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The stale stench of amniotic fluid saturated the harvesting floor. It was sweet and musty. Most of the harvesters grew a desensitization to it, but it bothered Titus.
Day in and day out, Titus went to the Farm to perform his work. He monitored the humidicribs, the artificial wombs. Though the bots handled baby development from zero to twenty-four weeks, research showed that past twenty-four weeks, only human hands could treat children. Eighty-three percent of babies died after twenty-four weeks when handled with non-human interaction.
All life in Atina started at the Farm. Artificially intelligent geneticists conceived artificial life. They started with the cloning process, using frozen sperm and egg samples from the twelve founders of Atina. The Farm discovered that fresh cloned samples worked better for fertilization, which took place in a petri dish. The process was unforgivingly meticulous, and therefore, only bots could execute it.
Once the bots achieved fertilization, they would transfer the egg to an artificial placenta where a new round of bots—the biochemists—would perform gene therapy and feed nutrients to the child. They set modified estrogen levels in girls to make them infertile, and they modified testosterone levels in boys to rid them of their aggression and unbridled ambitions. For twenty-four weeks, the bots monitored the children, fed them, and cared for each one with as much nurture and commitment that a hunk of metal could.
At twenty-four weeks, the baby grew to roughly the size of an ear of corn, weighing in at one pound. A harvester then began a new transfer known as Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation (ECMO). He would cut open the placenta, amniotic fluid pouring out onto the harvesting floor. He had mere seconds to connect the baby to a temporary breathing apparatus before the child took its first breath. He connected the breathing tube to a large humidicrib, which regulated temperature and fed the baby nutrients until it fully developed at forty weeks. Once they achieved optimal development, harvesters delivered the babies to the Nursery on floors five through seven where midwives nurtured them for a year.
Titus hated the ECMO transfer. He was happy to monitor the babies, feed the babies, and even deliver the babies to the Nursery. But not the transfer, especially since some children died in the process, about seventeen percent of them. Only one child died in his hands, and that was enough to send his soul into a moral prison, the warden of guilt keeping him chained in depression for years.
He thought each baby was experiencing terrible pain at the moment he cut the sack open. The second the fluid fell to the floor, he could see their purple faces and furled brows, wanting to scream, but unable. The other harvesters grew numb to the feeling, the smells, and the agonizing faces, but not Titus. His heart remained tender and perpetually broken.
The only solace he experienced was the comforting friendship of a woman who worked with him named Angelica. She lived in his same apartment complex as well. They were as close as two people could be in the restrictive system of Atina, but nothing romantic ever settled between them. They were more like brother and sister than amorous prospects. Though they often broke distancing protocols, Titus assumed the higher-ups allowed their comradery to continue since Atina had nothing to fear from them interacting with each other.
One day, when Titus had to cut open another sack, Angelica was working at a station nearby. She knew of his propensity to suffer through this practice, so she walked over and gently put her hand on his. “There’s no need to blame yourself,” she said, smiling. “It’s just another part of the job. If it wasn’t for you, some people would never have a chance at life.”
She always knew exactly what to say to disarm his anxieties. She also knew how to deliver truth to him when he needed it.
One time, after work, they were sitting on the couch in Titus’ apartment. He wallowed in despair, and despite her best efforts to encourage him out of his funk, he would not stop beating himself up. Angelica shot to her feet and pointed her finger in his face. “I know you don’t like your job, but you can’t let it eat at your soul.” She waved her hands through the air. “I came over here to have fun, but all you want to do is mope.” Leaning down, she grabbed his hand. “Time to get on your feet and make some dinner. I’m your guest and I’m hungry.”
Angelica was the sweetest woman until the moment when a stern response was the best course of action. Titus needed her in his life, her kindness and her honesty. There’s no telling what he would have done to himself had it not been for his friend’s constant interventions.
Though there were few things about his life that brought him joy, Titus was grateful for Angelica. Sometimes, he would even force a fabricated grin as a gift to her, knowing all she wanted was to see him happy.
She was also the one who introduced him to Oblivion.
Scrolling through online articles of supposed terrorist attacks, Angelica would offer her commentaries about why she believed they were an organization of compassionate justice, and not of evil.
“You see here,” Angelica said, sliding her finger over the screen of Titus’s tablet, “they rescued that female pop star from the Gallery. They’re heroes.”
