Across the Margin is thrilled to introduce you to the world of Seneca…
It is no secret to our faithful following that Across the Margin has expanded into print as ATM Publishing. To say that we are excited hardly describes our level of enthusiasm, and that excitement is largely due to the fervor surrounding our first release, Rayya Deeb’s Seneca Rebel, the first book in The Seneca Society series. Seneca Rebel is a realistic, young adult sci-fi novel that explores emerging technologies and futurist theory with an enthralling story. SENECA is also an original IP story world, featuring an immersive transmedia experience created in collaboration with No Mimes Media.
To kick off Doro’s journey comes a bold and generous offering from Rayya Deeb, ATM Publishing & No Mimes Media! Beginning this Wednesday the first one-third of the Seneca Rebel novel will be released for FREE here at Across the Margin! Presenting, the dawn of Seneca Rebel…(And be sure to explore the world of Seneca at Seneca Society.com!)
MY BOTTOM LIP split straight down the middle from a combination of breathtaking G-force and peppery dry air. It stung like crazy. The skin on my cheeks pressed tight against the bone. I crinkled my nose at the motorized odor of BoomJet fumes, and blinked continuously to try and moisten my eyeballs.
I was a BoomJet virgin. I’d only flown on a regular jet once in my sixteen years, but one time was all it took to know this was far different. The low, monk-ish hum of the BoomJet wasn’t like an engine’s forceful whirr. It was hollow. Clean. Precise. Like the sound you hear when you press your ear to a conch shell, only amplified. There were no dings to say “buckle-up,” no overhead fans or lights. Just a slick, amber ceiling. Dark gray automated belts strapped us into black rubber seats. The only familiar thing from the other, old-fashioned flight I’d taken before was how all the passengers were trying to meditate away their concern.
Nothing assured me that I’d made the right choice, but here I was, being hauled off to what was probably some kind of reform school, so I had to go with it. It was my own fault for thinking I could transfer that money unnoticed. My arms, piled high in retro friendship bracelets– red, purple, gray, black and blue– were plastered against my rib cage. My hands grasped the seat, and even though my palms were hot and clammy, they weren’t going to slip. The force was too great. My ears popped. I swallowed, but that only made the throat scratchiness that was a normal part of my daily life in Southern California, worse. Hydration was impossible.
I sat, quiet, staring at a bulletproof mirror that separated us from the BoomJet cockpit, the faces of the other four passengers reflected in it. Just like me, each person moved only his or her eyes.
Mine shifted to look out into the acid-washed sky. The entire siding of the BoomJet was a window, one inch thick and clear as purified ice. Just one inch between me and a thirty thousand foot drop. Every minute, steam was released inside a paper-thin slit that ran through the outermost layer of the window, melting away any freeze before it had the chance to settle. I watched Los Angeles shrink to nothingness below. In an instant, as we rose above the cloak of smog, one of the most populated cities in the country vanished.
I was on my way to a place foreign to me in every way. I shifted my gaze forward again, and found myself staring back at my own reflection. Pale, because I spend less time in the sun than a baby’s butt. Full lips chapped raw by thin air and insufficient time to find a Vitamin E melt. Suddenly an electric-blue digital read-out popped up and hovered in the mirror showing a countdown clock: 48:12. In under an hour I would be on the ground in Washington, D.C.
Just forty-eight hours ago I’d been twiddling my thumbs during a calculus exam I couldn’t have cared less about. I closed my eyes, recalling those final moments of normalcy. My mind had been far away from that stupid math exam, thoughts bouncing all over the map, from Timbuktu to the shores of the Cayman Islands. Wanting to get home and see if my latest gambling bots were bringing down the house. Wishing I had some prickly pear cacao. Wondering if my dad was really dead. I always thought about my dad– every single day.
He used to take long walks when he wanted to think about things. We couldn’t know how long a walk would last– an hour, two, sometimes even three. He never came home from his last one. After a day we got really worried because he had become super depressed about things at work. It had been a roller coaster the week before he vanished. Right before his depression kicked in, he’d been overcome with excitement. I’ve heard that’s a sign of being manic, but I just don’t think that’s what was up with my dad. Either way, my mom and I never felt settled with it. I thought about it all the time. If he was dead, could he see me and was he proud? Or if he was alive, why didn’t he ever come back? It didn’t make sense that he might still be alive, because then he wouldn’t have left us, or at least he’d have told us what was going on. I couldn’t accept that he was dead.
My mom, on the other hand, was angry. One day she missed him and the next she cursed the fact that he’d ever existed. His pictures are still up in our house. They should be. He’s only been gone three years– three excruciatingly long years. They say time flies, but for my mom and me the weight of it lingers, like the chocolaty aroma of roasted Guatemalan coffee that clings to my hair after five minutes at Café Firenze. It doesn’t ever seem to go away.
I didn’t miss a beat between each “C” I’d marked off on the math test because, quite honestly, it’s absurd. The school administrators think I’m some kind of genius sheep. That my only purpose is to elevate the test scores of a public school on the brink of losing funding from the federal government. The rest of the class, deep in calculus hell, didn’t want to hear about me, what a great student I was and how I’d save their advanced math program. All they wanted were tickets to Endless Horizon concerts and to get bent on Mojo Sticks.
Our school was probably the last one in America that still had LCD monitors. We were so far behind the current technology and everything else, too, and the gap grew by the second. In every movie or show I watched, the schools had holographic touch-screens, but not ours. In malls, hospitals and schools across the country, virus and bacteria were eradicated by UV sweeper bee-bots, but not at our school. We just accepted the pungent odor of industrial ammonia. It was there for our own good, according to the administration. My teacher, Mr. Malin, still used a phone. He had been fiddling with it as he always did during exams, but in that moment he’d had his eyes on me.
I had been so done with that exam. Judging by the look on Mr. Malin’s face, he was so done with me, too.
“Yep.” He was a good guy, but there was no way I’d give in to the system.
Mr. Malin stepped up and headed out the classroom door. As I followed, I looked for any sign of approval from my peers across the room. I’d rather they see me as a misfit than some teacher’s pet, but nobody seemed to notice my calculus test strike. The teachers did everything in their power to keep me on a tight leash. They all hated my anti-authority threads: Nirvana Smells Like Teen Spirittank top, cut-off bleached jean shorts and black sneakers marked up with vintage Wite-Out pen art. Three dozen other high school juniors cranked out numbers as best they knew how, but it wasn’t good enough for the administration. They expected me to bring up the test score average of the bunch, and I wasn’t down with that.
It was just the two of us on the other side of the classroom door, in a drab hallway of empty concrete sockets, remnants of lockers from when kids still carried books to class. Nobody knew what would take their place. Not us, not the teachers, not the people who made the plans to get rid of the obsolete lockers. It didn’t matter what the plans were anyhow. There was no money to complete them.
Mr. Malin eyed me with disappointment. The way he tipped his chin down and peered at me over his wire-framed eyeglasses will stick with me forever.
I figured things might go better if I spoke first.
“I know what you’re going to say.” My voice bounced off the cold, empty wall sockets.
“This isn’t you, Campbell.”
“If it isn’t me, then who is it?”
“You tell me.”
I couldn’t look Mr. Malin in the eye because I knew that I wasn’t being the best Doro Campbell I could be. But I was the Doro who could fight the tyrannical school system and deal with the judgment of all the kids at school. I wasn’t a goody-goody. I was Doro Campbell, certifiable badass. At least that was my goal.
“You tell me why the most gifted mathematician I’ve ever had in my classroom wants to present herself like she’s the worst. I just don’t get it.”
I blanked for an answer.
“The grades speak for themselves, Campbell. I wish I could do something more for you, but I just can’t. You should really be in advanced calculus, but at this rate, you’re going to end up repeating regular calculus your senior year and your gift will be flushed straight down the toilet into the bowels of the Los Angeles Unified sewer system. Do you know what it’s like down there?”
“I don’t really give a crap.” I grinned, proud of my pun.
Mr. Malin dropped his head. He’d tried to get through to me so many times before. I heard him, but I’d already made up my mind. As much as I respected Mr. Malin and knew he respected me, it was all about the big picture. I wasn’t giving in to the bureaucracy of this bunk education system.
Mr. Malin clenched his jaw. I felt bad for him. It was his life’s work, seeing to it that his most promising students spread their wings and soared. His face muscles twitched a few times before he finally nodded in resignation and stepped back into class.
I remember thinking that couldn’t be it. That it wasn’t my destiny in life to be a mindless follower. I was more than ready to split from this place.
I was so deep into re-living what had happened two days back, that I missed the BoomJet’s initial descent. There was no time to prepare. With uncanny speed we plummeted towards the earth at forty-five degrees, and then made a hard turn, parallel with the off-white concrete runway. A hollow thump and we landed, doing at least two hundred miles-per-hour. I was nearly suffocated by the restraint of the belts. My breath accelerated. We made a fast and abrupt, but considerably smooth, stop. I could breathe again.
Like I said, I was a BoomJet virgin. It kind of hurt, it went by super quick and before I had a chance to really enjoy it, it was over. We’d taken off from Los Angeles and landed on the outskirts of the nation’s capital in forty-eight minutes flat. Before I left, my mom said that the last time she’d flown to the east coast, it had taken nearly ten times as long. As I tried to imagine her reaction to the crazy-fast trip I’d just taken, I realized how much I missed her already.
A MATTE BLACK SpaceFlex Passenger Flight Vehicle sat on the tarmac. What I wouldn’t do for one of those. Ellen Malone stood up and smiled. “That’s us.”
“Awesome!” I thought, and followed Ellen off of the BoomJet without saying a word. I was dizzy and my legs buckled.
“Are you okay?”
“Amazing.” I stood up straight. I didn’t want her to see me weak, but that had been some intense G-Force. Ellen was fine, like she’d done this a million times. She straightened a crease in her blazer.
For the past three years the world had been crumbling all around me, but now it seemed someone was championing me. Ellen Malone. Although the jury was still out on her motivation, and the idea of reform school made me wince, I felt elevated here.
Next thing you know I was back in the air– this time, in a flighter amongst the affluent folk of metropolitan Washington, D.C. The airways just above the highways and roads had become transport paths for flighters after the federal government had approved the bill a few years back. Of course, it was made completely unaffordable to ninety-nine percent of the population, and since I didn’t have a license and my mom had no idea I was a millionaire, the only time I had experienced flighting was when I’d hot-hacked a flighter with my best friend, Julie.
That had been one seriously ill-fated joyride on a sweltering day back in May. We’d cruised over the 10 Freeway, and I veered off to pull some tricks between a stretch of decrepit, old Mediterranean-style stucco buildings in overpopulated, underprivileged hoods, where no other flighters ever went. We were doing about fifty, level with the roofs. People saw us and were cheering out their windows. Julie was egging me on like crazy. We always instigated each other to push the limits. I dropped us towards the road, just above the first story of the buildings, and then gunned it straight towards one of them. “Waaahoo!” I shouted. No fear. Julie screamed, braced herself in her seat, and just as we almost smashed into the first floor, I pulled back and we jetted straight up the side and into the sky, where we were met by the flighter cops. Busted in a stolen flighter just two weeks before my sixteenth birthday. I did two weeks in juvie, three months of community service and my license was revoked until I turn twenty.
The upside was that while my classmates were inside being lectured on flighter technology, I was outside experiencing it firsthand. I still don’t get what’s so wrong with that. In any case, my mom did. She was pissed beyond belief. It was just another event in a long series of me getting in trouble. It was so worth it. My school counselor and administrators were convinced I was acting up because I had lost my dad. I maintain that it was because everyone around me was so boring, that I needed to be proactive and inventive in order to have any fun.
But this unpredictable excursion with Ellen Malone, this I would classify as fun. From the moment we touched down in Virginia, I had the feeling that life would never be the same. I’d never been east of The Rockies, let alone to the other side of the country. This was a whole new horizon. For starters, the landscape was a stark contrast to what I was used to. Los Angeles’ glory days were long gone. My parents would tell me stories of a top-notch tourist destination that had slipped into an abyss of overpopulation and filth. Broken roads overridden with traffic around the clock. Baywatch waves covered in dudes and babes would be considered folklore if there weren’t countless images to prove their existence. From Malibu to Hermosa, the ocean water was just too polluted to swim in now.
Unlike every single metropolis across the globe, the air was clean here in Virginia, the roads paved to perfection. Smooth and black. And as we cruised above the endless river of traffic that carved its way through the tall sea of deep green trees, I saw something we most definitely did not have in LA. An elevated, four-lane roadway built in translucent concrete. Ellen saw that I was fixated on it. “The Smart Road. It runs above Route 66 into downtown Washington, D.C., as well as down Highway 81 to Blacksburg, Virginia, where the technology was first researched, blueprinted and constructed for many years before stretching thousands of miles across the country,” she explained. “Some of the session leaders you’ll be meeting were recruited out of the institutions that developed this sustainable transportation system. If we get a little closer, you’ll see the law enforcement vehicles, traffic and weather collection devices, medical units and commercial freight trucks traveling on it in automated, unmanned vehicles.”
“I’ve seen footage of it. In LA we’d be lucky to drive one block without hitting a pothole. It makes no sense. I mean, people in LA pay taxes too. Or at least, they did.”
“Taxes have nothing to do with this. It’s privatized. We have Flexer Technology Corporation to thank for this.”
“Hmm.” I pulled my little blue flexer from my ear and twirled it between my fingers, suddenly getting that its role was way more complex than simply providing me with personal computing functions. The Smart Road was fascinating. Optical fibers the size of pins composed the entire roadway, and let us see straight down through it to the road below.
I looked around at the areas beyond the road itself. It was the end of September in Virginia and fall was creeping in. I’d always heard of “seasons” and now I was starting to feel it. Even though I hadn’t experienced the infamous hot and humid east coast summer that had just rolled out, I could taste autumn rolling in. A cool, thick dankness lingered in the air, penetrating straight to my bones. Made me want some warm apple cider. I wasn’t in Los Angeles anymore.
The flighter exited into a wooded area and landed us in the driveway of an imposing colonial-style mansion. White pillars. Red brick. I was so excited I don’t think I blinked. This was a highly secured girls’ ambassador house, where tucked away behind a thick grove of leafy trees, I would be staying for my pre-orientation. Ellen and I got out of the flighter.
