head, looks down at his food, tries to pretend he’s eating. A few tears drip down onto his plate.
“Hey, Scarlip, tell me, do you know this boy?” Seth says with a smile, as if Aries has just told a joke and he’s showing his amusement. “Is he a friend of yours? ‘Cause if he is, if he’s a friend of yours, what’re you gonna do to help him out? Or are you just going to sit there and do nothing? You have to ask yourself what kind of a friend you are if that’s the case, huh? If you don’t know him, that’s a different story. Then we’re all just sitting here, talking. Right?”
Aries registers that she is frozen. Her mind draws a complete blank, unable to form an answer, a response of any kind. That always seems to happen in situations like this. Afterward, she usually comes up with a long list of things that she could have said and done. But at this moment, right now, there is nothing. All she can think of is “Rodent Control” and how strange it is that the corners of his mouth move downward each time he smiles.
She looks above his head at one of the oversized flat screens mounted on each wall of the dining room. They usually have advertisements on them. Right now, it shows a blonde woman in a bathing suit talking about how, for only fifteen units a month, you could become a member of the beach club. This gives you access to an hour per day on fine sand, a milky pool, and a huge wall screen with an ocean view on it. It’s pixilated and the quality stinks, but many people in Tier One use it. Aries has been there only once.
“Are you listening to me?” Seth’s grin disappears.
“Yes,” is all she can muster. It comes out with a squeak, like a rusty faucet sputtering water.
“Yes.” This time it’s clearer, albeit still with a hint of fear.
“Good. ‘Cause if you don’t… if you don’t listen to me, this will not end well for you. I’ve been watching you, Scarlip Egan. For a while. There’s something about you, you know. Something irritating. Like you’re proud of something. Like you’re better than the rest of us. Like you’ve got something the rest of us don’t have. But now that I look at you a little closer, I don’t know what it was I even saw in you. You’re just pathetic. You look pathetic.”
The other two boys nod reassuringly. Kiire eats, or better, moves tiny little portions of wheat paste to his mouth so he doesn’t have to do anything else. The knot in Aries’s stomach is a small planet rotating around its own axis. She thinks she is going to be sick. Maybe if she said something, anything, he would be satisfied and leave her alone. Maybe she should apologize and tell him he’s right and that she’d seriously consider the points he had made. She has no clue what to say, so she opens her mouth and starts talking.
“Did you know that cockroaches leave chemical trails in their feces, as well as emitting airborne pheromones for swarming and mating?” She has no idea where this is coming from but decides to go with it. “These chemical trails transmit bacteria on surfaces.” She lifts her hands off the table, wipes them on her jumpsuit and puts them in her lap. “Other cockroaches will follow these trails”—she looks at the other two boys who don’t quite get what’s going on yet—“to discover sources of food and water. They feed on scraps of human food and usually leave an offensive odor.”
All eyes are on Aries. She can see the anger well up in Seth, but there is no more backing down for her. She has to rise to meet his challenge or leave, leave right now only to come back tomorrow and do this all over again. When she continues, she pronounces each word clearly, as if talking to a child.
“Cockroaches are attracted to warm, moist environments. They spend the daylight hours in dark, secluded areas under refrigerators, stoves, and in crevices under the floors. The presence of cockroaches during the day may indicate a large population. They have been linked with allergic reactions in humans.”
For a few moments, there is silence at the table. Then Kiire sneezes. “Sorry,” he says, wiping his nose with the sleeve of his shirt. Aries can’t help but let out a giggle. Without warning, Seth jumps up, grabs Aries across the table by the collar, pulls her toward him and screams at her from the bottom of his lungs, “I AM NOT A COCKROACH!”
He pushes her; she loses her balance and falls to the floor. Pain shoots through her elbow. She looks up, realizing first that everyone in the room is staring at her and second, that there are absolutely no sounds. The monitors behind Seth’s red face go dark. That’s not a good sign. She gets up holding her elbow and flexes it to see if it’s broken.
Then the screens simultaneously come back on. After a few seconds of flickering, the image of a room appears. There are several bunk beds, all empty. One of them has someone sitting on it, arms wrapped around the legs, head down. Over the speakers drifts the sound of soft weeping. The camera zooms closer toward the bowed head. The hair is dark with spikes standing in all directions. Then the head lifts up from the knees and Seth’s oversized face comes into frame. His eyes swollen with tears, he stares into space while sobbing. A single “Mommy” escapes his mouth. Then the sobbing continues.
There is not a sound in the dining hall except for a couple of low laughs here and there that are instantly swallowed up by the silence. Aries faces Seth. Their eyes meet. She realizes that she is as shocked as he is. Gone is the anger, gone the boy who wanted to stir trouble with a girl today. All that’s left is reality and the never-absent and far-reaching presence of the A.I. monitors behind the walls, behind the screens, and behind it all.