Titus scrunched his face. “It says Oblivion kidnapped her. In what world is kidnapping considered rescuing?”
Putting her hand on Titus’ shoulder, Angelica sighed. “You gotta read between the lines.”
“The Collective lays it on thick how much they loved Kitty Montgomery, and that Atina will feel her loss for years to come.”
Angelica threw her arms in the air. “So!” With flustered cheeks, she said, “The Gallery made no comments about even trying to look for her. No investigation. No suspects. It’s as if they’ve written her off and already announced her death.”
“You got it all wrong,” Titus said with an abrupt, sarcastic chuckle. “Atina probably thinks since Oblivion took her that she’s already dead. They’re not exactly known for their altruism.”
“That’s where you’re wrong.” She leaned against the back of the couch. “I’ve been scrolling through some stories in the Shadows.”
Titus rolled his eyes. “Here we go again with your conspiracies. You know you can’t trust any stories posted to the Shadows. They’re not regulated by Atina. Do I also have to mention that they’re illegal?”
“Do you trust me?” Angelica asked, batting her eyelashes.
“Not when you look at me like that.”
Angelica laughed, “Touché. But seriously. Have I ever steered you wrong before?”
Sinking his head, Titus replied, “No, I guess not.”
Angelica grabbed both of Titus’ shoulders and looked him square in the eyes. “Then trust me now. There’s this guy who refers to himself online as Truth Seeker.” She dropped her hands, but not her gaze. “He says that the pop queen was saying some things against the Gallery. Before they could retaliate, Oblivion stepped in and saved her life.”
“How do you know Truth Seeker is a man?”
Angelica’s forehead wrinkled as she squinted her eyes. “Why does that matter?”
“I don’t know. I’m just trying to get the whole report, I suppose.”
“Stop being so annoying and listen. There’s been lots of rescues lately that the Collective has been reporting as kidnappings. Truth Seeker says Oblivion has been helping citizens escape before the establishment can punish them for their indiscretions. You know how unforgiving Atina can be.”
Titus shrugged his shoulders. “But how can you trust anything this Truth Seeker guy says?”
“How can you trust anything the Collective says?”
“Atina protects us. Atina cares for us. Atina is our friend.”
Angelica stood and meandered around the living room. “I know you don’t believe that.”
“Why wouldn’t I believe it?”
“The Farm forces you to work a job you hate, a job that cripples you with depression. You tell me all the time how much you hate it, and now you say Atina’s your friend! Make up your mind!”
Titus stood to meet Angelica at eye level. “I don’t hate the Farm. I hate myself. You know that I accidentally killed a baby girl.”
“Yes, and I know it’s been eating at you ever since.”
Titus’ lip trembled. “It wasn’t Atina’s fault I made a mistake. It wasn’t the establishment that told me to wait a few seconds too long before securing the breathing apparatus.” Pounding his fist against his chest, he said, “It was me. It was all me.”
Moving toward Titus, Angelica placed her hand on his chest. “We all make mistakes,” she said. “You need to stop beating yourself up and start recognizing the one who is really at fault.”
“No, it’s the system that forces you to do an unthinkable job!”
“What do you know?” Titus said, turning his back toward her. “You weren’t there.”
“No, I wasn’t, but I know how much the job gets to you. You didn’t create the job. They did.”
“How else are we supposed to come into the world? Atina gives birth to us, and we grow in the womb of her grace before we get harvested. She’s placed the burden of humanity in the hands of other humans. She needs me to foster the cycle of life.”
Angelica grabbed his shoulder and turned him around. “You don’t honestly still believe the fairy tales of the Academy, do you? Atina is not the giver of life like they say.”
“What else am I supposed to believe?” Titus shouted.
“We’re all made in a petri dish. I’ve seen it myself. I thought you knew that.”
“It doesn’t matter if what I know is true or false. There’s no point in questioning Atina. All it does is end up bad for people.”
Sticking her finger in his face, she yelled, “Ha! You do know the truth!”
“What truth? That Atina is a cruel taskmaster? That we are all a bunch of mindless clones? That from twelve months to five years, we’re indoctrinated by the governesses on the eighth floor and then sent to the incinerator if we don’t pass basic standardization guidelines? I’ve seen the tyranny with my own eyes. I’ve smelled the burning flesh of innocent kids. They don’t think I’ve seen, but I have.”
