THE TWO TRAVELERS

PRELUDE

BEYOND THE GLASS WALL

 

“Anyone who trades liberty for security deserves neither liberty nor security.”

                                                                                                Benjamin Franklin

1

            One thousand years ago two lovers met in a concentration camp-like facility known to the public as Reclamation Facility 59. They had arrived one after the other separated only by moments, both landing at the United Countries Law Division Washington DC Airport, which had once been known as the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, both utterly unaware of each other’s existence.
            They would both mark the beginning of their adventures after their capture when they found themselves immersed in darkness with nothing but the yellow light of the armor peeler set above them.

2

            The dish shaped device, roughly three feet in diameter and the color of spicy mustard yellow, was designed to block the part of Justin Biryukov’s brain that allowed him to access the bionic augmentation armor that was lying dormant in molecular form deep within the cells of his body. The intense headache he was feeling came from that part of his brain being too aggressively blocked for too long, a feeling akin to that of having his head in a vice.
            He was seated in a black metal chair with his wrists handcuffed through the bar through its back and covered in sweat from the heat that the leather jacket he had been wearing when he was captured was making significantly worse. The dish above him was the only light in the room but despite the intense heat it was giving off it was still so dull and narrow that only covered him, the chair and the ground below.
            From an inch beyond the chair everything was pitch black darkness.
            How long had he been there? Justin could not quite recall as time was funny in the dark but it was at least six hours. It took at least that long to start feeling the headache effect of the armor peeler but it was bad enough that even maybe it was as long as ten or twelve hours. He thought that if it was any more than that he would have started bleeding from his nostrils. That form of armor peeler was not really designed to be used for more than a few minutes.
            A door in the darkness suddenly opened and Justin winced back from the blinding light from the white room beyond. He could not see much of anything beyond the whiteness but he could make out a man in a doctor’s lab coat stepping inside the room carrying a dangling, twitching thing Justin knew to be a bio blocker.
            The object was transparent, squishy and shaped very much like a scarab with six long metal legs in place of real legs that all wiggled around as the doctor came in holding it by its larger lower body. It looked almost alive, almost eager, and the doctor was holding it away from his body with only two fingers, evidently little bit nervous himself.
            “Oh God is this going to hurt?” Justin was pretty sure it would but when he was nervous he talked without thinking. He felt the bio blocker on the back of his neck begin to tickle and he braced for some real pain.
            “You would rather have your penis yanked off than experience the pain of what is about to happen,” said the doctor almost pleasantly.
            Justin grunted as the legs jammed themselves into his skin. “In the future—” Justin felt them jerk in further with their barbed-like points added for extra pain “—can you please lie—” His voice turned into a cry of agony as the pain suddenly amplified with the legs extending their metal tributaries all throughout the muscle grounding the device it into his neck extremely well. “Oh fucking hell!” groaned Justin and he saw that saliva was dripping out of his mouth.
            The doctor lifted Justin’s head up and revealed a man’s face made almost pure mustard yellow from the armor peeler, a man with light hair, light eyes, and a hard angular face filled with hate. “You have violated Law, Beercove, and you must pay the price! Law has zero tolerance for treason!”
            Justin felt the pain grow even worse with more tributaries extending and he pulled vainly against his handcuffs as if to reach up and pull the blocker off. The chain between them prevented him from getting his hands out from the holes on either side of the chair’s vertical bar but even if he could get them out the red tinted force fields the cuffs generated around his hands would easily prevent him from grabbing or touching anything.
            Finally the bio blocker stuck its proboscis into his neck draining some blood which Justin knew would turn the clear part of its body crimson. He sighed then in sudden relief as numbness followed and when the armor peeler turned off he sighed in even deeper relief. The armor peeler was no longer necessary for as long as Justin had that monstrous beetle on his neck his bio armor was staying right where it was but at least the heat was gone and his headache already disappearing.
            “Do you like it?” asked a man’s irritated slightly mechanical voice that sounded as if it went through a machine which it had. He was wearing environmentally sealed bionic armor somehow out there in the darkness. Justin had not seen him enter so he must have been hiding there all along.
            Justin looked for him, could not find him, and then watched the doctor step back out into the white room. His vision had adapted enough so that he could see it was some kind of laboratory but it was gone before he could get more than that. He stared into the darkness licking his dry lips and tongue, he had not ever seen water since the day before, and said, “Oh I just love it.” The nanoprobes from the bio blocker, microscopic machines too small for the eye to see, had by then killed the pain so only misery and bitterness remained. “Just love it to death,” he added and then lowered his head.
            “Sarcastic too,” said the voice bitterly and suddenly a very dim gray light appeared horizontally across the room illuminating a man in bionic augmentation armor but only just barely. Most of the room beyond the light was still very dark.
            The bio armor of the American branch of the Faction, the common name used to refer to the United Countries’ Law Division, was blatantly stolen from the United States Marine Corps and looked almost exactly like Justin’s only with different colors. The majority of them were crimson colored covered by deep black plates that went over every inch of them from head to toe blocking almost all the red. There were clearer lines of red wherever there were accessories but clearer than that were the augmentation plates that were large lines following the exoskeleton that increased the wearer’s strength and speed. The face plates were fully environmental gas masks organically created to give the impression of one who seems to be a faceless emotionless being covered in red with black plates with huge black lenses over the eyes spread from the forehead to chin with a thin line between that also gave a more vague impression of a large bug eyed creature. Like all bio armors the plates and armor looked merged and all the accessories, such as the double vibration blades on each wrist that were the among the standard weapons and utilities required for every soldier, were the same color as the plates which meant if the Faction man extended out his double blades and stabbed Justin right then and there Justin would be able to look down and see that they were the same black as the plates they extended from.
            All Justin saw for that soldier’s accessories were the blades on the top of his wrists which meant he was new. Even in the dim light Justin could see that there were no other lines aside from his augmentation ones anywhere on those smooth plates to indicate any other device. Since so many had turned traitor with their cue their new recruits found themselves with significantly less accessories until they somehow earned them. They didn’t even have the domestic functions that Justin was given before he was even given the first layer of armor that was the extremely intricate mesh-like material under the plates they had.
            The man approached him and stared down at him with those black bug eyes that Justin wanted to think of as Spider Man but tended to more think of as Al Hedison in the Fly. “Son,” the man’s slightly mechanical voice said, “Have you any idea how much trouble you’re in?”
            Justin leaned back and looked up at him. “I really don’t,” he replied honestly. “What happens now?” He was honestly surprised he wasn’t dead. He was the second to last of his friends to get caught and he had felt reasonably certain the others, all members of former branches of the United States Military like himself, had been executed.
            “As you are a bionic engineer yourself you know that there is absolutely no way we could pull out your bionic augmentation armor with that blocker on your neck. You also have no access to your artificially intelligent companion and no access to any involuntary chemical assistance that might have been programmed in to your bio armor.”
            “I know.”
            The man moved in front of him, stood there in front of the doorway, and opened and closed his fist. He looked like he really wanted to hurt Justin despite the fact that he had so far been a model prisoner. “Did you actually build your AIC from the ground up?” he asked in a quiet voice.
            “Yes,” Justin replied. He had begun working on his artificial intelligent companion as a young child but it took him years to get him right. He had named him Lincoln after Abraham Lincoln and at present he was inside Justin’s body comatose in the form of disconnected molecules. He had always planned for him to be what he eventually became and Lincoln outscored the premade versions in the AIC engineering tests easily. “I started him when I was eight or so and finished him when I was thirteen.”
            “You disgust me!” said the man and his hands opened and closed again making a kind of creaking sound similar to squeezed leather. “We’re bombed daily and you, a young man of your intellect, goes out and steals UCLD property from the wreckage like some goddamn fucking parasite!” His real personality was coming out in an oozing ugly way and Justin felt like he had to be very careful around him or he might just try to rip him limb from limb utilizing the amplified strength of his armor. “How useful a bionic engineer would be to Law! How vital for our struggle!” He was making himself mad, almost taunting himself, and took a step closer. “When I think of what Germany and traitor Canada have been doing—” he stepped back and shook his head “—I don’t like selfish people, Bookycove! Not one bit!”
            “Is this part of the Faction Interrogation Handbook—” The Faction man suddenly rushed forward up into his face. The face obviously showed no difference in expression but his body language showed that he was on the verge of shrieking in the rage.
            What was his story, Justin wondered? Was he screwed over by the Fifty-Fifty Law forcing half the jobs in the country to be worked by minorities created by the liberals or was he haunted by the endless debt that followed grandparent to parent and parent to child that was made possible when the Good Citizen Act passed by the conservatives? It was impossible to tell if those two major reasons or any number of minor ones created by either side had set him down the road of Faction servitude but it was clear he was one of the true believers.
            “You’ll have your accessories soon enough, buddy,” Justin told him with a strange smile.
            The man stepped back, took a chair out from the darkness, and slammed it down in front of him with its back facing Justin. Then he casually sat down on it and leaned forward onto its back. Bionic armor form fit to the body so perfectly that it never encumbered its owner even though it was capable of making its wearer outrun cars, jump over buses and see in a variety of spectrums.
            “I am Collector Harry Berman and you will refrain any personal comments about my person and refer to my organization by its proper name: the United Countries Law Division or the tolerable but borderline inappropriate UCLD for short.” He tapped the back of the chair with one of his black plated red fingers that he would almost be able to feel it as well as he would with his real fingers. “You are in some serious trouble here, boy,” he told him.
            Justin tried to swallow and found his mouth was still very dry. “Harry,” he said slowly, “What is going to happen now?” He had expected to find out he was going to be executed and mentally prepared himself for it but he no longer thought that was going to happen. They wouldn’t have bothered with the bio blocker if that were the case.
            “Well,” said Berman, “You have been caught stealing something rather valuable and you have connected it to your bionic matrix and that despite knowing all ex-United States military bionic inventory rightfully belongs to the United Countries Law Division. Doing this kind of thing makes us rather unhappy and there is not very much that I can do for you.”
            Even if he could Justin would have been surprised he had even bothered and anyway those reasons were just a pretext. None of his friends had stolen anything. “Did Philip tell you that was the reason he hunted me all across the United States?” he asked.
            Officer Berman ignored that. “Your records indicate that you are just barely eighteen years of age, born and raised in California and educated from the age of ten for the United States military centered in the Citadel Military Academy of South Carolina and there stood out in the records as an engineering prodigy specializing in bionics. You were accepted into some rather prestigious classes despite the—” Justin sensed his sneer somehow “—Fifty-Fifty Law. That is an impressive resume.”
            “Not really,” said Justin. “Most of my classmates were douchebags.” Berman laughed at that but it wasn’t a joke or a lie. The Fifty-Fifty Law required that minorities were half the people hired for jobs, below executive level of course, or accepted into prestigious military schools which were the only ones worth a damn and there just weren’t enough of them to have ensured worthy students filled up close to the half of their number required. They were accepted only for financial and tax related reasons and the occasional minority who did earn his or her place there often found themselves instantly treated as if he was given a prize he or she did not deserve even if they did as was the case of Justin’s friend Shawn. While one half was gone to minorities the other half almost universally consisted of children slipped in by powerful and wealthy parents who all tended to be incredible snobs whose grades were often suspiciously higher than their skills should have warranted.
            Justin never took much pride in being the head or close to the head of his class for that reason and had started out feeling very alone as one of the only “normal” children in his school.
            “I like you, Justin, but there really is nothing I can do for you.” As a wonder he actually sounded like he meant it. “I’m sorry but you’re going to a reclamation facility where it is hoped that we will one day redeem you.”
            Justin felt a shiver run up his spine. He had seen a reclamation facility in California with his own eyes not too long ago and many more in pictures and videos over the years, of the outside anyway, and he had no desire to go anywhere near one let alone inside. They were always a simple series of white buildings built like square blocks with a tower in the center that had a mysterious red light that flashed on and off above the world. What happened inside such a series of buildings was a sinister mystery. Justin heard rumors of every sort: experiments, murders, rapes, mutilations and not just of adults but small children as well and all where there were no cameras. They were ludicrous crazy tales and he didn’t believe them entirely but he had never met anyone who had ever left a facility to put those frightening rumors completely to rest. No one he knew had either and he found that it was that fact that gave his imagination the most chilling vibe of all.
            People who entered those facilities simply never came out again. Oh the news showed videos of happy people leaving the facilities over and over again but everywhere there were empty houses with full mailboxes and unread papers by the garages that created its own kind of chilling, quiet news.
            Whatever it was that was going on in there Justin was going to find out.
            I’m going to die, he thought. I’m really going to die and it isn’t going to be as quick as a firing squad.
            Berman seemed pleased by his expression, stood up, and moved the chair and himself back into the shadows. “Watch this video, Justin, and do try to understand.”
            “Video?” The white door opened, blinding him again, and when it closed behind Collector Harry Berman the lights all turned off leaving Justin in complete darkness. “I don’t suppose this will be something Oscar worthy?” Of course, that didn’t say much because the Oscars no longer existed and most of the iconic films destroyed. The conservative backed Human Decency Law was passed when Justin was a boy and it banned any film, videogame, music video or comic that had any allusion to sex, violence, bad language, or inappropriate behavior in general furthering the incredible censoring that already existed. The conservatives cheered in the streets at their great victory but it killed virtually all of Americans entertainment industry in all four categories overnight as any attempt to follow the law and still make such products under those restrictions earned an audience of less than one percent of what could be expected beforehand.
            Oddly, violence actually increased exponentially in all ages in all forms but the conservatives simply blamed the liberal president for being “too soft” on crime and being a secret atheist and their voters bought into it and voted in a conservative president the next term who did nothing to reverse the trend.
            A giant holographic video monitor was projected directly ahead filling up the entire wall ahead of him. It looked so perfectly real that its holographic nature was indiscernible with the human eye save for that fact that it was connected to the nothing and floated in the air. It was blank at first, just a very dark gray, before it suddenly hit him with an incredibly bright badge of the Faction: a red circle with a yellow flame in the center set over a black background. It was there for only a moment before it was replaced by a very familiar handsome blond man dressed in a black suit with a bright red tie standing symbolically in front of a burned out church.
            “Hello fellow Americans,” said the man pleasantly, “My name is Ian Owen Williamson and I’m here to talk to you about the United Countries Law Division, the joint system of governmental control founded by ourselves, France, and England. We, the UCLD, are the soldiers of Law. Law is not religion and we do not believe in any ‘god’ any more than we believe in the Easter Bunny. We are people of order who drop the outdated and unrealistic views of gender, race, wealth and prosperity left behind from outdated concepts such as religion and the old ways of governments. The hooks of the past that have held us down since the age of spears and stone have just been pulled out at long last.
            “Such past is a tapestry of horrors created by misguided emotions. Love for this ‘God,’ a ghost that does nothing, is one of the worst.” Williamson’s blue eyes twinkled.  “Are the corporations that claim to follow their teachings any better? The corporations who controlled our government, stole our wealth, our happiness and our lives while raising prices of necessities to put us deeper in debt transforming us into their personal cash cows and who would then turn around to each other and call themselves ‘Great Americans.’
            “Their pet God forgives the cruelties they have put upon us with disturbing ease, promises them Heaven and eternal love, while we suffer at their feet to be vaguely promised the same if we take all that we have left and but fill the hand they hold out to us. Between the corrupt rich and the slaves of God we have much to show for our deep and genuine love: inquisitions, holocausts, unnecessary and uncalled for wars, government grand larceny, permanent debt, trillions of tax dollars wasted, criminals imprisoned for nonviolent drug use to serve the business of prisons robbing them the best years of their lives and all the while our enemies raise their chins eye proudly and proclaim they deserve it because they just work harder and love God Almighty.
            “That is the price of our love. That is the price of God Bless America.” Williamson was leaning against the church and gestured to it with his head. “This is where the ghost chasers have brought us as they pretend to find Jesus and fill the foreign lands with our corpses to make themselves rich and fat. They would make a burned out husk of a land with a burned out husk of a people giving out their life’s blood to serve their interests in the name of patriotism.”
            “Minimum wage has not increased generations and was needed to be increased long before then besides. The average work was eighty hours not including the work our children needed to do and even then it might barely cover a one room apartment if the area was very cheap and dangerous. When we complained about horrid conditions like gentlemen and ladies, the very things they believe themselves to be, they only responded with a ‘life’s not fair’ sort of reply; a kind of ‘too bad, poor baby,’ kind of attitude. One rich bitch I could name even wore a shirt that said “stop being poor,” as if it was so damn easy someone even as stupid as she was could actually pull it off. They claim they work harder, that’s why the get the bigger paychecks, but the average workweek for a billionaire was less than a tenth of ours and they had months of paid vacation versus our zero. Despite this obvious truth they call us lazy.” His voice had darkened at those last few words and cold rage could be seen behind his eyes.
            Justin found himself thinking of George Orwell’s novels 1984 and Animal Farm, both banned for being too violent along with Catcher in the Rye which was banned for sexuality, and then he thought about Hitler and Stalin’s rise into power and understood they had something in common with modern America.
            The conservatives and liberals, or what people called conservatives and liberals, gave the Faction what they needed to rise: an enemy to act as the hero against and a society that needed to be saved. Even now Ian Owen Williamson was still acting the hero as all dictators did although since the world wide cue did not workout something in the Faction was desperately going to have to change but since it almost certainly wasn’t going to something very bad was going to happen in its place and probably sooner rather than later.
            “What choice did they really give us?” Ian Owen Williamson proclaimed. “Be in debt forever, work forever, and have nothing ever to show for it? Were they really surprised when we left the hovels they put us in with our guns and rage to put them in their proper place? Law is about putting the bad people in their place. Law is about taking what is rightfully ours and putting back in our possession!
            “Law is justice and the very word that screams out to the universe that we will never go back to being a slave again!”

*          *          *

            Laura Adler never liked that man, not even as a child.
            She was soaked from sweat and as the bio blocker’s pain numbed in her neck all she could do was listen that stupid propaganda piece and wonder the great question of why: why was she there?
            She had been dishonorably discharged with complete legitimacy but after their semi-successful cue they suddenly wanted her back. They yanked her from an after racing party in the Colorado Hover Racing Circuit and without a word locked her in that room for half a day or more, inserted the bio blocker, and then threw on that horrible video.
            They had not said a word to her yet but since they bothered to put a bio blocker on her she knew at the very least she wasn’t going to be executed.
            She sighed, licked her dry lips and continued to watch the video.
            “We have been forced to make unpleasant choices but it is in the good to know that these choices have brought us the responsibility of justice.” The screen suddenly paused with Williamson’s face looking into the camera with a sly look on his face. She could see that handsome smile on that sculpted beautiful face of the charming, charismatic blond man that led the UCLD over the last decade into the cue that killed one president and at least three of four former presidents in a rather ugly, public way.
            “Why did you turn on us?” asked a woman’s slightly mechanical voice in the darkness.
            Laura said nothing. She could see the woman’s shape in the corner, a woman whose bio armor was being illuminated just slightly by the light of the holographic monitor. She had thought the woman would have left, the door had opened behind the screen and the doctor certainly had, but she did not for some reason.
            She had just stared at her quietly without a word until that moment.
            The woman walked up to Laura and grabbed her face with one plated gauntlet and shoved her own armored face close making it a black silhouette in front of the screen. “Say something, you bitch!” the woman hissed and Laura clenched her handcuffed hands behind the chair. “Say something!”
            Laura took a deep breath and said, “I don’t think it matters what I say,” she told her. “If you don’t know the ‘why’ now you never will Collector.” That was word used to describe the people who collected and interrogated potential traitors. It was a Faction military title just like colonel or major.
            “Collector Wilma Kern,” the woman said and then she made a cut off motion with her left hand and someone watching in another room turned the screen off and the dull horizontal gray light went back on. “You, Adler, are a traitor.” Kern shook her head but her body motion indicated more confusion than contempt or disgust. “You were one of the new women of our age, a warrior woman with the training skills to be one of our greatest pilots ever.” She leaned over and really examined Laura’s face. “You disgraced yourself,” she said like it was something incredibly insane. “You disobeyed a direct order.”
            “What do you know?” Laura asked.
            “What do I know? You’re eighteen, barely more than a girl. I’m twenty seven. I remember my father and mother both working eighty hours a week a piece unable to pay off student loan debt from their grandparents and what was left barely covered our shitty little apartment we lived in! It was so bad I had to drop out of school and work to pay for our utilities and food! That money they owed just got bigger and bigger even though they made every payment and by the time they died I would have had nearly a million dollars to pay for each if the government would have reduced the accumulated interest! We were corporate money farms to serve capitalist lowlifes! What the hell do you know about anything, Adler?”
            “I know that it doesn’t matter what I say,” Laura replied.
            The woman’s facemask was unreadable but something about her body language made Laura think her face would be as equally unreadable if she could see it. “It’s been decided that you are going to a reclamation facility.” Laura looked into that emotionless armored face with wide worried eyes. “If I had it my way, Adler, I would have you shot but the powers have other plans for their investment in you.”
            Laura felt her heart sinking. I am dead, she thought. I was a loose end that they’re going to pluck out but they’re just not going to make it easy.
            “Not so confident now, are we?” Kern asked.
            “I was never confident,” Laura replied honestly.
            “One point in your favor.” The door opened behind her and she turned head around to see armored soldiers standing like black silhouettes in front of a wall of white. “Take this tramp to the plane and get her out of my sight,” said the collector in utter disgust.

3

            The first plane landed at the United Countries Law Division Washington DC Airport one hour later at around twilight just when the sun was nearly gone with the clouds having turned various shades of orange above a sky that was still a vibrant blue. Justin had been pleasantly surprisingly to find himself riding on an American Transglobal Airlines prototype plane known as a Stardust. It had been perfected years before but since less than twenty had ever been made due to its enormous cost he had never actually expected to ride in one.
            It was sleek and beautiful in the ATA style with its wings pointed straight backward like an old fashioned jet with rounded tips and backs that reminded Justin of a bullet flying through the air. It was not, however, the silver and forest green externally nor did it have the incredibly opulent internal living space that was expected in such an opulent vehicle. It was Faction black with red tinted windows, the Faction flame on both wings and both sides near end, and inside were simply two rows of black seats no different than any normal plane except with automatically extending out straps that easily tied Justin down.
            After a very short and incredibly smooth ride the ship stopped moving forward, hovered in midair for a moment, then lowered itself straight downward to a landing strip. As it neared the bottom eight legs extended out of the sides to balance it felt perfectly on the ground before a ramp lowered down from the front so smoothly that its tip landed onto the ground with just a barely audible tap or so the video of it would have had Justin believe.
            Justin was taken out with his hands handcuffed in front of him, both hands still covered in force fields, with fifteen other prisoners behind him. Nine of them were men, six of them women, with only three soldiers, two male and one female, armed with their bio armor and heavy black laser rifles there to guard them on the jet.
            Three additionally fully armored soldiers awaited them on the runway with an officer clearly center out with his armor and plate colors reversed in an indication of some intellectual training such as engineering, medical, officer with specialized training or something like that. His black plated normal companions, a man and a woman, stood beside him on either side, all armed with the same big black laser rifles their companions on the Stardust had.
            They always have at least one woman among them, Justin thought to himself.
            He looked up at the airplane as he walked down the smooth ramp, the one several aviation magazines stated was the single greatest plane ever built for the private market, and felt a pang of sadness at the thought of never flying in one again. He wasn’t a big plane fan but he loved the ATA models and had a dozen of toy models of them as a young boy.
            When Justin stood in line with the others he saw a black and red prison bus he expected and a prison car that he very much did not. The first looked like just any typical prison bus, it actually was just an old Untied States prison bus but painted black and red to match the new regime with some security alterations here and there, but the other one looked like a limousine with sleek, rather expensive looking design and three doors on either side after the driver’s door. Both of them were hover vehicles floating above the ground ready to move in any direction smoothly over any surface save water.
            “Men there,” said the red plated soldier as he pointed to their right, his amplified voice echoing all around them. “Women over there,” he said and pointed to their left. Then lowered his arm, looked straight at Justin and added, “Bokov, over here.”
            Justin stepped out of the group that was placidly moving to either side making a straight line to face the speaker and immediately the male soldier behind the speaker grabbed him by the arm and pulled him toward the car. Behind him he heard another plane land, took a quick look at yet another Stardust as it lowered itself down with bright red hover jets on the bottom, and felt the guard yank his arm up painfully enough to almost sprain something. “Do not get distracted, Bokov.”
            “My name is—”
            “Shut up.”
            “Okay then.”
            The first door behind the driver’s door opened automatically for Justin and he was shoved inside by the guard into the groove between the two comfortable seats where straps identically to the ones on the plane came out from behind and wrapped over his arms, legs, neck, chest and shoulders. He heard the distinct sound of clicks and clacks as they locked.
            The guard sat on his left and Justin thought he knew what it was he was in. A celebrity prison vehicle, he thought. This is the kind of prison bus one takes a CEO or a movie star or even the president. President Tosh probably had been in one before they took him to the front of the White House and blew the brains out of the side of his head.
            Justin stared at the black plate in front of him, completely unable to see anything into the next section, and tried to look around but couldn’t see farther than the windows, which had turned opaque Faction red.
            For some reason they weren’t moving. “What are we wait—”
            “Shut up,” said the soldier again.
            “Okay then,” said Justin again. Prick, he added in thought.

*          *          *

            Laura Adler stepped out of her ship with nineteen prisoners, nine of which men and ten were women, and moved with the females automatically to the lines of men and women that were waiting.
            At least I came in a Stardust, she thought and wished she could have flown one at least once.
            “Adler,” said the organizer, the title of the officer speaking to the crowd, someone almost certainly had irritated a superior to end up with such a worthless job. “Come here.”
            As she obeyed the female guard that had been standing beside him immediately took her arm and gently led her not toward the prison bus which she expected but to a ridiculous prison limousine. The third door, the second not including the driver’s, opened for her and she slipped into the middle and let the straps come over while she stared blankly at the opaque plate ahead and felt the car start to move.
            So expensive, Laura thought. Each row of seats had a retracted soundproofed plate between them front and behind and the vehicle itself was extremely expensive too, like an authentic Lamborghini created before Calvin Motors Incorporated turned them into unimpressive, streamlined mediocre vehicles no one wanted. She flew in on a Stardust and was being taken to prison in a sort of equivalent of a Lamborghini and she was just a prisoner. God, Laura thought. Add this kind of spending into that military industrial complex mix of shit and it’d be a wonder if any of these assholes have money left for toilet paper.
            “Cute outfit,” said the soldier.
            Laura squirmed a bit in her sweat covered clothes. She was wearing a light green sleeveless, shoulder-less shirt that reached down just over her short black skirt where her nylon covered legs reached down to tall, high heeled black boots that rose up to knees. She had a yellow armband on her left wrist and a blue on her right, a strange balancing habit that someone claiming some degree of psychological understanding once told her was a sign she was struggling with over perfection.
            “Thanks,” Laura told her without believing for a single instant she cared whether Laura’s outfit was “cute” or not.
            The soldier looked at her for a long, careful moment, and then removed her helmet. It split apart at a molecular level, slipped quickly and painlessly into her skin leaving no trace whatsoever of existence, and revealed an attractive, dark eyed girl with dark hair reaching to her chin probably no older than twenty. A quick glance down told Laura that she had most of accessories which meant she had been given that armor before the cue and might have even been a cadet in her youth just like Laura had been. “What did you do?” she whispered.
            Laura looked down at her hands through the highly transparent force fields on her handcuffs and said, “I’m certain you will find out soon enough.”
            “Tell me the truth,” she said. “I need—I need to know! Did you actually do something or did they just—just get mad at you?”
            Morale is still plunging I see, Laura thought with no joy whatsoever and then said quietly, “Girl, if it is not my general file you aren’t supposed to know and you will not get any information out of me.” It was easy to get access to someone’s general file. The people who ran there tended to be young men and they would give a girl anything if she flirted with them just a bit and it was understood that its classification level was nothing more than lip service.
            Laura mouthed the word “bugged” to the woman who nodded uncomfortably. Suddenly, the girl tensed as the window on their right cleared and the red light of the reclamation facility could be seen easily in the darkening light.
            She doesn’t like it either, Laura thought and was surprised it was so soon. She could not see it from the airport which meant they had to drive down the roads but the vehicle was not obviously a prison vehicle which meant either everyone knew it was anyway and went off the road to make way for them or there were no cars on the road for God only knew what reason.
            They were right at the entrance under the red light that got her attention, one of the many red lights that particular facility had, and she watched through the glass a very attractive black haired young man her age with a dark brown leather jacket and blue jeans being escorted toward the main door.
            She and he both noticed the sign above as he walked within, a sign stated bold neo red letters stating, “Do Your Share and Be Rewarded!” The boy turned his head up to look at it longer but before she could see his face the vehicle was starting to move away. It was heading along the side of the building and then inexplicable around the back.
            Laura did not know why and apparently either did the soldier who both looked surprised and worried.