The quiet that follows is almost eerie. When Aries looks at Kiire and the other two boys and from there into the faces of the other kids, there is a small moment when she feels it, feels it like electricity in the room. It’s palpable. It is the sense that all of them are trapped with no way out, with nowhere to go. And below that hopelessness, Aries can sense the small wish for something else. For a life outside of this, for something better. But that small instant of a wish—minuscule in size and overpowered by the sheer bleakness of their lives—disappears quickly, like the flicker of a firefly at night. Moments later, it is gone. What’s left is their shared knowledge that nothing can change their fate, nothing can reach down and lift them up and place them into a world of safety and of comfort.
Their eyes are lowered as they return to their tables, to their benches. Some sit, others collect their empty dishes and move them toward a small conveyor belt on one of the walls. Aries casts one more look toward Seth, as if to say, “Next time be more careful.” The screens turn back to normal, back to the blonde woman in the bathing suit who talks about the beach club. As she turns to leave, Aries can’t help but feel a sting of guilt over what she said to Seth. “No,” she decides, “he deserved it.” But as she leaves the dining room she isn’t even sure about that.
* * *
011 010 000 1010 0101 0001 010111 0101 0 0 10 10 10010100010 01010 010 101001001 010 010 010110 01 0000101 01000001 100110 10010011010 1001 100001 1 010 10000 1111010 010100 000111 001 01011 0101 0101 Egan, Aries, D. ID#: 4746-POC-201-0017485 0001000 0101 01001 incident involving Boras, Seth, S. ID#: 4746-POC-201-0015774 000111 1001 0111 00 11 1 0001101 01 1 010100001 1010111 tag 4.1 100001 1101001001 further action pending evaluation 1 1 11 0001 10001 1000 11000110 1011010 100011 00 1110100 001001 010101 010111 011000 010 0001101 01011101010 010
Chapter Two Ty
“For they hold our fates forever,
in their hands both young and strong.”
Part of a forbidden nursery rhyme
Aries takes two steps at once, climbing up the steep narrow stairs while holding onto the railing. If her hands are free she can usually make it up in about five seconds. Fourteen steps. Back down is even quicker. Sliding on her hands and forearms and hooking her heels onto the railing she can be down in under three seconds.
She reaches the top and lands on a small platform, which leads into a narrow, slightly curved hallway. To her left is a metal door. Aries looks briefly up at the small camera in one of the corners of the doorframe. She punches in a code. After a moment, the clicking sound indicates that the door has been unlocked.
A small LED next to a numeric pad goes from red to blue. She steps through the opening. The thick door closes behind her, hermetically sealing itself. In case of a leak of any of the chemicals used to heat and cool the massive high-rise, this section—Tier Zero—will be cut off and sealed from the rest of the building.
Aries is hit by a wave of heat coming off the rectangular container-sized transformers on either side of the narrow hallway. The heat exchange units convert chemical processes into either heat or cooling, depending on what is needed at the moment. She goes left, walks through the narrow passageway, which eventually spills her out into a storage room. She goes to her locker and opens it while glancing at yet another camera above.
“You’re late.” The voice behind her is deep and raspy, firm but not unkind. Stating a fact rather than making a judgment.
Aries grabs her tool belt from the hook on the door. “I am,” she answers. “Sorry ’bout that.”
She turns toward the man. He must be well into his seventies. His gray hair is held in a short ponytail, and a pencil is tucked into the space above his right ear. The wrinkles around his eyes are darkened from grease and metal dust. Aries can never really connect his voice to his slender build; whenever she hears him talking, she envisions a larger, taller man. Tybault Hennrichsen is half a foot shorter than herself.
“There was trouble in the cafeteria…” Aries continues.
She looks at him while cinching on her belt and tucking her gloves into a side pocket.
“You’ll find your place eventually. I did.” Ty smiles at her. Aries doesn’t smile back. “You up for a climb? It’s not too high up.”
“Sure,” Aries answers, swallowing the slight sting of fear in her throat.
“We’ve got a burned-out motor in one of the cooling ducts in B-11X4. We need someone tall and thin.”
“I’m your girl.” She closes her locker, snaps the flashlight onto her hard hat, tests it on her hand, and moves one of the belt pockets to the back. When she reaches Ty, he turns and they both walk through the door into a much more expansive area. They pass a few large standup drills, a welding station and other workbenches, until they reach the middle of the room. Clusters of greased-over computer screens are mounted to the ceiling directly above an oversized table. Multiple layers of large blueprint drawings represent the guts of the electrical system down to every excruciating detail—every switch, junction box, and LED bulb.
About two dozen people, all in coveralls, are in various stages of preparing for the day. Wires are being rolled up and parts are being mounted together; the smell of the soldering iron hangs in the air. Several of the workers nod at Aries as she approaches. In here they are equals. In here they are all spokes in the large wheel that turns slowly but steadily around the axis known as Tybault Hennrichsen.
