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Yes it’s been awhile. I’m finally blogging again. For the past year, I’ve been working on publishing a science fiction anthology (Crossroads) with my writers group that should be out later this year. I’ve also been hard at work, putting the finishing touches on the first full length novel in my Future Jinn series ROGUE DESIRE. That book should be out later this year as well. In the meantime I’ll have more short stories and sci/tech articles to share each month.

FICTION: Life Made Easier

“You need to open that package immediately!”

“Yes, Mr. Cunningham,” Kamryn said as she rushed into the lobby of her building. She snagged a heel on the edge of the carpet, managed to pull it free and performed a brief tottering dance to keep her stride without a fall.

“The people at XMeed were very specific about you personally opening the package upon its arrival.”

“I know Mr. Cunningham.” Without taking her eyes off the elevators Kamryn waved to the building’s security officers and concierges.

“I need the designs on my desk by the end of the day tomorrow.”

“Yes, sir,” she said but his phone already clicked off in her ear.

Kamryn reached the elevators and pushed the “up” button, letting her finger linger for the security scanner to examine her fingerprint. She lived in one of the most secure apartment complexes in the city, as evinced by the human officers, the cameras and the fingerprint scanners.

The light emanating from the “up” button turned from white to green and the doors to the car on her left opened. She stepped inside with a sigh, relieved that her trip was finally over. The trip had been uneventful–the usual convention trip with people peddling software and other services that her company might use–but the return home became a nightmare. Bad weather delayed her flight. The delay lasted more than half a day and severely set back completion of her work and personal duties. Her monthly speed dating session would get canceled and put off yet another month.

Kamryn barely possessed leisure time without delays, so when Cunningham announced the company intended to work in conjugation with XMeed to provide employees with prototypes that could help everyone utilize their time more efficiently she jumped at the idea.

The doors opened–no need to choose a floor when all your information, including your default floor, is picked up through the fingerprint scanner–and Kamryn stepped out onto the hall.

She had no idea what the package contained though she believed it a robot of some kind. Her company, TechnoTrack, frequently worked with companies that dealt in AI and robotic technology to compliment their electronic appliance lines. So far details of her new personal assistant remained absolutely hush-hush. Whatever the new product the company unloaded on its employees, it promised to ease the hectic woes of everyday life.

Anticipation filled Kamryn as she considered uses for her newfound assistant.

“Let’s see,” she muttered, “I could have it tidy up a bit. Check for groceries I might need and do the shopping.” Kamryn smiled at the image of shoppers gawking at some strange device as it went from aisle to aisle in the nearby mart.

“It can do the laundry,” she said while she opened the door to her apartment and strode inside.

“Lights.” On her command the overheads displaced the darkness. A light in one corner never came on. Perhaps, the robot can change a light bulb, she thought. Kamryn thought about the things she could accomplish after her new XMeed toy gave her more free time. Work projects would get finished on time. The frequency of visits to the senior residence where her parents lived would improve. On her last visit she noticed her father looked thinner than usual and she needed to talk to his caregivers about his diet.

Kamryn spied the silvery metallic container in the middle of the living room floor, just where she instructed the building to place it. Dropping her carry-on Kamryn walked to the front of the box intent on removing whatever lay inside. “It will know what to do once it’s out,” the representative from XMeed had told her.

The rectangular container came to her knees. Kamryn bent down and to her surprise the lock looked twisted and broken. The door also sported several dents that pushed outward. She raised the door and peeked inside. Empty.

While Kamryn pondered the possibility that the deliveryman forced the container open because she had not yet arrived, the sound of rapid fire typing drifted out of her bedroom and then ceased. Kamryn straightened up. Was the deliveryperson still here? Perhaps someone from XMeed returned to set up her robot assistant since she was not home. The building never allowed visitors onsite without the occupants permission, so that seemed unlikely. Retrieving her phone from her jacket pocket, she started to press the numbers for security when someone came down the hall from her bedroom.