“Then why do you defend them?”
“What else am I supposed to do? Fight? It’s easier for me to believe that Oblivion is a villain. They rescue these other people from a punishment of eternal hell, but they don’t rescue me. I’m in hell every day. Every time I slash open another sack, and that fluid pours over my plastic-covered shoes, I’m reminded of that little girl I killed. Every nutrient I feed another child, I realize I’m only getting it ready for the slaughter later.”
With sad laughter, Titus asked, “Did you know twenty-seven percent of fertilized babies will make it past age five? Only twenty-seven percent of all human life in Atina will move from the Farm to the Academy for their basic education and placement into one of the seven classes.”
“Where did you learn that statistic?”
“I glanced at one of the geneticist’s tablets while it was logging another dead child. And there it was, the corner of the screen in big red digits—percent of babies who make it out of the Farm alive.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“Because you need to know about my hell, and why I hate Oblivion for not rescuing me from it.”
“I had no idea.”
“Yeah, well, now you know. The minute you told me about Oblivion months ago, I kept wishing for an escape. I wanted to believe you. I wanted to believe they were the heroes of my story, but I was wrong. They save some musician from a life of luxury, but they can’t save me from my misery. Screw ‘em.”
“Have you tried reaching out to them?”
“Why would I?”
“Maybe they don’t know you need help. Kitty Montgomery posted her disdain for Atina online. Maybe that’s how Oblivion identifies its rescues, through the social dashboard.”
“Or maybe Oblivion isn’t as heroic as the Shadows make it out to be. Maybe Oblivion doesn’t want a murderer among their ranks.” Tears formed in Titus’ eyes. “Maybe I’m a lost cause for Oblivion and Atina. My punishment is the bloody, sticky mess of the harvesting floor.”
Angelica pulled Titus close and threw her arms around him, letting him cry into her shoulder. She cried, too, choosing silence rather than more failed words.
At work the next day, Titus was at Humidicrib HC343, feeding nutrients intravenously to a beautiful baby boy with a dark complexion and soft eyes.
Titus gave him a cocktail of glucose, proteins, and a variety of acidic compounds. Titus’ job was to make sure each child under his care received the proper doses. One in the morning, one in the afternoon, and one at night, right before his shift was over.
He had around fifty children in his care. Sometimes less, sometimes more, depending on how many children survived the different stages of development.
Most other harvesters ran through their rounds without hesitation, but not Titus. He would say a blessing over each child when he fed it. May you grow up to be a better person than me.
Hovering over the brown baby with a syringe in his hand, Titus felt joined to him, like he did with every other child he fed. He spoke the blessing and released the pump.
A warm feeling welled up in his stomach as he put his hand on the glass shield of the humidicrib. Closing his eyes, he said, “Charlie.”
That’s the name Titus gave him, though there were rules against naming the children for fear of causing attachments. Titus did it, anyway. Not with all the children, but with special ones who impacted him in certain ways. For Titus, it was Charlie’s soft eyes.
“Never make a mistake, Charlie,” Titus said to the young one. “Punishments in this world are harsh for people who make mistakes. You must be perfect if you’re gonna survive.”
Pulling out the syringe, Titus placed it on a mobile cart. Lifting his hand off the glass, he made his way to the next baby.
Fifty children, fifty syringes, three times a day. There was little room for lingering and reflective stares, but Titus somehow made it work. He knew when to rush and when he could tarry. He had been working at the Farm for over a decade. Though he hated it with a passion, it was the eternal punishment he deserved for taking an innocent life.
As he made his rounds, he stopped in front of a little girl with ruddy skin, thirty-five weeks into development. She laid on her back, scratching at the air with her tiny fingers. Wiggling her toes and swaying her butt from side to side, she almost looked like she was dancing, as if she was dreaming of some wonderful waltz in that cute little head of hers.
Titus stared at the girl’s expression of joy and all he could think about was the girl he killed. They had the same nose, the same tall forehead, and the same protruding chin. If he had paid more attention, that girl would still be alive, and maybe she would dance like the one before him.
He froze in a dreamlike state, imagining the girl he killed making it to the Nursery, and then to standardization with the governesses where she passed her tests with high marks. He pictured her being shipped off to the Academy where she learned how to become a proper citizen from ages five to twelve. Thinking of dancing, Titus supposed she would have made it to the Gallery after Academy graduation. She could have been a pop sensation like Kitty Montgomery. She could have lived a life of luxury, inspiring the world with her joy.
