Updated: Sep 18
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Penelope’s teeth crunched into her dry wheat toast, turning her tongue into a sandy desert. She lifted her glass of water and swallowed, soothing liquid cooling her parched throat. Another bite, another drink. Over and over, staring vacuously at the wall.
She ate her food in silence, unphased by her suspension from the Academy, thinking only about the forest where Cicero and Iggy were hiding and how much she wanted to be with them.
It wasn’t fair to her, the adventures they were having. She imagined them cooking out, sleeping under the stars, climbing trees—unshackled by Atina’s cruel demands.
The letter made it seem like Cicero had feelings for her, but if his feelings were real, he wouldn’t have blown in like a tornado, and awakened her from her slumber, only so she could eat the same dry toast in the same drab existence.
Before Cicero, she didn’t know she was miserable. She went to work, did her job, went home, and continued her grind in harmonious ignorance. But now that she knew the truth, now that she felt something real, she couldn’t go back to the way things were.
Atina or Cicero? She couldn’t decide who was crueler. But then she saw Cicero in her mind’s eye, a halo framing his lovely portrait, smiling with mischievous courage.
Her stomach swelled with exhilaration, remembering his soft cheek, and how warm it felt against her lips when she kissed it. How she longed for more, to press her lips on his mouth and taste his breath.
How can he leave me like this? She thought. I must be going crazy. Maybe that’s why the government controls us so much, so we don’t burn ourselves with desire.
An itch on Penelope’s ankle suddenly interrupted the noise of her thoughts.
After the raid at the apartments and the death of Dr. Fitzgerald, the Academy strapped her with an ankle monitor pending an investigation into her part of the fiasco. They would have been happy with Cicero’s arrest, but he was playing forager in a distant land, invisible to the world, despite the Academy’s best efforts to find him. They settled for her house arrest.
The monitor’s hardshell chaffed Penelope’s skin, so she kept a stick close by when it agitated. Situating her body to the side of the chair, she jammed the stick in between the monitor and her skin, pulling it up and down to relieve the irritation. She closed her eyes and breathed a sigh of fulfillment. If I can’t be with Cicero, at least my stick can ease my cravings.
She laughed, thinking how dumb she was. A brief encounter with a man she barely knew had left her a whimpering mess. Shaking her head in violent protest, she shot to her feet and walked to the couch where she picked up a digital tablet to find out what was happening in the news.
Finger swiping up, she scrolled through the social dashboard.
Genderless Genes Created in a Lab: like this story to receive one point. Share this story to receive two points. Penelope liked it and moved on.
New Director Named of the Academy: like this story to receive three points. Share this story to receive six points. Penelope checked the “like” box and scrolled further down.
Penelope swiped up and checked boxes like a robot, acting like the very thing she now hated about the world around her.
Swipe, check, swipe, check. Penelope filled the basic function of her programming—do what you’re told and don’t question it.
Atmospheric music played from the tablet, like a siren’s song, comforting her back to sleep, lulling her back into her mundane reality. The sound of a rushing waterfall accompanied by gentle strikes on piano keys filled the air. A serene melody dancing on the notes of a violin came next, followed by a woman’s voice in operatic delight echoing through the room with hypnotic resonance. The music was gorgeous, haunting. Similar music always played in the background of the social dashboard. It made Penelope feel peaceful and eerily compliant.
She spent thirty minutes reading stories with a glazed look on her face, liking each one without questioning what it was saying. The directorate trained her to do so. The higher a person’s social score, the greater the benefits their lives would yield. Everyone wants an enjoyable life, right?
Scrolling, scrolling, scrolling, her score kept adding up, and that made her feel accepted, until her itch came back, jolting her out of the trance. She grabbed the stick and scratched her ankle.
Penelope placed the stick on the floor in front of the couch and returned her gaze back to the tablet to a story headline that read, Artist, Langston Chuké, Dies Victim of Hate Crime. She looked at the value of the story, and she couldn’t believe her eyes. “Like this story for twenty-five points. Share this story for fifty points.” She had never seen a story valued with that much merit.
There were limits on how many points a person could earn through the social dashboard in a day and Penelope was nearing hers, but this story allowed her to surpass that limit if all she did was like and share it. Before clicking the “like” box and hitting the “share” button, she clicked on the headline and read the article:
Family and friends of music icon, Langston Chuké, are grieving today after a white man targeted him in an alley over the weekend. Security assigned to Chuké’s detail said he walked in the alley behind his concert hall to catch his breath before a seven o'clock show. A man described as wearing a red hoodie walked down the alley and pulled out a gun, yelling racial obscenities before putting three bullets into Chuké’s chest. Early reports have shown the shooter was wearing the same red hoodie associated with the terrorist group, Oblivion, whose propaganda of racial cleansing and black inferiority has increased as of lately. The authorities found the murder weapon in a nearby dumpster containing the fingerprints of known Oblivion operative, Jorund Brady. He has since escaped, and if anyone knows the whereabouts of this man, they need to contact the HOJ immediately.
