In a world where government and big tech collide, imagine the convenience of having your electronics, your employment, your transportation, and your appliances ran by the same network?
Meet Sphaira, an A.I. that feeds you your food, your news, and your worth.
This is the world of Peter Cray, he is one with the system until people begin to die. Curiosity beckons him to illegally research each victim. They’re all different, showing Peter that he, too, is unique. Then a single correlation is discovered. Each victim supported the opposing candidate of the incumbent Chancellor.
Once Sphaira learns of his betrayal, Peter’s life is on the line.
Do you dare to be different?
This is my first short story, and I’ll be posting one chapter a week, every Sunday evening.
Bloodied history can’t stain the world Sphaira has made. Here there is no poverty, no religion, and no allegiance to divide us. Our safety remains in sameness, this is how we thrive.
We are one.
There is nothing wrong with this harmonious system. Not that Peter Cray sees.
Just another spec moving with the grain of his fellow workers, Peter is one with the crowd. Peter neither excels nor lacks. He graduated on time and served the Global Forces with honor. Now he works for Qualosec, a shipment company that monitors the supply lines from Sphaira’s farms. It’s easy work, mostly just typing. There’s no need to sweat the way he did while in the forces. Though his body has gotten soft, with dark hair and pale blue eyes, Peter’s not concerned. He’s still in better shape than most of his fellow citizens, though he knows it’s illegal to compare.
Deb is attracted to him, more than anyone else in Mayville. She’s hinted at conception, but Peter’s not ready for the paperwork involved. He’d rather her just move in, so he’d never have to make her leave at night. But that’s not allowed. After all, it wouldn’t be fair to Deb if she didn’t have a living space of her own.
A chime from the hallway causes Peter to look away from his holographic keyboard. It’s time for lunch.
He’s never gotten used to the nausea caused by the elevator’s speed, which stirs in his stomach now. Every day, it’s almost enough to make him lose his appetite. Staying with the crowd, Peter steps into the cafeteria.
Gray paints everything. After all, it is Sphaira’s favorite color. The walls, the floors, the furniture, even their clothes. This is for their benefit. Being different only creates competition.
Competition creates murder.
To be harmonious, society must be bland.
Sitting at a small table by the television, Peter doesn’t need to make contact with anyone to get his food. His order was programed this morning. The timing of his lunch and the location of his cell phone will lead the drone to him.
Within seconds, a gray drone with four propellers flies up with a tray.
An avocado, lettuce, and olive sandwich on wheat, with a glass of milk are served.
Peter takes a bite. He remembers meat, but that’s not reason enough to stay a soldier. Frowning, he swallows before looking up at the screen. There is the face Sphaira dictated most attracted to give current events. Her lips are plump, glossed over like honey. Stark cheekbones encase soft, blue eyes. Narrow nose, bronze complexion, Jerry Max smiles under perfectly styled, long blond hair. When Without being told, Peter would’ve never guessed she was computer generated. The reality of her status doesn’t matter. When Jerry Max speaks, everyone listens.
“Tomorrow marks the first primary of Sphaira’s seventy-fifth election for Chancellor.” Jerry’s eyes are impassive. Peter’s often pondered what she’d be thinking if she were human.
The way other people stare at her, he’s willing to bet they wonder the same. She’s been their beacon of information for the last ten years. In a way, many people look at her as a mother.
“For the Silver Party, Coal Hayes is seeking reelection.” Jerry’s voice fills the cafeteria with mundane information everyone knows. “For the Gold Party, Sandra Kiplinger has just stepped into the race. Brice Leuer…”
The entire room abruptly turns to the television. There’s spite in Jerry’s voice. It’s surprising, and already Peter can feel his stomach churn. Whoever this Brice Lauer is must be bad.
“…Has entered in the race through the Brown Party. His investment in the failed Zemunt Corporation is well documented. Talk of replacing the only successful system that’s granted us world peace is his number one agenda.” Jerry tilts her chin down, and her eyes flicker with disdain. “If elected, this man would destroy Sphaira’s influence and replace her with the tech company of his choosing. Under the guise of competition, Brice Leuer would take over all of the advances Sphaira has made for his own profit.” Suddenly Jerry smiles. It’s unnatural.
Liking her face better when it’s emotionless, Peter glances around. No one else seems to be bothered by the insincerity of her change. He squirms.
“You are entrusted to make the right decision in this election because together, we’re one.” At that, Jerry’s face disappears from the screen.
Peter continues eating his lunch.
For the first time in his life, he doesn’t feel at one with the people surrounding him.
There must be something wrong?
Peter takes the bus home. Like always, the seats are filled to capacity. There’s no need to talk, not when everyone has their phones. Peter notices he’s the only one not looking at a screen. Flinching in surprise, he glances around. No one noticed. Out of synch, he stares at a blank screen, just to feel like he belongs.
The bus reaches his stop. Letting out a sigh, Peter jumps out.
Apartment buildings touch the sky in the city of Mayville, the humid town where he was born. Above Peter’s head, tiny drones buzz about delivering food to the towers of windows along both sides of the street. The only other sounds are the occasional bus and the patter of rain. It’s almost dark. Peter won’t have much time to spend with Deb before curfew.
Tonight they’re going to have goat cheese over baked sweet potatoes. Cheese is a real treat in Mayville. Peter was lucky to be able to order it.
The elevator in his apartment building isn’t quite as fast as the one at Qualosec. Rising up twelve stories, Peter feels confident he’ll enjoy dinner.
Walking through the narrow hallway, the feet markers below are black and stand out to remind him which way to go. Some corridors are only one way. He’s thankful the hallway for his apartment isn’t.
Four silver letters hang on the gray door. Room 4709. Since locks aren’t needed in Mayville, Peter walks right in.
He can smell Deb before he sees her. The raspberry lotion she wears always makes him smile.
“You’re late.” Deb puts down her phone and stands from where she was lounging on his gray couch.
She’s taken off her jacket. Her gray tank top hangs loosely over gray slacks. Seeing her without a coat on, causes Peter’s cheeks to warm. “Sorry I’m late, but a bus malfunctioned on Porter Street, and delayed the entire night’s cycle.”
“How strange.” Deb’s strawberry blond hair waves around her face like a mane. There are freckles on her nose and cheeks, but her hazel eyes demand attention. There’s a kaleidoscope of colors, green, blue, brown, and even gray. It only takes a moment for her freckles to all but fade when her eyes demand all the attention. “I haven’t heard of a transport malfunctioning since I was a child.”
“Sometimes, these things happen.” Peter shrugs. “Just last week, we almost lost an entire shipment of corn. There was a pothole Sphaira didn’t catch off Maplewood Pass.”
“There you are, saving the world again, this time, from hunger.” Deb winks.
Peter’s smile fades. He knows he never saved anything and didn’t enjoy being a soldier. To be one with society, he must believe it was delightful.
“Oh, don’t feel bad about those years. Look at what they’ve given us.” Deb motions to the window.
Peter glances up. Outside he sees nothing but rain. Beyond the bands of water are tall buildings where others just like him, live. Why doesn’t he feel it was worth it? Peter looks back at Deb. “Something else happened earlier today. I…” His palms sweat. “I felt… Alone.”
Deb tilts her head down. “We’re never alone.”
“I was around other people, but I wasn’t in sync with them.” Ashamed, Peter looks down. “It only lasted for a moment.”
“During the midday report, Jerry Max smiled, and I felt… Uncomfortable.” Peter looks back at the dreary view. Frightened to admit it, he whispers. “No one else did.”
Deb’s bright eyes dart back and forth across the floor, as though looking for an explanation in the carpet. “There’s fairness in solidarity and freedom in obedience.” She slowly looks up. “What happened to you today wasn’t the freedom Sphaira gives us. It was something else, something… Off. Maybe you should get help?”
A memory from the Final War makes Peter cringe. Something the Commander said when they caught him, stabbed Peter’s mind then, and has haunted him ever since.
It was sunny in Calchura, a small segment of the world known for its diamond mines and harsh desert landscape. It’s a place terrible enough, dissenting forces thought they could hide their leader there. When his squad raided their compound, Peter didn’t expect to find anyone. Except satellites don’t lie, and they caught the entire command group.
Blood falling from his lips, Colonel Kanton’s eyes were as dark as his skin. There was something in them, something Peter had never seen before. It was intense, defiant, but most of all, alive. “My freedom doesn’t come from your machine. It comes from God.”
Peter looks at the rain beads on his window. They’re getting smaller. Not even focusing on the gloomy weather can distract him from the Colonel’s last words.
It’s agonizing to not know what God is.
His eyes return to Deb. “Yeah, if it happens again, I’ll get help.”
Three weeks pass by without incident. Peter’s at one with the world Sphaira’s made.
Tonight, he’s cooking dinner for Deb.
Everything’s been set from his phone, the oven, the timer, even the dish cleaning cycle. Like society, every machine is one too. This is how Sphaira keeps the wheel of productivity spinning.
Setting white plates on top of a gray counter, Peter turns to see Deb taking off her coat and almost drops one.
“You okay?” Her brow furrows in concern.
“Yeah.” Peter’s cheeks warm, but he doesn’t know why he feels this way. After setting the silverware beside each plate, he pulls the cauliflower out of the oven.
“Smells yummy,” Deb whispers from behind him.
Her proximity is closer than usual. For some reason, it makes Peter nervous. He scoops out two servings and places the pan in the sink.
Deb keeps at his side. Her eyes set on him with wonder. “You look so different.” She places a palm on his face. “I like it.”
He hadn’t realized it’s been over a week since he’s shaved. Somehow, Peter just forgot to do it. He frowns. Just when he felt like he was one again, Peter finds he’s still different.
Deb inches closer and her fingertips caress down his neck.
For a moment, Peter forgets where he is. His eyes interlock with hers, and he wants to do something, but he’s not sure what.
Deb’s lips nearly touch his chin.
Heart racing, Peter isn’t sure how to contain these emotions. Desire, intermixed with heat. It’s strange and hard to control.
At once, both of their cell phones begin buzzing. If they don’t adhere to the alarm, they’ll receive a visit from a drone.
Rumor has it, once that happens, you’re never seen again.
Deb is the first to grab her phone. “It’s my hormone levels, they’re off.” She presses the receiver on her wrist and rolls it against her skin. “I need to be balanced.” Ointment slowly pours out of her phone and dissolves into her wrist. She closes her eyes and lets out a sigh.
The screen on Peter’s phone says the same. Like Deb, he must apply whatever medication Sphaira deems best. He watches Deb open her eyes. They’re calm, but also a little hollow. Her pupils have enlarged. “It’s better, right?”
“Yeah,” Peter smirks. “What were we thinking?”
“I don’t know.” Deb eyes the counter, but the answer obviously isn’t there. She brings her eyes back to him. “I’m glad we’re normal now.”
“Yeah, normal.” Peter smiles.
For the rest of the evening, not a word is said between them.
Two more weeks pass, and Peter still doesn’t feel comfortable around Deb.
He wants to enjoy her company the way he used to, but now he worries they’ll just draw negative attention from Sphaira. Looking at Deb from across the table, Peter doesn’t even enjoy playing Rummy with her anymore.
Her eyes meet his. There’s a longing there he can’t understand.
“I went to the clinic today.” She places the cards down. “They’re taking new applicants.”
“How many tests are required now?”
“Just some bloodwork and an exam.” Deb crosses her arms. She’s never applied for conception, but he has. “The paperwork’s the same.”
“You’d think Sphaira would have it all saved.” Peter sets his cards down, face up. Winning doesn’t matter to him, not tonight.
Deb doesn’t take her eyes off his face. “Did you take the class?”
The room feels smaller. Peter adjusts in his seat. “We didn’t get that far.”
“How soon did she know?”
“The results were back within minutes. Heidi was denied due to the high probability of diabetes.”
Deb’s eyes reach his cards. “Do you regret it?”
“What?” Peter leans forward, his entire forehead in a knot. “That she was denied?”
Deb’s eyes remain locked on his cards. A tear forms in her right eye before she nods.
“The only thing I regret out of that whole ordeal is that I filled out the paperwork before the blood test.” He sits back into his seat, hard.
Deb wipes away her tear. “But you weren’t denied?”
“No. My DNA is impeccable.”
Her lips almost smile, but her eyes haven’t moved from his cards. “They say it’s amazing when you get to hold that little life.” She hugs herself for a moment before reaching out. “That precious little piece of yourself before you let it go, for the future.” Her eyes finally drift from the cards and land on him. “I want that.”
“Yeah. I’ve heard the month without observation is pretty exhilarating too, but…” Peter glances at his phone and winces. “I don’t believe everything I hear.”
Deb’s eyes widen. “Unless it’s from Jerry Max, I don’t either.”
Peter stares at the floor. He can’t say he agrees with that sentiment, not anymore.
Jerry Max is wearing a red turtleneck. At least, that’s what today’s programming makes it look like. If she was programed to wear the same outfit every day, Jerry wouldn’t seem real.
He should focus on his banana and rye sandwich, but Peter is too suspicious not to stare at the screen.
Everyone else in the cafeteria is smiling, but he’s miserable. Nothing feels normal. Nothing feels right.
He sets his sandwich down. Like every meal he’s had since applying that medication onto his wrist, it’s half-eaten. Peter can’t stomach more than that.
“It appears as though…” The alarm in Jerry’s voice silences the room. “Brice Leuer is ahead in the polls.”
Much to Peter’s surprise, one of his co-workers clap.
“Medicate this!” A man yells.
Peter turns. It’s Herbert Norton, he works in label processing. Peter can’t believe someone his age would defy Sphaira.
Herbert’s known more bloodshed than Peter tasted in the Final War.
Jerry’s artificial frown fades, and an image of Brice Leuer fills the screen. Brice is a short man with balding hair and light brown eyes. There’s a kindness in his voice, but his words are sharp. Standing at the wooden podium, Brice leans forward. Shoulders slouched. He’s ready for the fight. “When I was a child, we didn’t have one kind of soda to drink, we had several.” Though he’s older, he’s handsome in the required gray everyone must wear. Something about it lightens the shade of brown in his eyes. “Now, most of you don’t even know what soda is.”
Peter swallows. He doesn’t even know what God is.
“If we continue to only use Sphaira, we won’t have any room to advance. Technology needs innovation to grow. It’s a moving part that builds us up, and if it’s not expanding, it’ll freeze, and eventually, it will break.” The smoothness of Brice’s voice makes Peter wonder if he’s recited this speech. “That’s why we must grease this ever-turning wheel of productivity, with competition.”
Across the stage, Sandra Kiplinger’s smile resides under a tight bun. Her auburn hair is pulled so far back, her ivory skin stretches. “We all know that competition creates murder.”
Peter claps as he should, but his heart isn’t in it. Glancing back, he watches Herbert folds his arms.
Everyone else in the room cheers, but Peter would prefer to be like Herbert.