“The motor is in this section over here, reachable through the shaft right above the D-compressor line.” Ty traces the cooling duct with his grease-stained finger and stops at the top of a narrow shaft where a red dot on the clear plastic sheet indicates the broken motor. “My guess is that one of the brushes is gone, or maybe both. You can’t bring it down, it’s too big. You’ll have to repair it on site.”
“You got it, boss.” Aries looks at the blueprint while taking out her notepad. She writes, “220V-30A / 6-point hexagon.”
“You’ll need a six-point hexagon to open the casing.” Ty says. She nods. “But you knew that already. Has anyone seen C.J. this morning?” Ty asks the room.
A couple of people shake their heads; others murmur that they haven’t seen her.
“I’m going on the job with you,” Ty says. “We don’t have anyone else senior enough to be your lead.”
Aries smiles. “Great!”
“Get the parts, will ya?” Ty says, while grabbing his tool belt and hard hat.
When she enters the storage room, an image appears before her eyes for a split second, completely blocking her current visual field. White clouds rush by as she plummets toward the land far below. She throws her arms out to catch herself. Then it’s gone, leaving her dizzy and filled with a hot rush of adrenaline. She looks around but nobody seems to have noticed.
She finds the parts in two separate metal bins and the six-point hexagon in the specialty tools cart. Ty is already halfway up the stairs. Aries follows him up and they reach the narrow path above the storage room. From there, the walkway makes a forty-five degree turn, crossing over the command center. Aries’s stomach begins to knot as they approach the end and negotiate a narrow wall. As they turn the corner, leaving the wall behind them, they approach the railing of yet another walkway. Aries concentrates on the steel grid plates below her feet but she knows that, eventually, she has to look up and face what’s there.
“You okay?” Ty’s eyes reassure her that she is not going to fall and disappear into the abyss.
Reluctant, her glance shifts from Ty to what lies behind him. You’ve seen this many times before. There’s no need to freak out over it. From where they stand, a circular walkway leads in both directions meeting all the way across, fifty meters away. In between, there is nothing. Just a large, round gap. She reaches the railing and grabs it, not without noticing the sweat on her palms. From here, she gradually looks past her hands. Surrounding the gap in the center, the maze of ladders and platforms extends downward as far as she can see. About fifty floors below, it is swallowed by darkness. She steps back from the railing.
“Shall we?” Ty asks.
She nods, thankful that he lets her have her moment of panic without calling her on it.
“I wonder why it’s built like that?” she asks, as they head for another staircase.
“I don’t have a better answer since the last time you asked,” Ty replies.
“It’s just that it seems to serve no purpose to have it all open like that.”
“I’m not a structural engineer.”
“Yes, but you know things.”
“That I do. I also know that I’ve never met anyone who asked so many questions.”
“That’s a good thing, right?” Aries realizes that she’s only half-kidding.
“It depends on who you ask.”
She expects him to smile but he doesn’t, and for a moment there is silence between them.
“Did C.J. seem strange to you the last couple of days?” she asks.
“Strange in what way?” They climb up yet another ladder.
“Just strange. Not herself.”
“Not that I’m aware of,” Ty answers. “But you know her much better than I do.”
“I don’t really. How can I know her if we’re not allowed to speak without being watched?” Aries isn’t quite sure where this outburst comes from.
“I brought your harness.” Ty tells her. “You should put it on.”
“Ty, do you realize that I can’t even talk to you about anything except what’s related to work?”
“You should always put it on, even though you think you might not need it.”
“There are so many things that don’t make a lot of sense.”
“It will prevent you from falling and hurting yourself.”
Ty stops and turns to her. They are halfway up the stairs. He kneels before her, placing the harness in front of her on the ground. Then he looks up at her.
“Put on the harness, Aries. It will keep you safe.”
He is as close to a father as anyone has come in four years. She can see that his eyes are pleading with her—pleading with her to be quiet, to stay quiet.
“Thank you,” is all she says, as she steps into the harness and pulls it up.
They continue to climb a few more stairways until they reach the space behind a smaller transformer. Aries can see the massive cooling line going straight up beside a metal ladder built into the wall. Twenty feet above them the line disappears into a smaller shaft leading away from them.
Ty hands Aries a small walkie-talkie that she clips onto her harness. She begins to climb the ladder. Halfway up she looks down, but realizing this is a mistake she continues to concentrate on each rung of the ladder until she reaches the top. She switches her headlamp on and peers into the horizontal shaft. It disappears beyond the reach of the light beam.
“It’s about thirty-five feet into the shaft.” She hears Ty’s voice in the walkie-talkie. She gives him a thumbs-up and places her foot on the ledge of the square shaft. When she locks the carabiner into the bar above the opening, her legs begin to shake. She waits a few seconds, hoping it will stop. For a moment she feels as if she is going to get sick, but then she grabs onto the bar, lets go of the ladder and slides into the shaft.
She welcomes the tight space and the cool surface of the metal duct against her back. She unlocks the carabiner and crawls forward along the smaller cooling line. The beam of light dances in front of her as she makes her way into the darkness.
“Almost there,” she says into the walkie-talkie.