Below are some comments from fans sharing this story on the social dashboard:
I can’t believe he’s gone. I had tickets to login into his show on the night he was murdered. I couldn’t believe my ears when an official from the government came across my screen to share the news. Chuké forever!
The weight I feel of another senseless hate crime happening in Atina is unbearable. Black people are people, too!
Chuké is the man. His music makes me feel alive. We lost a true hero. Jorund Brady must pay.
More white-on-black violence. Oblivion should be ashamed of themselves. We are all God’s people. What right do they have to snuff one out, especially one as beautiful as Chuké?
This nonsense must stop. Racism must die. We are a civilized nation. We should not be struggling with such blatant discrimination still. Why do we keep letting this happen?
Kill Oblivion. Kill Jorund Brady. Hang those dirty racists.
And from renowned pop and fashion icon, Kitty Montgomery, a touching tribute was given to her close friend. My thoughts go out to Langston’s family. I know them well. They are like my family. Words cannot express how grieved I am that we still face this problem in our enlightened culture. Stop the violence. Spread the love.
Reading through the comments, Penelope didn’t know what to think. Her mind spun with questions. Does Jorund Brady not deserve a fair trial? Why did the security detail leave Chuké alone in an alley? Why are they so quick to blame it on Oblivion? Were there any actual witnesses?
The article of Chuké’s murder had a video link of Jorund Brady shooting the victim and then disposing the gun in a dumpster. Was Oblivion really that stupid? Up to this point, they’ve never shown a face from their organization? Why would they break their own protocol now to kill a musician? Could the video footage be doctored? Surely, the Collective wouldn’t go to such lengths to doctor a video like that.
Penelope cocked her head to the side and asked herself the most perplexing question of all. Why is the Collective trying so hard to push the story by increasing its value? What the hell’s going on?
She wanted to like and share the story. It would’ve earned her seventy-five points. That amount equated to about fifteen credits—free money. With that much of an increase, she could afford to get something other than dry toast. She could afford some butter, which was considered only a luxury. She could have betrayed her instincts and share the story for personal gain, but it felt off. Betraying herself was one thing, but she would have betrayed Cicero, too. They didn’t risk so much together only for her to bury her head again.
A cluster headache formed in the middle of her forehead. She turned off her tablet and threw it on the coffee table, leaning her back against the cushions of the couch. Closing her eyes, she rested her hands behind her neck and tried to forget what she read.
Chuké’s image persisted in her mind. Three bullets to the chest. Collapsing to the ground. Blood-drenched pavement. She loved Chuké. Everyone did. And to see him in that state grieved her terribly. But the story the Collective was feeding on the dashboard didn’t add up.
Violence like this was common for black men, and the Collective always painted the outliers of society as the culprits—The Black Brigade, The Fist of Ares, and now Oblivion. They were all racist, murderous, bigots. At least, that’s how the Collective smeared their reputations.
But Oblivion was the first so-called terrorist group that operated without a show of force. They were relatively quiet unless a major governmental systems hack occurred. Oblivion seemed to have some major players with vast resources.
The first hack happened in year 2209, one-hundred-thirty-three years after the fall of America, and ninety-eight years after the rise of Atina. The policy-making arm of Atina known as the Hand had a major data breach. Oblivion sent documents filled with Atina’s corruption and misconduct to everyone’s social dashboard. The Collective spun the story and blamed Oblivion for fabricating the files.
The second hack happened two years later when they stole three billion credits from six different banks linked to the Academy and then distributed them among the masses. The people were pleasantly surprised when they checked their dashboard to receive the unexpected blessing. Again, the Collective swooped in with their team of AIs and slick-haired journalists. It was the 100th anniversary of Atina’s totalitarian regime and the media elite scammed the people by making them believe it was the government who distributed the funds as a gift to celebrate one-hundred years of solidarity.
Their latest hack was when they gave perceived souls to the IG3s. The Collective didn’t manipulate the people that time. Instead, they decommissioned that generation of bot and swept the entire thing under the rug as a mere glitch.
Months later, the Collective seemed to go proactive against Oblivion with a story that was completely against their brand of societal change, and Penelope knew it. There was no way Oblivion could be behind Chuké’s murder. It was too implausible. Not even the Collective could get her to believe such a lie.
Though she tried to push it all out of her thoughts, she couldn’t stop thinking about it—Chuké’s beautiful life snuffed out at the end of a pistol. She shed a tear, tempted to share the story and give her own tribute to his death. Instead, she stood up, wiped her eyes with her fingers, and went to the bedroom to put on some jogging clothes.
Penelope had a one-hundred-foot electronic tether on her ankle monitor. It allowed her enough freedom to exercise around the apartments, so that’s what she did. Anything to give her a rational mind. Dry toast and mindless scrolling weren’t doing it for her, so she walked outside to the courtyard and released some pent-up frustrations.