A gasp escaped from Kamryn’s throat. Across the room stood a woman that looked exactly like her, the only differentiating feature was that her was cut short above her shoulders. She wore a black cat suit with a white ‘XM’ logo over her heart. Suddenly, the realization of who her new houseguest must be dawned on her.

Kamryn shook her head. “I can’t believe they made the robot look like me.”

“I am not a robot. I am a personality imprinted genetically enhanced clone,” said the Kamryn clone as it made a calm approach.

“What were you doing back there?”

“Completing your latest project. It’s due tomorrow.”

“What!”

Her initial shock at meeting her doppelganger forgotten, Kamryn rushed forward to check on her files. With her designs ruined she would need to start work on the backups she made a few days ago. The prospect of working all night and into the next morning did not sit well.

She needed to talk to Cunningham. The clone had to be reprogrammed, or whatever need to be done so the clone followed an appropriate set of instructions. It could not be allowed to screw with her work. Plus, it should look like someone else.  Maybe a change in hair color would remedy that.

Kamryn brushed past the Kamryn-clone, but a hand shot out to grab her arm stopping her progression. A second hand clamped around her neck like a vise. Breathing difficult, Kamryn wondered if the thing had already malfunctioned.

“You don’t understand. The owners of TechnoTrack thank you for your DNA.  As I only require two hours sleep and the most basic sustenance, I will have more time to complete your duties.”

Kamryn tried to pry the firm grip from her neck, but to no avail. She mentally pleaded with the thing to let her go. The idea of what the clone said made her panic.  It meant to replace her. What would happen to her parents? What would happen at work?

“Don’t worry,” the clone said as it seemed to read her mind, “when your contract terminates my memories and your life will be given back to you. I will take care of all your personal and business needs until then.”

Kamryn’s silent pleas went unanswered as she stared into the expressionless face of her manmade twin. The hand around her arm let go, but then something sharp pricked her skin as a needle shot from the knuckle of the clone. Black spots formed in front of her eyes, though from the injection or the loss of air she did not know. The Kamryn clone released her and she slumped to the floor slipping into the coma where she would remain until the end of her service.

Before she lost consciousness, Kamryn wondered if she would remember this moment when she finally woke up.

 

END.

Pumpkin Science

Pumpkin is one of the favorite foods for the fall and holiday seasons. It can be found in anything from pies to beer. But what exactly is in this particular squash?

Carotenoids, like the anti-oxidant beta-carotene, give pumpkins their orange hue. Lutein and zeaxanthin, carotenoids good for eye health are also found in pumpkin. Vitamins A and C, important for overall health, are found in pumpkins. One cup of cooked pumpkin can have more potassium than a banana. A variety of alcohols and aldehydes contribute to a pumpkin’s smell, the main culprit being leaf alcohol (cis-3-Hexen-1-ol).

So go ahead and order that pumpkin spice latte and enjoy.

Sources:

Periodic Graphics: The Chemistry of Pumpkins by Andy Brunning http://cen.acs.org/articles/93/i40/Periodic-Graphics-Chemistry-Pumpkins.html

8 Impressive Health Benefits of Pumpkin by Sarah Klein http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/09/04/pumpkin-health-benefits_n_1936919.html

FICTION: A Moonlight Tale

There was a light breeze tonight. Gentle wisps blew in from the sea to the east cooling the usually steamy, tropical Caribbean air. It was a perfect moonlit night.

I sat here, under a huge white tent pitched on the lawn in front of a two-story home, to celebrate my friend’s graduation.  My friend, Troy, lived here on the island with his parents and until last week and attended the university while he studied for his PhD.

Seated on a crate near the road and away from the crowd I barely listened to the toasts my friend received. My own party happened a year ago, so I knew the routine. I just wanted to relax and enjoy the atmosphere.

I was about to take a swig of beer from the bottle in my hand when something furry brushed against my leg. Cool lager splashed my lips and nose when I rose with a start. I looked down to see the source of my unwelcome surprise – a simple black cat.

Setting my bottle on the ground I gave the kitty a little scratch behind its ears before I sat back down. It purred, then scurried off towards the party, in search of scraps of food no doubt. As I watched it depart I thought it foolish that such a graceful creature would be labeled bad luck.