“Welcome to Great Falls.” Ellen was genuinely pleased to see that I was in awe. How could I not be? This place was unbelievable. Pristine, manicured lawns surrounded the estate, engulfing it in unending wooded serenity. Tufts of puffy, water-colored clouds traveled slowly in the pale blue-gray sky. The noise of the 405 was replaced with what I guessed were the soothing tones of crickets and bullfrogs, though I’d never heard those sounds in real life. I’d only seen places like this in pictures and movies. We were less than fifteen miles from the nation’s capital but it felt like I was in a dream, floating in a kind of peace I’d only imagined until now.
“Let’s go inside and get you settled.”
Ellen had a nice voice. Melodic and warm like she could have been a blues singer in another life. My heart raced as I followed her through a terra-cotta red front door that was hit smack in the center of this perfectly symmetrical home. But my guard was up. I thought I’d been sent here because of all the acting out I’d been doing, and yet I was getting the red carpet treatment. It didn’t add up. But until I had a reason not to make the most of what looked like a pretty sweet situation, I would.
Thirty-foot ceilings. Cotton ball-colored walls. Crisp light. Dark cherry wood floors so pristinely polished it looked like they’d never been walked on. A brass chandelier hung from the ceiling. Lights twinkled through its crystals, and just beyond it, a girl appeared at the top of the stairs.
“Jennifer, come down and meet our new guest.”
I stared as a super sophisticated looking teenage girl descended from a grand staircase that wound down into the foyer. Textbook posture. Hair pulled back in a perfect French braid, impeccably fitted preppy clothes from head to toe and a striped silver silk scarf draped from her long neck. Not your typical reform school girl, I thought to myself. She slid her hand delicately down a solid wood railing that was as thick as a Boa constrictor.
“Hi. Jennifer Wallingsford. It’s a pleasure to meet you.” She extended her hand and waited a beat for my name. It hit me that this was the daughter of Congressman Frank Wallingsford.
“Hi.” I was intimidated for the first time in longer than I could remember. “Dorothy.” No idea why I said my whole first name. I never do that. Her dad was one of the most powerful men in the country, so that made her one of the most powerful daughters in the country. Actually– the entire world. I wondered what kind of trouble she’d gotten herself into to end up here.
“Doro is here from LA for a pre-orientation. We hope to have her join us this fall.”
“Nice. Well, make yourself at home. I’m headed to my parents’ house for dinner, but let me give you my contact info in case you need anything. Please, don’t hesitate to flex me.”
“Cool– great, that’s cool. Thanks.” I whipped my flexer out and pressed it against hers to swap contacts. Was this really happening? Her flexer was a flat, palm-sized red reflective mirror. Mine was currently set as a blue tune-plug since I’d been mellowing out to Bob Marley while waiting for the BoomJet to lift off, and hadn’t morphed it since then.
Ellen was cool, calm and collected. I tried to emulate her vibe. She spoke to Jennifer with the ease of an old family friend.
“Thanks, Jennifer. Please tell your dad I’ll see him first thing tomorrow to debrief him on my LA trip.”
Was she using the word “debrief” in reference to me? She must have been.
Jennifer’s eyes seemed sincere as they gently locked on mine before she headed out. “There are some spritzers and peaches I just put in the fridge, cacao in the pantry. Help yourself.” She spoke with a confidence that was completely devoid of the notorious Capitol Hill arrogance. It completely blew me away.
I was feeling pretty darn important at this point and couldn’t wait to get my hands on that cacao, though I’ve never heard someone my age use the term “spritzer.” Just go with it, I told myself, not sure just how much cooler things could get. Man, was I in for something else.
THE CRICKETS AND frogs sounded like they were amplified onto loud speakers that faced my room. It helped soothe my nerves, as I lay awake in bed all that night. I couldn’t get a second of shuteye, anticipating the next day’s itinerary. This was all happening BoomJet fast.
One of the rules of coming on this pre-orientation trip was that I was not allowed to call anyone from back home, including my mom. I missed her and Killer so much. We had not been apart like this ever before. Julie just wasn’t going to believe any of this, but I had to wait until I went back home for a visit before I could tell them all about it.
Despite only one good hour of sleep, I was considerably wired first thing in the morning. I could hear stirring in the house, but compared to the noise of the rat race I was used to, it all sounded peaceful. Hair dryers, showers, forks clinking on plates… usual sounds in an unusual place. Still, I didn’t see a soul as I peeked my head out the bedroom door. I made my way to the bathroom Ellen had shown me the night before.
An hour later I was downstairs with twelve other teenage girls. They were all dressed in blue uniforms and were totally in the groove of getting up and out the door. Jennifer was there with another girl. My gaze lingered on her for a moment. I still couldn’t believe I was living in the dorm where Jennifer Wallingsford stayed. She looked just as put together as she had the night before. She turned her head in my direction and as our eyes met, I quickly looked away.
Holy crap, she remembered my name.
“How was your first night?”
“Great. Slept like a baby.” I don’t know why I lied. I wanted her to think I was comfortable here. I mean, I was, but people generally equate lack of sleep to anxiety and all the things that come with that. Just like my dad though, I didn’t need much sleep. My mind was naturally caffeinated and it just carried my body along for the ride. Especially here in absurdly gorgeous Great Falls.
Ellen had instructed me to take the flighter bus with the rest of the girls, where I would be met by a student representative whom I would shadow for the day. I found myself moving through the front doors of the mansion with the pack of girls in blue. I was in my Nirvana tank. It was a bit chillier than tank top weather but I just had to rock it. No doubt I stood out. I hadn’t had time to wash it before I’d come on this trip, but it was sort of like my security blanket. It still smelled like coffee, too, which was both a comfort and a major tease because I needed one bad.
“Wasn’t Kurt Cobain that singer who shot himself in the head?” Jennifer’s friend inquired with a scowl hidden beneath a sour smirk.
I looked down at my shirt, “He was.”
Jennifer’s sour friend gave me a look as if it was me, not Kurt, who’d shot myself in the head– right in front of them.
“McKayla, this is Dorothy Campbell. She just got here from LA.”
I didn’t want to know McKayla, but if she was a friend of Jennifer Wallingsford, I wasn’t going to oppose.
“LA. So, like, why don’t you have a tan?”
Jennifer smiled at me as if to say, “Ignore her,” without saying anything at all. So I did. It wasn’t even two seconds before McKayla’s attention was elsewhere, admiring another girl’s motion graphic nail art. It was a deep blue lizard that flipped its red tongue out and flashed into a rose.
I got on the flighter bus with the rest of the girls and took the first empty seat I saw. The door shut and I heard the pressurizer filling. I turned to look out the window. Just as I began to admire the absurdly fresh scenery that nobody else seemed to notice, the windows glazed over in a mirrored blue hue and I was staring back at myself. I turned my focus to the flighter pilot at the front. He was wearing specialized goggles which I assumed let him see through the windshield, which now was mirrored too.
The flight was oddly disorienting. We must have made a dozen or more turns, a few U’s and some circles. What was the big secret? When we landed twenty minutes later, the blue mirrors dissolved, and once again, green took center stage through the windows.
The setting was similar to that at the girls’ ambassador house, only this time against a river’s edge. I figured it must be the Potomac. As I stepped off the flighter bus, mesmerizing, unapologetic white water rapids grabbed my attention. Turbulent waters slammed up against the earth, spreading stones in jagged, abstract patterns. As the morning dew disappeared, the smell of thick, grassy air filled my nose and its green taste settled down through the back of my throat. My previously chapped lips suddenly felt moist and revived. This was simultaneously unreal and as real as real gets.
Once again, I followed the pack. Having prided myself in non-conformity since as far back as I could remember, I took each stride by envisioning myself as the black sheep among all the girls in blue. No clue where we were headed. There were no buildings or signs of life other than a few birds and a squirrel or two. I swear to god I looked up and saw an eagle, and unless my eyes were cheating me, it was bald. Another legend I’d only seen in pictures. Was this a pit stop? I’d thought we were going to a school.
The blue herd of girls stopped in a patch of fairytale grass that was encircled in a shiny, metallic gold ring that lay flush to the field. It was probably about twenty yards in diameter. I looked around, perplexed and intrigued. Jennifer Wallingsford stood with McKayla and a few others, mingling in just the way mingling happened back at my school. She caught me looking at her and waved me over.
“This doesn’t look like a school,” I said.
“Don’t worry, soon it will all make sense.”
“If you say so.” Jennifer was cool, but I wasn’t going to buy into everything she said unless it made sense to me.
“Believe me, I know exactly how you feel. Even though I grew up in this area, nothing could have prepared me for this.”
I heard a low hum and within seconds we were under a dome of gold aerogel that emerged from the ground and cupped us against the earth. A hydraulic system began to lower the circle of grass that we stood on. I braced myself, unsure of what was happening. Everyone else just relaxed and carried on with their conversations. This was completely normal to all of them, but it was so not-normal to me. In thirty seconds, we were grounded.
The dome disappeared and I found myself standing inside a structure filled with bustling human life. The architecture around me was phenomenal, a modern rendering of the best elements of American colonial style– just as I’d seen so far in the land above. Lots of teenagers and a few adults in form-fitting ultramarine blue uniforms filled these below-ground halls. I just stood there, taking it in. This place didn’t seem like any kind of school, especially not a reform school. There was a galactic grandeur in the air that no school could generate.
“Dorothy Campbell.” I turned to see a kid my age, smiling and extending his hand. I scanned him without moving my eyes– thin, shaggy head of dark brown hair, big brown puppy dog eyes, half-tucked shirt, braces, friendship bracelets. Friendship bracelets. I breathed a sigh of relief in finding a shred of something– someone I could relate to. I smiled back.
“Welcome to Seneca. I’m Timmy Reba, your personal student escort for pre-orientation.”
And so, there it was– they called it Seneca.
“They told me I’m your shadow for the day.”
“Please. Friends call me Reba. It’s my last name. Mi padre es Puertorriqueno.”
Reba rolled his R’s with gusto. Electricity surged out of this kid’s pores as if kinetic energy was harvested and redistributed through his braces. Considering where I was, maybe it was.
“I’m sure you’re a little disoriented.”
A little? How was this normal to all these people?
“Don’t worry, you’ll be up to speed in no time. Campbella. Is it okay if I call you that? It really works for you.”
Reba waved his hand for me to follow him. “First things first, let’s get you your blues.”
NOW I, TOO, was wearing blue. Although borderline conservative, there was a sexiness in this getup. I imagined that an air of slick sophistication blew through me. I pinched the sharp collar, ran my fingers down six smooth pyrite buttons to my waistline, which, after loose-fitting cotton t-shirts, had never felt so exposed as it did right now. I decided to own it. I could be a new person here. I could absolutely flex this outfit. And before I looked up, I glanced down at my beloved sneakers with a grin. This blue uniform thing wasn’t so bad after all. I didn’t feel like a sheep or member of some Floridian mega-cult, I felt like an astronaut, exploring the unknown. Except these unknowns were not in outer space, they were right here below the surface of the Earth. I wondered how far down we were.
This kid Reba was on fire, I’d never met someone with so much energy. He’d get along well with Killer, I thought, as he lead me down the hall with a pep in his step. He was so excited when he spoke that his words all blended together and he barely took a breath. “I remember my first day here– all tingly with excitement and wide-eyed as I took it all in. Amendment. I’m still wide-eyed and taking it all in and it’s been two years.”
Now I wanted to hear everything, see everything and do everything I could at Seneca. It was the future. I was in the future. Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“Welcome to the future.” He smiled.
What the heck? Was this kid reading my mind? He winked, then turned back to watch where he was going, almost knocking over a kid who had built-on robotic arms.
“My mistake, Yoshi.”
Yoshi’s left arm slammed into the glistening golden wall, sending a smooth ripple all the way down. The wall morphed right back to normal, not unlike the materials our flexers were made of– a sort of programmable metallic polymer. I wondered if these walls could be commanded into functions other than just dividing spaces, like I could command my flexer to form a cup, harvest rain and purify it to drink, or illuminate an entire room with any color.
Yoshi grunted at Reba, who stepped aside in awe. This Yoshi kid was so small he’d pass for a child ineligible for rides at the amusement park, but he clearly had larger-than-life capabilities that Reba was majorly impressed by. Yoshi continued on, glaring back at Reba, who just offered up a smile.
“Yoshi Higashi. What I’d do to be him for a day.”
My interest was piqued. I mean seriously– kids with robotic arms?
“Come on, first session starts in three minutes, and they’ve got you booked in mathematic applications. Sick session. Wish I could qualify, but they got me searching out mock cadavers in the Aboves.”
I had no clue what that meant, and judging by Reba’s reaction, he could tell.
I didn’t. I just followed, ready to devour this landscape. The halls were completely golden, some brick and some smooth, but all golden. I noticed several of the walls morphing into objects. First I saw a guy approach a wall and it morphed into a water fountain. The water moved with him to meet his mouth. At the water fountain back in my school in LA, we had to press a button and bend to the water. The thing had been around since the 1980’s. I wanted to see more and more. What else could these walls do, and what was behind them?
And then, my world about stood still, for the first time in my life, in the most unlikely of places and times for stillness to occur. A doorway appeared on one of the walls, and from it, emerged a guy about six foot tall, my age, buzz cut, pale skin tone just like me and rocking dark blue combat boots. Our eyes met like magnets– he had one blue and one hazel. I swear to god, if love at first sight existed, this was it. I was rendered a believer in one single instant. In that moment I felt like I knew him. Or at least I wanted to know him. Those lines were happily blurred.
“Campbella? You coming?” Reba was ten steps ahead of me, looking back. He saw who I was scoping out and I could tell it made him a little bummed, but he tried to hide it.
“Yes, sorry, this is all just so…”
“I know. It’s new, exciting, different, etcetera, etcetera… but don’t lose focus. It’s easy to lose focus here.”
No kidding. “No way. I’m totally focused.”
As I followed Reba down the hall, I looked back over my shoulder. Blue combat boots was gone. The farther away I got from him, the closer I wanted to be. I had to find out who he was, where he was from, why he was here.
QUANTUM PHYSICS APPLICATIONS, mathematics in epidemiology, quantum computing freestyle, Seneca civics and ethics, and last, but not least, mathematics in religion. Yes indeed, my schedule was a mind rush. I learned that there was no such thing as paper in Seneca. They only used a stone paper that was made from a calcium carbonate quarried in Virginia and other places in the world too. Absolutely everything is either sustainable, compostable or can be safely reduced to components that create energy. Human waste for example. When we use the toilet it flushes into a “poo-renew” system, as the S.E.R.C. Scholars joke, that breaks it down in skyscraper-sized drums alongside each Seneca City center. The ecosystem within this subterranean city is a dream come true to every hippie in the history of the world.