“Still here,” she hears Ty say next to her ear.
She smiles, turns her body, and moves the last few feet on her side. She opens her tool belt, finds the wrench and begins opening the bolts. In order to get to the rest of the chassis she has to lie on her back. While loosening the remaining bolts, she notices another shaft, smaller and perpendicular to this one.
That’s odd, she thinks. The shafts inside the building that have nothing in them are usually air shafts. This seems an unusual location for an air duct.
“How’s it going in there?” She hears Ty’s voice. She contemplates telling him what she’s found. Then she decides to check it out first and tell him after. Ty knows nothing about her one hour of freedom she takes out of her day when she activates the surveillance loop in her room and roams the heating ducts at night. She knows he wouldn’t approve. Not because he would disapprove; he would simply be afraid for her.
“Aries, you there?”
“Yes, sorry, the space is very tight and it’ll take some time to loosen the bolts.”
She takes the chassis off of the electric motor and replaces the used brushes with new ones.
“It’s both brushes. Should be done soon,” she says into the walkie-talkie. She can’t remember ever having lied to Ty.
She closes the chassis and climbs into the shaft. The empty duct leads straight up, with nothing to hold on to. Using her knees and feet, together with her hands, she pushes herself up, several inches at a time. She’s done this many times before but she didn’t realize at the outset how far she would have to climb. Most of the vertical ducts she had climbed during her nightly excursions were fifteen feet high at the most. This one is almost three times as high.
Halfway up the shaft, she’s completely out of breath. Sweat is building on her brow and she begins to question her reasoning for climbing into the shaft. But she knows that this is probably her only chance to do this. She’ll most likely not come back to this location for a while and coming up with a reasonable excuse to return would be difficult.
She takes a couple of breaths, tries to be unconcerned about her legs beginning to shake, and pushes herself up again, a couple of inches at a time. After an eternity, she reaches the end—a metal vent cover. She tries to push it open but it doesn’t move.
“I don’t believe it,” she whispers under her breath. She tries again but there is no way for her to open it. It must be bolted shut from the other side. I should have known better. She very slowly begins to slide downward. Forty-five feet below her she sees the tiny opening to the vertical shaft and part of the motor. She had taken off her gloves to get better traction. Now, the sweat in her palms acts as a lubricant. She pushes away the thought of what would happen if she fell from this height and takes out her handkerchief. Using her teeth, she rips off a narrow strip and ties it to one of the bars in the vent cover. One knot has to do. The burning in her legs is already almost unbearable. Then she wipes her hands as much as possible on her coveralls and slowly makes her way down. When she finally reaches the bottom, she is sweating profusely and simply lies there, completely exhausted.
“Did you fall asleep in there?” She hears Ty’s voice in the walkie-talkie.
“I’m done. On my way back,” she replies, hoping this was all worth it.
She reaches the ladder and climbs down, the burning sensation in her legs only slowly subsiding.
“You look like you’ve been through the wringer. Did anything happen in there?” Ty looks at her with a mixture of worry and wonder. “Are you okay?”
“It was just very hard to loosen the bolts,” Aries answers, looking away from his probing glance.
“Aries, what’s going on?”
“Nothing.” She lifts her head, looks straight at him. “It was just very hard to loosen the bolts.”
Something in his expression tells her that he doesn’t quite believe her. He opens a small panel next to the ladder and flips the circuit breaker back on. The LED light changes from red to green.
“Shall we go back?”
“Yeah.” Aries realizes that her palms are still sweaty but she resists the urge to wipe them on her coveralls.
“Good job up there.”
Ty walks ahead of her as they make their way down the ladders and back toward the command center four stories below.
“Maybe I’ll try to get in touch with C.J.’s parents tonight,” Aries says. “I didn’t see a message from her on my pad this morning and she usually writes me first thing.”
“Sure, sounds like a good idea,” Ty answers after a few seconds. Just as they reach the floor of the command center and Aries is about to walk to her locker to get a drink, Ty places his hand on her shoulder.
She turns toward him. “Yes.”
“You’re a good kid. I… I want you to know that. I just wanted you to know.” She looks at him, his grease-darkened face, his kind eyes.
“I’ll be right back,” she says, and turns to walk away. Her eyes sting suddenly. She wonders why this happens each time someone says something nice to her. Yes, it reminds her of how her mother used to speak to her while she gently braided her hair each night. Yes, it doesn’t happen that often anymore that someone says something nice to her. C.J. is one. Ty another. Maybe there are one or two more kids she can relate to, but for the most part there is this undercurrent of loneliness in her that she can’t seem to shake.
While standing at her locker and drinking from a water bottle, tears stream down in earnest. She immediately tries to hide them from the camera above her head; she pours water into the palm of her hand and splashes it on her face. Let them figure it out. To whoever stands watch behind the cameras, she’s just another kid sweating from working in small spaces who needed to cool off. No tears.
