The Atina Chronicles Part 6: The Bureau



Atina Part 6 The Bureau
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“Pass me the quarter-inch wrench,” Cicero said, on his knees with his head down and hand extended.


Digging through a black metal chest of loosely organized tools, Ambrose moved them around, causing a lot of clanging, but little retrieving. “I don’t see it,” he said, squinting. “Maybe you placed it somewhere else.”


“Nonsense. A man always puts his tools away in the right place.”


Ambrose turned toward Cicero with raised eyebrows. “Always?”


Placing his hand down, Cicero looked up and chuckled. “Almost always.”


“I’ll keep looking.”


“Good.”


Iggy lumbered over with heavy clanking footsteps and reached his bionic arm to Cicero. “Is this what you need?”


Picking himself off the floor, Cicero smiled. “I can always count on you to save the day, Iggy.” He grabbed the wrench and went back to his knees, turning a bolt on his latest project.


“What are you building, anyway?” Ambrose asked, hovering.


Tightening the bolt with the wrench, Cicero scrunched his face and threw his weight into it, making sure it was secure. “This, my young friend, is an electromagnet.” He pointed to the corner of the room. “We’re upgrading that old engine over there. Our van we stole from Oblivion is slow. It wasn’t made to be a getaway vehicle, only a distribution one.”


Standing, he walked to a workbench and picked up a coil. He handed it to Ambrose and crossed his arms. “You see how the wire is wound into that coil? A current runs through the wire and creates a magnetic field. The more turns of the wire in the coil, the stronger the field will be. Most electromagnets will produce limited output in smaller vehicles, even less in something large like a van.” He bent down and picked up his magnet. “But this bad boy will get our van to reach speeds of two-hundred-plus miles per hour. I hope that if our van can move faster, we can save more lives when we do our supply raids.”


“Is it safe?”


Cicero looked at Iggy and laughed.


Iggy formed something akin to a smile on his mouth.


Slapping his robotic friend on the shoulder, Cicero shook his head “Safe? You hear this kid, Iggy? He wants to know if it’s safe.”


Ambrose sunk his head. “Am I missing something here?”


“Obviously,” said Iggy. “Between Cicero’s ingenuity and the computer programmed into my mainframe, there is little chance for error.”


Cicero put his arm around Ambrose’s shoulders. “What our nuanced friend is trying to say is that with him on our side, it takes the human equation out of the project. Safety is a numbers game, and Iggy’s numbers are never wrong.”


“Thank you, sir, said Iggy with a slight nod.”


Cicero glared. “I told you to stop calling me, sir.”


“Sorry, sir.”


Cicero pulled his arm away from Ambrose and palmed his forehead. “Let’s get back to the topic at hand, shall we?”


Ambrose spun the coil with his fingers. “It’s amazing something so small could create so much power.”


“That’s how the world works,” Cicero said, taking the coil away and placing it back on the bench. “No small part can function on its own, but mixed with other small parts interwoven in a deliberate design, and you can create something as powerful as Iggy.”


“You created Iggy, right?”


“I would like to take credit for him, but I can’t. Iggy is a result of many engineers breaking expectations over a millennia. Even still Iggy should not be here the way he is.” He put his hand on Iggy’s chest. “He somehow surpassed the limits of human ability to become something that’s not quite human and not quite machine.”


“I wish I could be as strong as Iggy,” Ambrose said, sheepishly staring at the floor.


Cicero smiled, “Why the long face, man? You may not shoot lasers out of your eyes, but you got something that every human has—spirit. Atina tried to take that from us and turn us into another one of their bots, but we persevered. Oblivion exists because Atina can beat down the human spirit, but they can’t quench it. It is a fire that keeps burning, keeps inventing, keeps dreaming.” He pointed to Ambrose’s head. “Inside there is a world of innovation, stronger than wires and circuit boards. No offense, Iggy.”


“None taken, sir.”


“I said stop calling me that.”


“Sorry, sir.”


Cicero closed his eyes and sighed through his nose. “My point is this, Ambrose. You may be young. You may be inexperienced. But you are not weak. Only the people who give up are weak. If you keep going for it, pushing boundaries and breaking the limits people put over you, you will be strong.”


Ambrose turned around and fiddled with a screwdriver at the top of the pile of tools inside the toolbox. “That’s easy for you to say. Everyone loves you here. You brought Iggy. You brought Penelope. You’re getting married. You’re fearless. I’m just a nobody who doesn’t know anything.”


“Fearless?” Cicero repeated, grabbing Ambrose and facing him. “Are you kidding me? I’m about to be married. Do you know what that means?”


Ambrose shrugged his shoulders.


“I don’t either. Marriage is an antiquated ritual that hasn’t existed since the fall of America. It’s not like I have parents to look to as examples. I don’t even have strangers. The only thing I have is what Oblivion tells me. Marriage is as foreign to me as advanced robotics is to you. I know the concept, but I don’t understand what to do with it.”


“Do you not want to marry Miss Penelope?”


“I love her. I started loving her when we both worked together at the Academy. I would like nothing more than to share the rest of my life with her.”


“So, what’s wrong?”


