7343 words (29 minute read)

Chapter 2

My stomach sank into the mattress below me. Suddenly, my fractured night of sleep was the last thing on my mind.  I reread the message and spun the tungsten ring that once belonged to my grandmother Lily round and round my index finger—a nervous habit. Relax. Relax. You knew it would end up in your file as soon as that Compo asked to scan your chip. This isn’t new information. Well, it was new information that my supervisor had been alerted.

My mind searched for possible consequences like a bird probing for worms in the earth. Would it just be my supervisor, or would there be uniformed-clad Compos there as well? I spun my ring faster. Would I even make it into the office, or would they be waiting outside? Would I see the pacifier before they shot me, or would it take me by surprise? Why hadn’t I been more careful at The Wall? Why did I give them reason to think I, of all people, was suspect? It was something I’d never be able to erase.  

No one is above the law, we were told. Violation of the law is like a virus; it can start as nothing more than a simple tickle in one’s throat, but before long it has taken over the whole body. To keep America functioning as a healthy body, we must eradicate the virus before it spreads.

The Tier 3 apartment complex was five blocks from The Natural Resource Department Office. Though we were sometimes called on to virtually consult on assignments in other areas and worked with chapters across the country, physical tests were performed only within our territory. Our territory consisted of approximately seven thousand square miles, though it wasn’t evenly dispersed. The map of our assigned territory reminded me of a hornet, its wings folded in and stinger poised to strike.

After getting dressed I hustled to work with quick, nervous steps. Soon I reached the towering building where I spent my working mornings—the same building where I had returned my work vehicle the day before. The large streamlined structure sat smack in the middle of five identical buildings. The anti-reflective material that encased the towering forty story building was smooth as glass and warm to the touch, as it absorbed the heat from the sun and converted it into electricity. It got so hot in the afternoons, that when I first started working here I burned myself a few times by accidentally leaning up against the glass. Now, I knew to stand a good arm’s length away from the surface.

Once I reached the front entrance, I swiped my chip to be let in. No officers were outside the building or immediately inside the doors. That was a good sign. Department offices were on the second floor and I took the stairs, wondering if those final steps would make up my last moments as an ordinary citizen. I tried to reassure myself —if they were going to take me, they would have done so already. They would have just let themselves inside my apartment. Hesitation wasn’t an attribute of the Compliance Department.

I shook out my arms as I walked the final paces to Mrs. Gerardi’s office, all the while tossing around various ways I could earn back the trust of those I’d let down. Knowing that someone, whether it was my supervisor, the Compliance Department, or even The Board, thought less of me gnawed at my insides. I knocked. Would she be in there smiling, scowling, or surrounded by reinforcements?

The door slid open and Mrs. Gerardi was seated behind her thick, kidney-shaped desk, her shoulders back and her chin high and pointed in my direction. I realized as I crossed the threshold that I’d never actually set foot in her office. She was the type of boss who made the rounds and called everyone by their first name. If we needed a question answered immediately, a virtual conversation was generally enough.

Mrs. G was in her mid-fifties, short and squat with pecan skin and eyes that let optimism shine through despite the stress lines that creased the edges. At that moment, though, her eyes were narrow and void of cheer. I crossed my hands defensively over my chest as she informed me in an exasperated tone that a new entry had appeared in my file.

Abuse of Privilege—that was all it said. Abuse of Privilege. I repeated it to myself. I had access to the buffer zone, and I abused it. It wasn’t so bad, but my chin still dipped to my chest in shame as I formulated a response. After a moment, I took a step forward and relayed to her, and those who may be watching through the surveillance camera in her office ceiling light, my account. It was completely my fault. I lingered too long at the site and got distracted paying homage to The Wall. I took off my ID and put it in my pocket. It was easy to see how my intentions could be misconstrued. The Compo was just playing it safe, and I should never have put myself in a position to waste his time.

As I spoke, Mrs. G cracked her knuckles and leaned back in her chair, leaving me to guess what she might be thinking. I waited for the blowback, but it did not come, and we stood there in silence for several awkward minutes. She pinched the skin at the bridge of her nose with her thumb and forefinger and with an exasperated sigh she set the rectangular device she was holding down on her desk. I got the impression all she really wanted to know was whether the interaction was going to come back to bite her in the ass.