But while she does that, while all those thoughts go through her head, she realizes what it is she needs. The thought rises within her and fills her with hope and the will to continue. She lets it stand there. Then she nods and a slight smile crosses her face. I need friends. She closes her locker and goes back to the command center to get instructions for her next job.
Chapter Three Born-Of-Night
“Night bears the dawn which rises on its death.”
The Book of Croix — Vol.7
Aries slumps onto her futon and takes out her pad. She traces an invisible line on the screen. The default room setting changes to the inside of a forest. Another sweep of her finger and music comes on. A Calitester flute. The deep guttural sound, almost reminiscent of human voices, echoes through the room. For a while she lies on her back looking up, trying to relax into the music. All around her, the trees reach far up into the sky. She lets her mind wander—from her encounter with Seth this morning to her conversations with Ty and from him to C.J. She sits up, opens her memo app and types. “Where were you today? Missed you. Hope you’re okay. A.” She pushes the “send” button and lies back down. A few moments later she is fast asleep.
The slight vibration of her watch wakes her. When she looks at the screen, it flickers a few times, the sign that the one-hour loop has begun. Her watch shows 1:38 a.m. She feels a sense of dread and slight panic. She can feel her heart beat inside her chest. She decides it must have been something she dreamed. Before she can acknowledge that it’s probably more than that, she makes herself get up.
She puts on black leggings, a dark gray turtleneck, and a zipped sweater. Depending on what time of year, it can get freezing cold in the ducts, especially during the summer months when massive amounts of cold air are being pumped through the building. A wool cap is the final piece of her outfit.
Her heart rate is not slowing down. She puts her hand on her forehead but it shows no sign of a fever. She is not dizzy but, judging by her pulse, she’s just run up a few dozen stairs. She also has the slight sense that her brain isn’t functioning as it normally does. Underneath all this, and not accessible to her conscious mind at the moment, is the thought that she is forgetting something. She takes a couple of sips from her water bottle, breathes in deeply a few times and turns off the forest program in her room. The music had stopped automatically a while ago. She opens the duct cover and slides inside.
There is usually enough residual light to see what’s in front of her—not too far into the ducts but enough to see where she is going. After about eight feet, she encounters the first vertical shaft. She knows where this one is going, has used it many times in the past, together with all the ones that branch off from it. Tonight, she has a different plan. She has a sense of where the shaft with the marked metal grid is; maybe not exactly, but enough to be able to move in its general direction. In order to reach it she has to get to the other side of the building’s core. The motor she’d repaired this morning is located almost exactly diagonally across from her current location, a few floors up. She knows she needs to follow the ducts on the horizontal plain, moving left on most intersections and then move upward for a while.
Her sense of where she is in the vast space of the massive maze of ducts is all she can count on. Without it, she would be lost and never find her way back to her room. The duct she is currently in is the smallest kind. It connects to a larger channel that picks up other side channels and leads in turn to an even larger one. In that one, Aries can walk. Not quite upright but she can use her legs rather than crawl on her stomach.
After a few minutes, Aries comes to a T and a larger duct. From here she is able to use her knees. She is so used to moving like this that she doesn’t think twice about it; for her it’s almost as natural as walking. In fact, she has over time perfected this way of moving from point A to B to such a degree that she can move through the ductwork while making almost no sound at all.
She turns left and now moves on her hands and knees to yet another intersection. By her estimation, she should now be close to the dining room. When she thinks about her encounter with Seth this morning, she becomes aware of her still-pounding heart. The undercurrent of panic she had felt before now makes its way to the foreground of her mind. She’s never experienced this kind of panic, especially if there was no obvious reason for it, such as her fear of heights or the feeling of dread before she enters the dining room every morning.
Push through it, she thinks. It’ll go away eventually.
Before she makes another left turn at the third intersection that leads directly toward the building’s core, she looks to her right. The darkness of the duct makes it impossible to see further than about twenty feet. She squints her eyes to see better. There is movement. Just beyond the area that is visible, she can see something in the duct. She can also hear it over the pounding of her heart. A flapping sound. Then stillness. Then another flapping sound and something scraping over metal.
Her sense of panic doesn’t feel so abnormal anymore. Is there someone else in here? But this doesn’t sound like someone moving through the ducts. It’s stationary. Her view of the air duct in front of her is overlaid by another image—a much brighter duct with a figure kneeling in it, about thirty feet away from her.
Aries lets out a low scream and moves into the duct she came from, pushing her back against one of the sides. What the hell was this? The vision of the figure has disappeared again. She can still hear the flapping sounds and the occasional scraping over the metal surface. The impulse to go back to her room, as fast as she possibly can, is overwhelming.
When she peeks around the corner and looks into the duct, the double vision from earlier appears again. This time she sees a brightly lit duct with the head of a figure appearing at the end. Something clicks and Aries has the sense that she is sharing this image. As if she sees through someone or something else’s eyes. The image disappears again. Just as she decides to move and—against all her better judgment—go toward the flapping sound, she hears a piercing cry.