Instead, Titus snuffed out her flame. No one would experience her skills. Not at all.
Years ago, he did exactly as his training dictated. With one hand, he held the breathing apparatus. With the other, he held a serrated knife. He cut open the sack and the fluid spilled out, but instead of inserting the apparatus immediately, he hesitated. Before he knew it, the baby breathed in the harvesting floor’s air. He tried to insert the instrument, but it was too late. The baby’s lungs had already collapsed. Despite his best efforts, Titus could not revive her.
He didn’t know why he hesitated. It was a question that scarred his mind ever since. He thought of every possible reason, but no answer satisfied. The only thing he knew was if he had followed protocol, he could have saved a life. Because he didn’t, the world would never get to see the next Kitty Montgomery.
Maybe the girl in front of him was different. Maybe she would survive.
Titus’ hands shook as he stared into the girl’s future, adamant that he would not make the same mistake.
Other harvesters had allowed many babies to die in transfer, but it only took one for Titus to realize that he could never make another mistake like that again.
Angelica was at her station filling the rest of her syringes for feeding time when she noticed Titus frozen in front of Humidicrib HC349. She dropped what she was doing and walked over to him.
Standing behind him, she whispered, “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine. Just give me a moment.”
“If you stand like that for too long, you’ll attract the attention of the foreman.”
Titus scoffed. “What’s he gonna do? Kill me? I’m already dead.”
Resting her hand on his back, Angelica said, “The only reason you hurt so much is because of how alive you are. Dead people don’t feel.”
With a slight chuckle, Titus turned around. “If dead people don’t feel, then I’d rather be dead.”
“Don’t say that. If you weren’t here, who would I have to talk to?”
“Honestly, Angelica, you’re the only reason I haven’t put an end to the whole thing, already. Oblivion. Atina. None of it matters.”
Angelica put her finger to her lips and shushed him. “Don’t say that so loud. You know who might be listening.”
“Let them listen. What do I care? I killed that little girl and I will not kill another one. She’ll be safer if I’m gone.”
Gripping Titus’ bicep, Angelica said, “If you really care about this girl, you will shut up, turn around, and get back to work.”
“Your words cannot sway me today, darling.”
Angelica gripped tighter. “Listen Titus, the other harvesters don’t care if this girl lives or dies. They only care about meeting their quotas. As long as they have an eighty percent success rate, they’re viewed as exceptional and qualify for bonuses. You’ve lost one child in your twelve years of harvesting. You've brought thousands of children into the world safely. Why are you so caught up on the one who didn’t make it?”
Throwing her hand off, Titus yelled, “Because I did it on purpose!”
“What do you mean?”
“The reason I can’t figure out why I hesitated is that I didn’t want to accept the truth.”
“Which is what?”
“My entire life, I’ve been told what to do, and I followed it without complaint. That moment I cut the sack, I asked myself why. Why can’t a baby survive on its own after twenty-four weeks? I tested whether she really needed the apparatus. She was my lab experiment, and it failed.”
“It’s not your fault, Titus. You made a mistake.”
“Stop telling me it’s not my fault! I killed that girl to scratch my curiosity. I killed her!"
“Is everything alright down there?” the foreman called out from his second-floor office.
Titus waved at him. “Everything’s fine, sir. Just clearing up some confusion for our friend.”
Angelica slinked back to her station before anyone could notice.
The foreman walked out of his office and down the stairs. “I don’t recall giving you permission to stand around, yelling into the abyss. Get back to work!”
Titus smiled and yelled, “You get back to work!”
The foreman walked to Titus’ station and got in his face. “Are you challenging me, boy?”
Snickering, Titus said, “Are you so dumb that you can’t answer that question for yourself?”
The foreman reached for his side and pulled out a club. Swinging it through the air, it hit Titus in the side of the head and he blacked out. The foreman dragged Titus to his office where he cuffed him and waited for him to wake up for further questioning.
When Titus woke up, the foreman was in the restroom and Angelica was sitting next to him in a metal chair.
“You’ve gone and done it, haven’t you?” she said, bouncing her leg up and down.