“Don’t let it happen again, Patricia,” she finally said, then waved me off toward the conference room.

“Yes, Ma’am.” As I was about to turn away I spied the details on her screen. I lowered my head and left the office, the words I’d seen racing through my mind:

Abuse of Privilege.

Level Yellow Alert.

3rd Generation Family History

I told myself not to read into something I didn’t understand. The Board and the Compliance Department spoke in code for our protection. But still the questions came, cascading on one another like boulders in a landslide.

Third generation family history? Family history of what? Slaps on the wrist? Abuse of privilege? Something more? Did Mrs. G put the device down so I could see it on purpose? Was she trying to warn me or was it purely accidental? If it was a warning, it didn’t help me much.

My grandfather Patrick had died before I was born. My parents didn’t talk about him. My grandmother Lily died when I was ten, and she didn’t leave the house for the last several years of her life. As for my parents, they were model citizens. I had no siblings – everyone in my generation was an only child, by The Board’s population decree.

I tried to shake off the tightening in my chest as I walked down the hallway and into my cubicle – one corner of a six-section rectangular workspace. Curved white walls divided each section.

"Morning,” I said in greeting to the coworkers who currently occupied four of the other five cubicles.

I tossed my belongings on my metal desk chair, then headed toward the conference room. I muttered a few comforting mantras, rubbed the base of my neck, and skirted through the door a few minutes early for the morning meeting.

Rexx, my coworker and closest friend, sat alone at a long conference table prearranged for twenty. His thick jet-black curls bounced against his olive skin as he rapped his knuckles on the surface to the rhythm of the tinny electronic tune quietly playing overhead.

The bright lights cast shadows of Rexx’s curls, giving the impression there were stretched out springs on his face, dancing across his thick eyelashes.  He flashed a goofy smile that dimpled his cheeks when he spotted me. I smiled back at the familiar sight of him. For the first time since the previous afternoon, I felt like everything was going to be alright.

Rexx and I had gone through our job training together, beginning at age sixteen, and we’d remained close friends ever since. We shared a passion for nature and a dedication to solving the whole overly toxic soil and water problem. We had both gained approval to become Tier 3 natural resource specialists, one of the few occupations in the country that allowed access to the unmonitored areas outside city limits. These areas included state parks, evacuated land, and research facilities located within our territory.  For that, I was eternally grateful.

At the age of sixteen, all citizens selected multiple job categories they’d like to pursue as a career. A series of aptitude tests were administered to determine the best fit and the citizen’s corresponding job tier. Tier 1 was the highest and Tier 5, the lowest. The chance of getting the job depended on the availability of vacancies and a variety of other factors. What those factors were, we didn’t know. Some of us got lucky and were slotted into one of our chosen professions. Most didn’t receive their first choice, or even their second or third. But we all did our duty for the country.

“What do you think’s on the agenda today, Patch?” Rexx asked, inviting me to sit by way of kicking over the rolling chair next to him. ‘Patch’ was the nickname Rexx had made up for me in training. I liked hearing it. Rexx wrapped both hands around his morning coffee, clutching it like a baby bird he was protecting from danger.

“I went to collect a sample near The Wall yesterday,” I answered as I took a seat. Rexx nonchalantly brought the coffee to his lips. He had an ease about him that I wished I could emulate. Co-workers began to drift in and the seats on either side of us slowly filled. “Everything looked fine, same as always,” I said. I wanted to tell him what really happened as well as the words I’d just seen on Mrs. G’s device. To unload some of the burden, to ask him what he thought, but I couldn’t. Not in front of everyone. “The results should be in this afternoon.”

I chose my words carefully—words have power, The Board reminded us, and they should never be settled on lightly. Words are voiced, recorded, and stored somewhere for all eternity. From a very young age, we had been taught to select our words well.