How could I ever go back to Los Angeles Public School? I couldn’t. My dad would have been all over this situation. Man, did I wish I could share this with him. This was exactly where I needed to be. One second I think I’m headed to reform school to pay for my crimes, the next I’m in Disneyland for tech junkies. I mean, let’s get real for a second, though. It had definitely entered that “too good to be true” zone. Something was up. I just didn’t know what. Yet. Yeah, I wanted to know, but part of me didn’t. I felt like a kid in a candy shop. I couldn’t resist the sugar, wasn’t so concerned about what came next. This place didn’t even have grades. It was all performance and incentive based: do well and you were rewarded with awesome mini-adventures. Do bad, repeat the session via tablet until you get it right. If you don’t get it right, you don’t leave the session. Everyone got everything right, eventually. I quickly learned that that’s just the pedigree of the Seneca population. I was flattered that I was considered to be on that level.
Reba picked me up after my last session. “And how would you rate your visit to the future thus far, Lady Campbella?”
He didn’t just have pep in his step; it was in his vocab too. And his shaggy hair had an air of happiness too, as it sashayed back and forth. Reba was growing on me, and I had a feeling that we were going to be good friends. Then I started to think about Julie. I’d be so far away from her. We wouldn’t get to hang out every single day like we had for so many years. Maybe I would get the hook up so she could come visit via BoomJet on the weekends. Could dogs stay in the ambassadors’ house or would I have to leave Killer behind with my mom? There were a lot of unanswered questions, but no matter what, I knew that nothing would ever be the same. It couldn’t be.
“This place is insane.”
“Chica, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”
“Well then, show me more, Rrreba.” I rolled my “R” just like he did.
“Easy, tiger– all in due time. Your last stop of the day is at a location in the Aboves. Ellen Malone is taking you.”
“Okay.” The way he said it sounded so mysterious. Like it wasn’t a part of my day that he was excited to share. But I wasn’t worried, because so far everything Ellen Malone had shown me was ridiculously slick. And most of all, I was ready to get past today to start tomorrow and see Blue Combat Boots.
BACK IN A blacked-out flighter with Ellen Malone, I was riding high at twilight in Great Falls. The cabin was soundproofed against the dwindling traffic outside. Taillights and headlights flowed towards infinity in both directions. I knew those lights were like the ones that passed by my mom, and we were somehow connected this way.
“You seem happy here. Different than when I first met you just a couple days ago.”
She was right. When I’d first met Ellen, I’d been ready to go down swinging.
I’d just had that unfortunate hallway conversation with Mr. Malin and had headed home to the small two-bedroom apartment I share with my mom in Culver City. I figured she’d already heard from Mr. Malin about that pointless calculus test and I was ready for round two of, “What are we going to do with you?” I pulled my flexer from my ear and held it to the sensor to unlock the front door.
My dog, Killer, a sweet black Pomeranian, greeted me every day with hops and licks. That day was no different. Despite everyone else’s disapproval of my academic fall, Killer showered me with unconditional praise. Apartment 14W was Killer’s kingdom, and I was his queen. This pup of mine was an expert in extracting the warm fuzzy side of me that, believe it or not, does exist. I scooped him up to my face where he unleashed a barrage of ticklish licks.
“Killer, I missed you so much, my sweet, sweet baby boy.” I remember suddenly feeling that something was off. Drenched in dog breath, I looked down the hallway and noticed that my bedroom door was wide-fricken-open.
“What in the…?”
I always left it locked. Always.
I quickly, but gently, put Killer down and tiptoed down the hall while he jumped at my heels, squealing for attention. As I inched along, I heard the murmur of voices. My heartbeat flat-lined and jump-started into a race.
I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, then turned and looked through the doorway– there was my mom, sitting with her head in her hands. I was floored.
“What are you doing in my room!?”
“This is so messed up–”
My eyes darted to the ground where I saw the three heavy-duty flexer entry locks from my bedroom door that had been removed and scattered. My mom had let me secure my room after my dad went missing. She knew I needed a sense of security as well as the privacy to deal with grief in my own way, on my own time. And she much preferred that I was in our home behind locked doors than out getting into trouble.
“You broke my locks?!”
Storming in, with Killer yapping away at my side, I instantly realized that my mom and I were not alone–
There were four men all in black, and a striking woman in a power suit. Ellen Malone. She wore a double-breasted metallic blazer and pants perfectly contoured to her body, an electric-blue blouse and three-inch shiny black heels with a silver stone at the base of each heel. Culver City fed Los Angeles with its blue-collared heartbeat. White tees and jeans were more common here than floral dresses at a Southern Baptist church service. Women in high-end power suits were never local.
So the people in my room clearly were not from around our neighborhood. One of the men took a step towards me. Just as fast, I took a step back, scooping Killer up from the ground in the same move.
The approaching man in black pulled out a badge. “Federal Bureau of Investigation.”
Damn. I felt my mom’s eyes burn a hole in me. Not just a little hole. This was a full-on fire blown in by the Santa Ana winds.
“Take a seat.”
I sat on the edge of my bed, literally and figuratively. With all these people in my room there was barely room to breathe.
“Expensive equipment for a teenage girl.”
“It was my dad’s.”
“That’s nice,” the agent sneered.
I’d claimed my dad’s gear after it sat dormant in his office for almost a year. Floor to ceiling flat flex glass monitors leaving not an inch of wall visible to the naked eye. Thick, midnight purple velvet drapes pulled closed, their fibers shimmering in a blue hue that emanated from the monitors. The blue hue I lived for. The purr of electronics being cranked full of energy from a stand-alone generator drowned out the sounds of traffic from one of the country’s most congested freeway systems, below us. The 405 delivered a polluted yet calming sound that could be heard in every other nook and cranny of our apartment.
“Your mother is going to prison.”
“What?!” No way. They had to have been there for me, not her. I looked away from the FBI agents to my mom, who sat distraught and broken down. Mascara streaked down her cheeks like charcoal art. Killer panted maniacally, feeding off my anxious energy. I could smell his hot beefy breath. Gross. The whole scene was stamping itself into the impression center of my brain for many a replay at later dates.
“Fifty thousand dollars shows up in her bank account, and she knows it doesn’t belong to her, but she doesn’t tell anyone about it.”
“I told you, I don’t even have a bank account at InfiniCal Bank!” My mom snapped.
Oh my god. The whole situation was absolutely my fault. When all the money had started coming in I had set up a false identity at a bank in the Caribbean, created an account in my mom’s name and transferred that money in to it. Obviously that false identity wasn’t as foolproof as I had hoped it would be.
“You don’t know anything about that do you?”
I remember searching my mom’s face. And she searched mine. I could tell she instantly knew that I must have had something to do with this mystery account the FBI found that was in her name. She always had the answers, but at that moment she was completely incapable of counseling her misfit teenage daughter. I could tell by the way she looked at me that she was thinking of my dad, and that I was indeed my father’s daughter. She always said that. I know I reminded her of him, and it both broke her heart and kept it beating all at once.
“Let me try that again…” The presence of the men in black in my bedroom shook me to my core and they knew it. It wasn’t their first dance, that was clear from the mix of nonchalance and confidence in the agent’s voice. “We’re investigating your mom for wire fraud. If you know something about this and you don’t tell the truth about it, you don’t want to know how both your lives will change. And not in a good way.” I figured that they must have had legit evidence, but all I knew to do was deny, deny, deny. I had to get my mom out of that situation. It wasn’t her fault. My mind raced to find solutions. What should I do? What should I say?
An 8×10 black and white photo of my family tacked up above my motherboard caught my eye. It was the last photo of us all together. I looked at it every morning and every night and wished every single time that our life was still like that. My mom was a geriatric nurse at the hospital and my dad had a “job with security,” as he always liked to say. For an instant, as her happiness in the photo conjured a barrage of memories of our happy past I nearly forgot her current despair. Normally I could get lost in that photo, but not then, in that salty, lingering moment that was all my fault.
“Doro, don’t say anything. We’re getting a lawyer. We’ll fix this.” My mom’s body language didn’t exactly match her words. I kept quiet, but on the inside I was bursting with worry.
Up to that time, Ellen Malone had simply been the woman in the metallic power suit who sat calmly in my peripheral vision. But when we locked eyes, she interjected, “If you all would give us a moment, I’d like to have a word with Dorothy alone.”
The men in black obliged and they took my mom with them. “Thank god,” I thought. That menacing pack of human wolves had my mom in tears and something had to give. Before she left she stared at me with a firm, ‘Don’t say a thing,’ look. I wasn’t going to.
Ellen offered a kind smile, obviously making an effort to quell my panic. “I’ve been looking forward to meeting you for a long time.”
That was weird. I tried to calculate her motive. I wouldn’t let her smooth talk me, no matter what. I’d thought I was invisible but what an idiot I’d turned out to be. I’d made one bad move because I’d wanted to help my mom out. We were drowning in debt. She did the best she could for us both, but now that my dad was gone our cost of living far surpassed her income, and we were in a deep, deep hole that was only becoming blacker by the second. I knew she was having panic attacks and trying to hide them from me. She’d say she had allergies and would go to the bathroom and cry. We couldn’t even afford two flexers anymore. She gave hers up so I could keep mine. I’d felt guilty and helpless for so long. I had always wanted to help and finally I could. I knew creating that account for her was the only way to get her the cash. I believed that would allow the transfer to fly under the radar, but it didn’t.
Ellen stood up. “I know what you’re thinking–”
“You people always do.”
“And I understand why you’d be guarded with me. But I’m not part of the FBI. I’m here to offer you help.”
I don’t know what it was with adults always thinking I needed help… but this wasn’t about me anymore. I had reeled my mom in to this mess as a result of my criminal activity. I had no choice but to listen.
“Let’s be honest. You and I both know where that money came from…”
I put on my best poker face. Wasn’t talking, no matter what.
“But I don’t care about that, Dorothy. What’s done is done. Let me tell you what I do care about. Your mom is going to prison, unless we do something about it.”
I crossed my arms and tilted my chin up to offer her my skeptical ears.
“The mandatory sentence for wire fraud is six years. I know you don’t want your mom to rot away in prison. I don’t want that either. Wouldn’t wish that on anyone. I can make all of this go away, Dorothy. Are you interested in hearing me out?”
Although everything inside me said, “trust no one,” I slowly started to feel in my gut that maybe she had come for good reasons. Maybe. I might listen, but by no means was I ready to offer compliance. “Not really.”
Ellen turned in towards my system of monitors, looking intently at it. There was no way she knew what it all meant. I noticed that the view through her glasses was blurry until she turned a tiny knob on the side of the frame and her lenses adjusted to the focal point: A numerical reading that was multiplying at what might as well have been the speed of light.
She took her glasses off. Puffy, dark skin framed her kind blue eyes. A loose bun held up with no kinks in her hair. I could not get my hair up like that to save my life. My ponytail always had kinks. “She must be pushing forty,” I thought, and wondered why in the world she thought my monitors were, as she put it, “impressive.” She couldn’t possibly have known what she was looking at. Not a chance.
“Did you know that you’re the only person to have broken the algorithm for every major gambling site in the world?”
I was stunned. Who was Ellen Malone? Until I knew that, and what she was doing in my room, I was going to play dumb. “I don’t know what you mean.”
She gave me a smile as if to say, “How cute.” No matter which way I played it, Ellen Malone was reading me like a book.
“Dorothy, I appreciate your sense of humor. We’re both smart women here. Well, you might be smarter, and that’s fine.”
It was weird. I didn’t know her. She was enigmatic. Yet against my better judgment, she was someone I wanted to trust. Wanted to, but wouldn’t. She’d called me a woman, when everyone else considered me a kid. She already knew so much about me, and now I wanted to know about her.
“My name’s Ellen. Ellen Malone. When I heard about what was going on here, I knew I had to step in. It would be a shame to let your genius go to waste. Those guys out there, they don’t understand that. All they care about is the law, and that you’ve broken it. I can look past that because I see your potential.”
“Thanks.” It was a compliment after all, and so far I liked the direction of this conversation, considering where it was headed just a few minutes back.
“I took a BoomJet in from Virginia this afternoon to personally invite you to be a part of something. Something very special.”
“Great. A cult. I should have known.”
“Not even close.”
She took a controlled breath and stared me down. As a matter of fact, she gave me the stare-off of all stare-offs. “Do I really look like I’m in a cult?”
I looked away.
“Cults don’t recruit geniuses, they recruit the weak-minded.”
She was right. Being facetious wasn’t working for me. I needed to get my mom out of trouble, find out who Ellen Malone really was, and what she really wanted from me.
“I can go. I’ll just let the men waiting in your living room know that I’m done here.”
Ellen stood to go and didn’t hesitate. She walked towards my door and didn’t look back. My immediate future flashed before me. My mom being torn out of our apartment, hauled off to prison. Me on my own. I’d probably end up in juvie or even worse, some orphanage.
Ellen stopped in my doorway when she heard my voice, but she didn’t turn to look at me.
“I want to know what you came here for. What do you want from me?”
“Honestly, Doro, what I have to offer you is a privilege. It’s something I wanted to do, not something I needed to do.”
“Alright. I’m sorry. Please understand, coming home to… this… completely shocked me.”
“Listen, I can’t say I sympathize with you on this current situation. The law was broken and this is the consequence. I’m here with a solution, because I don’t want you to flush your talents down the drain. I want you to bring them to a place where they can be refined and used for good.”
First Mr. Malin and then Ellen Malone with the flush metaphor. Was something out there in the universe trying to tell me to get my head out of the toilet or what? As weird as it felt, the probability was super slim that a higher power was speaking to me through toilet metaphors. But still…
“Oh, you’ll see for yourself. I’m not asking you to simply accept anything as the ultimate truth. Just open your eyes, Doro.”
“Okay. Eyes open. Mind open, too.”
I felt our dueling presences arrive at some sort of odd alignment. Despite the friction, something clicked.
“Most of the people in this world don’t get second chances, Doro. This is yours. It has everything to do with the future. With your future.”