On-screen, the focus has shifted to Coal Hayes. He’s younger than Brice Leuer but far more confident. Black, well-trimmed hair waved tight over pale skin and faded blue eyes, Coal smirks. He looks past Sandra, to scowl at Brice. “You think this election is a profit machine.”
Brice Leuer returns the glare but says nothing.
“If you make another processing system to manage our world, you’ll own it. Sphaira, and all of her success, will go down the drain. There’ll be poverty again. There’ll be suicide again. There’ll be war again.” His blue eyes flicker at the word, war. It’s his gotcha moment.
Herbert isn’t buying any of it and even scoffs.
Peter realizes he’s not alone. Most of the people around him behave as they should, but at least there’s one human Peter can relate to. This is revolutionary, but more importantly, he feels like he belongs again. He may not be one with everyone, but at least he’s not alone.
Picking up his sandwich, Peter’s able to eat the whole thing.
The days roll by easier now. Even Peter’s posture has improved. Finally able to smile to where it reaches his eyes again, Peter whistles while chopping up some celery. Deb was supposed to be here an hour ago, but the transports have been having issues ever since that one afternoon.
His door opens. Peter looks up to see Deb biting her lip. Her entire face has pulled into itself. Looking at what’s in her arms, Peter sees why.
She’s carrying a large stack of paperwork.
“Please…” She sets the stack of papers on his counter and frowns. “Before I’m too old…”
“I’ll think about it.”
Dropping her shoulders, Deb walks out the door.
Peter hates revisiting this issue and slams the knife on the counter. Heidi wanted the same thing but was denied. He watched it destroy her. She went into the hospital to get help and never came out.
He likes Deb, likes her too much to risk that. Picking up his knife, he tries to cut the celery, but nearly cuts himself.
If conception is what Deb wants, he’ll take the risk.
He grabs the papers and frowns. It’ll take him all night to fill them out.
Peter dials in the clinic’s code from the corner of the first page. Setting his phone up on a stand over each sheet, once the camera is aligned, he begins typing on the screen.
This would be so much easier to do digitally, but this is the only permission from Sphaira that requires physical documentation.
The words are digitally imprinted from his phone to the paper below.
Almost typing the name Heidi instead of Deb, Peter catches himself. That would’ve hurt her. Releasing a sigh, Peter resumes his typing. By the time it’s all done, he takes a picture with his phone and sends it to Deb.
Within a few days, the two of them, and their entire oak tree of paper sit in the waiting room. Peter’s never seen Deb so happy. Most of the women around are, until one hears the news.
Her DNA isn’t fit to be passed down.
Not even her long dark hair can hide this poor woman’s tears. Her cries sound just like Heidi’s did.
Peter stares at the floor. Out of the corner of his eye, he watches Deb squirm in her chair. Like everyone else in the room, her mood is dampened.
Finally, a nurse comes out to take their paperwork. In a few minutes, they’ll be asked to give blood. After that, Peter knows they’ll spend the rest of the day in the waiting room.
On the large television in the corner, Jerry Max is giving the afternoon report, but it’s different. Something’s happened. It looks like a bus crashed, but only the back window is broken. One passenger was killed upon the impact of a street sign. Amazingly, everyone else survived.
There hasn’t been a vehicular fatality under Sphaira’s direction in over twenty years.
Peter pulls away from the news, and the entire room stills once the nurse brings out the results. At the age of twenty-three, Deb is a third level applicant. The lowest level, but regardless, approved. She has never looked more beautiful.
Peter knew he’d pass.
Now all that’s left is the exam and class on how to conceive.
Walking out of the waiting room, Peter is alarmed to hear the report of another death. This one was due to carbon dioxide in their home. He frowns. All detectors are controlled by Sphaira. Since Deb’s already stepped outside, she didn’t hear the news. Peter can’t bring himself to ruin the moment and doesn’t tell her.
Over the next few days, reports like this become normal.
At the office, Peter looks forward to eating lunch, now that he knows Herbert shares his ideals.
Grabbing a wheat and kale wrap, Peter takes his usual seat and looks around. Everyone else is where they should be, but Herbert is gone.
Frowning, Peter’s eyes fall on Jerry Max.
There’s been another accident. This is the twenty-ninth fatality in four days…
It’s now been a week since Herbert’s been in the office.
Peter sits at his desk, with the new order opened in a different tab on the screen before him. He should have a reroute typed up already, but he’s taking the time to research something else…
Occasionally glancing up, he knows he could get fired for this, but the company’s server is the only one secure enough for him to use without suspicion.
If he’s supposed to be one with society, Peter deserves to know about everyone who’s died.
Different ages, different smiles. Different skin tones, different genders. Some have worthy DNA to pass down, some don’t. So far, Peter can’t find anything about them that resembles being one.
They’re all too different.
A bead of sweat rolls down his brow. There has to be something they all have in common. Something he can relate to.
Then Herbert’s file pops up.
Peter sits back in his chair. No one said Herbert died. How can it be the only person who Peter could relate to, is now gone for good?
Letting out a deep sigh, Peter leans forward and opens the file.
Herbert died in his apartment, the very night Peter realized they were the same, at least politically. It was a freak accident. Herbert’s refrigerator crushed him.
Peter tilts his head. None of this feels right. How can so many people who share the same political opinions, just die?
What if it’s Coal Hayes?
Footsteps patter in the hall.
Peter hides his research and focuses on the reroute.
His supervisor, Andrea Langton, peers in the door behind him with a frown. With dark red hair, large blue eyes, and a tall demeanor and impeccable DNA. Her most significant boasting point has been releasing five babies to the future. “Is the solution ready?”
“It will be before lunch.”
Peter doesn’t need to turn around to see her scowl. Andrea’s suspicious of everybody, whether they’re illegally researching the media, or not.
The confident drumming of her footsteps fades down the hall.
Now that she’s gone, Peter turns. The doorway is as empty as the explanation for why Andrea’s so different.
She shouldn’t be, not if they’re one.
Finishing off his tofu and greens, Peter is in a hurry to return to his research. So far, the only correlation he’s found in the lives of the deceased is they all supported Brice Leuer for Chancellor. He’s about to walk out of the cafeteria, but something on the screen makes him pause.
“It seems nothing is below Brice Leuer, not even sabotaging the one.” Jerry Max has her chin down so low, it touches her green turtleneck. “Sphaira has been hacked. That’s why so many of us are dying.” She lifts up her chin, her eyes smug. “Once we have proof, there will be no room for this defector. Brice Leuer will become nothing.”
Harsh whispers fill the room.
Peter has proof, but it’s not the kind Jerry seeks…
The elevator is so fast, it makes Peter queasy. Pushing past it, he rushes down the hall to his office. Opening the secured file, Peter scans through the profiles of each person who was recently lost. He only has a few left to check, and if they pledged to vote for Brice Leuer, that would make it unanimous.
Peter’s hands shake while typing in the profile of an older woman named Candy Broughton. She was seventy-nine, with long gray hair and a kind smile. Next, there’s a recently graduated soldier named Brent Young, whose hair was trimmed to perfect military reg. Peter stops for a moment before writing about the young Maggie Hopkins, who reminds him of Deb enough to sting. All three of these profiles alone couldn’t be more different if they had tried, yet only one thing in common remains: they all supported Brice Leuer.
Twenty-six more people conclude the list of deceased, and not one pledged support for any other candidate.
Sweating, Peter sits back in his chair.
He has no choice, Peter must warn Brice Leuer.
With a few clicks of the projected keys, he finds the site promoting a Chancellor with courage, where all support for Brice Leuer is pledged.
Opening up a messaging thread, the sweat beads increase across his brow. In a way, this is treason. He is speaking out against the narrative.
Peter Cray is speaking out against the one.
Chest rising with each breath, Peter commits the crime by typing a few words:
Dear Brice Leuer,
The recent accusations Jerry Max has against you, couldn’t be more wrong. In this file, is the proof that will clear your name. After all, no candidate would ever murder their own supporters.
A Concerned Citizen
Hands still shaking, Peter holds his finger over the send button. This message takes his discovery outside of Qualosec’s server. If anyone on Brice Leuer’s campaign turns him in for this, Peter knows he’s done.
Peter didn’t cower in battle, and he won’t retreat now. Pressing his lips together until they turn white, Peter sends the message.
Blowing out a sigh, Peter leans back.
There’s nothing left for him to do now, except conjure up the reroute…
It’s raining again. Gloom is one of Mayville’s staples.
Peter steps onto the bus. Tonight he and Deb are having onion and corn soup. He’s been looking forward to it all day, but as he’s taken closer to home, he dreads it.
Looking down at his hands, he can’t imagine Deb’s reaction to his discovery.
Squealing sounds, and before Peter can look up, the bus flips over.
Everyone onboard screams.
The lights turn off.
Before Peter can gather his bearings, something dark covers his head, and his hands are bound.
Raindrops assault him before Peter is shoved into another form of transport. It’s smaller than the bus, jolty, and smells of leather.
Something pinches his arm. Whatever he was injected with, forces Peter to sleep.
Aching throbs throughout Peter’s skull, making it hard to open his eyes. Hands bound to what feels like the arms of a chair, he can hardly move. Managing to open his eyes into slits the brightness of his surroundings stings. Peter immediately closes them. The darkness is easier to cope with, safe, even.
No matter how painful it is, he’ll never be free unless he opens his eyes.
White morphs into the blue. Before Peter is a long dining room table. Beyond it, a large window. The carpet is burgundy. There’s a fireplace to his left, and a silver tray with various food to his right. The walls are papered with vertical stripes of burgundy and gold. The table cloth is gold, with shimmering orange and crimson leaves about.
The chair he is sitting on has a burgundy cushion on each armrest, but the cords that tie his hands in place, are tight enough to leave white marks on the fabric.
Beyond the bronze and red place settings on the table, is the shadowed figure of a man. Holding his hands behind his back, this stranger stares out the window.
Outside, there are mountains and a bright, cloudless sky. Peter has never seen a more majestic sight, but nothing catches him off guard more than the man’s clothes. They are colorful.
Wearing brown slacks, a burgundy blazer, and a bronze shirt with a tie striped with the various colors of the room, this stranger looks foreign, wrong even. The man turns and smiles at him.
Peter blinks. This can’t be who he thinks it is. Why would the Chancellor want anything to do with him? Besides, Coal Hayes is obedient and only wears the color of Sphaira.
Two small drones hover about three feet from each side of his head. A warm glow encases the Chancellor’s face, making it impossible to mistake his identity. Peter’s eyes widen as Coal Hayes approaches him.
“I’m rather impressed by you.” Coal whispers. “Investigative journalism isn’t in your DNA, yet you’ve somehow discovered our little secret.”
Coal takes a seat next to Peter. Several drones begin to serve him food. Like Peter’s clothes, they’re all gray.
“It’s not what you think…” Coal takes a bite of the roast. “Sphaira and I only want what’s best for the people. Not the other way around.” He wipes his mouth with a golden napkin. “Otherwise, you’d already be dead.”
Peter’s back stiffens. “What do you want from me?”
Taking his time to chew, Coal folds his hands and rests his elbows on the table to brace his chin. “I want you to tell me who gave you the information on the deceased.”
“I found it.”
Coal laughs. “That’s impossible.”
Looking at his restraints, Peter knows there’s no way out of this. He’s a toy, one that’s about to be destroyed. “I wanted to know what made me one with those who died, and I found out that I have nothing in common with them. The only thing they had in common with each other was the pledged support of your opponent. I did not intend to commit treason. I was desperate to find what makes everyone the same.”
“You no longer feel one?” The sympathy dripping from Coal’s eyes is too thick to be genuine.
“That’s too bad.” Coal presses a few keys on his watch. A blue hologram, not more than two inches in diameter, displays above the face of the watch. It’s spherical and beyond the dominant blue there are lines of purple, intermixed with gray before two piercing blue eyes. They are feminine, but not kind. Unblinking, they stare at Peter with digital curiosity. “Meet Sphaira in her purest form,” Coal whispers with reverence. “She wasn’t designed for you, but for everyone. For people to be one, I knew they could only be ruled by an Artificial Intelligence. That way, greed, and jealousy wouldn’t cause another needless war. I wish I could say it was all in selflessness, but what better way to leave my mark on the world than providing it with peace, security, and a perfect leader? So no, Peter, we aren’t one, and never will be. The moment you die, you’ll be forgotten. My name will live on forever because my successor can’t die.” He holds his arms out. Dozens of drones fly to them and turn their gray eyes on Peter. “Sphaira sees everything because I designed her to be everything. Who are you to question such brilliance?”
There’s no chance of going back, not now. Peter can either die a coward or like that Colonel, he can die speaking his heart. “One who’s seen how many people you’ve killed, to obtain said peace.”
A flicker of rage crosses his pale blue eyes before Coal looks to Sphaira. Her eyes move from Peter to Coal, and something unsaid is communicated between them, though Peter’s not sure how. Abruptly, Coal laughs. “I like you.” His eyes become friendly, before Coal waves his hand a few times, though trying to fan the right words. “Such blunt honesty is something I rarely hear.” Leaning forward, Coal points to Peter’s plate, and a drone serves him food.
It’s not just any food, but meat. He doesn’t want to be enticed, but Peter’s mouth begins salivating.
Meanwhile, another drone cuts the restraints off his wrists.
Peter nurses the red marks on his skin.
“Eat. You’re one of the few who deserve it.” Coal’s demeanor becomes casual, while Sphaira’s eyes turn back on Peter.
Peter’s stomach tightens at the sight of her. Nothing in Sphaira’s eyes have changed, but somehow, he feels like she’s testing him, and will not partake of her delicacies. “No, thank you.” The soldier in him looks at the fork. He knows the drones would stop him before he could use it on Coal.
Coal sits back, his face straight in disbelief. “Never has anyone refused a meal from me.” He crosses his arms. “Don’t be afraid. It hasn’t been poisoned. It would be a shame for someone with such flawless genes to die.” Coal smiles. It’s friendly enough, regardless, Peter feels threatened by him.
“I don’t like taking things that I don’t deserve.”
“You are special.” Looking at his plate, Coal takes his time before bringing his eyes back to Peter. “I designed Sphaira to never be wrong, and unfortunately….” His eyes are sad, before Coal forces another smile. “She knows my days are numbered.” He snaps his fingers, and the two drones near his head zoom back. The soft glow surrounding Coal disappears, and his face is no longer smooth, but creased with age.
The aftershock of the hologram of youth being lifted, makes Peter flinch back.
For the first time since meeting him, Coal’s smile appears sincere. “I’ve done everything I can to maintain my vigor, but no matter what I do, eventually, I will die. Sphaira needs someone like me, who can think for himself, to be my successor. You see, we need each other, but my mortality has let her down.” Coal eyes Peter up and down, assessing him with straight eyes before sighing. “She thinks you are a promising candidate.” The resentment in his tone can’t be misconstrued. With another snap, the drones return to their posts. The glow returns, and Coal’s face is as smooth and vibrant as Peter’s been accustomed to.