*          *          *

            Deserted streets worried Justin a great deal. He knew what it meant without being told.
            Washington DC was under martial law.
            He resisted the urge to say “arbeit macht frei” as he went under the sign and into a series of halls that very much resembled a close quarter’s maze. The place reminded Justin of an office building with rented out rooms except that most of those had windows he could see through that indicated clearly that they were not being used in the remotest but those reclamation hallways just had boring white doors that matched the walls surprisingly close together. They were small rooms as efficient and cheap as the car and planes were not. He was led by the soldier’s memory through a series of labyrinthine turns down those halls until he reached a room labeled “Workforce Doctor” which was so out of the way he felt certain it was not the kind of place normal prisoners were sent.
            The room was some kind of white colored operation room. The left wall was plain and empty, the wall ahead of him had another door and a row of crimson lockers and the right wall was just glass with endless darkness beyond. The wall with the door behind him was full of shelves containing surgical equipment, some of which looked very old but still useable, and in the center of the room was a metal operation table with various robotic machines that he didn’t understand all sitting around it in an eerie been used regularly kind of way.
            Justin moved up to the table, eyes wide, and stared down at the knives and saws and picks. He was no doctor, not even a medic, but he was reasonably sure those tools were not used much in modern medicine. He raised his eyes slowly up toward the doctor.
            The blond, spiky haired doctor was wearing light gray clothes with a dark red tie and a white doctor’s lab coat and was in the process of walking over to a shelf. He reached into a black tray, found a metal bio blocker cover, and then walked toward him. The bio blocker cover was a simple form fitting metal collar that had a glass steel back that showed bio blocker to any who looked.
            Its sole purpose was a precaution against the possibility that Justin had what it took to rip his bio blocker off of which he was very much certain he did not or the more likely possibility he would get some kind of tool to cut it out which was still a long shot since he was obviously going to be heavily monitored wherever he ended up.
            The doctor snapped the collar around his neck and Justin heard the clack sound and felt it’s squeezing to skin tight quality with a sense of disturbing finality. “Why the collar?” asked Justin. “It’s not like I can—”
            “Shut up,” said the doctor. “I’m not the kind of doctor who helps people.”
            “Okay,” Justin replied and as he pondered what kind of doctor of medicine that was he looked into his reflection in the glass steel wall. He was pale, rather handsome some people told him, with straight black hair hanging down in straight thick locks around his ocean blue eyes. There were heavy bags beneath them because he had not slept well for weeks and there were vicious bruises that not healed on his face and no doubt more all over his body from when he had been beaten into submission at his capture.
            He saw the reflection of the doctor taking out a hand scanner and moving it over Justin. He could see that he was moving very fast and without much care, the line practically flying over him. “In a hurry, doc—”
            “Shut your goddamn mouth!” The doctor placed his scanner on the table, took out the solid part of a cyber clipboard and pressed the button to make the slightly transparent yet fully solid hologram of the neon red writing pad appear right from the slender remote-like bar of metal he held. He started to write away on it quickly with a cyber pen with whatever information the Faction thought relevant that was probably simultaneously being loaded into the mainframe.
            What is the point of this? Justin wondered as he stared into the darkness. What possible good—
            And then something stumbled out from the darkness. It was a man wearing a dark gray jumpsuit with a white tag at his left breast and was almost sprinting as he stumbled forward with his arms outspread wide. Justin saw clearly the man’s face and hands were covered in boils the size of golf balls and he cried out in horror when he saw him trip, fall, and hit the side of the window so hard the balls on his face exploded into a spray of pus and blood across the window. Before Justin could so much as breathe a pair of black plated hands appeared out of the darkness, grabbed the man by his shoulders and yanked him back into the darkness.
            “What the fuck was that?” cried Justin.
            “We’re done here,” said the doctor. “Clean this piece of shit up and throw him in his cell.” He grabbed another bio blocker collar, took a hold of his scanner, and was gone out of the door Justin had come in. Justin guessed the other door led into that darkness which he was immeasurably relieved to not be going here.
            Justin’s guard was yanking him out of the same door the doctor left but took him in a different direction.

*          *          *

            The prison car stopped in a garbage enclosure complete with two large red dumpsters on one side.
            The soldier with Laura was both confused and worried. When she looked up at Laura she saw her wiggling her head around and the girl understood and reformed her helmet.
            When the straps unwrapped themselves and the door opened Laura was shocked to see a female elite soldier standing there. An elite soldier was a member of UCLD Special Forces and could easily be spotted by their black armor with black plates but also with their absurd amount of accessories. Their loyalty was said to be without question and everyone feared them because they had a license to kill and torture with impunity. They were usually sadists too.
            Laura stepped out and her soldier was about to follow when she heard the elite say, “Get back in the car and leave.” The soldier obeyed quickly. “Adler, you come with me.”
            The car left with more speed than it came down with and was out of sight before Laura was even stepping through the back door with that elite following behind.
            Ahead of Laura was a hallway too small to be public and possibly stretching out throughout the entire building. She was thinking about how long that tunnel was and wondered what had to be torn down to make room for the reclamation facility when a goofy looking spiky haired doctor with a hand scanner suddenly appeared in front of her.
            “Punk bastard!” he snarled as he began scanning over Laura’s body. The elite did not command Laura to stop so she didn’t and so the doctor had to work while walking alongside of her. He clapped a metal bio blocker collar around her neck, pulled out a cybernetic clipboard after he was done scanning her with a hand scanner and writing down furiously. What he found only took him a few moments and when he was done he took a single second to look over her appreciatively.
            The elite put her hand against his chest and shoved him backward into the wall. It didn’t break anything but it was hard enough to make a bam sound and her voice when she said, “Leave,” seemed to carry with a threat that made the doctor very nervous. He saluted her, the Faction method almost identical to a United States version, and was quickly gone.
            A moment later Laura reached an elevator and the elite stopped her, opened the door, and pushed her gently inside. Laura was instantly flabbergasted at the sight of the shining gold walls and a red tiled floor of an elevator utterly out of place around the boring white rooms of a reclamation facility.
            Inside the elite soldier removed the armor just over her left index finger, pressed it almost daintily against the black fingerprint scanner just right of the plate with the three white buttons. Despite being a Special Forces level soldier there was a hint of the real person underneath: a blue painted fingernail that may have matched her eyes.
            When the two red buttons formed above the three white she reformed her armor over her finger, pressed the second from the top, and was so much the soldier in her body language that it was hard for Laura to believe any hint of anything otherwise had ever been there.

*          *          *

            Justin was taken to a small room and stripped off all his clothes and belongings.
            His remaining possessions had been placed in a black box at the time of his arrest but, inexplicably, a skinny man with a balding spot on the back of his head in a Faction uniform was moving everything from that box to another box that’s only difference was that it was marked with a red number somewhere in the seven millions. He casually pocketed Justin’s money and his top of the line cell phone when he came across them but at no point did he categorize or write down anything.
            Then Justin was pushed out naked into a large round room with thirty clear sanitation chambers, each just big enough for a very large man to squeeze in without touching the sides. They looked like mirrored steel cylinders with their transparent sides pushed out slightly with triangular shaped hats that started out at the same width as the cylinder but ended up merging upward into a large red tube a tenth the size that disappeared into the ceiling.
            Justin had never seen a sanitation chamber with glass steel walls before and he was suddenly very self-conscious which was only made worse by the appearance of an attractive redheaded female nurse dressed in white scrubs smiling at him. He wasn’t sure what made it worse, her hair tied professionally behind her head in a professional way, her general high level of beauty, or the way she was just slightly grinning at him.
            The sentinel model robot standing in the corner was also not making it any easier. The black thing shaped vaguely like a squat seven foot tall man stood with its long arms and legs looking almost merged with its body and staring at him with two glowing red eyes. It looked very plain on sight but Justin knew it had weapons that which included anything from vibration blades, kinetic firearms, laser weaponry, grenade launchers and many more all hidden in the robotic equivalent of a Swiss Army Knife that was its body.
            Justin didn’t like it or anything else made by Nystrom Robotics for that matter. They made military robotics and had a very ugly reputation in the engineering community. Justin had never been part of that of community in any serious way at eighteen but his teachers all gave off a certain kind of disturbed vibe whenever the name came up in conversation although they denied any particular knowledge beyond “just not liking it.”
            He then noticed there was another doctor there too although he wasn’t looking at Justin. He was working on a clipboard when the six red horizontal lines on one of the bases of the sanitation chambers started glow in indication that one of the them had powered up.
            Justin felt the nurse put a hand on his shoulder to get his attention and then gently maneuvered him toward the activated sanitation chamber. She had an admiring smile on her face as she pulled him along and looked over his body which, sculpted from a lifetime of physical training, clearly appealed to her. “I like you too, baby,” he told her jokingly.
            “Oh I’m sorry, sweetheart, but I’m already taken,” she replied.
            He nodded soberly. “It’s okay. I’m, well—‘” he sighed “—better off with a woman under forty—”
            The doctor burst out laughing without lifting up his head and the nurse angrily shoved Justin into the chamber, slammed the door, and gave him a reproachful look. When she turned away from the door she pointed her finger and screamed at the laughing doctor but the chamber was soundproof and Justin could not hear a thing.
            From above heavy red liquid poured over him with weight that felt metallic. There was water in there but most of it was cleansing nanoprobes that stuck onto his body and cleaned everything from head to toe in a rough, unpleasant fashion. It took maybe five minutes causing an incredible itching sensation everywhere before they all at once dropped off and went down the drain like real red water where they presumably joined the rest of the nanoprobes to be used again as needed.
            It was a technical improvement but water was much better for the skin and had a general sense of relaxation nanoprobe baths did not. The nanoprobes in bio armor did the same thing at a slower degree but without the itchiness and working steadily over several hours utilizing the body’s sweat and water from the outside. When water was a rarity, such as in space, people used them all the time but as a rule everyone still used showers and bath on the same regular basis as they always had.
            When the door opened and Justin stepped out the nurse pressed a neat bundle containing bed sheets, no comforter, a pillow, a gray jumpsuit, white socks and boring gray shoes into his arms. She gave a smile, a wink, evidently forgetting or at least letting go of what he said, and then stepped back to let a white dressed guard come by and lead him away.
            The man’s uniform was a white shirt with a badge on the upper left breast, gray pants, and he was armed with a simple pistol and a stun baton. He looked like a traditional metropolitan police outfit which Justin suspected was probably what he was. When the Faction disbanded the police force many of them became prison guards which, considering the draconian nature of the Faction’s laws, were rather needed.
            Justin only glanced at him for the moment before he felt the freezing coolness of the prison as he walked. It was actually freezing but after so much heat he welcomed it. He was still welcoming it as he was led through the various halls, again reminding him uncannily of office buildings, with one side showing him a large quad on his right, and then into a large rectangular white room lit by dim white lights containing prison cells that made his heart sink and his temperature drop even more. He wasn’t sure what to expect but he did nor expect that.
            The cells on either side were tiny, separated by less than a quarter of inch of glass steel, with four cots within, one solitary toilet, and a force field wall for the front entrance that distorted everything slightly. Since the walkway above was grated material he could see all the cells on both levels and most were packed, eight people in some, six in most, yet oddly some only had two or more and more than few were actually empty.
            Justin had no idea what to make of that. Was it preparation for later prisoners? Calculated meanness? What was the point of packing the cells when your workers would die? Nothing logical to came to mind except maybe just cruelty. Maybe that was the true answer to many questions in history. What were the Nazis really about? What was the Inquisition about? In the end maybe it was just cruelty and maybe for no better reason than that someone in charge thought it would be a blast.
            “Don’t worry, kid,” said the guard as they made it to an ugly square lift elevator encased in a grated metal tube with glass steel between the links and a glass steel front. He was an older man with a mustache and graying white hair and he very much did not look Faction to him. He was strong, tall, but unlike them he was kind in a way no Faction man was. “You’re on the second floor.”
            “Second floor?”         
            “Yeah,” he replied and he pressed the button to raise the elevator. “You’re damn lucky kid.”
            Justin disagreed with that because nobody in a concentration camp could be lucky but after looking at all those ugly, packed rooms surrounded by glass steel he felt very much so if only by comparison. What the policeman indicated as the first floor had two levels and Justin saw through the glass steel wall of the elevator that almost all of cells on the top level of the first floor were actually empty.
            The elevator then went through the opaque black metal ceiling cutting off his view below.

*          *          *

            Laura stared around herself in dumbstruck shock.
            The floors were plush red carpet, the walls were bright colored gold, and there was a painting of a sunrise directly across from her in an alcove with a small table and a fancy green vase with bright red and yellow roses within. There were huge windows letting in the beautiful dusk light, monitors on the walls as big as fifty inches showing random images of beautiful environments from all around the world altering to match time. There was even a kind of perfume in the air.
            She felt the elite’s fist at her back and started walking. The gesture was an obvious one: the elite soldier was threatening to have the two high velocity vibration blades extend out from her wrist and into Laura’s back if she did not move. When Laura soon reached the speed the elite desired she lowered her fist.
            Laura was herded down a long hallway with closed and mostly white doors on either side. She thought they were most likely the Faction officers rooms, a few that were silver were probably for higher officers, and her suspicions were confirmed when she saw one open silver door and looked through it.
            In the midst of a lavish crimson floored living room with black walls was a tall blond man standing in the full crimson and black Faction uniform of a general complete with cavalry sword posing with his head held high and back straight. He was having his portrait painted by a black woman whose work, even at an obviously preliminary level, was absolutely fantastic.
            Laura could only see her back, a sight only revealing a woman who was a slender, tall with her hair tied conservatively behind her head and wearing in a gray jumpsuit but even with just that Laura thought she knew who she was.
            There was a shing sound that drove all thoughts of the painter out of her mind and she continued onward at a faster pace. She heard the sound again, the sound of the sword length vibration blades retreating into the elite’s wrists, and she breathed easier. She did not think the woman would kill her but she might hurt her in some way if Laura continued to annoy her.
            The elite stopped her at one of the silver doors almost seemingly at random, turned her to it, opened it, pushed her through and then closed it with herself on the other side.
            Laura found herself in another lavish crimson floored living room with a large rectangular opening leading down to a lower level in the center. Straight ahead through an open door was a kitchen and to the left was some kind of entertainment room complete with black couch and wall sized television. Looking down below in that opening down a five step metal grated staircase Laura saw a metal floored area with a black table on it and various drawers against its walls. Although Laura had no evidence of it she thought it might be one of the torture chambers long rumored by cadets to have been built inside of certain less-than-kind Faction officers’ suites.
            Despite that making no sense Laura would not be surprised if it really was a torture chamber. The Faction machine always moved forward and it made a lot of crazy mistakes were mostly because something like only ten people in its upper echelon had the ability to alter, cancel, or counter a major architectural order while countless subordinates could create one.
            Laura’s eyes went back to the kitchen and narrowed with recognition at the man stepping out of the doorway.
            Captain Rupert Jackson was a tall muscular black man with a hard, angular face dressed in the crimson Faction uniform complete with medals on both shoulders and the flame on the front of his black uniformed hat. He was missing the sword and various flame-shaped medals that indicated rank, specifically too long red horizontal lines, but he still managed to convey the fact he was trying to impress her although he failed to do so.
            “Ms. Adler,” he said in a cheerful voice.
            “Captain Jackson,” she replied in a bland voice.
            “My reputation precedes me,” he said like it was a good thing of which it very much was not. The Faction would agree: he would have surely been higher ranked if his reputation had not made him the scorn of every high ranking female above him.
            Another man slipped out from the kitchen in the uniform of a second lieutenant which was technically only one level lower than him. He was stout, standing maybe five foot two with very pale skin and buzzed blond hair almost as light as hers and a creepy, round moon face that did not seem to indicate the man had maintained the physical expectations of the military even though she could tell he had. It was his eyes that caught Laura’s attention, though. They were sneaky black rat eyes that focused on her from his spot in the corner with strange intensity that did not seem to escape to the rest of his face.
            “Allow me to introduce Lieutenant Stephen Croon, my right hand man.” The blond man gave her a greasy smile for a moment while continuing to stare on her with those sneaky little eyes of his.
            Jackson suddenly started toward her and she stiffened uncomfortably. Her hands were handcuffed and he was dangerous. She knew she could fight off a civilian handcuffed easily enough but a trained soldier and his right hand cretin was another story.
            She watched his eyes closely as he lifted her chin up with one gloved hand to thoroughly examine her face. She had what many people called a “model’s face” with high cheekbones, sculpted jaw and near perfect nose, or so she was told, combined with sensual, narrow green eyes and full pouting lips. Her hair that hung like silk in strands stuck to her shoulders and neck was a natural platinum blond that had remained the exact same shade since earliest childhood. “You are so very beautiful, Ms. Adler,” he told her in awed voice.
            Laura said nothing and stared into his eyes coldly.
            “I have your entire history, Ms. Adler,” Jackson said as he lowered his hand. “All your marks on physicality are perfect. You are a top line fighter, a very gifted markswoman, trained in hunting, a survivalist in various environments, and one of the greatest pilots we ever had, trained in power armor and robotic suit weaponry as well as ground and air vehicles and art and dancing—” he shrugged “—oddly. You were in the top twenty of our best racers.”
            I would in the top five if the Faction hadn’t rigged our races, she thought and did not fail to notice that he mentioned her “physicality” first which was supposed to mean her level of health such as stamina and endurance and such but he obviously meant her appearance.
            “Your file says you love to race. You were nearly champion in the UCLD competitions as I said but you did even better afterward. After your disgrace you attempted to become pro in the non-military hover racing circuits and even won a few races despite being so young. Rock Salt Music was your sponsor. Why is it that you did so much better without us? Were you holding back? Trying to gain favor?”
            “Is there is a point to this, Captain?” If he thought he was going to get her to incriminate herself by admitting she believed the UCLD rigged their races he was going to be sorely mistaken.
            “Just small talk,” Jackson said and then he gave her an ugly malicious smile. “So here’s the thing. I own you now, Laura. I own every single part of your nubile eighteen year old body.” He put his hand on her shoulder and looked down at her breasts and then back up into her face. “Every perky perfect part.”
            Laura looked into his eyes and sneered. If he raped her she was going to make him suffer for it. Even if took a thousand years she would have her vengeance. She swore it to herself right then and there.
            “You don’t like that, do you?” he asked with a wider smile and reached for her chin again. She moved her head away while keeping her body still and her eyes remained fully locked on his. “You are a warrior woman, one of our top crop of female soldiers.” His eyes narrowed at her expression and Laura saw discomfort crossing them. “Did you know you are almost top ranked in our list of beauty in female Caucasian women?”
            Laura had no idea such a list existed and did not care one bit that it did. “Are we finished?” she asked and he frowned at her. You don’t like that, do you? she thought.
            “I’m going to give you a choice, Laura,” he told her and Laura could feel him getting genuinely angry. “You are going to give me that tight ass to do with as I please and if you do that you’ll get a special room. Do it not and I’ll send you down into the cells handcuffed and naked into a room where a half dozen women would just love to see how deep their arm goes.”
            “No,” Laura said without hesitation.
            “You could get to live up here, Laura,” he began uncomfortably. He might have expected her refusal but it seemed the ease in which she gave it offended or maybe even emasculated him. “You could get real food and have a real life. Even possible reinstatement to the UCLD if you play ball.” He smirked at that but it was an uncomfortable smirk.
            “No,” she said in a tired voice. She felt truly offended by just how stupid he thought she was.
            He wasn’t exactly feeling wonderful about the things she was saying, either. Whatever he wanted from her he clearly wasn’t getting and Laura knew that someday, sooner more likely than later, he was going to try and make her suffer for it. His kind of officer always did.
            Jackson’s eyes narrowed and his voice was full of warning. “Laura—”       
            “No.”
            “Oh really?”
            “Yes.”
            “So you’re a lesbian—”
            “Oh I’m not a lesbian. Check my file closer, big boy, and you’ll see that I’ve dated a string of boys some of which were actually black so you can also drop the idea of racism from your mind too.” She shrugged. “I choose no.”
            Jackson’s face filled with rage and Laura marveled at how delicate his confidence was. Such a man should never have been an officer let alone a captain. “You fucking lesbian cunt!” he snarled out in a guttural angry voice. “In one week, in one fucking week, you’ll be begging me, begging me, to come back here!” He pointed a finger at her. “That wondrous tight thing you hold so dear will be three times the size and I can’t guarantee I will even want it then!” He moved up into her face and she didn’t even blink. “Beg me now, you cunt! Beg me now and I might, just might, change my mind!”
            “It has been a pleasure meeting you, Captain Jackson,” she replied calmly.
            Jackson looked at her like he wanted to cut her slowly into pieces but gradually he did calm now. “Fine,” he told her. “I can wait.” He called out the word “soldier” and the elite opened the door. “You take this lesbian bitch downstairs, you clean her up, and you take her to her cell!”
            As Laura turned around she saw him stomp off into the entertainment room with his hands bundled into tight angry fists. He looked like he wanted to kill someone.

*          *          *

            The second floor of cells was perfectly identical to the first except that the cells they only had one cot and only a very few were being used. The guard took him to the top of the two levels of the floor, led him to the cell direct center on the right side and pressed his finger against the black pad on the right to kill the force field.
            Justin stepped into the room, hesitated for a moment, then turned back to the guard. “Hey,” he said.
            The guard turned back to him. “Yeah?” he asked.
            “How many people are here in this place?”
            “Too many and less than before,” he replied and then he pressed her finger to bring up the force field and was walking away, his boots sounding loud on the metal grated walkway.
            “Too many and less than before,” Justin murmured softly and turned to his cell. Inside he saw that in addition to a cot, toilet and sink was a little barred window to the outside the cells one floor below might not have. He did not have anyone around him, left or right, all the way to both perpendicular hallways and that made him feel surprisingly lonesome.
            Justin tossed the bundle onto his cot and put on his clothes. It was just a simple prison jumpsuit colored gray instead of orange with a rectangular black fabric tag on his left breast with the number 7,145,948 printed over in big bold white numbers with the words “Reclamation Facility 59” in normal white letters beneath. The moment his eyes caught that number he became transfixed upon it.
            “How many people have been in these camps?” he asked out loud but no answer came so he made his bed and wondered the more prudent question. Where the hell are they now? They sure as hell weren’t let go.
            He made his bed, lied down, and stared up at the ceiling of solid unlit lightbulbs deeply wondering about that last question. As the hours dragged on he came to the conclusion he had known the answer all along, for years in fact, but he had been just been unwilling to fully admit it. There had always been a potentially differing reason for it after all, one that was sinister in a different and more believable way such as that of a secret army of slave laborers, but there appeared no such grouping of people and the truth was clear whether one wanted to believe it or not.
            They were murdered somewhere somehow and probably under the pretext of hard but necessary labor or novel medical experimentation.
            “I’m fucked,” he whispered to himself and found the sight of that diseased man with the unnatural boils the size of golf balls on his face. It filled his mind up with such horror that he was incapable of sleeping for even a moment during that first night he spent in Reclamation Facility 59.

*          *          *

            The redheaded nurse gave Laura’s body a look of undisguised jealously before roughly shoving her into a chamber. When she stepped out the woman practically slammed her things down onto her hands and pushed her away. Then a white dressed female guard roughly shoved the shoes on top and then gestured aggressively in the direction Laura was to go.
            From behind she heard the happy snickers of several men, including the doctor and a weasel looking soldier who stole her class ring when she transferred her things. Why he should care about such a thing she couldn’t say but he did, a compulsive thief if ever she saw one, and he marked down nothing as he moved her things from one box to the other which was curious as its absence would be noticed.
            They had turned her into a stripper all leering eagerly the whole time and as she stepped out of the room she looked back and saw the sentinel robot following her with its gaze.
            That damn robot was almost certainly recording everything and the little creeps would probably be chuckling all about it as they shared it’s recordings out among their friends but, oddly enough, that wasn’t as important to her as it once would have been. There was something in the air, something about how that girl soldier showed Laura her face, something no one would have done a year ago, and there was off something about the way that little thief, about how didn’t really care, and even with Jackson too. There was something off about everyone and it changed everything.
            We’re coming to the end, she thought. Something is going to happen and they all know it. They’re going through the emotions but that was all it is.
            “Clean bombs” were what came to mind. There was a weapon of the age: a bomb dropped from a satellite that exploded in space to countless smaller bombs that would enter the atmosphere and explode into even smaller bombs which would aim for cities, towns, and other places of high population where they would do their final explosion into deadly murderous nanoprobes that rode on the wind.
            It would create no injury to building, street or any kind of wealth in general but all the same there was no bomb of nuclear origins that could equal its kill count. The nanoprobes would crawl under doors, into bunkers and cars and anywhere else unsealed in its relentless search for human, and only human, hearts, which they would instantly stop. They would even stick around for month, maybe two, so any survivor coming out of their sealed bunker too early would share the fate of their neighbors. Bionic augmentation armor was not sealed enough to save a man or woman from it so the enemy armies would all die alongside their civilians.
            If the end really was coming, and it was certainly feeling as if it was, that would be the way it would happen: the Faction of America was turning on its European and Asian counterparts at the same time they were turning against them and that was already happening when she was discharged. The opposing free countries known as the Alliance had access to the same bombs and were getting desperate as the remarkably reckless Faction leaders were starting to look eagerly at their launch buttons.
            The Alliance would never fire first, of course, but they would very well fire back if fired upon and even if they didn’t it was not inconceivable that the Faction forces would bomb the other Faction groups in their own countries just to keep them from taking over what was left.
            “Walk faster, bitch,” said the guard and Laura turned her focus onto her. She was around forty or so, hard faced with angular features, with dark hair tied in a knot behind her head and dark angry eyes with the look of natural authority. She wore the white uniform of a prison guard in its near trademark imitation of the former United States police which she almost certainly was.
            She was part of what was left of the United States civilian police force, a woman whose occupation of once respected peace keeper having been reduced to such a low enough level of guard duty that the Faction felt it was beneath a “real” soldier’s dignity. She didn’t have to of course but being any part of the former United States military or police had a black mark on a record available to any employer and being a prison guard in a reclamation facility was probably the only job she could ever hope to have and at even a much reduced rate than even her pitiful pay as a policewoman warranted.
            “Does this make you happy?” she asked her when the entered the cell block.
            Laura looked at the cells and was not surprised in the slightest to see a range of packing from the extremely over packed to the utterly empty. She suspected sadism as a possible cause but decided it was most likely just the absolute fear of questioning authority as the cause of that idiocy. When new cells were suddenly available no one would dare ask the higher ranked officers for permission to move anyone which would be a little too close to questioning them and overstepping their authority which could easily end in demotion or even being shot, and it wasn’t worth it to anyone anyway since nobody up there cared even when Armageddon wasn’t coming. They had a ridiculously stupid mix of having the authority of the situation but without any of the responsibility should it go wrong.
            “Why would this make me happy?” Laura asked as they stepped into the elevator.
            “You know why?” The guard pressed the button to raise the elevator. It rose up past the two levels to an entirely different floor that was almost entirely her own. She was taken to the center cell on the far left, where she had no neighbors on that entire side, and was then quickly pushed inside when the force field door vanished. The guard turned it back on, turned around, and walked away, her feet making loud angry clanks as she walked.
            Laura got fully dressed including her shoes and socks and looked at her number on her jumpsuit: 7,117,547 in bold white letters over black on top of smaller letters that read “Reclamation Facility 59.” She looked at it for a moment then made her bed before slipping down on top of it.
            She really wished she could get out her AIC Dylan, her best friend since she was a girl, but her AIC was asleep in molecular form inside of her body. There was no way to get her out and there were no other friends either. She had some friends, boys she dated and girls she liked, but the only close female friend she ever had only been temporary. Samantha Seymour in those early days was like a sister but she had broken off their friendship over something Laura thought trivial and then later after her fiancé died became a Faction fanatic. Laura was reasonably certain that she would never see her again and her mind was drifting back to that old and familiar depressing thought as she tried and failed to drift off to sleep.
            I’m going to die alone and no one will ever care that I ever lived at all, she thought and then she added out loud, “Well at least this shit will all be over with soon.”