It sounds unlike anything she has ever heard, yet at the same time strangely familiar. But it is also completely unsettling. The echo generated by the air ducts amplifies the sound almost to the level of a continuous shriek. She freezes, thinking that this is it—this is where and how her young life will end when whatever is making that sound moves with immense speed toward her and takes her.
But then she feels it. Behind the panic and the eerie cries, she senses something else. Whatever lurks on the other end of the duct is as scared as she is. There is no malice, but pure and utter fear. For a moment, Aries is torn—torn between going back to her room and forgetting this whole episode, and crawling toward whatever it is that waits in the darkness.
Without thinking about it any further and following sheer instinct rather than rational thought, Aries moves away from the wall and turns the corner. Slowly, she crawls toward the shrieking.
She still can’t see much until after a few more feet she recognizes a shape. The flapping thing is a wing. A bird? How did it get in here? How is this even possible?
“Shhh,” is all she can muster. “Shhh, I won’t hurt you. Be still. Otherwise we’ll both get caught.” It is as if Aries can sense the slightest calming of the other. She decides to keep going. Suddenly she sees another overlaid image in her mind. This time it is very clear: in the bright air duct, the figure she looks at is herself. It is as if she sees what the bird sees. Preposterous, is all she can think.
Until she realizes that the panic she is feeling is not her own. Not at all. It is that of the bird. And now she recognizes what kind of bird it is. She has seen its kind before in one of the nature programs she had purchased. Birds of Prey, the program was called. It showed predator birds in their natural environment. It dawns on her at that moment that what she sees in front of her is without doubt a bird of prey. A young one, but still… The patterns on its wings bring back the memory. Deep inside the maze of pipes and shafts and air ducts that make up the core and lifeline of the super high-rise in a nameless desert city belonging to a world that has been almost uninhabitable for close to a century, Aries is looking at a baby hawk, caught in part of a nylon netting.
The little guy looks pathetic, with his feathers ruffled and the netting wrapped around one of his feet. Now Aries can feel the pain the little creature endures. It comes from the nylon strings cutting into the skin of its talon.
“Shhh, it’s okay. Let me help you.” She comes closer, trying to act calm but not having much success. The hawk flutters, growing more frantic the closer she comes. Its piercing cries fill the air ducts almost to the point of hurting Aries’s ears. The cries bring with them her own fear that someone, or something, is going to hear them. What if they are above someone’s sleeping quarters or a common area? She has to do something, and soon, to calm the hawk down.
Talking softly to the bird, she edges slowly closer, until she is about six feet away. That’s when her wristwatch begins to vibrate. First she thinks it’s the alarm for the one-hour loop, signaling that it is close to the end. But that’s a different signal. Oh no! she thinks, as she touches her watch, traces an invisible line on its surface. A digital clock appears. Its numbers pulsate in one-second increments. 2:59, 2:58, 2:57. It’s the warning for the duct cleaning. It’ll start in two minutes and now fifty-two seconds. How could she have forgotten this? Usually, whenever she enters the ducts, she makes sure she has enough time before the next duct sterilization. Maybe it was because of her earlier panicked state that she’d completely forgot about it.
In two seconds, Aries processes several pieces of information. First, it would most likely take her more than two minutes and fifty seconds to get back to her room. She might be able to pull it off but it would be very, very tight. Secondly, if she made it safely to her room in that time, the hawk would most certainly die. Nothing alive can stand the microwaves generated by the Raytheon’s high-frequency burst. It would fry her within seconds.
The conflict of her life versus that of the hawk lasts an instant before she makes her choice. She moves toward the panicked bird. Without further thought, she envisions the image of the forest program in her mind. While she crawls the last few feet, she sees in her mind’s eye the trees reaching far up toward the sky. At the same time she makes eye contact with the hawk. I won’t hurt you, she thinks. Almost immediately, the hawk calms and his flapping weakens. Whether that’s because of the image she holds in her mind or out of sheer exhaustion, Aries doesn’t know.
Then she reaches the small bird, takes him into the palm of her hand. He is larger than her hand but she can easily fit him into it and hold on to him. She stretches out her hand and grabs him, gently but firmly, so that she has both wings under control. With her other hand she begins to untangle the hawk’s foot. “How did you get in here, huh?” she says quietly. “How could you possibly have gotten in here?”
Aries forces herself not to think about the time that is bleeding out of the present moment and heading toward the inevitable. “Poor thing, hold on, almost there,” she says, while trying to keep the image of the forest in her mind’s eye. For whatever reason, that seems to be the calming factor for the hawk.
“There you go. All good now. We’re all good now.” She pulls the last thread from the talon and the bird is free. Aries turns her head, looks back toward where she came from. “Sorry about that,” she says. Without thinking, she opens the zipper of her sweatshirt, pushes the hawk inside, and closes it. “Try to stay calm,” she says. Then she turns around and moves as quickly as she can back toward the last intersection. A brief glance at her watch tells her that she won’t make it.