Blinking his eyes, Titus tried to acclimate to his surroundings and find his bearings. Seeing his friend sitting next to him in nonchalant pride, his eyes grew big as he whisper-shouted, “Get out of here before the foreman catches you.”
Putting her hand on her thigh, she stopped the motion of her leg. “He can do what he wants to me. I’m not scared.”
“I can’t have your life on my conscience, too. Get out of here.”
“We’re in this together,” she said, folding her hands behind her head and relaxing against the back of the chair. “Besides, if it wasn’t for me, you wouldn’t have gotten all worked up and chained in the foreman’s office.”
“Yeah. So, what happened to that sweetness that always calms me down?”
Dropping her hands, she gasped and hunched over. “I tried to be sweet, but you weren’t having it.”
Titus sighed through his nose, nostrils flaring. “Lower your voice or the foreman will hear you.”
“Whatever you say,” she said with a facetious smile, resuming her position with her hands behind her head. “You’re the boss, right?”
Seconds later, Titus heard a toilet flush, followed by the running water of a sink. The faucet turned off, and the foreman opened the door, wiping his partially dried hands on his pant legs. “Ah, you’re finally awake. I was wondering if you were ever gonna come to.”
“Listen,” Titus said, leaning forward. “I didn’t mean to get so worked up out there. Just let me go back to work and I promise this won’t happen again.”
The foreman rested his butt on the edge of his desk, crossing his arms with a scowl on his face. “You’re damn right this won’t happen.”
“Please,” Titus pleaded. “I need to take care of the children.”
“Don’t worry about that. I’ve already assigned someone else to cover the feedings.”
Thinking about the little girl dancing, Titus’ lip curled. “I don’t mean to be rude, but if you want those children to live, I should really be the one to feed them.”
The foreman grabbed his tablet and scrolled through pages of information with his index finger. “Yeah,” he said. “It says here you have a ninety-nine-point-nine-eight percent success rate. That’s unfathomable. How do you do it?”
Blinking rapidly, Titus said, “Well, I guess I’m detailed is all.”
“Detailed? Boy, you are near perfect. Not even the geneticist or biochemist bots render out such astounding numbers. The Farm programs geneticists to accept a sixty percent success rate with fertilization. The biochemists have much more rigorous standards at ninety-five percent, but that seems paltry compared to your near one-hundred.” He looked down at his tablet again. “It says here you’ve only lost one child.”
Angelica turned her head to Titus. “Don’t let him bait you into talking about her. It’s a trap.”
Titus glanced at her and whispered, “Shut up.”
“Excuse me,” the foreman said.
“I wasn’t talking to you.”
The foreman stood straight. “I don’t care if you were talking to Atina, herself. You’re on thin ice, boy.”
“I’m sorry, I just—”
The foreman picked up the club off his desk and interrupted, “Just what? You were just going to explain away your actions again? You were just going to show me disrespect again?” He slammed his club down and struck Titus’ left hand. “How about you explain why I did that?”
Grinding his teeth, Titus’ cheeks tensed up. “I don’t know, sir.”
Cupping his hand over his ear, the foreman said, “What? I can’t hear you.”
“I don’t know, sir!”
The foreman hit his hand again, bone cracking, Titus letting out a painful yelp. “I’ll tell you why, boy. Because you have a near-perfect success rate and yet, you break most protocols. Since the Farm only cares about us meeting our quota, that means there’s no reward for going above and beyond. Your near-perfect success rate means crap to me.” He spat in Titus’ face and clubbed his hand a third time. “I heard an old saying once. ‘If your hand causes you to sin, smash it to pieces so it can’t cause any more trouble.’ I’m paraphrasing, but you get the idea.”
Titus rocked in his chair, right hand clenched over his left inside those chafing cuffs. Biting his lip, spittle formed in the corners of his mouth. As the foreman raised his club for a fourth swing, Titus planted his feet apart and, with a guttural roar, lunged at him. They both fell to the ground.
Slamming his cuffed hands against the foreman’s head, he repeated the motion multiple times until he ran out of breath.
The foreman’s body laid on the ground lifeless, his face bruised and bloodied. His chest was still rising and falling, but barely. Titus had knocked him unconscious, and he knew he had to get out of there quick or he’d have to face a worse fate.
Titus searched the foreman’s pockets for keys, but found none. Walking behind the desk, he perused the surface, but they weren’t there either.