I finished my drink and tossed the empty bottle in a nearby bin. Gazing around absentmindedly I noticed a woman emerge from around the corner of an adjacent house.  She wore a long flowing white dress tied in the center with a bright red sash. As she sauntered across the pebble-strewn lawn the garment swept the grass until she reached the flatter paved surface of the road.

She stopped. Her long raven hair shimmied in the moonlight under a wide brimmed straw hat when she turned her head. There she stood, skin the hue of coffee with a little too much cream, and looked directly at me, an impish smile upon her amazing face.

I returned the gesture and began to look away when she raised her right hand. An index finger curled in and out inviting me to follow. I looked around. Was this she really extending me an invitation?

There was no one else nearby so I stood hesitantly while I mulled things over. What could it hurt, to walk under the starry sky with a beautiful woman?  My girlfriend, unable to obtain time off, waited for me back in New York. We were perfectly happy; talk of marriage had been brought up once or twice, so I had no other intention besides a quick stroll and pleasant conversation.

I strode forward and she turned, walking slowly until I caught up with her.

“Hi, my name is Wayne.”

“Yvette.”

“How are you this evening?”  I asked.

“Fine,” she replied her silky voice a barely audible whisper.

“I didn’t see you at the party. Do you live nearby?”

“Mmm hmm,” she replied.

As we walked I recalled the short street would end at a knee-high fence. I wondered how far she wanted to venture. Perhaps she wanted to watch the ocean’s waves as they crashed into the beach.

I gazed at her profile as we strolled and was transported back to my college days.  As undergraduates, Troy and I would have many conversations – some pertaining to women.  Sometimes he would spin stories about the island of his birth.  On one particular evening he told me the tale of La Jablesse, a beautiful demon woman who meets lone travelers and leads them to their demise. At the time I had laughed at Troy’s description of La Jablesse’s attributes: body of a woman, one cow foot and the misshapen skull of a demon.

“They really knew how to weave tales in the old days,” I had said at the time.

But now watching Yvette a thought struck me. Was she walking with a little limp?

I stopped and turned. The party was in full swing, but in the distance now and no one else in sight. I looked at Yvette – no way to tell what her feet looked like beneath her long white dress – who stood a few feet in front of me smiling pleasantly. Though I was about to say I needed to head back, Yvette spoke first and said, “It’s just there,” giving a slight nod in one direction.

She waited; her dark brown eyes gleamed in the moonlight. I became drawn into those dark pools as a feeling of warmth swept over me. It was not a physical feeling.  No beads of sweat formed on my brow. But I felt at home, at peace. There was nothing that could wrong. All at once it seemed ludicrous to think of old-time folklore on a gorgeous night like this. There was no logic in it after all.

The longer I gazed the more I became mesmerized by the sight of Yvette. All doubts fled my mind and I wanted to return to the pleasantries of our walk.

I had yet to move, however. Seconds later the woman gestured again and the spell restricting my mobility seemed to break. I marched forward eager to join her, but she kept a steady stride as she led the way. My sole focus was on the woman before me and I thought of nothing else as we progressed.  How could I become enthralled with someone in such a short period of time?

I had no time to contemplate an answer since Yvette ceased her walk then faced me.

“Here we are,” she said as her arms opened in a welcoming motion.

Still I walked forward to join her and decided to take a moment to glance for the spot where we might sit and relax.  In an instance I regretted my actions. Yvette hung, literally hung, in midair. The breeze flowing in from the ocean sent the bottom of her dress up in waves, her cow foot a visible testament that some myths were true.

My realization came too late as my left foot stepped on nothing while my right lost its balance on the edge of the cliff. There must have been a break in the fence, I thought, as I tumbled forward.  The thing -I could no longer think of her as a woman- I followed floated while I fell to the rocks below.

There I laid, the knowledge of what transpired weighing on my mind, aware that by the time they found my body my life would be over and that there was truth in old tales after all.

End.

Copyright © 2015 by Jennifer Graham

ARTICLE: What is in Chocolate?