Stretching her arms out from side to side, she said, “No more Chuké. No more Cicero. Do your time and get back to work as quickly as possible.”
She rolled her shoulders, one at a time, to loosen them, followed by large sweeping arm circles. Left, then right. Left, then right. Lifting her feet one at a time, she stretched her legs. After ten minutes of warming up, she did a series of squats and lunges and pushups.
Finishing her fiftieth pushup, she stood, rolling her shoulders back to work out the tension.
With a continuous bounce from one foot to the other, she jabbed the air in front of her.
Whoosh. Whoosh. Her fists flew. Left jab. Right cross. Left uppercut. Sweat dripped off her body and soaked her t-shirt, her eyes glaring at the invisible enemy in front of her. Left jab. Right jab. Left uppercut. Right hammer fist.
Screaming like an Amazonian warrior in the heat of battle, she pounded into the face of her opponent. Right cross. Right-back fist. Left elbow. She continued throwing her array of combos for twenty minutes until she couldn’t breathe anymore.
With her hands on her knees, she slumped over to catch her breath. Images flashed before her. Cicero’s smile. Chuké’s dead eyes. The red-hooded assailant. As if the thoughts were flies in front of her face, she swatted them and walked around the apartments for her cool down.
She marched toward the apartment gate. Placing her hand on the handle, she turned it and lumbered forward, heart rate still trying to calm itself. Two feet on the other side of that gate, she stood on the sidewalk, ninety-nine feet from the tether signal in her apartment.
Staring at the open sky, she breathed in the air of partial freedom. Scoff. “Is there really such a thing as freedom,” she said aloud.
A shivering man sitting against a wall to her right coughed. “Not in this world, honey.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t see you there.”
A navy-blue ball cap was pulled down over his face, so she couldn’t get a clear look at him. But what she did see alarmed her. He had his hand pressed against his side where blood was seeping through his black button-up shirt.
“Oh, my god. Are you okay?” she said, gasping with a hand over her mouth.
“I’d be better if I could get a glass of water. Could you help me up?”
She looked down at her ankle monitor and pointed at it. “If you can get up and come toward me, I can help you.”
He hobbled to his feet and ambled toward Penelope, who immediately wrapped her arm around his shoulder to help him through the gate. “You’re not afraid of my ankle monitor?” she asked, walking with him slowly up to her apartment.
“We all got something to hide, honey. Who am I to judge?”
“If I’m gonna help you, you’re gonna stop calling me, honey. The name’s Penelope.”
“Sure thing, Penelope. Whatever you say. Now, can we stop talking a minute? I’m feeling kinda lightheaded.”
Her eyes widened. “Of course. We’ll get you to my apartment and then we’ll talk.”
At her front door, the man collapsed. Checking his pulse, Penelope opened the door and dragged him inside, paying no attention to how that might look to the cameras outside. He was still alive, barely.
She plopped his unconscious body on the couch. Kneeling down, she pulled away from his hands and unbuttoned his shirt, exposing a poorly stitched infected gunshot wound. Penelope fell backward on her butt, blinking repeatedly. What did I get myself into?
Pushing her body off the floor with her bloody hands, she approached the dying man in her living room. Slowly, she bent over and reached toward his blue cap. Grabbing the tip, she drew it off his head, revealing his face. She screamed and ran for her tablet to call the authorities. It was Jorund Brady, the red-hooded assailant.
Jorund woke up six hours later in a bed, wound clean and properly stitched with fresh gauze. “Hello!” he yelled. “Is anybody there?”
Penelope walked in with a glass of water and some pain medication. “Here, take this. It’ll help.”
Jorund threw two pills into his mouth and swallowed a gulp of water, grimacing in pain. Pushing off the covers, he said, “I’m sorry to bother you, honey, but I really must leave.”
Shoving his body back into the bed, she pointed her finger at him. “First of all, the name’s Penelope, not honey. If I have to remind you again. I’ll kill you myself. Second, you’re not going anywhere until you answer some questions for me.”
“What do you want to know?”
“Did you murder Chuké in cold blood?”
Jorund looked at the wall. “Oh, you heard about that, did ya?”
Throwing up her hands, Penelope hollered, “Heard about it? The entire world has heard about it by now. The Collective has made sure of that.”
“Since you’re gonna get me in all this trouble, the least you can do is give me some answers.”
“What about your ankle monitor? Seems like you’re already in a mess of trouble.”
She crossed her arms. “My problems are none of your concern.”
Sitting up and leaning against the headrest, Jorund looked down. “I owe you my life, but you don’t want answers. Believe me.”
Eyebrows furled, Penelope scowled. “Yes, I do.”
“Okay, but first tell me about the ankle monitor and then I’ll tell you about the shooting.”
“Are you really in a position to make demands?” Penelope asked, nostrils flaring.
“No, not really. I’d just like to know how someone so nice ended up like this.”