Angelica pointed to behind the desk. “Maybe the keys are in a drawer.”
Titus opened the top right one. He saw a ring of about thirty keys sitting next to a half-eaten loaf of bread.
He picked them up and started with the smallest keys first, flinching in pain each time he twisted his left hand. The sixth key was the winner. He inserted it into the cuffs and turned. The mechanism released, and he was free. Holding his left hand close to his chest, he said, “Let’s go, Angelica, before anyone finds out what happened.”
They ran out of the office and trudged down the stairs. Passing a station of humidicribs, Titus blurted out, “Hold on a sec, there’s something I gotta do.”
“What are you doing?” Angelica asked, grabbing her hair in clumps. “We don’t have time for this.”
“It’ll only be a moment, I swear.”
Titus rushed over to Humidicrib HC349, disconnecting the feeding tube and the IVs from the little baby girl. At thirty-five weeks, she breathed in her first gulp of air.
Wrapping her in a blanket, Titus held the girl with his right hand and ran, Angelica following close behind.
Instead of taking the elevator, they ran down the emergency stairs. As they approached the second floor, an alarm sounded, forcing them to pick up their pace.
Breathing heavy and sweating, Titus didn’t have time to think about his hand that was throbbing. He had one purpose—getting the girl to safety.
Exiting the emergency door of the building on the first floor, Titus paused to catch his breath, smirking at the child who was screaming uncontrollably. “We’re gonna get you out of here, baby girl.”
Hands on her knees, Angelica wheezed. “Why do you care so much about this one child?”
“Oblivion may not rescue me from my hell, but I have the power to rescue her.”
Suddenly, a stream of bots descended out of the main entrance a few hundred feet away.
“Looks like break time is over,” Angelica said, breathing in deep and exhaling. “Where are we headed?”
“I don’t know. What do you suggest?”
“I don’t know, either, but we better go now!”
The bots moved quickly and were fast encroaching on their location.
Titus and Angelica ran as fast as they could, but they had no chance against the IG6s who surrounded them, one which spoke with its monotonous voice. “Let go of the child and we will not harm you.”
Titus covered the baby’s head while Angelica bellowed, “Yeah, but you’ll arrest us! And everyone knows what Atina does to its detainees. We’ll never see the light of day again.”
“No more warnings,” the bot said as eight other bots pointed their guns at Titus and Angelica. “Give us the child or we’ll be forced to shoot, and there is an eight percent chance of the child’s survival if we open fire.”
Titus rested his mangled hand on Angelica’s shoulder. “I can’t give them this baby.”
“Then run,” Angelica whispered to Titus.
“But what about you?”
“Don’t worry about me. Protect the girl.”
Angelica turned around and hugged Titus. “My life is not yours to protect.” She kissed the forehead of the baby. “But this girl needs your protection, so go.”
Titus backed up a few steps, and Angelica twisted her body to face the gang of IG6s, holding out her arms to shield her friend. She screamed, “Go!”
Before Titus could move, a black van showed up, screeching its wheels to a halt. The side door opened and someone threw an electromagnetic pulse grenade into the middle of the scene. The pulse turned the IG6s into metal statues as the red color in their eyes powered down and turned to gray.
“Get in the van,” a red-headed stranger said, reaching out her hand. “We need to leave before more of those things come.”
“And who are you?” Titus asked, wrinkling his nose.
“Do you want to live or don’t you?”
“I’m not going anywhere until you tell me who you are.”
“We’re Oblivion,” the stranger said.
“Give her the baby!” Angelica yelled. “Your rescue has finally come.”
Lips forcing together in a slight grimace, Titus pulled the blanket away from the baby’s face. She was no longer screaming, but sleeping. Lowering his head, he gently pressed his forehead against hers, a single tear strolling down his cheek. “You’ll finally be safe, little one.” He kissed her button nose and passed her to the stranger, wiping his eyes with the back of his right hand. It was the first time in years he felt genuine joy.
In middle of his elation, another stranger sitting in the passenger seat up front yelled, “Watch out!”
A group of drones swooped in from the sky and shot at the van, slugs ricocheting off of the bulletproof surface.
Two men with rifles piled out of the van and returned fire, one wearing jeans and a green t-shirt, and the other in a navy-blue jumpsuit.
Titus and Angelica knelt and covered their heads.