The primary objective of our branch was to determine how the landscape and soil health in the American southwest was changing over time by performing environmental impact studies, biological assessments, and contaminant investigations. Members of our department were called in to perform tests following natural disasters such as floods or earthquakes, and I’d taken part in these procedures a handful of times. However, when it came to anything beyond The Wall, that well of information was dryer than a fallen leaf left in the sun. For instance, when the 2088 tsunami hit the California coastline, we were provided with the time that the earthquake occurred across the ocean, its distance from the coast, and its magnitude, but no other information. Not even a map. It could be frustrating, but a little harder work on our end was worth the safety and protection of the country. It was for the best.

We were educated, but like the rest of the citizens in our country, were only given the information needed to do our jobs effectively, nothing more. Almost all our work knowledge was considered classified to anyone outside of our department. The devil lies in the details. The wrong detail shared with the wrong person, and the virus of Un-America spreads.

“Listen up everyone,” Mrs. Gerardi said as she strode in, reining in the various side conversations of the employees who had filled the conference room. I waited for her to turn her gaze to me, to do something that would let everyone know what a massive failure and disappointment I was. But she didn’t. She just carried on as usual, and somehow that felt even worse.

            A holographic image of a topographical map flickered to life as Mrs. G pressed a button next to her seat. It extended from the ceiling down to the table, like a translucent sideways front door that balanced on a razor-thin edge. Stamped on the top was the only portion of the image that never shifted— the national emblem.

“We have a busy day ahead of us. Rexx and Patricia, you’ll be testing in the labs this morning before heading back out to Zone 72 this afternoon. We need this wrapped up as soon as possible. We’re hoping to open a small portion of 72 as new crop areas because of the recent blight north of the city. The data you’ve collected is looking promising.” The map zoomed in on Site 72 as Mrs. Gerardi controlled it with her in-table panel. Several numbers hovered above the image—a compilation of data returned from our samplings. Higher than average levels of petroleum hydrocarbons, but nothing too worrisome.

“Let’s try to get this wrapped up by next week if possible.” Rexx and I nodded, but I could feel Rexx’s deflation. Zone 72 was one of the good ones. I knew he was going to miss going there. “Feel free to check out more supplies from the quartermaster if you need to, and I’ll approve it.” Mrs. G’s voice had odd inflections as she tried to sound as if she wasn’t just paraphrasing a list in front of her.

“Lydia, you and I are wanted to consult on a conference call at 12:30, please stay in the room after this meeting adjourns to discuss. The toxicity of Santa Cruz River is continuing to rise near the north edge of our territory and ground seepage is becoming a considerable concern. The continuing restoration project might be impacted.” A section of the barely-flowing Santa Cruz River appeared in the air in front of me, a red outline radiated from a portion of the shore, highlighting the area of concern.

“Jordan.” The techie perked up as Mrs. G addressed him. “We have two department vehicles in need of their bi-weekly inspections and a diagnostic machine in Lab 3 is malfunctioning. Please make these your priorities before moving on.”

“Yes, ma’am, at your service,” Jordan replied with a large grin.

My name was not mentioned again, and when the meeting ended, Rexx and I walked together down to Lab 3. We passed several familiar digital posters embedded in the walls of the hallway. One featured a group of five scientists huddled together with bright smiles and the phrase, The two goals of innovation work hand in hand – Enhance security, ensure safety. Another, a picture of a triangle, with the national emblem resting at the top point. The numbers one to five, indicating tier levels, ran within the triangle from top to bottom. Underneath, the words, Ask yourself every day how your work serves The Board, and therefore, the greater good.

At the door to the lab, Rexx and I both scanned our chips then pressed a button that said ‘accept,’ on the touchscreen above the scanner. This indicated our renewed daily agreement that any information learned in the lab was confidential, and not to be shared with the general populous.

When I entered, a few people were scattered around a long, central island counter-top already working. Others would follow shortly. The room had been sanitized overnight, and smelled of salt-water with a hint of citrus, like a freshly cleaned restroom.

Seven of us worked in Lab 3, that day there would be eight, as Jordan, our tech guy, was already sprawled out on the polished, white floor working on a malfunctioning diagnostic machine and talking to himself as he did.