4

            The first day and every day that followed began at six in the morning with blinding light coming from every inch of the cell’s ceiling coinciding with a horn blowing through the intercom in the military wakeup music of the Reveille. Justin cried out in shock when it happened at first but Laura just grimaced up at the light. She had not known what would happen when the time to awaken came but she had taken one look at the lights in the ceiling and guessed correctly its primary purpose. She assumed the secondary was probably to torture bad occupants by staying on through the night.
            They stood up, faced the force field, and followed the directions of a projected woman’s image in the center in it. Both genders first shaved with the laser razor hanging on the wall near the toilet, appearances were important for some reason, and then followed the next commands to make their beds and then wait with their backs straight in front of the force field. Several guards in the Faction red armor with black plates appeared on the second floor and stood standing there with extreme resentment.
            They clearly did not like being their babysitters but it seemed whoever was on the second floor was important enough that their guardianship was not to be trusted by ex-police officers who covered the first.
            At seven o’clock the prisoners were taken into the cafeteria to drink water and eat nutrient filled flavor paste and at seven thirty most of the prisoners were let loose onto the quad to do literally nothing until eleven. If they did anything more aggressive then causally talking and or walking one of the white guards would stop them. The red guards, Faction men in their red colored uniforms, were fewer but still very well there, eyeballing the crowd from the corners, and holding up nasty looking rods with clear tips known as pain givers to be used if the white guards’ words ceased to be enough.
            At eleven they were made to exercise rather hard and efficiently. Justin and Laura weren’t given a strict schedule like the others but were made to follow a certain general regiment that after a lifetime in the military both found easy to follow. Most of the others were haunted by Faction physical trainers, men and women in red sweat shirts with matching red sweat pants who watched everything and would stab them with a pain giver if they were not exercising efficiently enough.
            It lasted until twelve o’clock when another meal with the same food as breakfast was given and then a half of an hour after that Justin and Laura were in the quad again doing nothing for five and a half hours. Some of the others were pulled out by some of those trainers or red guards but most were still just sent to wander aimlessly and bored from here to there.
            Supper was also the same as the other meals arriving at five o’clock and then a half of an hour later they were again wandering around the quad until eight. Then they were put through a sanitation pod in a different, smaller room quickly and with their clothes on, sent back to their cell to sleep by nine o’clock, and the next morning it started all over again.
            Both noted how their schedule was radically different from some of the others. Neither spoke to anyone on that first day but they could see that some people in their white tags looked like they were being worked to death, their bodies wasting away and covered in so much dirt and grime that a quick nanoprobe bath could not clean them off entirely or even very much.
            The whole place had an heir of sadism covered by quasi scientific quackery. The idea that the entire facility was meant to facilitate some kind of great social experiment to benefit the prisoners and society was implied everywhere but nobody believed that was its real purpose to extent that it was almost laughable.
            The social experiment of Reclamation Facility 59 seemed to actually be one of longing and it achieved its end by making sure every prisoner could see exactly what they were missing almost all the time.
            There were monitors everywhere including on the outer walls of the quad below the black glass of a walkway window they couldn’t see into and they showed all manner of wonderful things. They showed picnics, forests, beaches, skies and amusement parks, people having fun, and families having birthdays, and it never ended until they were back in their cells, the one place without a monitor. Those monitors drew every eye for they were the only color they could see, that and the blue of the sky, the red of the guards, and whatever color the skin, hair and eyes of the other prisoners which, somehow, seemed to be fading.
            The prisoners were also regularly shown good food and not just on the monitors where it showed up quite regularly. The red guards ate behind a curved semi-circle glass steel where everyone could see them in plain sight in the cafeteria during their own meal times. They would be eating expensive cuts of American steaks, huge salads and soups one day, French cuisine another, Italian maybe the third, Chinese a fourth and it went on never to end as the professional Faction chef was seen day and night ordering around servants to guide their feast of food. The holes in the glass steel walls let the aroma drift out to make sure their noses confirmed what their eyes saw.
            And then there was the wall: the great glass steel wall that stretched throughout the entire facility separating it into two halves merging at the semi-circle guard eating area’s wall. Aside from sharing a doctor perhaps gender was entirely separated with that wall. On the west side was the male, the east female, and part of the social experiment in longing seemed to affect most of them. They could see each other through the wall, feel the attraction to each other, but never touch or do anything more than speak. No one was homosexual, that was well assured beforehand, and any prisoner who had been found to be so was suffering a different fate in some other reclamation facility somewhere else.
            As an unpleasant addition, despite the endless monitors, there were no movies, music, or entertainment of any kind and not even joking or telling good stories was supposed to be fully allowed. Any such entertainment would sometimes end in pain should someone attempt it so those casual conversations must remain bland and generally soft spoken without much emotion. The white guards would quiet them carefully but the red guards would sometimes get annoyed and hurt them savagely with their pain givers. Luckily there were only a couple of them at any given time, one for every three white guards, and mostly they did nothing but look bored and did not really seem to care. They were also easy to dodge since their red hats with the metal flame on them, dark red shirts, red slacks and tall black boots made them hard to miss.
            In addition to all that nothing from the outside made it in either. Letters sent by family were burned in front of whoever they were sent for completely unread and letters that left the facility were written by Faction writers telling the family members tales of happiness, joy and personal recovery. Justin and Laura both knew many, if not most, could not fool the family members and it exasperated all the bad stories already circulating about the reclamation facilities.
            “We can’t have you infected by the outside,” the projected woman said, the blond woman projected onto the force field door earlier that first day. “You need to get better. You need to be well. We will endeavor to make you so and we believe, in time, it will work.” She sounded so reasonably sure that it was almost possible to believe her.

*          *          *

            When Justin was in line for breakfast the first day he had looked over at the men from the first floor and found the only discernable difference in their appearance aside from condition was that their jumpsuits’ tag was white with black text instead of the other way around. He supposed his education in computer and bionic engineering and maybe the stolen device he had merged into his bio armor had made him more valuable than the normal men in white tags but he wondered if it was maybe just a random thing to mess with the prisoners’ mind. The poor men looked exhausted, injured, miserable and dirty and their eyes had that hollow dead look of the incredibly abused.
            When Justin reached the food generator he resisted the urge to groan. It still had the same exact problem on the third day he had looked at it. “Fuck,” he said out loud.
            Amity Food Incorporated, AFI for short, was a despicable company under the absolute control and power of the Live-4-Less Corporation who, had a de facto monopoly in all areas of the domestic food industry including restaurants and food fabricators, both private and military, save for the fabricators found in bionic augmentation armor. Such a monopoly was only possible since conservatives’ efforts to deregulate the laws against monopolies were achieved and it was so cheaply made that it was barely functional even out of the box. The sight of that evil green and blue yin yang that was the symbol of Live-4-Less sent a groan through the heart of any mechanic or engineer with the task of maintaining any working such device.
            And it wasn’t particularly wonderful device to begin with. Justin’s armor’s own food fabricator could make hamburgers, pizza, salads, and many, many more things provided he had the proper ingredient cartridges or raw inserted materials. That thing was just designed to fabricate flavored paste like they were astronauts on some endless space voyage.
            He moved his black tray underneath, pressed the pizza button and nothing came out. He pressed tuna and nothing came out of there either. He became irritated and pressed pasta and Caesar salad and steak and hamburger and still nothing came out. “Piece of shit,” he said and he pulled open the front and everyone leaned over and stared in shock.
            “You shouldn’t do that,” whispered the man behind him. He was a wiry, tall man with big teeth, a narrow face and blond hair that stuck straight upward almost naturally. On his breast was a black tag and like Justin himself he looked reasonably healthy. “They might break these things to test us.”
            “They’d have to be charging full speed to reach it before it breaks itself,” Justin replied and he reached in and jiggled the main tubed cord.
            “Look at it,” said a man behind them as everyone looked inside. “It’s all the same crap.” It very much was and all that the buttons he had pressed do was to give a vague flavor to the one major paste dispenser. Looking at it, Justin earnestly thought it might really have started as a device for astronaut paste but he pitied any astronaut relying on that device.
            Justin shut the compartment door, pressed the pizza button, and the beige colored gruel poured down with an ugly squishing sound. “Yay for victory,” he said blandly.
            The man behind him stopped Justin with touch on his shoulder, pressed hamburger for himself, and then held out his hand. “Lyle Wilder,” he said. “What’s your name?”
            “Justin Biryukov.” He noticed several people looked back at the machine longingly and then realized that several people ahead of him had not been able to get any food at all but almost certainly did not dare risk going back in line to get more with that red guard watching.
            “Russian?” Lyle asked as he walked with him to the red dressed worker who handed them each a single bottle of water.
            “Yeah,” he replied and the two of them sat down at a black topped table. “I—” Three men suddenly sat down around him. “Wait, who the hell are you guys?”
            “Relax, kid,” said one of them. “My name is Lucas Randal.” He was an extraordinarily handsome man with very light blue eyes, sculpted movie star features complete with a cleft chin, and straight, dark brown hair long enough so that when he combed it backward the bangs went down past his ears. His tag was red with white text, the first Justin had noticed so far, and like Justin he had a collar around his neck to protect the bio blocker the Faction had placed there and he was by far the neatest man that Justin had seen in that place including himself. Even his nails looked perfect.
            Justin recognized his name and face and instantly but didn’t instantly believe it. “The billionaire jet aviator?” he replied. “You’re shitting me.” Even as the words left his mouth he recognized the man’s face even more so from more than a dozen engineering magazines he had seen him in.
            Lucas Randal was the founder of American Transcontinental Airlines and the designer of the Stardust that he had so admired.
            “That would be a fair assumption considering that just over a year ago you would have found me fucking supermodels in my hundred million dollar Malibu beach house instead of being here.” He leaned back, uncomfortable, and when he put his hands on his table Justin saw his fingers shaking a bit.
            “You created that giant airplane,” Justin said in awe.
            “The Hercules II, the Flying Neighborhood, yes.” His eyes were strange, distant and sad all at the same time. “The very day I finished it they trumped up some charges to confiscate it and my fortune and tossed me here like so much trash.” His face shifted to just being sad. “I was on my way to the celebration party. I had my sights on a former movie starlet descended from Goldie Hawn if you know who that is.”
            “I do,” Justin replied and he looked down at his shaking fingers and he knew the nickname “the Second Howard Hughes” had a more literal meaning than he had originally thought.
            “My bio blocker is preventing my bionic augmentation armor from regulating my system,” Lucas said when he saw him looking. “I have clinical OCD and I am an epileptic among other things.” He paused. “Howard Hughes was OCD. He was my childhood hero and why I emulate him.” He sighed. “I’m forgetting my manners. Let me introduce you to a couple of my friends.” He gestured to the men beside him. “Jose Heladio Hernandez and Juan Reyes.”
            Joes Heladio Hernandez was a short but stout and strong man of Hispanic ancestry with his round faced, handsome in a kind pleasant, jolly looking way, with dark eyes and a head of slowly growing hair from being shaved not long in the past. He had a collar and a black tag just like Justin did.
            Juan Reyes was also Hispanic but was from different as his friend as could be. He was very average looking with short, scraggly brown hair that seemed to puff out everywhere. He was also tall and thin where Jose was short and stout and he, with his white tag, was in bad shape. He had several rows of bags under his eyes, his lips cut and broken and there was dirt caked on part of his face so deeply that it looked tattooed there.
            All three men were in their early thirties, about a decade older than Lyle and around two decades older than Justin.
            “Justin Biryukov,” Justin told them and shook their hands one by one.
            “That’s Russian,” said Lyle.
            “We know what it is,” said Jose irritably and he turned to Justin. “Alright kid, you’re a black tag, like me, and that’s one below the top, which is a red tag, like him.” He gestured with his head to Randal and then hesitated before adding in a much sadder voice, “And then there’s one up from the bottom, a white tag, like Juan.”
            Justin looked at Reyes and felt an intense pity for him and every other white tag.
            “You must be pretty talented in some way but not the head of some great company like Randal here.”
            “Like American Transcontinental Airlines?” Justin replied. “I shouldn’t even be close to the same level as this guy. He’s United States royalty.”
            “There is no United States anymore,” Randal replied.
            “What’s your talent?” asked Jose.
            “I’m a computer and bionic engineer and somewhat of a prodigy.”
            “I am a professional musician myself,” Jose told him. “I am a composer who has done of everything from the highest symphonies down to the street performances which I did in my spare time. I used to take in over half a million a year on the royalties from my recorded performances, was considered one of the best composers in the United States, and I am mildly insulted that I’m not a red tag.”
            “I am an entrepreneur,” said Lyle.
            “He’s some kind of hacker,” Jose told him and Lyle shrugged.
            “I’m a dentist,” said Reyes blandly.
            Justin looked at him for a moment then turned to the group in general. “I’ve been looking around for the last three days. Are we the only ones with red and black tags?”
            “Nathan Michaels over there with that kid is a black tag,” said Jose gesturing with his head. Justin looked over his shoulder and saw a tall, attractive black man talking to a thirteen year old black boy. Justin took one look at the man and didn’t need the sight of that collar around his neck to tell him that he was military.
            “What rank was he?” Justin asked.
            “He won’t talk about it but judging by how Jackson reacts around him I would say high. The only person he really talks to his that kid and he needs it.” Justin recognized the boy as the only child in the entire facility that he had seen. Justin and maybe a few white tags were the only people close to his age and none of them were under eighteen.
            “He’s sweet on his mother,” Lyle added.
            Justin turned back. “Who’s Jackson?”
            “You’ll find that out soon enough,” said Randal. “When you do thank God in Heaven you are not a pretty woman.”
            Justin felt tenseness in everyone but Lyle and decided leave the conversation about Jackson for a later date. He instead leaned forward and asked, “What is the difference between a black tag and a red tag?”
            “We don’t know,” said Jose. “As far as we can tell we are exactly the same. We basically just get up, eat, exercise, wander aimlessly around for a while, eat a couple more times, shower in nanoprobes, and then go to bed. I guess we’re valued more because we’re always someone famous, heavily educated or talented.”
            “That’s it?” Justin looked at Reyes a little uncomfortably.
            Reyes looked back and his eyes blazed with cold rage through intense tiredness. “Only white tags participate in Law Labor, only white tags take daily physicals, only white tags have domestic duties, and only white tags live on a first floor cell crammed with half a dozen more people!”
            “What’s Law Labor?” asked Justin.
            Reyes put his hands on the table to reveal they were cracked, scratched and bleeding and each fingernail was filled with dirt. “It’s important work like digging gigantic long holes by the Vietnam memorial, stripping old walls of paint from abandoned buildings before they’re demolished or cleaning sewage from pipes with bare hands or toothbrushes instead of tools or robots.” Reyes looked at him. “We are pulled out randomly at seven thirty at least three times a week.”
            “I wish I was surprised—” Justin saw Lyle squirming at the sight of a large white tag man frowning hatefully at him “—what?”
            “Nothing,” said Lyle.
            If any of the other men had noticed that they gave any indication of it.

*          *          *

            Jackson’s predictions for Laura proved extremely wrong. It became instantly clear that the majority of prisoners in the facility were not violent by nature and upon learning that she was ex-Faction they had actually become far too terrified of her to even talk to her let alone do something. Many of them would sneer at her, sometimes even call her names behind her back, but none would do more and most of the others didn’t even have the nerve to do that much.
            The white guards had no such problems. When she got her food on the first day’s supper one of them came by and knocked it out of her hands. “Careful, bitch!” said the slender, almost petite guard and she walked on toward the other guards who were openly frowning at her. When she was still staring another white guard bumped her hard enough to knock her a few feet away as she walked by and then sneered at her over her shoulder as she walked on.
            Laura looked down at the tray on the ground and found that she was not only unsurprised but did not particularly blame them as well. An ex-police woman whose pension, position, and livelihood were all but ruined because of the group she had been a part of in favor of incredibly corrupt UCLD Law Enforcers had a good reason to hate her and furthermore it was not above the realm of possibility that she was still a member who was sent in there as a spy. That was the way most of the prisoners looked at her and, if she was being perfectly honest, she would have looked at herself the same way in their place.
            Laura sighed, went over to a nearby table and opened her mouth to speak to the women there. All six of them stood up in unison, walked over to another table, and sat down. They were scared of her but not so scared they would not shun her in a group.
            She placed her bottled water on the table, slumped down onto her forearms, and felt sad, lonely and hungry. In the glass room at the end of the cafeteria the red guards were eating ham and bacon, laughing and drinking, and telling jokes. The smell coming out of the room was making her mouth water. The bacon smell reminded her of the kind of breakfasts her father used to make for her when he was alive.
            One of the guards looked at her for several moments, smiled strangely, and then went over to the food counter. She took a tray, filled it with that gruel, and placed it down in front of her. “Here you go,” she told her.
            Laura was filled with genuine surprise and she quickly began to eat before something happened to her food. “Thank you,” she told her and the prisoners around them looked at the two of them nervously, uncertain of what it meant or what the game was.
            “You’re welcome,” said the guard and she smiled kindly but in that distant way all police had. She was attractive, reasonably young, with blond hair tied neatly behind her head and a white uniform that fit comfortably around her slender form. There was something motherly and kind mixed in with that authority and Laura was momentarily reminded of her own mother.
            “Thank you again,” she said again she said after she finished her bad food and drank some water.
            “You’re welcome again,” she told her and her smile vanished. “My brother joined the Faction back under optimistic circumstances. He was older, a doctor, but the Fifty-Fifty Law made getting a job impossible and the Good Citizen law meant that he was being eaten by our mother’s student loans as well as his own. It had become so bad that his children had to get jobs.”
            “Jesus,” said Laura softly. Some families resorted to having their children work to help support them, some as young as eight which she had personally seen, although officially it had been written down as sixteen by the news media who also claimed that it was far from widespread problem which was a bold faced lie. It was all under the counter stuff, payment well below minimum wage, and was one of the major weapons used against the United States of America. As families became desperately in need of the child labor the laws against it became harder and harder to enforce and the Faction promised relief from that.
            “He was a military doctor killed in the Italian-American War in one of the suicide bombs after Haringer murdered all those poor priests,” the woman told her and Laura nodded in response, utterly unsure of what to say or do. “My name is Tricia Johnson.”
            “Laura Adler,” she replied and then hesitated before adding, “Ex-police, right?” She seemed so nice that Laura thought maybe she was mistaken.
            “Fourth generation of the Los Angeles Police Department,” she told her with clear pride and then she smiled again. “I’ll see you around, Laura.” She turned around and left Laura alone feeling strange and surprised.
            Across the window her eyes caught sight of someone about her age, a black haired handsome young man talking to four older men at one of the tables. She instantly recognized him, the boy who had come in before her, who—
            An attractive black woman suddenly appeared in front her. “Hello,” she said and smiled sweetly. Her straightened hair hung around her eyes in an attractive way that made Laura think she was rich before she was put in the facility and then realized she very much was because Laura recognized her. “You’re new. A black tag,” the woman told her and Laura was so dumbstruck for a moment that all she could do was stare at the same jumpsuit she wore with the only difference being a red tag instead of a black. “My name is—”
            “Joan Kelly!” whispered Laura. “I saw you painting that asshole general! You’re one of the great artists of the age!” Laura had specialized in art and easily recalled how her painting teacher had raved about Joan Kelly. Laura herself had visited her mural in Harlem of New York City once with her father what felt like a lifetime ago, a depiction of the life of the African Americans from the first immigrants and slaves to the modern day stretching across the inner courtyard of the Silver Tower. Laura had seen a documentary on her work in school during Black History Month too back before her father died and she was sent to a Faction academy. Before the United States fell. “I’m Laura Adler.”
            Joan smiled at her. “I knew you were different! I could tell when I—”       
            A Hispanic woman reached down, grabbed Joan by the arm, and pulled her back. It wasn’t rough but it was aggressive. “You stay the hell away from her, Joan!” she hissed and glared at Laura. “This bitch is one of them!”
            Laura stood up, looked at the woman, and was suddenly hit with another sense of recognition. She was short, reasonably attractive, with thick brown hair hanging down around her waist, with round brown eyes and a sexy curvy form. The red tag on her jumpsuit meant nothing to Laura.
            “What the fuck are you looking at?” she asked.
            Laura blinked several times and then recognized her. “You’re that architect. Your name is something-issia Munoz. I’ve seen you before but you’ve lost like a hundred pounds!” That was not an understatement: the woman had least been seventy to ninety pounds overweight on the video she had seen. “You built the Blue River Track in Scotland! It’s the greatest hover racing track in the entire world!” She had studied that track closely and that was how Laura knew her. She may have also built the Silver Tower in Harlem judging that the Blue River Hotel’s highly similar look and if that was true Laura guessed that she and Joan had been friends or colleagues long before they ended up there.
            “Well thanks for that lovely compliment,” said Munoz with a fake smile. “Maybe when you’re done and we’re all dead you can go off and have a good old rigged race in my memory!” Her fake smile left. “Stay away from her Joan and you, fascist, stay the fuck away from both of us!”
            “She seems nice to me,” said Joan with a shrug as Munoz pulled her away.
            “You’re too goddamn good for this place,” Munoz told her and gave Laura one hard, unkind glance back as they walked over to their table on the opposite side of the room.
            Laura agreed with that last sentiment and felt very tired. She wondered how long it would be until she was dead or raped or whatever it was she was there for. She watched Joan split from Munoz to go over to the glass steel wall and saw her stop at the yellow line three feet from it and begin talking to a little boy of thirteen who was standing there. He was so much alike her not just in his face but temperament that he had to be her son. Come to think of it, Laura remembered hearing she had a child.
            The boy had a white tag but didn’t look hurt or tired and Laura knew instantly what he was there for. Whoever was trying to control Joan pulled the boy in on a white tag status so that they could do whatever they wanted to him if his mother got out of line. It was probably not necessary considering Joan’s temperament but moderation or forethought of that sort wasn’t in the Faction’s nature.
            Laura felt almost utterly certain that it was not going to end well.

*          *          *

            Two more very boring days passed before something happened.
            Lyle rushed up to Justin during their exercise period, slipped around the dumbbells Justin was working on, and put Justin between himself and something. “A problem, Lyle?” asked Justin as he stood up with his jumpsuit hanging down around his waist.
            “You’re hiding behind this, Wilder?” asked a man and Justin turned and looked up at the man who had been glaring at Lyle the day he met him. He was almost a foot taller than Justin, who was a solid six feet, with a huge body with both fat and muscle but far more of the latter, a shaved head, and a tribal tattoo across the left side of his face which Justin found odd since he was clearly European in his ancestry. “I have to sleep with five other guys in one cell,” he told Justin.
            “Well,” said Justin, “When I’m promoted to general I’ll do something about it—”
            “—I think someone should trade with me. I’m a big man who needs a room to himself.” He sneered with the familiar look of a man who just didn’t like attractive boys. “You don’t look very big and you don’t need all that room.” His eyes darkened. “Let’s go tell the guards about our deal?”
            “What deal might that be?”
            “You give me that room and I—” He threw a fist very suddenly in an attempt to catch Justin off guard. He had some skill, nicking Justin across the face and tearing his lip before he had moved aside, but that wasn’t enough damage to distract Justin from his opening.
            Justin punched the man several times in the chest, each blow easily hitting the vital targets he was trained to hit as a marine, and when the man slowed down from pain he kicked him in the groin so easily that it was almost casual. When the man fell down to the ground in too much agony to even clutch himself Justin grabbed a black and red barbell, took it in both hands, and brought it down on the man’s back hard enough to send him flopping to the ground where he did not get up.
            No other prisoner ever bothered Justin or Lyle again.
            “You are an asshole, Wilder,” said Jose from not far away, a red towel resting on his bare shoulder.
            “I could have taken him,” Lyle replied, “But I thought it would be better for everyone if Justin here proved himself. Now no one will bother him.” Justin frowned at Lyle. “Let me introduce you to my guard friend when we get out into the yard. Milton Garrett.” He made pistol firing gestures with his fingers. “He’s alright.”
            When a red guard came in wrapped in his black plated red armor everyone tensed up but the guard said, and did, nothing except walk past Justin, grab the tattooed man by the arm, and then drag him whimpering out of the room. As soon as he was gone movement came back to everyone but slowly.
            “I’m not in trouble?” asked Justin. He looked around at the physical trainers going back to their commands and words like “double time” and “move your fat ass” and then at the red and white guards back at their posts all acting as if nothing had ever happened. “I guess not,” he added with a shrug.
            When they were out in the quad pacing bored Lyle took him to a white guard who was standing in a corner smoking a cigarette and staring at them. “You are an asshole, Wilder,” said the guard as they approached and offered a cigarette to Justin.
            “So I’m not a fighter,” Lyle replied as he and Justin both took a cigarette and the guard lit with a Zippo lighter which must have been a classic because Live-4-Less managed a corporate takeover of their company and made very bad versions of Zippo that all had the yin yang on their sides.
            The guard instantly struck Justin as a bit of a school football coach type of man. He was strong, athletic, with a mustache with a head of short dark brown hair, with eyes a very light blue that seemed to pierce everything. There was sadness there though, the kind that came from tragedy, or perhaps just some unnecessary hardship created by the former government such as one of those evil laws that came around at its end. It was the lines on his face that somehow reminded him of his former friend Philip Abel that brought up the Fifty-Fifty Law in Justin’s mind but he did not wish to think about that. The Fifty-Fifty Law had ruined his father’s career and then ruined his life and that was bad enough without bringing Philip Abel into it.
            Justin breathed out some smoke and asked, “So how’s the business of guardianship these wonderful days?” He thought about the pain in his lip on how it would have been healed already if he had his bio armor available.
            “It’s just wonderful,” Garrett replied and held out his hand. “Milton Garrett.”
             “Justin Biryukov,” Justin replied as he shook his hand.
            Garrett took the cigarette out of his mouth with the first two fingers of his left hand. “That is incredibly Russian,” said he. “How did that happen?”
            “I’m a direct male descendent of an immigrant all the way back to the 1800s who wouldn’t change his name,” replied Justin. He looked around and saw many of the whites were out on Law Labor, including Juan Reyes. The others were so beat they were basically sleepwalking. Reyes told him that no one was allowed to sit down or lean up against a wall because they might fall asleep and if they fell asleep they would suffer for it.
            Suddenly Justin saw a red guard he had never seen before, a man with a great deal more medals on his uniform, stepping into the quad with his hands behind his back. “Look away,” said Garrett and Justin did. “That’s Bill Miller, head of the male side red guards. Trust me when I tell you he’s trouble.”
            “Should I be scared of him?”
            “Yes,” he replied and then in a softer voice he whispered, “He’s insecure and weak. Touch on that and he’ll break your back to prove you otherwise. You get me?”
            “I get you.” Justin looked past Garrett, past the wall, and saw a very attractive blond girl walking around with her hands behind her back looking incredibly bored. His lips curled up into a smile for a minute and then went away as he looked back. “I get you,” he told Garrett again.

*          *          *

            The days were getting steadily worse.
            The excruciating boredom and slow pace were bad enough but the worst part was the growing understanding that the people with the white tags were beginning to disappear. They just were there one day and gone the other, a room with five people one night had four the next morning, and no one knew why.
            Reyes thought there might have been some kind of knock out gas that came out from the walls of the cells after one guy disappeared after lights out while they were sleeping without anyone seeing or hearing anything. That disturbed Justin a great deal but try as he might no answer ever came to him, no answer that would relieve him anyway, and he thought often about that man with the boils on his face. Others died out there while working, that was understood, but these others were different. They might have just been dragged off while everyone was asleep and then killed somewhere out of sight by one of the incredibly sadistic red guards but Justin thought that perhaps they were taken into the black room and had “something” done to them.
            No one knew for sure and no one wanted to.            
            Laura noticed their disappearances too but did not dare talk to Tricia about it. Mostly, she just listened as she sat alone and heard the sound of women chattering among each other about how this woman or that was here one moment and gone the next.
            It might have been a week, maybe even a month, with the days all stretching out like one long line when the woman on the intercom announced “a large number” of people had been rehabilitated and were let go to return to their families. Nobody, not even Joan, seemed to believe it. She told Laura when Munoz wasn’t looking that if that was true her son would have been sent to live with his father in Michigan. He was obviously rehabilitated and Laura agreed.
            Justin and Laura had both heard about the Vietnam Veterans Memorial hole and both knew without being told that it was the exact size and shape of a mass grave.
            As time went on a growing sense of paranoia grew in the air and the cameras and microphones that were almost certainly everywhere began to make people nervous. Why it became so much more severe no one could say but people started to deeply distrust each other. The white tags started to openly shun any black or red tag feeling that there was a microphone in their collars even though there was no sign of one.
            Soon, the only white tag aside from Joan Kelly’s son that would get anywhere near to any of them was Reyes but he was nervous. He spoke casually to Jose in what Jose stated was a highly accented Mexican dialect of Spanish which they easily spoke since their families descended from the same area of Mexico but he still spoke very carefully. Despite the fact that English was the primary language of the Faction Jose admitted he doubted it helped what with their translators and all but it made Reyes feel significantly better. If Reyes spoke to any non-Spanish speakers it was always a very calculated, careful statement in English.
            Laura noticed much of the same calculation by gleaming off more conversations here and there from the women around her. Tricia spoke to her whenever she randomly appeared but there was a kind of deep tenseness and caution in her that prevented Laura from getting into a genuinely deep conversation with her. She didn’t have any confidants and while loneliness had been a great part of her life she always had her artificial intelligent companion Dylan to talk to about her feelings.
            She started to feel like she was going to go insane from loneliness and boredom.
            And everything losing their color was certainly not helping. They were removing the color from the monitors gradually while the force field that prevented rain from coming down was doing the same to the sky for God only knew what real reason. With no one to talk to and no change in her schedule Justin and Laura both began to feel like every day was stretching out into one long boring moment in hell.

*          *          *

            “Later Denny,” said Justin as he watched the thirteen year old boy walk off across the quad to go speak to his mother through the glass steel wall at the exact same time he did every day. He was named Denzel after his parents’ favorite actor of the twentieth and twenty first centuries but everyone just called him Denny. “Sweet kid,” he added and then marveled at his and his mother’s freakish level of optimism.
            Lyle suddenly patted him on the shoulder as he walked by. “How’s it going?” he asked cheerfully.
            “How the hell do you think I’m doing, jackass? I’m in prison!” Justin found he was getting very irritated by Lyle and his ridiculous stories. There was the one where he was a soldier in the United States Resistance Army, despite not having the mandatory bionic augmentation armor, and another of being the boyfriend of Jessica Alba’s descendent or clone or something who was apparently her spitting image at eighteen despite the fact there was just absolutely no way in hell, and then there was the one about him getting caught stealing five hundred million dollars from one of the ex-wealthy elite shot by the Faction by hacking into his off shore account. That one had the ring of truth to it, he was very good with computers and probably really was a hacker, but if that was true why were they bothering to keep him alive? The data version of money was not going to be particularly useful for anyone that when those bombs came falling down.
            “Have you heard about her?” asked Lyle.
            “Her who?” Justin asked even though he was almost certain he knew. He had caught the blond girl wandering around again and he found himself staring at her thoughtfully at times. There was just something about her, maybe in her walk or demeanor or something, and he genuinely liked her already. He believed Lyle had just seen or sensed that and was going to make up a story about her to irritate him.
            “That sexy ass blond,” he told Justin. “She is the single most beautiful woman in the entire facility and is ex-Faction.”
            “Oh her?” Justin replied as if indifferent. He did know that, Garrett had told him when he talked to him about her without Lyle around, and that was the only reason he had hesitated for so long. He had seen her and she had seen him, he knew that, their eyes drawn to each other but hesitating on both sides. She was at that moment wandering through the quad with her hands behind her back looking incredibly bored and talking with that cute female guard that popped up from time to time.
            Justin turned his head toward her as she turned toward his and their eyes met. An oddly shy smile grew across her face and that made one just like it grew on his own face. Once in the cafeteria he had spotted her eyes and they were green, like endless grassy fields on a plain, reminding him of a park where he used to play baseball with some childhood friends.
            “I hit that—”
            “Bullshit!” Justin replied a little too defensively and then he decided he was done messing around and walked on over to the glass steel wall and its yellow line. “You only live once, right,” he said told himself. Of course, he added, You can be rejected viciously a thousand times…
            “You’re going to blow it!” called Lyle humorously.
            “Fuck you!” he called back in the same humorous tone and Lyle laughed. Justin did a little too but as he neared the line he found he was actually very nervous. How do you talk to a woman so goddamn beautiful?