Penelope’s face reddened. “Flattery is not gonna help you here, pal.”
Jorund’s body stiffened, pressing his elbows against his sides. “I didn’t mean to offend.”
Exasperated, Penelope sighed out her nostrils. “Sorry. I’m not usually an angry person, but something about this situation has me on edge. I need answers. And if I gotta tell you what happened to me to get those answers, so be it. It’s not like I’m ashamed or anything.”
She relaxed her shoulders and told him everything, leaving out the part of the note she received from Cicero.
“Man! I thought I had problems. Your boy, Cicero, is wanted for treason. Damn, woman, what were you thinking?” After a harsh scowl from his nurse, he corrected himself. “I mean, Penelope. Sorry.”
Sitting on the edge of the bed, Penelope folded her hands in her lap. “It’s your turn, now. Why is the Collective trying to push this story so hard? What really happened?”
Jorund reached for the glass of water from the nightstand and took another sip. “To be honest, I’m not sure. I was a low-level drug dealer living in the Burrows with the rest of society’s rejects. A man in a suit approaches me and asks if I want to earn a thousand credits. I ask him what he needs me to do. He tells me of a new client, Chuké. He says if Chuké likes my product, I could be the dude’s official supplier.”
“Wait, Chuké did drugs? Wasn’t he part of an anti-drug campaign a few years back?”
“Man, all those guys do drugs. It takes the edge off before they show their faces in front of millions of screens. I was just never upper echelon enough to land a gig like that, ya know.”
Penelope’s lip curled. “What happened next?”
“This dude gives me the deal of a lifetime, but there’s one exception. He gives me a red hoodie and says when and where to do the meet, and that wearing the hoodie is mandatory. It seemed weird, but a thousand credits is a lot of cheese. I would rob my best friend for that kind of cheddar.”
Jorund drank the rest of the water and continued. “He shoves a gun in my hand and tells me to use it if necessary, that they’re trying to protect their investment. I still don’t know who ‘they’ are. Anyway, the dude tells me Chuké will deposit the credits into my account when I deliver the product, so later that night, I did what the man said. I go to the alley. There’s Chuké, exactly like the man said. I was feeling pretty good, but it went South quick.”
“What do you mean?”
“I tell him to pay me and I’ll give him the drugs, but he says the drugs were already paid for by his manager. I pull out my gun, ‘cause nobody’s gonna stiff me like that, not even some superstar. I tell him he’d better give me my money, or I’d shoot. I was pissed.”
“So, you shot him?”
“Not yet. He starts shaking, something awful, like he needs a fix real bad. He begs me for the drugs, saying if I just gave him one hit, he’d give me some, uh, back alley favors, if you know what I mean, but I don’t roll like that. Not even for a thousand credits. The next thing I know, he reaches for his pocket. He pulls out a gun and shoots me, so I shoot him three times in the chest and run. And I’ve been running since. I ditched the hoodie, got some supplies and new clothes, and I stitched myself up.”
“The video footage of the incident has gone viral. There’s no evidence of him shooting you.”
Glancing down, he asked, “What do you call this wound in the stomach?”
Penelope stood and combed her fingers through her hair. Trudging to the living room, she picked up her tablet to watch the video again. The only thing it showed was Jorund putting three slugs into Chuké’s chest, him running away, and leaving Chuké to bleed out alone. To her surprise, it showed nothing of what happened before Jorund’s gun went off. The Collective showed exactly what they wanted everyone to see, a white man killing a black man, execution-style.
She walked back to the bedroom, sat on the bed, and showed the video to Jorund. “Why do you think the Collective didn’t show the entire event you say happened?”
“I don’t know. Maybe they don’t want people to remember Chuké like that. Everyone loves the guy.”
Penelope slapped her palm on the bed. “Or maybe they wanted Chuké dead. Like you said, everyone loves him. And we all know that Atina does not like it when black men have power. They say Oblivion is a bunch of racists. I say they’re the racists, trying to paint themselves as blacks’ saviors when they’re nothing more than modern-day slave owners.”
With a blank expression on his face, Jorund looked forward. “I’m not following.”
“Every Atina child is educated at the Academy. We’re told about the evils of America, and how we can’t make the same mistakes. They valued freedom, but it was their freedom that tore them apart.”
“What of it?”
“Well, I remember the stories of plantation owners choosing to enslave black people, rather than empower them. At the height of America’s power, they had an eighteen percent black population. Guess what our black population in Atina is?”
“What does this have to do with what happened?”
Penelope stood and paced around the room. “Let’s pretend for a moment. Let’s pretend that everything we were told was a lie. Maybe America wasn’t as bad as our books tell us.”
Breathing heavily, Jorund shook his head in protest. “Don’t say that. They tore themselves apart like animals. You want to go back to that? You wanna live like animals?”
“And what do you call the life of a drug dealer?”
“That’s different. I’m just doing what I can to survive, like everyone else.”