Every morning was more or less the same. We’d spend three or four hours performing lab work based on current assignments, then using our findings from the day before to readjust any management plans that needed readjusting. Then, we headed out for field assignments. Or, if no field assignments were on the agenda, then we retreated to our individual cubicles to input data, send necessary messages, and get a head start on management plans for upcoming assignments.

The lab was triangular, with full-length countertops lining two of the three walls. One held an array of lab equipment, some portable so it could be picked up and moved to the scientist’s place of choice, and some fixed. A fluorescent imaging machine with several cubic sections took up most of the counter space on one side. One section was switched on, emitting a dim red glow, as it analyzed three test subjects - algal colonies in petri dishes injected with three different bacterial strains.

A large interactive map covered the other wall from the countertop up. It displayed the geomorphology, topography, vegetation, and climate across the territory. Press a specific area, and more data pertaining to that region would appear. The map could be altered to view various metrics such as the spread of a specific pollutant or natural disaster risk. We could also view predictive forecasts (of soil macronutrient, micronutrient, organic matter, and pH levels), based on current trajectories and view the long-term results of hypothetical ecological models. The map was updated constantly based on the findings of The Department. We used this information to come up with short-term and long-term management decisions for various locations.

Stu was in the corner talking loudly to someone on his ID, seemingly oblivious to the fact that there were others in the room. From the snippets I overheard, I guessed he was talking to his contact at a local vertical factory farm, going over the results of a recent crop sustainability assessment and relaying his fertilization advice and implementation plan.

I set myself up a few feet away from Jordan’s legs, next to a SoilSkimmer diagnostic machine. Inputting samples that had been collected by various employees the day before was a favorite way to start the morning. Once the first vial was placed into the machine, the label was scanned, the soil was analyzed, and the results were stored in the database and sent to the assigned scientist.  A clean and sanitized vial emerged from the other end. Specific training had been required to operate the machine, though there wasn’t much that could be done to mess up the process. It was about as easy to use as the vending machines scattered throughout the city.

I grabbed a second vial and turned it over in my hand, reading the code: TCSAZ624:5-15-2090. Location number 624 in the Tucson, Arizona territory. May 15th, 2090. It was the sample from The Wall. Almost a full ten minutes had passed without thinking about the events from the day before. Suddenly, I felt as if the word SUSPECT were stamped onto the back of my neck and everyone in the room could read it.

“Everything alright, Patch?” Rexx was looking at me with his head cocked sideways. I snapped out of it, realizing I’d been sitting with the vial in my hand, eyes unfocused and staring through those in my line of vision.

“Sorry, yeah, everything’s fine, just zoned out for a second there.” Rexx didn’t look convinced.

"Did anyone catch Goaltender last night?" asked Stu to nobody in particular as soon as he finished his call. I was relieved at the change in conversation. I looked over at Stu and smiled when I saw his large ears had turned a bright red, as they often did when he was worked up about something.

Lydia walked into the lab, returning from her pre-conference call meeting with Mrs. G, and set up shop on a barstool at the central counter.

"Yeah, yeah. I caught it for a few minutes," answered Jordan from the floor as he tinkered with the diagnostic machine. Jordan spent his days fixing any equipment used within our department that needed attention, ranging from a broken voice-activated door to jammed printer. His knowledge regarding modern technology far exceeded that of anyone else in my life. One time I accidentally heard him receiving a rather stern lectured by Mrs. G for rewiring a centrifuge machine, so it operated twice as fast. “Your job is to fix the equipment when it breaks,” she had said, “and restore it to its original capacity. You do not have clearance to reprogram our machines. Do you understand?” I’d picked up my pace before I overheard any more.

Jordan was fun to have around, and I always enjoyed it when he wound up in our lab for a bit. Aside from me, Jordan was probably Rexx’s closest friend and the three of us would often find ourselves out to dinner, at the movies, or just hanging out at one of our apartments together.

Jordan and Stu continued to discuss an interactive holographic show I’d never watched for several minutes.