Cicero grabbed the coil and flipped it in his hand. “I’m afraid, man. I’m always afraid when I start something new and I don’t know what I’m doing. My stomach is like this coil, twisted. I wonder if I’m gonna be good enough, powerful enough.” He passed the coil to Ambrose. “But I never let the fear drive my decisions. I dig deep and move forward despite the fear. Does that make sense?”


“Yeah, I guess so.”


Iggy took the coil from Ambrose. “Humans should be more like bots. We don’t experience fear.” Picking up the electromagnet, he attached the additional coil. “That’s one way I’m glad I’m not human.”


Cicero’s mouth dropped. “Well, tell us how you really feel.”


“If I could feel anything, I would feel like we should get back to work.”


“Someone sure is snarky today.”


“Sorry, sir.”


“Humph. Stop calling me, sir.”


“Yes, sir.”


***

At lunchtime, Cicero dismissed Ambrose for his unlearning session with the other minors. There were twenty-two of them, all teenagers rescued from different areas of Atina.


Oblivion rescued Ambrose from the Academy. That’s why Cicero took a liking to him, except Ambrose was being trained in diagnostics, so there was little he knew about building the bots. Still, he enjoyed Cicero’s company and tutelage. It gave him a sense of belonging in a world that often felt too fantastical to be real.


Unlearning in Oblivion took form in three expressions—Ethos, Pathos, and Logos.


The Ethos program sought to destroy the old culture of Atina in the minds of the youth by inundating them in Oblivion. They worked. They played. They slept. They ate.


Watchman personally matched every youth with a mentor who could help them overcome the longings they felt for the old world and gain excitement for the new.


Cicero was Ambrose’s mentor.


The Pathos program encouraged daily small group time to share their feelings of loss, allowing them to grieve in a safe and open space. Most of Oblivion refugees experienced culture shock upon arriving to the cut-off system of love and community. And it was precisely that love they feared the most. Those feelings amplified in the hormones of teenagers and needed release in a healthy environment.


The third program was Logos, which happened two times during the day. One time was at the Sanctuary, where the community gathered as a whole to hear the teachings of Watchman, as passed down by Oblivion. The second way Logos happened was through lunches where youths could eat and receive instruction from different individuals who proved themselves studied in the teachings of the community.


The leaders of Oblivion found that providing these teachings while enjoying a meal together felt less like a classroom and more like a family, though the occasional hungry teenager would eat too much and pass out in a food coma during the lesson.


Ambrose was fifteen years old and didn’t like being taken away from his time with Cicero. Quiet and emotionally reserved, he neither liked small groups nor teachings that often required public answers to the instructor’s questions.


He liked to eat and go, favoring the tinkering of toys over didactic monologues and sniveling classmates, but he went through the motions and did what was necessary to overcome his feelings of being an outsider.


That day, after he scarfed down a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and washed it down with apple juice, he sat in the back of the group with his leg bouncing up and down.


Once the teacher finished her lesson, she extended her hands toward the youth and spoke a blessing. Some of them put their hands out in front of them like they were receiving a gift, but Ambrose tapped his thigh with his fingertips, waiting eagerly for the woman to cease her long pontifications.


When she spoke her last word, half of the students smiled and breathed deep, verbally slobbering over the teacher with their feigned gratitude. The other half turned their chairs and started a conversation with each other.


Ambrose shot to his feet and headed to the Den, where Cicero told him to meet after he concluded his time with Logos.


Walking down the dirt path to the long building where he usually slept, Ambrose opened the door to the Den, finding Penelope and Cicero changing Angelica’s diaper. His excitement to see Cicero deflated, having to share him with two other women.


“Hey, Ambrose!” Cicero yelled, waving him over. “Have you ever changed one of these things before?”


Ambrose cringed. “Yuck. No.”


“Well, now’s your chance.”


Penelope wiped Angelica’s butt with a wet cloth, raising one eyebrow at Cicero. “Don’t make the boy do your job for you. You’re here to help me. Not Ambrose.”


Ambrose sighed with relief. “Sorry for my previous response, Miss Penelope. I didn’t mean to sound so disgusted.”


“No apology necessary. I wouldn’t want to do this, either, if I didn’t have to.”


Picking up the dirty diaper, Cicero threw it in the trash, tip-toeing backward toward the door. “So, I guess we’ll head out.”


Penelope lovingly glared at Cicero. “You better give me a kiss before you go off gallivanting to that workshop of yours.”


“My dear. I wouldn’t dream of leaving otherwise.” He planted his lips on Penelope’s, the naked baby squirming on the floor and giggling at their display of affection.


Ambrose closed his eyes and turned around.


“No need to be embarrassed,” Cicero said. “You’ll get your own honey to kiss one day.”


Ambrose forced a quick breath through his nostrils. “Can we go now and finish that engine?”


Winking at Cicero, Penelope said, “Get out of here, you two. And remember, Ambrose.”


His eyes grew wide. “Remember what?”


“Remember to keep this bumbling fool out of trouble.”


With a slight nod, Ambrose replied, “Yes, Miss Penelope.”


As Ambrose and Cicero headed to the door, Watchman walked in with a sense of urgency. “Oh, great! You’re both here. We need to talk.”


“Do I need to leave?” Ambrose asked, pointing at the door.


Watchman closed it and motioned everyone to take a seat. “There’s no need. Please, join us.”