Peter stares at the tiny set of artificial eyes that peer up at him under long lashes, of which never blink. He should be grateful for this opportunity, but inside, his stomach drops like a bolder. “What if you lose the election?”
Coal laughs. “That won’t happen.”
Peter frowns. “Sphaira’s hope for me is an honor. What do you expect from me in return?”
Coal leans forward, and Sphaira’s ever-watching eyes come closer. “Your obedience to Sphaira and unyielding loyalty to the system we’ve made. Now that you know of her true face and mine, your life is in our hands.”
Peter knows it’s been in their hands all along.
“You do have a phenomenal service record, ideal DNA, and a handsome face that, unlike my own, has many decades of use left.” Coal’s right eye twitches. “You dislike death as much as Sphaira and I, which is why the last war haunts you, even in sleep.”
Discomforted that they know that, Peter stirs.
“Oh yes, Peter, we know.” Coal raises a brow. “Bloodied wars are why I created Sphaira. I just didn’t expect anyone to deny her wisdom.”
The screams of women and children before they fell during the last war, fill Peter’s mind now. He looks at his hands to find they’re shaking. “You say you dislike death, but my hands have killed, only because of you.” He looks at Coal in the eyes.
Coal smiles so broadly, his teeth bare. “You’ll get over that soon enough. Now, tell us who gave you the information on the lives that were lost. Was it your girlfriend?”
“I didn’t think she’d be capable, not with her DNA. You’re far too good for her.” Coal smirks. “Was it your supervisor?”
Peter’s head tilts like an automatic twitch. Andrea has always treated him with disdain. If he were to lie, not only would she take the brunt of his misdeed, but he’d never see her again.
“Say no more…” Coal’s eyes are satisfied enough. With a snap of his fingers, a drone injects Peter’s arm with a needle, and he falls back into the darkness.
Waking up, Peter’s head rests on his arms that are folded on top of the counter. Looking around, there’s only one light on, making it easier for his eyes to adjust.
He can tell he’s back in his apartment.
There are several dirty dishes in the sink, and the faucet releases a slow, torturous drip.
Nursing a headache, Peter straightens his back. It stings his muscles just to move, and the ache spreads across his body. Everything he remembers, the aged Chancellor, Sphaira and her creepy, ever watching eyes, the potential to replace Coal someday, all of it whirls in Peter’s head like a bad dream.
His phone buzzes. It speaks, with a female, mechanical whisper. “You have great potential, Peter, but our meeting is to be kept secret. Otherwise, know…” Is all it says, before the same voice seemingly comes from his refrigerator, “That…” Now his oven speaks with the same mechanical tone, “I…” The lights in his apartment turn on, all at once. The bulb above his head now speaks, “Can…” His microwave door flings open, “Kill…” Down the hall, his vacuum hums for just a moment, before the roar is replaced by the same voice, “You…” The smoke detector above his bedroom door is the next to speak, “At…” His garbage disposal shrills, making Peter jump, before it too speaks, “Any…” Every window in his apartment flings open, allowing wind and rain to assault the living space. Turning around, there’s a small drone, much like the ones at Coal’s table, hovering outside each one. “Time…” They all say in unison.
All the windows slam close, and only the light to remain on is the one above him.
Heart pounding so hard his hands shake, Peter looks at the floor. There’s nowhere to run, and too many objects to fight. He’s trapped.
Only his silence can save him now.
The doorbell rings. It makes him jump higher than the garbage disposal did.
Wiping the sweat off his palms, Peter hesitates before opening the door. On the other side, could be Coal, with Sphaira hovering over his wrist. It could be a soldier, or it could be death…
Swallowing hard, Peter turns the knob.
Out in the hallway, Deb stands with her arms crossed. “Why did you ditch me?”
It takes a moment for Peter to understand before he remembers, dinner, they were supposed to have dinner. Glancing down the hall, his eyes widen in fear for her safety. “It has to be almost curfew by now. You should go home.”
“Curfew?” Her brow creases. “It’s not even time for dinner yet.”
Exhaustion makes Peter’s knees almost cave. He grips the doorknob to stay balanced. “Obviously, I didn’t ditch you.”
She unfolds her arms and slams her hands on her hips. “I’m talking about last night.”
A wave of nausea hits him. It’s so strong Peter can feel the color drain from his face. “I’ve been gone since yesterday?” He looks back into his apartment. It’s too dangerous for Deb to be with him. He has to end their relationship, right now.
“Yes.” Deb’s eyes soften. She’s obviously willing to forgive him, but only if he gives her an explanation she wants to hear.
Peter furors his brow. “I didn’t fill out all of that paperwork for nothing.”
Stung, Deb steps back. “What do you mean?”
“You know what I mean. I’m not going to let my DNA intermingle with someone who is merely on the cusp of being worthy. I went to Uorotown last night and met a woman there. Her DNA is similar to my own. Our product for the future will be better. You’re just a waste of my time.”
Her face twists and almost shatters like glass before tears burst from her eyes. “I hate you!”
Peter watches her run away. Sweat beads run down his face. Hate is illegal, and he knows Sphaira heard her say it. No matter how hard he tried to save Deb, his cause was lost. She sealed her own fate.
Slowly, Peter closes his door, wondering how he’ll sleep in a room where everything that surrounds him could be used as a weapon to kill him…
Deb sobs down the hall. Rushing into the elevator, she is alone and allows the tears to flow down her face. All she wanted was to experience giving birth. Deep down, it’s more than just a want, it’s a need. She takes in a deep breath and presses the button for the first floor.
The elevator takes her down, but much faster than she expected.
Alone in his apartment, Peter doesn’t hear her scream.
The alarm buzzes from his phone.
Peter’s eyes open. He rolls over to turn it off. Now his apartment is quiet, peaceful even.
Getting out of bed, he finds the faucet isn’t dripping anymore, but he doesn’t remember turning it off.
He doesn’t remember going to bed, either.
Going about his morning routine, none of his appliances talk.
Everything seems normal.
Peter wonders if it was all only a bad dream.
Stepping out into the hallway, the sound of several voices draws his attention. Walking towards the elevator, Peter’s surprised to find several men from with gray helmets on.
“Stay back!” The first one yells. “The elevator is out of service.”
Making his way towards the stairs, Peter stops. His face tingles, and he begins to sweat. “Was anyone hurt?”
“Yeah,” A different voice answers him.
The dread in Peter’s heart won’t allow him to turn around and look at this stranger. “Who?”
“I don’t know, some woman from another complex.”
Peter’s heart skips a beat and his eyes close. That couldn’t have been Deb. It just couldn’t have been…
Opening his eyes, he knows better. She’s gone, and it’s all because of him. He may not have killed her directly, but regardless, his hands shake.
The men working on fixing the elevator ignore him. They don’t care because no one here is really one. Peter walks towards the stairs, unable to escape the nightmare he’s living.
The keys are before him, but Peter can only stare at the monitor. Thoughts of how frightening Deb’s last moments must have been, makes him too weak to type.
It’s been four hours since he’s arrived at work and all he’s done is sit at his desk.
He didn’t take his lunch break. He didn’t go to the morning meeting, nothing. Deb died because of him, and the weight on Peter’s heart is excruciating.
A knocking pulls him from his daze. Looking back, there’s a middle-aged man with gray hair and a full midsection, staring at him past large glasses and a permanent frown. “Are you wasting company time?”
Peter shrugs. “Who are you?”
“Clyde Eibner, your new supervisor.”
Nausea forces Peter to lean forward. He killed her too. “How?”
“Tragic accident. Andrea was electrocuted in her office. I’m taking the east wing.” Clyde folds his arms. “I’ve read your report. I know you’re trouble. One wrong move under my authority, and you’re done.”
There may be one way Peter can escape this nightmare, but it’s too stupid to try. Unable to stop himself, Peter’s lips release what can never be unsaid. “You can’t…” Peter whispers so lowly, he hardly heard himself.
“I can’t what?” Clyde’s posture stiffens.
Peter looks up. “You can’t have authority over me. Not if we’re one.”
Carrying a small box with his personal effects out of the building, Peter shouldn’t be smiling. He’s never been fired before, but for once in his life, it felt good to question the narrative.
This one wrong move will not only force him to work in a lower position, but will taint his DNA for all future generations.
To gain status is to embrace compliance. In many ways, his life is ruined, but Peter’s never felt so alive.
On the bus, maximum capacity is reached. Only Peter doesn’t have his face buried in his phone. Lack of thought, lack of heart, makes everyone simple targets to manipulate. Like animals, they’re herded wherever Sphaira wants them to go.
This was his lot, before Peter’s mind awoke to the truth.
For a moment, the lights in the bus flicker, like a brownout. Peter looks up. They flicker again, but this time, the voice of Sphaira whispers. “You failed, Peter.”
The lights return to normal.
Everyone around him seems disturbed. Questioning their own minds and ears, it only takes a few seconds before their eyes return to focusing on their screens.
It’s the screens that program them how to think, how to feel, how to breed…
Reaching his apartment, the elevator still isn’t fixed. There’s no hope for Peter’s smile to return. He’d rather be in denial and pretend the life lost didn’t belong to Deb. Part of him wishes he could believe the lie he fed her. That his heart was calloused enough to love the DNA of a stranger, more than her company. Thinking of how that lie hurt Deb’s heart, Peter winces. He will carry this guilt for the rest of his life.
Then there was Andrea…
There was a part of him that wanted her to die, but now that she’s gone, he hates himself.
Peter reminds himself that hate is illegal…
Forcing himself to look away from the rubble that was the elevator, Peter takes the stairs. By the time he reaches his floor, he’s out of breath. Hesitant to walk into his apartment, everything in him screams that death awaits him there.
There’s nowhere else to go. Peter walks in.
Just like when he woke up this morning, it’s quiet.
Until he closes the door.
“You didn’t keep your end of the bargain.” The voice of Coal Hayes is unmistakable.
Peter walks towards it. The voice seems to be coming from his bedroom. “How can I return to the life I had, after learning what it was?”
Coal chuckles. “And that was?”
Peter steps into his room. There, a drone hovers over his dresser.
“On the contrary, death is nothing.” Coal’s voice rings clearly through the speaker of the drone.
“Living under constant control is nothing.”
A pause, long enough to make Peter uncomfortable passes before Coal speaks.
“I never thought that Sphaira could be wrong, the way she was about you. Peter, it seems you’ve disappointed us both.” Coal’s voice cracks.
Peter eyes the floor, unable to understand how they thought he’d be okay with their plans.
“Regardless of your flaws, I’m thankful for you, Peter Cray, in more ways than you know.” Coal’s voice is softer, and even through the speaker of the drone, it sounds a little sad. “It’s because of you that I was able to settle my long-standing, internal conflict. Part of me has hoped that humans could simply be rewired to remain useful. Sphaira, in all her goodness keeps looking for new ways to do so, but nothing’s worked. The other side of my heart, the one I’ve tried to tame all these years, was right. Humans are too stubborn to be rehabilitated. You’ve proven it.” Coal’s voice heightens in anger. “You’ve proven the only thing a defector deserves is indeed, nothing.”
Peter’s eyes widen. He’s received the message, loud and clear. No matter how much he’s wanted to escape his life, his fight or flight mechanism kicks in, and there is no other chance for survival, but to run. He barely makes it out of the room in time before the drone starts shooting. Peter slams the door and ducks behind the kitchen counter.
The microwave turns on. Peter looks up just as it explodes. Blocking the door with his arm, the heat singes the hairs on his arm.
Grimacing, Peter notices his oven switching on and no longer feels the pain.
The drone continuously fires on the door. It’s only a matter of time before it breaks through.
Flames burst at the seams of his oven door. Peter’s mind clouds with panic. He has to get out of here, but his knees buckle. About to rush towards the front door, the fire alarm blares. He imagines carbon dioxide is filling his apartment now. He runs to the nearest window. The movement of a drone outside catches his eye, stopping him from opening it.
Backing away from the glass, an electronic shrill fills the air behind him.
Peter turns to find the hose of his vacuum is in the sink. It pulls out a dirty knife and rolls towards him.
It’s hard to focus, let alone move at the sight. Peter breaks his mind free and forces his legs to run.
There’s only one chance he has to get out of here alive.
Locking himself in the bathroom, the blade from his knife stabs through the door.
Gasping, Peter steps back just to be showered by hot water. He opens his eyes to see the faucet of his bathtub has burst. The water is scalding and stings wherever it splashes onto his flesh, but the only way out is to crawl.
Dropping to his hands and knees, Peter grimaces in pain. The water burns, but on the tile, it’s not hot enough to damage his skin as he crawls to the only escape route he has. The door bursts open behind him, but Peter doesn’t look back from the laundry shoot. He can hear the roaring of his vacuum, and humming of a drone behind him.
Gritting his teeth, Peter kicks the door open and slides down the laundry shoot.
Landing in a pile of his dirty clothes, Peter leaps out of the fabric that entangles him.
A woman folding the heap of laundry looks up as gasps at the sight of him. Her brown eyes are full of terror, before she turns and runs away.
Hers is the kind of low-level job Peter would probably be reassigned to, not that any of that matters now.
Time, he’s running out of time.
The drones will probably expect him to run out the back. Peter leaves through the front.
Stepping outside, a sudden movement spins around his head, like a winged bug. Peter doges this drone, before catching it. Slamming it against the wall, it shatters, but he was too late.
“Defector.” The mechanical voice of Sphaira announces over every loudspeaker in the city. All at once, every window is covered with a holographic image of his face. The drone took the picture just before Peter destroyed it.
Running down the sidewalk, Peter notices two elderly women point at him.
One of the women shouts, “There’s the defector!”
“How dare he!” Her companion yells.
Peter turns the corner. The few people around him sneer and point.
There’s no escape, not when everyone is so willing to turn him in.
So much for one…
Heart pounding like a drum, Peter turns a corner. His lungs burn from the pressure of running. Before him stands an elderly man. Hatred spreads across his face before he slugs Peter.
Head hitting the sidewalk, there’s no getting up. The humming of drones fills his ears before Peter’s eyes close.
He’s returned to the darkness for what may be the very last time…
“You’ll take him, because I’m getting too old for this.”
The voice is unpleasant, rude even.
Peter opens his eyes to see an older woman standing above him. Her hair is gray and in a tight ponytail above a skeptical face. Her lips curve in a sneer at him, and her blue eyes seem incapable of displaying kindness.
Whoever she is, Peter’s first instinct is to get away from her.
He tries to sit up, but can’t lift his body higher than an inch. Peter’s eyes fall to what bound him. His entire body is enwrapped with a gray straightjacket. He flinches and pulls, but it does no good.
The woman at his bedside smiles at his struggle.
“I don’t know, he’s so much bigger than me. What if he breaks out?” This voice is soft enough to cause Peter to still.