Over the next several hours, Ellen gave me one seriously strong sales pitch. Probably the most convincing part of it was that she made it perfectly clear that she knew everything. She knew I had my hand in every major online gambling site in the world. Everything from poker and beyond, if there was algorithm-based security on their sites, I had pretty much had their number. Processes that entire departments in the government had been researching for decades had taken me just a couple of weeks to crack. If quantum cryptography couldn’t stop the Chinese, it couldn’t stop me. I’d written the algorithms to break the quantum repeaters that the sites had in place. This wasn’t a learned skill. According to my dad, it was a gift. Ellen Malone saw it as that, too. Most people that were on the same wavelength as one another finished each other’s sentences. But my dad and I, we finished each other’s equations.
The systems in my room were set to work around the clock. My method was to create new identities, setting them to win and lose at a 75/25 ratio, and then shutting them down once they’d won more than about $500,000. I had been funneling millions of dollars from all of these wins into an offshore bank account in the Cayman Islands, where they don’t ask a lot of questions when they see big sums of money come and go. In less than one month I’d racked up nearly a billion dollars. Getting to that point had been a walk in the park for me. I felt confident in the invisibility my secret identities provided, and thought I’d been careful not to raise any red flags. Unfortunately one red flag had been flapping in the wind. Some secret division of the United States Government had its all-knowing eye on me.
During that conversation with Ellen I’d responded with equal parts resistance and curiosity, but no matter what I conjured up as Ellen’s possible motives, I knew that going with Ellen to some reform school in Virginia was the only way for me to protect my mom. So the next thing I knew, I was here. Seneca City. Totally not reform school and nothing like LA. Ellen was right, I did feel completely different here.
“I can’t believe this is all happening, I mean, I’ve dreamt that places like this existed ever since I was a little kid. My dad talked about this sort of existence all the time. Instead of bedtime stories, he would light up my room with flexer moonlight and tell me all about Earth’s great potentials and how I would be a part of it all one day. Now it’s starting to come true. I just wish he could see it.”
“I bet he can.” She was so optimistic. Definitely not the typical authority figure I’d dealt with in my life so far, always trying to suppress my spirit. She was trying to align with me and that was pretty darn cool. I wanted to feel her optimism, but I was still worried that all this goodness just couldn’t be real. I wanted to be careful not to be blinded by the allure of a secret city which fulfilled all of my technological fantasies.
“So, what’s the catch?”
“Yeah, why me? Why this? Why now?”
Ellen looked out the window. The amber light filled her face with a glow and illuminated her pride for Seneca. She didn’t have to search for an answer to my question. It came naturally to her.
“That’s something you need to answer for yourself.”
Wow, she was good. I pondered her statement for the remainder of the ride.
We suddenly emerged from the greenery into the city. The sky behind us was fading from the moody gray-blue I was so taken by, into a gradient of plum and orange. I could see that we were descending on the nation’s capital.
The flighter crossed over a much more serene part of the Potomac than the raging river I had glimpsed that morning. White buildings reflected like glassy replicas in the stillness of the water. The Kennedy Center, the White House, the Washington Monument… one after the other. In a matter of three minutes I took them all in. We landed on the roof of a building. I could see the top of the Capitol. I was literally inside my last U.S. history class. Experience was replacing being lectured about stuff and it was fine with me.
A man in a mustard-colored tweed suit with a chocolate shirt and plaid tie greeted us with open arms as we emerged from the flighter. He gave Ellen Malone a huge hug and then turned to me, like I was his long-lost favorite niece. “There she is!”
He gave me a firm handshake.
“Gregory, sorry we’re late, I wanted to bring Doro via the scenic route. It’s her first time in D.C.”
“And hopefully not her last!”
Ellen Malone and Gregory had similar smiles.
I flashed one right back, “Definitely not.”
“Well, come on in, there are some people who’ve been looking forward to meeting you.” And, with that, Gregory ushered us in through the door, past a security guard that looked like he might be Secret Service.
Gregory Zaffron had a great gait. I’ve always been super into people’s walking styles. A walk says a lot about a person. My walk has always been smooth like butter. I try to blend into my environment, not bring too much attention to myself when I move. Gregory was the opposite. His steps were long and wide. His mustard jacket moved like a cape.
“Great day, ain’t it?”
Ellen Malone and I looked at one another and smiled. Gregory hadn’t said anything funny– he justwas funny by being himself. There were an awful lot of characters here in this world of Seneca. I liked everyone I had met so far except for Jennifer Wallingsford’s friend, McKayla. To top it all off, I already had heart palpitations over some guy I’d seen from a distance, and that’s not even my style.
We approached a gargantuan, medieval-looking door. Gregory gave the guards in front of it a nod and they stepped aside as we walked in.
“Dorothy Campbell. You’re finally here.”
Holy crap. It was Congressman Wallingsford. And Jennifer was here, too.
“Congressman Wallingsford, sir, it’s an honor to meet you.”
“The honor is all mine.”
Congressman Wallingsford, Jennifer and a power-packed, exquisitely groomed group of six men and one woman sat around a grand mahogany table in a windowless room. I tried to take in the tufted leather seats, intricate Persian rug, elaborate crown molding and the lemony scent of wood polish that I love. All eyes were on me. Me.
“Please, have a seat.” Congressman Wallingsford pulled out a giant black leather chair for me right next to his daughter. Ellen Malone took a seat next to me.
“We hope you’ve enjoyed yourself so far.”
“This is all so incredible, and everyone is so nice. I don’t even know how to thank you for having me here.”
Congressman Wallingsford had a certain look of determination– the aura of a man who knows what he wants and will stop at nothing to get it, a man whose path you wouldn’t want to be stupid enough to cross. He took a casual seat at the end of the mahogany tabletop across from everyone else.
“Oh, you don’t have to thank us. We should be thanking you for coming out to visit us here at Seneca.” The people in the room all nodded in agreement. “So, thank you, Dorothy.”
“You’re welcome?” I didn’t feel like I should be the one saying that.
Ellen put her hand on my shoulder. “I’ve got feedback that Doro here is perfect for the program. She fit in so well today. All of the session leaders had nothing but good things to say about her.”
“So I hear.”
I smiled. Congressman Wallingsford hadn’t stopped smiling since I’d entered the room. His teeth were whiter than freshly cut coconut, with one solid gold cap peeking out from a bottom tooth. Seneca must be Land of the Smiles, I thought. Not a large man physically, at just about five foot eight and maybe a buck sixty in weight, Congressman Wallingsford still had a presence so vast it filled the whole room. You couldn’t avoid his powerful gaze. A five o’clock shadow of peppery hair was just beginning to show through his once clean shave.
As cool as this was, things felt bizarre. Why were they all being so extraordinarily nice to me?
Congressman Wallingsford got up from his perch at the end of the table. “We’d love for you to stay.”
I knew everyone kept saying things like that, but coming from one of the most powerful men in our government, I was awestruck. “Really? That would be… I mean, that’s beyond amazing.”
The vibe in the room was not normal, just like the rest of this abnormal Seneca situation. It was so many things all at once– exciting, scary, fun, confusing, exhilarating… addictive… I was swirling in a whirlwind.
Ellen turned and looked at me in earnest. “There is one caveat, Doro. In order for you to stay with us, you will never be able to turn back.”
That took a moment to register. What did never mean? “Turn back,” like I’d be out of the school system for good, or “turn back” meaning to LA? I didn’t want to go back to my old school. I most definitely wanted to stay here and have this experience, but did she mean that I could never go home?
Jennifer spoke up. “Dorothy, this place is incredible. We all know it. This is an opportunity for you to be a part something huge that pretty much every other person our age will never even know exists.”
“I hear you.”
Congressman Wallingsford motioned for everyone to leave the room except for Ellen, Jennifer and me. I didn’t even know who they were and now they were all gone. The focus on me was getting even tighter. I started to feel like I was being cornered and had to let them know where I stood before things got stickier.
“I have to be able to go home and see my mom, my friends, my dog, my apartment.”
Congressman Wallingsford lost his smile. Uh oh. Things were going to get intense. I wished that we could just rewind to the cool stuff, like being in the golden hallway with Blue Combat Boots. I closed my eyes tight, and hoped this part would be over when I opened them, but it wasn’t.
“The truth is, Dorothy, this is the one and only opportunity you will ever truly have in your life to change things. To make the world a better place for your mom, and everyone else.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Billions of people– over half of the world’s population– live in poverty. They don’t have access to education, medicine, food, you name it. The things most of us take for granted. The climate has been undergoing a drastic change since before our time, and in the Aboves we no longer have the means to stop that momentum. You don’t want to imagine the planet your children and their children will see if things continue in this direction.”
“I get that.”
“I hope you do. You see, things haven’t changed because people haven’t taken responsibility for altering this path. Until now. You’ve had a chance to experience the Senecan lifestyle. You’re beginning to understand how forward-thinking it is. Trust me, you’ve just seen the tip of the iceberg. Imagine the possibilities if what we are capable of here in Seneca were to extend to everyone in the world.”
I couldn’t imagine it. It seemed too good to be true. But it also seemed that if anyone had the power to make that happen it would be someone like Congressman Wallingsford and his powerful government pals.
“That’s the goal, Dorothy. But there is a plan and there is a price.”
It was just too much to comprehend that the only way I could participate in this revolutionary plan for humanity was by walking away from everything I’ve ever known and loved. I had a feeling that what he was saying was one hundred percent authentic, but I still didn’t understand why he was discussing this with me.
“So you’re telling me I just have to accept the end of my life?”
“No, just the the end of life as you know it.” Congressman Wallingsford finally sat down in the biggest chair in the room. “But for us, it’s the beginning of a new life. A better life for all of humanity. But great change requires hard work, compromise and tremendous dedication. It doesn’t happen overnight.”
Ellen put her hand on my shoulder again. “Congressman Wallingsford is right, Doro. You have to think of it as a new beginning. You’re someone whom we want and need to have as a part of the Seneca Society.”
“Ellen was sent to bring you here because your unique talents would contribute greatly to the creation of this international society we’re building. That’s what Seneca is, Dorothy. A better tomorrow— for everyone on earth, not just Senecans.”
This whole pitch was beginning to sound like a corny commercial, but at the same time I couldn’t help being compelled by his argument.
“I don’t get it. How is it possible to change the whole world?”
“Over the past ten years, we have developed a circuit of metropolitan hubs beneath the surface of the Earth in which human life can thrive. Each hub is equipped with its own contingency of the world’s most gifted, intelligent, and healthy, citizens on the planet. The recruiting process started three years ago. We‘re dedicated to forming a society capable of overcoming the damage of the past before it’s too late.”
I looked away. How could I change things? I couldn’t face the picture of urgency he was painting.
“Because of your qualifications, you, Dorothy, are one of the chosen to help do that.”
I felt I had to respond in some way but I still couldn’t commit to something that seemed like an insanely irrevocable decision.
“Of course I don’t want to just sit back and ride the decline of civilization, but I can’t just leave my mom.”
“We understand the weight of the decision you need to make. It’s never easy.”
My senses warped. The room got smaller. All I could hear was the sound of my own breath. “But I just don’t understand. What about my mom, why can’t she come with me?”
Congressman Wallingsford turned to Ellen Malone. She was looking at me with compassion, as though she wanted to protect me, but still had to give me a crucial piece of information. “Unfortunately, there is extremely limited space in Seneca, and only the chosen can join us on this journey.”
“So you’re telling me you want me to leave my mom behind? Like we can’t be a part of each others’ lives anymore, at all?” Panic was setting in. I couldn’t leave my mom. As much as I alienated her, and she me, she was all I had. I loved her to death. She was my mom.
“Doro, you will be a part of her life in a different way. In shaping the life she can live in the future. Just think about it. This is going to take some time to accept. It did for all of us. But in our mission to ensure the preservation and quality of life on this planet, we are dealing with infinitely valuable information. You must understand that Seneca is beyond top secret in nature and must be protected as such.”
I sat forward and dropped my head into my hands. I rarely ever broke down, but this was it for me. My breaking point. Leave, and be with my mom in a place where I’d never truly be able to make a difference, or stay, leaving behind the only person who loves me, who has done everything for me, but putting my gifts to good use for the betterment my mom’s life and the world.
Jennifer looked to her dad for approval to speak. This was clearly something the three of them had been through before. “I lost my mom when I was twelve. At first it was horrible. I couldn’t get through one second of the day without missing her. I cried more often than not. And this is no different. It’s not easy to imagine life without your mom in it, Dorothy, but it is the only way to make a better life for you and her… I will be there for you, to support you in any way I can.”
I felt trapped. “No way. I’m not leaving her.”
“If you turn back, you will never be given this opportunity again,” Ellen said.
“Oh well.” Even though I said that, I felt deep inside that I couldn’t walk away from this. I couldn’t. But I couldn’t leave my mom either! This had been in the cards all along and Ellen had built me up to give me this information and let me crash.
Congressman Wallingsford fingered his flexer sitting on the table in front of him. “We’re ready for you, Gregory.”
Gregory came in with another dude, probably about seventy years old, Indian, kind old eyes. He smiled. Go figure.
Congressman Wallingsford leaned over the table towards me. “It’s time for you to choose, Dorothy Campbell. Will you join the society of the future? Now that you know what can be, can you really go back to the life you were living? Of indefinitely riding that stale status quo?”
“I– I have to talk to my mom,” I stuttered.
“I’m sorry, you can’t.”
“This can’t be okay, I’m a minor, I…”
Ellen took my shoulder again, this time more firmly. “Doro, I know this is extremely difficult, but it’s the way things have to…”
“Difficult?! It’s beyond messed up. I want to talk to my mom. You have to let me call her.”
Gregory chimed in. “Once you make your decision, you’ll have the chance to speak with her, but it will be monitored and you will be given a specific set of guidelines for what you can and cannot say.”
“Don’t you have freedom of speech in Seneca?”
“Of course we do!” Ellen said, “But you understand that we must be extraordinarily careful about how and when we bring this information to the Aboves.”
Ellen was trying to comfort me with reason, but this time it wasn’t going to work. Pleasantries and charisma couldn’t calm me now. “And what if I say no?”
Gregory stepped forward and put his arm around the Indian man. “Dorothy, this is Dr. Ashvind Kulkarni. He’s one of Seneca’s top M.D.s. If you choose to leave this room without committing to join Seneca, he will administer a Cogniz-X dosage that will erase all memory of what you’ve seen and heard here in the past forty-eight hours. The drug will take effect in less than an hour, in which time we will transport you via PFV to Washington Dulles Airport, and from there you’ll fly back to Los Angeles. You’ll be back home with your mother by sunrise tomorrow, completely unaffected by what’s happened here. You’ll go on with your normal life, without knowing anything at all about the Seneca Society.”