Lydia lasted about five minutes before moving her tablet device away from the commotion. She rolled her large eyes in Stu and Jordan’s direction, and then smiled at me. "I got a new style drive; check it out." She pulled a small metallic item from her purse and pushed it into a minuscule pocket on the hemline of her dress. "It has five new patterns; this one is my favorite." A bright orange floral pattern suddenly covered the entire ensemble. "Too much for work?” she asked, and the dress rippled to reveal a more professional shade of solid dark purple.

"I like the purple a little better," I said as I weighed the color options against Lydia’s dark green eyes. She was naturally beautiful, with her bold eyebrows and edgy features, and seemed to pull off every outfit she tried on. The only permanent beauty enhancement she had received was a richer tinge to her lips. Lydia gave me a once over as she whipped her jet-black hair up into a bun in one fluid motion. She was probably wondering why she would take fashion advice from someone who wore more or less the same clothes each day. I’ll admit it; I was fashion incompetent and almost never took advantage of the settings outside of the default greens, browns, and grays provided by my wardrobe. I’d been told I was a fall. Lydia was a spring, I think.

"Yeah, maybe I’ll wear the orange out tomorrow night. Do you think it would be too much? I have a date. She’s Tier 2,” she said with a wink.

"The Lottery is up to 1,000 credits this week,” Jordan interrupted, as he pulled himself up off the floor. His face was covered in some of the soil he had apparently unclogged from the machine, and he shot me a friendly what-are-you-looking-at stare as I laughed.

A conversation about The Lottery took place in the lab at least once a week. I never participated, choosing to save my extra monthly credits for my precious gardening expenses.

“They just released a new set of Undommable gamer gloves,” put in Stu. “That’s what I would get if I won. Has anyone else entered?" Undommable gloves were a virtual accessory you could purchase for a line of popular video games. Now, don’t get me wrong. I played video games; everyone did. But I’d never been big on using my credits for incorporeal items. Some loved it, even skipping meals to fill their arsenal of game accessories.

Rexx was silent, and my lone, "No," was lost in a sea of yeses.

My coworkers filtered out of the lab as the morning wore on. Eventually, it was time for us to grab a quick lunch from the department cafeteria, and head out for the day’s field work.  

Field work was hot, sticky business, and I loved every single minute of it. When I told people as much, I was often looked at like I’d just told them I hated the latest movie that everyone was raving about. They couldn’t understand it. ‘But dirt is full of germs,’ my mom once told me as if I hadn’t realized it. There were plenty of jobs in the science field, she’d continue, jobs that would allow me to keep my hands clean and allow me to bask in the comfortable air conditioning all day long. I likely could have landed one of them with my aptitude scores too, but was grateful I didn’t.

For me, spending hours in the fresh air, even if it meant dripping with sweat and smelling like a wet dog, was restorative. I loved being away from people and exploring places that hadn’t been seen by human eyes in decades. I loved the rush of discovering an overgrown trail, a cluster of cacti, or a trickling spring-fed stream and knowing I was one of the few Americans to witness it in person. It was an honor.

I relished the strength I felt when scrambling over rocks, pulling myself up a steep slope just to find an ideal place to collect a soil sample. The specifics of what we saw and discovered on our field assignments were classified, so it was impossible for me to articulate to others why I loved my job so much. No one understood. Except for Rexx.

It was a warmer-than-average spring day, and the heat had peaked when we rolled up to Site 72 at about noon. Site 72 measured roughly two square miles of rough desert terrain featuring occasional patches of trees, a small lake, and heat tolerant bushes and cacti scattered around.

Mostly it was dusty and dry like the rest of southern Arizona, but occasionally we’d stumble upon a view that made us stop and admire. Eroded rock faces exposed swirling patterns of vibrant orange and deep red mineral strata. Cattails, sweep willow and grass-like rushes grew near the water. They were so vibrant against their dry counterparts that it was hard to not be drawn in.

The central work spot was an airlifted mobile office with the ability to self-adjust its footers based on terrain, enabling it to set itself up on a mountainside or a field with similar ease. It was shaped like a capsule, similar to the SafePods, but larger. With its self-adjusting legs, I always thought it looked a bit like an albino caterpillar.