The man in jeans cocked his rifle and pulled the trigger, striking a drone in its fuel cell and making it explode on impact.
With rapid-fire, the man in the jumpsuit fired his semi-automatic rifle, picking off two drones who fell from the sky and crashed on the pavement of the street. One drone left.
The men shot at it, but it evaded each bullet. It fired back in retaliation, but the men used the van as cover.
Descending to street level, it released a high-powered laser beam. The beam cut a hole into the back of the van and nicked the driver’s neck before escaping out the windshield, causing a perfect circle in the glass.
With an angry shout, the man in jeans rushed the drone and climbed on top of it. Pulling out a pistol from his side holster, he discharged five rounds into the drone’s computer system, killing it in seconds and falling to the ground.
The man in the jumpsuit yelled, “Everyone in the van now! We gotta go!”
On the ground, Titus held his right hand over his chest where a stray bullet had struck. “Be right there,” he said, blood gurgling out of his mouth.
Angelica ran to him and knelt on the pavement, propping him up in her lap. “What did you do?” she cried.
“I got myself shot,” he said, laughing and spitting mouthfuls of red on the ground. “What does it look like?”
Grabbing a medical kit from the van, the red-headed woman threw open the side door and ran to his aid. “It’s ok, Titus. We’re gonna get you out of here.”
“How do you know my name?”
“We’ve been monitoring you for a while now. Your web traffic to the Shadows put you on alert with our system.”
“No, you’re talking about Angelica. She’s the one who likes to dabble in all that stuff.”
“Who’s Angelica?” the stranger asked, cutting his shirt to dress the wound.
“What do you mean? Angelica’s right here.”
“Oh, I see. You use her as some alias, right?” Watching Titus close his eyes, the woman shouted, “Stay with me, Titus. You need to stay awake.”
“It’s okay,” he said, lifting his head to face Angelica. “My best friend is with me. She’ll make sure I don’t fall asleep.”
Angelica rubbed Titus’ shoulder. “That’s right. I’m here with you.”
Putting a bandage over the injury, the woman asked, “Who are you talking to?”
“Angelica,” he said, beaming.
Continuing to rub his shoulder, Angelica said, “They can’t see me. They never could.”
“That can’t be true. You’ve been my friend for years.”
“No, Titus. I’m not real.”
“But you helped me out in so many ways. You led Oblivion to me.”
“You did that all yourself.”
“Stop lying to me and tell this woman who you are.”
“I can’t do that.”
“Because you need to accept the truth.”
“Which is what?”
“When that baby girl died on your watch, it was too much for you to accept. You fragmented, and as a result, I appeared in your life. You needed someone to encourage you, someone to challenge you, someone to lead you out of Atina. You were too damaged to do it yourself. You became obsessed with killing that little baby whom you named Angelica.”
“That’s your name.”
“No, Titus. That’s the name you gave me because you couldn’t handle what you did. You wanted a way for her to still be alive. I’m nothing more than your guilty conscience trying to repair itself, but you no longer need me.”
“Yes, I do.”
“No, you don’t. You no longer have to live with the guilt of killing Angelica. You saved a life today. One life lost to the hell of Atina. One life rescued and offered a better future. You’re free, Titus.”
Titus' pulse dropping, the redhead yelled to the van, “I need the defibrillator over here.”
The man in jeans jumped out of the van to assist.
“He’s losing a lot of blood,” the redhead said, holding her hand over the wound.
Titus closed his eyes.
“He’s losing consciousness!”
Charging the paddles, the redhead pressed them against his chest and released the surge. Titus’ body jerked up and fell back. No pulse.
She sparked his body again, but no response.
After a third time, the man in jeans said, “We need to go before more drones come.”
“We need to take him with us.”
“He’s dead,” the man chided. “He did everything he could to rescue this baby, and if we don’t get her to safety, his death will be for nothing.”
“I have to try again!” the woman screamed.
The man grabbed her around the waist and dragged her to the van. Another one quickly gathered the medical supplies on the street and joined them, shutting the side door behind him.
Oblivion finally showed up that day to rescue Titus from his hell.
As he laid there on the street, body hovering over a pool of blood, he was truly free. Free from his cruel job. Free from his guilt prison. Free from Atina.
Angelica waved at him and walked away. “Goodbye, Titus.”