Some Important Chemistry Behind Chocolate

In chocolate, some chemicals alter moods, while others promise healthy benefits to the body.

Chocolate dates back to ancient times to the time of the Aztecs. It is a comfort-food that just about everyone loves. In addition to its soothing effect, it is packed with natural chemicals that affect the body’s physiology. Some suggest that the compounds in chocolate alter moods and brain function in positive ways. Many also believe in the health benefits of chocolate. Because of its high cocoa content, dark chocolate holds more of the beneficial compounds than any other type of chocolate. In terms, of healthy chocolate chemistry the darker the better.

Caffeine

One compound found in chocolate is 1,3,7-trimethylxanthine, otherwise known as caffeine. Caffeine acts as a stimulant revving up the central nervous system.  This stimulation increases heart rate and causes the muscles to contract. According to an article on HowStuffWorks.com by Josh Clark, “Caffeine affects dopamine and adenosine receptors in the brain…” causing the brain to release chemicals that produce a pleasure response. According to an article in MensHealth.com called “The Health Benefits of Caffeine The Caffeine Advantage” caffeine has benefits for your brain, heart, liver and muscles.

The down side to caffeine is that it can increase anxiety, stress and appetite. It also has addictive properties and affects the brain, much like amphetamine.

 

Cannabinoids

Chocolate contains a chemical that closely resembles compounds in marijuana called cannabinoids. The main function of cannabinoids is that they affect behavior. When cannabinoids connect with receptors in the brain it makes the person euphoric and relaxed.

The drawback to cannabinoids is that they can diminish memory and concentration.

 

Phenylethylamine

Phenylethylamine is another chemical found in chocolate. This compound is classified as a hallucinogen and has properties similar to amphetamines. Dr. Michael Liebowitz, a psychologist at the  New York State Psychiatric Institute hypothesized that phenylathylamine increases romantic feelings. Some believe chocolate is an aphrodisiac-though the FDA does not support that aphrodisiacs work-and this idea might have something to do with chocolates on Valentine’s Day.

Flavonoids

Another kind of chemical found in chocolate is called a flavonoid. Epicatechin is a plant flavonoid. Flavonoids are believed to contribute to a healthy heart. They decrease cholesterol buildup in blood vessels and reduce the risk of blood clots. Immune responses that contribute to clogged arteries are also lowered with flavonoids.

So does chocolate sound like a fabulous cure all or a natural pick-me-up? Chocolate still has lots of calories.  For the best health results, it should be eaten in moderation with a well-balanced diet.

 (Originally appeared on Suite101.com 2009) 

Image: “Chocoladetruffels Lindt” by Nieuw from nl. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chocoladetruffels_Lindt.JPG#/media/File:Chocoladetruffels_Lindt.JPG

FICTION: Wire City

 “Why do we have to leave Grandpapa?”

“Because we’re Outsiders and the world has changed again,” he said the sadness evident in his dark brown eyes.

Grandpapa squeezed her hand a little tighter for reassurance before rising from his crouch. His attention now focused on the gate that awaited their passage. She could not see the gate from her viewpoint. Legs and arms from the mass of people towering over her were all that was visible. The crowd moved in closer. No one spoke or made a sound while they waited for their eminent departure.

If they moved any nearer my small body will be crushed, she thought.

A loud clank sounded followed by the din of metal rubbing against metal. She gritted her teeth and tried to block out the noise. She snuggled next to Grandpapa’s leg and hoped the day would end soon.

Excited, angry voices shattered the somber scene. Nudging started and someone stepped on her heel making her use her free hand to grab Grandpapa’s pants for support. Then laser and gun fire erupted everywhere. A body fell on her right, a charred black circle on its back still smoking from the laser. She screamed.

In an instant everyone ran. Grandpapa pulled and they fled as well, trying not to collide with the people scattering in various directions. To Kristen’s left the twenty foot fence that surrounded the city loomed, its vertical and horizontal bars intertwined with barbed wire. Her heart racing, she glanced in the opposite direction at the granite and glass towers in the distance, where people lived and worked. They stood equally foreboding. Distracted, she stepped on a broken cane that rolled under her feet and she lost her balance. Then everything went black.

