6819 words (27 minute read)

Chapter 2

My heart and stomach switched places as I reread the message. Though I had only had about three hours of sleep by my estimate, I was no longer tired. I noticed I was spinning the tungsten ring that once belonged to my grandmother Lily round and round my index finger—a nervous habit. I told myself to relax. Easier said than done. I swung my legs to the side of the bed and reached for the glass of water sitting on the nightstand, only to find it empty. I dreaded explain the events of the previous day to my supervisor, the thought of disappointing her, well, I just knew I had to regain her trust.

I rushed through my morning motions, scalding my tongue on a cup of hot tea and skipped breakfast altogether – I had no appetite. I threw on some clothes, brushed my teeth, shoved my cup haphazardly in the recomper and dashed out the door. If I happened to remember to brush my hair instead of hastily pulling it up on the way to work, I considered it a decent morning. That was not a decent morning.

My office was just a few blocks from the Tier 3 complex, the usual arrangement per The Board, on the fifth floor of a large streamlined structure that was a near replica of the buildings that stood next to it. The anti-reflective material that encased the towering twenty-one 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 strong Arizona afternoon sun, that when I first started working there I burned myself a few times by accidentally leaning up against the glass. Now, I stood a good arm’s length away from the surface at all times.

Though I lived within walking distance, I frequently took advantage of being among the small percentage of citizens permitted access to a department-issued vehicle. I arrived to work in my car at precisely 8:28, leaving just enough time to complete the intensive security screening and meet with my supervisor before my 9:00 start time.

After swiping my dorsal chip at the door of my private office, I tossed my belongings on my desk chair, checked my messages, then walked with muscles tensed to my supervisor, Mrs. Gerardi’s office. I took a deep breath and then knocked. The door slid open and Mrs. Gerardi was seated at her desk, her shoulders back and her chin held high and pointed in my direction.

Mrs. G was in her mid-fifties, short and squat with pecan skin and usually cheerful eyes. At that moment, though, her eyes were narrow and void of cheer. I crossed my hands over my chest as, she informed me in an exasperated tone that a new entry had appeared in my file.

Abuse of Privilege—she told me that was all it said. My chin dipped to my chest. I had heard from others that defensiveness only made it worse. I stepped closer to her desk and relayed to her, and those who may be watching through the surveillance camera in her office ceiling light, my account. I admitted it was completely my fault. I lingered too long at the site and got distracted paying homage to the wall. 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 the position to waste his time.

As I spoke, I got the impression that all Mrs. G really wanted to know was whether or not the interaction was going to come back to bite her in the ass. She pinched the skin at the bridge of her nose with her thumb and forefinger and with an exasperated sigh she set the device down on her desk.

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

“Yes, Ma’am.” But, as I was about to turn away I spotted the screen now laying in plain view. I lowered my head and walked out the door, with a fake smile of relief on my face, as the words I had just glanced set my mind racing, searching for answers.

Abuse of Privilege.

Level Yellow Alert.

3rd Generation Family History

What does that mean? I knew The Board and the Compliance Department spoke in code for our protection. I told myself not to read into something I did not understand. But, my brain would not turn off and the questions cascaded, each propelling another like boulders in a landslide.

My family history? Family history of what? Slaps on the wrist? Something more? Did Mrs. G put the device down so that I could see it on purpose?

I tried to shake it off and ignore the tightening in my chest. I muttered a few comforting mantras and rubbed the base of my neck as I skirted through the door a few minutes early for the 9:30 morning meeting.

Rexx, my coworker, sat alone at a table prearranged for twenty. His jet-black curls bounced against his olive skin as he rapped his knuckles on the surface to the rhythm of the muzak quietly playing overhead. He flashed a large goofy smile as I walked through the door, and I smiled back at the sight of him. Rexx and I had gone through our job training together and remained close friends ever since. We shared a yearning to know more about the landscape of the country we called home. We both gained approval to engage in one of the few occupations in the country—natural resource specialist—that allowed access to the unmonitored areas outside city limits on a regular basis.