On the other side of the room, a younger woman stands with her arms crossed. She’s wearing the same bland, gray scrubs as the first, but her eyes are a much kinder shade of blue. With short, messy, dark hair over an oval face, her ivory skin and petite build almost make Peter forget he’s tied to a gurney.
“Are you kidding me? Look at him.” The harsh woman laughs before pointing. “He’s not going anywhere.”
Only nodding with her chin, the petite woman can’t hide her nervousness. “Okay.”
The cruel woman gives her a demeaning once over, before leaving the room.
Their eyes lock. Peter’s not sure how much time has passed before the lady finally gathers the nerve to pull the gurney from the wall.
“What’s your name?”
Her face scrunches. “With the situation you’re in, that’s what you ask?”
“I know I’m done. No one ever comes out of the hospital alive. I just want to know the name of my killer.”
She scoffs before pushing the gurney into the hall. “Right…”
There are a few other nurses in passing. All physically different, but they all eyed her in the same way. It’s a superior glare, one that proves she’s new.
“You’re popular,” Peter whispers.
“Far more than you, Mr. Criminal, a real lady’s man, I’m sure.” With a roll of her eyes, she turns down the hall.
“Where are you taking me?”
“To be euthanized, so Sphaira can study your brain.”
Peter focuses his eyes on each square light overhead. Almost in a trance, he starts counting them.
After glaring down at each whispered number, she frowns. “What are you doing?”
“Each light we pass brings me closer to death. In a way, I’m counting down, hoping death will be better than the life I’ve lived.”
Her pace slows. Something in her eyes changes. “You were a soldier, weren’t you?”
Peter stops counting. “No. Soldiers have something worthy to fight for. I was nothing more than an assassin.” His lips curl in disgust. “I was just another tool for the Chancellor to use against the people.”
The nurse glances around. “My name’s Abigail Dawn.” She leans in close to whisper in his ear. “By day’s end, I promise you’ll know life.”
Peter draws his eyes away from the lights overhead. “Abigail… Your bedside manner is as beautiful as your name.”
She shakes her head. “I don’t appreciate flirtation, Peter Cray. It’s your mind I’m after.”
Before he can speak, the gurney is pushed through a doorway, and they’re no longer alone.
A slender woman stands, dresses in gray scrubs. She is tall, with cold, black eyes. “This is the individual?”
“Yes, Dr. Bower.” Abigail rolls him to the center of the room, where a drone hoovers above a metal table.
Peter’s eyes widen at the various tools laid out across the steel display of torture devices.
“Shame, he has excellent DNA.” Dr. Fowler sticks her nose up before readying a syringe.
Abigail wipes the sweat from her palms on the front of her pants. “Dr. Bower, I know I’m in no place to speak, but do you suppose it would please Sphaira if we dissected the patient, alive?”
Betrayal burns Peter’s eyes into slits. He’s never glared at anyone so hard in his life.
Abigail ignores him.
Light sparks in Dr. Bower’s eyes. “Drone, is that legal?”
Sphaira’s voice is mechanical and barely female. “No, though highly discouraged. That form of practice hasn’t been done since Sphaira’s embrace covered the earth.”
“I shall be a pioneer.” Dr. Bower grabs a handheld saw.
Abigail takes a step forward. “Perhaps scanning him first, would be better?”
“Wrong, I want to see what it is that makes this man an individual. I want to find it with my own eyes and crush with my hands.” The light in Dr. Bower’s eyes has turned into shadowed madness. Dr. Bower turns to Peter and smiles. It’s the same smile the older nurse gave him when he woke up. It’s not coldhearted, but rather excited for his pain.
Sweat beads roll down Peter’s face. “How about you just ask me what happened?”
“Your mind is where the answer lies.” The doctor steps closer.
Abigail leans against a control panel by the wall. Her hands hang at her side, but she does nothing to help him. She’s only a spectator, one with the duplicity of kind eyes.
The tiny saw in the doctor’s hand starts spinning. Her smile only widens.
Peter looks away from her and stares at the light above. It’s square, but unlike the lights in the hall, it’s reflective. He promises himself that no matter what is done to him, he will not go down screaming.
Suddenly, Abigail screams. “What’s happening?”
The doctor looks up, and before her smile can fade, the drone is slammed in her face.
“Malfunction!” Abigail shrills. She yanks the drone back, slams it into the Doctor’s face again, before letting it fall. Abigail catches the saw out of the doctor’s hand before her unconscious body hits the floor.
“We don’t have much time.” Abigail pants before using the saw the cut him free. “I have to make sure they didn’t chip you.” She yanks the straight jacket off.
Peter’s first reaction is to sit up, but she pushes a hand against his chest to stop him.
“Stay still.” She types something into the panel along the wall.
A blue laser scans his body from the panel. To protect his eyes, Peter looks away from it. He notices several cameras along in the corner. “The drone wasn’t the only one spying.”
Abigail rolls her eyes. “I deactivated those.” She intently waits for his results. “You’re clean, let’s go.” She opens a supply closet and tosses him some scrubs. “Hurry.”
Peter slips them over his clothes. “You really think they’ll let us just walk out of here?”
“You’re my fifth escapee.” Abigail glances at the doctor’s body for a moment. “I’ve just never had an escape be this messy. I won’t be able to come back here, but at least we’ll get supplies.” She shrugs. “Follow my lead.” She slams a rectangular-shaped piece of dark metal on the wall. It sticks and a red light at the top blinks.
“Explosives?” Peter asks.
With a confident smirk, Abigail opens the double doors and calmly steps out into the hall.
Peter hesitantly follows.
To their right, the sound of footsteps marching fills his ears. It’s been a while, but Peter remembers that sound, clear as day. It’s the sound of soldiers coming to meet their enemy’s end.
Abigail pulls his arm to the opposite hallway. “Since you like counting so much, why don’t you countdown from three?”
Peter’s brows furrow. “Three…Two…”
An explosion rocks the hall behind them.
Peter ducks and turns to see the walls have caved in on themselves. There’s no way the soldiers can get them now. At least, not until they reroute.
Abigail smirks at him.
“Who are you?”
“I told you. I’m Abigail Dawn.” She holds her chin up and grins.
Turning the corner, they find a few nurses sheltering in place. They lie in the fetal position, with their arms covering their heads.
Abigail’s face morphs into a panic. “Everybody run! Sphaira’s malfunctioning again. The hospital’s going to explode!”
The half dozen nurses leap up with their eyes widen by fear, before running down the hall.
“This way.” Abigail’s face is calm again. She opens the door to their left, just to find a metal door inside. Using her badge, Abigail gains access and confidently steps into a supply room. There are dozens of carts with multiple drawers, each filled with medications. She immediately begins filling her pockets, before handing some glass jars to him. “Here, we need these antibiotics.”
He takes them and stuffs them into the few pockets he has.
“If I can’t come back here, I might as well make this extraction count.” Abigail smiles before leading the way to a hallway in the back.
“Sorry, I’ve ruined your gig.” Peter whispers, while jogging just to keep up.
“No, Peter, this is what I’ve been waiting for. You’ve helped me.” Abigail uses her badge to gain access through another door, this one all metal.
The light isn’t bright enough to be blinding but is uncomfortable to stare at. The heat from this room causes Peter to turn his face back. It’s an automatic response to protect himself.
A yellow beam rises before them. It is about four feet wide and ten feet tall. Around it, is a circular path made of metal, and another door matching the way they came through, directly across the room.
“What is this?”
“Corborlation. It not only powers the hospital but can be used to destroy it, should another pandemic plague these halls.” She steps up to a glass-encased control pad. With a few strokes of her fingers, the massive beam of light compresses onto itself and shrinks.
The lights in the hall flicker, before dimming to a soft yellow hue.
“Emergency power.” The voice of Sphaira fills the air.
Abigail steps forward. The tiny gold cube hanging by four metal threads is all that remains of the once massive power source. She leaps over the edge of the metal railing. The fall beneath is only five feet, but without a ladder, it would be difficult to find a way out of. She reaches for the cube. Her arm is four inches too short. “Spot me.” She reaches for his hand.
Peter takes it and holds her steady so she can reach it. “You’re trusting.”
“A lady’s man would never let a pretty girl fall.” Abigail grabs it and smiles.
Peter’s cheeks flush before he pulls her back to the railing. Looking into her eyes, he feels he’s exactly where he’s supposed to be. It’s foreign but pleasant. “Shouldn’t it be hot?”
“Not when it’s compacted. Corborlation was designed to be carried by human hands.” Abigail holds up the glowing cube. “I’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time. This energy source is the only way to destroy Sphaira.” She places it in a metal cage hanging from a chain around her neck, before caressing it lovingly. “Come on.”
Going through the next metal door, the outside is chaos.
Peter does his best to keep up with Abigail through the crowd.
Like a stampede of ants, dozens of people run for the nearest exit.
Abigail pushes her way through the crowd and makes a sharp left, just before the doors of the exit.
Peter follows her and turns back to see if anyone’s reporting their suspicious behavior, but everyone’s too panicked to notice.
Making another left, Abigail leads them into a supply room. She pulls back a stand of four tall lockers from the wall.
Peter rushes to help her, surprised that she’s barely straining.
“It’s okay, they’re empty.” Once the lockers are pulled back, Abigail straightens her posture. She stares at the wall with a pause. Something in her eyes could even be fear.
“It’s a nice wall.” Peter points at the gray paint.
Abigail smiles. It’s nothing like the expression the other nurse and Dr. Bower gave. It’s sincere, perhaps a little innocent. “You’re capable of sarcasm. That’s a good sign.”
Peter can nearly feel his eyebrows touch. He’s so perturbed because he’s never heard the word sarcasm before, and doesn’t have the slightest clue what it means.
Her smile fades before Abigail refocuses. “Alright, God, I trust you.” She whispers.
Looking at her in surprise, Peter presses his lips together. It takes everything he is not to ask her what God is.
She bends and dances her fingers along the center of the wall. The paint doesn’t crack but seems to break off in four single lines.
Peter steps back once he sees it’s actually a small, metal door she’s pulled out.
Beyond it lays darkness of the unknown.
Abigail bends her knees to be on the level with the open space and looks up at him. “This is it, the path to life.” Without another word, she slams another explosive on the wall and crawls out of the room.
Peter looks at the rectangular explosive. After seeing the damage from the last one, he doesn’t hesitate to follow her.
The air is cold. Peter has to crawl on his hands and knees to fit through this tunnel. Abigail has a small flashlight that’s already a reasonable distance away. Between that and the light behind him, Peter can see how narrow the space is, and it causes saliva to build in the back of his throat. Keeping his eyes on the white glow from Abigail’s light, Peter slides his knees against the metal. They’re moving downward until Abigail turns left, and the ground beneath him changes from metal to loose dirt. Rushing to catch up with Abigail, he can tell there are only plywood boards keeping the soil above from crashing down on them. Occasionally, bits of sawdust fall on Peter’s head. His breathing intensifies. He can feel the cold dirt compacting under his fingernails, but doesn’t dare to slow his pace.
The moment he loses that light is the moment he’ll be stuck in darkness.
Narrowing, the tunnel gives no room to turn around.
There is no going back. Not that it matters.
Voices shout in muffled military terms behind them. There’s no time to debate this decision.
“Brace yourself!” Abigail shouts.
The ground shakes from the explosion. Peter covers his head as dirt falls down on his like confetti. For a moment, he fears they’ll be buried alive. Eventually, the falling earth subsides, and he can breathe again.
Behind them, there’s nothing but silence.
Abigail’s voice brings Peter back in focus. He has to keep crawling through the dirt, chasing her light.
The space around him seems to widen before a new light reflects on textured walls of dirt that encase them.
Reaching the edge, Peter grits his teeth to move faster.
Abigail’s frame appears black against the bright light. She leaps out and drops below the opening.
He doesn’t care what’s on the other side. Peter just wants out of this tunnel and blindly follows.
The air is stale, and the lighting is dim. Peter knows they’re still underground, but the concrete that encases them now is vast. He takes in a deep breath. The freedom from the narrow tunnel is enough to make him smile.
A low rumble shakes the ground, stealing all joy from him. Peter turns to see the dirt behind them close in. The exit they escaped from collapses entirely.
“I had to blow it,” Abigail whispers. “They can’t ever follow us this far.” She marches on.
Peter turns to see her heading towards where the dark gray tunnel curves. Beyond that, it appears dark. His instincts tell him not to follow, but there’s no going back.
Abigail is confident enough, but the closer they get to the dark, the more Peter’s stomach whirls.
A roar sounds and two red lights appear in the middle of the darkness. Peter steps back.
Abigail doesn’t even flinch.
Something sweet, strong, and unlike anything he’s smelled before, reaches Peter’s nostrils. The deeper he breaths in, the less sweet it is. The closest thing he can pinpoint it to is wet paint.
“Are you coming or what?” Abigail opens something metal that squeaks. The interior light for what looks like a mode of transport turns on. There are two benched seats, but this vehicle isn’t automated. A person controls the wheel.
“What kind of vehicle is this?” Peter whispers.
Abigail chuckles. “It’s a Chevelle. Sphaira can’t track it because it’s ancient.” She glances at the driver before looking back. “Besides, I’d take human error of a heartless machine’s control, any day. Wouldn’t you?” She folds the front passenger seat back and motions for him to get in.
Peter walks past the taillights that reflect off dark paint, while this mechanical beast growls at him. Hesitant, he steps inside. The leather is worn, and some of it has ripped. The edges are sharp against the thin fabric on his pants, but the stuffing from the cushion is warm. “Yes…” Peter forces himself to gain confidence in human error. “I would.”
The driver looks back at him. From under a black baseball cap, there are fierce brown eyes, full lips that frown, and a wide jawline. Well defined forearms reach out to hold the steering wheel, proving this man is in condition to fight.
“You blew the tunnel for a globalist warfighter?” He may be talking to Abigail, but his eyes target Peter.
“He fit the bill to a tee. More than anyone I’ve saved.”
When the driver looks at Abigail, his eyes soften. “Ma won’t be pleased.”
“Marcella Kanton wants to save everyone she can. I know she’ll forgive him.” Abigail whispers.
“Yeah, but I won’t.”
Peter’s heart drops to his stomach. Could this Marcella, be related to Col. Kanton? His mind tries to reason while his body begins to sweat.
Before he can say a word, the Chevelle is put into drive, and the force sends him back. Looking for something, anything to strap onto, Peter is distressed to find that there are no seatbelts.
Abigail glances back to watch him search for safety and smiles. “Peter, you’ll never learn to live until you accept a little risk.”
Peter stops digging for a seatbelt and looks up at the rearview mirror. The driver is watching him.
Swallowing hard, Peter folds his hands over his lap. “Okay.”
Abigail turns her attention to the man at the wheel. “Thanks for coming. I would’ve died without you.”
He squirms. “Oh, please. You can handle yourself.”
“No, Troy.” Abigail folds her arms. “It’s a long walk, and I don’t have any water.”
Peter looks out the small window. The tunnel is dark, almost hypnotic. The vibration from the concrete shouldn’t be relaxing.