###

Kristen woke from the dream as she had on many other nights: sweaty, out of breath and disoriented. After a few deep breaths she waited for her heartbeat to slow. The incident happened when she was only four, but every detail remained in her mind. She could still remember the smell of cauterized flesh from the bodies scattered around the square that day.

“It was twenty years ago. Let it go,” she said. With a forceful swing of her legs, she shoved off the bed and headed for the bath.

“Water,” she said once inside. In the next room the vidcom chimed the city-state anthem.

Warmth sprayed against her back. Not caring if she missed the call, she luxuriated in the feel of water. There was no way she would exit the bath now and be deprived of her three point five minutes of watery heaven.

“In the old days you needed to rub something called “soap” on your body to clean up so you spent more time in the bath,” her Grandpapa had said about a month ago.  “Nowadays they’ve got anti-bacs and anti-septs all set up in the water and provided by our Salvus City authorities.”

He was more reminiscent in his last days, with all his words regarding the city-state spoken with contempt. He did not care if anger triggered physical responses, alerting Salvus leaders of his agitated state – he was dying anyway. His life before the tragedy in the square remained a mystery until the doctors conceded there was nothing they could do. He talked nonstop after that, revealing things both personal and political. It was a week since he had gone and she missed him dearly.

The water stopped. Old memories further dampened her mood. Walking to the cabinet over the sink she slide the mirror open. A bottle of meds lay on a shelf.

“Just one pill will set your mood straight,” the city-state funerary agent had said after handing her the medicine when Grandpapa’s service was over. They liked to keep everyone happy in Salvus City, whether through meds or VR distractions. “Happiness is an Obligation” said the sign over the Protectorate Building, whether you were really happy or not.

Kristen had no interest in meds – if her mood changed she would change it on her own. Instead, she pushed the bottle aside to remove a small panel and unsnapped a diminutive device, resembling a tiny barbell, from an equally tiny battery pack.

Kristen fingered the thing that served as her lifeline to Salvus society then unscrewed a bob from one end and inserted it through a hole on her nape just below her hairline.

Once she secured the device and finished with general grooming she exited the bathroom, dressed and headed for the vidcom in the living area.  “1 MESSAGE” flashed in white characters on the bottom of the bright blue screen imbedded on a wall.

“Play message.” An image of Brant Colfield, her genetically matched and soon to be her legal partner, appeared:

“Hi! You’re not still asleep are you? Anyway l thought we’d have breakfast in the Canteena today. Let me know. And don’t forget our anniversary’s coming up. Until later.”

“That’s right. It was around this time of year we met at Dr. Fineman’s party,” Kristen said smiling. She just remembered.

Brant always remembered dates and places like that. She was too busy trying to forget the past. Grandpapa, Dr. Fineman and his wife, Sarah, were gone now. Although he did not know everything about her, Brant was her closest confidante. Leaving Brant a message that she would join him, she headed out for breakfast.

###

In her youth walking through the front door of any establishment filled her with a surge of panic, but not enough to raise alarms. Over the years the lifeline tab in the back of her neck proved to be as reliable as the hardware embedded under the skin of most Salvus City denizens. Kristen strode through the Canteena confident, but aware that somewhere in the Protectorate a monitoring agent noted her location and vital signs.

The Canteena was crowded. Kristen managed to spot Brant and another friend seated in the center of the room.

“Hi, I got your message,” Brant said leaning over to kiss Kristen.

“Hello.” She turned to her other friend.  “Hello Julie. It looks like they’ve been busy in hydroponics.”

“Yeah. They must have about twelve kinds of fruits and vegetables today,” Julie said cheerfully.

Brant handed Kristen a tray and joined the queue so she could select from the assortment of food and food-flavored soy-nutrient bars. Julie chatted away. A week ago she was reticent and moody. CONTROL must have noticed and adjusted her   meds.

“You know I heard they caught an Outsider last night. He masqueraded as one of us. He was some kind of teacher,” Julie said when they found a table.