There were five Tiers in total throughout the national workforce, with Tier 1 being the highest rank, and Tier 5 the lowest. I was a Tier 3 employee with access to approved restricted areas, such as national and state parks, evacuated land, and natural resource-related research facilities. For that, I was eternally grateful.

At the age of sixteen, every citizen was required to select multiple job categories which they’d like to pursue as a career. A series of aptitude tests were administered to determine the correct fit. Sometimes people were lucky, as in my case, and demonstrated an aptitude for one of their chosen professions. Even then, the chance of getting the job one wanted depended on the availability of vacancies. Not everyone received their first choice, or even their second or third.

“What do you think’s on the agenda today, Patch?” Rexx asked, inviting me to sit by way of kicking the rolling chair next to him out from under the table. Patch, a nickname Rexx made up for me in training. I liked hearing it. Rexx wrapped both hands around his morning coffee, clutching it as if it were a grasshopper that would leap away if he loosened his grip.

“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 and leaned back in his chair. He had an ease about him that was catching, and I leaned back as well. Others were starting to filter in and the seats on either side of us slowly filled. “Everything looked fine, same as always,” I said. I wanted to tell him the words that I had just seen on Mrs. G’s device, to unload some of the burden, but I couldn’t. “I dropped the sample off on the way home from work yesterday. The results should be in this morning.” I chose my words carefully—there is a power to words, and they should never be settled on lightly. Words are voiced, recorded, and stored somewhere for all eternity. We had been taught from a very young age to select our words well.

The primary objective of our branch was to determine how the landscape and soil health across America 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 had 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 2081 tsunami hit the California coastline, members of our department 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. Oh well. 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, we were only given the information needed to do our jobs effectively, nothing more.

“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. A holographic image of a topographical map hung in the air above the conference room table. 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 Site 72 this afternoon, and we need this wrapped up as soon as possible. We are hoping to open a portion of Zone 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. “Let’s try to get this wrapped up by next week if possible.” Rexx and I nodded, indicating that we were all on the same page. I was a little sad, and I could tell Rexx was too. Zone 72 was one of the good ones. “Feel free to check out more supplies from the quartermaster if you need to, and I’ll approve it,” Mrs. G continued. Her voice had odd inflections as she tried to sound as if she wasn’t just paraphrasing a list in front of her.

“Lexin, you and I are wanted on a conference call at 12:30, please stay in the room after this meeting adjourns to discuss. The toxicity of Lake Michigan is continuing to rise near the Northern Security Barrier, and ground seepage is becoming a considerable concern. You have been requested to consult.” Lake Michigan now appeared in the air in front of me, a red outline radiated from the shore, showing the area of concern.

“Jorden.” The department 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.” Jorden replied.

“Let’s see, what else…Oh, just a reminder that A through E must report to medical for monthly maintenance and preventative care.” At this I cringed and shifted uncomfortably in my seat. Damn, I forgot. The following words hovered over the table for a moment:


My name was not mentioned again. When the meeting was over, I meandered down to the second floor, taking the stairs and trying not to focus on the gut-churning sensations that would linger for hours after my impending appointment was over. I swing open the door marked “Medical” and checked in at the welcome screen before having a seat next to my alphabetical counterparts. After three rounds of distracting myself from my thoughts with a mildly diverting card game on my Idecation device, my name was called. I was led through a winding silver hallway, past several indistinguishable doors with the word “occupied” flashing in red, until we reached an empty one. After plopping down into a large chair, I proceeded to wait again.

"Collins. Pleasure to see you again," the friendly medic said as she strode through the door without glancing up from the notebook device that held my medical records.

“It’s good to see you too, Doctor Conner,” I replied, though I felt the opposite.