A clear solar film capped the top to power the equipment inside. Two square, exterior compartments stored gear best kept outside – a large two-person drill for accessing soil in rocky areas, a couple pairs of waist-high wading overalls for water testing, and two large bins of hydrocarbon-digester - one for water applications and one for soil. They contained a blend of enzymes, microbes, and nutrients used for soil and water remediation in highly-polluted areas.

The bins would sit largely unused for this particular assignment.

We were there to gather the info needed to make a harvesting plan. Healthy soil was a rare resource. A harvesting team would be sent next, to the healthy regions that we flagged, and they would take up to fifty percent of any healthy soil and fraction it off to America One factory farms. I hated to think what the zone would look like when they were done. So, I didn’t let myself.

Next to the compartments, a washing station was also built into the exterior. A door further down from the washing station opened at the swipe of a registered chip, and a set of small steps cascaded downward. Inside the mobile lab, a booth with two benches and a table sat to the left of the entrance. To the right was an array of coolers and storage containers that could be released at the end of the day for transporting samples back to the department.

A map, similar to the one at the home office, displayed the region in great detail. Click on a section of the grid, and the section-specific assignments would be displayed - how many samples, how far apart, whether it contained water, that kind of thing. Once all assignments for a specific section were complete, it would turn green, and we would move on to the next section. After about two weeks at that specific location, the map was about seventy percent green.

That day we were surveying and collecting soil samples about three-quarters of a mile from the car, a greater distance than usual.  After about three hours, we headed back with our second round of samples, eager to collapse in the folding chairs we’d set up next to the car.

We spent a few minutes transferring vials from our portable cooler to refrigerated storage, inputting relevant metadata for future reference, then gulping down several glasses of water.

“So, what do you think Patch?” grinned Rexx. “Should we do one more round? Maybe head to that spot we passed the other day but haven’t surveyed yet?”

I smiled. The way he said it, I knew him well enough to know he wasn’t talking about work. He wanted to do what we often did when our work wrapped up early. He wanted to explore. That day, he wanted to go back to the lake we’d discovered a few days before.  Generally, I would have felt fine about it, as we frequently took time to enjoy whatever natural beauty a zone had to offer. But after the events of the day before and the morning, I found myself hesitating.

I still hadn’t told Rexx about my encounter with the Compo the day before, or the note about my family history I’d seen in Mrs. G’s file. There had been plenty of opportunities, but each time I opened my mouth I found myself unable to say the words. Embarrassment, I guess. Shame.

His brown eyes searched mine playfully and his hopeful tone made it clear how disappointed he’d be if I were to countervail his suggestion. Unlike collecting samples at The Wall, field work put us out of the range of public surveillance. Our IDs had been stashed to keep them clean, so the tracker in our car was our only connection to the grid.

“Alright,” I said with a smile, imagining how physically and emotionally rejuvenating a dip in the lake would feel. Plus, I didn’t smell too great. “But you’re going to have to help me up. I think sweat has fused me to this chair.” Rexx jumped up in one fluid motion and shook his head like a puppy. He seemed to have a bottomless supply of energy. He grabbed my sweaty palms and pulled me up to my feet.

Rexx and I discovered the joys of unmonitored territory for the first time during our training, when we were taken by small group out of the city to receive hands-on experience. Not one member of our group of ten teenagers had ever spent a moment not being recorded. Once the instructors retired for the evening, we all stayed up late chatting. Even though our conversation covered the usual teenage topics – video games, dating, television shows, shopping — I realized our words were smoother, our laughter louder than it had ever been within city limits.


Then, when Rexx and I were sent out on assignment by ourselves, he began to act even bolder. He’d broach topics that would set me on edge, such as where our ancestors came from. My wavy amber hair and sharp blue eyes were clearly from a different gene pool than the one that had given him with his prominent eyebrows and lashes, rich tea-colored skin, and curly, silky hair as dark as onyx. He wanted to pursue these topics, but I’d just smile and quickly change the subject. “We are all American now,” was the answer we’d heard time and again from our parents, from newscasters, and from teachers whenever we asked about our ancestry. We were not supposed to talk about life before The Seclusion. Or about anything outside of The Walls.