MY EYES WERE closed to help me think. When they were open, the sensory extravaganza around me swallowed my thoughts. How was I going to tell her? I thought of my dad. Would he understand why I made this choice? That this was ultimately the best choice for everyone in my life? I thought of my mom, alone and wondering why I’d never come home after my stint at a government-backed reform school. I thought of Killer, Julie, my visits to Café Firenze before I went to school. Joining my mom on house-calls to her patients that had become like family to me.
My mom, Layla Campbell, is a no-nonsense, hardworking woman. Her paternal grandparents emigrated from Lebanon to Glendale, California. My grandfather hadn’t gone to college. He’d gotten into the food import business just like his father before him, and had become fairly successful off of selling yogurt drinks. He had married a Greek-American woman from the Greek Orthodox Church and my mom was their only child. She was an overachiever from the get-go. Spent summers hiding out, reading and listening to vintage LPs in the dark while other kids played video games and caused a ruckus all over the city. She was only nineteen when she met the love of her life– my dad– Johnny Campbell.
My dad was a small-town Wisconsin boy who’d come to Los Angeles to attend UCLA on a full-ride mathematics scholarship. My mom was in the nursing program and worked part-time in the student union, where my dad would come to see her every second of every day he wasn’t in class. Like me, the guy didn’t need to study and he didn’t need to sleep. All he knew was math and my mom.
I hadn’t chosen this path for my life; it was just the way things unfolded. And I desperately needed to rescue my mom from the terrible mess I had put her in. To her, this whole “reform school” plan could be the thing to get me away from the memories at home she thought were causing me to act out. She didn’t have a clue about the big picture or the work being done below ground in Seneca. But if she did, I was sure she’d understand that they were legitimately trying to save the world. And she’d be proud that I could be a part of that.
I knew my job was to figure out a way to bring my mom to Seneca too. I just knew it. I would have to. My staying in Seneca or not wasn’t really even a decision. It was the gamble I had to make. Ultimately, while the pain that rippled through my heart was beyond anything I’d ever felt, I was compelled from deep within to make the hardest choice I’d ever had to make.
I was numb. My fingers could barely move across my flexer screen. It felt like my hands were frostbitten while my body was actually burning up. Even though they had debriefed me on what I could and couldn’t say to my mom regarding my new ‘school’ and my decision to stay here, how I was going to keep the real information from her? If I strayed from the script, I would be putting my mom in danger.
The only thing to do was jump in and call. It was go time.
“Doro!” Her voice warmed my soul but singed it with agony, too. Would I ever see her face again, I wondered.
At hearing her voice I squeezed my eyes tight and fought a sob with everything I had. My chest seemed filled with sandbags, my palms sweaty.
I was alone in a dignified guest room, but I felt like I was being monitored. I didn’t trust that it was safe to stray from the parameters they had provided for this conversation. A newbie in their world, I wasn’t ready to test their boundaries yet.
“Hi, honey! How’s your trip going? I want to hear everything!”
I was choked up but dug deep down to muster up the strength to say what I needed to say. To make my mom feel at ease no matter how far from reality my own comfort was.
“I love you.” It came out without even thinking about it.
“Well, I love you. Killer is right here and he misses you, too. He hasn’t left your bed since you’ve been gone. Only when I lured him out with a marrow bone from Romeo’s Meat Market.”
I laughed, and was glad she couldn’t see the tears streaming down my face.
“I miss you guys so much. This is a great place for me, though. They’re doing such cool things, and I’ve decided that… I’d like to stay.”
“That’s great, hon. I think something like this is just what you need. And they’ll be lucky to have you.”
“Will you be coming home to pack? When should I plan on coming to visit?”
Nothing about this felt right to me, but I knew it had to be done– for now.
“That’s the thing. They don’t allow visitors… in the first few months… while we go through this big mental and physical cleansing process. But I think there is a parents’ weekend after that.”
“Really? Well… okay… I guess we’ll plan for later, then. You let me know when, and I’ll come right away, okay?”
“I miss you mom. So much. But I can’t come home to pack if I want to stay here. They send government appointed messengers to retrieve the things I’ll need.”
“Wow, this is really serious.”
“I know. I’m sorry we didn’t get to say goodbye properly– or, not goodbye. You know what I mean.”
“Doro, it’s okay. We’ll be together again sooner than you think. Until then, I’ll have Killer to keep me company. You just do what you need to do, and know that I’m proud of you.”
This was it. I was leaving my life behind. I truly believed that, despite what I had been told, my mom and I would be reunited one day. Hearing her voice confirmed that. I would never let her go that easily. Never.
THE SKIN UNDER my eyes was puffy and raw from crying all night. I know I’m like my dad and used to getting no sleep, but this was crazy. I was really feeling it now. I was dressed in blue from head to toe, descending on the gold-domed grass patch deep into Seneca, my new home.
“Campbella!” I was too tired to turn around. I didn’t have to because Reba was by my side in a flash. His hair was more disheveled than the last time I’d seen him, his shirt half tucked in. He had been waiting at the entry point. “I am so crazy happy to see you today. You have no idea. It’s always a crapshoot; will the newbies be back or not? You know? And you are, and that is incredible!”
“For who?” Even though I had made the choice, I was plagued with guilt.
“Two years ago, I went through exactly what you’re going through, and trust me, it gets better. Even though we’re a part of something so unbelievably phenomenal, that doesn’t mean the other side of the sword doesn’t affect us. We’re still human. But you’ll see. It’ll get better.”
“Thanks, Reba.” I really did appreciate this bubbly guy. Yet part of me wanted to resist his friendship, out of loyalty to Julie. I felt like I’d be replacing her. My inner circle was being dismantled and rebuilt.
“I have to tell you, though, what you go through next isn’t for the faint of heart. So hang on tight, and if you need a friend…” Reba held up his wrist. His flexer was in the form of a retro stopwatch. I took mine from my back pocket and we pressed them together.
“I gotta bounce now, chica, but how about lunch? I think we have it at the same time.”
“Yeah, we can do lunch.”
“Sweet!” And Reba was gone in the blink of an eye. I pulled up my locations map on my flexer. I pinpointed my first official session of my first real day as a citizen of Seneca: Mathematics in epidemiology. If I had to pick a least favorite session, this would be the one. I always hated discussing diseases but, hey, I get it, everyone hated it just the same and that’s why they were so set on finding ways to eradicate it in this new society.
I looked up from my entry point to determine which of four golden hallways I needed to take. In my direct line of vision, about forty-five yards down, there was a perfectly shaped head with a buzz cut. My eyes darted to the floor. There they were: blue combat boots. I looked up. His face. Two mysterious, different-colored eyes with a depth to them I so badly wanted to explore. I wanted for him to see me. He didn’t. I looked down the hall I needed to take, but he was headed in the opposite direction. By the time I looked back to where he’d been, he was gone.
The urge to follow him was magnetic. I moved without even thinking. I made it to where I’d last seen him standing. There were no doors in sight. Maybe one had opened up for him in the wall, like I had seen happen the day before. He could be anywhere. I needed to get to session, set to begin in two minutes. I definitely didn’t want to start things off on the wrong foot by being late.
As I headed back in the other direction, McKayla Gordon, Jennifer Wallingsford’s sour friend, appeared.
“Hi, McKayla.” I figured if I was here to stay, it was probably best to play nice. No need to have enemies right off the bat in a brand new place. Neutrality was my goal.
“Not feeling suicidal today are you, Nirvana?” She smirked and eyed me as a doorway opened up in the golden wall for her.
“Not today, but thanks for your concern.”
I watched her saunter past me, through the instant door and into her session. I glimpsed inside the room and was about to walk away when something caught my eye. McKayla sat in front of him. Blue Combat Boots was in her session. He looked up and saw me staring at him from outside the room. And just like that, the door glazed over in the mirrored gold and I was staring back at myself. Or a version of myself that was acting like a silly little girl with a silly little crush. A girl I didn’t know. I snapped out of it. With one minute to get to session, I booked it back down the hall and made it to my seat with seconds to spare.
RATHER THAN JOINING the other girls of the dorm for our morning ride into Seneca, Ellen picked me up in a flighter with a driver and a special guard. These two were always with her. They were in the front. She was in the back. I wasn’t sure where we were headed. But I was getting used to that.
She handed me a coffee. “Do you like mochas?” It was my first real whiff of coffee since the last time I’d been inside Café Firenze four mornings before. (Had it really only been four days ago that all this had begun?) I swiped the cup from Ellen’s hand, took the lid off and slurped up the still unmelted whipped cream atop the silky, chocolate-infused espresso milk. One whiff of the rich aroma made my heart ache, made me miss my mom more than I ever knew I could. It was even more painful than missing my dad, I think, because I had chosen to do it.
“You made the right choice, Doro.”
I took a sip– it hurt so good. “That’s what I hear… I hope so.”
“I made the same choice three years ago, when I accepted Congressman Wallingsford’s invitation to join Seneca’s Youth Initiation Division.”
Ellen was touching her necklace, her eyes chock full of sorrow. I felt an energy emanating from her that resonated with me. An understanding between us. She removed her necklace. It was a Yin Yang in silver and gold, with two diamonds as the dots, each encircled in the metal of the opposite side. Her hand started to shake. She opened it. It was a locket, and inside was a tiny picture of her and a little boy. He must have been around eight or nine. “It was the hardest thing I’d ever done. The hardest thing I’ll ever do. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about him, or a night when he isn’t present in my dreams.”
It was her son. I didn’t have to ask. “What’s his name?”
“Connor. I call him Con Con. He’ll never understand why I never came home.”
We sat in silence for the rest of the ride. I wasn’t the only one who’d made a big sacrifice.
The flighter traveled deeper and deeper into lush greenery, away from civilization. It was quite possibly the most scenic trip I’d taken in my entire life. I saw virtually no signs of human life other than train tracks and a dozen or more freight trucks as we flighted down 81 South. The Smart Road was populated with automated vehicles. That was where the majority of the traffic was, if you’d even call it traffic, which you wouldn’t. Besides the highway, the Smart Road and a flighter here and there, we were just like a brush sweeping across nature’s paint palette, collecting all its richness in our bristles. My lungs opened up to the thick, moist air, my eyes as wide as an owl’s in the dark of night. Except it was twilight, and the sky was still a deep sea blue, only just beginning its slow fade to black.
We reached a mountainous area of Southern Virginia and the flighter landed in a secluded nook, next to a lake. The water was still and inviting. As the seasons changed, the robust green that filled the branches here was speckled ever so lightly with maroon and orange.
“This is Claytor Lake.”
“Isn’t it? All this is the result of a dam built on the oldest river in North America. It’s an ancient gift that, fortunately, man has not yet destroyed. The dam once provided this region with much of its hydroelectric power. Southern Gate Electric, a utilities company owned by Congressman Wallingsford’s brother, Billy, bought the dam five years ago and Seneca had it converted to power a large portion of the Northwestern Seneca hemisphere. This small area provides us with a substantial source of power that allows us to do the things we do. It’s also used to cool our super computers. Right now, we’re standing directly above the greatest computing center in the world as well as one of Seneca’s premier medical hubs.”
I looked around, trying to pinpoint any sign of this. Nothing. In fact, everything I saw was natural and gorgeous— the antithesis of the artificial world of computers. “You would never know.”
“And for the most part, no one does.”
The mysterious men in blue shadowed us. About a hundred yards down, near the forest’s edge, I saw a circle of grass with a gold ring. The entrance.
“Come on, let me show you.”
Our little posse met two more men in blue at the entrance, trading places with our original escorts who turned back to the flighter. We stepped onto the encircled grass patch. The gold dome appeared and then, quickly, we descended. I was kind of surprised that taking this advanced elevator down inside the earth was beginning to feel normal.
“Doro, this is where you’ll be spending a lot of time once you go through your pre-requisite session work at S.E.R.C.”
When the gold dissolved, the forest’s sweet serenity was replaced by walls of computer monitors, all pumping out droves of data. This place was like my bedroom on insane mega steroids. An open workspace. People everywhere, young and old, of every ethnicity, working together or apart on intricate spreadsheets of equations and data. The buzz of machinery and voices blended symphonically. The smell of technology, what an aphrodisiac! Everyone looked enthusiastic about the work they were focussed on. This was an absolute wonderland to a tech junkie like me.
I started along a five-foot-wide gold path that ran through the middle of the open space. One group in blue caught my eye. They were all my age and were working with people of various ages, from a three-year-old girl to a man of about sixty. I skidded to a stop. One of those people was Blue Combat Boots. Everything around me faded to a blur, then pulled focus on him. Blue Combat Boots was working with the sixty-something man, taking stats from sensors on the man’s body as he walked on a treadmill.
“Doro? You coming?”
“Yes… what’s going on over there?”
“That’s a regenerative medicine residency for advanced S.E.R.C. scholars.”
“So what, like physical therapy?”
“Like growing limbs for patients that were either born without them, or lost them in situations like land mine explosions or car accidents. Even people who had their lungs removed from cancer can have brand new lungs that work better than the ones they were born with.”
This was absolutely amazing. These patients were moving their arms and legs as if they’d always had healthy ones. Scientists had been trying to perfect this advancement in the Aboves for decades. Here in Seneca, it was so normal that not only doctors were analyzing patients’ progress, but people my age were, too. And one of those people was Blue Combat Boots. This guy wasn’t anything like the ones I went to school with back in LA. Oh no, he most certainly was not. I stood there watching him as he and the older man shared a joke.
“There will be plenty of time for you to explore all of this, but today we have a different agenda.”
I looked at Ellen Malone with the wonder of a kid on Christmas morning. If only I could stay in this spot for just a few moments more. But she didn’t return my “this is going to be fun” look, and so I followed her, looking back until I was beyond where I could see him anymore.
“There’s an awful disease endemic to Seneca that comes from an abundant fauna in the Southeastern Hemisphere. Necrolla Carne. It’s an organism that slowly eats away at the human body, causing a long, drawn-out death. It’s something you never, ever want to witness.”
“Um, that is repulsive. Makes my skin crawl just thinking about it.” Ellen was amused as I scratched furiously at my arms. Talk of disease always made me feel the symptoms. Just like my dad. He was always washing his hands thoroughly, all the way up to his elbows.
“Fortunately, our medical research and development team has developed a vaccine that immunizes us from it.”
“A shot? I’m getting a shot today?”
“It’s not too bad.”