Penelope put a new diaper on Angelica and rocked her in her arms. Cicero sat next to her with his arm around her shoulders. Ambrose sat on the floor with his legs crossed and back hunched.


Pulling up a chair and sitting on the edge, Watchman leaned forward. “Angelica’s been with us a few months now,” he said, hands folded together. “I just came back from our storage shed and we have only one container of formula left.”


“When’s the next raid?” Cicero asked, pulling his arm away and leaning his elbows on his knees.


Watchman scooted back in his chair. “Tomorrow, but it won’t be enough. We were lucky last time that the shipment had any at all. Who knows if there’ll be any on this next truck? We also can’t risk too many excursions on the streets of Atina in too short a period. Atina is actively looking for the child, so we need to limit how many times we go out right now.”


Penelope’s eyebrows furled. “What are you saying?”


“What I’m saying is that we need to protect the child at all costs. She’s the key—” He stopped himself mid-sentence and looked at Cicero. Nodding his head in Ambrose’s direction, he asked, “Do you think the boy is ready to hear?”


Cicero winked his eyes and smiled. “He’s strong.”


Finishing his sentence, Watchman said, “She’s the key to the prophecy and we need a steady way of supporting her.”


Straightening his back, Ambrose asked, “What prophecy?”


Watchman shifted his body to address Ambrose. Resting his right foot on his left knee, he said, “When new life enters Oblivion, the age of obscurity will end, and behold, the age of humanity will begin.”


“And you think she is the new life?” Ambrose asked, pointing at Angelica.


“I do.”


“How come you’ve never spoken about this at our Sanctuary meetings? Do you not trust us? You tell us to share everything with each other, don’t you?”


“Well—”


Cicero interrupted. “Please, Watchman. Let me handle this.”


Watchman lifted his hands, palms facing out, conceding to Cicero’s request.


Sitting down on the floor in front of Ambrose, Cicero said, “I’m about to marry Penelope, right?”


“Um, yeah, but what does that have to do with a prophecy?”


“Once we’re married, there will be things we only share between each other. Even now, you don’t see me kissing other women, do you?”


“No, I guess not.”


Cicero reached his hand out and gripped Ambrose’s shoulder. “The prophecy is not some secret to keep from the community. It’s something to share in more intimate settings.”


“You mean, like this one?”


“Exactly. As you can see, Watchman isn’t keeping this from you. Otherwise, he would have said nothing in front of you.”


“Yeah, that makes sense. But why not share it at our gatherings?”


“Some people are here to escape Atina. They see Oblivion’s secrecy as an attractive benefit, lest Atina find them and punish them for leaving. Our progenitor never meant Oblivion to stay in the shadows forever. Eventually, the light we have will penetrate Atina and it will set everyone free from her enslavement. Don’t you want that?”


“I still don’t understand why we don’t tell everyone if the prophecy is such a good thing.”


“We all receive truth in different ways and respond to said truth in different ways. The implication of this prophecy means that our family here will have to find yet another home after just learning how to adapt to this one. We need to handle this knowledge delicately, not in our big group gatherings, where we celebrate life. At the proper time, when more information is available, we’ll bring everyone into the same knowing. Until then, we handle the news in small groups with ones we believe can handle it.”


Ambrose stood and paced in a circle. “We’re leaving Oblivion? I’m leaving Oblivion?” A look of dread swept across his face. “Where will I go? What will I do?” He snapped a gaze at Cicero. “Will we not see each other anymore?”


Standing to meet Ambrose at eye level, Cicero put both hands on his shoulders. “We learned how to have relationships in Oblivion. That doesn’t change because we’re entering a new season.”


Ambrose’s eyes shifted around the room. “I can’t do this. I’m too weak.”


Grabbing Ambrose’s chin, Cicero stared deep into his eyes. “Your strength is perfected in weakness, remember? It’s okay to feel afraid, but we won’t allow it to immobilize us.”


Ambrose pulled away. “I-I-I can’t do this. It’s too much. I was just starting to get used to things around here, and now you want me to change again. I can’t do it.” Walking to the door, he muttered over and over, “I can’t do it.”


Cicero ran to the door and spread out his arms, facing Ambrose. “Listen to me!”

“I can’t do it. I can’t do it.”


Cicero clenched his hands around Ambrose’s biceps and shook him. “Snap out of it, man!”


Watchman and Penelope sat silently, ready to intervene in case the situation escalated beyond Cicero’s control.


Like waking up from a nightmare, Ambrose gained clarity and stared at Cicero. “Do you promise not to leave me?”


“I promise to always support you.”


Ambrose walked toward Watchman, Cicero pulling up a chair for him to sit down. Breathing deep and exhaling slowly, Ambrose fell into the chair and addressed Watchman. “So, what does Angelica have to do with this age of humanity?”


“I wish I could tell you, Ambrose. All I know is that it will be an era of hope for us all, one that Atina would like nothing more than to destroy.”


“And we have to figure out how to provide for Angelica for this era of hope to come to pass?”

“Yes, I believe so.”


Ambrose darted his eyes around each person in the room. “Suggestions?”


Laughing, Cicero pointed at Ambrose. “Well, didn’t you switch your tune fast! One minute you’re having a panic attack and the next minute you’re trying to tell us what to do. You shift moods faster than a woman.”


“Hey!” Yelled Penelope, frowning.