When we stuck to our shared love of nature and science, and to lighthearted topics, Rexx and I could talk for hours. There was a kinship there neither of us could deny. However, when it came to The Board, to surveillance, to patriotism, there was a rift between us. I was afraid to explore it; afraid that if I did I’d be left with an impossible choice – patriotism or friendship. I knew where the rift originated—Amara.

Amara had been my best friend. We bunked next to each other in the dormitories. Her snoring kept me up at night in the beginning, but I learned to live with it and even missed it when it was gone. I introduced her to Rexx after meeting him in training at the age of sixteen. They were perfect for each other. Both brilliant, charismatic, beautiful. They took to each other instantly and never let go. You’d think there’d be some resentment on my part, being the third wheel most of the time. But they were just so right together. They brought out the best in each other. There was no room for animosity. We’d double date occasionally, but none of my relationships stuck for more than a few weeks at a time.

For years, the three of us were practically inseparable. Amara and Rexx were headed towards marriage; we all knew it.  Two years ago, though, when we were all twenty, Amara disappeared. One day she was there, and the next she was gone. Apparently, she’d been found guilty of defending a member of her family whom she thought was innocent—an aunt. The aunt was charged with treason, and Amara with obstruction. The only information was a message on a family member’s device: Amara Derrah is being held in federal custody on charges of obstruction. An investigation into the charges has begun. You will be informed of the results.

We never saw her again.

After her arrest, Rexx sank into himself for a long time, doing his work in the lab and in the field without superfluous conversation. He ignored messages from his friends, heading straight home at the end of the day. There was a time when I thought the real Rexx might never come back. Naturally, I missed her, too. I was heartbroken. Amara, my best friend, whom I’d slept a foot away from since I was five, was a traitor. She’d broken the law—betrayed us and her country. I didn’t understand how she could be so selfish, how she could defy The Board without sparing a thought for those of us she would leave behind.

I dared not share these thoughts with Rexx, but he sensed it. I knew he did. That just made me angrier—that she could do this to him, to the one person who would have done anything for her, who had plans for a life together, that she could leave him behind.

After some time had passed, Rexx started to build himself back up, but he didn’t talk about it or about her anymore. And I think it made our friendship stronger. We were both hurt, regardless of the form the emotions took. Occasionally, when we’d walk past a restaurant we all used to visit, or if Amara’s favorite show came on television, his shoulders would sink, and his eyes would moisten. But we never discussed it. To do so would be treasonous.

“You going to wade in past your shins this time?” Rexx teased.

I ignored him and sat in the shallows, savoring the coolness of the water and the warmth of the sun on my face. I had never been taught to swim as a child. Most kids weren’t. Starting at age five, time with parents was restricted to three hours per day, so swimming wasn’t a high priority. Besides, most natural bodies of water were too toxic. But Rexx didn’t let that stop him. He taught himself to swim at the first chance.

“Oh, go on then,” I replied, splashing water at him. “Do your tricks. I’m perfectly happy sitting here in a pool of fresh water instead of my own sweat for a change.” I tipped my head back into the water and closed my eyes. I could feel Rexx watching me, amused.

When I heard him splash off, I opened my eyes to watch Rexx swim. His well-defined muscles reflected the comfort and ease of his strokes. His wet hair wrapped his skull like a cap and was so long it touched his bare shoulders. I was asked repeatedly by friends, my parents, his parents, and our coworkers if there was anything deeper going on between Rexx and me. We spent nearly every day together and had a bond that was clear to anyone. Of course, the thought of being with him had crossed my mind, and there was no denying he was a catch, but any attraction I felt was always accompanied by guilt. Amara’s arrest left a permanent crack in our relationship.

I watched from the shore as Rexx swam in large strokes. After he’d worn himself out, I let him pull me to my feet. Rexx smiled as he brushed the long, wet hair out of my eyes. It was a sad smile, as if he was reading my thoughts. As if we both understood how important and essential this friendship was to us, and how swiftly the crack could become a canyon.