“Really,” Kristen said concentrating on keeping her breathing even and her emotions calm.

“I heard he was a first year teacher,” a man seated next to us chimed in.

“Can you imagine someone like that influencing small children?”

“Can you imagine?” She could only mimic Julie’s words, like the parrot birds Grandpapa used to tell her about. Studying Brant’s face, Kristen looked for some sign or reaction of how he felt about the incident. His expression remained neutral while he ate his cheese omelet-flavored soy bar.

He does not care, but I suppose it is better than Julie’s programmed hatred, Kristen thought.

“And who knows what he was telling those kids,” Julie said.

“We got some new equipment in the med lab. It does body scans, gives great digital images. Salvage brought it back from the wastelands.”

“Oh, Brant. You and your equipment.” said Julie.

“That sounds interesting,” Kristen said grateful for the change in topic. “Do you know where they found it?”

“In the ruins to the west.”

“If I lived in a higher apartment I’d be able to see them,” said Kristen.

Julie sighed.  “It looks like scorched rocks. There’s nothing to see.  You’d need an anti-rad suit to get within ten feet of the place anyway.”

“It’s still a better view than barbed wire and iron.”

###

Several days later Kristen was in her own lab in the Sanitation Authority.  The night shift started to trickle into the lab. Kristen sat in front a console reviewing all the day’s test results so she could make her recommendations for which particular nanobots should be used to clean up the Lot 44 waste material. There was no need for a keyboard like in Grandpapa’s day. The hardware attached to her nape facilitated manipulation of the computer with concentrated thought. She absentmindedly rubbed the back of neck then took her hand away, before anyone noticed.

She was making little mistakes lately or sometimes her mind would wander.  Many of her thoughts focused on what lay on the walls beyond Salvus and the fact that if Dr. Fineman had not taken her and Grandpapa in she would be living on the “outside.”   It did not seem to matter anymore, her daily routine, regulated and restricted by Salvus authorities. Of course no one looked at it that way. Everyone was well fed and most sicknesses were curable. Anyone upset with the system got a pill to even their mood. The city-state even provided entertainment free of charge – pro city-state entertainment of course. Meanwhile, Outsiders resided in squalor and died in droves from unimaginable diseases. This was their choice everyone said, because of their refusal to be implanted with a lifeline device.

          I’ll be put on meds if I keep thinking about this.

She wrapped everything up and headed out of the door deciding to take a shortcut around the back of the building. The barbed wire wall that surrounded the city-state loomed above her on one side. Few people came this way, though she passed two other pedestrians who probably had the same idea to save time. Who wanted to be reminded of the Outsiders or the bleak landscape that lay beyond their settlement?

From the corner of her eye Kristen saw movement. She turned just in time to see a grate in the pavement next to a warehouse tower close shut. Curious, she walked over and peered down the opening, but could see nothing in the dusky light as the sun retreated.  A minute later she heard running and voices from the other side of the wall.

They have found a way inside, she thought.  She could report this, in fact was required to report intruders by law, but she had a better idea.

########

Later that night with the lifeline safely tucked away in its hidey-hole Kristen made her way to the rear of her tower.  Once outside she stayed as close to the wall as possible and made her way to the Outsiders’ entry point. Mounted cameras existed in this part of Salvus but all were pointed towards the wall in an effort to detect invaders.

Reaching the grate she looked around. The area was deserted.  Straining a bit, she lifted the grate and then jumped inside. Taller than the space, she crouched before lowering the grate back into place then turned on the penlight she carried. As she suspected there was a short tunnel ahead, manmade and well constructed from the look the smooth concrete walls. Her knees bent, she edged towards the other side until the walkway ended and she was under another opening.

She pushed a bit on this new grate, but it would budge.  For a nervous she thought she would have to turn back. Instead, she shoved with all her might and metal began to move. An iron bar slid on a groove to hold the grate upright so she could climb out without pushing the covering aside.  The opening was very near the wired fence. Two steps backwards and she would risk severe cuts on the sharp spiraled edges. She closed the grate. A group of rocks, probably used to conceal the hatchway at one time lay a few feet away.

