It’s May 1st, and life is back to normal after the April A to Z Challenge. Chuck Wendig gave us two lists from which to make up an X meets Y inspired story. I drew 2 and 15 (35) making: Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets the Matrix. Hmmm. Lots of contemporary culture there. I’m weak on contemporary culture! He wants 2000 words. He’ll get as many as it runs to – which turns out to be 1700. This is one of those pieces which shows writers just have to sit down and write, sometimes.
Steph perched her butt on the radiator below the windowsill outside the gym, keeping her eyes on the floor. She wanted no contact with the over-confident, the faux-nervous, the really terrified, or the blasé students around her. She knew she hadn’t done enough revision for this last exam of the year, but it was all she’d had time for. Other things kept interfering with her sleep, and leaking into the time she should be studying. When the exams were over, she’d work out what the heck was going on in the world outside.
Two sneakered feet stopped in her line of vision. As the minutes before the exam room door opened ticked by, her gaze rose up the legs above the sneakers, arriving at Colm’s waist with only a brief flicker at areas of curiosity to a 16 year old girl with a good sense of propriety. Her eyes rested on the abs, then the pecs nicely outlined under his “Hack More – You Know It Makes Cents” tee. She had that warm feeling on her face that she knew from experience meant he was silently laughing at her.
She was saved from any more meaningful interaction by the ringing of a distant bell, and the doors to the gym opening. Lines of single desks stretched from door to stage at the far end. Ropes were tied back to the bars lining the walls. She considered the opportunity they offered for escape. There was none. The last exam had to be sat.
And sat it was.
“So, do you think you’ll get your grades?” Colm asked as they sat on the grass by the river afterwards.
“Come’on, you’ll do okay. Anyhow, you’re smarter than most.”
Steph laughed out loud at that. “Smarter than most” was not what her grades said, any time through school.
“Oh, maybe not exam-smart, but that doesn’t count so much on the outside.”
Colm was back-tracking rapidly, Steph thought. “Well, you’re both,” she said. He nodded. If you ever got as easy with people as you are with computers you’d be impossible, she thought.
They lay back, gazing at the sky through the willow branches. The buzzing of flies and other insects was soporific. Steph might have dozed, or maybe time just passed, but she was brought into awareness of her surroundings again by a tinny, scratchy, buzzing whine. She felt, rather than saw, a sharp movement from Colm which cut the sound off.
“What was that?” she asked him.
“Someone trying to contact me.”
She rolled on to her side and propped herself up on her arm to look at his face. “Really? Real computer noises? Do you understand them?”
“Yeah. It’s just a language like any other. Chinese, for example.”
“Oh. You speak Chinese as well?”
He chuckled. “Not yet. But you know I like the insides of computers. That was a message from a hacking buddy.”
She shook her head and lay back again. Boys. “So I suppose he’s set up a route into the Pentagon and wants you to infiltrate it with him.”
Colm turned his head to stare at her, so she returned the stare. “What? I was joking!”
“Just checking,” he said, returning his gaze to the sky. Another signal buzzed through. “I must go,” he said, standing up.
“Just like that? No celebratory meal? No ‘We’ve finished our exams’ party?”
“No, I didn’t want to anyway. You go.”
“Not likely. Not on my own. Everyone thinks I’m weird hanging out with you, and I won’t give them the satisfaction of turning up on my own.”
Colm shrugged. “I have to go.” He started walking.
“OK!” she said, catching him up. “I want to see this. You mind?”
Colm continued walking. Steph had to jog every couple of steps to keep up.
“What are you thinking?”
“Whether I mind.”
Colm’s home backed on to the same stretch of forest as Steph’s so in spite of in being a good distance away by car, it was a short walk between them if you knew the forest tracks. He let himself in and went up to his room; Steph followed. She hovered at his door, looking round at the stuff on his walls. The usual band posters. Ads for new Apple merch. His bed was neat, clothes were put away. It didn’t smell anything like her brothers’ rooms. She sighed.
“I was just admiring your housetraining.”
“What?” He looked around, genuinely puzzled, and turned back to his screen, tapping in symbols from a keyboard that had no recognisable letters on it. “Sit there. If you like.” he added, pointing to a cushion on a box beside him. Obviously his hacking buddies used it too.