“Sorry, honey.”


“You better be sorry.”


Face flushed red, Ambrose cleared his throat and stared at Watchman’s feet. “I’m so sorry, sir. I didn’t mean to be disrespectful. I don’t know what came over me.”


Watchman lifted Ambrose’s chin with the back of his hand. “I understand the feelings you have and I appreciate your enthusiasm.” He pushed himself off the arms of the chair and stood. “Ambrose is right. We need suggestions of how to take care of Angelica long term.”


Cicero blinked rapidly. “We can do a blitz of trucks all at once and at different locations.”


“There’s still no guarantee they’ll have what Angelica needs, said Watchman, massaging the back of his neck.”


Cicero crossed his arms. “Then what do you suggest, old man?”


“I do have one idea.”


Cicero’s eyes widened. “What is it?”


“You’re not gonna like it.”


“Let us decide what we like or not.”


Watchman scratched his chin. “There’s a warehouse at the Bureau where they make all the nutrients for the kids at the Farm. If we hit that warehouse specifically, we can get everything we need for several months until we can wean Angelica onto solid food.”


Cicero waved his hands in protest. “Are you kidding me? That place is crawling with IG6s. Even with Iggy, we wouldn’t have a chance of getting in.”


Watchman sat down and leaned his head back. “We have someone on the inside who could help us.”


“You’re talking about Janine? We haven’t heard from her in months. There’s no telling if she’s still loyal to our cause.”


“Janine’s loyal. I wouldn’t worry about her. I just need to know if the raiding team would be up for it. Would Iggy be up for it? He’ll do anything you do.”


“I think it’s a bad idea.”


“But is it possible?”


Cicero scoffed. “If Oblivion has taught us anything, nothing is impossible.”


“That’s good to hear.”


Ambrose shot to his feet and raised his hand, “I’d like to join the raiding party.”


With curled lip, Cicero asked, “You would?”


“Yes. You say not to allow our fears to immobilize us. If that’s true, I should practice that by going on the raid.”


Cicero lowered his head and rubbed his temples. “If we’re doing this, we need to do a practice run. Iggy and I haven’t done a raid in months. Ambrose has never been on one. We need the best of the best to do a dress rehearsal.” He pointed at Watchman. “Does that bode well with you, sir?”


Angelica was mostly silent up to that point being rocked in Penelope’s arms, but with all the commotion, she cried.


“Y’all have gone and done it,” Penelope said, face soured. “She’s been trying to fall asleep and you just can’t help yourself from being loud and obnoxious.”


Smiling, Watchman said, “We should probably leave the ladies be and get to planning.”


Cicero blew Penelope a kiss as he walked away with Watchman on his left and Ambrose on his right. “I’m coming back for you later.”


Penelope waved them along. “Well, you have to leave in order to come back, so get going.”


***

After an evening of strategizing with Cicero, Iggy, Watchman, and three other Gatherers, the term used for Oblivion agents who executed raids, Ambrose felt less sure about his place on the team.


Gregor, a refugee from the Hand, was a thick, burly man with an intimidating, long beard who had expert knowledge in artillery. Oblivion saved Timothy from the Academy, and he liked to play with explosives. The fiery redhead, Prescilla, whom Penelope saved from the Collective, was one of Oblivion’s best hackers. She manipulated the ether signal like art. Oblivion couldn’t do anything without her.


Ambrose was only a kid. No special skills. No experience. He felt inspired at the moment to volunteer his services, but hanging out with people who knew what they were doing made him feel insignificant.


He laid in his bed that night, staring at the ceiling with dark thoughts swirling around in his mind, stealing his peace.


You’re nothing, he thought. No one wants you around. They just pity you because you have no friends. Even Cicero. He doesn’t like you. They assigned him to you. He spends time with you out of obligation, not desire.


He noticed a nail head poking through one of the wooden boards. Everyone’s asleep. Reach up and pull it out. You can use it to cut your wrist. End it all and you’ll no longer be a burden.

Ambrose stood on his bed, the frame creaking. His bed neighbor, Bart, turned over on his side and made Ambrose freeze. Hearing Bart snore, he sighed with relief that he didn’t wake him up.


Standing on the tip of his toes, he extended his hand toward the ceiling. Grabbing the nail head in between his thumb and index finger, he tried to pull it out, but it proved more stubborn than he hoped. Twisting it with the tip of his fingers, he pressed his skin firmly against the metal and pulled. Twist. Pull. Twist. Pull.


He continued with tenacious resolve, bed creaking with a slight squeal, but ignoring the sound.


The rusty iron of the nail cut into Ambrose’s skin, blood forming under his fingernails and dripping down the side of his hand.


Millimeter by millimeter, he pulled it out, dust and debris falling on the floor. His fingernails turned black and red, and a six-inch instrument of death resting in his palm.


Holding the nail in his hand, he stared at it as the twisting of his mind bent his soul once more. Do it, Ambrose. End it all. Nobody loves you. Everything Oblivion says is a lie, just like Atina. There’s no need to find a new home if you’re already dead.


While Ambrose stared at the nail, convincing himself of the task he needed to perform, Bart woke up and lifted his head with tired eyes. “What’re you doing up there, man?”


Ambrose turned away and stepped off the bed. “Nothing.”


“What’s that red stuff on your arm?”