Next she turned to her surroundings. The Outsider settlement formed a horseshoe around Salvus City. Not even Outsiders wanted a view of the western barren wastelands. A junkyard of cars was close by. The vehicles, most missing tires with much of their inner workings gone, were useless without the fuel to run them.

She stopped near the abandoned cars.  No one was in sight. She had no idea if she wanted to meet anyone or not, but she definitely wanted to have a look around.

There were sounds in the distance. People laughed, people talked. She thought some of voices belong to children. They sounded happy, even playful, to her surprise.  She started to notice the tops of buildings, many of them with roofs crafted from wavy shaped metal.

The junkpile ended and she spied half a dozen children, preteens really, playing a game with sticks under a wooden over hang. She squatted next to the open and only remaining door of a burnt out chassis to observe the playing youngsters.

The tallest boy jumped and danced, obviously the winner of the game. The others eager for a rematch gathered the sticks on the ground. Kristen looked around for an adult and saw two seated on at the corner of the house having a conversation.  Amazed at the unrestricted recreation – in Salvus games for children were always provided and supervised by adults; they were never outdoors after the sun went down – she decided to watch another round before heading back.

“Don’t move.”

A large man with an oversized paunch, pointed a rifle at Kristen’s head. Never this close to a weapon, she froze. A moment later the man grabbed her roughly, pushing her deeper into the settlement. People stopped their activities to gawk at the scene. Dragged she was led into a house where three others sat behind a long table. In a quick motion the burly rifleman pushed Kristen to the floor.

“I saw this one sneak in through the southern tunnel to spy on us.  I made sure she was alone before I apprehended her.”

“I wasn’t spying,” she said the words coming out choppy while she tried to catch her breath.

“Shut up!”

The only other woman in the room raised a hand. She was an older woman with white hair and a regal air about her. “Let’s all be calm.” Her next words came with a quieter voice. “Now my name is Alma. Why have you come here?”

“I … I wasn’t spying. I noticed someone using the tunnel earlier today and it made me curious. I wanted to know what was outside.”

“Alma. They’ll know she’s here and someone will come to look for her. We don’t need Wire City authorities here right now,” the man seated on Alma’s left said. His attention turned to Kristen.  “You know you’re not allowed out here.  They’ll come for you any second.”

“No they won’t.  They don’t know where I am.”   Kristen bent her head and lifted her hair off her neck.  “I took my lifeline out so I couldn’t be monitored. I have a special one that tells them I’m home asleep until I put it back in.”

Alma rose from the table and walked to Kristen for a closer look.

“Alma!” cautioned the antsy rifleman while his grip tightened on his weapon.

Alma waved him silent.  “I’m sure it’s alright. You know it was probably your boys that drew her attention in the first place. You shouldn’t be sending them out on raids.”

Alma touched the socket on Kristen’s neck.  “Looks like Sarah Fineman’s work.”

“You knew the Finemans.”

“A long time ago. You can get up now,” Alma said holding Kristen by the arm while she rose.

“You knew them before that day in the square.”

“You mean before many of us were forced out of the city. Yes, I knew them though I moved out here before the incident in the square.”

“Why…?”

“I see you have questions, but the answers will take longer time than you have.  You need to get back so you are not missed in the morning.”

“Alright, but I do have questions.” She sighed. There were a million questions racing through her mind but she felt too tired to ask at that moment.

“What’s your name dear?”

“Kristen Matthews.”

“Well Kristen perhaps we’ll find you one day and give you answers.” Alma turned to the rifleman. “Make sure she gets back.”

“She knows about the access point,” the rifleman said.

“She has her own secrets to keep and no time to bother with ours.  Make sure she gets back.”

###

A week later Kristen’s visit to the “outside” still filled her mind, though she made more of an effort to concentrate on work. If her efficiency faltered she could be sent for an evaluation or worse a physical. And that was scrutiny she did not need.

It was concert night in Salvus City. Kristen planned to meet Brant at the Canteena before they headed for the show. As she walked to the Canteena she heard a commotion behind one of the buildings she walked past. Someone unseen ran in the opposite direction while voices shouted. A block later the noise died down.