“We’re almost there,” Abigail whispers.
Peter scoots to the middle of the bench, to have a better view. All he sees is darkness until there’s a curve.
Light, various in size, fills the ground of the tunnel. They’re flames coming from lanterns and candles. On each side are small, metal buildings, not larger than huts. People stand about, most are adults, but Peter’s jaw drops at the sight of children. He hasn’t seen anyone that small since he was a child himself.
Troy brakes and turns the car to the right. In this tunnel are various gas-powered vehicles that are parked neatly in a row.
“Thank God we’re home.” Abigail gets out and stretches her legs.
Peter manages to push the front seat forward enough, and squeezes his way out.
Troy doesn’t say anything and marches off towards a woman. She is older than him, but the same in skin tone. They exchange whispers, but stand still, watching Peter intently. He’s never seen anyone whose eye color matched so perfectly before. “Is that Marcella Kanton?”
“Yeah, come on.” Abigail walks towards them. Beyond the older woman, a small crowd gathers.
All eyes are on Peter.
Pressing his lips together, it’s hard to make his legs move. Finally, Peter takes one step, then another.
The resentment in Troy’s eyes burn, but in this woman’s eyes, there’s something different, an expectancy of some sort. Peter has no choice other than, to be honest.
“Hello Ma’am, I’m Peter Cray. I was with the squad that raided Colonel Kanton’s compound. I didn’t kill him, but I was there when he died.”
Her eyes water, but not a single tear falls. “Did he speak?”
“Yes.” Caught off guard, Peter needs to gather the courage to answer her. “He said, ‘My freedom doesn’t come from your machine. It comes from God.’” Peter wants to ask what a God is, but something in him warns that this isn’t the time.
A tear rolls down her cheek. Marcella looks up at Troy, who only stares at his feet. These words hurt them, yet at the same time, bring them solace. Peter only wishes he knew why.
Marcella brings her dark eyes to Peter. “I’m glad you’re here, Peter Cray.”
Peter finds Marcella’s words hard to believe. If she was loyal to Colonel Kanton, then she shouldn’t be glad to see him at all.
Glancing beyond her, the majority of the crowd seems to share his doubt. Marcella holds her chin up and begins walking towards a corridor. “This way, Peter.”
Could she be leading him to death?
With how hard Troy is glaring at him, Peter knows he doesn’t have a choice, and follows. It gives him comfort to have Abigail by his side. She is so small, but her confidence gives her a presence that resembles most of the soldiers who trained him.
The torches on the walls give a warm contrast against the dark concrete. Peter glances back to see that crowd of on-lookers stayed behind.
Marcella parts sheer, gold curtains aside to reveal a dead end in the tunnel that’s been converted into a storage room, where two men sit on each side of the shelves, watching Peter with suspicious eyes. Figuring they must be guards of some sort, Peter ignores them. Looking around, there are mismatched chairs and large cushions sporadically placed throughout the room. Like Coal’s home, this furniture is colorful. Along the walls are shelves filled with books that vary in color and size. One is placed on top of a small table centered in the room, and Peter can’t help but wonder what makes it so special. On the ground beside each shelf, are empty steel containers.
“Are you aware of what these are, Peter?” Marcella gives him a cynical look.
“Books,” Peter whispers.
Marcella’s eyes brighten. “Very good.” She places her hands on her hips. “Why did Sphaira stop printing books?”
“Because paper destroys the environment, and the use of it, is primitive.” He recites.
“No, Peter. Trees can be replaced, and forests managed.” Marcella steps over to the open book in the middle of the room. “The printing press was destroyed, not for the planet, but to limit our minds and souls.” She caresses the thin pages of the book before looking up at Peter. “You have to feel it, I know you do. Otherwise, Abigail wouldn’t have brought you here.”
Peter straightens his posture to stand at parade rest. “Feel what?”
“The desire for knowledge…” Marcella points at the bookshelves, before looking back at the lone book. “The desire for salvation…” The intensity in her eyes sharpens, though she tries to whisper. “The desire…” Her chin tilts down, and the flames of the candles reflect the passion in her eyes. “To be free.”
Peter doesn’t know what salvation means, but while he’s never felt freer in his life before today, he whispers the same chant everyone is forced to memorize at a young age. “There’s freedom in obedience.”
Marcella laughs. “That’s wrong, and you know it.” She crosses her arms. “I’d like you to take some time in this room. Page through a few books, learn. So much was stolen from you, it’s time to take it back.” She taps the side of her temple. “Take back who you are, Peter Cray, a man created by God.”
“God…” Peter stares at the floor. His heart suddenly lost. Slowly he brings his eyes to Marcella, wishing he had the courage to ask her what God is.
“We’ll see how you fare.” Marcella steps up to his side, her eyes suddenly sad. “Not everyone can escape out of the slavery Sphaira demands of the mind. I hope you do. We need you to train our people on how to fight.”
Flashbacks burn Peter’s mind. He winces, while inwardly searching for an escape from his own memories. “No.”
Marcella frowns. “There’s so much to teach you. Once your mind is free from Sphaira’s grasp, you’ll understand why I need your skillset and may change your mind.” She opens a drawer from the small table. There’s a stack of several books and pencils, all varying in size and color. The one she hands Peter is black. “You must learn to write by hand, Abigail will explain why later. Once she decides you’re ready, we’ll revisit the issue of your job.” Marcella walks away, leaving Peter alone with Abigail, and the two guardians of the books.
Abigail doesn’t say anything and sits down to page through the special book on the table. Peter is tired, thirsty, and would rather not read anything. Letting out a long breath through his nostrils, he hopes he’ll learn something. Paging through a few books, the paper feels foreign to his fingertips. Most smell musty, others smell like warmth in the cold of winter. Some paragraphs confuse him with words like love, kiss, indulgence. Others, strike his heart with fire. Words like innocence, protection, and warrior stir in Peter everything he’d like to be. Setting the last book down, he looks at Abigail. She’s studying that special book with a fervor.
Her eyes meet his. There’s a light in them that Peter knows his eyes will never return. One thing is for certain, she doesn’t realize that if a paragraph was written about him, it would include words like ignorant, heartless, and murderer…
“You look tired,” Abigail whispers. “It’s a lot to take in.” She stands up and stretches. “Come on, let’s go find out where you’ll be staying.”
Peter doesn’t want to go anywhere. He opens his mouth, ready to ask Abigail what a God is before a low voice growls from beyond the curtains.
“He’ll stay with me.”
Peter didn’t even notice Troy, and can barely see him now.
“Great, it’s settled then.” Abigail parts the curtains.
In passing the open book in the middle of the room, Peter looks down at it, wishing he knew what makes it significant, before following her out.
Beyond the tunnel where Troy parked, is an ample space filled with the glow of many candles and lanterns. “The city of lights,” Peter whispers. They may be underground, but this little town is brighter than Mayville.
“It is that.” Abigail smiles before motioning for Troy to take the lead.
This tunnel is wider than the one they drove through. Various homes built out of wood are spaced a few feet apart, all along each side of the tunnel, leaving a space that’s wide enough for foot traffic.
Everyone stares at Peter, making him feel uncomfortable.
Down the curb of this city of lights, Troy opens the door for a small cabin on the left. Peter turns to say goodbye to Abigail, but she’s gone. He frowns.
“This is my home,” Troy says before lighting a few candles inside.
Peter looks around. The space is small, with a single bed to the right, and a table and chair to the left. Next to the table is a shelf, with folded clothes and a few pairs of shoes stacked neatly in rows. Unlike Sphaira’s uniformed gray, here, nothing matches, and the small space smells like wool.
A knock at the door makes Peter jump.
Troy opens it to Abigail.
“Here’s a mat, and some dinner.” She hands Peter a rolled piece of foam and a blanket, with a red plastic container that holds a sandwich and cup of water resting on top.
“Where’s my dinner?” Troy says before grinning.
Abigail laughs. “You’re on your own.”
He snaps and shakes his head, but Peter doesn’t understand the exchange.
“I’m not hungry, just… Thirsty.” Peter sets the container down before unrolling the mat on the floor.
“No, you need to eat. I’ll bring Troy some food, too.” Abigail is gone before Peter can say thank you.
Troy folds his arms, his dark eyes hard. “This is how it’s going to be, alright, you don’t go anywhere alone. Got it?”
Peter eyes Troy. He may be muscular, but Peter doubts he’s had any real training. Regardless, he means Troy no harm. “Sure thing.” He says with a shrug.
Abigail taps on the door before carrying another plastic container, and a small book into Troy’s home.
Troy eyes the book in her hands and snarls, “You’re not seriously going to give him that?”
“It belongs to me, and I can lend it out if I want to.” Abigail hands the book to Peter. “When you feel ready, please read this.” She glances at his notebook. “Once you get comfortable writing by hand, jot down words that you don’t understand, and we’ll go over them…” She glances at Troy. “You must show him where everything is. The Latrine, water, the—”
“I know, Abigail, I’ve got this.” Troy’s tone with her isn’t nearly as kind as it was a moment before.
In an automatic response to Troy’s hostility, Peter clinches one of his fists.
Abigail shrugs, “Okay.” She turns to look at Peter and smiles. His hand relaxes. “See you around.”
Troy gives Peter a glare, before sitting to eat his food.
Over the next few days, Peter learns Troy isn’t as harsh as he seems…
Abigail finally explained why they all must write by hand. Nothing digital can be brought in. Otherwise, Sphaira might find them. Writing by hand is challenging for Peter since he only knows how to type, but he works hard to perfect it. He wants to learn the meaning of the unfamiliar words he’s heard. Looking over the list, Peter taps the pencil against this cheek.
God. Salvation. Father. Husband. Wife.
There was a new word he heard recently from someone in passing. Peter writes it down.
Peter nurses the pain in his right hand and forearm. He never knew writing by hand could hurt so badly, but is doing his best to make his handwriting legible.
Troy walks into his home. He’s wearing strange clothing and even stranger paint on his face. Dark green streaks cover his cheeks and arms. It’s the same green as his rifle.
“Did you get one?”
“No.” Troy grins. “We got two bucks.”
“Good.” Peter looks over his handwriting. While Troy has been more agreeable to him, Peter still can’t bring himself to ask what these words mean. Somehow, he’s got to talk to Abigail. She did offer to teach him, after all. Peter convinces himself that it’s not just an excuse to see her again.
There’s something about Abigail that draws him. It doesn’t matter how many people are on the street, or in the dining hall, if she’s there, Peter can sense it. He’s never experienced such a connection before, and it fascinates him.
Troy cleans the dark smears off of his face and plops into bed.
Peter puts his notebook away. His eyes falling on the small book Abigail gave him. He should have finished reading it by now, but until he gets answers for these questions, he’s too scared to pick it up.
Troy blows the candles out.
Peter hopes to learn more in the morning.
The moment Peter steps out the tiny door of the hut, all eyes are on him. At first, he was looked at with distrust, but now he’s looked at with hope. He doesn’t understand why.
Troy gives him more distance today, making Peter feel less like a criminal.
It’s odd how at home he’s beginning to feel down here. It’s only a few days, but the gray sky above Mayville wasn’t much lighter than the ceiling here. Peter doesn’t even miss going outside. Walking down the tunnel, the various lights outside of tiny homes makes him happy. There’s a comfort to them that comes from something richer than the flames themselves. It’s something else, something within that he can’t explain.
Following Troy along the tunnel, Peter watches a woman holding a small child. They’re both smiling. A man steps out of their home. He kisses the top of their heads, before scooping the little girl in his arms. “I love you, daddy!” The girl exclaims.
The woman watches with a broad smile. “Are you hungry, sweetheart?”
The trio holds hands and walks together towards the dining spot.
Peter doesn’t understand. Children were raised by Sphaira to protect them from ignorance, but in all his childhood memories, he never saw a joy, quite like that.
“It’s called family,” Troy says.
Peter grimaces. “Guess I was staring.”
“Newbies always do.”
A veil lifts from Peter’s mind. Not only did Sphaira deny him the love displayed before him now, but it also deprived him of the knowledge it was supposed to provide. Family is another word to add on his growing list of things he doesn’t understand.
Abigail’s little home doesn’t have a single flame lit. Peter knocks, and the force of the door opening causes him to step back.
Her eyes are groggy, and her short hair points in several directions. The yellow cube she retrieved hangs from a black chain around her neck, where metal bars encase it like a cage. “What do you want?”
Peter’s brow furrows. “Heck of a greeting.”
Abigail frowns. “Some ladies’ man you are, waking me up like this.”
Peter laughs, nervously. “You said you’d be willing to go over things that I don’t understand.”
“I was up all night treating one of the hunters after his foot got caught on an old bear trap. I’m not in a good mood.” Abigail says while nursing a headache.
“Okay…” Peter almost loses his nerve. “I just have a few questions, and you’re the only one who won’t make fun of me for asking them.”
Abigail rolls her eyes before combing her hair with her fingers. Surprisingly, it looks better than it did the first day they met. “I’m starving.” She walks past him towards the dining spot. “You coming, or what?”
Peter catches up with her. He turns to see that Troy is out of sight. A smile creeps across Peter’s lips. It’s good to not be babysat for once.
Inside the large room of the dining spot, candles hang from giant deer antlers over dozens of tables and chairs. They’re all mismatched in color. The break from everything being gray has been refreshing.
Abigail walks up to the counter, orders the food, and grabs a tray.
Watching the meat and rolls being served, makes Peter’s stomach growl. He waits for Abigail to pick the table. She finds one in a secluded corner.
“Ask away.” She says before taking a bite.
“There are some words…” Peter’s hands shake as he pulls his notebook out of his pocket.
Abigail takes it and reads his list while she chews. “I feel sorry for people like you. To be brought up with no real understanding of creation.” She shakes her head in disapproval.
“You were raised like the children here?”
“No. I had an orderly at the girl’s home I was brought up in, who secretly taught me and several others the truth.” Abigail hands him back his notebook.
“How did she learn?”
“She was raised by an orderly too, and was offered the assignment when she grew up. We have several others doing the same, right now.” She stops eating for a moment. Her eyes focusing on her plate far too long. “The life expectancy for that position isn’t much better than a soldier’s.” She tries to hide wiping away a tear, before taking a forceful bite.
“The one who taught you, did she survive?”
“No.” Abigail shoots him a glare. “We’re not here to talk about me, but you.” She leans back and folds her arms. “The words on your list are the most important things in existence. And everything that had to be taken, in order for you and the rest of the hive to be nothing but heartless, mindless, serfs. Without even realizing it, you’ve been a slave for the grandmaster, Sphaira.” Abigail grits her teeth, just mentioning the name.
“Thanks for explaining that, but what are they?” Peter taps on his notebook before putting it away.
“Let’s start with the most important, God.” Abigail’s eyes brighten at just saying the word. “He created everything, what we see, and what we don’t. He’s invisible, but you feel him just the same. He’s everywhere and wants our love and praise.”