*          *          *

            “Hey!” called a voice from the other side and Laura turned to see that amazingly handsome boy who was usually haunted by that amazingly annoying Wilder guy trying to draw her over to wall. She bit her lower lip and turned up to Tricia.
            “Oh he is a cutie,” said Tricia with a smile.
            Since the moment she had left Jackson’s presence on that first day the only man who ever tried to get her attention was Lucas Randal who was admittedly gorgeous but only interested in sex which in the case of the facility was pretend sex. He was also too old for her, too flashy, and would earn her the wrath of every female already madly in love him. He was, after all, one of the richest men in America and if the Faction were to fall in a way amicably to the former United States he would get his billions back. He might even remember his former girlfriends if he did.
            The boy her age was far more of something. She was not sure what it was but the moment she saw him she liked him. There was just that something about him. Was it his eyes? The way he walked? She did not know but she liked it and almost as much as she liked the fact that she was the first girl he had approached.
            He was such a beautiful boy too. Once they had been at the line on the wall in the cafeteria and their eyes met. His eyes were like the ocean, endless and blue and deep and wonderful. She felt she could lost in those eyes and it made her want to run her hands through his hair.
            She walked away from Tricia and stopped at the line. “Can I help you?” she asked with a calm face.
            He became much more attractive when he smiled, a man with a very kissable face and an incredibly body which she, and other women, had seen in the gym more than once and with those wonderful eyes all lighting up with excitement he almost became something almost unearthly. “Yes you can,” he told her with some nervousness. “My name is Justin Biryukov. What’s yours?”
            The instant Laura heard his voice she found she liked him even more. Something about it made her feel instantly comfortable and that had been abnormal for every man she had met save her father, her favorite cousin and Samantha Seymour’s boyfriend. Men who could instill peace in the way they talked were rare.
            “Well why do you care?” she asked playfully.
            He smiled wider. “I’m curious and intrigued. I’ve heard you were ex-Faction—”
            “Oh did you?” That caught her attention but she pretended like it was nothing. What was his game? What was he playing at? If he knew already and still liked her that meant something but whether that was good or bad she did not yet know. If he thought she was a spy he might be trying to get a favor from someone inside but if he didn’t care and genuinely liked her… “Why does that matter?” she asked honestly. She realized suddenly that if he genuinely didn’t care she didn’t know what to do. They told her all her life she was beautiful but that had not changed the fact that she was still very awkward around boys.
            “It doesn’t,” he replied. “I just need some topic of conversation so that I can start speaking to you.” He still sounded a little nervous and that made her grin internally but she kept it off her face.
            “Is that so?” asked Laura.
            “Well—” Justin’s eyes were thoughtful for a moment, tilting left for a bit, then he shrugged, returned his eyes to hers and added, “Okay I’ll level with you. You are very beautiful but you also kind of strike me as strong and intelligent. These are really great qualities in a girl and I would like to get to know you—” he looked into her blank face with confusion “—better?”
            “Oh now I know you’re messing with me,” she replied with a small smile. “Was it my breasts or ass that gave you the idea I was intelligent?”
            “I’m pretty sure it was your legs,” he replied and they both grinned at each other. “What’s your whole name? Word on the grapevine is that the first is Laura.” He had been asking about her. Interesting.
            “My name is Laura Adler,” she told him and suddenly she had to fight to keep the blush from coming out into her face and making her sway on her feet like a little girl with a crush. “You think you’re funny, don’t you?”
            “I really, really do,” he replied. “I pride myself on my sense of humor and my ability to have conversations with beautiful girls that don’t suddenly become awkward.”
            Laura smiled at him genuinely but said, “I’m not going to be your prison wife, Justin.” Most of the attractive ones were already married to Lucas Randal anyway. It was a game the women played and one they would almost certainly resent her joining. She had noticed a few had been making goo, goo eyes at him in the gym when he wasn’t looking. “Not ever.”
            “That’s okay,” Justin replied. “I can’t have some goddamn ball and chain holding me down while my life is skyrocketing in such fantastic new directions.” Laura smiled wider and managed only barely to stop herself from biting her lower lip. “So,” he said. “What do you do for fun?”
            “Things I enjoy.”
            “Oh, wow, that’s just super helpful,” he retorted with an unhappy expression she sensed was false. “You know if you don’t want to talk to me you could just tell me. I can always find some other prison floozy to talk to.”
            Laura put her hands on her hips and straightened her back in a way that did not appear to be on purpose but somehow was understood as being clearly on purpose and said, “Do any of them have breasts as nice as mine?”
            “Are we playing this game now?” asked Justin with a wide eyed expression. “Are we trying to outdo each other or something like that?” Laura smiled wider, bit her lower lip, and watched Justin grin like a little boy at Christmas. “I’ll take you seriously, Laura, but only if you take me seriously back.” She just grinned at him. “If I were to answer your question you would first have to show me your breasts. Only then would I be able to make a proper comparison.”
            She stretched her back up as if to show off her chest and asked, “What, pray tell, will you be showing me in return?”
            “Science is not a trade, Ms. Adler,” he replied soberly. “This is about learning and education and to be taken seriously as a lecture of education.” The horn-like bell rang loudly for them to leave and Justin said in his normal voice, “Can I speak to you again?”
            “Yes,” she told him. “You can find me along the wall of the quad when we come back if I feel like talking.” She turned around and walked away purposely, but again not appearing so, with her backside swaying as she walked. She didn’t normally act that way around boys but there was just something about him that really made her feel confident and sexual.
            “See you later, baby!” Justin called.
            “If I’m around, sexy!”  Laura called back but she knew she would be. She was already smiling in anticipation, unable to believe she finally found someone she not only could talk to but genuinely liked as well.
            Leticia Ortiz appeared from around the doorframe back to the cafeteria and nearly knocked her down. The head of the female guards was an overweight, unattractive and mean Hispanic woman with a cruel and violent nature. Laura was lucky that her sights had been then and always centered on Munoz who had somehow become the woman Ortiz hated more than any other in the entire world for reasons no one ever told Laura.
            “Get the fuck out of my way, traitor!” she hissed and Laura quickly moved around her.
            In line for the dinner she found herself grinning almost stupidly. “I think he likes me,” she whispered to herself.

*          *          *

            “I think she hates me,” Justin whispered to himself as he was staring down at his food and he looked over at her grinning down at her own food. “She is totally playing me.”
            Lyle laughed and irritatingly slapped him on the shoulder a bunch of times. Jose was off with Reyes so Justin tried to sit alone near the wall but Lyle found him and invited himself over. “You don’t really think a package like that is interested in losers like us, do you?”
            Justin felt mildly insulted that he was being bunched into a comparison between himself and Lyle Wilder. He wanted to tell someone and get some real advice but not from him. After a moment he decided he knew just the man.

*          *          *

            “Why the hell are you asking me?” asked Milton Garrett when Justin asked him back out on the quad.
            “Well Randal’s not looking too hot these days,” said Justin with an uncomfortable shrug. Lucas Randal was leaning up against a wall with his eyes shut, the only person allowed to do that. Had he been healthy and vocal he would have been the absolutely most perfect man to have asked advice about women from.
            “That’s because he’s stoned,” said Garrett.
            “Why is he stoned?”
            “His OCD was driving him to harm himself,” said Garrett. “They care enough to keep him alive but not enough to unlock the involuntary impulses of his bionic armor.”
            “Damn,” said Justin.
            “Look, kid, she’s standing over at the wall now which means she doesn’t hate you,” Garrett told him. “Simple enough, right? Now go talk to her. If she finds out you’re asking for advice she’ll think you’re weak and dump you on the spot.”
            “Okay,” said Justin, wondering if that was really a joke, and then he walked over to Laura, stopped on the line and said, “So how are you doing—” he immediately halted and wanted to slap himself in the face.
            “How the hell do you think, jackass?” she replied. “I’m in prison.”
            “Yeah, I know. It was stupid.”
            “No, not really,” she replied. “You’ve seen the prison documentaries on the porn channels. I’ve managed sixteen orgasms today with a beautiful Swedish woman whose name I can’t quite pronounce. I’m just in a bad mood because by this time yesterday I had actually managed seventeen.”
            “You are Satan’s daughter, Laura,” said Justin. “You should know this.”
            She smiled at him, balanced a little bit on the tips of her feet, and said, “How should I be, Justin? How should I have fun?”
            “Well—” he honestly had no idea to answer that and tried a flirtation move “—I would find some fun in your shower.” There was no shower, technically, but he thought she would get it and have a laugh or something.
            “You would only be in there if you didn’t have a cock,” she replied with a straight face.
            Or maybe not, he thought. “Are you telling me you’re a lesbian?”
            “Are you telling me you don’t have a dick?”
            Justin slapped his hands together and breathed through his teeth. “That is not what I’m telling you.” He took a deep long breath. “Let’s start over, talk about something fun, something girly and all that crap.”
            “Why not?” Laura crossed her arms.
            Justin stared at her blankly for a moment. Was there more? Didn’t women like to talk? There were billions of women on the planet and it seemed that most of them never shut up. Justin had apparently found one of the few who didn’t like to talk and there was nothing to do there but talk. “Uh—movies maybe?”
            Laura shrugged.
            Justin twitched a bit. Why are you making this so goddamn difficult! He screamed in his head. Talk to me you annoying sexy skirt! Speak! Commence conversation! No? Good! Fine! “Let’s start by—uh—talking about you.”
            “No,” she replied.
            “No?”
            “No,” she repeated. “I don’t like to talk about myself.”
            “You fail,” Justin told her. “You fail at being a girl.”
            “Is that supposed to make me laugh?” she said with a deadpan expression.
            “Yes!” he cried. “Yes it is! It’s funny!” He groaned, turned around and took a deep breath. He was about to say something indicating reasonable annoyance when he heard something he didn’t expect and turned back.
            Laura was blushing and giggling and utterly unable to hold it back any longer. She bit her lower lip, grinning at him, and looking like the most beautiful girl Justin had ever seen in his life. He had never seen a woman with a strong demeanor look even remotely that cute.
            “Well lookey here,” said Justin. “It appears the woman with the incredible rack is shy.”
            “Oh you are such in asshole,” she told him but was still smiling.
            “Oh I knew you were screwing with me!” he replied. “I sensed it! I fucking sensed it!”

*          *          *

            They smiled at each other for a long time, staring into each other’s eyes, unable to understand the strange, deep feelings that welled up inside of themselves. They did not understand their feelings because neither of them was romantic but they liked them and wanted to keep feeling them and almost desperately desired each other more than they had ever desired any other person and for more than several reasons.
            Within some short span of time they had just fallen in love with each other. They understood that soon enough but they did not entirely understand or care how.
            It just was and it’s spontaneity really annoyed both of them.
            Laura had instantly felt her heart beating in her chest and she understood that they had skipped some steps, the process of dating and courtship that was supposed to normally create such a bond over time, and ended somewhere much farther down the line all in a passing second.
            “Movies—” she swallowed “—you said movies. I love movies.” What the hell is wrong with me?
            “Yeah,” Justin said softly. “I love movies and video games and a lot of—things like that.” His heart was beating in his chest and Justin was staring at her like she was he first girl he had ever met. Not only was she the single most beautiful girl he had ever seen he realized suddenly and overwhelmingly that she shared most of his personal interests. What the hell just happened?
            “You like late twentieth century and early twenty-first century?”
            “That,” he told her with a contented smile, “is my specialty.”
            They both smiled and so began to talk and did not stop until they had to. After that moment every chance they got they went to the glass steel wall and talked. They sat as close as they could when eating and made gestures to each other and while exercising they actually flirted with each other by purposely letting more skin show than they should and by the end of that first day of meeting they had discovered they had an incredible amount of similar interests, joys and hobbies.
            They both felt like two halves of the same person which made them feel awkward and uncomfortable since neither had a remotely romantic personality. For that reason they did not talk about it and stared at each other for several minutes trying to get the awkward feelings under control half-liking, half-hating each other under their stronger feelings for causing that annoyance.
            Despite the misery and painful plainness of Reclamation Facility 59 they found they could always make each other laugh and smile. Somehow that allowed them to ignore all that occurred around them and Joan and Denzel Kelly were no longer the only two people capable of retaining happiness within that place.

5

            Even when the disappearances of the white tags and a general sinister vibe amid the red guards grew Justin and Laura still found themselves grinning at each other. They talked about trivial things like movies and video games long since gone and joked and quoted as they walked up and down the line while staring at each through the wall. They were not exactly happy, they were actually incredibly worried, and their joking and talking had an edge of hysteria to it, but it was still better than nothing and to some extent it even felt that they would be fine as long as they had each other.
            Justin was especially worried about Denny and Laura confirmed that he was very right to be worried. Something had shifted behind the scenes in the Faction’s world and Joan either knew something or sensed it enough to become very frightened for her son. She had even approached Laura hoping that she was a spy and pleaded with her to give good reports to her supervisors in order to keep her son out of danger.
            Once that had reached Justin he found every time he was near to the boy it seemed his mother was telling him to be “careful” and “quiet” and “not stir up trouble.” The boy was starting to stick with Nathan Michaels all the time and Justin saw for the first time that Michaels, who usually showed no emotion to anyone, was very much interested in Joan Kelly romantically and worried for her son.
            For Justin, the very worst sign of all was that Lyle Wilder had stopped talking and become incredibly quiet.
            “We’re coming to the end,” he told Justin when he Justin caught him staring worriedly around with his wide eyes. “Better grab onto something kiddo because this train is going to derail.”
            Justin did not know how long he had been waiting in that concentration camp but he learned snow was starting to fall which meant it hadn’t been very long. It wasn’t cold as the force field and heaters prevented that and he had no concrete idea how long time had passed but he was certain the flakes of snow above the force field made it not very long. Laura saw them first and had pointed them out to him with a happy childish smile on her face.
            He stared up into the sky smiling an identical smile to his girlfriend’s when he heard something coming. He turned in military style, startling Miller to a nervous stop, and looked down at a pain rod in Miller’s hand. The rod was a slightly longer than normal red nightstick with a tip that was a glass steel square. When that tip was pressed against a person it spread open and the needle within pressed into the flesh of whoever was stabbed. The damage was utterly minimal but the device within the stick amplified the pain a hundred fold or more to make it feel as if the person stabbed felt like they were being sawed in half. Then when they pulled the needle out only a pin prick of damage had been done and the glass steel closed back over the needle and released sanitizing mist around it.
            He saw we were happy, thought Justin as he looked at him. He’s choosing now to spoil it for us.
            Miller hesitated for only one moment longer, a skinny, short man with an average face covered pale skin with narrow, beady little black eyes, and then he jerked forward. Justin did not dodge and felt the pain giver’s needle enter his side like it was an impaling broadsword. Justin crumpled backward onto his back bending over his lower legs awkwardly and was in such agony he could not even scream. It was worse pain than he had ever felt in his life, the pain of his bio blocker a pleasant tickle by comparison.
            Miller pressed harder and Justin screamed into the air. Distantly he sensed Laura screaming as well and the idea of her being scared forced himself to stop. When he did, he realized she was screaming at Miller to stop and was, while incredibly worriedly for him, not particularly scared. She was not easily frightened, his girlfriend.
            “Stop it, you pansy cocksucker!” Laura told Miller and as a wonder he did. Mostly out of surprise, it would seem.
            Justin rolled off of his bent legs onto his chest, his hair clinging to his head, and breathed heavily. His entire body was shaking but the pain was gone as if it had never been there in the first place. He tried to get up, found it wasn’t happening, and then felt the pain giver’s square tip gently touching the left side of his face.
            “Cruising around for sweet blond pussy, are we?” asked Miller. “Mr. Bookytof, that sweet, sweet, sweet ass is not for you.”
            “It is for whoever I say it is!” hissed Laura and then Justin saw her sigh-groin in disgust when she realized how that sounded. “Goddamn it!”
            Justin leaned over onto his side so he could see what was happening and saw Miller was openly glaring at Laura. “I didn’t realize holes could talk,” he said and then as Justin got onto his hands and knees Miller slammed the pain giver in both hands down onto his back as hard as he could sending Justin into the ground in such agony that he could not scream for the solid five minutes he kept it there.
            When it was done, Miller leaned over and said, “You watch yourself, boy!” and walked away.
            “It’s not that bad,” Justin said when he was gone and even though it was intended as a joke he was surprised to find that it really wasn’t. It amplified pain but pain was far worse when there was real damage. Something about that made the pain the rod made much more tolerable despite its intensity although he could not exactly put the why into words. It was like the way that getting a really bad skin rash on a place like the forearm where it was easily contained wasn’t as bad as one on the bottom on the foot where one had to walk on it all the time even though that rash might not be nearly as bad.
            Justin stood up shakily ten minutes later, Laura looking worriedly at him, and said, “Even as a kid my martial arts training would have let me kick the shit out of him.” His entire body trembled but by then the echo of pain was almost gone.
            “He would have wrapped himself in bio armor and pounded you into the ground,” she told him.
            “I know,” Justin replied.
            Laura looked suddenly grief stricken. “It was about me, you know.”
            Justin did. She had told him about Jackson and he believed her personal insight into his character was strong enough to accurately guess that he had not given up on her. Miller and Ortiz were just Faction rats who worked for whoever was above them, the male and female counterparts to each other. As far as Justin could tell they were the worst that the prisoners had to deal with in the prison on an everyday basis. However, the ones out on Law Labor and ones above, like Jackson, were worse to a spectacular degree but most of the red and black tags, except Laura, would never see them.
            “I’m not going anywhere, Laura,” he told her as he turned back to her.
            She looked incredibly relieved. Justin was not lying and had no intention of leaving but knew that if he had seen their situation from the outside and watched a boyfriend flee away from his girl to safety after fully learning that being near to her would be dangerous he would not have been surprised.
            “I’ll understand,” she told him softly.
            “No,” he told her. “I mean it.”
            Laura laughed, put her hand over her mouth for a moment then looked at him with teary eyes. “I think someday I might actually show you my breasts.”
            Justin grinned and said, “I’m taking that as a promise. That is a promise.”
            Laura smiled back and suddenly they were back to the way they had been as if Miller had not only never entered into their lives but had never actually been born.

*          *          *

            Jose was smoking a cigarette Garrett gave him and watched Miller stamp his foot and practically start screaming and seemed to have only managed to keep his amusement under control by the barest margins. He almost imagined the little brat to run to a corner and cry like a naughty little girl.
            Miller turned, looked in his general direction, and his face turned dark. Jose turned his head and saw that Reyes was grinning at him from his place beside him.
            Jose looked at him in horror and then turned and watched Miller stomping off out of the yard. He turned back and in Spanish said, “You were smirking at him!”
            Reyes smiled slipped off of his face like he had been slapped and he stared at him in dumbstruck horror. He had been so tired from Law Labor that he had not even realized he had been smiling. “You don’t think he’ll hurt my family, do you?” he asked.
            Jose’s respect for his friend grew higher and it was already high. He must have been a good father and he had the instinct to worry for his wife and children before himself. He wondered how many men like him there were left in the world and how undervalued they always were. His own father sure hadn’t been one.
            Reyes was terrified and Jose had no idea what to tell him for a full five minutes while he literally saw panic growing on his face but then an answer did occur to him. “Johnny, if they had your family or knew where they were these monitors would have been flooding you with their images.”
            Reyes let out a sigh of incredible relief and actually did smile. He offered Jose a cigarette he procured from the guard Garret but he refused. He told him hadn’t smoked since his first years of college when his future wife told him she was pregnant and wanted him to quit.
            Jose’s face turned blank again as he turned away and felt sick to his core. If Juan Reyes was alive at the end of the week Jose would think it a miracle from God.

*          *          *

            Two days later the prisoners stood in the rain.
            It was not yet cold enough for actual snow, the temperature being too warm in general for anything but flakes on the off cold day, but on that day, somehow, the power of the force field above their heads flickered off and what came down was actual rain. It was icy cold and poured down like a shower but Laura and Justin did not care. They looked at each other, grinned like two children, and then looked back up.
            The clouds were fiercely dark above their heads but Laura could see in the distance an opening in the clouds to the north that revealed the bright blue morning sky. It struck her so beautiful that she almost cried.
            The monitor’s had flickered off as well on both sides as well as the lights and Laura saw seven women start toward Ortiz who was as distracted almost as much as the inmates. She had seemed to barely notice the rain and had not even bothered to put on her bio armor while she started at Munoz who was dancing in the rain with Joan reminding Laura of two young girls.
            Ortiz could openly hurt Munoz the same way Miller had hurt Justin but was unable to do anything more. The pain giver was where it ended and while Munoz would scream and cry she would always snap out of it as soon as Ortiz was gone and that seemed to greatly enrage her. She was getting more and more hyper focused on her and that day, probably because of the rain, she was caught completely off guard as all seven women grabbed her from behind.
            One grabbed the controller from her belt, another grabbed the pain giver and tried to knock her out with it, and the others held her arms and legs. Laura watched in shock horror knowing full well what would happen while unable to do a thing about it. They had not consulted her and therefore she wasn’t able to tell them what a mistake it was.
            Ortiz might just be a barely trained pumped up guard with a rather soft looking exterior but she did have bio armor and that could make any weakling dangerous. She would have recommended snapping Ortiz’s neck as the first move before even letting her know they were there but that was folly too. Even if someone could kill her, pop open the controller and remove the DNA printing key, as one was trying to do right then, it would make no difference. Even if that controller could somehow be made to unlock every single door in the entire facility while simultaneously disarming every alarm and defense mechanism they still would never get out of there alive. There were only a few guards but well enough to track six tired women through the maze of facility and all of whom had bio armor. The doctors and nurses themselves almost certainly had their own bio armor as well and there was little doubt there wouldn’t be guns stashed in safe and accessible places all over the facility. Laura couldn’t say what the white guards would do but it was unlikely they would risk ending up in there with them.
            The women that jumped Ortiz weren’t fighters either. They were musicians, dancers, lawyers, or some other normal American job with one an engineer or mechanic enough to understand the controller and they were weak from Law Labor which was why their hits never disabled Ortiz as they had intended.
            They had gotten the controller, gotten Ortiz, but they hadn’t understood the step beyond.
            The instant they moved Laura knew they were all dead.
            The bio armor came out over Ortiz’s uniform and body within a second and her mechanized voice shrieked in rage. She grabbed a random woman by the arm and with her amplified strength twisted it back so far she nearly ripped off. Blood burst out in all directions and all the women in the yard and half the men on the other side began to scream.
            Ortiz elbowed a nearby woman hard enough to break her sternum, grabbed another and threw her into the air where she landed on her shoulder badly enough to break it.
            She stood up covered in blood, her hat on the outside of the armor. “You little bitches!” she hissed through her mechanical voice as she took off the hat and tossed it down. “You—little—” the double blades on both wrists shot out at full sword length “—cunts!”
            “Ortiz!” Laura cried and she looked at her with that bionic blank bug eyed face. Laura moved closer, but not too close, very carefully. “The statutes of the UCLD requires that have preapproved authorization for committing to any action leading to the loss of party materials such as workers—”
            “Fuck your statutes, traitor!”
            “We didn’t want to hurt you!” one of the four women screamed, a woman in her forties with curly brown hair who was as skinny as a rail and sickly besides. “We just want out!”
            “Wish granted!” Ortiz rushed forward and with the humming vibration blades on her right hand sliced diagonally upward through her and, continuing her swing, hit the one to her left who had raised her hands up in surrender. The first woman’s guts spilled out onto the ground with a wet splat and the second one’s chest was cut diagonally upward between her breasts through her body nearly to the spine.
            Laura turned away from the sight but she could not block out the sound of the carnage or the high pitched shrieking that came from the victims. Most everyone was screaming by then and when she looked at Justin she could see him turning away with a hard concentrated expression she knew mirrored her own. They both shared a glance filled with abject horror as they could not stop hearing those vibration blades cutting through human flesh and the agonized sounds of the tortured that followed.
            Nathan Michaels was the only who watched, his face hard and tense, his hands holding Denzel Kelly against his front so tightly he couldn’t turn and see the carnage happening behind him.
            When silence came Laura looked back and saw Ortiz standing amid the corpses with their red blood covering her from head to toe. The one with the broken sternum was dead, both women she sliced diagonally were dead, the one with the broken shoulder’s face had been caved in with a foot, and the one with the remote had been cut to a half dozen pieces. The only one left alive was the one with broken arm and Ortiz was walking up behind her.
            Joan stepped forward but Munoz caught her by the shoulder and yanked her back hard. Joan shrieked out, “No—”
            “Silence!” cried Ortiz, her voice amplified to a powerful volume, and everyone except Joan obeyed.
            “No!” shrieked Joan again. “You aren’t just going to—”
            Ortiz said nothing. She made no excuses and made no speeches. Laura turned away when she saw the position of her arms but could not block the sound of her neck snapping like a squishy twig.
            When Laura looked back Ortiz was staring at her through her helmet with an expression Laura sensed as pure hate and maybe some contempt as well. “And just what the fuck do you think you are looking at, traitor?”
            Laura shook her head slowly. “Nothing.”
            “Nothing is correct.” She gestured to the blood covered concrete and corpses. “They are nothing!” She looked at Munoz for a long second before she turned and walked away.
            Laura saw Tricia step quickly aside as the woman walked by, her face filled with horror, and then moved up to the dead women. Her eyes were filled with hurt but she didn’t cry. She was a police officer who evidently knew how to hold in her emotions in check. “Call the doctor,” she told another white guard.
            “They’re dead—”
            “Just fucking do it!” hissed Tricia and the other woman ran off to the wall monitor that only white and red guards had access too. Laura had not noticed until that moment that the female white guards viewed Tricia as some sort of authority figure despite the fact that she had no technical rank. It would explain why the guards had started to leave her alone almost the instant Tricia started being nice to her.
            Tricia checked the pulse of the woman with the broken sternum, probably the most likely survivor, and sighed. When she looked over her shoulder she saw Ortiz had taken off her helmet to show her see her wide, satisfied smile before she turned and stepped out of the door.
            The instant Ortiz was out of the yard almost everyone began to scream again.