“Kristen.”  Someone whispered her name but no one on the street paid attention to her.

“Kristen.”

The voice came from around the corner of a building up ahead.  She recognized the boy who won the stick game right away.

“Help me,” he said

“What are you doing here? Is there a tunnel nearby?”  The southern tunnel was ten minutes away.

“No. I got separated from my brother. We had a device that let us unlock the door to the warehouse, but it didn’t work tonight. And then the men came.”

There was no time to think. Four guards descended on the boy.

“Wait, you just take them back outside right.”

“Let us handle this ma’am,” one guard said.

Another guard spoke, his face full of hatred and his gun pointed inches from the boy’s face.  “I bet he won’t do anymore break-ins if his missing a knee cap.” He shifted the gun to the boy’s knees.

“No!” Kristen yelled and moved forward without thinking. Her body slammed into the guard and they splayed against the pavement. She felt the rough ground scrape the skin off her left elbow. A spark bounced off the ground as the gun fired. The guard punched Kristen and her head whipped back. She rolled away, then someone threw a smoke can. Nothing was visible, but a white cloud that made Kristen choke and gasp for air.

In her mind she was four again and needed to flee the chaos of the square.   She tried to lift legs, but could not. A wave of dizziness overtook as she tried to push off the ground, then darkness enveloped everything again.

###

Bright fluorescent lights assaulted her eyes. She made a fist and her fingers grabbed crisp white sheets. It was one of the places Grandpapa told her never to end up.

“You get sick, you see Dr. Fineman. You don’t need some city-state doctor discovering your lifeline is removable,” he used to say.

Brant sat nearby head bowed looking defeated and worried at the same time.  The moment she feared had arrived. She would lose the last person cared about.  In a way she felt relieved that the charade was finally over, but her spirits dampened with the knowledge that loneliness was a step away.

“Brant,” she said weakly and he raised his head.

“Kristen, I never knew you were …”

“I’m sorry. I know it must be a shock to find out I’m….” She stopped. Maybe he still did not know.

“…an Outsider.”

Brant walked over to stand next to the bed. “I remember once I was about to caress your neck and you shied away from me. I thought it was something I did.”

“No, never. Look, Brant I’d understand if you didn’t want to be here and be associated with me.”

“There’s something you don’t understand.”

“What?”

“There’s a reason Dr. Fineman introduced us at his party.”

“Yes the Finemans did have their reasons, but they’re gone and now that we know the connection all you secret Outsiders will be rounded up and put through the gate. We can’t have subversives like you around to influence the general population.  Next thing you people would for their lifelines to be removed and there’d be no way to regulate things,” said an agent from the Monitoring Authority. Two guards hovered close behind.

“How long have you known?” Kristen said turning to Brant.

Brant shrugged. “I didn’t. Until tonight I thought I was one of the only ones. ”

“In the morning my guards will escort you both outside. We’ve insured this will never happen again.”

###

Outside. No bots carried supplies for residents. Everything was carried unless one of the two solar carts was available. There was no food service or Canteena.  Kristen and Brant learned to prepare their own food in the small house – it was about the size of her old living room – they were given.

Brant reprised his job as a med tech, though his tools were rudimentary compared to those in the Salvus City hospital. Medicine and medical help were sorely needed in Sanitas – the local name for the Outside. Kristen, however, traded in sanitation to join a daywatch security team.

But Kristen felt free for the first time in her life. There was nothing to hide from anyone. She could go where she pleased. She was free to disagree and no one would spite her for it.

“Why do want to keep constant watch on Salvus?”  Kristen asked Alma one particular evening.

“We think a war may happen soon.”

“Why?”

“The Protectorate is making changes again. They are modifying the lifeline hardware in each citizen so they can detect the emotional state without physical reactions.  A person gets too sad or gets anger during, say a pro city-state speech well they’ll be taken away and adjusted for the sake of harmony, of course.  If that doesn’t rile people up I don’t know what will. So whatever happens we want to be ready and we will.”

End.

2015 ©