“So, are we really breaking into the Pentagon?”
“Not exactly.” A blue screen with a black and yellow logo that Steph didn’t recognise appeared on the screen. Colm held his hand to something round the back of the screen and the logo faded, to be replaced by a menu. He put some sort of code into a box at the top of the screen and watched as streams of data scrolled through. It stopped. He put his hand to the back of the screen again, and the computer shifted to the Mac welcome screen.
“What did you just do?”
“Steph, where are your parents today?”
“At a civic meeting, weren’t yours told to be there too?”
Colm shook his head. “My mom’s at work. I checked.”
Steph became aware of the sound of police sirens in the valley below the forest. “What about your dad?”
“Have I ever talked about my dad?”
“No, but… I’m sure my dad said he’d met him.”
Colm smiled. “Yes, I think your dad may have met him. Hold on.”
Another police siren screamed past, on their road now.
“Time to go. Steph. if you trust me, come with me and do what I say. If you don’t, stay here and let the police round you up with the others. Choose!”
He got up and threw a few things into a bag. He reached the door, and looked at her, one eyebrow raised.
Two hours later they were lying on the edge of a cliff overlooking a warehouse. They’d jogged right through the forest, not across it to Steph’s house, so she had nothing with her, and was thankful she’d worn sneakers and long pants that day. Colm had nipped into a gas station nestled in the edge of the woods, and brought back drinks and hot sandwiches. She’d asked what was going on numerous times, and met with no reply, so she’d given up asking.
Now, in the gathering gloom, she gazed on the roof of a warehouse some miles from their own neighbourhood, and she wondered how far trust could be taken.
“What next?” she whispered.
“If we’re in time, I can disable the contents of the warehouse. If not… “
He tailed off as the sounds of a roll-down door being rolled up disturbed the sounds of crickets in the grass. Sounds of marching feet replaced the door sound. Ranks of soldiers, dressed more like Star Wars than West Wing, filed out of the warehouse. Steph went to ask who they were, but Colm gently put his hand across her mouth and pressed her face to his chest. She could tell he’d ducked his head too. She clearly heard that whiny, buzzing noise emanate from his arm unit again. He moved his arm to his head and the noise faded, then was replaced by a different note. All the while, the tramp, tramp of the soldiers continued as they filed out below.
At last the warehouse was empty. Colm released Steph from her awkward position against his chest and pointed down the road.
“I was too late. The takeover has begun.”
Steph wasn’t sure whether to laugh or object. Takeover?
Then the sounds of gunfire, screams, and the acrid smells of burning started to waft across from the centre of town.
“Steph, I’m going to have to introduce you to some friends of mine. And then we’re going to have to move to one of the cities where they stopped the MiCEEs in time.”
“Mices? Your grammar is appalling!”
“I never bother with grammar. These are micro-engineered containment elimination and execution units. They are lethal. I can’t do anything against them. That data I downloaded told me they were here, but they fooled us all into thinking the attack would come on July Fourth. Your dad said it would be any day of a public meeting. He was right.”
His tinny buzzing sounded again.
“What is that?” Steph asked, since it was the only question she could form out of the many zooming round her head.
“My comm unit. I have… augmented computer skills.”
“I always knew you were a geek.”
“Do you want to join the masses and be taken over by these things, or do you want to fight them, with me and my friends?”
Steph could hear enough of what was happening in town to know she had no intention of being taken over. “I’ll fight.”
“I knew you would. You really are your dad’s daughter.”
“What do you mean?”
“Your dad’s a genius. He’s also brave. But I must get you away from here so you can live to fight another day. Let’s go.”
When Steph looked back on that conversation over the years to come, she wondered just how Colm had managed to pass himself off as a sixteen year-old boy, just another schoolfriend. It was nice to know that her father had been concerned enough to make her a special bodyguard, one that could never have been detected by normal surveillance techniques. And it was totally understandable that she felt both safe and in danger with him. Because she was entirely safe with him. Especially when the situation was most dangerous.
The war was over. The war of the MiCEEs, and the totalitarian regime that controlled them. Or had it only nearly ended, and a few rebels just needed rounding up and eliminating? Not if Steph could help it. The war was only just beginning.
(c) J M Pett 2015