“Please relax, it will take me a few moments to get everything ready," she said as she crossed the room and removed several items from a drawer. A sterile five-compartment syringe was unpacked first, and then each section filled with a meticulously measured dose of a different liquid. Next, Dr. Conner removed a large bag filled with a clear solution, walked toward me, and hung the bag from a rod positioned above my head. As she did so, I tried to focus my attention elsewhere.

"You know the drill," she said empathetically. I nodded, reclining slightly and lifting my shirt up past my navel to reveal the surgically installed entry port for the blend of bacteria and detoxifying agents that would be dripped directly into my stomach for the next twenty minutes. “Now just hold still while I plug in here.”

As soon as the tube was attached, a cold, disconcerting sensation filled my abdomen. “Alright, I know that is uncomfortable. But you are all set. Now, for your nutrient injection." She worked quickly, and I soon felt the deep sting of five separate needles penetrating my shoulder. “Excellent. The hard part is over. I’ll leave you to relax, and will be back to check on you once I’ve finished with the next patient. Just swipe your chip here and you can watch something if you’d like." Conner walked out the door.

A surge of nausea washed over me, and I closed my eyes and let my head sink into the pillow behind me. I wondered if it had always been this way; having to pump one’s gut full of beneficial bacteria to counteract the overwhelming toxins present in our food and environment. In addition to the probiotic and chemical cocktail, we women were also given large doses of an estrogen and progestin compound that kept us sterile until marriage to assist with the mandatory population control.

Conner returned after twenty minutes, unhooked me, and offered a hand up. I stood for a minute, clutching one of Conner’s steady hands and the back of the chair until I felt stable on my feet. She handed me an insect protein shake, the only thing I was permitted to ingest for the next twelve hours. I slowly sipped as I walked back upstairs, willing the gritty concoction to settle my stomach.

When I entered the lab, ten people were scattered around working. Feeling the remaining color drain from my face, I hurriedly claimed the seat in front of the printer. The supply of vials was low, and printing more would buy me some time before having to move around on my feet. I selected a saved template from the options given on the printer, tapped glass from the materials list, and watched as it got to work. There was something calming and therapeutic about watching the 3D printer. The entire outside of the five-foot-deep printer was clear, so you could witness the process inside. I grabbed one vial at a time as it dropped into a padded compartment, and then placed it carefully in its designated depression within an empty storage container.

"How are you doing, Patch? Feeling a bit queasy?" Rexx asked in a gentle, albeit slightly sardonic tone. "I don’t envy you. I had mine two weeks ago, and the nausea lasted for hours." At his words, bile rose in my throat, and I swallowed it back down. Well at least you men don’t have the extra hormone cocktail, I thought a bit maliciously. But truth be told, I was appreciative that he had validated how gross I was feeling. Rexx stood at a counter across the room, pouring his soil samples from yesterday into a diagnostic machine. He was still looking at me, waiting for a response, so I shot him an unconvincing smile and then turned back to the printer and breathed in slowly through my nose to try and quell the queasiness.

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

"Yeah, yeah. I caught it for a few minutes," answered Jorden. He was laying on the floor tinkering with a diagnostic machine next to Rexx. As our technology admin, Jorden’s job was to make sure all equipment and diagnostic machines ran smoothly. He spent his days answering tickets and fixing glitches, ranging from a broken voice-activated door to a jammed 3D printer. His knowledge regarding modern technology exceeded that of anyone else in my life.

He and Stu continued to discuss an interactive holographic show I had never watched for several minutes.

“Ughhh,” Lexin said, moving her computer away from the commotion. She rolled her large brown eyes in Stu and Jorden’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. Lexin gave me a once over as she whipped her jet-black hair up into a bun in one fluid motion. I couldn’t tell if she pitied my nausea or she was wondering why she would take fashion advice from someone who wore more or less the same clothes each day. I almost never took advantage of the settings outside of the default greens, browns, and grays provided by my wardrobe.