*          *          *

            Justin awoke in the dark around three in the morning in what might have been a week later, looked through the force field of his cell, and saw one of the red guards standing in the dark in full bionic armor watching him. He had long become paranoid enough to sleep in all his clothes including his shoes and that night he knew it would pay off.
            The force field turned off and the guard stepped in, grabbed him by his arm and yanked him to his feet. He looked into his masked face, trying to read what was there, found nothing, and was then dragged him down the hall. He took him to the staircase, pushed him down hard enough to almost send him sprawling down, and then walked after him. Justin had no idea where to go or what to do but as soon as he got his balance back, nearly twisting his ankle in the process, he continued walking down the zigzag stairs without a word.
            At the bottom floor the guard grabbed him by his shoulder, pushed him through a back door and down a series of those white office-like walls, and then, after a long walk where Justin’s ankle thankfully felt much better, he pushed him out through a door out into the back of the facility.
            Why he was suddenly pushed out to where they kept the dumpsters he could not say but there he was. It was one of the trash areas like perhaps the same one Laura had entered into. There was the large closed red gates, the chain link fence, the two giant red dumpsters and a canopy built into the building above that kept out the rain just as she had described them. The cold was not kept out, however, and it was freezing to the point where Justin was certain there was slushy ice on the ground outside.
            Thirteen white tags from the men’s side of the facility were standing side by side across the front of the dumpsters with their hands on top of their heads, Juan Reyes and Denzel Kelly among them, the latter shivering in just his underwear. The paranoia had not reached him but it had all of the others although some did not have their shoes.
            Lucas Randal, Jose Hernandez and Nathan Michaels were there near the wall facing the other line like at roll call. Justin was put on Nathan’s left and after a moment Lyle Wilder was yanked out of the door with no shoes on and thrown on Justin’s left by another armored red guard gasping and stepping daintily trying to escape from the feeling of the icy ground.
            There were a series of red guards fully armored already there who could be anyone but some of the higher ups were among them not wearing their helmets and Justin knew who most were immediately. There was Jackson, who he had only seen in the mess hall, a man who could only be his sidekick Croon, Miller, two male officers Justin had also only seen in the mess hall whose names he did not know and Ortiz whose eyes were narrowing on him for some reason. There was also a fully armored male elite soldier standing by the gate looking so still he might have been a statue.
            Croon was carrying a long, black fully automatic laser rifle in his hands and smiling that strange, creepy smile that did not quite touch his eyes Laura had told him about.
            Jackson walked between them carrying a six foot long silver pole that had two semicircles sticking out horizontally from its tip in his left hand creating a kind of collar with an opening at the end for a neck to slip through. He rested it casually on his shoulder, like it was a baseball bat or hockey stick to be carried in a casual walk in the pregame time. Within those semi-circles were a series of little spikes with two brutal long ones at the ends which Justin suddenly understood were designed to dig into the victim’s neck in the front order to prevent them from escaping should those semi-circles clamp together around a man’s neck.
            It is a man catcher, Justin thought in baffled horror. It was a medieval torture device added with some kind of technological edge. He could see that it could open and close like one of those zoo bought animal heads on poles that kids pressed triggers with but there was some other technology in those fangs as well. Justin did not understand what it would do or what its purpose was on sight and he didn’t think there was enough logic in its creation that he should. It wasn’t like they were going to run and need to be forced somewhere which was its medieval counterpart’s intended purpose.
            Jackson stopped in front of Justin and stared darkly into his eyes. “Kikov,” he said. “What is your relationship with Ms. Laura Adler?”
            Justin felt the temperature drop several degrees. He wants to kill me, he thought. I can see it in his eyes. He was afraid to answer but he was also afraid to not answer and he was afraid to lie but he was also afraid to tell the truth. There was clearly no smart answer and since Jackson would know everything anyway Justin just told him the truth. “She’s my girlfriend,” he said.
            Jackson nodded in a sober fashion. “Well isn’t that nice.”
            He turned from him to Nathan Michaels and saw the look he had for him was much worse. Miller hated everyone, Ortiz hated Munoz, and Jackson hated Michaels. Justin wasn’t entire sure of what Jackson’s expression meant in its completeness but he thought he saw jealousy there. Actually, when Justin thought about it, he realized they were all filled with a kind of hateful jealousy as it was one of the great and notable tools of the Faction.
            Jackson turned his head to Jose, his eyes narrowing for a moment, and then turned around and went straight to Juan Reyes. Justin saw Miller growing a smug little smile.
            “Hello amigo,” said Jackson.
            Reyes looked up into his eyes. “Hello, captain.”
            Jackson gave him a reproachful look. “It seems, Mr. Reyes, that Officer Miller has caught you ghost worshipping in your cell. You would do that after all our kindness and good work? You would go back to the trappings of religion and resurrect one of the great wrongs of the old regime? The very regime that once made my ancestors slaves and used the preposterous notion that they came from a mythical boogeyman known as Cain to justify it?” He took in a deep breath through his teeth. “I can’t prove it so I’ll need your confession.” He smiled in a way that didn’t touch his eyes. “I have a feeling that before this night is up you will give it to me.”
            Reyes said nothing and lowered his gaze.
            Jackson scoffed and turned to Michaels. “How about you, brother? You believe in Santa Clause too?”
            Reyes looked over at Jose and Jose shook his head quickly. Reyes nodded, turned back and said, “I confess.”
            Jackson turned his head back, the man catcher falling from his shoulder to the ground, and said, “Come again?” The disappointment was very clear on his face.
            “Yes, I have been caught worshipping Christ,” Reyes said with a shrug. He was a Catholic, although and his family had to pretend to renounce it when the cue occurred, but Justin doubted he had dared to voice any particular prayer in any way that could get him caught. Justin understood what he was doing and admired him for it: he was confessing so that the focus would be on him. He was probably the reason they were there anyway, from that stupid smile he hadn’t realized he had been making, and if he was killed first the other twelve white tags might just get sent back unharmed. It seemed to Justin they were possibly just there as some kind of tool to get him to confess anyway. “My uncle was a priest, you now,” he said and Jackson just stared dumbstruck at him. “In Mia Loma, California, where I used to go his church every Sunday growing up.” Justin remembered that area. He had been through it once or twice on his way somewhere. “I find the old habits comforting.”
            “You confessed,” Jackson said with obvious dissatisfaction. “Your family—”
            “You don’t have them. You’d have brought them out of you had.” Hate found its way into Jackson’s face and Miller’s smile had turned into a very bitter sneer. “I confess. I was caught praying and I was caught believing and those are the facts.”
            “No one else is involved?”
            “No. How could they be?”
            “Not even the boy?”
            Reyes blinked. “What?” Jackson, Miller and Ortiz were all beginning to smile. “How could the boy be involved?  Miller saw me worshipping in my cell and as you know I was alone in there. It was never stated I did it anywhere else.”
            For the first time since Justin had arrived he saw Nathan Michaels calm mask breaking. He looked at Jackson’s back with a worried narrow eyed expression. He was weighing something in his mind and the elite had sensed it instantly and moved between them. Out of all of them he was the most dangerous, possibly the most so in the whole prison, and if he went after Jackson they would cut him to pieces before he got to him. If he did get to him, however, he would snap his neck like a twig but then they would certainly kill the boy.
            Or would they? Justin could not say what they would do anymore.
            Denny looked at Michaels, then at Reyes and then at Jackson with a look of the thoroughly confused natural optimist. “I don’t know what—” The blades on Jackson’s right wrist shot out and startled Denny into silence.
            “I confessed,” Reyes told him but there was a look of hopelessness on his face.
            Jackson smiled in such an ugly way that made Reyes step back a few steps. “There is no God, Reyes,” he told him in an oddly cheerful, almost insane voice. “Science has proven this fact and we know damn well how bad religious influences have been to the state of our economic wellbeing. One incompetent weakling with no skills or experience tells the masses he goes to church and prays a lot is elected because they believe in God.” His voice was drooling with contempt and mockery. “The United States has had more than one incompetent president due to this policy. The last was torn limb from limb when the veil was taken down.”
            President Robert Bramble, born again Christian, conservative and maker of the Good Citizen’s Law, was caught trying to flee to Germany when news of the White House being taken over reached him preferring war crime chargers from another country than what the Americans would do to him. A mass of angry citizens caught him on the way to his private airport, pushed over his car, and after laser sawing through his car door they yanked him out and murdered him. It was rage over the Good Citizen’s Law, over the endless hours of working, over a hundred a week sometime, with nothing to show for it except uneducated moron children forced to do adult labor and very rich bankers bragging about how hard they pretended to work. They seemed to be screaming in unison as if bees under the same queen commanding them to kill. The video Justin saw was not edited for violence and the sight of that severed limb encased in a hundred thousand dollar suit’s sleeve would haunt his dreams forever.
            “There is no God, there is only Law, and I damn well intend to show why.” He held up the man catcher, pressed a button, and it snapped shut in the air once making a loud clack sound and when it spread back open there was suddenly a plate shaped red laser in between the semicircles. He held it out in front Reyes for a moment so close to his face that Justin saw it turn red from the light and then he turned it off.
            “Oh my God!” Lucas hacked out from his drug haze. Even in his present state he could easily see what it was: a device meant for the severing limbs or head from a body.
            “I’ll teach you too, Randal,” said Jackson. “Law is not to be mocked. Law is not to be thwarted. Law is all we have and all we are.” He started toward one of the men.
            “Run!” Lucas spluttered.
            “Run!” repeated Jose and the man blinked, tried to move, but was too weak to do anything more than jerk when the collar was around his neck digging into his throat. “Oh God!” cried Jose.
            Jackson turned his head back, sneered at him, and then pressed the bottom on his pole. Justin was looking at the man, had blinked once, and then saw that in that time his head had rolled off his shoulders and was then bouncing across the ground to rest around Lucas’s feet. Justin saw the man’s bright blue eyes staring up in surprise and horror.
            Denny began to scream and the white tags began to shake in horror on the verge of hysterical panic.
            “What did you do that for?” cried Reyes. “He didn’t do anything!”
            “I didn’t do it,” said Jackson. “You did.”
            “Captain,” said Reyes, “If I broke your law—” Jackson moved the man catcher into another man’s neck, listened to him scream for a moment, then pressed the button “—you son of a bitch!”
            “That’s the wrong move!” Justin cried. “That’s what he wants! That’s—”
            “Enough!” cried a voice and to everyone’s shock it was actually the elite soldier who spoke. “You get these prisoners back to their goddamn cells immediately!” He sounded, of all things, disturbed and even a little frightened. He turned to one of the red guards. “Take them all back, especially the boy—”
            “I outrank you, boy!” stated Jackson irritably and he jammed his man catcher at another white tag. “Look what—” The man ducked and suddenly everyone was in motion except Michaels.
            The elite caught four white tags and pounded them into the ground while four white tags jumped onto the dumpsters and tried to climb over the fence. Croon, the only officer other than the elite not stunned in shock, including Jackson, casually moved behind them and fired into their backs. They fell back, hit the dumpsters, rolled several times over and landed on the concrete below like five useless bags of meat.
            Jose and Reyes charged toward the gate but Jackson snapped out of it and caught up to them in a flash. He shoved Jose with his amplified strength sideways into the wall of the facility which he hit with a splat sound and then pulled Reyes back by his hair. Then he shoved him to the ground ripping out everything his gloved hands had gotten a hold of.
            Justin, Lyle and Denny made for the nearest door back, Lucas trailing druggedly behind. The door was locked and Justin kicked it as hard as he could to find that it didn’t budge an inch or even make much of a noise. He raised his foot for another kick but then sensed the vibration blades under his chin.
            “Are we going to have a problem, Mr. Bookycov?” asked Miller.
            Justin looked down at the black blades below his chin as he was maneuvered around carefully to face the scene. Reyes clambered up to his feet with a mouth full of blood where he had knocked out a tooth or two from his fall and threw a fist at Jackson’s face. The hit would have done some serious damage if Jackson hadn’t formed the helmet over his face at the last second. Reyes broke half the bones in his fingers on impact with a loud crunch sound but seemed to barely even notice.
            “You goddamned lunatic!” cried Reyes.
            “Where’s your God now?” asked Jackson as he removed his helmet.
            “Where’s yours?” asked Reyes. “There is no Law here?” Jackson gave him the cocky smile of an idiot who believes he can delude himself out of any problem. “Are we done yet? I’ve got an appointment with St. Peter any minute now.” Jackson’s idiot smile vanished and he looked rather sulky.
            He had apparently thought it would be a whole lot more fun. “I do as I must—”
            “Don’t waste my time, Rupert,” Reyes told him.
            “Why?” asked Denny softly with tears running down his face. “Why? Why? Why?” His voice was edged with panic and no other word seemed to escape his mouth.
            “‘There is no why here,’” quoted Jose as he stood up. Justin knew that quote. It was Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi. It was a book his mother bought for him when he couldn’t find it on the school website of acceptable reading material. He had been given a “D” for inappropriate source material on his “A” paper.
            Jackson didn’t know the quote. He was probably uneducated to begin with but that book was as forbidden just as much by Faction law as it was by the United States Acceptability Association. “Come here, brother,” said Jackson and as he held out his gloved hand Denny backed away. “I said, ‘Come here.’”
            Lucas stumbled out in between them and stood shakily on his feet. The activity was making him sick but he had not passed out or given up. “Think this through for a second—” Ortiz stepped forward and punched him in the stomach with her bionic augmented fist and he almost projectile vomited out his gruel before ever fell to his knees. He then vomited a second time, then a third and then a fourth and after that Justin stopped counting. His stomach was completely empty when he was still dry heaving for several minutes afterward.
            Justin tried to move but felt that blade get closer. “Try me!” hissed Miller. “I really want you to!”
            “This is a fucking nightmare!” cried Lyle. He had not been hit but he had not fought back either and he stood then in the corner away from everything with apparently no idea what to do or what was about to happen.
            Jackson jerked forward, grabbed the boy suddenly, raised his man catcher to move it forward but then turned and hesitated. “You—you fucking—” he was suddenly without words.
            Nathan Michaels had his hands on the head and chin of one of the helmetless male officers Justin did not recognize. He thought they might be Law Labor men. “Start to put on your helmet and I will snap your neck,” he told the man simply and then focused on Jackson. “Let go of the boy.”
            “Are you actually going to go through with that, general?” He unwrapped his helmet and pushed the boy into Ortiz’s hands who held onto him tightly. “You think this will stop—”
            “I am a sergeant major not a general,” he said in a voice that came down like a hammer. “Think very clearly about your superior and his relationship with the boy’s mother—”
            Jackson suddenly jerked his man catcher toward Denzel Kelly’s neck and Jose and Reyes both moved to attack in unison. One of the red guards hit Jose in the stomach sending him to the ground clutching himself but Reyes hit Jackson with his off hand across the side of the head. Jackson stumbled to the right, his man catcher slumping to the ground and Reyes got a hold of it with his good hand.
            Jackson’s foot came up, hit Reyes in the chest and sent him flying backward, into the back gates which then bounced him forward onto the cement ground. He screamed when his wounded hand had made hard contact with the ground but stopped himself. The instant he stopped screaming Jackson’s boot came down on his good hand’s wrist and shattered the bones within.
            Juan Reyes screamed at the top of his lungs, his voice filling the air with all the emotion and pain that had been welling up inside of him for God knew how long. It stretched out across the facility like a gust of agonized wind.

*          *          *

            Laura Adler jerked up, her eyes wide, and looked out of the little window. The sound of that scream was like a man being torn in half and it filled her with abject horror and misery.
            People outside the facility in their cozy Georgetown homes for party members didn’t hear anything, most of them happily asleep with happy dreams and thoughts, and many of who were out outside driving were also spared because of the soundproof quality of modern automobiles. However, there were a few unlucky souls who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time to hear exactly what was going on.
            A young couple who had been drinking out all night at the local Faction party bar called Law of Fun and had been kissing erotically outside by their car stopped instantly when it started and turned their heads toward the looming reclamation facility where it came from, the red light blinking on and off like some kind of evil eye. “What the hell is that?” asked the man. His girlfriend burst into tears and he put his arm around her and stared onward, eyes filling with growing horror. “It’s okay, baby,” he told her but he did not believe a word of it.
            One Faction accountant had just left his car and was walking up the final steps to his expensive three story home’s front door when it began. He was holding a bag of green apples he had just bought for his miserable, pregnant wife who had suddenly got a mad craving for them and couldn’t sleep. When the screaming began suddenly nearly spilled them out onto the pavement and he suddenly found himself worrying for the first time about what kind of world was going to be left for his baby daughter to grow up in.
            The next day he would call up his uncle who was the one of the Faction’s higher members and one of the bigger financial supporters and tell him exactly what happened, exactly what he was feeling, and also that he was heading to Alabama in the middle of nowhere to see his wife’s sister for a while. It was a preferred move, he decided, to being around when what some of his friends where whispering about came about.
            He was no fighter and he wasn’t about to learn to be one the hard way when his wife was seven months pregnant.
            A waitress, who worked at Law of Fun, had just made several hours overtime because two employees had quit without notice and left town and she had heard it best of all. Her apartment was in easy walking distance from her job and she was walking by the facility when that scream began. She stumbled, fell onto her hands and knees, and began to weep uncontrollably.
            She looked up at that blinking red light and made the snapshot decision of leaving town immediately. Ever since people had been whispering about illegally smuggling weapons from Canada she been incredibly nervous and that scream was the final straw. She did not even wait for morning and she was in her packed car leaving the borders of Washington DC never to return before the sky was even starting to light up.
            When the scream ended as abruptly as it came it seemed that all of Washington DC had become as quiet as a tomb.
            Many of the other witnesses that heard it here and there, mostly homeless people and nighttime workers, went on with their lives as they had nothing else to do but they did so in fear.

*          *          *

            Reyes did not look at either of his hands. He just lied there in agony after his scream and did not move.
            “Pick him up and make him watch,” said Jackson and one of the faceless red guards did. Ortiz tightened her grip on the boy as Jackson approached him.
            “I really will kill this man,” said Michaels and Jackson stopped and looked at the officer who had his arms out carefully to avoid making Michaels nervous. Whenever he moved his arms closer Michaels’s hands startled the red officer with new pain. Michaels knew very well what he was doing.
            Jackson sneered at him and said, “You fucking bastard—” 
            Michaels turned to the elite and said, “Command them to take the boy inside. General Green desires the boy to live in order to maintain a steady control over his mother. Her art and her use will be savagely comprised if anything happens to her son.”
            Jackson laughed in a cynical way. “You are just so sweet on pretty little Joan—”
            “Williams,” said the elite. “Take Denzel Kelly back to his cell.” Justin would not have believed it if he had not seen it himself but an elite, a Faction Special Forces with a license to torture and kill, had the body language of someone deeply relieved. Maybe even grateful.
            There was a sudden and powerful silence and Justin felt a surge of relief and hope well up inside of him. Jackson might have lost his mind but the elite clearly had not. General Green was an art aficionado and with Joan’s son in his control he had the ability to make Joan, one of the greatest artists of the age, do anything he pleased. If anything happened to that son Joan would turn into an unstable weeping mess and they all knew it.
            Jackson turned to the elite slowly. “What the fuck did you just say—”
            “I said to take the fucking boy back to his fucking cell!” stated the elite in a guttural hard voice. “Nathan Michaels is fully capable of killing our fellow officer and General Green himself has appointed Denzel Kelly of personal interest to the party!” He sounded almost calm but something about his body language made Justin think he was far from it. There was a potential there of something crazy wonderful, something like the elite killing Jackson, but that was too wonderful to be believed.
            “I told you that I have the authority—”
            “I don’t fucking need this shit right now, Rupert!” cried the elite suddenly. “Take the fucking boy, Williams! Take him right fucking now or I swear to God I’ll kill you myself!”
            One of the red guards, Williams presumably, stepped forward. “Stop!” ordered Jackson and the guard stopped very uncomfortably. He looked at Jackson, then at Michaels and his grip on the officer, then at the elite, and then back at Jackson. He looked extremely conflicted and worried.
            This is a madhouse even for them, thought Justin.
            “This isn’t a joke,” said Michaels. “You will lose an officer—” he jerked the head a bit when the officer began to try saying something “—Green will lose his artist and you will be blamed.”
            Jackson glared at him for a moment and did seem genuinely worried for a moment. The elite had shaken him a bit, that was clear, but Justin did not see him sigh or shrug or give any sign indicating was going to give up. “The American da Vinci,” he mused for a second. “Green does love his little black bitch, doesn’t he?” He looked at Michaels. “You won’t—”
            “Don’t you tempt me!” stated Michaels and then did some kind of twist to make the man in his hands cry out. “The only way this asshole is walking out of here is if Denzel Kelly walks out first! Williams, you have your orders!” His incredibly intense and disciplined voice was the closest thing to panic a marine of his experience was ever apt to get.
            Williams, as a wonder, started toward the boy again but Jackson barred his path with his man catcher. “Nathan—” Jackson shook his head “—it doesn’t matter anymore.” He turned and made his move.
            Justin felt the blades actually touch his neck just above his metal collar and he shut his eyes to avoid seeing what was coming. He heard Denny screaming, he heard him stop only to be replaced by the hum sound of the device, and then he heard something like a splat sound. He had seen people die in his life, many of them children, but none of them had been executed like that. They were killed in fighting and surviving and for what it was worth that really did make it better and very few of them were as a sweet a child as Denzel Kelly had been.
            “Oh God!” Jose whimpered. “Fuck me oh my God!”
            There was the sound of a loud squish crack and Justin heard the red guard in Michaels’ hands fall dead to the ground. A moment later pain givers were stabbing into Michaels’ body from every guard but he did not scream or even cry out. When Justin looked at him he was forced down on one knee, staring up at Jackson with a cold, calculated promise that Jackson was too stupid or too crazy or both to understand the danger it represented.
            If Nathan Michaels ever got out of that place he would come for him. If it took a thousand years he would find and kill Rupert Jackson. The emotional power of that truth seemed to be overwhelming every other sense in Michaels and all the pain of multiple pain givers digging into him did not even make him twitch.
            Lucas was curled up into a ball covered in blood and groaning half dead from his drugged medicine. Lyle was shaking in a corner, covering his eyes with his left arm, and Jose had backed up into a corner and was using all of his power to rein in his emotions.
            Jackson turned to Juan Reyes and asked, “Anything to say now, Johnny?”
            Justin looked at him and was surprised to see he was at a strange equilibrium between being utterly at peace and being in absolute agony. Reyes turned to Jackson and said, “I’ll see you in Hell, Officer Jackson.” Then he smiled in the ugliest way Justin had ever seen and added, “Would you like me to pray for you?”
            Jackson snarled and swung his left arm. Reyes head was there one minute, gone the other, and without the cauterization of the man catcher a gush of blood from his neck covered everything everywhere.
            The elite soldier stood staring down at the carnage with a strangely human expression of misery and sadness in his body language. “Take the injured prisoners to the infirmary and then afterward to the cleansing chambers and clean them off completely. Then send back to their rooms—”
            “Miller!” cried Jackson and Miller lowered his blades obediently. Justin felt the small cut on his neck as he slipped free out from his grasp without complaint. “Get these pieces of shit to the infirmary and then have them cleaned up and returned to their cells.”
            There was no fight left on either side and Justin went along meekly to meet that wild haired blond doctor again, received a nanoprobe injection in his neck without a response, and back into the sanitary chamber naked again with that nurse looking so worried she did not so much as give him a glance.
            As he stepped out naked the nurse was saying to the very worried doctor, “—a fucking Norwegian tank was hidden near Tingey Plaza! There are Danish planes all over—” She turned, saw Justin, and quickly grabbed his clothes cleaned from the cleaning machine, put them in his hands, and he was suddenly escorted back to his room just like the first time but by a very quiet red guard instead of a white.
            In the darkness of his room he managed to slip into sleep thanks largely in part to the numbing sensation of the healing nanoprobes.
            I’m lucky, thought Justin as he started to drift away. I’m not really here like the others. I don’t do anything. I just wait. They’re the ones who suffer. They’re the ones who are really here. He shut his eyes and disappeared into his dreams for a while.
            He dreamt an old dream of his mother and when he woke up in the morning he found he had been weeping.