“It’s the worst. I hate shots. I hate needles. I might pass out.”
Ellen laughed. I did, too, but out of nervousness, not amusement. Soon we entered a medical wing that made every doctor’s office I’d ever visited back home look like an exhibit in a history museum. Ellen explained that I wouldn’t see a doctor unless a problem arose, and that was only three to five percent of the time. Instead, a lot of my experience would be automated or handled by technicians.
I followed the footpath map to the med-unit, which had been transmitted to my flexer upon entry. I marveled at the white touch screen with blue typeface that covered the entire length of the wall. It was an automated system that managed the devices within each med-unit and was overseen by a few med-techs in powder blue lab coats. My flexer notified me that I had reached my med-unit, so I stopped and went inside as the golden door opened.
My instructions were relayed to me by an automated narration in a calming female voice: “Take a seat.” “Roll up your sleeve.” “Open your mouth.”
Even though I was a little nervous, I laid back in a robotic chair that did all the work a nurse or doctor always had done in the past, and surprised myself by thinking that I trusted this machine more than I would an actual doctor. My physical statistical data was transmitted from the chair back to the computer for analysis and report, and the machine said, “You are healthy, Dorothy.”
If this technology already existed, why couldn’t it happen up in the Aboves? No sooner had I begun to ponder that than a voice instructed me to expose my left shoulder for that dreadful shot.
I WOKE UP in a haze and a cold sweat. I was literally drenched, back in my bed back at the ambassadors’ house. Ellen Malone must have brought me back while I was out cold. Things were a little blurry, but after a moment, I regained focus and grabbed for the glass of water at my bedside. I downed it. That vaccine was no joke. Luckily it was preparing my body to fight this disgusting Necrolla Carne disease. No way was I going to take the chance of getting some retched flesh-eating organism.
I was thankful for the comforts of the ambassador’s house right now. It was Friday, my last day there, my last days living in the Aboves. Over the weekend I would be set up in my new habitat in Seneca. It was surreal, to say the least, to know that I was moving to a location below the surface of the Earth. Permanently.
It was no sweat off anyone’s back that I wasn’t making it to that Friday’s sessions. I guessed this vaccination was something every citizen of Seneca went through, and my reaction was no different than anybody else’s.
There was a light tap at my door and Jennifer Wallingsford poked her head in. It was the middle of the day and the mansion had been so quiet that I thought I was alone.
“Hi there.” Her face bloomed in sympathetic recognition, “Oh, the Necrolla Carne vaccine. Isn’t itthe worst?”
“I just feel like death, but other than that, no big deal.”
“Seriously. Well, it’s worth it for a day of feeling like death over a permanent real death.”
“I have the day off to pack for my family vacation to Cape Cod. Do you want me to get you anything before I go?”
“No thanks, no appetite.”
Jennifer was in sweats but still managed to look extremely put together. Like she was in a catalogue for high-end varsity athletic gear. It stung me in the gut when she said she’d be with her family. It not only made me jealous, but I felt cheated too. How come she could be with her family, but I’d been forcibly separated from my mom– especially while I was still dealing with losing my dad? My stomach was crippled with queasiness, not just from the shot, but also from the thought of not seeing my mom again.
A deep voice called up from downstairs. “J. Wall?!”
“I’m upstairs,” she hollered back down. “My twin brother. Time to go.”
Her twin brother: G.W. Wallingsford. From what I had always heard, the Wallingsfords were related to the first president of our country, George Washington. And so the first initial of his name was for George after the most famous George of all, and the middle initial, W, was for William, his uncle. G.W. had been in the news a lot because he had gotten busted at a party in Georgetown with a bunch of Mojo’d-out teenagers. The whole thing was pushed under the rug faster than a BoomJet as G.W. suddenly started speaking out on behalf of the anti-Mojo movement. He’d become their poster-child.
The Mojo Stick was a nano technology that rendered all other recreational drugs obsolete. Now you could just inject a micro-computerized version of your drug trip of choice straight into your bloodstream. There were cocktails of every variety, you name it. Anything from a light buzz to being completely out of it. Since there was no chance of overdose, people who wouldn’t normally try drugs, did. I had never tried it, and never would because there was no way I was sticking a needle into myself for fun. The government was trying to block Mojo Sticks because even though you wouldn’t die from using them, they were turning people into drugged-out zombies. There was an absurd demand for these things. A multi-trillion-dollar industry had grown up overnight.
G.W. poked his head in the doorway. You could tell in a second that they were twins, because like his sister, he didn’t look like a teenager and his voice was deep like a man man. A head full of thick, blond, men’s shampoo commercial hair and light blue eyes made me want to believe anything he was about to say. Perfect white teeth, just like his dad’s, and athletic gear from head to toe that looked like it was fresh off the production line. He was not my type, but for almost every other girl, he was exactly the type, and I could understand why.
“Hi, Georgie. I just have a few more things to pack. Want to hang with Dorothy while I finish up? She just got to Seneca and had her Necrolla Carne vaccination today.”
“Oh, man. I feel your pain.”
“Thanks.” He seemed like a normal enough guy. Not so consistent with the bad boy image that had gotten so much press last year.
Jennifer sashayed out of the room and G.W. plunked down on the foot of my bed.
“So, where you from?”
“Nice! I love LA.”
“Me too. I miss it already.”
“Come out sometime with my crew and me, you won’t miss it anymore. We have some serious fun in these parts. It is possible, trust me.”
“Cool, okay.” I never trusted anyone who said “Trust me” and I wasn’t going to start with the notorious son of a congressman. On the other hand, I was definitely down for experiencing a good dose of his lifestyle, if only to see what it was like and tell Julie about it later.
“Feel better. I’m gonna hit the loo and head out for a weekend of hobnobbing with pops and the rest of the corruption contingency. Wish me luck I make it through in one piece.”
“Luck be with you.”
“Nice to meet you. Dorothy, right?”
“Doro. Cool. That’s slick.”
He jumped up and whistled his way out the door. Too bad for him I didn’t believe in luck.
SUNDAY NIGHT I was back to my sleepless self. Tossing and turning, hoping each one would be the last and I’d finally doze. Maybe that shot wasn’t so bad after all, considering I managed to get some rest, for once, right after I’d had it. The weekend was all about getting settled into my new digs. This place was pretty darn bizarre. It might be cool and all, but it lacked the comforts of home and I just couldn’t grasp how it could ever provide that. I longed for a welcoming lick bath from Killer, to get home from school and have my mom grill me on test scores. It was the little things that I would never experience again that I missed most.
Believe it or not, the noise from the double decker 405 Freeway that hovers below our 14th floor digs and bled through the double-paned windows and walls that might as well have been made of rice cakes. That is how we lived in Culver City, California. Not just us. Everyone.
When the California Gray Party jumped ship from the national agenda five years ago, and the Federal Government turned the other cheek, so began the official decline in Los Angeles civility. Truth be told, it was already headed in that direction, but the rogue state government definitely sealed the deal. People stopped paying taxes and there was nobody to regulate a thing. At first, with the disappearance of building codes and regulations in the interest of raising money, ambitious architectural projects sprouted up across the city. But when the money dried up, and it dried up quick, we were left with a landscape of sophisticated and new mixed with unfinished and broken down. Our building fell somewhere right in the middle because our landlord had owned it since it was built twenty years ago, and he took great pride in managing it. I missed that building.
I was alone now in my golden room. My new home. A twelve-by-twelve cube with sleek lighting and texture just like the hallway at S.E.R.C. and, in it, all of my necessities. My bed had no frame, just a single-sized mattress that emerged from the wall when I commanded it to. It would soften, harden and adhere to my temperature preferences. I shared a wing with six other girls my age, also in the S.E.R.C. program.
In anti-contamination efforts, I was given a three foot by three foot cube which could be filled with any personal belongings that I wanted to bring from the Aboves. It all would have to go through a weeklong sterilization process in the Quarantine and Cleansing sector. According to Reba, humans went through a heavy-duty decontamination “zap” inside the dome that brought us down from the Aboves. “The Aboves” was a term I came to know well, as everyone in Seneca referred to the surface of the Earth this way. I was no longer an American. I was a Senecan now, spending every waking second learning new things about my new life in this new world.
I’d just fallen into a catnap when Monday morning intruded as my flexer blurted that it was 7 a.m. My first session of the day would begin in an hour. I rolled out of bed, put on my Seneca blue robe and flip-flops, and headed to the restroom designated for my wing.
I had met a few hallmates while I was getting settled in, but had only exchanged small talk. I didn’t know anything about these girls other than their names. Everyone seemed nice enough and welcoming. They all had been newbies just like me not too long ago.
The restroom was golden, like everything else. Sterilized to the max. There were UV self-cleaning mechanisms in place and smart automatic dispensary nozzles for water in the showers and sinks. I was super fascinated by the waterless toilets. They had a special red liquid that transported the waste away for conversion and gasification. We each had our own cubby that opened by flexer identification. Inside it we kept our shampoo, soap and mouthbrushes, Seneca’s own version of toothbrushes. During my visit to Claytor Lake, not only did I get my Necrolla Carne vaccination, but they also swiped DNA samples, drew blood, did a full body scan and took a mold of my mouth, which they used to form my mouthbrush. It fits like a mouth guard and has five hundred tiny, powered bristles that, in ten seconds, does a better job brushing my teeth than I could in two minutes. I’ve always been a huge fan of efficiency, and in Seneca efficiency is scripture.
I got ready in a rush, and then took a one-minute ride in a super-speed acoustic carrier from the youth residential sector into S.E.R.C. It was my first time being transported through the air by sound waves. I feel like they should be called “non-sound” waves since the frequency is too high for us to hear anything at all. Quiet, quick, safe and devoid of harmful emissions, acoustic carriers are the only mode of transportation within Seneca City. It’s a technology that people in the Aboves recently started to experience commercially on a limited basis. In Seneca it was completely normal and it made me feel like I had stepped into a new life in the future.
My goal was to get to S.E.R.C. early and be on the lookout for Blue Combat Boots. I’d thought about him a lot since I’d seen him last. My dad had always reminded me that I had important things to do in life and said that focusing on boys would just interfere. He said he was the only guy I needed, at least for the time being, but I didn’t have him now, and the way Blue Combat Boots made me feel was out of my control. If my dad could know what had happened to me over just these last few days, I was pretty sure he would understand. I truly aspired to be everything he wanted for me. But I wasn’t the first, and I wouldn’t be the last girl to be swept away by a mysterious guy with electric eyes. I wanted to know so many things about him. Where was his golden living cube? How long had he been here? How did Seneca find him? He was apparently involved in Seneca’s advanced medical arena, but what exactly was he doing?
I posted up in the hall and waited… and waited, and waited. It was three minutes before session.
I let out a sigh.
“Oh sorry, not the person you wanted to see first thing on a Monday?” Reba’s sincerity brought me a dose of warmth I’d been missing. I hugged him and could tell he was pleasantly surprised.
“No, no, I’m sorry, Reba, I just– it was a long weekend. The vaccination kicked my butt. You know how it goes.”
“Do I ever. I told you it wasn’t going to be pretty.”
“You weren’t lying.”
“Chica, Puerto Ricans never lie.”
“And what about Senecans?”
He raised an eyebrow and grinned. “Touché.”
I looked up over his shoulder, trying to focus on the spot where I’d last seen Blue Combat Boots in S.E.R.C. Reba could tell I was pre-occupied.
“Well, glad to see you survived. Better safe than sorry. Who wants their face eaten off by a flesh-eating parasite, right?”
There he was. He was probably fifteen yards from the location where he’d entered his session last week. I had to get to him before he went inside. At least get close enough so that he would notice me. I ducked out from my conversation with Reba, “Gotta go, see you later?”
“Sure, okay. Lunch!”
At any other time I would have loved chatting with my new friend, but this mission was top priority. Our eyes had to meet again. I didn’t take mine off of him. He stopped a few steps away from the door and took a look at his flexer. It was black and blue and wrapped around his wrist. I slowly moved in closer. I felt my temperature rising, my breath quickening. Every face in my periphery was blank except for his. I studied him. His serious expression, the way his sideburns faded into the stubble that traveled down around his chin and over his top lip. He was the perfect mix of babyface and rugged. I wanted to know him so bad. He was still, while everyone around him was in motion. I started in his direction, trying not to be obvious.
In the blink of an eye, I felt myself twirled around, a door opened in the wall and I was moved through it by another body. I was in the dark, with someone else’s breath closing in on me. I stood stock-still.
And then we were illuminated. Blue Combat Boots and me. His flexer lit the room with its screen. Not a room, but a small closet, with walls lined in liquid mercury control panels.
“Who are you and why are you following me?”
“I’m sorry, I was just– I wasn’t following you.”
“You were. I saw you last week. Friday you came outside my first session and now you’re back.”
Busted. We stared each other down, each one having a completely different reason than the other.
“Tell me what you want.”
He looked paranoid, guarded and intent on getting answers.
“I am so sorry, I think you have the wrong idea.”
“I don’t have any idea. I just see what I see and want to know what’s going on.”
“I totally get that and I realize how this might seem. Wow. I’m totally not spying on you or anything crazy. I’m Doro. I’m new here.”
“Uh huh…” It wasn’t enough.
“I just thought you looked… interesting.”
Okay. I had dug myself into a hole. At this rate, things were not looking good. If I wanted to save face, my only option was to go with honesty. “I saw you on my first day and thought you were…” Wow. No matter what I said next, I was destined to sound like a fool–
He breathed a sigh of relief. I allowed myself a bashful smile. He squinted but didn’t blink. I welcomed the way his eyes pierced right through me. His paranoid, guarded, intent gaze morphed. He squished his lips in thought, trying to get a read on me, I could tell. Although these weren’t ideal circumstances for a first meeting, I was glad that it looked like he believed me.
“You just sent me into code red, you know.”
“I know. Bad move. I really didn’t mean to cause you any–”
“It’s okay. We’re good.”
He said we were good. I was closer to him than I could have imagined on this mission, and we were speaking, one on one, with no one else around. I could get used to this.
Suddenly, our flexer notifications went off at the same time. It broke the tension and we both laughed. Session was beginning.
“Dang.” He muttered as he turned, flexer raised. The golden door opened, and he was gone.