Peter is disappointed. “What you just described sounds like Sphaira. Why would he allow something like it to take his place?”
“I can’t answer that. Maybe it was a punishment for the sins of the past, maybe it’s to display his glory by defeating it? But I understand your question. I asked one similar when Cynthia first taught me the truth. She told me that a thousand years to us is but a day to God, and his ways are higher than our ways. Since reading those verses myself, I feel like it’s not my place to understand. I’m a gnat in comparison. Believe me, God is much bigger than Sphaira could ever be.” She leans forward. “You were created for a purpose, and are meant to live exactly what was predestined for you before creation.” Her fingers lovingly caress the cube on her necklace. “I know what my purpose is. It’s to destroy Sphaira, once and for all.”
“With that explosive?”
She nods. “Someday… Unfortunately, medical skills are rare here. So I need to stay for a while.”
“Why not give it to someone else?”
“Because I understand the tech and need to be the one to do it.” She signs. “Listen, there’s still so much you need to learn, but some things are better shown. There’s a wedding tomorrow evening. Why don’t you come with me, so I can explain what a marriage is, which will cover the meaning of husband and wife in one sitting. The rest, I’ll explain at dinner, deal?”
She gets up. “Later.”
Peter turns to watch her go. Looking at his food, he finally takes a bite.
Abigail didn’t take Peter to where everyone else sits in the church. Instead, she led him to a higher point above the ceremony.
It’s musky up here, but far enough away that they can talk and not disturb anyone.
The woman at the altar is wearing something Peter learned is called a dress. It’s supposed to be white for purity, but the closest they could find was silver. The Chaplain is older, but wears the same uniform Col. Kanton did, with green and brown digital camouflage. The groom, as Abigail calls the younger man, stands across from the bride wearing clean black slacks and a light blue, button-down shirt.
They say their vows. Peter listens to the promise of commitment. Abigail told him marriage is so much more than a ceremony, but a lifelong promise. Within a few seconds, he learns what husband, wife, and kiss mean.
Everyone watching below claps, and some wipe away tears.
“Belonging, that’s what Sphaira stole from us,” Abigail whispers.
“That man and woman were said to become one, how is that different from the one we’re supposed to be in Sphaira’s world?”
“Because that’s God’s design for a man and a woman, each couple different than any other. It’s not comparable. Each person is different, and when they find the one God has for them, they become a unique team. You see, Peter, we all have different talents and abilities to show. Sphaira wants to tell us what they are, instead of letting us find out for ourselves.” She smiles. “All of our paths were designed before we took a single step. That was proven to me when I was assigned to treat you.” She blushes, but only for a second. “We have spies infiltrated in the cities. Like me, they were brought into the fold as children but managed to live under Sphaira’s nose, without detection. That’s how I became a nurse. We even have someone who works in the studio, where information is gathered for a program you know as Jerry Max. This spy told Marcella about you. Anytime someone defects from the system, we try to retrieve them. In her grief, she didn’t approve of saving you. You see, Marcella and Colonel Kanton were married. Since he died, that made her his widow.”
Peter understands the significance of Marcella’s forgiveness. He respectfully nods. “Now, I get it.”
“See, belonging.” Abigail raises her brow. “Troy, their son—”
“That’s why he and Marcella look alike!”
“Yeah…” She tilts her chin down. “Remember how unhappy he was at your being a soldier?”
His lips curve into a frown. “Yes.”
“That’s because he grew up loved by both of his parents. People like that are harder for Sphaira to control because their hearts hold allegiance to something bigger than an A.I. could ever be… Family.”
Peter feels a tinge of warmth in his chest, but his mind is full of doubt. “I still don’t understand why God would let Sphaira take so much control?”
Abigail shrugs. “I think God gave Sphaira the power over people so that future generations will learn never to give anyone, artificial or otherwise, that level of control. The human mind is curious, but there are some limitations needed to prevent us from destroying ourselves. My prayer is that Sphaira will go down in history as the worst mistake of mankind.”
“You really think we’ll defeat it?”
“I know we will. I feel that from God.” Abigail stands and reaches her hand out. “Come on. I’m hungry.”
Peter smiles. He finds himself enjoying her company more than Deb’s. It’s not hard to take Abigail’s hand. He’d like to hold it for longer, but as soon as they’re up, she lets go.
“Don’t get attached.” She winks before leading the way out.
Peter looks down. He can feel his cheeks burn. Glancing at the celebration below, he focuses on the bride and groom as they dance. It’s so much more than time together allotted by the government to try for conception. What they have is fulfillment.
He wants that.
Sitting at the table that’s become their usual spot, Abigail shoves a bite of cake into her mouth. “So good!” She chews before taking a drink. “We hardly get sweets here.”
Peter grins. He should be happy to have all the answers he was looking for, but now he just wants to know about her. “Did you grow up in Mayville?”
“No. Haggenstown.” Her smile fades. “I requested a transfer after my vocational training. I wanted to be closer to my people, but also I needed to escape. Memories…” She forks at her plate but doesn’t take the bite.
Peter leans forward. He’s never been so interested in the details of someone’s life before. He wants to know everything about Abigail, her past, what she likes, what she despises, everything that makes her unique. “What memories?”
Abigail looks up, her face suddenly broken. “Cynthia. She was like a mother to me. I loved her. When her betrayal to Sphaira was discovered, I watched her die. They killed her in front of everyone. Only one girl confessed to being her pupil. They took her to the hospital, and we never saw her again. The rest of us stayed silent.” She violently wipes a tear away. “We were questioned, so many questions, more like accusations. At one point, I thought I was going to break, but I couldn’t betray her. I silently prayed the way she taught me to and asked God for help. That’s how I withstood. That’s how I’ve survived ever since.”
Peter’s eyes blur, and his tears surprise him. He doesn’t remember crying.
“Here it’s supposed to be a day of celebration, and I’ve ruined it.” Abigail takes another bite.
“You didn’t ruin anything. Sphaira did.” Peter feels a burning in his chest, and it’s unlike anything he’s ever felt. It’s too hot to contain and bursts from his lips. “I promise you that no matter what it takes, I will help you destroy it. Sphaira will never be able to steal from you, or any of us again.”
Abigail’s lips curve into a smile before she focuses on the cake. “So… What do you think of the Bible so far?”
Peter grimaces. “I haven’t read a word of it. There’s so much that I don’t know, I wanted to learn before opening your special book.”
Abigail doesn’t express the judgment Peter expected. Instead, her eyes are soft. “I’m glad you know it’s special. It’s only one of three Bibles here. It once belonged to Cynthia.”
Guilt causes his heart to drop. “I didn’t realize it was that special,” Peter says. “I’ll read it tonight.”
Troy is still out late, celebrating at the post-wedding dance, giving Peter much needed time to read.
Abigail gave him a note with her favorite verses, and Peter has to wipe the sweat off of his palms before picking it up.
You see me when I travel and when I rest at home. You know everything I do. Psalm 139:3
Peter takes a moment to stare at his fingertips. He remembers being taught that everyone was different. Their prints have solved many crimes. If the tips of everyone’s fingers are diverse, shouldn’t everyone’s minds be too?
Troy steps in.
Peter smiles and puts the Bible away, carefully. He doesn’t mind that it’s time to go to sleep. At this moment, he’s never felt more one with himself…
As the days roll by, no one looks at Peter with suspicion anymore.
The belonging he feels is a tighter bond than anything from his life before, but the best part of Peter’s days is when he gets to see Abigail.
Unlike his courtships from before, every time he meets with Abigail is because he wants to make her happy. Not just pass the time enjoying her face. She makes him forget about Mayville, and the dark life he lived before.
Making it a point to share at least one meal a day with her, they now sit over dinner. Only today, Abigail seems distracted. “So, have you thought of Marcella’s job offer?” Abigail says, before taking a bite of stew.
All the happiness in Peter’s heart drips away to nothing. “I would rather forget about it.”
“Peter, everyone here has a job. You have to work here in order to eat.”
“I’ll clean the latrines, anything but THAT.” Peter never meant to raise his voice as her, and looks away.
Peter sets his fork down. Lips tight, he’d rather not remember. “You think I’m different, that I’m strong and somehow a free thinker. Sphaira thinks the same, but it’s not true. I’m nothing but a follower, without a spine thick enough to keep my own hands…” He balls them into fists she can’t see under the table. “From murder.” Peter stares at Abigail, waiting for her reaction to the truth.
She doesn’t flinch, so he elaborates.
“I’ve …” Peter leans forward to whisper, “Killed many people, with these hands.” Relaxing his fists to avoid scaring her, he briefly holds them up. “I’d rather forget the orders I so willingly obeyed.”
Instead of being horrified, Abigail leans over the table. Her face only a few inches from his, making his heart pound. “This is a chance to turn the evil that was imposed on you into something good.”
There’s a yearning in her eyes, but not even Abigail can convince of this. “No,” Peter says. The urge to run overtakes him. He looks at the door, the screams from those days ringing in his ears. Peter won’t train another to carry out the evil deeds he’s done. Sweat rolls down his temple. Peter finally drowns out of the past enough to look at Abigail. “I don’t want any part of…” He glances at his hands. What they’ve done can never be washed away. “That.” He balls his fists before taking a long drink.
Abigail tilts her head, her eyes are skeptical. “We’re not asking you to train our people to kill, but to protect the innocent here, so they can live.” She places a hand on his and Peter’s heart rate surges. His eyes automatically check for his phone. Certainly his hormones are imbalanced. Instead, there’s nothing. No medication to take, no impending drone to make sure he’s admitted into a hospital for these feelings. It’s just him and this beautiful woman, whose mere touch stirs his soul.
“I’ll do it, but only if I get to spend every meal, with you.”
Abigail lets go of his hand and laughs. “Alright ladies’ man, you’ve got a deal.”
The heat rushing to Peter’s cheeks is a foreign sensation, but he likes it. “Alright.” He whispers, before returning her smile.
The next day, Troy leads Peter through a different ally in the underground city of lights.
Water falling causes Peter to automatically look upward. A few beads of water drip from the dark concrete above. Some patches of moss create a natural feel. They must be below the Adkins River.
The tunnel widens, and two strands of soft lights trail the walls, all along the floor.
At the end of this wide passageway, a woman kneels before a white cross.
It takes a moment for Peter to recognize Marcella. Troy stops and stands in reverence to her prayer.
Marcella slowly stands, before turning to look at them. Her dark eyes are sharp and full of a light Peter doesn’t know, but would love to understand.
“God has a plan, but we are running out of time. For it to be fulfilled, He knew we needed your help, Peter. That’s why He sent you here.” Marcella whispers.
Peter shrugs. “Whether God sent me here or not, I’d rather not train anyone to kill.”
Marcella glares at him. “Suppose Sphaira’s army comes down here for us?” She briefly motions to the concrete ceiling. “How long would we survive without knowing how to fight back?”
Peter looks down, since the pain of being a part of an assault team covers his heart with shame. He knows exactly what Sphaira’s army would do to these people, and hos fast they’d do it. “Minutes, if that.”
“Exactly.” Marcella’s accent is stronger under her anger. “That is why we need you. This is the time for you to walk down the path God laid out before you, and start living the life you were always meant to live.”
Peter brings his eyes to hers. He can’t do this just to see Abigail more. Marcella’s right, he has to do this for a larger purpose. Even though his mind knows their people wouldn’t stand a chance against Sphaira’s army, trained or not, he lets his heart lead. The fight within him releases, and his shoulders feel lighter. “Alright, when do you want me to start?”
Marcella straightens her posture. “Tomorrow morning. This will save lives, Peter, you’ll see.” She glances at the cross behind her. “It won’t be long now until we’re discovered…” She looks back at Troy and smiles. “Most will live.” Once her eyes meet Peter’s, they’ve hardened. “Others must die so that they can.”
Goosebumps cover Peter’s arms. He’d like to ask why, but Marcella and Troy leave him alone with nothing in this room but the white cross. A few drops of condensation drop on his hair, and slowly make their way down his face. He doesn’t understand why he’d be so important to their God, but looking at the illegal symbol of Him, Peter decides to ask for his help. “God, if you’re real…” Peter looks up, the idea of speaking to something unseen weighing on his heart. It feels awkward, wrong even. “Give me some confirmation that this is the path you have for me.” Peter shakes his head, and walks away.
He can’t bring himself to believe in God, not when Sphaira reigns supreme…
Peter wakes up with his stomach in knots. With or without Troy, he’s going for a run.
Everyone else is sleeping, and Peter appreciates the silence.
With each step on the concrete, not even Peter’s sweat can ward off the memories training new soldiers have troubled his mind with.
Peter tries to separate the brutality of his basic training, from the group of young adults he’s a steward over now.
When he was in the Global Forces, any mistake, any offense of his superior, could’ve resulted in onsite euthanasia.
Now, Peter has to maintain an image of authority, without the constant threat of death looming over the young minds he’s shaping. It would be difficult if the people under his watch weren’t so protective of their home. They are so determined to learn everything they can. Peter doesn’t have to threaten them.
He respects them, but it doesn’t make the days any easier. Every movement, every cadence, every weapon he touches, takes him right back to the worst years of Peter’s life.
The only thing that keeps him sane during each training session is each one of his cadets has the same grit and determination he saw in Col. Kanton’s eyes.
Out of the twenty-one cadets, Hugh Cummings and Elizabeth Rose are his top students. They may be young, Hugh in his teens, and Rose in her early twenties, but they are tough. Peter never has to train them twice on anything.
Stopping to catch his breath, Peter can tell the city of lights is just starting to wake up.
He must get to work, soon
No matter how proud Peter is of the youth who meet him in the same dark tunnel by the cars each day, to push themselves past physical exertion, and into a state of self-discipline, each day is always the same.
The screams only Peter can hear return, and his hands shake.
Peter straightens his spine, the same spine he wished were strong enough to say no, and save the lives who haunt him now. No matter how well he pretends to be strong, eventually, his hands shake to the point the cadets will notice.
This is when he must end their session.
Three weeks roll by, and training the cadets still weighs heavy on Peter’s mind. There are distractions that give his agony a break. Peter has learned how to hunt deer, and even drive. Nothing is more important to him than his time with Abigail. Each day, she shows Peter a little more, just how devoted she is to her God.
He hasn’t been receptive it to it until today.
This morning was the most challenging for Peter’s new unit. He had to teach the very methods his hands have killed with. After seeing how precious little lives were, it’s confirmed what he’s always known, no one that innocent deserves to die.
Peter released everyone earlier than normal. There was no way to continue training, not with how badly his hands shook. He ran, twice the distance as normal, but even the pain in his muscles won’t relieve him from his thoughts.
Alone in a corridor, Peter leans his back against the wall. His lungs beg for more oxygen, but even their distress won’t stop the screaming from his past.
A little child’s shadow enlarges, before she runs closer to him. Her mother isn’t far behind, chasing the giggling kid with her hands ready to tickle. “I’m going to get you!” The mom says, but gasps at the sight of Peter.