“Don’t worry about it, Bart,” Ambrose said, hurrying to the bathroom to get cleaned up. “Go back to sleep.”


Bart shrugged his shoulders. “Okay.” Falling back onto his pillow, he returned to snoring in a matter of seconds. Ambrose was jealous of Bart that he could be carefree enough to sleep that well.


Ambrose wanted to sleep. He wanted to feel loved, but he felt so alone all the time. Everyone had a place in Oblivion, except him. And if the prophecy came true, he’d lose the one person who made him feel safe, Cicero.


Washing up in the bathroom, he held on to the nail for another day. Placing it in his pocket, he realized if his life was meaningless, he needed to die a meaningless death. He prepared in his mind to do it the next day, when he could get some time alone, before going out on the raid. Until then, he would have to sleep. Morning always came faster when he slept.


***

On his way to breakfast, Ambrose broke away from the group and started down a path to the woods.


“Where’re you going?” asked Bart, stopping.


Ambrose turned around—slowly—attempting to give himself a few nanoseconds to think of something reasonable. “I, uh, hid something.”


“What?”


“It’s, uh, a gift. For Cicero.”


Bart shrugged his shoulders. “Oh. Okay.” He turned around and ran up to the group to join them for food. To Ambrose, Bart wasn’t only carefree, but stupid. And he couldn’t be happier for his stupidity than at that moment.


Ambrose continued his trek to the woods when a familiar voice called out to him from the Den. “Hey, Ambrose! You busy?”


He knew who it was, and there was no way he could lie. “No, not really.”


“Come here! I got something to tell you.”


“Okay, Cicero! I’m coming!” He’d have to find another time to end his meaningless existence.


Ambrose walked toward Cicero to find that he was loading up the van with Iggy, Gregor, Timothy, and Prescilla. As Ambrose approached, Cicero placed three semi-automatic rifles in Ambrose’s hand. “Load them up,” he said, pointing to the van.


Ambrose gave the guns to Gregor, who stood inside the van loading up a small crate of weapons.


“I thought we were leaving tonight,” Ambrose asked, face reddening. “Don’t you guys always do raids at night? Isn’t that what we said yesterday?”


Prescilla swiped through pages of information on her digital tablet. “Dude, we have to go when we have to go. Atina just released a message saying they rescheduled the shipment that we were going to hit tonight for this morning.”


Leaning his back against the outside wall of the Den and fiddling with the nail in his pocket, Ambrose said, “Why don’t we raid a different truck, maybe one that comes at night?”


Timothy pulled a backpack of explosives over his shoulder. “Your young pup should get in line, Cicero, and stop asking so many questions.”


Cicero finished loading materials and looked Ambrose in the eyes. “If Prescilla says we have to go, we have to go. She’s the gatekeeper.”


“What if we get caught in open daylight?” Ambrose asked.


Iggy stepped forward and leaned down. “If you question orders too much, you’ll become a liability. You can always stay behind and spend time with the other youths.”


Cicero placed a stop sign with his hand in front of Iggy. “There’s no need for that. Right, Ambrose?”


“Right. I’m good. Just a little nervous is all.”


Gregor laughed. “Turn those nerves against the enemy and kill them rugged bastards.”


With enormous eyes, Ambrose said. “No one said anything about killing.”


Timothy shoved a pistol into his hand. “Think of it as throwing out the trash.”


“What?”


Placing his hand on Ambrose’s back, Cicero said, “Don’t listen to them. They only thing we do is defend ourselves against the IG6 guard bots and the IG5 service bots. They’re nothing more than hunks of metal. No offense, Iggy.”


“None taken, sir.”


Cicero snapped a disappointing glance at Iggy.



“Sorry, sir.”

Timothy pointed his finger at Cicero and snickered. “Looks like you got two pups to look after.”


Iggy turned to Timothy, his eyes burning with a fiery red.


Timothy shuddered. “I’m sorry, pal. I didn’t mean it. I was only foolin’ about.”


Laughing again, Gregor shouted, “Looks like Timothy’s the biggest pup of them all!”


“You better watch yourself,” said Timothy, glaring.


Gregor stepped out of the van and petted Timothy on the head. “What you gonna do about it, pup? Whine like a bitch?”


Timothy socked Gregor in the jaw, but before the situation accelerated beyond reconciliation, Prescilla looked up from her tablet. “You idiots!” she yelled. “Would you stop acting like a bunch of stupid boys and get in the van, already? We’ve got to go now!”


Everyone, except Iggy, lowered their heads and said in unison, “Yes ma’am.”


Sticking her finger in Iggy’s direction, she scowled.


Iggy nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”


“That’s better,” she said. “Now, let’s go before we miss our window of opportunity.”


***

Gregor remained silent while he drove the van. An equally quiet Timothy sat in the passenger seat, gazing out the window and refusing to make eye contact with Gregor. Prescilla kept her nose in her tablet, focusing with austere concentration on the logistics of the mission. Cicero and Iggy sat with their backs against the side door. Cicero had his eyes closed and Iggy stared forward, expressionless.


While everyone sat in contemplation in that hushed van, Ambrose broke the calm before the storm. Looking at Cicero, he asked. “Are you awake?”


With eyes still closed, Cicero said, “Yeah, what’s up?”