AS THE WEEKS went by, I started feeling kind of down. Becoming acclimated to Seneca was a thrill and there were no dull moments, but I missed my family to death. If family was everything, then I had nothing. It wasn’t enough that they were in my memories and digital images tucked away in the depths of my Veil— the virtual location in which all of a person’s important data resided. I needed my mom. I was sixteen and I had lost both of my parents. I couldn’t accept it. Somehow, I had to find the way to fight for the one parent I had left.
I sat on the floor of my room scrolling through old pictures: the Campbell family joking around, our house and yard in the Glendale ‘burbs, the lemon tree my mom and I used to make lemonade from. My dad would come home from work right before I went to bed and tell us stories about what had gone on in his lab that day. He said goodbye to me in the morning and goodnight to me at bedtime, but other than that, during the week, all he did was work. His company was subcontracted by the largest particle collision research and testing facility in the world. The last thing he and his partners had created before he disappeared was an element. He told me he’d call it Doromium and that it was the thing he was most proud of in life besides me. But on weekends, there was no talk of work. We’d pack up and drive to Joshua Tree, where we’d spend all day collecting rocks and eating PB&Js with bananas. Then, when Mom and I slept, he’d stay up all night to work.
The hole in my heart wasn’t going away. It was growing more and more raw by the hour. It was beginning to feel like I’d better do something fast, or eventually there would be no heart left to beat.
I had to find a way to let my mom know what was going on. Even more important than that, I had to get my mom into Seneca. She deserved this better life too. As a matter-of-fact, if we are all equal like I’ve always been taught and I truly believe, then what we were creating in Seneca belonged to everyone, not just to some elite selection of quirky geniuses.
It was Sunday afternoon. I’d spent the last sixty-two hours alone. If I had to endure one more, I’d go clinical. I flexed Reba. He picked up after one ring. “Campbella!”
“Never too busy for my main California girl. Que pasa?”
“Just thought you might want to grab a late Sunday brunch or something.”
“Pick you up in five!” He was at my door in four.
“Thanks for coming over.”
“What are you in the mood for? Eggs, pancakes, a chocolate milkshake?”
“Chilaquiles.” I was homesick like nobody’s business and needed a plate of queso-drenched chilaquiles like a medical emergency of the highest order.
Ten minutes later we were seated in the best Mexican restaurant in our sector. Food was not a problem in Seneca. Top chefs and culinary gurus from across the globe were among those being recruited, as well as botanical and farming experts. If there was an expert for something, you best believe they were being recruited to Seneca. We had the best hydroponic and organic produce and meats, prepared in the most brilliant ways. New citizens were in for serious palate thrills when they got here.
After salivating at the amazing aromas, I had no trouble gorging on my favorite spicy delights. My eyes were closed, as they always were when I wanted to hone in on a particular sense, except sight of course. When I opened them, Reba was sitting in front of his untouched plate, just smiling, watching me.
“You’re a funny eater, Campbella.”
I launched a tortilla chip straight at him. He picked it up and ate it. It was good to have a real friend here. Someone who would eat food off your plate, meet you for lunch on a minute’s notice and maybe even give you the details on Blue Combat Boots. I still didn’t know his name.
“Sooo… I was wondering.”
“What? I haven’t even said anything.”
“You’ve said enough. I liked it better when you were throwing food at me. How about that kernel of corn?”
He always brought such a great energy to the moment. I had completely forgotten the creeping depression that had been taking me under less than an hour before.
“Look. I saw who you were checking out. On the first day, and the day when you first got back from getting your Necrolla shot.”
I could tell that this was not what he wanted to be talking about. But I knew he had the dirt, and the anticipation was building. I flicked a sour cream-covered corn kernel and it hit him square in the forehead.
“Yeah! That’s my girl.”
“So, what, you don’t want to tell me? I have to find out for myself, is that the deal?”
“Okay. What exactly do you want to know?”
Reba sat back. He was going to give me the info I wanted because he’d known all along that this conversation was inevitable… and that it was going to go down with a patch of sour cream between his eyes.
“Dominic.” I softly repeated his name like it was the finest name I’d ever heard.
“Look. I know he’s got some weird magnetic thing about him that girls are really into. Trust me, I get it. But he’s not good for you.”
Didn’t Reba know that telling a girl a guy isn’t good for her can make the girl want the guy that much more?
“Yes. I know I’ve just made him even more attractive, but I’d like to think that you would trust me on this one.”
I waited to hear if he had a good enough reason for me to disregard the laws of attraction.
“Dominic came into Seneca at the same time as me. He’s a loner. Always keeps to himself, and isalways under some sort of investigation with S.O.I.L.”
“What is S.O.I.L.?”
“Seneca Observation and Intelligence League, aka, a much more hardcore version of the F.B.I. They know everything.”
“Sounds like Big Brother.”
“S.O.I.L. is like Big Brother’s older, smarter, cooler, stronger and much more ruthless brother.”
“You start down the path of interacting with Dominic Ambrosia, and you’re just asking for S.O.I.L. to be all over you like white on rice, for the rest of your life.”
I wasn’t so interested in my chilaquiles anymore.
THE ACOUSTIC CARRIER dropped us off at S.E.R.C. Monday morning. I wanted to dodge Reba so he wouldn’t ask me what I’d decided about Blue Combat Boots. Dominic. I scanned my surroundings as I stepped off the carrier. I was in the clear.
“Campbellllla. Just who I was looking for.”
Well, lots of things were unavoidable around here. “Hey Reebs.”
“Listen, about our conversation yesterday.”
“Exactly. Can we keep it that way? Dominic isn’t a bad guy. I just want the best for you is all.”
“You trust me, I trust you. Sounds like we have a pretty solid friendship.”
Reba smiled. “Be careful. That’s all I ask.”
I nodded. He knew what I was up to. This kid seriously had some incredible intuition going on, and the nose of a bloodhound. There was no pulling something over on him.
“Lunch.” He put his fist up for a bump, and I bumped him back
With five minutes to kill before first session, I booked it to the hallway where I invariably ran into Dominic. I waited until twenty seconds before my flexer session notification was set to go off, but no sign of him. I was royally bummed. Did Reba know Dominic wouldn’t be around today, and that’s why he was cool with me running off to find him?
I sat through my first few sessions that day completely unimpressed, even though what we were doing in them I normally would have found fascinating. Then, in Seneca Civics and Ethics we had a guest speaker. Seneca citizen, Julian Hollenbeck, was not only the head of America’s top television network, but he also owned news outlets and multi-media distribution networks around the globe. I was more than surprised to see him since, according to reports in the Aboves, he had died of brain cancer a few years back. According to Mr. Hollenbeck, he had been given the opportunity; if he stayed for good in Seneca, to instantaneously eradicate his terminal cancer, and then go on to develop media distribution channels for this new, advanced society. He gave a really inspiring speech about why Seneca is the place where you can carve a promising new future with other likeminded individuals. He reminded us that we were empowered here, unlike anywhere else. Now, more than ever, I wanted to align with the people who could help create a positive change in our world. I had an overwhelming feeling that Dominic would be one of those people.
My last session of the day was quantum computing freestyle. I was exhausted but pepped up when we were given a project. My session mates and I were each assigned a different country and given two hours to bypass international government agency defense systems to extract intelligence on American nationals who resided there. It wasn’t merely for the sake of taking a quiz. This was legit undercover operative stuff, and S.O.I.L. would use our information. There were twenty-two of us in the session. Whoever came up with the correct results first would be awarded an escorted trip to the Aboves with their guest of choice.
In seventeen minutes and six seconds flat I cracked the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence, a supposed zero-knowledge proof system. The session leaders reacted as if it was the greatest achievement since the inception of quantum algorithm freestyle. My session mates cheered like I was the quarterback who had just thrown a winning Hail Mary. This whole situation couldn’t have been more different from Mr. Malin’s calculus class back in LA, but the greatest thing of all was that Saturday afternoon I would get to visit Great Falls Park. Somehow, between now and then, I was determined to locate and invite my boy in blue combat boots.
TUESDAY, WEDNESDAY AND Thursday all came and went. Every morning I scoped out Dominic’s first session, but he was nowhere to be seen. By Friday, when I stepped off the acoustic carrier, I was convinced that this day wouldn’t be any different. I hadn’t seen Reba all week either. He hadn’t shown up at our normal meeting spot for lunch, nor was he at the arrival pad when I came in the mornings. I’m sure he was disappointed that I was pursuing Dominic. Part of me felt bad, but I knew I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I was just following my instincts, which were just about all I had left from my former life in the Aboves.
I had a funny feeling and as I looked up, Dominic was there, exactly where I was hoping to catch up with him. When he saw me standing there, we stared each other down. This was my only chance. If I didn’t approach him now, I wouldn’t be able to invite him to the Aboves. He turned away and started along the golden wall towards his session. I booked it after him.
He lifted his flexer, and as the doorway began to open up, I did the only thing I knew would get his attention. “Dominic!”
He put his arm down. The door glazed back over as he pivoted slowly. I strode right up to him, having no idea where I got the nerve.
He looked me over. It was a “you again” sort of look, only this time, he wasn’t paranoid and guarded at all. I didn’t know how to begin, so I just went for it.
“You haven’t been around the past few days.”
“Nice of you to notice.”
“You didn’t catch the Necrolla Carne did you?” I thought I was being pretty freaking funny.
And there it was. His lips finally formed what everyone else in Seneca had given up so easily. A smile. My heart melted. I felt it drip down inside my chest. My knees almost buckled, making it an effort just to stand up straight. I hoped he couldn’t tell.
He leaned in and whispered into my ear, so softly I could barely hear him but I could feel his warm breath and it gave me butterflies. “You don’t believe that, do you? I was under the impression that you were smarter than the rest.”
I wasn’t sure what he meant, but I didn’t want to get into that at the moment. Once again, our next sessions were starting in a second or two. “Look,” he said, “I gotta get to session. I can’t be calling any more attention to myself than I already have.” He turned away from me.
It was now or never. “Hey! Listen. I was awarded a trip to the Aboves because of a thing I figured out fast in my quantum computing freestyle session… and I get to take a guest. I’m new here, don’t know that many people and…”
“You’re inviting me to go with you to the Aboves?”
“Well, if you’re not busy Saturday afternoon and–”
“I’ll meet you at the base of Sector Twelve at nine.”
Without waiting for my response, he moved through the doorway that was open for a handful of others headed into session.
I LAY IN bed watching the news on my flexer projector at nine o’clock on Friday night. Not that I’m big on the news, in all honesty, but everything else was a rerun and I’m not a fan of media that isn’t on its first run. It must be something about feeling up to date, not stuck in the past. Guess that crosses over to many areas of my life. Tonight’s main story was focused on how the Seneca medical community should be commended for their record in containing 98 per cent of the Necrolla Carne cases. I was right there with them, silently congratulating and counting my blessings. At the same time, I was turned off by the amount of time and attention Necrolla Carne got in Seneca.
All in all, I couldn’t complain about the variety of media available to us here. Virtually every song that ever had been recorded and every movie ever made were at my fingertips. Each Senecan had the same level of access, and it was free. Hollenbeck Media from the Aboves scored the exclusive deal to provide entertainment to all of Seneca and ran it under the “Big Bang Boom Media” banner. Otherwise known as B3, the symbol was just about everywhere you looked and constantly popping up on my flexer to let me know about some new offering.
A knock at my door startled me. Nobody ever knocked at my door and I wasn’t expecting anyone. I got up and moved to the door, pushed my ear up against it. “Who is it?”
“Hi Doro, it’s Ellen–”
I commanded the door to dissolve. It was nice to see familiar faces. I hugged Ellen, then went to shake Gregory’s hand, but he gave me a big ol’ bear hug instead.
“Hey. This is a surprise.”
Gregory barely gave Ellen a chance to speak. “We thought we’d stop in and see how you were taking to your new living situation.”
“Not bad. The food here is ridiculous. And I have a couple new friends, so–”
“That’s good to hear, Doro. I knew you’d fit right in,” Ellen said sincerely as she checked out my room. “You look like you’ve settled in nicely.”
“Yeah. Still doesn’t feel like home, but I know that doesn’t happen over night.”
Gregory took a seat on my desk, feet up on the chair. “Better than college dorms in the Aboves. You should have seen where I lived when I was at the Naval Academy. I was in a sports dorm, too, so it was extra nasty. Compared to that, you’re living in the lap of luxury.”
Gregory and Ellen laughed.
“I can’t complain.”
Ellen looked genuinely happy to see that I was doing well. Every time I was around her, I felt like she had my back. She had shared some deeply personal things with me, and I knew that, above all the business and politics, she had that maternal vibe going on and it needed an outlet. At the same time, Gregory was over the top with his cheeriness and I had no reason whatsoever to trust this guy. I wasn’t one to buy into that whole “any friend of yours is a friend of mine” boloney. No thanks. Plus, I wasn’t thrilled with the way he always seemed to interrupt Ellen. And here he was again, trying to buddy up to me. “Any plans with friends this weekend?”
“Actually, yeah, did you hear about how I cracked the Iranian Ministry defense systems?”
“We sure did.”
Gregory put his hand up for a high five. I threw one up to him. Why not? Might as well play along with the whole “buddies” song and dance to keep my new status intact. The people here appreciated me, and it was a relief after the way things had been at school back in LA.
“As my reward, tomorrow I get a trip to the Aboves. I’m going to Great Falls Park.”
“Great Falls is beautiful. It’s one of the best-kept secrets in the area. You’ll love it.” Ellen said.
“I cannot wait to feel the sun on my skin. Even though I was never one for tanning and all that, it’s definitely a ‘you don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone’ kinda thing.”
“That it is. Well, soak it up. You deserve it.” Ellen meant it. I appreciated her being proud of me.
“And what deserving friend will be accompanying you?”
I blushed. Now it felt like prying.
Gregory caught on. “Uh-oh, must be a love interest. Someone’s cheeks are on fire!”
“It’s not love. I met this guy Dominic at S.E.R.C. I don’t know too many people and thought it would be fun to do this with him, so I invited him and he accepted.”
Ellen didn’t show much expression, just a little nod. “I know Dominic. I actually recruited him in one of my first ever on-location visits.”
Ellen knew Dominic. Did everyone know Dominic?
Gregory chimed in, “Smart kid.”
“That he is. He’s also… Let’s just say, be careful how much you share with him about yourself and what you’re doing here. And take what he says with a grain of salt,” Ellen said.