We followed an alternate trail back to the camper, hoping to stumble upon a glimpse of unwary wildlife as we had in the past. I knew it was selfish, but being one of the only Americans to see true wildlife (insects, lizards, and the occasional squirrel didn’t count) was a rush. On one assignment we happened upon a baby bobcat playing near the base of a tree. We’d slowly backed away until a safe distance was between us, in case mom was nearby, then sat down on a rock and watched. The little guy played for several minutes, practicing balancing on protruding roots. His paws seemed too big for the small fluffball. Eventually, he bounced out of view.

As I walked, my mind wandered. I hypothesized about what used to take place here. There were loops of primitive roadway by the lake, rusted through grills, and rotten picnic table frames slumped into the earth. The skeletal remains of several docks marred the shoreline. I thought back to the time Rexx and I were first sent out on assignment without a trainer. I remembered our conversation like it had taken place yesterday. Our first real conversation, just the two of us, with no one watching or listening.

We had been sent to test a spring-fed stream outside of a local hydroponic farm. A dense canopy of trees hung overhead, and we’d just completed the hike in.

“Well, here we are,” Rexx had said, his eyes wide and unblinking. “IDs stashed safely out of range.” He said the words slowly, slyly as he grinned from ear to ear.

“Yeah. Here we are. So, what did you have for dinner last night?”

“Are you kidding, Patch? Really, that’s what you want to talk about?” Rexx rolled his eyes and laughed slightly under his breath. “We’re out here in the middle of the forest, with no one looking over your shoulder.  And you want to talk about what I ate last night?”

He was right. I knew it was a silly thing to ask, and I would replay the stupidity of that moment for years to come. But, at the time I hadn’t been able to come up with anything better to say, and, we were taught, that when you didn’t have anything better to say, you asked about dinner, or the weather.  “I’ve been dreaming about this moment for months. Haven’t you?”

I inadvertently shuffled back a step or two and turned my head away. Had I? I’d been looking forward to getting to work, certainly, to wrapping up our training, to moving on to the next stage of life, to exploring the outdoors. But had I been aching for unsupervised time to talk about what was really on my mind? Not really.

I didn’t know what to say next. What was it exactly Rexx had been itching to talk about? At that point, Amara was in training to become a biomedical engineer, a field that did not provide opportunities to avoid surveillance. A part of me felt guilty he had the chance with me and not her.

“I guess …I guess I just don’t trust it yet,” I said dully. The truth is I only said it because I imagined it was what he was waiting for me to say.

“That’s fine,” he said. “If you aren’t ready to talk yet, then…” his voice trailed off as he looked around. His gaze settled on something in the distance, and then he was off and running. He began scaling a tree about ten yards away.

“What are you doing?” I laughed. I had to hand it to Rexx. He always knew how to break the tension. It was one of my favorite traits about him.

“I’m climbing a tree,” he had yelled back. “I am climbing this rare resource that since we were children we were told not to touch. And it feels good, Patch. It feels so incredibly good.”

At the time I’d scowled and then turned my attention to the job at hand, but now I smiled at the memory. Over time, I’d accepted the realities of constant surveillance. We couldn’t disparage our leaders or talk about anything that made me too uncomfortable, but we could hike and go swimming. But still, I left the tree climbing to Rexx.

I looked around for a climbing tree to point Rexx toward when I spotted something large and out of place up ahead.

“What is that?” I asked. I quickened my step and my vision narrowed in on the large, metallic object nestled in the foliage. Was it an old picnic table, or maybe a broken tool shed?

Rexx caught up to me and followed my line of sight. I watched his face for some sign of recognition. His eyes widened.

“I think it’s a vehicle,” he said excitedly.

“So far from the road?” I said dubiously. “That doesn’t make any sense.” Any path wide enough for a vehicle to make it out this far would have overgrown long ago. Nothing with wheels would be able make it through.

“We have to check it out!” Rexx exclaimed. He dashed towards it, abandoning the trail and hopping between downed trees and branches as if they were mere wrinkles in the earth below his feet. I inched closer, not really believing it, until it became clear, that’s exactly what it was. I halted immediately.

“Rexx, come back! We have to call this in!” I yelled. But he kept going, pulling off branches to reveal the shape of the vehicle. It was a van.

Next Chapter: Chapter 3