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

"The lottery is up to 1,000 credits this week,” Jorden interrupted.

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?"

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 go to.

Fieldwork could be incredibly hot, sticky, and exhausting for about eight months of the year. Hiking up steep hills and scrambling over rough terrain while carrying heavy equipment on our backs was part of the job. No one quite understood why I loved every minute of it. No one except for Rexx.

On that warmer-than-average spring day, we were already feeling the heat when we rolled up to Site 72 at about noon. Site 72 measured roughly two square miles of rough desert terrain featuring the occasional lightly forested sections and heat tolerant bushes and cacti scattered around. Mostly though, it was dusty and dry like the rest of southern Arizona. The parking spot for our office trailer was a machine-levelled area about twelve feet in length.

Even though we were only a two-person team, Rexx and I were fortunate enough to have an air-conditioned office camper that got moved from site to site and parked for the length of our local assignments. When we arrived, we pressed a few buttons and the camper expanded, providing us with a shaded outdoor area roofed with a solar charging array. We had been at our current location for about two weeks already. That day we were surveying and collecting soil samples about three-quarters of a mile from the camper, a greater distance than usual. After about three hours, we headed back with our second round of samples, eager to collapse in the cool camper.

When we reached the mobile office, 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? 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 a bit early. He wanted to go for a hike, and I knew just where he wanted to go. To a lake that we passed a few days before.

His brown eyes bore into mine and his hopeful tone made it clear he would be incredibly disappointed if I were to countervail his already firmly-conceived plans.

“Alright,” I said quietly with a smile, picturing how rejuvenating a dip in the lake would feel after the emotionally jarring morning I had. “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 often seemed to draw on a bottomless supply of energy. He grabbed my sweaty palms and pulled me up to my feet.

Rexx and I discovered the joy 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, a group of us stayed up late chatting about the usual things that teenagers chatted about – video games, dating, television shows, shopping. After a while, Rexx pointed out that our words were smoother, and our laughs were louder than they were within city limits. We would go about the next day with bags under our eyes, and smiles on our faces.

When Rexx and I were finally sent out on assignment by ourselves, Rexx began to broach topics that would set me on edge. He would talk about finding answers as to where our ancestors came from—me with my wavy, strawberry blond hair and large blue eyes, him with his skin the color of a rich tea and curly, silky hair as dark as onyx. I would smile, and nod, and then quickly change the subject. “We are all American now,” was the rehearsed answer we had heard time and again from our parents, from newscasters, from teachers, for our entire lives. We were not supposed to talk about life before The Seclusion. Or, about anything outside of the Walls.

It didn’t used to be just the two of us. There was a third — our friend Amara. She was 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. For years, the three of us were practically inseparable. Amara and Rexx began dating when they were seventeen and 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 had been found guilty of defending a member of her family whom she thought was innocent—an aunt. Her aunt ended up being charged with treason, and Amara with obstruction.

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. I missed her, too, but Amara was a criminal. 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 that she would leave behind. I dared not share these thoughts with Rexx, however. After some time had passed, he started to build himself back up, but he didn’t talk about it or about her anymore. Every once in awhile, when we would 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, and I could tell he was thinking about her. I was thinking about her, too.

“Are you going to wade in past your shins this time?” Rexx teased as I sat in the shallows, savoring the contrasting sensations of the coolness of the water and the warmth of the sun on my face. I was never taught to swim as a child. Many weren’t. We didn’t learn it at school, and starting at the age of six, time with parents was restricted to three hours per day, so swimming was not always a high priority. Children were released from school at five and then required back in the dormitory for evening ideology class at eight, followed by lights out at nine.