She turns left, back into the duct she’d come from. It leads toward the one closer to the dining hall. When she gets to the next intersection, her watch shows thirty-eight seconds. She makes a right turn, moves into another duct. I’m gonna be dead soon, she thinks, while moving as fast as possible through the small space. Twenty-eight seconds. Before her and to her left, a smaller duct goes off, perpendicular to this one. She assumes that it leads into one of the rooms. Not hers. She decides it’s probably better to land in someone else’s room than it is to get fried by high levels of microwaves and crawls inside.
She moves forward while pushing off her elbows. I hope the vent cover isn’t bolted shut from the other side. Her watch now pulsates in one-second increments. Red and blue. Less than ten seconds. She reaches the grill, pushes against it. Once. Twice. Three times. “Come on, come on! Come on!” On the fourth attempt it opens and bounces into the room. She crawls through the opening, pulls her feet out of the duct. Her watch goes dark. Zero seconds. Her heart beats so loud she barely hears the low vibration coming on in the ducts. It lasts fifteen seconds. Then it stops. Aries lies on her back, trying to catch her breath.
The sensors should pick up her presence at any moment now. The screen with the corporate logo will probably come on, followed by a message to either come in to see her supervisor in the morning or, more likely, to stay where she is and wait to be picked up by security.
“You have twenty minutes, roughly, to get back to your quarters.” The voice comes from the other side of the room. “That’s when your one-hour loop expires.”
* * *
Aries turns her head. Until now, she’d been so focused on getting out of the duct that she hadn’t even thought about where she’d landed and who would be there when she did. On a futon in a corner of the otherwise dark room sits a figure, legs crossed. The hood over his head hides him slightly. His face is illuminated by the pad he holds in front of him.
“That was close, huh?” he says. His fingers trace an invisible line on his pad and dim light comes on, emanating from the screens on the walls.
Aries looks around. All four walls look as if they are packed to the brim with leather-bound books on thick shelves. But not only that. The spatial illusion goes far past an ordinary room with books in it; the library extends in all directions and into a seemingly endless room of massive proportions. It is very hard to make out if this is an image on a screen or a real room. The illusion is almost perfect. But how is this possible? Images of libraries or anything related to books have been banned for almost two centuries. To have this program on anyone’s screen would be punishable by prison.
“I was hoping you’d find your way in here one day,” he says, and looks up. And now she recognizes his face. It’s Kiire. The boy who’d sat at her table that morning.
“I’m sorry to intrude. I didn’t mean to come in here so… unexpectedly.” That’s all Aries can come up with. Her mother always told her that if she couldn’t think of anything to say, at least say something nice.
“You knocked three times. It was on me to answer the door. And you are welcome.”
There are several strings of thought going through Aries’s mind. One of them is the imminent door busting and pouring in of security personnel and them subsequently pulling her out of this room and straight into a jail cell. The other questions are all related to the library image on the screen. But before she can get clear enough to form another sentence, there is a weak flapping sensation coming from inside her sweater.
The hawk. She had completely forgotten about him. She’d been as careful as possible all the way through the duct not to crush the little guy, but for the last minute or so the bird had completely left her thoughts.
“So sorry. I’m so sorry. Hold on.” She opens the zipper on her sweater and grabs the bird, gently taking him and holding him in front of her.
“No way!” Kiire whispers. “No freaking way! Where did you get him?”
“I found him in one of the secondary air ducts. His talon was caught in a piece of nylon netting. Isn’t he beautiful?”
“He sure is. Can I hold him?”
She is unsure at first but then she gives the bird to Kiire.
“Poor little guy. He was so scared when I found him.”
“I think it’s not a guy. It’s a girl.”
“A girl? How do you know? “
“This is a red-tailed hawk, approximately four months old, and even though it’s almost impossible to tell, I’m going to say it’s female.”
“How do you know this? How does anyone know this? And how can you have a library program on your screen and what are you doing up at two o’clock in the morning and how come nobody is busting in the door right now?”
Kiire lets the hawk sit on his arm. She spreads her wings and looks as if she is going to take flight. But instead she shakes out her wings and then folds them back in.
“To answer your last question first, nobody is coming for you for the simple reason that nobody knows you’re here. At least not for another”—he looks at his watch—”fifteen minutes. Secondly, I was up because I thought I might hear something in the ducts, given that your loop went on at 1:38 a.m. But I never hear anything. You must be very good at crawling around in there. I have pretty good ears. As to your other question of how I know that our girl here is a girl? I studied Ancient Birds of Prey for a while. Did you know that red-tailed hawks can adapt to almost any climate and habitat? They are also really great for hunting.”
“Yeah, hunting. Also an ancient form of—”
“I know what hunting is.”
“Sorry, you were looking at me as if you didn’t… It seemed like you didn’t know what it meant. Sorry.”
“It’s okay. Don’t worry,” Aries says, stretching her arm out next to Kiire’s. “Can I have her?”