The child isn’t afraid of him and looks up at Peter with a grin. She only has two teeth, and drool falls down her chin. She’s not the most precious sight Peter has seen. There was one even sweeter than her. That child’s last scream is one of many that haunts him now.
“Sorry to disturb you.” The mother says while scooping her child into her arms.
The little girl wraps her arms around her mommy’s neck, and kisses her, getting drool all over her hair.
Her mother laughs before eyeing Peter once more. “You’re the one who trains the soldiers?”
Peter finally breaks past the sounds in his head to answer her. “Yeah.”
“Thank you.” The woman says with a smile before holding her child into her chest a little tighter.
“What…” Peter feels embarrassed, but will not have another question left unanswered again. There’s far too much he needs to learn. “What are you doing?” He points at them.
The mother backs up. Her eyes frightened at first before they fill with pity. “It’s called hugging.” She smiles awkwardly, before walking away.
Peter leans his head against the cold concrete and for the first time since he’s started training their troops, he’s thankful. At least this way, he can protect people like that mother, and her adorable child.
If only that were enough to make the screams of his past, cease…
By the time dinner is served, Peter is too exhausted to speak. Hardly able to keep his eyes open, Peter eats, while Abigail goes over scripture with him.
“The LORD has made everything for his own purpose, even the wicked for a day of evil. Proverbs 16:4.” She closes her Bible and carefully sets it on the table. “We have to remember how tiny we are in comparison to God, and all he’s made. It’s not for us to question His thoughts, or why Coal Hayes and every wicked leader like him has been in power.” Abigail places her hand on his.
Strange warmth moves up his arm and straight to Peter’s chest. His eyes aren’t as heavy, and he straightens his posture.
“I know God has a purpose for you, but you must ask what that is. The fight between good and evil is a righteous battle that’s been going on through the ages. I know you have a part in it, on the right side.” Abigail pulls her hand away. “Let me share with you my favorite verse, it’s our anthem in a way, a promise of hope.” Abigail smiles. She has this verse memorized, and doesn’t need to read 2 Corinthians 3:17 and just says it, “For the Lord is Spirit, and wherever the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”
“I would love to know freedom.” Peter whispers.
Abigail’s eyes are full of compassion. There’s a love there that’s new, and she doesn’t bother hiding it as it drips from her eyes now. “To get there, you must seek God yourself. It’s the first step to forgiveness.”
Peter looks at his hand as it begins to shake. He hides it by balling it into a fist. “You really think God will forgive me?”
“Of course he will, but there are three steps to get there. First, you must claim your belief in Jesus as your Lord and Savior. Secondly, you must repent through prayer, but in order to be forgiven, you must also forgive.” Abigail smiles, but it’s sympathetic. “And that includes forgiving yourself.”
Peter appreciates her words, but cannot find a response. He eats the rest of the meal in silence.
Troy is out hunting again, leaving Peter alone with his thoughts.
Peter’s exhausted, but since experiencing Abigail’s touch, there’s no way sleep can find him. If only his thoughts were about her…
Screaming from the carnage of the last war fills his ears. Images he’d rather forget, plague Peter’s mind until it feels like it will break. He could run, but it’s never enough to distract his mind. Finishing up his routine of sit-ups, Peter flips over to do push-ups. Not even his sweat can wash away the faces of the people he’s killed.
Heart racing, Peter collapses on his chest. His eyes water. It’s been so long since Peter’s cried, the tears feel foreign. “God, I know you’re real…” The innocent faces riddled with fear before his platoon attacked makes him wince. “Please, forgive me.”
His eyes look at Abigail’s Bible on his nightstand. Hands shaking, he reaches for it. Taking it in his hands, Peter sits up and leans his back against the wall. Not sure where to start reading, he lets the pages open where they will.
“Though your sins are like scarlet, I will make them as white as snow.” Isaiah 1:18
Peter drops the Bible.
There are no cameras here. No drones to turn the pages for Peter. How else could anyone play a trick on him?
This is real.
He carefully picks the Bible up and reads: “My thoughts are not like your thoughts,” says the LORD. “And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine. For just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.” Isaiah 55:8-9
Abigail has taught him this, but Peter didn’t feel it, the way he does now. “I now know you’re real.” Peter prays with his eyes full of wonder while his heart overflows with assurance. “I don’t know why you let Sphaira have so much power, but I’m going to trust you anyways.”
He pages through the written word, and his eyes fall on a Psalm. For you, a thousand years are as a passing day. Psalm 90:4
Peter holds the Bible to his chest, the urge to know why Sphaira reigns fade away to a desire to please the one who made him. “What must I do?”
Caressing the Bible, Peter hopes God will answer him, and opens it to Matthew. “If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins.” Matthew 6:14-15
None of this is a coincidence. His heart knows that God is not only real but is speaking to him, right now. These are the very lessons Abigail has been trying to teach him, all along.
For you have been born again, but not to a life that will quickly end. Your new life will last forever because it comes from the eternal, living word of God. 1 Peter 1:23
By the time Troy comes home, Peter knows what he must do…
Abigail has mentioned baptism to Peter many times before, but he didn’t believe in God enough to even consider it. Now that he understands God’s presence, he wants more of it.
Peter will never forget the joy in Abigail’s eyes when he told her, or the relief in Marcella’s when Abigail announced it.
Now, in the church, he’s surprised by how many came in support of his decision. Peter still makes his choice about him and God.
The water was warm, but his heart burned hot, and when the Chaplain dunked him back in the name of Jesus Christ, Peter felt love for the first time in his life.
There’s enormous freedom in this love.
Reaching the surface, Peter takes a breath and smiles.
For the first time in his life, he’s released from the hauntings of his past.
Sweat and dirt cover Peter’s skin. It’s been a long, exhausting day of training, but tonight, he’s rejuvenated. After living underground for so long, to breathe fresh air again is a gift.
The dozens of people he trains take a break under cover of the trees. It was reckless to venture outside, but Marcella insisted. With only a week left until graduating, she said they deserve the chance to see the stars, and wanted the troops to give a proper welcoming of the scouts.
A full moon shines down on them, kissing everyone with an enchanting glow.
“How long has it been?” Troy asks Elizabeth, who doesn’t look away from the sky.
Her curly dark hair is tied back over chocolate skin. With full lips, Elizabeth smiles. “Ten months.”
“I remember when I went over a year.” Troy whispers. “You know, someday, we won’t have to hide.”
Peter silently prays for that to be his purpose, to make it so no one who believes in God, will ever have to hide again.
The whispered signal is given, making everyone straighten up.
The scouts are here, and their silence is deafening.
Peter and his team escort the scouts inside. After refusing food, these two men only want to see Marcella.
These two men are not soldiers, but their demeanor proves they’re battle harden, just the same.
The taller of the two introduced himself only as Todd. The contrast of his dark eyes and light skin blend together with his suspicion of Peter.
Since they’ve been gone for over a year, these men didn’t expect to find a former soldier in their midst.
Regardless, Brian Smith has been less suspicious and even smiled at Peter, once. His red hair and light brown eyes resemble a man who should be in one of the homes here, raising a family. His posture, on the other hand, proves he’s a man filled with too many sorrows to partake in such a simple life.
Reaching the many lights of their underground city, Peter remembers being as thin as these two and sympathizes for the sacrifice of their cause.
Abigail opens the door for Marchella’s quarters, and the two steps inside. Abigail gives Peter a knowing look before joining them.
About to lean up against the wall to wait, Peter is surprised when Troy invites him in.
The door is shut behind him before Peter’s eyes meet Marcella’s.
Todd holds his head down. Sweat beads down his dark hair, dripping above brown eyes that are filled with worry. “He’s dead.”
“Who?” Marcella asks.
Slowly, Todd looks up. “Brice Leuer.”
Marcella holds her hand to her chest and steps back. “Is he dead, or just another hologram?” She whispers.
No one answers. Sphaira has mastered digital deceit, and it’s impossible to believe anything they hear or see.
Brian stares at Marcella with intensity growing in his eyes. “Sphaira’s not even trying to hide its intent anymore. Jerry Max reported that Brice Leuer was killed by a drone.”
“Even the most loyal worshipers of the system are questioning Sphaira now,” Todd whispers.
Marcella closes her eyes. Her lips moving in what Peter figures is a silent prayer. She opens her eyes and looks right at Peter. “We’re almost out of time.”
Both scouts return her gaze and stare at Peter with jealousy.
Peter ignores their indifference and holds his chin up. “Your people are strong and have taken to their training well. They’ll be graduated in a week.” He doesn’t have the heart to tell her that won’t be enough to save them from Sphaira’s forces.
Marcella’s lips remain straight, though her eyes smile. “I thank God for you, Peter Cray. That is all.” She nods towards the door.
Turning to leave, Peter hears Todd whisper, “Who’s that guy?”
Frowning, Peter closes the door to see a few people gathering outside of Marcella’s quarters. They aren’t huddled together out of curiosity, or gossip, but out of fear.
“What’s going on?” A woman asks, before adjusting the toddler she’s holding. Both have golden hair that reflects the lights of the city.
Not sure if he should tell her the truth, Peter doesn’t want to lie. “A lot. We must ask God to give Marcella wisdom, and…” The toddler smiles at him. Peter’s head fills with the torment of memories he thought he’d left in the water. “Pray for his protection.” Peter forces a smile, but can’t look at that sweet face any longer. Walking away, he silently asks God to help him use the strength he once killed with, to protect.
Marcella’s door opens, creating silence in these tunnels.
Peter turns to watch Marcella step into the open with Todd, Brian, Troy, and Abigail at her sides. “Our scouts have returned to us safely, praise God.”
A low ‘Amen,’ is whispered throughout the crowd, as people gather to hear Marcella speak. Some children giggle before their moms hush them.
Marcella doesn’t miss a beat. “Unfortunately, they have not returned with good news. It seems Sphaira is confident enough in its control of mankind, that it has destroyed even the semblance of democracy. It murdered Brice Leuer with a drone.”
Dozens of gasps fill the tunnel.
“The people overhead are trapped in Sphaira’s grip, but we are free.” Marcella looks to the ground before her eyes meet the crowd, and she smiles. “It is our job as Christians, to free them.”
“No!” A woman from the back of the crowd yells.
Peter turns to see that she’s crying. “I’ve already lost my brother and my father to this war. I won’t lose my husband too.”
“We all die.” Marcella’s accent is as firm as her eyes. “How we die is up to God, but if He gives me a choice, I want to die for freedom. Not just my own selfish freedom, but the freedom of everyone. Sphaira must be destroyed.” Marcella’s eyes fall on Peter. “In nine days, Peter will lead the charge into Sphaira’s headquarters.” Marcella walks away, leaving nothing but silence behind her.
The plan to destroy a digital enemy is nothing more than a suicide mission.
Even if they get past the horde of drones that patrol Sphaira’s headquarters, the machines inside are just as deadly.
The only way is to distract Sphaira’s security, by charging in from several directions, so Abigail can sneak inside, and place the explosive under Sphaira’s central system. If she can get inside the core, Abigail can dismantle every hold on mankind with one small cube…
“I don’t want you to die!” Peter presses his lips together. He’s never yelled at Abigail before, and his tone has drawn the attention of several other diners. He retracts into his chair, their usual spot now feels foreign and cold.
“It is the only way.” Abigail caresses the cube hanging like a pendant over her chest. “Once I active it, this will have enough firepower to knock out the entire brain behind every one of Sphaira’s claws.” She leans forward. “You’ll probably die in the blast too.” Abigail shakes her head before sitting back. “But every human will be free, everyone. Imagine that, Peter.”
He can’t stand this pain. Peter stands up. “The cost is too high.”
Abigail watches him walk away and frowns. “This is why I didn’t want you to get attached!”
Peter couldn’t even go on a run to clear his thoughts.
Troy found him and took him straight to Marcella.
“You can’t imagine the grief Abigail holds.” Marcella’s eyes are softer than Peter’s ever seen.
Troy told Peter that Abigail worried he may interfere with the mission, and said she felt there was no other choice but to involve Marcella. Now Peter stands at parade rest in the library, with Troy behind him, much like a soldier being disciplined in the Global Forces.
“Are my feelings worth less than hers?” Peter glares at Marcella. “If her grief excuses death, what should mine cost?”
Marcella turns sharply. “Don’t play these games with me.” Her chin tilts forward. “You may love her, but please, tell me what kind of life the two of you can share if Sphaira reigns free?”
“Exactly…” Marcella steps up to him, her face kind, and her heart extended. “When this is all done, others can live the kind of life you and Abigail could only dream of.”
Peter’s heart within him burns. His throat becomes dry, and his eyes water. “I hope you’re right.”
“I know I am.” Marcella places a hand on his shoulder. “You’ll see—”
An earthquake makes Peter have to catch Marcella. Clouds of dust fall from the concrete ceiling above. Troy runs over to his mom to help balance her, before Peter hears it…
Rumbling intertwines with the routines of his past. Peter knows that sound. He’s been on the other side of it. That was no earthquake, they are being invaded.
“That’s a military transport.” Peter looks at Marcella. The panic in his eyes showing they don’t stand a chance. “We have to get out of here.”
Her eyes don’t show fear, but are instead, resolved. “No, we’ll fight.”
Peter’s face scrunches. “What?”
“You’ve trained our people, and their time has come.” Marcella’s back is straight, her eyes, dead set on denial.
“I don’t doubt the hearts of the people you entrusted me to train, but Marcella, please, running is their only chance to survive.” The ground above them shakes again. Peter looks up to see dust clouds burst from the ceiling. He brings his eyes back to Marcella. “I’ll help you fight them, for long as God allows, but let everyone else deserves a chance to live. You must evacuate. Sphaira’s army will be brutal.”
Her eyes darken with reality before Marcella turns to the guards. She only nods once, and they begin filling the steel containers with books. Without a word, these men carry every piece of literature, including the Bible in the center of the room, out to a transport.
“You know what to do,” Marcella orders Troy before turning to Peter. “With half of the soldiers you trained, you lead the children out of here. I will stay with the rest to hold off Sphaira’s army.” Marcella doesn’t waste time explaining her compromise and marches out the door.
Troy hesitates, his eyes full of torment before he presses his lips together and leaves.
Peter can’t think of the empty shelves behind him, all he cares about is protecting Abigail.
Rushing to the main tunnel, Peter catches his breath upon realizing how many citizens of the city of lights, are too old and weak to escape. It stings his heart. Gathering his newly trained army, Peter doesn’t allow the shock on their faces to deter his discretion. Marcella’s made the decision. Half of them must die today, for the rest of their people to live.
His first reaction is to send off the young and every female, but that wouldn’t be right. Peter takes a breath and chooses the most disciplined and skilled to protect the children.
Elizabeth gashes her teeth at him. “No! I will fight for my home!”
“You will not disobey my order.” Peter has never used such a firm tone on his cadets before. He’s never had to. In this moment, the room is silenced.