“Oh, go on then. Do your tricks. I am 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 splashing, I opened my eyes to watch Rexx swim. His well-defined muscles reflected the comfort and ease of his strokes. 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. With his curls, his smile, and his charm, there was no denying that he was a catch. Of course the thought of being with him had crossed my mind. During the early days, I imagined us together but never acted on it. Once it became clear that he and Amara were hitting it off, the point was moot. Then after she was arrested, it seemed like there was an emptiness between us that could never be filled. Any attraction I felt was always accompanied by a heaping side of guilt.

Besides, it was better if relationships only went so deep. Everything, all of our most intimate moments, were caught on camera. Your poor choices, the ones that reflected the most irrational version of yourself, were eternal. Every fight, every meltdown, every indiscretion was recorded and stored somewhere, retrievable to be used against you if deemed necessary. I often played a reel of my own worst moments in my mind, imagining them presented to everyone I knew on a screen, one right after the other. Because of this, I avoided long-term entanglements. It was the price we paid for security, but I was happy to pay it.

I watched enviously 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 and brushed the long, wet hair out of my eyes. His 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 it could be taken away.

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 in the country to get to see wildlife (other than insects, lizards, and the occasional squirrel) was a rush. We set out onto an overgrown trail. 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 BBQ grills, and rotten picnic table frames slumped into the earth. The skeletal remains of several docks marred the shoreline of the lake. I thought back to the time that 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 were water testing a spring-fed stream outside of a local hydroponic farm. A dense canopy of trees hung overhead, and we had just completed the hike in.

“Well, here we are,” Rexx had said, his eyes wide and unblinking. “Idecation devices 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 the 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 had been looking forward to getting to work, certainly, to wrapping up our training, to moving on to the next stage of life. 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? A part of me felt guilty that he had this chance with me and not Amara. She would have immediately understood his desires. At that point, Amara was in training to become a a biomedical engineer, a field that did not provide opportunities to avoid surveillance.

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

Rexx put his arm around me and squeezed. I let him hug me for a moment, then stepped back, ending the hug with a palm pressing on his chest.

“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 some focal point that was impossible for me to determine, and after a second he was off and running. I watched as he began to scale a tree about ten yards off the path.

“What are you doing?” I laughed. I had to hand it to Rexx. He always knew how to break the ice, and I appreciated that about him.

“I’m climbing a tree,” he 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 had scowled and walked away, but now I smiled at the memory. I looked around for a climbing tree to point Rexx toward when I spotted something large and out of place behind a cluster of foliage.

“What is that?” I muttered, as I tilted my head to the side. I quickened my step and my vision narrowed in on the large, metallic object nestled in the foliage.

Rexx caught up to me and followed the line of my finger. “I think it’s a vehicle,” he said excitedly.

“So far from the road?” I asked.

“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 approached with a bit more caution, scanning the perimeter for any sign that the owner was nearby—chairs, a portable stove, clothes hung in the trees to dry—but there were none. The excitement started to bubble up inside of me as my own steps quickened and I followed in his wake.

“Well, it’s been here a long time, that’s for sure,” he said. “Look here, the tires are rotted down to the rims.” Rexx’s excitement came across in his inflection as he continued to near the vehicle and, once he approached it, gave the right rear wheel a kick. His hand reached out and touched the back window, and he swiped it with his finger to try to clear away some of the dirt, but it was caked on and it quickly became apparent that no amount of rubbing would remove it.

“Maybe we should call someone, report it?” I said as I approached the back of the vehicle. I swallowed the air I had been holding in my cheeks and bit my lip. This can’t be good, I thought. Rexx was right, there was virtually nothing left of the tires, and the rims looked as if they would crumble if you stared too hard. I was surprised Rexx’s kick didn’t cause one to give way.

Rust had eaten away at its gray body, and the rear bumper dangled from one side. I didn’t recognize the model. I noted the absence of a solar array and a charging port, and wondered how the vehicle used to run. Perhaps the panels were stolen long ago.

“Let’s check out the inside,” Rexx shouted over his shoulder as he maneuvered around the van and towards the left passenger side door, which was tucked out of view.