The van of operatives made it back to Oblivion with few other complications. The man in the jumpsuit, Timothy, pulled out the injured driver from the van, Augustus, and carried him to the Infirmary where he received proper care.
Unloading the equipment and guns was the man in jeans, Gregor, and a youthful assistant whom he saw as a younger brother, Alexander.
Prescilla, the redhead, picked up the baby and held her close. She brought the girl to a place Oblivion called the Den. It was a collection of buildings that housed the few children they managed to rescue from Atina. The girl Titus saved was the first baby most of the people had seen, definitely the first one among the other kids.
As Prescilla walked by, everyone stared with curious eyes. Some smiled. Others covered their mouths and gasped. This little girl was the first citizen freed from the Farm. Out of all the Atinean institutions, the Farm was the most difficult to penetrate. But there she was, the forbidden fruit they longed to obtain masked in chubby cheeks and petite limbs.
Walking up to the wooden-door entrance of a green-painted longhouse, Prescilla opened it to find Watchman Abernathy and Penelope sitting in opposite chairs talking.
Seeing Prescilla walking in with sad eyes, both Watchman and Penelope jumped to her feet and greeted her.
“Please,” Watchman said, his hand on her back and guiding her to his chair, “come sit down.”
Prescilla sat, gripping the baby and trying her best to hold back tears.
“What happened?” asked Penelope, sitting in her chair again, but this time leaning forward.
With a quivering lip, Prescilla stammered. “Titus. He, um—”
Watchman looked around. “Where is he? I’d love to meet him.”
“He, um, didn’t make it.” Tears burst through their barriers.
Hand on Prescilla’s knee, Penelope said, “I’m so sorry.”
Wiping her tears, Prescilla awkwardly laughed. “The objective was to save a life from the Farm. It may not have been the one we set out to save, but at least we fulfilled our mission.”
“Don’t worry about the mission right now,” Watchman said, pacing around the chairs. “You all came back home safely. That’s what matters. Did anyone else get hurt?”
“Augustus is in the Infirmary. A laser grazed his neck, but the heat from it sealed up his wound as quickly as it caused it. He’s in some pain, but he’ll be fine.”
“I should’ve gone with you,” said Penelope, lifting her hand off Prescilla’s knee to rub the baby’s right foot in between her thumb and index finger.
Prescilla’s lip curled. “I’m not sure why.”
“Well, an extra person never hurts.”
Raising her voice, Prescilla snapped. “You mean you think you could’ve done a better job than me.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“What exactly did you mean?” Prescilla shouted.
The baby, who was sleeping up to that point, woke up to the sound of Prescilla’s loud voice and wailed in her ear.
“I’m sorry, Baby. I didn’t mean to wake you.”
“I’m sorry, too,” Penelope said. “I didn’t mean to make you feel—”
Rocking the baby as best as she knew how, Prescilla winked at Penelope. “Don’t worry about it. I’m just a mess. It was nothing you said. Since we made it back, all that matters now is Baby.”
Watchman chuckled. “Is that what you named her? Baby.”
“That’s what she is, isn’t it?”
The child cried harder.
“I don’t think she likes it,” Watchman said, picking up the girl and cradling her in his arms. “She probably needs a more unique designation.”
“But who’s gonna name her?” Prescilla asked.
“I think you should,” said Watchman. “You made sure she got here in one piece. What do you think we should call her?” He then snapped a gaze at her and added, “Anything but ‘baby’.”
Prescilla folded her hands in her lap and looked at Penelope. “What do you think we should call her?”
Shrugging her shoulders, Penelope asked, “Is there any name that holds a special significance to you?”
“Um, Titus kept mentioning someone named Angelica. I’m not sure who she was, but she seemed pretty significant to him. Maybe we can call her that.”
Watchman tenderly swayed the baby back and forth, whose crying began to subside. “Angelica, huh? I think she likes it.”
The crying turned to a whimper in Watchman’s arms and she eventually fell back asleep.
“I think Angelica is a sign,” Watchman said, facing the women. “All we’ve done is scratch the surface of bringing down Atina, but the tide is changing. The computer has said as much. This child is going to breathe new life into the movement, and we need to be ready for a dramatic shift.”
Penelope stood and stepped toward Watchman. “You mean—”
“Yes,” he said. “We need to plan our next big move, and Angelica will be the key.”