6

            He also dreamt of the last day before he began what he called his “run” which he got from the movie, TV series and book called Logan’s Run by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson.
            Just play it cool, Justin told himself as he ordered his food from the food fabricator in the high quality Big Burger in some random town in New Mexico called Santa Rosa along the Interstate 40 which also seemed to be known as Route 66 just east of Albuquerque. He ordered his meal on the monitor on the bright white wall right of the fabricator’s bright blue door and a three taco combo complete with a drink and added on a shredded chicken burrito. He then paid for it by letting it scan his ATM card, took the bright blue tray with his food on it, filled the blue and white cup with Coca-Cola from the fountain dispensers on the left one handed, and then went up to stairs to where his friends were all seated with their own incredibly varied food.
            The food was highly variable because Big Burger was part of Amity Food Incorporated, a sub company of Live-4-Less and fabricated with the ingredients and style that was once separately owned by Taco Bell, McDonald’s, Carl’s Junior, Wendy’s, Jack in the Box, El Pollo Loco, Panda Express and dozens of others Justin couldn’t recall offhand. Occasionally he would see Big Burger with different names, Golden Bowl, La Vaca Rojo and others, but that was just an illusion to appear fairer with more options and less of what one angry politician called “one of those damn de facto monopolies.” If it wasn’t a monopoly it was only so by the most barest of technical margins and laws. Its connections undefined, or possibly unknown at the time of the word’s creation, still made it a monopoly in everything but name.
            Amity Food Incorporated was actually gone by that time, the Faction had destroyed them along with many of the lobbyists and CEOs who, when they discovered all their bank accounts erased and huge criminal charges coming their way, leapt from buildings, opened wrists, and pulled triggers, but little had actually changed. So far, the UCLD had just transformed Live-4-Less into a public entity where its profits went straight into the government but somehow not the economy.
            Justin was the second to last to arrive. All of them were dressed in casual clothes such as t-shirts, jeans, dresses, skirts, sneakers and other similar clothes that would never lead anyone to believe they were military. Justin was wearing a dark blue t-shirt, jeans, and white sneakers when he sat beside Ellie who was staring down at the highly symmetrical fabricated El Pollo Loco chicken breast blankly. As soon as he sat down his best friend Tommy popped out of the same stairs with his own tray of In-N-Out Burger wearing a black football jersey with the number 5 in white on the front and sat across from him next to Shawn Wallace.
            “Everyone’s here and we can begin,” said Teo from the center back of the blue booth below the window. He was leaning against the backrest and the bright cloudless blue sky looking wondrous and empty behind him.
            Teo Miller was attractive, tall, almost perfectly built, with dark gold hair combed backward in a sleek 1930s style he enjoyed with vibrant blue eyes. He was so attractive he had once been an underwear model, a thing Justin had not believed for an instant until someone showed him the picture in the magazine emphasizing attractive modern gay soldiers. He was the child of one of two lesbian parents and a very hard man in the years that followed the “Gay Cure” pill and the violent shootout at the last ever pride march that left his uncle dead which he had personally witnessed. He had become even worse when his boyfriend and sister were taken as “subversive” by the Faction.
            In his dream Justin would feel a great sense of loss at that moment. It was one of the last times they would all be eating together like normal and the very last before they were running for their life. Over the following months each would be caught one by one and that sense of losing and loneliness would increase exponentially. In his dream he knew what was coming but in reality he had not known it quite so vividly but he had suspected it.
            Each had their own place and position in their group. Teo Miller was their leader and the highest ranked among them anyway, having graduated a year earlier. Tommy, reasonably good looking, blond haired, tall, athletic but too scrawny to actually play his beloved football the way he liked, was no fool but the least intelligent of them and somehow that led him into being their class clown and jock. He was sitting right then with two balls, one red and one blue, that had unfolded themselves into little robots and were fighting just passed his tray. Shawn Wallace, actually much better built for football, was almost as attractive as Teo Miller was in a black way, and was somewhat also a jock, and the only person who actually understood what Tommy talking about, was functionally their vehicle man. He knew everything about motorcycles, cars, planes and how to improve them. Justin was the trivia and internet expert of the group and the one who could find any lost movie, game, or book that one might wish illegal or otherwise to have and he could fix their computers.
            The two girls were Gwen Change and Ellie Lorne. Gwen Change was gorgeous, petite, with long silky hair and beautiful narrow almond eyes on a modelesque face and was absolutely brilliant. She wanted to work in fashion despite her fantastic engineering credits and for that reason she functioned as the glamorous member of their group. Ellie Lorne was not nearly as pretty, a mostly plain girl with dirty blond hair and bright amber eyes, but was much sweeter and smarter by far than any of them. She graduated second in her class beating Gwen by several people and was their scholar, a person whose intellect stretched everywhere but aimed mostly for history. She had desired to be a college history teacher.
            “We’re here,” said Shawn. He had a hamburger and fries from Carl’s Junior in front of him. “I don’t know what exactly we can do.”
            “They blew up our temple in Salt Lake City,” said Ellie softly. She was raised Mormon but while she did not consider herself religious, she once told Justin much of her knowledge in history made her an atheist, but she still had family that were still very much devout: cousins, uncles, aunts and old childhood friends from her temple going days many of whom had spent time on those bicycle rides around cities in Utah where they lived.
            Being so close to that temple there was a good chance that she knew somebody that was in there packed with the others when it was blown to pieces but Justin didn’t ask her about it. If she wanted to tell him she would.
            Her story wasn’t particularly unique and Justin himself had one of his own. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindu, even wiccan religions and cults, were all being savaged by the Faction who despised them after the religious riots that popped up when Justin was a child. When Justin was twelve one of those riots had bled into his home town of Thousand Oaks and destroyed the local synagogue his family went to on occasion. They burned it down to the ground after murdering everyone in there all in the name of Christianity and the following morning there was a giant cross found stabbed down in the rubble. That night had ruined his life, ruined his family, and made his father utterly unbearable. The Faction’s violence was a response to years and years of things like that. Their army of crazed anti-religious persecutors was formed from men and women who had stories just like Justin’s or worse who, after years of living under the Faction think tank, didn’t know a good religious person from a fanatically psychotic one which was how Ellie Lorne’s family of moderate law abiding Mormon believers were killed alongside their fanatic psychotic counterparts who really were as dangerous as the Faction believed.
            “What do we do?” asked Gwen.
            “Yeah, what do we do?” asked Justin. He felt a brutal need for action and resolution. He and the others had joined the United States Restoration Military for that reason but they had not been given the call they had expected. They arrived just out of Albuquerque and waited for orders that never came. Teo had been out in the morning checking things out had then summoned them to Big Burger.
            “Things have changed, guys. Firstly—” He wrapped his left hand in his naval bionic armor under the table and they all looked and saw the red, white and blue armor of the United States Restoration Military, the symbolic collars of the United States, former after the Faction’s successful cue, but still with armor and plates and a clear indication of the single blade of the United States Navy. The weapons and armor that were normally coded out from the bionic control satellite were very clearly there. It was a biological thing, like the way queen insects control their hives, and could not be hacked. Only the United States bionic control satellite could turn them off and that was under Faction control.
            From the forearm of his plated left arm Teo pulled out and then placed a small navy blue sphere connected to a small white stand near to the center of the table. The sphere blocker prevented their conversation from being heard by any kind of scanning or long range listening device. He was the only one who had as part of his armor because he was the only one who was an officer.
            “It really happened,” said Shawn softly.
            “Locked and loaded, brother,” said Teo. “You know why?” His face was suddenly so filled with so much merged shock and misery that it was astounding. “They dropped a clean bomb on Albuquerque.”
            They could only stare. “Tell me they had it army specific, at least,” said Gwen softly. “The DNA codes to every soldier are in the databases.”
            “There’s no way they had the DNA of every soldier there,” Ellie said. “They would only get thirty percent military specific even if they had managed to crack our databases because most DNA codes were removed or not even entered. Without being code specific ninety percent of the people killed would have been harmless civilians on a lucky day.”
            “Albuquerque was where every rebel in New Mexico was hidden among civilians,” said Teo. “They’re all dead but one of the freedom countries, Denmark, Norway, Germany, Canada, fuck knows who, were given our satellite’s defense codes and they blew it to hell. Every man or woman with United States model bionic augmentation armor is a now a fully armed potential soldier.”
            “A little late,” said Shawn.
            “Sadly yes,” Teo agreed.
            “We’re dead,” whispered Ellie.
            “Stay calm,” said Teo softly.
            “How are these people not freaking out?” whispered Gwen. “We’re like ten miles from Albuquerque!”
            “They don’t know.” Teo replied. “My guess is that Albuquerque is on lockdown and the information is being halted but my Faction man is freaked out so something is going to happen and soon. When these people figure it out they will go bat shit crazy. He says they screwed up a little and the wind went east and some of the probes hit Cedar Crest and killed like a few thousand innocent people there. If it went the other way we would all be dead.”
            Tommy looked up. “Was Albuquerque like our entire army?” he asked.
            “No but they hit all the other places all over the country at the same time recklessly fast to prevent us from escaping which was why it was sloppy enough to hit Cedar Crest,” said Teo. “Army, marines, navy, air force—” he spread his arms out in a boom manner “—gone. Someone ratted the army out but not enough so that it got to us backups so it’s just a boatload of other fledglings and maybe a handful of survivors VS the world.” So their youth and inexperience put them out of the way in support positions that had apparently saved their lives. Not one of them was over eighteen except Teo who was nineteen had been placed in outer towns under their civilian identities as a kind of back up for the more seasoned military in case they were needed. Their pre-military training records had been erased so, in theory, the Faction would have never known they were part of the last ever army of the United States of America.
            “So we just—what?” Gwen looked at the others and then back at Teo. “What do we do?”
            “We just finish our food,” Teo said and he took a bite of his hamburger from the Habit and then a bite out of his oddly perfectly symmetrical pepperoncini, chewed and then swallowed. “We’re just a bunch of kids hanging out getting our kicks out on Route 66 on our way to Las Vegas.”
            “God I do want to go there again,” said Tommy.
            “Well we actually can’t because it’s closed and we got caught counting cards besides.” They all grinned at each other for a second while thinking about the time they took Vegas for tens of thousands of dollars. They lost it because the Faction cancelled all the wins on that wondrous last ditch party of Vegas before it was closed down but that weekend was one of, if not the, greatest of Justin’s life.
            They all began eating their food quickly, which Justin did not relish because fabricated food tended to taste blander and nowhere near as good as genuinely cooked food like the kind his mother made, but before they were finished they heard the sounds of screams, violence, and explosions outside.
            Teo turned around while Gwen and Ellie leaned up beside him to look out. Justin, Tommy and Shawn slipped into the next booths and looked out to see the surprising sight. The Faction tower buildings set within the two circular roads that led on and off the Interstate 40 onto Route 66 were being attacked by a crowd of people who rushed out of their homes. One man had a tractor and was using it to try and break through the door.
            “History repeats itself,” said Teo, “But not always.”
            More than half the people in the crowd had firearms and they were bustling toward the Faction building with very real intent to use them. Justin could see it in their body language and he could also see spare ammunition clips at their sides on some and shoulder belts full of shotgun shells on others.
            There had been riots against the Faction like that before but it felt different that time. It was something in the air, something about the people there, the women and the politely upper class sorts like doctors and lawyers perhaps, who had joined into what was previously the act of isolated hot tempered young people.
            “Finish eating quickly,” Teo commanded as he put the transmission sphere back into his armor’s left forearm and pressed the monitor screen button on the center of the table. It immediately projected monitors facing each sitter and when he pressed another screen button the monitor’s sound came out clear.
            “The United Country’s Law Division has taken control of the governments of the world,” said an older reporter quietly. “Reactions to the final stage cue against the remnants of the United States military are violent. All the people are rising against the fascist would be governments and Denmark, Germany and France are supporting the rebellion and mobilizing the Alliance too—” It was cut off.
            “The Night of the Long Knives has past,” Ellie said.
            Justin felt a chill go through him. “What is that?” asked Tommy. Justin said nothing even though knew very well what she was referring to and did not like it one bit.
            “Read a book,” said Shawn bitterly, his eyes locked on the empty red screen with its yellow letters saying “Signal Lost.”
            “The Night of Long Knives is another name for Operation Hummingbird,” said Teo. “It was the night Adolf Hitler and his followers purged all opposition in Germany and made him the supreme head of Germany.” Teo’s eyes were distant, strange and thoughtful. “She’s referring to how the Faction just took over the White House and removed President Tosh from power was the first step. The move on the army is its last and most final step. Operation Hummingbird.” His face had not changed as he nodded. “You called it, Lorne.”
            “I really don’t think it’s working out the way they thought it would,” said Tommy. “I know the Nazis were supported by Germany during that time but I don’t think that’s what’s happening here.”
            Teo and Justin looked back and saw a Faction soldier had changed his plates and armor to the red, white and blue of the United States Restoration Army and was firing a heavy laser rifle into other Faction soldiers rushing out to fight the crowd. “We got to get out, now!” Teo told them.
            As they started to get up the video came on to reveal a pretty blond female reporter. “Riots all over the United States in every city big and small! The cue has brought patriotism in the United States the likes of which have not been since the Sons of Liberty rose against the British—” It was cut off again and Teo quickly led them out in a half-rush half-walk that was supposed to not draw too much attention if someone was looking.
            “At least they won’t be looking for us anymore,” said Tommy.
            “Don’t be too sure,” said Shawn.
            As they were walking out Justin looked up at the blank monitors that were all over Big Burger to see them briefly come on again to reveal shots of buildings burning down in New York City, a Chicago riot that showed a Faction hovercar burst into fire from a thrown Molotov cocktail, and in Los Angeles where a small army of civilian men with civilian guns firing into Faction soldiers. The guns weren’t particular amazing because the liberals succeeded in creating laws that made sophisticated gun purchasing very difficult but at the same time the conservatives had kept the minimum wage so low that they almost certainly could not have afforded them anyway.
            Just before that screen cut off Justin saw that in Los Angeles someone had lifted a car up ten feet into the air with a tow truck’s hover carrier force field at the back and then dropped it onto several Faction soldiers who were firing into the crowd. As they were crushed a beat up old truck flew out of nowhere and charged into the remaining ones sending them flying in all directions.
            “Damn,” said Shawn softly.  
            “We’re changing colors and we’re doing it like ten minutes ago,” said Teo as he stepped outside and almost ran face fist into John Franklin.
            He was a man of about twenty, black haired, black eyed, handsome in a hard, angular way, muscular from his military training, and stoutly built. He had been assigned as Teo’s commander and like the other younger just graduated green troops for the night they had been incognito. He had been the son of a general probably sent there to keep him out of danger which had clearly succeeded. Like them he was wearing ordinary clothes, a black t-shirt and jeans, but they looked off on him and Justin felt certain that he would quickly and easily be picked out from a Faction line up.
            In the distance the turned Faction people numbering as high as twenty or more were talking to the crowd of rioters excitedly. They were not firing for the moment so Teo and Franklin’s groups were safe and the rioters were calmer than rioters should be, more of an army already, and they were listening carefully to the speakers.
            “We’re out,” Franklin told them. “We’re going east.”
            “Then we’re going west,” Teo replied. “In a big group they could not mistake what we are. In a small group we’re just a bunch of kid hippies, you get me?” The hippy movement had started to resurrect itself with its communes and anti-authority personality around the time of the religion riots.
            “I get you and I agree.” Franklin shook Teo’s hand. “Stay alive! We may need to get back together again soon!” He turned and went back to his group of friends, fifteen or so, split between a few motorcycles, an old wheeled van, and a couple of hovercars one of which was a fancy sports car that Franklin’s father must have bought him for some birthday or graduation or something.
            Justin and his friends piled into Shawn’s ugly, old brown van. He had picked it up for almost nothing and with the help of his and Justin’s AIC and their orgo metal fabrication technology Shawn had made a very good, very efficient vehicle that he had made sure to keep looking awful enough to never warrant a second look that might allow a Faction soldier to guess that it was capable of outracing a sports car.
            The groups of young people that had almost been United States soldiers spread off in all directions. Justin had not bumped into Franklin or his group again in his own group’s adventures and he would sometimes wonder if Franklin found his way to Denmark or somewhere and joined the resistance there. He may have also found his way into a Reclamation Facility as Justin would himself but, due to his background, general lack of social camouflage and lineage as military royalty, Justin thought it was more likely he was just shot and left dead on some street somewhere never to be heard from again.

7

            Nathan Michaels had been right about Joan Kelly, thought Laura.
            Over the last few days, weeks or whatever passed Joan Kelly had been weeping uncontrollable between her fits of screaming and crazed panic attacks. Justin told Laura what happened and although no one had told Joan she seemed to have very much figured it out. Michaels had disappeared the night Denzel Kelly died and Justin, Jose, Lyle and Lucas were afraid to go anywhere near her let alone tell her. They would all stare at Munoz holding onto Joan like she was a child as she rocked back and forth weeping and then hesitate.
            Joan was clearly no fool and knew what those looks meant.
            Laura looked up sadly into the white sky deeply wishing the force field would go down again and smiled at Justin sadly. He smiled sadly back at her, looked back up, and then she saw his face shift.
            Laura followed his gaze and saw a jet flying through the air. It was the Danish Hawker named after the pre-World War II airplane. Even though the color from the force field was out she knew it was the red and white of the Danish flag. Their nationalism had become very high since the Faction made social war on their society and it had been clear that, in time, one group of Faction or the other would invade which had led to become one of the founding members of the Alliance.
            “They’ve made it into the interior,” Laura whispered. It was crashing downward, there was no smoke to indicate it in a modern plane, but she knew a controlled crash when she saw one. It was soon out of sight and she did not see another. “I guess their pact with the Chinese didn’t go through.”
            If there was one thing the Faction was bad at, it was keeping friends, even among each other and it seemed the Chinese had dropped their air blockade for whatever reason and the Danish made it through. The Alliance had no such problems. Denmark, Norway, Germany, as the founders but with many late comers, easily matched the might of the United States and China because they worked together and had no internal threats to deal with. Laura actually didn’t know all the details, no one did because the information was scattered and very filtered through the media, but it was obvious the Faction was losing.
            Laura looked back down at Justin and saw him gesturing with his head. Laura turned her head and saw Joan just as her hand gently came down her shoulder.
            “Tell me what you know,” Joan said miserably, her eyes filled with tears.
            Laura did not have the remotest idea of how to begin let alone fully explain. “I’m sorry,” she whispered.
            “I mean about the Faction.”
            “The Faction?” Laura felt confused. “What exactly do you mean when you say the Faction?”
            “Why are you here with us and not with them?”
            Laura pulled her hand off of her shoulder and sighed. “I disobeyed a direct order,” she told her. “I was then dishonorably discharged and while I was trying to get on with my life on the outside they took over and decided they wanted me back. I was one of their more promising cadets and I guess they feel like I’m an investment they don’t want to throw away. I was sixteen.”
            Was that less than a year ago? Her discharge, the cue, her short lived career as a hover car racer with Rock Salt Music as her sponsor. Had it really all been less than year?
            “They want me to be their artist,” Joan told her. “I’m a valuable commodity just like my ancestors were to those long dead planters.” She looked at her with severe misery. “My son had no such value. He was just a boy.” Suddenly, and without warning, she wrapped her arms around Laura.
            Laura had no idea what to do. She had little to no experience in deep female companionship during her life and it took her several moments of worried hesitation before she could make herself put her arms around her and hold her closely.
            “I have to believe you are not the monster they say you are,” Joan whispered. “I can’t let this hate eat me alive or I will lose all that I have left.” There was a long moment of silence. “Do you think the clean bombs will be here soon?”
            “Yes,” she admitted. “They will come down from the sky, burst into nanoprobe showers and dig their way into every human heart and stop them dead. It will kill the Alliance and the Faction alike. The nanoprobes will pry into anything short a military vault or fallout sanctuary.” She had forgotten about those bombs for a while but even Justin’s soothing influence could no longer keep out the dread that was coming over her. “We’re doomed,” she said with sudden great conviction. “Everyone is going to die.”
            Joan kissed her in the cheek. “I know you’re not like them,” she told her and Laura felt suddenly so grateful and moved that she almost burst into tears. “If you get out of here with that boy you are in love with, live! You live for me and all those who cannot live as we should!”
            Ortiz pressed a stun baton against the back of Joan’s head and it knocked her out in an instant “Pansy little nigger,” she said and she wrapped her armor around herself, threw Joan Kelly over her shoulder, and walked away with her.
            Joan Kelly was never seen in Reclamation Facility 59 again.

*          *          *

            Within what Justin was certain was about a week there were no more white tags left.
            Then others disappeared as well. Lyle Wilder was gone, Nathan Michaels long gone since that night, and suddenly, almost in the blink of an eye, Justin was left alone with Jose Hernandez and Lucas Randal to wander around the quad with limited white guards and red guards alike. Laura was left alone with Munoz who would still not speak to her.
            The force field failed again one day and snow came down upon them. Neither Justin nor Laura could say for certain how many days had passed since the last time that happened nor were they certain if they were in winter or if it was still in autumn. They didn’t even know if it snowed in autumn in Washington DC. Justin’s and Laura’s hair seemed the exact same length so it seemed impossible to find any visual marker from each other. One or two of the prisoners were said to have tried marking their walls early on but they ended up beaten with pain givers and the marks removed.
            So nobody but the guards knew for sure and even the white guards wouldn’t dare tell them.
            Justin was in a stunned haze going about his boring life in the reclamation facility feeling a zombie and sat across from Jose at supper to find him suddenly animated. “What?” he asked.
            “Listen to me,” Jose said. Lucas was leaning forward on his arms, having already barely managing to eat his food and drooling a bit from it. His hair hung down over his eyes while he was rocking back and forth. “I want to talk about something important, Justin. You too, Lucas.”
            “Okay,” said Justin.
            “I know what’s happening outside.”
            Justin blinked and snapped out of it. “What is happening?”
            “The shit has hit the fan!” Jose said softly. “I don’t know what exactly happened, nobody does, but the Faction is moving out everywhere! My source doesn’t think we’re going to be killed but we’re out within days. They might just let us go.”
            “I doubt that,” Justin replied. He was a little bit surprised Jose believed that but then he remembered something. The Nazis hadn’t bothered or had been too desperate to kill their prisoners when they fled, he recalled. “It’s possible—”
            “You’re a cynic, kid, but—”
            “He’s right to be a cynic and I’m fucked either way!” They turned to look at Lucas both intensely surprised by the sudden clear voice and bloodshot eyes that focused at them half dazed, half blazingly enraged. “Fucked!” he repeated and then rested his hands on the table after a weak attempt at hitting it. “I survived OCD, epilepsy, double standard society, half a million dollar debt because of that fucking Good Citizen Law, monopolies, half my employees getting fired because that fucking Fifty-Fifty Law, corporate takeover attempts, every blue blooded corporate rich boy out for my nouveau riche ass and a cunt ex-wife to lose everything in this place. I had built up a trillion dollar company with my own two hands but between now and the moment I die I’ll never see five dollars again.”
            “You know they won’t let us go,” Justin said.
            Jose frowned. “If they flee and the police are still here—”
            “They’ll take us with them because they’ve invested the time to do so but even if they don’t the clean bombs will get us.” Justin didn’t need Laura to tell him about those: he had been hearing terrifying stories about them all his life. His father had called them the new nuclear scare. “Even if they were so inclined to just walk away from whatever plans they have for us Jackson and Miller will just shoot us in the back on their way out just out of spite.” He felt the collar uncomfortably and thought if they bothered to bury him he would still be wearing it. They’d find him ten thousand years later with that collar still around his skeleton’s neck. There was no rash underneath because the nanoprobes in the sanitation pods prevented it with some degree of first aid capability but it still seemed to be getting itchier and more uncomfortable as the days past.
            “You know he’s right, Jose,” said Lucas. “They’ll either do something with us or they’ll kill us all.”
            “Maybe,” Jose replied unhappily. He didn’t want to believe it but he did. He had just been hoping for the best and putting stock in logic but there was no logic there in Reclamation Facility 59.
            The next morning Jose Hernandez was gone.

*          *          *

            Justin heard him before he saw him and was relieved to see it was Milton Garrett slipping into his room the night of the day Jose vanished. He was red faced, covered in sweat, and so drunk he could not walk without the help of the pretty female guard Laura always talked to, her name was Tricia he recalled, who came carrying a sleek black laser pistol that was Danish made by the look of it. He had not seen Garrett for a while and he had definitely taken a turn for the worse. The bottle of vodka mixed with orange juice in his hand couldn’t possibly be helping.
            “It’s over son,” he told him as he stumbled into the cell wall on the left across from the bed and began to weep. The sight of it horrified Justin as Garrett was not a weeping man by any means.
            Justin sat up, threw his legs over the bed and sat on it like a couch. It was a hard bed and he did not even sleep under the covers anymore and after what happened to Denny he had become even more fervent in sleeping fully dressed even to the point of never taking his shoes or socks off even to rub his feet.
            “Mr. Garrett,” he said and the policeman looked up at him, “What is going on?” Justin suddenly had a vision of himself stepping out of the front doors of the reclamation facility hand in hand with Laura. “Do you mean they’re leaving—”
            “They’re heading toward France. That male elite soldier—” he laughed “—he’s like you’re age and what happened to Denzel Kelly has really fucked him up. He told me to hide because they’re running and then firing all the clean bombs off! The police put together enough for a small shelter but fuck! Justin, ninety or more percent of the world are about to die!”
            “That’s billions,” Justin said with wide eyes. He found the idea prosperous, unlikely and terrifying but also very believable. It was too insane to be anything but the truth and they really would do it. He was suddenly sure of it. “We’ll survive—”
            “Our world is about to be emptied of billions of people and what good are any of us who will remain?” he asked. “Do you know how to build anyting that has no premade parts? Does anyone know how to build anything? How many people can hunt for food after the animal rights people outlawed legalized hunting? A lot of fucking good data entry work is going to do us now!”
            “We’ll survive,” Justin said again, “And there is no guarantee those bombs will go off and even if it does the worst case scenario is that we rebuild just like we did after the fall of the Roman Empire.”
            “That actually makes me feel better,” Garrett replied weakly although to look at him one would not think so. In fact, moments after he said that his face became distorted in misery. “Why would they want magicians?”
            “Come again?” asked Justin. He felt confusion dominate his feelings and was genuinely wondering if he actually heard him say that word. “You mean like a wizard—”
            “Yes, magicians: voodoo people, wiccans, Indian shamans, whatever they could find along with psychics like mediums, palm readers and all those sorts as well. Why would they want them?”
            “What the hell are you talking about?” Justin asked. He did not think for a second any logical military organization would waste valuable resources rounding up such people but then again they weren’t really logical were they?
            “I’m talking about my daughter being taken away because of her brief fascination with pagan witchcraft,” he told him. “It was stupid, wiccan bullshit she did when she was in high school. I know that because nine years ago she called it that when I asked why she quit. Now she’s gone. Did your girlfriend ever say anything about it?”
            “No. Did you ask her—”       
            “No, Jackson’s gone bat shit crazy. General Green tried to call a tribunal over that shit with the Kelly boy in hopes to get Joan Kelly back in line but they’re too busy upstairs with the end to give a shit.” He took a deep breath. “If we even tried to talk to her Tricia and I would be buried in the same grave as the white tags.”
            “They’re all dead?” asked Justin. He had believed they were but he had strongly clung to the hope that he was wrong.
            “Those that aren’t wish they were,” Garrett replied and Justin thought about the man with the boils on his face. Garrett took the first drink of his orange vodka that Justin had seen, downed several deep gulps of it straight, and then lowered it down. “My wife and child are gone, Justin. Murdered like Denzel Kelly and all these other people too.” Tears ran down his face. “I thought I could weather this. Get protection for my family by working for them—” Tricia put her hand on his shoulder and he looked up at her.
            “We have to run tonight,” said Tricia. “We have people, other police who have banded together, but we can’t take you with us because of your collars’ tracking technology and we can’t tell you where our shelter is because this place is bugged.”
            Justin knew that: they were walking alarm systems at the very least. They might even explode if someone tried to remove them just like in a violent banned Japanese film called Battle Royale that he had once seen.
            Tricia looked at Justin for a long moment before asking, “Do you love her?”
            “Yes.” Justin did not hesitate and did not lie: he did love her and with all his heart.
            “Then if you are lucky enough to ever get her don’t you ever let her go.” Tricia smiled sadly. “She loves you too, you know, even if she doesn’t know it.”
            Justin felt giddy and found a stupid smile on his face. “It’s weird because it hasn’t been long,” he said. “Six months? A year?” He honestly didn’t know.
            “You’ve been here for three months?” said Garrett.
            “That’s it?” Justin felt stupefied.
            “Your schedule is designed to create the illusion of one long day,” said Garrett. “You can’t tell the time because no day is really that different than the other and you don’t even have schedule of different things to give you even a sense of week or month. The randomness of various events and the meals the officers have are not enough and serve to confuse you even more.”
            Justin didn’t know what to say. All that came out of his mouth was, “three months,” in a kind of awe. It felt like a year or more at least.
            When Milton Garrett stood up so did Justin and the man uncharacteristically hugged him tightly for a moment. “Goodbye Justin,” he said.
            “Goodbye Officer Garrett.” Justin watched him stumble drunkenly out of his cell. “Good luck.”
            He looked at him, nodded, and took a drink of his vodka. “You too, kid. You’re gonna to need it.”
            Tricia smiled at Justin, walked up to him and kissed him in the cheek. “Take care. Tell Laura why I had to leave.”
            “I will.”
            Tricia touched his face. “You two will find each other someday without all this and I know you will be the happiest of all people.” She stepped out, turned on the force field and left.
            Justin lied back down and stared up at the ceiling with his hands behind his head. “Someday,” he said and then added, “Someday and without all this…”
            That would wonderful indeed.

*          *          *

            Laura and Munoz finally spoke after another week or so quite possibly because of Munoz having no female companionship.
            She sat down across from Laura in the cafeteria staring at her contemplatively. Her first name was Midissia, Laura had overheard Joan Kelly say once before and afterward remembered it from the television program she had seen. Her Americanized nickname was Missy.
            She was always covered in bruises but as time progressed Ortiz got meaner and those bruises got nastier. When the white guards left Ortiz was relegated to doing their job and that seemed to embitter her more and she took it out on Munoz. More than once a broken limb or two had to be healed in the infirmary.
            Munoz put up a very good front but Laura could see that she was starting to look her age. When she had first seen her, the woman was well in her thirties but looked like she could pass for early twenties. After the mere three months that Milton claimed they had been in there she looked easily over forty, possibly fifty.
            She didn’t say anything at first. “I, uh—” Laura felt a degree of awkwardness that felt as out of place as it was familiar “—I like your work, Missy I really do.” Munoz just stared at her. “I’m not one of them.” Her eyes narrowed. “I love your racing track—”
            “I bet you love all my work: the Star-Light Tower in Sacramento, the Grand Dome in Sidney, the Red Needle in Chicago and the great Blue Tower you mentioned.”
            “I really love that racing track,” Laura told her. She looked over at Justin who was sitting beside Lucas. He smiled weakly, waved, and she waved back.
            “Yeah, that’s great. You’re good, I’ll give you that.” Laura looked at her with a feeling of misery that reached down to her core. “You don’t fool me, Adler. Not for one second. They would never put one of their own in here unless she was a spy. That pretty boy over there is ex-military, a marine, and he has information the Faction needs or, maybe, you just find this fun.”
            “I’m in here because of Jackson and you know why.” It was clear even to Laura that every one of them knew what he was about although not one of them had ever spoken of it out loud.
            “Why are you magically not part of the Faction then?”
            “Because I wouldn’t kill someone they ordered me to,” Laura told her. “I had all the training, all the talent, all the skill every single Faction woman is supposed combined with this—” she gestured to her face “—but I failed in the commitment.” She leaned back. “Then they put me here because they felt that all their work on me should not be thrown away or maybe they feared the remains of the United States military might wish to scoop me up or maybe Jackson just really wanted me here. I don’t know.”
            The United States military had come to her once after a race thinking she would make a good soldier. She told them her past, her reasons for being dishonored, and they still very much wanted her to join them but she hadn’t. They were almost suicidal from their loss of country and purpose, she could see it in their eyes and she was not surprised to find they had died in the last stage of the cue on the news soon afterward. That following week was the end for them: someone had ratted them out and unspecific clean bombs destroyed them when they were in Albuquerque primarily but a dozen other places in the country as well and because they were unspecific to DNA and lethal to all human beings the bombs and wind had killed an incredible amount innocent people in the outlying towns and areas surrounding the targets.
            “Is that really it?” Munoz asked without really believing anything she said.
            “It’s what’s most likely on record.” Those were good reasons to be sure but lately she had come to wonder if Jackson really had been the real reason she was in that facility, the only member in that facility out of the thousands that had abandoned the Faction. He could have been snooping through the pictures of female cadets who had fled or been discharged, found her after she was captured, or perhaps even before, and had pulled some strings to get her close.
            “You’ll be the last woman here,” said Munoz. “You and that beautiful boy who’s not giving you whatever you need. Tell me, when it’s all over and it’s ascertained he doesn’t have the information you need will you have him killed before or after you force him to watch you fuck Rupert Jackson?”
            “Fuck you,” Laura replied. “You don’t know anything about me.”             
            “Oh don’t I, bitch?” Munoz unfolded her arms and scoffed at her. “I’m the American dream right in front of you, did you know that? My father worked in a fast food restaurant, a Mexican immigrant who worked seventy hours a week to save enough money for his children, five children, to get through college. I built him and my mother a house to retire in Los Angeles near all their friends and neighbors. They never hurt anyone.” Tears ran down her face although her hard expression had not changed. “Your people murdered them and it came with such surprise that I had heard they had even opened the door for them. Seven cadets from the Los Angeles branch of the Faction, little Mexican American kids, the children of the neighborhood kids I grew up with brainwashed by your people, walked into that house and hacked them to death with those vibration blades of yours. I don’t even know why they did it.”
            Laura swallowed a lump down her throat and thought about her own father. “I’m sorry,” she said softly.
            “I wish I could believe you, I really do.” Munoz’s face was filled with sadness and she cried out in a kind of a groan for a moment before stopping herself. “I don’t hate you, Laura. You can’t help it. They turned you all into monsters. They gave you weapons and training, killed your humanity, made the United States your enemy, and set you loose upon it.”
            “You’re wrong on one account,” Laura told her. “The United States made us their enemy on their own and you know it. The only true citizen of a country is one given the protection of its laws and rights and those were only given to those with money. No country with happy citizens can ever be taken over from the inside. A hundred hours of minimum wage can’t afford a studio apartment and you are expected spend the rest of your life in debt. The United states were the ones who built the Faction piece by piece—”
            “I never said America didn’t ask for what happened,” Munoz replied bitterly and then she sighed. “You may have fooled that pretty white boy, Tricia and Joan into ‘opening the door’ but you don’t fool me. If I find out you had something to do with what happened to Denzel Kelly I’ll find some way to kill you myself.”
            “I’m not scared of you,” Laura replied. Missy Munoz was an architect, not a fighter.
            “That is because fear is a human response.”
            Laura saw Ortiz coming and Munoz sensed it. “Missy,” Laura said softly. “You parents were killed because they were good Americans. They were killed because unlike the drug addicted psychotics that prey on your community they reminded your people, Mexican Americans, that there was a part of the United States’ system that was still wonderful and worth preserving.”
            Munoz’s face didn’t seem surprised or confused but there was gratitude and even some kindness there and she was about to say something more, something Laura was almost certain would be less cruel or maybe even kind, when the pain giver came down on the back. She jerked and convulsed off of the chair and Ortiz continued to press the pain giver down for ten minutes, her lips pulled up in a hate filled snarl that showed all her white teeth.
            As Munoz was being dragged away by one leg by a still angry fully armored Ortiz Laura added in her head, And so do you, Missy. So do you.
            That was what all the red tagged prisoners were, Laura realized. They were the last of the Americans who “made” it from nothing, the final and subsequent winners of the American Dream. To the Faction eyes none of them were parasites like the born very rich or the born very poor, one living off of interest, the other welfare, and neither contributing. They were the best of the contributing center. Lucas Randal was super rich, yes, but he was a contributor first, a true celebrity American builder of jobs and products and was continuing to do so at the time of his capture. He was an individual, like Joan Kelly, of great importance while she and Justin had skills that would be extremely useful but anyone with those skills would be as equally valuable.
            Munoz did not reappear again and somewhere around nightfall Laura watched Lucas Randal get taken away by Miller, slumping along in his drugged shamble with his hair hanging down over his eyes only to disappear into the building. Laura knew she would never see either of them in that prison again.
            She did not know how it happened but somehow the last two prisoners left were just herself and the man she had fallen in love with.