It was fascinating. Everyone seemed to have an opinion on this guy. Now, more than ever, I wanted to form my own opinion. His intrigue factor had grown exponentially with this visit from Ellen and Gregory and, for me, that’s what caught my interest. Not someone’s looks, their sense of humor or how kind they are to babies. The mystery of what was going on in his mind was a major attraction– the unknown, the element of surprise. But I had to reassure Ellen and Gregory that I’d heard their advice, so they’d quit worrying about it.
“I will definitely keep that in mind. Really. I’m just looking to enjoy nature and have a good time with someone my age.”
Ellen nodded. “Perfect, and you should. You have my flexer if you need to talk. Anytime, day or night, I’m here for you, Doro.”
NINE A.M. SATURDAY could not come soon enough. Especially since my eyelids refused to cooperate with my overwhelming desire for sleep. I lay there in complete silence and avoided my flexer because I knew giving in to it would squash any chance of slipping back to sleep. Who was I kidding? It was going to be another all-nighter whether I liked it or not.
All I could think about was Dominic. Why did Ellen seem anxious about our potential bond? I was beginning to wonder if she had stopped by because she knew I’d be with him on Saturday, and not just for a social visit. She could have asked me how I was settling in anytime. Something was up. I might have been new to Seneca, but in real life I was no spring chicken.
I was relieved, to say the least, when my flexer finally signaled eight a.m. Unlike the Aboves, where the sun would come out and tap into your natural biorhythms to get you going, here we had to rely entirely on artificial light and flexer notifications to know the difference between night and day.
I was anxiously waiting for Dominic at 8:57. It seemed like light years later when I watched my flexer switch to 9:00, and there was a tap on my shoulder.
“Ready for our big date?”
I felt my face flush. Oh no, please let him think I’m just a rosy skin-toned person. I really had to get this thing in check.
Dominic looked around as he squished his lips together. I loved it when he did that.
“I don’t see anyone else here in this conversation.”
“Sorry, I didn’t get much sleep.”
“Hey, no worries, you can be formal all day long if you want, but I’m on vacation. Hope that’s okay with you. I haven’t seen the sun in over seven hundred days, so this is a pretty epic day for me… And by the way, you can call me Dom. It’s what my friends back home all called me.”
I was blown away. Seven hundred days? Really? Even though I technically knew what was in store living here without sun, I couldn’t comprehend being in his shoes. Or, rather, his blue combat boots.
“Oh, for sure. I’m dying to get out of here for a breather, too. It will be good to get a reality check.”
“Reality. Funny thing, ain’t it?”
Dom made some odd comments. Ones that made me wonder what he really meant. But I still wasn’t ready to ask.
“We don’t have to be at the entrance point until ten. Want to get some food first?”
“Doro, let me tell you something about me–”
Um, yes please, I thought…
“I’m always ready to get something to eat.”
Ah, how refreshing. Dominic Ambrosia was handsome, witty, unequivocally mysterious, and a good eater!
THE RESTAURANT DISTRICT was a dreamlike version of a place I remember visiting as a kid. The sun beat down on me, interrupted only by rustling leaves from tall oak trees. I looked up, squinting to see how this could possibly be. The soft, cornflower blue sky blew me a kiss as a sweet floral breeze swept my hair across my face, tickling my nose. It reminded me of the outdoor mall near the beach in Santa Monica. Birds chirping, kids laughing, babies crying. All kinds of people and every kind of food. I heard murmurs of different languages– Mandarin, Spanish, Russian… Incredibly, I almost forgot I was with Dom, my attention was so absorbed by all the mouthwatering aromas around us. Dom didn’t seem as mesmerized by this place as I was. He cut into a doorway and I followed, looking back over my shoulder.
We were at a sushi spot that he said he went to every weekend. We sat at the sushi bar. I thought it was funny that we were having sushi for breakfast, but fresh, edible, wild fish had not been available in my lifetime, so this was a mouthwatering treat. Salmon, halibut, cod, and assorted rare fish and seafood were transported here on BoomJets from places that had the remaining clean water on the planet. They had also been testing new ways to replicate wild breeding here. Senecans were the only population with the privilege to enjoy these delicacies as regular eating habits. I could seriously get used to this.
Our first time eating together wasn’t as carefree and lighthearted as my lunches and brunches with Reba. I didn’t ask a lot of questions, but when I did, Dom answered with a question in return. He was obviously still vetting me. Could I be trusted and what was my motivation? Not the typical form of assessment I was used to from my peers. Usually it was questions about what musicians I like or if I got invited to some popular kid’s party last Saturday night.
This morning I learned one thing about Dom. He was fluent in Japanese, and best buds with this restaurant’s 28-year-old sushi chef, Ty. Ty had been recruited to Seneca because he had started a highly addictive sushi franchise that spread across Asia, Europe and the Middle East. It was literally the fastest growing food chain in world history. Addiction was an understatement. Ty knew exactly what Dom liked, so I went ahead and tried it all. No exaggeration, these were hands down the most explosive bites of food I’d ever tasted. Dom slowly savored each bite as he explained to me that in Seneca Ty was pushing the envelope of sushi preparation in a way he never could in the Aboves. He took the most ideal, fresh cuts of fish, and through the use of nanocapsules, he matched them with flavors of the customer’s choosing. Ty’s menu had everything from kumquat to truffle, which was injected into the fish for a timed release to deliver an eruption of flavor in your mouth at just the right moment. There was no question about it– I would be back for the jalapeno lime-infused halibut cheek.
Ty spoke English pretty well. When he and Dom flipped to Japanese, I sensed that they were talking about me. It seemed to be in a good way, though.
“You will take Dom to see the sun today. No wonder he likes you.”
Please don’t blush. Please don’t blush, please, please, please… I took a huge gulp of water. Dom didn’t notice– he was meticulously cleaning his vintage wooden chopsticks, which he obviously cherished like I did my vinyl LPs.
Dom grinned. “Don’t get ahead of yourself, Ty.”
“Enjoy for me too. Maybe next time I be your guest?”
“Whoa there, buddy. This is my gig!”
Finally, things were lightening up around the dark and mysterious Dominic Ambrosia. It was nice to see him become a little possessive about his guest spot on my Great Falls Park excursion. Whether it was because of the sun, or because of me, it’s where he wanted to be and that was all that mattered.
We left our sushi breakfast feeling incredibly good. I could see why this was Dom’s favorite eating establishment in Seneca. Ty was cool, and his otherworldly food increased his cool factor tenfold. I’d definitely be back… but first I had to take Dom for chilaquiles.
AS WE WALKED to the point where we would be joined by the men in blue for our ascent to the Aboves I tried to imagine what was on Dom’s beautiful mind. I watched from the corner of my eye, knowing he was deep inside his own head. He scrunched his lips a lot. I didn’t want to disturb him, so I decided to let him be the one that broke the silence this time.
One man and one woman in blue awaited our arrival. Without speaking they joined us in the dome, and up we went. What was normally a one-minute ride lasted forever with these mutes. It couldn’t have been more awkward.
I wanted to catch every emotion Dom showed once he was at the top, truly experiencing the Aboves’ daylight, after so long. He was so absorbed in the moment that he never even noticed that I was staring at him.
We came to a stop and he closed his eyes as the golden dome opened up to Virginia’s blue gray sky. I watched him turn his face up and welcome the cool filtered light of the autumn sun onto his milky skin. He may have wanted to hide what he was really feeling, and he might have fooled the other two, but I could see an emotional meteor storm erupting behind those gripping eyes of his. Dom’s reaction to the world he hadn’t seen in two years was fascinating, heartwarming and sad to me all at the same time.
The sun shone down between streaks of cirrus clouds that were scattered high up in the sky. It was an ideal day for our visit. A small flock of birds flew over us, migrating south. Dom locked eyes on the flock. I could hear him breathing deeply, absorbing the real, if somewhat polluted, air of the Aboves. I didn’t want to disturb his moment, so I climbed into the flighter that was waiting for us. He would come when he was ready.
Twenty minutes later, the flighter deposited us in a desolate area of Great Falls Park called Difficult Run. There wasn’t a sign of anyone else anywhere around us. I wondered if this section of the park had been taken off the public access maps and repurposed for Seneca’s use only. Actually, I would’ve been surprised if that weren’t the case.
“In two hours we will depart.” Those were the first words uttered by the folks in blue. They weren’t messing around.
Dom wasted no time. He set off through the treed area, on a path towards the water. I followed. Finally, we were alone, without what I’d come to think of as our handlers. His pace grew quicker the closer we got to the water and I found myself practically jogging to keep up. We came to a point overlooking the Potomac, its powerful rapids mesmerizing. This was a force of nature that we both wanted to absorb in all its might.
The jagged rocks jetting out from the riverbed created a fast, intense flow of whitewater. A light, silky breeze contrasted with the dangerous rapids. I loved the sounds of the crashing water– so loud, but so soothing at the same time. Signs in various languages warned people not to try and swim in these uncertain waters. I hadn’t planned on swimming anyway.
“Come on, let’s go down by the water.” Dom had a vibrant energy about him, instigated just by being in the great outdoors. This new side of him, just as much as his intense, mysterious persona, was exciting to be around. We trekked down a steep path to a small pebbled embankment on our side of the river.
Dom sat down and took off his blue combat boots. I was surprised at how meticulous he was with his laces, carefully undoing each one and then winding them up with precision and placing them inside his boots. He set them down next to each other, in complete alignment, pointed directly at the river. He indicated that I should do the same. Was he planning on getting in that water? Hadn’t he seen the warning signs? Then he removed his flexer from his wrist and nodded to me, as if to say, “You do it, too.”
I was apprehensive, but didn’t want to appear weak or unwilling to try new, exciting things. Hey, I was the queen of trying new, exciting things. This was not the time for me to chicken out. Shoes came off, flexer out of my pocket. I looked at him, ready for the next dare.
Dom thrust his hand out. Better than a dare, this was a waking dream come true. I took his hand. He grasped mine tight and looked me in the eye. This wasn’t a sweet, romantic, handholding moment like in the movies. This was a sudden, intense connection unlike anything I had ever imagined. It was just the two of us, together, against the raging river. His strong gaze spoke a thousand words. I knew what we were about to do, and discretely took a deep breath.
Dom stepped onto a huge rock a couple feet out into the water, then turned around to help me join him on it. Was this as far as we were going? No. He turned to take another step, higher, to a series of extremely steep rocks. Now I wasn’t just intimidated. I was scared out of my mind, but tried my best to hide it.
It was frighteningly windy here above the rapids. My hair blew across my face, my teeth chattered a little bit. Dom’s eyes were filled with determination. I fed off of it as we crossed a few more rocks. He let go of my hand and leapt to a higher rock, then turned back to me and reached down for me to jump up to him. I hesitated.
“I won’t let you fall.”
In a complete lapse of self-control, I trusted him. And for some dumb reason, I closed my eyes when I jumped.
I landed on the rock! My foot slipped, scraping my shin– there was blood, streaks of deep red against my pale skin. My foot plunged into the freezing cold water, sending all of my senses into overdrive. Dom grasped my hand tight and didn’t let go. He was unfazed, and pulled me up onto the rock with him. There wasn’t much space to stand. We were as close as we’d been in the closet at S.E.R.C. Closer. Only this time, we were out in the great wide open, not squeezed inside the darkness of closed walls and a closet full of chemical controls.
He let go of my hand and jumped down from the rock. I was on top of the world. The crisp water that penetrated my bones brought with it a surge of strength from another dimension. Dom turned and reached his hand up for me. This time I didn’t take it. I didn’t need him to help me or show me the way. So far, on this little day trip to Difficult Run, he had taken the lead. But this was my excursion and he was my guest. I needed to prove myself. It wasn’t just about showing him that I was some badass chick. He was someone I needed to align myself with for so many reasons beyond even those that I was aware of. I needed to assure him that we were, indeed, cut from the same cloth.
And then I jumped. Something outside my body had taken over. After falling for what seemed like forever, I plunged into the only calm pool of water within sight. Under the freezing cold water, I welcomed the adrenaline rush like a long lost friend triggering the memory of my flighter heist with Julie and the exhilaration I’d felt then. I opened my eyes and surged back up into the humid Virginia air like a rocket from the river. I let out a wild scream of excitement and flung my hair out of my face just in time to see Dominic leaping off the cliff, the look of elation on his face during that free-fall something I’d never forget. He cannonballed and hit the water with a spectacular splash.
We surfaced and dove like porpoises, shouting out in pure euphoria. We didn’t need Mojo Sticks– all we needed was each other and this sickening landscape.
We both bobbed up and down, doggy paddling, laughing and splashing around. My intuition had served me well. Dominic Ambrosia and me in a whole new world… it was going to be a wild ride.
I noticed an opening in the rock structure that formed against the river’s edge, and swam that way. Dom came after me. We swam into a small cave that had its own natural skylight. The water was only waist deep, and the wind created a beautiful echo. He splashed water onto his face and then rubbed his eyes, before he opened them. Once he did, he didn’t take them off me. The stillness in the cave enshrined the moment.
He smiled, and I smiled back. “You can trust me.”
Dom moved in to be right in front of me, tucked my hair behind my ear and moved in even closer to whisper, “I know.”
I could tell he didn’t want to ruin the vibe of the moment, but he had something that he needed to share with me and it was time.
“They listen to everything.”
“S.O.I.L. Nothing you say or do is secret. They know everything.”
“How can they know it all?”
There was that paranoid look he had when I’d first met him, when he thought I was following him. Now, he looked all around, even up through the break in the rock structure, into the sky, scanning our surroundings like a raptor searching for prey.
“Our flexers. Your blood.”
“My blood?” I was baffled. How could they possibly listen to me through my blood? It sounded impossible, but then, why would he make this up?
“That shot you got wasn’t for a flesh-eating bacteria. There is no such disease as Necrolla Carne.”
I was dumbfounded. “How do you know?”
“I’ll show you, but for now, just be careful. Watch every move you make. Don’t trust anyone.”
I thought about what Ellen Malone had told me the night before, and I felt conflicted. I had started to trust her as much as I could trust anyone, but here, in this moment, I trusted Dom the same, if not more. He looked back at me with those intense eyes– one hazel and one blue. He didn’t blink. I felt him peering into my soul. Searching. Understanding me.
I wondered why he had decided to share this with me.
“You’re different,” he whispered. His hushed voice was melodic against the howl of the water rushing through the cave and the angry waves that smashed into the rock wall outside.
“So are you.”
“That’s why we are here together, right now.”
I wanted to know everything right then and there, but I could tell that it wasn’t the time to press. I was willing to wait, happy enough with this moment being just the way it was.
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