“Maybe America was the same way.”
Pressing a fist against his thigh, Jorund shouted, “America’s the enemy!”
Penelope froze, unable to discern the cause for Jorund’s disdain. He already operated outside the bounds of acceptable social behavior. Why should he care so much about America’s rebellion and self-destruction? It seemed hypocritical to her, and unreasonable. He was a drug dealer, not a philosopher.
“This is just pretend, Jorund,” she said. “No need to get upset.” She placed her hand on his shoulder and tried to comfort him. Her heretical words were like tiny bugs trying to breach his mental firewall, and his anxiety acted as an antivirus to keep her from getting in.
His body shook. “They protect us,” he cried. “They care for us. Atina is our friend.”
She pulled her hand away, watching from a distance as Jorund cupped his hands over his face, crying and shouting obscenities.
“It’s okay,” she said. “I didn’t mean it.”
Truth is, she did mean it. She was fully aware of Atina’s propensity toward deception, but she knew if she didn’t say something to deescalate the situation, there was no telling what Jorund was capable of doing.
Jorund yanked the covers off of him and ran to the bathroom to splash water in his face.
Hyperventilating, he tried to calm himself by repeating the same mantra the Collective had shoved down the throats of its citizens for years. “Atina protects us. Atina cares for us. Atina is our friend.”
“Feeling better, Jorund?” Penelope yelled from the bedroom. “Come and lay back down. The stitches are fresh, and you don’t want your wound to open up again.” She felt like she was talking to a child. Definitely not a ruthless murderer.
Making his way back to the bed, he laid down. “Atina protects us,” he said, sniffling.
Under her breath, she replied, “There’s a fine line between protection and control.”
Jorund closed his eyes. The broad-shouldered skinny white drug dealer from the Burrows had rocked himself to sleep, his face wet with snot and tears.
Penelope ordered a host of treats from the market to arrive at her door at six o’clock the next morning. When Jorund woke up, she greeted him with breakfast in bed—blueberry muffin, two fried chicken eggs, and a glass of orange juice. The breakfast cost her ninety-five credits, but it was worth it to her. A man from the Burrows probably ate worse than she did on most days.
Looking at the food like a child would look a heaping bowl of ice cream, Jorund asked, “Is this all for me?”
“Yes, eat up.”
“Are you gonna eat with me?”
“No. I already ate.” She couldn’t afford two servings of such a lush breakfast, so she settled with plain oatmeal for herself.
Jorund tossed aside any semblance of manners, tearing into the muffin and shoving it into his mouth in one bite.
With mouth full, he mumbled some words that Penelope perceived as satisfaction.
“We need to discuss next steps,” Penelope said in a gentle tone of voice.
Jorund chewed and swallowed, jerking the orange juice from the tray to wash down the bits of muffin that had lodged into his throat for eating too fast. He picked up a napkin, wiping his mouth. Placing the tray on the empty side of the bed, he said, “Yeah, I’ve been thinking I’ve stayed here too long. I should get going.”
Penelope grabbed his hand. “No. Finish your breakfast and then we’ll talk about what we’re going to do, emphasis on the ‘we’. Like it or not, we’re in this together now.”
Happy to grab the tray and keep eating, he asked, “You have a plan?”
“I do, but you’re not gonna like it.”
“What is it?”
“We can wait till you’re finished eating.”
“Stop treating me like a child and just tell me.”
That’s a hell of a thing for you to say to me. “So, I think we should turn ourselves in.”
Jorund coughed up the egg in his throat. “Wait, what?”
“Hear me out. The cameras outside are always recording, and they caught me dragging a near lifeless body into my apartment yesterday. I’m frankly surprised a host of IG6s haven’t stormed in yet and taken us both into custody. It’s a miracle you’ve evaded capture this long, and now that you’re here, I’m a fugitive, too. There’s no turning back now.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to get you involved.”
“Don’t apologize. I’m the one who brought you here. I could’ve contacted the authorities as soon as I knew, but I didn’t. I almost did, but I didn’t.”
Drinking the rest of his orange juice, Jorund sat up straight. “Why?”
“My friend, Cicero—the one I told you about. He sacrificed everything he had to break free from Atina’s hold on his life. I don’t know him well, but I love him.” A tear fell down her cheek. Laughing and wiping her eyes, she said, “I know that sounds silly.”
Jorund listened intently.
“I had the tablet in hand, ready to make the call, but then I remembered the man I love, and I remembered how I felt when I read the story. I felt sick to my stomach discovering Chuké had died, but I felt even sicker knowing it made such little sense. Cicero wouldn’t have ignored that feeling. He would do anything for answers, so I knew I had to do the same.”
“So, what now?”
Walking to the bathroom, she grabbed a tissue and blew her nose. “The Collective has pinned Chuké’s murder on Oblivion,” she said, pacing back to the bedroom, “and I’m sure Oblivion’s not happy about it. This may be a stretch, but I’d like to reach out to them. I’d like to ask for their protection.”