“How do you want to call her?” Kiire asks, as he moves his arm so that it touches Aries. The hawk jumps onto her arm. She lets out a low scream, not expecting the force of the talons with which the bird clutches her forearm.
“She’s… strong,” Aries says.
“And she’ll be much stronger once she’s fully grown. She can get up to three and a half pounds if you feed her regularly. Speaking of which…”
Kiire moves to a small box in one corner of his room and takes out a plastic container. He sits back down next to Aries, opens it, and takes out a piece of cooked ham.
“You eat meat?” Aries asks.
“Yeah. You don’t?”
“No! Absolutely not.”
“That’s awesome,” he says, while holding a piece of ham in front of the hawk, who grabs the entire thing and swallows it whole.
“She’s hungry,” Kiire says, while handing her another piece.
“She obviously is. Do you have enough? I mean, will you have enough. For her and yourself later on?”
“I work in the kitchen. Don’t worry about me. I’ll always have enough to eat.”
“It looks like it,” Aries says.
Kiire looks to the side, a hint of embarrassment in his face.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean it that way,” she adds. “At all. It just seems like you have enough to eat. Um, that didn’t come out right, either…”
For the first time since she came into his room, she takes in his face completely. The brown hair surrounding it is disheveled and curly. His eyes are round and clear, and a boyish fuzz is developing in some areas of his face not yet able to cover the red, healthy-looking cheeks. His stature is stout but when he’d moved earlier, Aries had noticed that he was quick on his feet and in control of his body.
“Don’t worry,” Kiire assures her.
“No! I want you to know that… I don’t share in what’s going on in the dining room. And I’m not… judging you. In any way. I want you to know that. I just meant before that it looks like you can take care of yourself. Which brings me to the question of why is there still nobody busting through that door?”
“Can you keep a secret?” Kiire asks.
“I think we’re past that point.”
“Right. You’re right. Okay. I’m basically an empty folder.”
“An empty folder?”
“Yes. Imagine you have a folder on your pad that has 65,000 subfolders in it. They’re all there and information flows in and out of all of them and you scan all the information that comes out of all of the folders—all the video surveillance, all the social habits, eating habits, what you do in your free time, etcetera. The mainframe has all this data. It knows everything at once but one thing it doesn’t know is what it doesn’t know. I’m an empty folder because there is no feed to my room. But nobody knows because nobody’s looking closely.”
“So, they don’t know when you’re not in here and what you’re doing?”
“Yes and no. They don’t know that they don’t know what I’m doing in here. They have no reason to look closer and so they don’t. So far it has worked. As for you, you’ve got eight minutes before your loop runs out.”
“And if I were to ask you how you are privy to this kind of information you would say…?”
“I would say I hacked into the mainframe computer to make them not know what they don’t know, and while doing this I stumbled upon someone who was almost as clever as I was. Well. At least clever enough to get an hour a day.”
“Can you help me with the rest of the time?”
“If you’re asking whether or not I can make the mainframe believe that it knows you when, in fact, it doesn’t? Yes. But I need your pad.”
“That’s going to be a problem.”
“I know. It can’t leave your room and it’s traceable.”
“I’ll think of something. In the meantime, what’re we going to do with our new friend here? She can’t go to your room. Not if you want to keep her.”
“Can she stay here?” Aries asks. “Sorry. I am asking too much. I can’t ask you to do this. I don’t know you.”
“Are you kidding me? To see a red-tailed hawk on a screen and spend a week’s worth of pay on it is one thing. To have one as a roommate would be fantastic!”
“Okay. It’s settled then. Can I come by to visit?”
“You can come here every day for one hour if that’s what you want.”
Aries smiles. “I’d love that. Thank you! And thank you for… being here and for… having this room and no other room in this building and for being unnoticed and…”
“You need to go, Aries Egan, D.”
“Okay. Thanks. Thanks so much.”
“You said that already. About twenty times. I’m going to blush if you keep this up.”
“Okay. I will see you tomorrow. Maybe in the dining room—”
“No! Sorry, but I don’t think it’s a good idea if we even look at each other down there. There can’t be any suspicion. Otherwise they begin to want to know me and that’s the last thing I need.”
“Yes, you’re right. Good. I’ll see you around.”
Aries kneels in front of the vent.
“You can try to think of a name for her,” Kiire says.
“I have. It’s Leila. It means Born-of-Night.”
Kiire grins. “Born-of-Night it is.”
Aries crawls into the air duct and away from the vent. When she hears Kiire closing the vent screen, she’s already at the intersection and moving toward her room. She thinks about the baby hawk with her dark-feathered wings and soft, white belly, and when she reaches her room she enters it with the comforting realization that she did not make a friend today. She made two.
* * *
//Taken from**recording// M.L. [mainframe log] .1/-/770.45.19000.008FTL//
“Who are you? … No!… What are you… Let me GO! … No! … No! … You can’t do that! … You can’t!… NO!… Where are you taking m—?”
**End of recording M.L. [mainframe log] .1/-/770.45.19000.008FTL//