*          *          *

            Laura was not the slightest bit surprised to open her eyes in the dark somewhere in middle of that very night to see the female elite soldier standing over her bed. Laura did not say a word to elite and the elite did not say a word to Laura. The elite simply stepped aside and Laura simply stood up and started walking and to the exact place she had expected be taken back to sooner or later.
            The elite soldier had changed somehow, her walk and general demeanor were strangely hesitant and less aggressive, even less confident, and when she guided or prodded Laura that time she did it by gently pushing or pressing with her armored hand with a notable lack of enthusiasm. Laura did not know whether to be terrified or relieved.
            When the door opened into that gaudy elevator Laura thought she was going to go blind and the hallway was even worse. She frowned at it, hating the beautiful color denied her for so long, and walked down the hall back toward Jackson’s room. To the right she saw the open door with Joan Kelly’s painting and it was still there and still incomplete.
            It never would be and somehow that made it both sad and happy at the same time.
            She crossed a window and for an instant before the elite pushed her gently forward she saw burning buildings and destruction. Normal bombs, she thought worriedly.
            The elite slowed her down with a light touch as they reached the door and it opened from the inside to reveal Lieutenant Croon wearing a yellow polo shirt, black slacks and black dress shoes. He looked like he had not changed even slightly in all three months and was carrying a glass of red wine like it was a party.
            “Be careful,” whispered the elite as he approached her.
            Croon stared at Laura with disturbing new eagerness, his lips curling up into an eager smile, and he gestured with the two first fingers of his right hand for her to enter. She took two steps in and the elite shut the door and moved to a corner inside the room.
            Laura was surprised to find that she wasn’t the only girl there. On the right was pretty, if short, round faced, round eyed teenage girl with long dark brown curly hair that hung down in a ponytail. She was wearing a white blouse tucked into a black skirt with a black apron that read “Ramiro’s Bar and Grill” across it’s front in red.
            On the left was a woman of about twenty five with a body that only a personal trainer, a military person, a professional athlete or a girl with a ridiculous amount of genetic luck could ever hope to have. She had larger than average breasts, possibly grown mammary implants, with bright blue eyes and long, silky blond hair that probably came from a bottle. She wore a dress that showed off every asset she had, low cut over her breasts, reaching only halfway down the thighs of her long sculpted legs, but left her arms sleeveless to reveal ornate green and red tattoos. Her lips were red too, her skin a perfect, creamy pale and Laura found the woman even more brightly colored than the hall.
            “I’m in the fucking reclamation facility!” the blue woman cried with incredulity when she saw Laura. Her accent denoted money or power or more likely both and Laura thought maybe her dress was of the highly expensive and fashionable variety. The Faction had its own sense of Fashion which was generally awful and Laura had only followed real fashion albeit casually until it was obliterated after the cue. “You, explain to me what is happening this instant?”
            “You’ve actually been dragged in this far and are too stupid to realize what is going on?” Laura replied.
            “Excuse me?” She looked offended. “Do you know who my father is? How high he is in the party?”
            Laura stared at her feeling stupefied by her ignorance. “Captain Jackson has gone mad,” Laura told her. “He murdered a thirteen year old boy and rapes women.” The girl blinked at her. “If you’re father really is the big shot you say he is then I recommend that you walk out of here right now. If it’s true the woman in black armor probably won’t stop you.”
            Something in Laura’s voice or face got through to the woman. She started with the other following to the door but when they tried to pull it open they found it locked and the elite really didn’t stop either girl. “Captain Jackson, wherever you are, my father is one of the biggest UCLD supporters in the former United States! You open this door now!”
            When he didn’t answer the blue woman turned around to say something more but the other girl blurted out, “But I didn’t do anything!”
            “None of us did,” Laura told her. “You need to keep your mouth shut and—”
            Jackson stepped into the room wearing only a black bathrobe with a full glass of wine looking drunk, angry but also scared. Laura saw that last as clearly as the nose on his face and with its distinctive wide eyed darting nervous glance as well. He walked across a black mostly grated platform that formed over the lower level and stopped in front of them making the waitress girl very nervous.
            He frowned when Laura put her hands behind her back and looked up at him in a calm, careful way. “You like it down there? You like it with him? With that boy?”
            Laura looked around the red floored golden walled room and glanced at the picture of the Faction symbol on the back wall that separated the kitchen from that weird entryway with its torture chamber down below covered only by that metal grate. “I do—”
            “You cunt!” he hissed and he pointed at her. “With a single word I could have him buried right next to Denzel Kelly under the Vietnam Memorial. Would you like that?”
            “I wouldn’t but I don’t believe you.” Laura looked at him calmly. “You would have done it the very first instant you were aware of my feelings for him.”
            Jackson’s eyes narrowed. “You know these girls are really pretty,” he said softly.
            “Captain Jackson, this is markedly inappropriate,” said the elite slowly.
            “When exactly did the elites stop following orders, I wonder?” He looked at her in sulky childish way for a moment and then looked back at Laura.
            “I know what you’re trying to do,” Laura told him. “You killed Denzel Kelly to hurt Juan Reyes and you’ll hurt them to hurt me after I submit.” If he just wanted to rape her he would have done it. If he just wanted to hurt Juan Reyes he would have done that too. Neither action needed other people to succeed. It seemed he was a psychological sadist and forcing her to submit to him under the threat of harming others was bad enough but she felt absolutely certain he would absolutely love to renege on whatever deal they made and have a complete psychological win over her. Those were just some the rumors that she had heard and by then she believed them all. “It seems, ‘captain,’ that your reputation does precede you.”
            Jackson’s face twitched and his hand tightened into a fist, then opened wide, then tightened again.
            “You’ve gone mad, Rupert,” Laura said softly. “These women are party members and most especially blue here.” He took a step closer but Laura did not move and stared up into his eyes almost fearlessly. She did not back up because doing so too much would put her up against the door and she would need some room in case things were to become physical.
            Oddly, she didn’t think it would or at least not for her. Jackson seemed to genuinely need her to emotionally break, falter or give up something first. That seemed to be a requirement that straight forward rape would not give it to him.
            There was also the small problem of attempting to rape a woman who had graduated at near the top of her class in military combat. He was very drunk and if she could get at him before his armor was up she might actually be able to kill him and, judging by his caution, he knew it very well. The elite would probably even let her.
            “That boy—your boy—” he was getting very angry “—I will have him fucking killed!”
            “Are we done here?”
            “I will kill him!”
            “How? He’s not a white tag and doesn’t he have a technology in his bionic armor more valuable to the UCLD than you?”
            Jackson squeezed his glass so tightly it burst in his hands. Laura felt the wine splash on her face and marveled that sort of thing could actually happen outside of the movies. He looked over her body like it was a museum exhibit he desperately wanted to crawl all over and play with but was unable to.
            You can’t get it up with me, can you? she thought suddenly. There was something about her power that killed his arousal. It almost made her smile but she didn’t dare. If she provoked him too much he might just kill her in a blind rage instead.
            Suddenly he grabbed the younger girl, and threw her to ground with a thud. “You did this!” he screamed as he dragged her by her foot over to a nearby table. He slammed her chest first onto the table and she began to scream.
            “I didn’t do anything!” she shrieked. “I didn’t! I—didn’t—” he yanked up her skirt “—I DIDN’T DO ANYTHING!”
            Laura started to step forward when she saw the gun appear out of the corner of her eyes. She looked over and saw Croon holding a laser revolver in his right hand, his other arm wrapped around the blue woman’s center with her head pulled down to his level, her legs bending a bit to accommodate his lower height. His eyes were the cold dead eyes of a true sociopath.
            It was not Laura he was threatening. He was threating the elite soldier who was staring at him worriedly. She started to say, “Her father—”
            “Who fucking cares?” cried Rupert and he ripped off the girl’s underwear and moved up against her. “You did this, Laura Adler! You!” The girl began to shriek manically and broke several nails trying to get herself of that table. Jackson began to beat her violently, the sounds of ribs clearly breaking in Laura’s ears, but she sensed it was more than just to quiet her. He needed her pain for some reason and he needed to take his pain out on her as well.
            When his hand moved close to her head the girl bit him and he screamed in frustrated rage.
            Laura would have killed Jackson then. She would have walked up behind him, grabbed his neck, and snapped it like a twig. However, Croon was watching her too and there something incredibly dangerous about him, something sinister that she couldn’t name, and something else that Jackson very much lacked.
            It was an iron willed self-control. If she made one move he wasn’t going to shoot her. He would shoot the blue woman instead, a high ranking Faction member’s daughter, and the elite couldn’t let that happen.
            Croon stared at her with those dead eyes as if he could read her mind and then casually pulled back the hammer.
            “I didn’t know I had such power over you, Rupert,” said Laura.
            Jackson didn’t like that and it seemed to have made it more difficult, and it took him a long unpleasant time before he quit in failure but it was actual failure and he screamed in his frustration, armored his right fist, and slammed it into the girl’s face down hard enough to break bone. When he wrapped his bathrobe around himself he tried to appear as if he had succeeded admirably.
            Croon pushed back the hammer, let go of the blue woman and holstered the gun.
            “You did this Adler! You!” For a moment all that could be heard was the crying of both girls. The blue woman was weeping loudly like a little girl and the other one was wailing like a wounded animal. “You could have prevented this!”
            “That’s not true,” she replied and her voice was startlingly calm and even a bit petulant. “You see I’m a prisoner in a reclamation facility. I don’t control the Faction or their soldiers.”
            “It is that boy who did this.” Jackson seemed convinced there was no way he could have failed without another unforeseen and undeserved male influence pitted against him. “Barely two words on your day one and now you won’t shut up!”
            “It’s time for me to go, captain,” she said.
            “You did this!” His voice was demanding but also desperate. He seemed to have developed a great need to make her feel guilty and ashamed. That might have been his fetish but she sensed it was more of a requirement. She did not know for sure and did not want to.
            “Okay, Jackson,” Laura replied like she was talking to a child. “I made you do it. Do you feel better?” A strange numbness was coming over her and she had the feeling that once she was away from Jackson she would break down into tears. He clearly did not sense that and seemed to find her perceived amusement galling beyond comprehension.
            Jackson walked up to her and said, “You will break someday and I will be there when you do!”
            Laura shrugged. It was useless talking to him. He was an idiot and crazy and utterly unreasonable.
            “That body belongs to me! You are still just a woman no matter what your statistics say or how smug you act!” The blue woman’s mouth opened and she tried to speak. He punched her across the face with his still armored fist without looking and she went silent as she stumbled back over the step, fell to the ground with a thud and started to weep. Croon’s lips curled into a wide smile that only slightly touched his eyes. “You hear me?”
            “I hear you.” Laura shrugged her head. “We finished?”
            “I’ll kill him.” 
            “You can’t.”
            Jackson was so angry he was starting to shake. “Soldier!” The elite turned her head toward him. “You take this cunt—” She moved between them and fired at him in such way that made him step back. “Soldier—” She stopped him with a glance, turned to the Croon who instantly took a step backward but only out of a cold, calculated caution.
            She held out her hand and the blue woman took it, let out a sob, and threw then her arms around her.
            A fucking party patron, thought Laura. She did not think anything would happen to Jackson but if it did it would be through that blue dressed woman. It won’t though because it’s over. Everything is over. Jackson’s stupid but he’s not stupid enough to miss that.
            The elite soldier made a fist, extended her blades, and Jackson and Croon both stepped back. She pointed at them for a moment then turned and cut the lock between the doors in half. She retracted her blades as she let the blue woman stumble past and then took the girl from the ground like she was a child and carried her out like a bride.
            Jackson stepped forward. “Janice—”
            She hissed, turned, and faced them with the girl in her arms. “You have fucked yourself,” she hissed in a guttural mechanized voice, “And I will be damned before I let it roll over onto me!” She breathed that mechanical way through her helmet almost like Darth Vader. “A fucking patron? Are you a fucking retard?”
            Jackson answered her with a blank stare.
            The elite gestured for Laura to walk and she quickly obeyed moving to the accustomated place in front of the elite as she quietly walked down the hall carrying the weeping girl in her arms with the blue woman following closely beside her. Laura looked back and saw half the blue woman’s face was red and she was clutching a jaw that was quite probably broken.
            “Jesus,” said Laura when she saw that most of the teeth on that side of her face had been shattered.
            The elite said nothing and led her to a doctor, the one that had been in the sanitation chamber, and his nurse who both looked tired and stunned at the sight of it. The other doctor was there too, the wild blond haired one, who had looked over Laura shamelessly that first day.
            They were in some room with a glass steel wall showing endless black and the doctor was working on the blue woman’s face while the nurse was helping the waitress who looked incredibly young to Laura. God, she must be fifteen, she thought but she seemed a younger in personality.
            “It was supposed to be her,” the nurse said with a gesture toward Laura.
            “Stop talking,” said the sanitation doctor softly. “Just stop.”
            The elite said something to that doctor that Laura could not hear and his eyes bulged open. He looked at the woman, covered his mouth with his fist in sudden near panic, and then began to whisper softly back to the elite. He looked quite scared to her and the nurse who heard it also looked absolutely terrified.
            The elite reassured them somehow and then turned and led Laura silently back to her room where, totally alone, she burst into tears but didn’t let her panic show, not even then, because Jackson might be watching her through some camera. She somehow managed to appear calm and unaffected despite the tears.
            Somewhere in the very early hours she drifted out of consciousness just long enough to have nightmares that made her wonder about some of the choices she had made.

8

            Laura dreamt about her erstwhile best friend Samantha Seymour.
            A week after the cue ended which some called the Global Overthrow she managed a race that actually went pretty well for her. She made third and while many of the best racers were out due to the crazed level rioting and violence she had still managed to beat an up and coming professional. She was not in the world’s greatest racing division yet, a junior division of trick racing called Knocker which was never to be confused with NAHCAR, a serious hover racing subdivision of NASCAR. Knocker was the name given to a version of NAHCAR that used obstacle courses usually consisting of loops, jumps, explosions and crazy natural environmental features such as mountain cliff sides and winding tunnels that, at the very least, ended up with the racer being “knocked” around hence the name. It was more popular than ever among viewers but serious racers considered them overly dangerous, too flashy and far from true professional racing.
            She slept well the night before after having successfully sped down a track with three loops, one long jump, two small, one crazed vertical wall she had gone straight up and back down again, tunnels intermixed all contained within the racing theme park known as Hover Gardens not far Marian Indiana where she was staying. The races were part of the theme of Hover Gardens and only some of the people who came there came for the races. It was mostly an amusement park with all the expected rollercoasters, kiddy rides, shows, bands and other things that one would find there usually themed to races but also old, and not banned, Hollywood films.
            She was showered and dressed and was stepping out of the hotel when the sun was rising light. She wore a tight white leather jacket with black sleeves with the name of her sponsor, Rock Salt Music in bold blue letters on black leather, across the chest, form fitting jeans with tall black boots with buckles on the front. Her plan was to enjoy to spend the day at Hover Gardens which her sponsors had given her free tickets for.
            She instantly recognized who was leaning against her father’s beat up old car with her arms crossed. “Sam,” she said as she approached.
            “Laura,” Sam replied pleasantly enough but only with a hint of a smile that never touched her eyes. That was as closest to a smile Laura had seen her make since her fiancé Tom Bennett had died.
            Samantha Seymour looked uncharacteristically girly with her dark brown hair parted in the center hanging straight down around her gray eyes to her chin in a feminine way. It used to be back length but after Tom died she had cut it to military length for at least a year but for some unknown reason had let it grow out again. She wore a dark green dress with the nylon covering her legs and feminine boots that looked great on her too, the first time Laura saw her wearing a dress since Tom’s passing. She had once been quite capable of highly feminine style and in the bluish early morning world of Indiana she looked as girly and innocent as anyone.
            Laura did not believe for a single instant that she had moved on.
            “You still driving this piece of shit Collin, I see,” Sam said as she approached.
            “Yes, obviously, and it’s technically a Chrysler.” Collin Automobile Industries, another sub-company under the control Live-4-Less, had absorbed all the American car companies such as Chrysler, Ford and General Motors into one ugly, powerful automobile de-facto monopoly. Her father’s Chrysler was the only car she had and the last thing she had of him so she never would have been able to bring herself to replace it even if she could have afforded it. “Something you want, Sam?” she asked.
            “I saw you race, sister,” said Sam. “Third place isn’t bad?” Her voice was hard and cold but it seemed to Laura like she was genuinely, and uncharacteristically, trying to be nice.
            “What do you want?” asked Laura. They hadn’t been close since they were girls, about five years ago or so, and Sam had turned genuinely sinister since that thing with her boyfriend had occured, but there was still something between them and Laura wasn’t quite able to make herself sound mean even though she tried.
            “Where are you going, Laura?” asked Sam. Her voice was softening and Laura supposed that whatever something that was between them wasn’t one sided.
            “I like the early mornings,” Laura told her. Her father had been a morning person and she followed after that. “I’m going to get breakfast and then I’m going to be enjoy Hover Gardens and then I’ll be meeting my sponsors for dinner tonight.” She was looking forward to that: they had actually hired a cook for the party with real non-fabricated food.
            “What are they like?” asked Sam.     
            “They’re alight,” Laura replied and then she shrugged. “They’re trying to label me as a modern day Danica Patrick or something but I don’t like it.”
            “Because of Cousin Bradley?”
            Laura deeply regretted ever telling Samantha Seymour anything personal. “Yes. Because of Cousin Bradley.” Her cousin Bradley J. Adler had been fond of telling her that she was a little “Danica Patrick” because he felt Laura had her beauty and talent intermixed quality that made her one of the more famous twenty-first century female racers that he knew of and had they been alive at the same time Bradley probably would have had a mad crush on her. “I suppose they could have used Johanna Long or Shawna Robertson or Janet Guthrie although that last one feels wrong—”
            “Laura, nobody cares—”
            “There you fucking are!” hissed Laura.
            Sam’s face softened and she sighed. “Come with me. You need to see what I’m going to show you.” She started to walk away from the old blue hover model Chrysler but when Laura hesitated she turned around and started walking backward. “Come, come,” she said and gestured for her to do so with the index and middle fingers on both hands.
            Laura frowned at her for a moment then followed. She led Laura to her own old vehicle, Tom Bennett’s sleek, red hover model Ford convertible, Collin made of course, and then drove them to nearby restaurant on East 4th St. a few blocks away. It was, unsurprisingly, a Blue Jay restaurant, which was Amity Food Incorporated’s middle class diner fabricating restaurant that it had all the cooking styles and ingredients of Denny’s, Red Robin’s, Johnny Rocket’s, Red Lobster, Appleby’s and several others Laura did not recall the names of.
            To her it looked like another Big Burger, white walled, with blue things inside, only with the impression of being a middle class diner by architectural design. Everything was still fabricated and not particularly very good and was delivered by robots with the same one human watching over everything and looking very bored.
            Inside the dark blue leather booth she led Laura too were the other five members of their little coterie from their days of the UCLD Youth Academy and just like that they were all together again.
            Carl Bonner, a heavy infantry man, built huge and powerful with military short hair and dark blue eyes set one of the most average faces Laura had ever seen. Roxanne Rodriguez, Roxy to her friends, was a short, petite pretty girl with pretty olive skin and silky dark hair dyed with two bangs of red on either side of her narrow, pretty Hispanic face. A robotic armor driver, and arguably a better friend to Laura than Sam had ever been, although they were never that close. There was also one of Laura’s favorite people in the world, Michelle Myers, nicknamed Mickey, who was a robotics engineer. She was a pretty, shapely dark haired girl with electric blue eyes who liked to tell everyone that her father named her after a fictional serial killer because her birth had murdered all his hopes and dreams.
            Among them were two people she was very surprised to see and were not friends with. Damien Forde, a short, skinny black man with buzzed hair and very black eyes trained as a sniper and almost certainly the truest killers she had ever personally known. The other was a girl named Rhonda Rajawat and she was very much a surprise considering she was an actual elite soldier. She was a very attractive Indian girl, her black hair cut short over her head hanging around her eyes parted from the center, and her slender, tall body was covered in a pretty white dress that did not fit with Laura’s idea of her at all. Rhonda claimed she was descended from the Rajput and she had even taken the time to learn to competently throw a chakram.
            “What the hell are you all doing here?” Laura asked as Mickey threw her arms around her.
            “Nice to see you too,” said Roxy.
            “I knew there was a reason I liked you,” said Mickey and she kissed her in the cheek before sitting back down next to Rhonda.
            Laura sat down beside Carl on the end seat, across from where Sam sat down next to Mickey, and said, “That man Forde over there is a fucking psychopath and if think you can trust the Rajput you are totally mistaken.” She turned to Carl. “Hey Carl.”
            “Hey Laura.” He looked a little nervous the way he always been after she had a few dates with him and decided they weren’t a good match.
            “Whatever,” said Sam as she pulled out red communication blocker and placed it onto the table. “Let me buy you breakfast.”
            “Oh that would be nice. Are you going to let me walk home too?”
            “Don’t be mean, Laura,” said Sam and she took a deep breath that made Laura think she was concentrating on self-control. “We’re—” she leaned over and lowered her voice to a whisper “—we’re going traitor.”
            “That is a very bad idea,” Laura told them and instantly and deeply distrusted whatever plan they had if for no better primary reason then the fact that Damien Forde and the Rajput were involved.
            “A bad idea from you?” asked Roxy.
            “You act like I went traitor just for disobeying a direct order.”
            “You technically did,” Roxy said. “You saw through this bullshit before everyone else did.”
            “Laura,” said Sam. “They shot the president, allowed a former president to be torn apart and a third left starved to death on public display. Laura, this is the right thing to do.”
            Laura looked right into her eyes and in a level, cold voice, asked, “Do you really think you will be welcome in a Faction-free United States after what you did to Nancy Gomez?”
            Sam looked her straight back into her eyes and said, “Yes I do,” and then she shrugged like it was no big deal.
            “She’s not going to do it,” said Mickey. “I can see it in her eyes.” She shrugged. “I wouldn’t either, honestly.”
            Roxy leaned forward onto the table. “You’ve been out of the loop too long, sister,” she told Laura and she pressed the button on the circular center screen of the table and Laura saw the holographic screens appear in front of each them. Roxy then pressed buttons until the channel hit the news, not very long as most channels were not playing anything, stopping when the screen showed something about Great Britain. Laura could see Faction soldiers fighting Faction and the words “United States UCLD troops brought in to support British UCLD in Great Britain” spread across the blue bar at the bottom of the screen. “You see this?” asked Roxy. “Those are British Faction fighting back!”
            “Yes,” Laura replied blandly. With great regularity the news channels popped back on the network from unknown sources despite all the best efforts of the Faction to keep it contained and anything she didn’t see she could easily find on the internet anyway.
            Laura reached over, pressed the sound button, and listened to the words of the emotionally moved male British newscaster. “—and British UCLD defectors have joined forces with the remaining British Armed Forces and are now surrounding the Queen of England in an astounding movement of great patriotism!”
            “England loves their queen,” Laura said simply. The Faction probably found their situation made much worse by the fact that their queen was a girl of thirteen, or maybe fourteen, and that had made the English very defensive of her. They had already killed their prime minister who had been as corrupt as President Tosh and had about the same lackluster effect as its American counterpart had, but that move against their royal family had backlashed with surprising and vicious unpopularity. Going after the royal family was a step too far for most British people and the riots had quintupled everywhere and double that when they executed the queen’s aunt-in-law, the Dowager Duchess of York, under what most of Britain and the world felt were trumped up charges.
            Roxy reached over and tapped one the buttons formed on the monitor screen to turn the sound off. “Nobody signed up for this shit, Laura,” she said. “We wanted to clear out the corruption, the bullshit, the income inequality and all that crap but we did not want our governments to collapse. Did you see Tosh die?”
            “I did. I also saw what happened to his conservative predecessor.” If anyone thought only the last liberal president would take the full fall they were wrong. They tore apart conservative President Bramble and later dragged another conservative former President Nick Vickson, old Nickvick he was sometimes called, out of his fifty million dollar mansion to be hung from a cage in the center of time square in New York City by a crowd of very angry Americans where he was pelted with rocks and feces until he died. They had seen him as the architect of one of the earlier wars that had cost the country tens of trillions and murdered the American economy that had just started getting better. He had starved to death up there and, considering his and Bramble’s death Tosh was rather lucky. It seemed his Fifty-Fifty Law somehow warranted only a bullet to the head.
            “This is crazy and it needs to stop!” Roxy told her.
            “How are you going to do that? Genie’s out of the bottle.”
            “There’s real rebellion in the air and it can end this and bring back our governments.”
            “Maybe,” Laura replied. The Faction global overthrow attempt had succeeded but the after effects were far from the results the Faction had hoped for. If they knew what was going to happen they would never have done it “What is it now?” Laura asked. “There are thirty percent military defectors and climbing in the United States. In Britain, it’s forty and climbing fast, South Africa thirty five and climbing, in Mexico it’s thirty or something and climbing, Brazil it’s twenty and climbing very, very fast, China on the brink of full civil war, Canada lost to their anti-Faction along with France and Russian a year earlier in the first part of the cue and are now both part of the Alliance—” she shrugged “—I see what you mean but you don’t honestly think this is going to end well, do you?”
            They never said it out loud but all seven of them knew very well about the clean bombs. They dropped a few on America earlier, killing the military that had tried earlier to recruit her, a small scale affair indeed, but had bigger ones. Much bigger ones. The bombs will come, Roxy, she thought, And if you don’t know that you’re as crazy as that sick bastard sitting beside you.
            “Either Denmark, France or Germany is about to blow the UCLD satellite,” said Roxy.
            “That—” Laura shrugged “—that is something.” That satellite goes down and every turncoat Faction would get access to everything in their bio armor had to use against their enemies. That would make things very interesting indeed. “France is about to fall, you know.” For reasons unknown to Laura the Faction really wanted France and were willing to take on the Alliance head on for it.
            “They never stay conquered,” Roxy replied, “And anyway Germany’s backing them now and taking on seventy or percent of the Faction soldiers invading France. France will be a Faction clean state in less than a week and have reformed their army in less than four.”
            “If they don’t manage to blanket the French countryside with clean bombs,” said Mickey.
            “None of that matters and there is nothing you can do with her here anyway,” said Laura with a gesture toward Rhonda.
            Rhonda sighed and said, “You know I’m right—”
            “I’m not hiding what I’m saying from you,” Laura replied and turned to the others. “She is an elite soldier. The only people who become elites are fanatics. If you think this conversation isn’t going to get back to UCLD High Command with her around then you are all fucking idiots!”
            “I can see that,” Mickey replied. Rhonda turned and looked at her coldly. “She’s got a point about your group,” Mickey added with a shrug.
            Rhonda turned away and said nothing.
            “Rhonda’s been kicked out of the elites,” said Roxy. “She has no access to her armor, only it’s unarmed basic form like you but you will both get it back when that satellite goes down.” Basic form was the skintight silver-gray training form with a clear face plate that went before the mesh armor that was under the plates. It was used in the training period and only marginally protected against punches and kicks.
            “She’s not in jail or executed,” Laura replied. “Ever occur to you that this a trick to get her close to you.”
            “They don’t have time for that,” Sam told her.
            Laura realized she was never going to convince them and felt tired. She leaned forward and said, “Look, guys, I just want to be left alone.”
            “I knew she wouldn’t help,” said Damien.
            “And I knew we should have left your psychotic ass at home!” Roxy retorted.
            “Why won’t you help?” asked Sam.
            “Why?” asked Laura with an incredulous expression. “Maybe because I’m not willing to exchange everything I’ve worked so hard for to get an almost guaranteed death sentence for a former best friend and five other people most of which I only marginally know and only three of which I actually like.”
            “She’s talking about me,” said Mickey with a smile.
            Damien laughed. “That’s fair,” he said. “I sure as shit wouldn’t trust us.”
            “That’s mainly because you’re an unrepentant psychopath,” Laura replied and he gave her an indifferent shrug in response.
            “You know me better than that,” said Roxy.
            “I do but this is stupid and you all know it.” They knew about the bombs from the same source she did and if they thought they personally could make a difference they were fooling themselves.
            “Laura,” said Sam. “We need you—”
            “No, you need me! she retorted bitterly. “You don’t trust these guys, not completely. Carl is good but he’s not too smart, no offense, and Damien here is smart but he’s a complete fucking psychopath, yes offense, and the Rajput can never be trusted and while Roxy is pretty right on and Mickey is awesome they also cannot be trusted because after Nancy Gomez you have too many trust issues to trust any other girl except me.”
            “Why you?” asked Roxy.
            Sam’s face seemed to shrug and sigh at the same time. “Read King Lear,” Laura replied having absolutely no desire to to ever bring up that incident again. “I’m her Cordelia.” Sam said nothing but looked very uncomfortable.
            Laura suddenly wondered if Tom Bennett would even recognize her if he saw her then. She was as far from that sweet, good natured girl that he had fallen in love with and after what happened to Nancy Gomez Laura barely recognized Sam herself.
            “Does this have something to do with that Tom you never shut up about?” asked Roxy.
            “It’s time for me to go,” Laura told them abruptly and she stood up. Sam’s hand shot out, caught her arm and help onto it tightly. When Laura looked at her she saw genuine desperation and loneliness on her face. “Stay!” she said in an almost squeak. “Let me buy you breakfast at least! Let’s talk! Please, Laura, I need somebody! I’m—I’m sorry about before!”
            The others were staring at her in jaw dropped surprise. Laura was surprised too but not nearly as much as they were. Laura knew Sam had spent a lifetime with other girls and talked about all her problems with them and found comfort in that but since the incident with Tom Bennett she had become very alone in a world of lonely pessimism that Laura was far better acquainted with and she knew Laura would never lie to her when it mattered. Mickey would have worked just as well but Mickey did not actually like Sam enough for that or really at all.
            Laura was a little but only a little tempted and she was done with the Faction. She was free of them, or so she thought then, and she wanted to keep it that way. She also wasn’t about to throw away her career away just because Sam asked her to. Her death was going to come no matter where she was, or so she also thought then, and that being said she preferred enjoying the last few moments she had on Earth doing what she loved following her dream. “I’ve got to go, Sam.”
            Sam stood up and then hugged her tightly. “Please, Laura, I need a friend nearby.” Her other childhood friends were all gone. Their betrayal and the loss it caused had turned Sam into a living nightmare that had come to cost them all far more than they could ever have imagined most especially to the one named Nancy Gomez. The word “overkill” came to Laura’s mind when she thought about it.
            Laura hugged her back for a moment then pushed her away. “You’re with friends, Sam.”
            Sam’s face turned to a mix of sadness and a grimace. “You’re the last link I have to who I was.”
            “Goodbye Sam,” she said and she walked away. Sam tried to follow but Roxy caught her and pulled her back.
            “Let her go,” Roxy told her and Sam reluctantly did.
            Laura had spent that day thinking about Tom Bennett and how she never believed a man could ever love her for anything but her body. Sam actually had that kind of romantic love but considering how it ended Laura decided that it was good no such a thing came had ever along to ruin her life. Samantha Seymour’s loss had destroyed her and Laura felt she was much better off without ever having it.
            Some months later while inside Reclamation Facility 59 she would change her mind.