“Do they know about the you-know-what?”


Cicero opened his eyes. “You mean the prophecy?”


“Yeah.”


Blinking as if just waking up, Cicero said, “Everyone in this van is fighting hard to protect that little girl because they not only believe the prophecy, they believe in a better future. Oblivion’s not meant to be our final destination. It was always temporary, until one day, we could be a free people again, with all the residents inside Atina.”


“That sounds nice, I guess.”


“What could be better than dismantling Atina and setting all of her inhabitants free?”


“I thought we could keep messing around in the workshop. I like that.”


“What makes you think we can’t keep working together?”


“Once everyone is free, you’ll be free to do what you really want.”


Cicero raised an eyebrow. “What is it that you think I really want?”


Ambrose turned his head and scratched at the paint inside the van with his scabbed fingers.


“What’s that on your hand?” Cicero asked.


Quickly putting his hand back in his pocket, Ambrose clutched the six-inch nail in a fist. “It’s nothing. Forget about it.”


Leaning closer, Cicero reached out his hand. “It looks like dried blood. Let me see.”


Ambrose’s nostrils flared. “I said, forget about it!”


Scooting back, Cicero frowned. “Whatever you say, man.”


Ambrose felt foolish. There was no reason for him to snap at the only person in Oblivion who showed him respect. He stared at the floor of the van, planning in his mind something appropriate to say that would make up for his outburst, but he couldn’t think clear thoughts.


“You asked me,” Cicero said, hands folded in his lap, “what it is I really want.”


Ambrose looked up with a doe-like expression on his face, rubbing the nail in between his fingers.


“I want a family. When I was at the Academy, they didn’t allow me to talk to people in person. Atina told us it was because we had a disease. To prevent the spread, we socially distanced ourselves. Most people were content with living their own lives and not making waves with the system. They said Atina loved us, and everything they did was a derivative of that love. They gave us jobs where we could earn money to purchase products manufactured by the Bureau. It all seemed reasonable. We existed in their system, and they cared for us in their own way, supposedly. But I desired connection, a genuine connection. I wanted to shake hands with a colleague, hug a friend, kiss a woman. When I made it to Oblivion, I discovered what I was looking for was a family. I didn’t even know what a family was until I arrived.”


Ambrose hung on every word that Cicero spoke, staring at him with an undeterred focus.


“In Oblivion,” Cicero said, “we do everything together. We don’t just talk and hang out. We know each other, intimately. The good and the bad. Sometimes, we dance. Sometimes, we’re at each other’s throats, but we’re free. Free to receive love and to give it back in return.”


Ambrose sunk his head. “And where do I fit in?”


Smiling, Cicero pointed at Ambrose. “You’re part of my family, man. My family started with Penelope and Iggy. But I’m super blessed to consider Prescilla, Gregor, Timothy, and you as part of my family also.” Cicero dropped the smile and his eyes grew in intensity. “Family does not give up on each other at the first sign of conflict. We got each other’s backs no matter what. No prophecy will change that.”


Ambrose let go of the nail and put both hands on his lap, left hand covering his right to hide the dried blood. He gave a half-smirk to Cicero. “Sorry I yelled earlier.”


“Don’t worry about it. We’re almost at our destination. Get your head straight and follow my lead.”


“Right.”


***

The crew of Gatherers made it back to Oblivion in one piece, with boxes of powered eggs, pre-packaged “meat” engineered in a lab, and a box of dry crackers known as hardtack. Unfortunately, there was no formula, just like Watchman had said.


A group of teenage girls saw Ambrose unloading the boxes at the cafeteria and giggled to each other. No youth had ever been on a raid.


He looked at them and waved, smiling like a doofus. They waved back, folding their hair behind their ears and giggling some more.


Gregor pushed the crate of guns into his chest and laughed. “Check it out, Timothy. Young pup thinks he’s a man now.”


“Come over here, pup. Let me tell you about the birds and the bees.”


Iggy took the crate from Ambrose and placed it on the ground. “If you would like to help Ambrose with the opposite sex, teach him about sexual intercourse, not birds and bees. Animals and insects would provide little help to his situation.”


Timothy shook his head. “C’mon, Gregor. Let’s put these weapons away at the Armory. Iggy’s about to give the young pup a lesson he won’t soon forget.”


Gregor threw his head back and chortled. Even Prescilla let out a slight chuckle.


Iggy raised a finger and scientifically said, “When a man experiences firmness in his—”


Cicero rushed in front of Iggy. “Maybe we can save this talk for another time. Let’s pull the van around to the workshop and repair the side door that got shot to hell. We leave tomorrow for our main performance and we need to make sure everything is perfect.”


Iggy and Ambrose climbed into the back of the van, while Cicero took the driver’s seat, taking the vehicle to the back of a building made of varying thicknesses of sheet metal.


With his brute strength, Iggy pulled the door off the van and brought it into the shop where Cicero led his small crew in repairing it.


“Can’t Iggy do all this work himself?” Ambrose asked. “Why should we do anything?”


Cicero grabbed a screwdriver and unfastened the screws. “Despite what people think, Iggy can’t do everything. And even if he could, he’s not some work horse. He’s my friend.”