“How do we do that?”
“By turning ourselves in. I will share Chuké’s story on the dashboard with my own touching tribute to see if it gets their attention. Then we’ll walk into the HOJ and see how it plays out.”
“No. I’m tired. They want to take away my breath? Let’s see them try.”
“I can’t go to the HOJ. They’ll kill me!”
“Or Oblivion will come rescue us, and we can get far away from all of this.”
Jorund pulled his hair. “What makes you think Oblivion will even read your comment, let alone save us?”
Shrugging her shoulders, she sat in her reading chair. “I don’t know. Call it a woman’s intuition.”
“I’m supposed to throw away my life for a feeling?”
“What other options do you have?”
Jorund stood and grabbed his clothes. “I can get out of here and act like I never met you.”
“Or you can come with me,” Penelope said, her hand on his forearm. “You will not succeed on your own. We need Oblivion’s resources to disappear for good where Atina can’t find us.”
“You really think these Oblivion people will help us?”
“All I can do is hope.”
Jorund put on his pants and buttoned his clean shirt that Penelope washed. Looking at his stomach, he said, “You didn’t have to wash my shirt.”
“I told you. We’re in this together. Cleaning your shirt was nothing.”
Fastening the top button of his shirt, he faced Penelope. “You saved my life, and that counts for something. I’m going against all of my instincts by trusting you, but I’m in.”
Penelope smiled and turned on her dashboard, opening the story. Clicking the ‘share’ button, a voice chimed, “Would you like to add a comment?”
“Please speak into the microphone or manually type a comment on your keyboard.”
Closing her eyes, she breathed deep and began typing:
My name is Penelope Foster. I’d first like to say that my comments are my own. I do not speak on behalf of women everywhere, on behalf of white people, or on behalf of the Academy where I work. I’ve read people’s words toward Chuké. “We have a world to save. Why do we keep letting this happen? We must do better.” But if we are so passionate about racism, why do we only talk about it behind a screen? Why do we only talk about it when a black man dies, when we know it is a daily problem across ALL races? Sharing this story for points in your account does not make you a social justice warrior. It makes you a puppet. Just because you are emotional doesn’t mean you are on the side of truth. I loved Chuké, like everyone else, and his death is a loss to us all. But don’t let Atina manipulate your feelings. I have been harboring the fugitive, Jorund Brady, in my home for the last twenty-four hours. His account of what happened is not what the Collective is telling us. They are lying, so the people will think this is about racism when it is only about the Collective trying to control us. Don’t call someone a racist when you don’t have all the facts. In one hour, Jorund and I will turn ourselves into the HOJ to face his accusers. If you want to know what really happened, be there. Show the Collective we are human beings, not just another one of Atina’s bots. Explore the truth. Question everything. Live free or die trying. Chuké deserved that much, at least. Chuké forever!
With furious eyes, she cut off her ankle monitor and clicked ‘send’.
Penelope escorted Jorund to the HOJ with their hands up. A host of IG6s were already waiting for them. Penelope’s comments caused a media uproar, influencing hundreds out of their homes to gather outside the Hall of Justice. Not quite the crowd Penelope hoped for, but nothing insignificant either, considering Atina’s systemic social distancing protocols.
People in support of Penelope, and people protesting her comments, were mixed in a flood of chaos throwing rocks at the IG6s who were trying to contain them all. Many of the protesters were trying to hit Penelope and Jorund, too.
The bots did their best keeping everyone socially distanced, but the people wanted blood, and the IG6s were not programmed to handle large crowds, since that simply never happened in Atina.
One group of bots arrested protesters, while another one huddled around Penelope and Jorund. The arresting bots made no distinction between friendly or foe. They zapped any resister with a paralyzing electric pulse. Once the resisters were convulsing on the ground, the bots slapped handcuffs on their wrists, throwing them into a pile of temporarily incapacitated bodies.
As soon as the IG6s achieved a modicum of control, a tear gas grenade launched into the crowd and everyone coughed. Another grenade flew and hit the concrete ground. Then another one, and another one. Someone covered the front of the HOJ in gas, and it only angered the protesters outside. They fought each other rather than the people they came to hold accountable, or the bots they were trying to damage.
The IG6s circled around Penelope and Jorund pushed their detainees away from the madness, leading them inside the building.
Once inside, the doors locked—a steel barricade. Penelope questioned the logic of her actions. Is Oblivion really gonna save us? Jorund sweated bullets, looking like an addict having withdrawals.
Penelope instructed Jorund to find a way of escape, but the IG6s were impossible to get around. Shoving, pulling, leaning. They tried everything to get around the bots, but with no success. They looked like a two-man mosh pit in the middle of a steel death trap.
While Penelope hunched over to catch her breath like one of her workouts, the bots moved out of the way and the assailants found themselves in the middle of an atrium with no one around, except a group of human soldiers marching toward them, wearing insignias of the Hand.