9

            The following day was the last day.
            There were no white guards left and among the red guards only Miller and Ortiz remained. By then everything had become so quiet and so very colorless that the red of their uniforms seemed obscenely bright. The two remaining prisoners stood at the line in the center of the quad and stared at each other and hyper focused on the color of each other’s eyes.
            Blue on green, green on blue, each as bright as sapphires and emeralds amid a gray, bland world.
            “Something is coming,” Laura told him she felt her heart beating in her chest.
            “We’re in the eye of the storm,” said Justin softly and he looked up at the gray sky and then back down at her. “You want to talk about something? Video games? Comics? Anything?” Justin felt like he needed a good distraction.
            Laura felt the opposite. She felt like time was short and she wanted to hear him to say something. “No,” she told him. “That’s not what I want to talk about.”
            “You’re right,” he said and then he saw Ortiz walking toward her with the female elite. At that same moment Laura saw Miller with the male elite walking toward him.
            An instant passed where neither blinked.
            Then they threw themselves forward to each other and hit the wall with a thud that could be felt but not heard over the sound of a high pitched siren alarm that bleeped powerfully the instant they crossed the line. The guards and elite didn’t seem to care. They simply moved into a gentle jog as they continued toward them.
            “You want to know why I stuck around, do you?” he cried.
            “Yes.”
            “Do I get see your breasts first?”
            “No jokes, jerkoff! Talk!” Laura desperately wanted to hear him say it but she was smiling too. She was not really a romantic and either was he and love came as a surprise to both of them. The jokes seemed to make them feel more at ease and somehow Justin knew it.
            “Well I—” Suddenly everything turned off: the alarm, the monitors, the ceiling force field, everything, making the sky a vibrant endless bright blue. The loss of power could be just the building or Washington DC or Maryland or Virginia or both or possibly even all of North America. It could even be the world.
            They looked through the glass, into each other’s eyes, and both said, “I love you.” They were lost together for what felt like a long moment, never so close and yet still very far apart. They put their index fingers through one of the small holes in the wall and felt each other’s skin for the very first time.
            “I’m not romantic!” Justin said as he felt her soft feminine skin. “I’m not like this at all! I really hate this shit!”
            “Me too!” she replied incredulously as she felt his skin back. “I mean, I like girly films, but god, I didn’t think—” she had some romance in her soul, she liked girly romance movies and wanted to be loved, but that was all fantasy like the way boys wanted to be knights or cowboys. They were just for fun and not particularly realistic or so she thought “—I had no idea!”
            “Either did I but Laura I will love you forever,” Justin told her. He knocked on the glass a few times. “For-ev-er.”
            “And I will love back for-ev-er,” Laura replied and then knocked back.
            Justin and Laura smiled, kissed the glass where their lips would have met had there been nothing there, and did not close their eyes. From behind, both guards were close and both guards were casually raising their pain givers.
            They broke away with smiles on their faces and then stepped aside as the rods came down. Justin caught Miller’s arm, twisted it behind his back and snapped it with surprising ease. Miller screamed in a horrified high pitched way that reminded Justin of a child filled with confusion. He panicked, forgot to put on his armor, and fell to his knees. Justin kicked him in his stomach as hard as he could, grabbed his hair to pull his head around and then slammed his fist into his face hard enough to knock out both of his front teeth. The impact sent Miller’s head jerking hard enough away that his hair came out in Justin’s hand.
            Laura kicked Ortiz in the leg, snapped it at the knees, and stepped aside as the woman stumbled into the glass steel wall. She hit it face first hard enough to make a burst of blood splat out of her nose, scream-shrieked like a banshee being murdered, and put one hand against it in a weak attempt to steady herself. Laura moved behind her, slammed her fists into her sides enough times to break almost every rib before throwing her to the ground.
            Justin and Laura cried out in unified victory and then turned to face the elites walking toward them. They were very well trained, trained better both of Justin and Laura were point of fact, and fully armored so the likelihood of success in combat with them was not particularly high. For some reason, neither knew why, they did not particularly care.
            Justin ducked one arm grabbing him at and but then the second one shoved him into the wall with a loud thud. The elite then yanked him from the wall and sent him rolling painfully across the cement ground for ten or more feet. When he stopped he was on his back and he found himself almost hypnotized by the blue of the sky above him.
            “Beautiful,” he said with a smile.
            Laura jump-dodged her elite’s grab, dove past her when she moved again, rolled up to her feet, turned, and then felt both of the woman’s hands make contact onto her chest. She flew stumbling backward, lost her footing, and landed flat on back on the concrete hard enough to send a burst of pain go through her back that she was barely aware of. She stared up at the clouds moving across the sky as though they were the most beautiful thing she had ever seen.
            In the sky two jets, two black stardusts, flew across the blue and disappeared up into the clouds.
            Justin and Laura started to laugh and were still laughing when their elite’s reached down, picked them up and carried them in opposite directions over their shoulders like two sacks of flour.
            “I will love you forever, baby!” Justin cried weakly.
            “I will love forever back, sexy!” Laura replied back equally weak. “For-ev-er!” They both laughed.
            They were both in a lot of pain, the ground had been very hard and unyielding and they hit it a little too hard but it was only at that exact moment that they had actually noticed how much pain they were in.
            Justin did not hesitate when the idea came to him and he cried out, “Marry me! Not prison wife! Real wife! Marry me, Laura!”
            “Yes!” she screamed and they both laughed again.
            “Find me again in another place, Mrs. Biryukov!” Justin cried out with absurd joy. He knew if that if they got out of what was going to happen the world would be different indeed. “‘There are other worlds than these,’” he cried out in sudden inspiration.
            “You stole that from Stephen King, you Russian jackass!” she cried laughing.
            “I regret nothing!” Justin replied with a laugh.
            “That was so much fun!” Laura cried and laughed back.
            The elites took them in separate directions and the two travelers did not meet again.
            At least not there in that place or time.

10

            Three fucking months, Justin thought as he was taken away laughing and slightly drowsy from the doctor’s nanoprobe heal injection. He could not believe that it had been so short a time and the memory of it already felt like it would spread out in his mind to a year, two years, ten years, to a lifetime. Boredom stretched out time spectacularly and he always knew that but never before had its ugly, banal magic ever been so focused on him.
            He did not feel actually there, at least not in the nightmarish way it was intended to be. The white tags were there for a sinister, different, reason and for them it was certainly many things but he doubted it was boring. Justin, much like the guards, had just been a witness. He had not left scarred emotionally either, or at least not scarred to the point of a devastating trauma like Joan Kelly had, and thought the only thing he had truly lost in that place was his heart.
            Although the sounds of Denzel Kelly screaming would haunt him for eternity he still believed he was one of the lucky ones.
            That is only assuming, of course, that he didn’t end up being taken somewhere and shot in the next hour or two.
            He was then handcuffed again, taken outside and pushed down in the same spot in the same car with the same straps, half asleep from the healing nanoprobes injected into him by the wild haired blond doctor and then taken back to the same place he had come from again with its windows made opaque. Whatever it was going on between Reclamation Facility 59 and the former Ronald Reagan National Airport they did not want him to see.
            When the straps unbuckled and the elite soldier pulled Justin out of the vehicle the sight of what was around him made his jaw just drop. Justin blinked into the mistiness of the endless blue early morning sky and thought he must be dreaming.
            The airport was jam packed with stardusts everywhere above a tiny thin layer of snow, just thirty on that landing strip alone. There was at least ten billion dollars parked all around him and that was just a safe estimate. He would have easily believed if someone halfway reliable told him it was closer to a hundred. “Have I taken crazy pills?” he asked suddenly as the elite started pulling him toward a nearby plane.
            All around him were people, mostly Faction big shots and supporters, men and women and children in very expensive designer clothes or military uniforms, moving up their ramps with their things hoping to escape the coming apocalypse.
            “Everyone’s jumping ship,” Justin said as he was pulled about twenty feet to the nearest jet while the prison car hovered on away toward some other jet.
            The cold was everywhere around him but he barely noticed even though he was vastly underdressed for it but then it was gone pretty quickly anyway as he was taken up into the ramp of the nearby wonder plane created by a good man Justin had befriended in the long three months behind him.
            His numbness broke when he heard the white ramp rising up behind.
            “Where is my fiancé?” he asked but the elite only grabbed his arm and pulled him in an oddly gentle manner to one of the empty seats. Even before he sat down and felt the straps coming down onto him the vehicle was rising up into the air. Justin leaned over and looked out of the window and saw then what he had not seen coming over.
            Nothing: he saw nothing at all.
            Washington DC, former capital of the former United States was standing there as still and empty as a ghost town. Parts of it were blown apart and burned down, a post-riot looking condition, but most of it was just empty. There were still buildings, still cars, still everything but no people or at least nothing was moving and it was still dark enough for Justin to see that there was no power out there at all. Everything was out, not just one light or two but everything, including street lamps connected to backup generators, and the words “ninety or more percent of the world are about to die” echoed across Justin’s mind and then he knew his long, great fear was real.
            The bombs were coming.
            When the window turned dark Justin sighed and looked over at the elite who sat down beside him. “—storage,” came a voice and Justin looked over to see two grunt level soldiers, red armored, black plated, stepping into sight with their helmets off. “That’s where all the money—” the man who had spoken saw the elite at the same time as his friend, stopped talking instantly, abruptly turned around together in one fluid motion and then went back toward the cockpit without another word.
            “Where is my fiancé?” he asked the elite. “Pretend you’re human and just tell me.”
            The elite’s face turned toward him and to Justin’s intense shock the helmet unraveled to reveal a dark haired blue eyed man with attractive, if a bit effeminate features, staring at him in the strangest way he had ever seen.
            “It’s over now,” Justin told him. “You can tell me.”
            The elite soldier stared at him blankly for a long time. “She’s pretty hot, you’re fiancé,” he said finally and something weird passed between them. Justin suddenly saw him as a person and he found he couldn’t actually un-see that for some reason.
            “Oh yeah,” Justin replied. “That’s not why I love her, though. That’s just why I’m super attracted to her.”
            The elite looked at him for a long moment. “She’s got a great ass,” he told him.
            “Hey that’s my future wife we’re talking about.” They both smiled at each other awkwardly. “Where is she?”
            “She’s coming in one of these insane jets with my sister,” said the elite but then he shook his head and looked tired. “But I don’t know where any of us are going.” He leaned back onto the seat, sighed and said, “It could be anywhere.”
            That was true enough. It was so smooth a flight that without a window to give Justin some sense of information the Stardust could have as easily just parked a block away as it could have been on a flight to China and in no way would he have known the difference.

*          *          *

            Laura felt the drowsy effects of the bastard doctor’s needle and ignored the people and all the sights around her as she was taken from the prison car to one of the thousand Stardusts all around them and plopped down onto a seat.
            “He’s going to marry me,” she said with a smile.
            The plane was already up in the air, she could see that and the empty Washington DC all around her, just before the window darkened, but Justin was still all she could think about. She leaned up against the window, shut her eyes, and smiled distantly.
            “Do you love him?”
            Laura looked over at the elite and watched her unravel her helmet. She was a rather pretty short haired brunette with striking blue eyes, almost the color of Justin’s but darker, the exact shade of her painted nails. She looked tired, worn out, and even a little traumatized. “I do,” Laura told her. “I do love him.” Then, for no reason she understood, she added, “I never thought I would ever fall in love. I wanted love like every girl but I don’t think I ever believed it was possible for me.” She swallowed. “Where is he?”
            The elite stared at her for a long moment. “Does he really love you back?”
            “Yes,” she said without hesitation. In all her life she had never been so sure of anything and it made her heart beat faster. “He’s going to marry me.” She suddenly thought of Samantha Seymour and felt a pain of sadness for her and for what she had lost in a very personal way she never had before.
            “You’re lucky,” she told her and leaned back into the seat.
            Laura did feel lucky which was an odd feeling considering her present condition and stared at the opaque window thoughtfully until it suddenly stopped being opaque. It had been about thirty minutes into the flight, easily enough time for a Stardust to have made it anywhere in the world although after all the infighting with other groups it was probably still in the former United States, and she watched as slender brown trees like poles from a green ground rose up to meet them. Suddenly they were gone and the window was dark but not opaque. She saw dirt for a second or two then metal for a few seconds more and then darkness prevented her from seeing anything else.
            The stardust stopped, the straps undid themselves, and Laura was taken down the ramp and out of the ship into some kind of pitch black subterranean facility. Whatever opening allowed the plane to enter was closed by then and the only light there was came from the stardust’s interior windows and the entryway above her ramp with at least a half dozen more ships right around where she exited. She could not see much farther into the room but she sensed, or maybe just believed, that it was vast and that there were many more vehicles within.
            Her elite guard had put on her helmet back on and with her visor’s ability to see in the dark she easily led Laura through the darkness.
            “He’s going to marry me,” she said softly and giggled in a cute, childish way that had not escaped her mouth since her father had died. “Fucking awesome.”
            Ahead of her she saw a doorframe of yellow light and the silhouette of two figures disappearing into it straight ahead of her. It shut the instant they were past and the yellow lights turned off.

*          *          *            After the yellow door Justin walked down a tunnel lit with dull red lights that did not quite reach the top of his head ending at another yellow door. He heard the door behind him open almost at the exact moment the second door opened and tried to look back before it closed but missed seeing whatever was there. Turning forward again he saw he was in a badly lit waiting room with dull white lights like those in a theatre that touched the couch, chairs, and him but only for a split second or two, only enough to note that they were there. He could make out an off monitor the right and another yellow door straight ahead which turned on and opened into complete darkness when he neared it.
            The door shut behind him and darkness was there for a second before a wall sized monitor suddenly blazed into blinding bright life twenty feet ahead of him.
            It was the familiar unattractive blond man by the name of Daryl Green who appeared on the screen. General Green, Commander of Reclamation Facility 59, in his full military uniform complete with medals, sashes, and that symbol of fire the Faction were so fond of on his hat and shoulders.
            “Justin James Biryukov,” said he, “Graduate of the Citadel with honors, United States Marine Private, trained computer and bionic engineer turned scavenger, age eighteen, Caucasian, primarily of Russian ancestry, born non-practicing Jew in the old regime.” Justin had never once spoken a word to nor had he been spoken from Green making that the first piece of a conversation the two of them ever had.
            He was suddenly surprised to find the man had not mispronounced his name and had a vicious slice across his ear that had not been there before. He also looked a little off somehow, like a man recently healed but was still sore after some beating, and that made him wonder about the woman in blue Laura had met briefly and what her connections might have done in retaliation for her treatment.
            It was at that moment he noticed shadowy figures in the darkness all around him illuminated only by the monitor. He saw Jackson and Croon clearly enough without their helmets, a woman also without her bio armor’s helmet with rank colors impossible to tell in the light who looked vaguely familiar. She was short, petite, blond, attractive, and standing perfectly still and that was part of what he found familiar. It was on the tip of his tongue, the edge of his mind, but it did not come to him.
            The elite moved to a corner and stood there out of the way of the monitor.
            “It is the judgment of Law that you, despite your great flaws, insubordination and intransigence, are valuable to the human race and so you will be cryogenically frozen to be awakened when you can be properly rehabilitated to where your skills will be of help in the preservation of the human race. The when and why will be decided by the UCLD and Law itself.”
            “Frozen,” whispered Justin. It wasn’t actually frozen but frozen was the common way people referred to it. It was more like being sealed and according to what Justin had read it was a proven flawless success and many scientists stated that a human being could be frozen with probable infinity after the findings of the twenty year sleep test.
            “Do you have any final requests?” asked Green
            “Yes,” said Justin. “I would like to be married to my girlfriend, Laura Adl—”
            The blades on Jackson’s right arm came out and jerked at him like an animal. He would have killed him right then and there had not for the blond woman stepped between them. He stopped as dead as if she was physically a wall of pointed spikes despite the fact she barely made five feet in height.
            “And just what do you think you are doing?” she asked in a soft, calm voice.
            “Roberts—”
            “Law does not tolerate weakness in its ranks, Jackson. You have been denied promotion for your weaknesses and may lose the position you have for your crimes.” The woman straightened her back. “Am I to now understand that your weaknesses have now turned to treason?”
            “No, God, no!” Jackson was not just scared, he was terrified, and he had even mentioned God in his fear.
            Justin knew who she was then: Marie Roberts. He had never studied her face but every American knew of her. They called her Marie Báthory, Faction Butcher, Lady Mengele and other unpleasant names one might give a famous professional torturer. Why on Earth would she be there?
            “That’s really good,” said Marie Roberts and she gestured to the wall. “You may return to your position now, Jackson.” She slipped back like a shadow and Jackson slunk back.
            “Your request is emphatically denied and this trial is over,” Green told him.
            The monitor vanished and a door of blinding white light opened in the wall ahead of him, and he was being led through by the male elite soldier again. Justin covered his eyes weakly with his handcuffed arms as he was walking in. “This shit again,” he said as he was being taken inside.
            Justin watched the Elite turn his head and look worriedly by his body language at the door as it closed from their side.
            He doesn’t know why she’s here either, Justin thought.

*          *          *

            Laura wasn’t allowed to sit in the waiting room so she just waited standing for the door to open and then stepped into the room with the wall sized monitor that had Green’s face on it.
            She saw Jackson, Croon and a blond woman she only barely saw before Green said, “Laura Adler, UCLD cadet 1st class, enlisted age ten, graduated with honors, dishonorably discharged for insubordination, age eighteen, Caucasian, of mostly German ancestry, born non-practicing Catholic in the old regime.” He sighed. “You had a very bright career ahead of you and yet you threw it all away.”
            Considering how things were turning out Laura rather doubted that.
            “The UCLD has put a great deal of money into you, Laura Adler. Your body and mind are tuned instruments of war, your talent as a pilot is almost unmatched, you are a fantastic markswoman, a trained survivalist and despite your insubordination it is our belief you are still a competent investment we don’t wish to simply discard.
            “It is the judgment of Law that, despite your errors and failures, you are valuable to the human race and so you will be cryogenically frozen to be awakened when you can be properly rehabilitated to where your skills will help in the preservation of the human race. The when and why will be decided by the UCLD and Law itself.
            “Do you have any last requests?”
            “I wish to marry my boyfriend, Justin Biryukov.” Jackson scoffed in the darkness.
            Green sighed. “Biryukov had the same request and I have the same answer. Your request is very, unbelievably, incredibly, emphatically denied and this trial is over!” The monitor turned off and a white light shot down upon her in the center of the ceiling with such narrow focus down upon herself that she could not see anything beyond.
            Before that she saw Jackson frowning at her in that ugly concentrated way and she suspected the dreamy, happy look on her face made him very angry. “He loves me,” she whispered and then she grinned. “He really does.”
            She turned, saw the blond woman standing just close enough to be seen, and her smile was knocked off her face like it was punched off.
            What is she doing here? she thought but almost cried out.

*          *          *

            Justin was in a large white warehouse lit by a ceiling of solid white light set between rail lines designed to move huge silvery cybernetic hands that were presently all folded up neatly in a corner. The door led out onto the right side of the room containing a grated metal walkway of about fifty feet with a metal wall on the right and a metal grated platform set ten feet up into the air straight ahead at the end with a staircase set against the right wall just beyond another sanitizing pod absolutely identical to the ones in the facility. To the far left were very neat piles of shiny metal pods all sticking together like building blocks save for a few empty ones lying side by side near the platform. One pod sat within a groove of the platform with its door wide open. Everything beneath the walkway and between the stacks of pods was spike-like electric machinery that was almost certainly powering the whole building.
            A doctor and nurse stood before him on the platform dressed exactly the same as the two that he had seen at the facility. “Undress and step into a sanitation pod,” ordered the doctor and the elite took off the handcuffs and, after three long months, the collar as well.
            Justin let out a breath of air felt his free neck.
            He laughed, undressed, and stepped into the chamber and as he did so he felt the bio blocker with his fingers for the first time. It was soft, jelly-like, and moved slightly at his touch. It felt very much like he could rip it off but he knew that was an impossibility that would end with him failing and shrieking in agony.
            When the liquid came down he felt the nanoprobes work more thoroughly and longer than they had at the facility. While he stood there covered in red like he was wearing some kind of suit he looked through the grated floor to see the nurse put all of his clothes, shoes included, down under the stairs into a cleaner that looked like a stainless steel old twentieth century dryer. He could see it was on its maximum function and after ten minutes, five minutes before he was out of the chamber, they came out in almost brand new level of clean, fully repaired and neatly pressed.
            The instant he stepped out the nurse took his arm, injected him with something that hurt, and then handed him his clothes. “Get dressed and approach the doctor on the platform slowly,” she told him.
            Justin nodded, got dressed in what felt like brand new clothes, and then walked up the steps to the platform. The pod’s open door was a few steps higher and its interior seemed to call to him. I’m going to be in there for a long time, he thought as he stepped up to the platform.
            “My name is Dr. Frock,” the doctor told him. He was an older man with very deep blue eyes and gray at the sides of silky dark hair that he combed straight backward. His lab coat was a striking white and he walked with an air of comfort and control that the wild haired doctor at Reclamation Facility 59 did not have.
            He did look at him like he was looking for amusement, though.
            “Hello Dr. Frock,” Justin replied and he moved a few steps closer. “You haven’t seen a gorgeous eighteen year old blond woman arriving before me.”
            He frowned at him and said, “It’s not my job to make you feel better,” and then gestured for him to walk by.
            “I could have sworn it was,” Justin said as he walked by and heard the sound of the nurse scanning over him. Looking down at the pod Justin felt a sudden and intense influx of excitement and nervousness mixed.
            “Everything’s fine, doctor,” said the nurse. “Nanoprobes are doing their job and he’s as healthy as a mule.”
            Considering that the landmark twenty yearlong test of cryogenic freezing used an orphan child with terminal leukemia Justin felt that his health might not be quite such an issue.
            “In,” said the doctor.
            Justin ran his hands through his hair, looked down at the white interior of the pod, and took a deep breath. The pod was a slightly aerodynamic rectangular thing made mostly of silver-like metal with a window sized glass steel window on the front and eight large white tubes connected to the sides from below the grated platform. Despite the human shaped groove at the bottom looking a lot like a space in a case for an action figure Justin felt it looked suspiciously much more like a coffin.       
            “Any comforting words, doctor?” he asked nervously.
            “Just don’t make a face.”
            “God I hate doctors,” Justin replied and then took a deep breath, let it out, and then slipped down inside like it was a bed. The instant he was flat on his back the door shut with a loud clank and what followed by a serious of clacks as he was being sealed in. “Oh fuck me!” cried Justin and his heart began beating very fast. When he swallowed he felt a heavy lump roll down his throat.
            As he felt the warm clear liquid begin to pour into his pod the panic began to creep into him. If that liquid didn’t do its job or it was actually water, like it was some kind of Faction taunt, trick or test, he was going to drown and die. The liquid was up past the tips of his fingers in an instant and he knew that whatever the nurse had given him had done nothing to calm his nerves.
            “Shit, shit, shit!” He began to shake as the liquid touched his cheeks and he saw the doctor and nurse above him. “Hey fuck you, Dr. Frock!” he cried out just before the liquid went over his face. It tasted like some kind of intense soap and he gagged for several seconds until he somehow got used to it and breathed.
            Whatever it was, it wasn’t water. Justin remembered the movie the Abyss and remembered there was something about the idea of returning to that point where they breathed liquid just like in the womb. God that was a good movie! Kind of boring but damn good writing! James Cameron always raises the bar! Justin tried to laugh at the ancient joke but it didn’t work and he knew he was going to start screaming if he didn’t get himself under control.
            Justin watched the liquid reach the top of the pod.
            I love you, Laura, Justin thought and then he smiled. Alright, enough whining romantic shit. I don’t know how this is going to turn out now but one day I will find you. Last romantic sentiment, I promise. He didn’t know where she was but he knew they would freeze her too. They probably already had or would soon because that was what the black tags were. He knew it in his heart and somehow that turned his panic to excitement. He quickly pictured Laura’s face and his mind screamed, This is going to be one hell of an adventure, baby!

*          *          *

            Laura entered just in time to see a pod being placed neatly with the others by one giant cybernetic hand while another giant cybernetic hand placed a new pod into grove on the platform where eight tubes white connected to it. The door soon opened wide following a loud beep to indicate a successful connection.
            “My name is Dr. Frock,” the doctor told her. “Undress and step into the pod.” The female elite soldier removed her handcuffs and collar and Laura undressed and then stepped inside. The female elite soldier walked over to a male elite already in the room and somehow, Laura did not know exactly how, she became convinced those two were brother and sister. It was something in their casual body language.
            If that’s the same male elite from the facility that means Justin was just here, she thought and she looked over at the pod that was just placed down into its place on the wall. She smiled as the sanitation chamber spewed out nanoprobes over her in a great thorough cleaning.
            When she came out she took the injection, put back on her cleaned clothes, shoes and all, and then walked up to the doctor who was evidently just another leering old man. When the nurse scanned her and said, “She’s fine,” the doctor nodded his head and added, “That’s goddamn right.”
            Laura and the nurse both rolled their eyes. “Are we going to do this?” asked Laura. She felt a peculiar need to get on with it with the almost instant fear that would she would grow old while Justin remained young.
            Frock smiled in a semi-cheerful way and gestured to the pod. “Your chariot awaits, my dear.” Laura looked at it, ran her hands through her long, platinum hair to straighten it a bit, and then carefully tied it behind her head in a way to keep it from getting tousled up by the liquid. “Don’t you worry about your hair, my dear,” said Dr. Frock. “Your tits will more than make up for any mistakes your hair makes.”
            “How many years of college did you have to take to come up with that zinger?”
            “Just get in the fucking pod.”
            Laura felt the bio blocker on the back of her neck gingerly for a moment and then slipped into the pod slowly enough to make sure her hair was firmly set behind her. “What is it about our breasts that make even educated men such unbelievable jackasses?” asked the nurse just before the door slammed home.
            After a series of clacks warm liquid touched her fingers and heels and she almost shrieked. She thought of being turned into wax entered into her mind and she started to shake uncontrollable for a moment. “Shit!” she hissed. “I can’t believe I’m going to end up frozen the instant after I fall in love with someone.” So much of her life was lonely and she had expected to be lonely. Her mother told her no man could love a strong woman and it seemed right enough for most of her life. Being ex-Faction wasn’t a particularly great help if the man you wanted wasn’t ex-Faction as they viewed such women, with some justification, as ball breaking crazy. “Alright, enough girly romantic sentimentality,” she stated and said, “He’s going to marry me, yes, but he needs a job and I’m going to need one too with maternity leave, because I’m not working seven months preg—”
            She almost screamed out the word “fuck” when the liquid went over and into her mouth and knew she was going to panic, knew she was going to slam her fists against the walls of the pod and try to scream but instead drown, but before that happened she found she could breathe somehow. She didn’t know how but she was although the panic was still very much a possibility.
            I will find you! she told him. I will find you and I will marry you and we are getting that happy fucking ending every girl dreams about goddamn it! She laughed internally, part hysteria, part genuine, and prepared herself.
            She smiled contently at that last thought, pushing panic down for an instant, and that became the face she would hold for a thousand years.

11

            The two pods were fully self-sustaining and required nothing, not even a rudimentary checkups, for them to sustain their occupants. The two lovers inside did not breathe, eat, drink or even dream. In all ways possible they were perfectly and utterly safe and by the end of that very first day Justin and Laura were packed into black and red crates made of machine grown wood known as orgo-wood and sent to different parts of the former United States. They would reach their destinations and be in their place just in time for the first bombs to fall.
            Whatever plan the UCLD had for anyone they sealed away had not, for some reason or another, ever come to fruition. Many, many years passed and though countless people would look and gawk at the figures in the pods no one could ever open them. Societies were built, broke apart and then rebuilt while seasons shifted over and over again all in never ending circles of life and time. Many things had their beginnings and many things had their end.
            But Justin Biryukov and Laura Adler never changed: two teenagers who slept silently through the ages with their faces looking blissful and beautiful, both caught in moments of love-dreaming that showed clear for anyone to see. To those who did see them they would think of them in a variety of ways that weren’t true: preserved dead, statues, spirits in glass or whatever else that came to mind to the senses of reasonability of those who lived and died in the span of years that followed their freezing. There was no hint of an explanation on the pods themselves, not even to someone who had access to the technology of that age which no one did, and so long a time had passed no one could remember why anyone ever had been frozen and in many cases people could not even fathom the technology to do so.
            Then one day the pods opened.

 

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Prelude | Episode 1 | Episode 2