I followed hesitantly. Nothing about what was happening was how we would be expected to handle the situation. We should have been keeping a distance, and reporting it to the department so that the proper channels could be contacted. We were already guilty. I took several deep breaths, and kept following Rexx anyway. I noticed several vines had intricately curled around the door, blocking access.

“I don’t know —” I began, but then suddenly switched directions, “Be careful.”.

“Always.” Rexx cleared his way through most of the scrub with a large stick and a few sturdy kicks, but had to wrestle with a few tough vines. He whistled while he worked as if he didn’t have a care in the world. As if he had been waiting for something like this to happen his whole life.

After a moment, he managed to pry open the rusty door. “After you,” he offered. As I approached the opening, my senses were bombarded with the pungent odor of mildew. It seemed that I was right. That pre-Seclusion era van had not seen another living soul in years, likely decades.

“Board save us,” I whispered. Today of all days. I couldn’t bring myself to move forward, so Rexx pushed past me, climbing deep inside the van.

“Patch! You’ve got to get in here and check this out.I stood there for several moments, weighing my options. The words displayed next to the mark on my file – Level Yellow Alert. 3rd Generation Family History - taunted me. I reluctantly hoisted myself inside the vehicle, ignoring the voice in my head that reminded me that what I was doing was a crime, treason. That Amara had been arrested for much less. But I pushed through the voice and then I was inside the van.

It was like stepping into a cave of the past. As my eyes adjusted, I noticed Rexx leaning over a tattered seat, tugging desperately and unsuccessfully at something on the floor in the back. From my angle, I could not tell what it was. I became distracted by a crystal hanging from the rearview mirror that refracted just a small amount of light around the vehicle’s interior, creating a speckled effect that undulated as our weight caused the van to shift and the crystal to sway. My eyes continued to adjust, and I followed the crystal’s soft light as it illuminated several unfamiliar items. I picked up a trinket within reach. It appeared to be some kind of decoration, heavy and faded to a beige color, square on the bottom with triangles on each side that met at the top to form a point. On each side were odd little symbols—one resembled a man, another a sun, and another a horse. I carefully set it on the dashboard, making a note to examine it more closely later if I had time.

A faded baseball cap sat upside down on the front seat. I picked it up, careful to not spill the contents as I inspected the outside. I didn’t recognize the logo, a snake curled into the shape of a “D.” Inside the cap were several small, round pieces of metal, bronze and silver in color, of various sizes. I picked up a bronze piece and examined the man’s head and the words in god we trust embossed on the surface. On the other side there was a building and the words united states of america, e pluribus unum, and one cent. I tossed the disc back into the baseball cap.

“What are these things, Rexx? Have you ever seen anything like this before?” I held one of the pieces up for Rexx to examine, but he was still fixated on the object that I could not see. His tendency to get distracted and ignore all other stimulus around him could be both endearing and incredibly annoying.

The entire middle row of seating was covered with what I assumed were personal belongings, though most were too decomposed to classify. I grasped a reusable coffee mug, not dissimilar to the ones in use at the time, featuring an image of what looked to be a green and white mermaid sporting a crown on her head and two tails. It was all so bizarre.

Random articles of sun-bleached clothing were scattered about on the floor and draped over the back seat, as if someone spent an extended time in this vehicle, possibly even lived out of it. I spotted the edge of an empty soda can peeking out from underneath the front passenger seat. I picked it up and saw that though most was covered with a green-dominated rainbow tarnish, the top showed a splash of its original bright red. Three white cursive letters were still distinct—C-O-K. I searched the can until I located the dull, barely visible expiration date stamped onto its base—05APR30. April of 2030? That was just over sixty years ago, thirty-eight years before I was even born. The year our country seceded from the rest of humanity.

It then became clear. This van was a time capsule, a relic that had somehow managed to escape the Board’s purges of the past. If the authorities knew we’d seen this, it would spell the end of both our lives.