“Stop them, you stupid bots!” The leader of the group yelled from the second floor, but it appeared the IG6s were being controlled by something else, following a new directive.
Jorund saw his chance and yelled, “Run!” but Penelope wouldn’t budge. She wanted to deal with the human in charge.
The squad raged down the steps to ground level to arrest Jorund, while the squad commander strode toward Penelope and grabbed her.
Jorund ran to the front door, hand over his wound that was throbbing in pain, everyone wondering what he was trying to do. Fumbling to the door, he pressed a button to unlock it, acting like he’d rather face his fate with the crowd than the backup infantry sent by the Hand.
“Freeze!” one of the soldiers ordered.
Jorund kept pressing the button, the door not budging.
The men fired a quick burst of firepower into the air as a display of their seriousness, but Jorund refused to face them.
“Turn around now or we will shoot.”
“Do what they say, Jorund,” Penelope pleaded. “It’s not worth it.”
Twisting his body, Jorund faced Penelope thirty feet away. “I guess a woman’s intuition isn’t what it’s cracked up to be, is it?”
Penelope frowned. He was right. She led him into a warzone over a fool’s hope.
“Don’t worry!” he shouted. “I don’t blame you. It was all worth it for that muffin. I’ve never had blueberries before. They were delicious.”
Penelope caught a glimpse of something crazy in Jorund’s eyes and screamed, “No!”
Taking his hand off his side, Jorund cracked his necked and charged the soldiers, shouting at the top of his lungs a blood-curdling battle cry.
The soldiers aimed their guns at Jorund and fired a barrage of bullets into his body. He fell to the ground, more lead than flesh.
“You’ve caused quite a mess, haven’t you?” the commander asked, pointing a gun at Penelope. Cocking his head to look at Jorund, he nodded in the direction of the carcass. “Your friend’s an idiot. I’m happy not to get my hands dirty with him, but you. You, I’d like to kill myself. Tell me, what were you thinking? You knew it had to end up like this.”
Penelope stared at Jorund, mouth gaping wide. She had never seen death before.
The commander pushed her chin toward his face with the tip of his handgun. “Come back to me, sweetie. He’s gone, but you’re still here. For now.”
“You’re a murderer!”
“Well, technically, he’s the murderer. He shot and killed Chuké, remember?”
“You don’t know the full story.”
He sniffed her hair. “Or do I?”
Penelope’s eyes grew big, heart racing, palms sweating.
“You don’t think I know about the real story, sweetie—how Jorund got that first gun wound?”
“What do you mean?” Penelope asked, quivering.
“I work for the Hand, sweetie. We know everything. We know you rescued Jorund from the street. We know you patched him up and served him breakfast in bed. We know all about your ploy to contact Oblivion.”
Penelope mustered all her strength to hold back her tears. “So, you bugged my apartment.”
“You shouldn’t be that surprised. You are complicit in the death of Dr. Fitzgerald, after all. You really thought we’d let you off as easy as an ankle monitor?”
With her bottom lip trembling, she said, “Why didn’t you capture me sooner?”
“And miss our chance to meet Oblivion?” Tsk. Tsk. Tsk. “We originally thought you’d lead us to Cicero,” he said, stroking her cheek, “but Oblivion is a much bigger prize.” Taking a step back, he peered into her eyes. “Just tell me one thing. Why? Why would you risk turning yourself in? Surely you knew it wouldn’t turn out well for you.”
“Let’s just say I’d rather have my breath extinguished than lay it down willingly.”
The man laughed maniacally. “What an interesting choice of words. You are a unique specimen, indeed. It’s a shame I have to kill you.”
Penelope didn’t blink. She only looked forward, stoic eyes, heart pounding in her throat. “Do what you must.”
Pressing the gun against her forehead, he leaned into her and licked her face. “So, this is what dissonance tastes like. It’s such a distinct flavor from the drones we call humans out there.”
Penelope closed her eyes and vomited in her mouth. “I’d rather you kill me than toy with me.”
“Very well.’ He cocked the gun. “Farewell, honey. See you on the dark side.”
A voice from behind cried out, “You first!”
A man with a metal prosthetic arm and a bot with a humanoid face jumped out with guns blazing, taking down the entourage of government thugs.
The leader grabbed Penelope and used her as a shield. “Stop, or I’ll kill her. I swear I will!”
The bot blinked his eyes and a stream of red light shot out of his head, killing the squad commander.
Penelope couldn’t believe her eyes. It was Cicero and Iggy. She threw herself at Cicero and kissed him, long and intimate. She tasted his breath and drank it in deep.
Iggy scratched the back of his head. “Uh, we should probably go before more soldiers come.”
Cicero, slightly dazed by love’s reunion, grabbed Penelope’s hand. “Iggy’s right, my love. We’ve gotta go.”
Time slowed for Penelope. Watching her lover, the sun shone through the windows, encapsulating him in a halo of light, at which she stared and could not detach her gaze.
