by: Rayya Deeb ((Photograph for header image was taken by Sara Rassi.))
Now is the time to discover the truth. It isn’t as elusive as some would have you believe…
Join the adventure. Catch up with Chapters 7 – 12!
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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