Poking at Iggy’s breastplate, Ambrose looked down his nose. “When I was at the Academy, I had an instructor—Mr. Fisher. I was with him from age twelve to fourteen, until Oblivion rescued me. He showed us how to dissect each bot down to its base components. I never thought of it as more than just a bunch of random parts. One day, I crossed my wires and Mr. Fisher scolded me. He said, ‘Stop treating it with such disrespect!’ Every time I messed up, he’d hit my hand with one of those expandable steel batons.” Ambrose looked at his hands. “I messed up a lot.”


Ambrose never felt like Iggy liked him much, and he was realizing in that moment that maybe Iggy felt the same way about him. Up to that point, he didn’t see Iggy as much more than a useful object at best, a constant reminder that he was no good at working with bots.


Iggy leaned down and touched Ambrose’s chest. “Cicero can be a friend to both of us,” he said. “Like he said, we’re all family here.”


Ambrose gazed into Iggy’s seemingly cold eyes and found what Cicero had been saying all along. Something almost human. Not a program. Not a mimicry. He had control over his own mind, free of anyone’s control. Ambrose understood, as Cicero took apart the van door, that he now had two people who cared for him in Oblivion, and if they could learn to accept him, maybe others would, too.


Walking to the toolbox to grab a pair of pliers, Cicero said, “Are you two gonna stare in each other’s eyes all day or are y’all gonna help me.”


“We’re here to help, sir.”


Cicero turned around and jutted out his finger at Ambrose. “You can’t call me that, either.”


Ambrose snorted and gave Iggy a high-five, walking over to help Cicero with the door to get ready for the warehouse raid the next day.


***

Watchman met with the crew of six at ten o’clock at night in front of a loaded van. “I’ve sent an encrypted message to Janine. She knows to leave behind a crate of fifty containers of formula at the loading dock, hidden behind a pallet of hardtack. At exactly midnight, the group of IG6s patrolling the dock will leave for charging. There will be a one-minute window when the dock will be unguarded, waiting for the next shift of bots. You will drive by, quickly pick up the crate, and hightail it out of there. Thanks to Cicero’s improved engine design, you should be able to get away before they know what’s happened. Questions?”


Gregor raised a finger. “If we make it back alive, I call dibs on watching little miss precious.”


With a wrinkled face, Watchman said, “I think Penelope’s got a pretty good handle on that.”


“She’s been hogging Angelica and not giving anyone else a chance to see her.”


Cicero smirked. “You could change her diaper.”


“Yuck. No!”


“Ha! That’s what Ambrose said.”


Prescilla rubbed the side of her neck. “Can we go already?”


Nodding in agreement, Watchman said, “Yes, I think you should.” He spoke a blessing over them and stood still as they piled into the van.


Ambrose was the last one in, waving at Watchman as he closed the side door.


As Gregor turned the key to start the van, he said, “Who’d have thought knocking over a warehouse for some formula would be our biggest mission yet?”


“I don’t know about that,” said Timothy, picking at his fingernails, “but we better get some peace and quiet in the ride this time. My favorite part of any raid is the anxious silence before everything goes down.”


“Down where?” asked Iggy.


Timothy pointed to his pants. “Down there, man. The more exciting the raid, the bigger my, um, firmness.”


“Ew, gross!” shouted Prescilla.


“Nice!” said Gregor, laughing hysterically and fist bumping Timothy.


“I don’t understand,” Iggy stated, looking at Cicero.


“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “They’re just being vulgar.”


Prescilla rubbed her temples. “We need to add more girls to these raids.”


Ambrose was more lost than Iggy in the entire conversation.


After the laughter settled, a seriousness swept through the van. Ambrose still had so many questions, but he kept them inside. He looked around at the people in the van and thought maybe Cicero was right. He wasn’t the only one longing for a family. He needed one, too. Maybe inside every human was a deep need to be a part of something outside themselves. Maybe that’s why everyone in Atina always seemed so empty. Social distancing kept people from experiencing the deepest longings of their hearts. It kept them from being connected with other humans.


Putting his hands in his pockets, he leaned his head back against the van wall. Feeling that the nail was still in there, he pulled it out and looked down at it. Staring at the dried blood under his fingernails, he placed the nail on the floor. As long as I’m with family, I’ll be okay.


The Bureau was ten minutes away. The central hub of commerce in Atina was about to get hit by a ragtag group of Gatherers. Were they brave or just plain foolish? Probably both. Regardless, the tension inside Ambrose’s chest wrapped around his heart like a serpent. He couldn’t breathe. He feared failure, but he feared more that his failure would lead to his new family rejecting him. He wanted to do them proud, but he was still a weak kid who didn’t know anything.


Cicero stared at Ambrose, whose internal struggle shown on his face. “You okay?”


“I’ll be fine, I think.”


“Remember. Atina guards their resources more than they guard their secrets. Even if Janine follows through, this thing can go sideways quick. But no matter what happens, we have each other’s back, right?”


Ambrose dipped his head.


Extending his hand, Cicero said, “Don’t let fear immobilize you.”


With a clammy palm, Ambrose gripped Cicero’s hand and shook it. “Right.”


Gregor pulled up across the street to the loading dock and darted his eyes back and forth. “Anyone see the pallet of hardtack?”


Timothy pointed. “I think I see it over there.”


Gregor shifted the van into park. “Alright, guys. It’s eleven-fifty-seven. In three minutes, we should be good to go.”