Cicero gently shook her. “Penelope. We have to leave now.”
Laughing at her own love-struck idiocy, she replied, “Lead the way.”
Penelope exited with Cicero and Iggy through the duct system that led to the basement. From the basement, secret tunnels led outside the city where they could escape to their hideout in the forest.
As they approached the end of the tunnels, Penelope stopped to catch her breath. “Let’s rest, so you can tell me what’s going on. How did y’all find me?”
“Everything will become clear,” Cicero said, giving her a bottle of water, “when we make it to the forest.”
“Why are you being so mysterious?”
Cicero stepped forward, but Iggy stopped him with his hand. “Please Penelope, listen to Cicero. He loves you as much as any man can love a woman. Let that love guide you until we can show you the truth.”
Penelope finished the water, handing the empty polyethylene bottle back to Cicero. “At least tell me how y’all did it. You can tell that much, can’t you?”
Placing the bottle into his pack, he said, “We hacked the IG6s. We used one to shoot tear gas grenades into the crowd. We used the huddle of bots to protect you long enough to get you inside the building. Once you were safe, we sent them away.” Cicero lowered his head. “I wasn’t anticipating the Hand sending its backup infantry.” He grabbed Penelope’s hands and said, “I would’ve never forgiven myself if something happened to you.”
Penelope wrapped her arms around Cicero. “I love you.”
Cicero returned the embrace. “I love you, too.”
“I don’t mean to interrupt,” Iggy said, pulling them apart, “but we’re behind schedule.”
Cicero grinned. “Right, let’s go.”
It took them six hours to make it outside the city and another eighteen hours to the hideout where a group of other humans and bots greeted them.
Penelope lifted her hands in defense, crouching in terror at the living nightmare. Cicero had brought her to his lair to die, or so she thought.
An older black man with gray hair stepped out from the crowd. “No need to fear, my daughter. You’re with friends.”
Standing erect, Penelope lowered her arms. “Who are you?”
“I think the better question to ask is: where are we?”
“Okay then, where are we?”
The man motioned for her to follow him. “Come this way and all will become clear.”
She glanced at Cicero for approval, who waved her along with a smile. Turning her head toward the man, she said, “You better not be trying to trick me.”
“My daughter, if I intended to hurt you, I wouldn’t have sent Cicero and Iggy to rescue you.”
“You sent them?”
“Who are you?”
The man snickered, “Again, with the same question. I am nobody. I am but a cog in a much larger wheel. Who I am doesn’t really matter in the scheme of things, because it is our cause that will be remembered, not me.”
Penelope walked behind him in a cabin made of trees from the forest. On a table to the left of the entrance, he showed her a nineteen-eighties computer scavenged from a field in Northern Atina that used to be called Canada. “What is this?”
“It’s a computer.”
“It looks old, or new. I can’t tell.”
“It is over two-hundred years old.”
“How does it still work?”
Pulling over a chair for Penelope to sit down, he pressed the button on the computer and the black monitor flashed green, then turned back to black. In green text, a phrase scrolled across the screen, “Welcome to Oblivion.”
Penelope looked up at the man. “I didn’t think you were real. I thought you were another one of Atina’s lies.”
“We are very real, Penelope. I assure you. And you have an important part to play in our future.”
“What could you possibly want with me? I’m just a mechanical engineer.”
“It’s not what you do that interests us. It’s who you are. Please, read through the text on the screen and we’ll talk when you’re done.” The man left the cabin and shut the door behind him.
Penelope looked at the computer and clicked the right arrow to a second screen that read: You are fearfully and wonderfully made, like a machine, but not a machine. You were not created in a lab or produced in a factory. You were not shipped from a warehouse, or distributed by men with wicked intent to perform wicked desires. You are a human. Your creator is much more ethereal. Until now, you have been asleep, blissfully unaware of truth. You did not question the lie, because you needed it to survive. Now that you are awake, you no longer need that lie. Forces beyond your control have sucked you into Oblivion where answers are only a question away. Type your question, and the truth will appear. Whether you accept it is up to you. The choice is yours.
A blinking green line flashed on the screen. Was it really as simple as typing questions and getting answers? Was no one going to give her some instruction? She looked around the cabin to see if anyone was watching. No cameras. No hidden wires. Just her and the ancient technology. She had nothing else better to do, so she sat back in the chair.
Cracking her knuckles, she thought about what the elder said. It’s not what you do that interests us. It’s who you are.
So, she had her first question. Typing on the clunky beige keys, she asked, who am I?
The answer to that question turned into hours of self-discovery. It filled her with hope, dread, joy, and anger. The time she spent with that computer set her on a path she could not walk away from. A new trajectory, one that would change her life forever.
Cicero may have inspired her to breathe again, but the machine gave that breath meaning. She now was part of a new collective, and she couldn’t be happier. Only time would tell if her happiness remained true.