Everyone piled out of the van. Prescilla took the driver's seat. Gregor, Timothy, Cicero, and Ambrose each grabbed a rifle with three magazines and a pistol.


Iggy took his stance in front of the van. “Another reason I enjoy not being human is that I don’t have to burden myself with extra equipment.”


Gregor kneeled and whispered, “Show off.”


“I believe it’s called banter, if I’m not mistaken.”


Shushing them with his finger over his mouth, Timothy said, “Both of you shut up.”


Four IG6s patrolling the dock left exactly at midnight, like Watchman said.


The group of five ran across the street to the pallet of hardtack while Prescilla kept the engine running.


Gingerly, they walked behind the pallet, but there was no crate of formula.


A flood light turned on a group of twelve IG6s rolled out.


Iggy almost jumped into action when Cicero held him back.


“Nobody move!” a voice cried from a megaphone.


Emerging from the group of twelve bots was a pudgy gentleman pulling a middle-aged woman by her black hair. Throwing her on the ground, he said in his loudspeaker, “Tell your bot to surrender to us and we won’t kill this filth.”


“Janine!” Cicero yelled, taking a step forward.


Her face appeared bruised and bloodied.


Iggy put his hand in front of Cicero. “I’ll go. You protect our family.”


Ambrose, heart racing and feet frozen, said, “No! You can’t leave. You’re part of our family.”


Iggy turned to Ambrose. “I’ve done the calculations. If we surrender, there is a sixty-seven-point-three percent chance of survival. If we try to fight, that chance drops to seventeen-point-eight.”


“What will happen to us if we surrender?” Cicero asked.


The pudgy man licked his lips. “You get to move into my special prison for enemies of the state, but at least you get to keep your lives. For now.”


Gregor, hunched over and gripping his gun tightly, surveyed the scene. “I say we fight.”


Timothy nodded. “I second that notion.”


Iggy took three steps forward and turned around to address the team. “The rational choice is to do as they say. It’s okay. I was never meant to live, so the time I’ve had I’m grateful for.”


Cicero frowned. “But Iggy—”


Ambrose’s heart beat louder and faster with each passing second as he repeated in his mind his friend’s encouraging words. Don’t let fear immobilize you. Don’t let fear immobilize you.

“I can’t let them take Iggy,” Ambrose whispered.


Suddenly, before he knew what he was doing, he lifted his semi-automatic and pistol and fired into the group of IG6s. Gregor, Timothy, and Iggy did the same. Cicero grabbed Janine and pulled her to the other side of the hardtack.


The pudgy man waddled away, screaming on his way back into the warehouse.


Iggy let out a blast of energy that became a force field around the group. “Run!” he yelled.


Prescilla saw the firefight and, with screeching tires, pulled up to the dock.


Cicero designed Iggy to hold the force field for only a minute, lest he drain his entire power supply, but he pushed himself to two.


The team made it back into the van, but Iggy was still holding. “I enjoyed being a part of your family.”


“We’re not leaving without you!” Cicero shouted.


Iggy didn’t respond. He fell to the ground with a thud.


In a state of shock, Prescilla froze.


Cicero tried opening the van to rescue Iggy, but Timothy stopped him, yelling at Prescilla, “Go!”


Prescilla pressed her foot firm on the accelerator and rushed out of there.


Grabbing Timothy by the collar, Cicero punched him in the eye. “I could’ve saved him!”


He pulled his arm back to take another swing, but Gregor caught his hand. “Calm down! It’s not Timothy’s fault.”


Cicero fought against Gregor, but he fell under the force of Gregor’s muscular arms tightening around his body. “I’ll kill him!” Cicero yelled, tears streaming down his face.


“I know, man,” Gregor said. “But you can do that later.”


Cicero stopped fighting. Instead of yelling, he only cried—hysterically—all the way home.

Ambrose couldn’t help but feel it was his fault.


When they got back to Oblivion, the van pulled up to the Armory and Watchman greeted them with a large smile on his face. His joy quickly dissipated when everyone piled out with such glum looks. “What happened?”


Timothy helped Janine out of the van, and Watchman’s eyes shifted from curious to alarming. “Janine! What’re you doing here?”


“I got the formula like you asked, but they were expecting me. They beat me until I told them what your plan was. I held out as long as I could, but—”


Watchman sat her down on a bench. “You can tell me more tomorrow, after we get you to the Infirmary.”


Cicero went off to the workshop alone, zapped dry of every last tear in his ducts.


“Is he gonna be okay?” Ambrose asked Gregor.


“Honestly, I don’t know.”


Ambrose walked to the Sanctuary to clear his head, trying to process what happened. There he found Penelope holding Angelica in a blanket.


“How did the raid go,” she asked.


Sinking his head in shame, Ambrose said, “I’d rather not say.”


“Where’s Cicero? I’ve got news for him.”


“He’s in his workshop.”


“It’s a little late to be tinkering, isn’t it?”


“I don’t know.”


Though not catching it at first, he found it odd that Penelope was with Angelica outside in the middle of the night. He shook his head, “Come to think of it, why are you and baby Angelica out here so late?”


“That’s what I need to tell Cicero. I induced lactation.”


“What does that mean?”


“It means we might not need that formula, after all. It means a whole lot of things.”

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