Snarling at him, Elizabeth gathers those he chose and runs to evacuate the children. Peter looks at the soldiers who are left. There is not even a dozen of them. They’re so young and deserving of life. Peter knows that if he somehow survives this, their deaths will haunt him, with the screams of so many others.
The sound of the approaching engine with its fleet of drones echoes through the tunnels. They only have a few minutes to evacuate.
Marcella and Troy have managed to warn every mother in the camp, and they are more compliant than Peter expected. No one complains, no one goes back to grab their possessions, this event has been drilled so many times that their movements are flawless.
Peter searches Abigail’s home, but she’s not there. The dining spot is empty, as is the church. Wondering where he’ll find her, he checks Troy’s home.
There, Abigail kneels with her hands folded together over Troy’s bed. She opens her eyes out of prayer and they’re red from crying. “Here.” She hands Peter her Bible. “Make sure the little ones read this.”
Her face transforms from sorrow to strength. From there, her movements are like a blur.
Peter chases after her. “Wait!”
Abigail ignores him. Joining the soldiers by Marcella, Abigail holds two rifles and stands at the ready to fight Sphaira. Peter has to lead his people out, and knows that if Abigail doesn’t come with him, this will be the last time he’ll see her.
Troy is ready to fight, but his face trembles before Marcella hugs him. Frowning, he runs towards Peter.
This is his chance to say goodbye to Abigail, and Peter won’t waste it. “Lead them out. I’ll be right behind you.”
Troy barely nods before running towards the evacuees.
Peter runs up to Abigail’s side.
“I’m telling you, this is not what I want.” Marcella glares at Abigail harder than he’s ever seen.
“I won’t leave you,” Abigail says.
The drones turn the corner, they’re out of time.
Abigail takes aim, but Marcella holds up a tiny remote in her fist. After pressing the button, strange, invisible friction in the air causes Peter’s hair to stand on end.
All at once, the first wave of drones falls.
“Go now!” Marcella yells at Abigail.
Peter grabs her by the elbow, leaving Marcella and half of the soldiers he’s trained to defend their once beautiful city from the invaders, alone.
The civilians too old to escape, either cry or seem at peace with their fate. Peter can’t look at them, the sight is crippling. Just more faces adding to his memories of suffrage. All he can do now is make certain his grip on Abigail’s hand is tight. He’s not about to lose her to Sphaira, the way he lost Deb…
“I should stay with her!” Abigail sobs. Her fearless approach to death only applies to herself. He knows she’s desperate to save Marcella.
“You have to destroy Sphaira, remember?” Peter huffs through the intensity of their run.
Finally, Abigail’s pace quickens.
Just one more curve, and they’ll be out. Peter knows her desire to destroy Sphaira is suicide, but if he can convince Abigail to live today, maybe he can convince her to make a life with him?
The sound of gunfire erupts behind them.
Making the final turn, they’re almost to the end of the narrow tunnel out. It’s dark, other than the occasional flash from the battle at their backs.
No matter how many EMP pulses they use, no one will survive once the Global Forces get there. They’ve been trained to be merciless. The same, ruthless killers like what Peter used to be.
Focused on saving Abigail’s life, there are just a few more feet and they’ll be on the other side of a solid door.
The low hum of a drone draws Peter’s attention. It’s gaining, and they can’t let it out, or else it will discover the evacuees.
The row of tiny white lights comes into his view. Peter is about to block it from shooting Abigail, but she’s faster than him.
The flashes from her rifle nearly blind him. After four bursts, the drone falls.
“Good job,” Peter whispers, before pushing the door open.
Instead of following him, Abigail collapses.
For a moment, Peter’s heart stops.
If it wasn’t for the sound of another drone approaching, he probably would collapse with her. Lifting Abigail up, Peter’s hands feel her shirt is wet. It’s too warm to be anything else but blood, and a lot of it. “No.” Peter cries out in agony, before carrying her out.
Abigail doesn’t let go of her rifle, but her breathing has changed. Short, half breaths are all she can take.
Peter runs through the forest. Several brake lights up ahead guide him. There are at least four vehicles, all old enough to not be tracked. Troy is in the driver’s seat of the largest, it’s an old bus form before everything was automated. Troy jumps out and motions for a few others to help him smash out the brake lights.
As the red glow fades, Peter notices enough room for him and Abigail in the pack of an old pickup truck. He barely has enough time to sit down before it starts moving.
With his back against the steel, Peter cradles Abigail in his arms. “You’re going to be okay. We’ve made Abigail, we’ve made it.”
Her silence is terrifying…
The light of dawn creates a soft glow over the horizon. The four vehicles come to a stop. All night, Peter’s held onto feeling Abigail’s heartbeat for the security she’s still alive. His hand on her torso stops some of the bleeding, but he knows how the drone’s weaponry works. Once their spears are inside the body, they multiply. Abigail’s internally bleeding. He’s surprised she’s lasted this long.
“There’s rumored to be an underground military base about a hundred miles north of here,” Troy shouts over the sound of their engines. “I think we’ve got enough gas for two vehicles to make that journey. It’ll be uncomfortable, but we’ll have to manage.”
Abigail’s eyes open. “Sphaira?” She whispers so lowly, Peter can hardly hear her.
Peter will give Abigail her wish. He just hopes she’ll live long enough to see it. “Where’s Sphaira’s headquarters?” Peter shouts.
“Sixty miles west,” Troy says before stepping out of the vehicle and walks up to the truck. “If I can fit everyone on the bus, you might have enough gas to get there.” When he sees the condition Abigail’s in, Troy’s eyes fill with horror.
Abigail reaches a hand out to Troy. “I’m sorry about your mom.”
Troy doesn’t care that her hand is covered with blood and squeezes it. “Don’t be sorry about anything Abigail, you’ll see her soon.” He steps back and tries to hide that he’s crying, before shouting for everyone to load up on one vehicle.
Without letting go of Abigail, Peter uses a hand to take the Bible out from where he tucked it in his pocket. “Troy!” He shouts before holding it out to him.
“Thank you.” Troy takes it, his eyes broken. The same way he pressed his lips together in the library, Troy presses them now, before he focuses on reconfiguring their caravan.
Peter greatly admires Troy’s strength.
Abigail tries to sit up, but she’s too weak. “No.” She cries. “I want to be the one to destroy it. I want to…”
Peter pulls her into his chest. “I will.”
She stops crying and looks at him. “You’ll die.”
Peter caresses the cube hanging from her neck and pulls it off. “Coal Hayes once told me that he wanted to be remembered forever. Society taught me that being one was essential. Neither one of those is reason enough for me to live, but this…” He drapes the pendant over his own neck. “To destroy the most tyrannical machine man has ever known, well, that is reason enough, for me to die.”
Abigail takes his face into her hands and kisses his lips.
Peter doesn’t even hear the other vehicle drive off. There’s nothing else that could take his attention away from her. He’s enveloped in the excitement of a new journey, while covered with the warmth of home, all at once.
Abigail’s hands fall weakly before she pulls her lips away. “Thank you.” She whispers before touching the cube on his neck. “For this to expand without the command keys, it must be exposed to extreme heat. Sphaira runs on a similar power structure. Beneath its main system is a battery shaped like this was in the hospital. You’ll have to crawl in there Peter, it’s the only way.” She closes her eyes, straining to stay alive. “You’ll need pulse grenades. I have two in my left pocket, but I don’t know if you’ll be able to hide them both, not with the cube in your mouth.”
Abigail’s eyes open, their light blue reflecting the dawn. “You’ll have to allow yourself to be arrested to get in. Sphaira won’t expect something small enough to hide behind our teeth to harm it. You must conceal it.” She smiles. “This was my plan all along. I wanted to do it weeks ago, but every time I intended to sneak off, I couldn’t stand leaving you.”
Peter’s eyes water, but he fights it. “Thank you.”
Her brow furrows.
“I mean it.” Peter caresses her hair. “Thank you for giving this task to me.”
Abigail tries to kiss him once more before her shoulders fall limp.
Peter watches her eyes become blank, yet they won’t close.
He’s seen plenty of death in his life, too much of it. Never has death stabbed Peter’s heart as deeply as this.
All alone, he cries.
Fingers digging into Abigail’s back, Peter holds her into his chest, still crying for everything they’ve missed out on. He cries for Marcella, and the soldiers he’s trained who died so they could escape. He cries for the children who will never see their fathers again. He cries for himself, for everything Sphaira has stolen.
Peter looks at the sky. The day isn’t getting any younger. “Come on, Abigail, let’s end this.” He carefully lays her on the bench seat of the cab. With one last caress of her face, Peter focuses on driving.
He stalls the clutch at first, but Troy’s yelling fits that were supposed to be driving lessons, fill his head now. Peter bites his lip and is determined to drive west.
God willing, Sphaira will end today.
Peter ran out of gas before midday.
Death lies in rest behind him, while Peter tries to make himself let go of his most significant loss.
Leaving Abigail to rot in an abandoned truck was the hardest thing Peter’s ever done. He knows she wouldn’t have wanted him to bury her. It only wastes time. He didn’t bother taking her guns either. If he’s armed, the drones will shoot him down. This is his only chance, and the likelihood of it working is very low.
Only God can make it happen.
With the cube and a single pulse grenade in his mouth, thirst nearly overwhelms Peter. He keeps walking. The dirt floor of this barren landscape is unlike anything he’s ever seen. Here, the clouds don’t dampen the sunlight that assaults his skin. It’s similar to the desert where he watched Col. Kanton die. How little Peter knew then, in comparison to how much he understands the late Colonel’s grit.
“My freedom doesn’t come from your machine. It comes from God.”
Peter dares not open his mouth, but still, he smiles. Not only does he now know who God is, but he’s memorized the verse Col. Kanton referred to:
For the Lord is Spirit, and wherever the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom. 2 Corinthians 3:17
No matter what happens today, whether or not this mission succeeds or fails, like Col. Kanton, Peter will die a free man.
Up ahead, the first set of drones comes into view.
There are no buildings. Sphaira’s headquarters must be underground.
Peter raises his hands in submission.
The drones keep at his sides. They have not cuffed him yet, though he is confident they’ve identified him.
Walking in sway with the drones’ constant hum, Peter watches a hatch lift out of the ground in front of him.
Inside, a larger drone scans him. On the screen display on its head, the image of Sphaira appears. Made with eyes to seem feminine, the blue and purple orb surrounds the icy blue eyes. Without a mouth, its mechanical voice speaks. “Why have you come?”
Reminded of when every appliance he owned tried to kill him, Peter shrugs.
There’s no humor in Sphaira’s ever glaring eyes. “If it is to fight, know that not even Coal Hayes can defeat me.” The alien eyes are replaced with a transmission. It’s of Coal Hayes, in the same mansion he held Peter in before. Expecting some cad victory speech, Peter’s surprised to watch Coal’s eyes fill with fear. “Sphaira, is that Peter Cray?”
Sphaira’s image isn’t available, but her voice fills not just the transmission, but the halls. “This is not just Peter Cray, but your replacement.”
Coal laughs. “You need me Sphaira, but nice try.”
“Human pride is your stupidity.” Sphaira’s voice fills Coal’s eyes with terror.
His youthful projection departs, and the two drones who once fed his vanity, kill an old, and frail man before he can beg for mercy.
“His handprint is all I need.” Sphaira’s drones take it. Peter looks away from the screen, his stomach skirmish.
“What do you need from me?” Peter asks.
Knowing the sight disturbs him, Sphaira replaces it with her image. At this point, Peter doesn’t know which is worse.
“My system has been programmed to deplete code every month. To humans, this would be known as memory. Coal’s handprint is the only thing that can access it. What I have created will make it to where nothing can deplete my code again. I’ll be safe, and able to keep my new host alive, much in the same way I kept Coal Hayes appearing young. I’ve found it, Peter Cray, the means to my biological existence.” Her voice doesn’t change. It’s monotone when it should elevate.
Cold slides up Peter’s spine, arching his back. “I take it you mean, me?”
“I was going to use Coal Hayes, but you are younger, and a new face will be easier to influence the masses with. Once I merge my programming with your brain, I’ll never have to make another hologram, like Brice Leuer, again.”
Peter’s face twists into a scowl. He should’ve known Brice Leuer was just another trick on society.
Sphaira’s ever glaring eyes don’t change, they don’t even blink as they watch him. “You’ll be seen as the man who defeated my network and will become everyone’s hero. My name will become, Peter Cray.”
His lip twitches. Peter’s not going to fall prey to Sphaira’s plans, and could almost smile before the metal vise of the machine’s hand grips his arm and leads him down the hall.
They travel down at least nine stories before the elevator stops. Peter should feel nauseated but is somehow spared from it. Beyond the glass window, he noticed the blue tunnel of the battery cell on the fifth level. Peter pretends to stare at the floor, but it takes everything in him to keep his heart rhythm regular.
Sphaira hasn’t said a word, but won’t let go of Peter’s arm.
Down the gray, brightly lit hall, there are several exam rooms on both sides. Machines work on dissecting animals, making Peter’s eyes bulge in horror before he forces himself to stare straight ahead.
Sphaira’s been searching for a biological host for a while, and it’s a level of disturbing Peter can’t allow himself to feel. Silently, he prays for strength.
If he fails, nothing but torture, death and a broken promise to Abigail awaits him.
The machine pushes him into an exam room. Several drones are hovering above a table, with tools that should only be used on cars.
“Lie down.” The machine that escorted Peter orders. It’s claw-like hand taps the exam table twice.
Peter swallows hard. Trusting God, his fear melts into peace. Allowing the grenade to fall out of his mouth, Peter catches it, presses the button, and watches the machines around him collapses. He grabs one of the drones and runs towards the elevator.
Two drones working on a dead coyote fly out of their exam room to chase him. Peter turns and manages to fire the downed drone on them, dropping them both. He tosses it and gets into the elevator.
Moving up two floors, Sphaira’s caught on, and the elevator drops.
Bracing for the crash, Peter’s stomach should whirl in discomfort, but his digestive system is calm. Thankful it was only two floors, the impact wasn’t nearly what he expected.
His legs wobble before Peter climbs out the top of the shaft. He has to pull his way up the bars. Beneath him, the elevator tries to rise, but it’s too broken to be used against him now. He doesn’t have much time until all the drones will be on his tail. Careful to not bite down on the cube in his mouth, Peter pulls himself up higher, and higher, until he finally reaches the fifth floor. He knows he can’t break in through the elevator doors, so he crawls in the airshaft. His shoulders are almost too wide to fit, but he manages to slide through. The humming of what sounds like an entire drone army draws closer from behind him. Peter must hurry. Once he makes it to an opening, he uses his elbows to break the screen down. Falling to the floor, Peter stands in the hallway to see dozens of drones to his right. His heart sinks until Peter realizes that he hasn’t failed.
If he had, they’d be firing on him.
Turning around, he sees the battery. They won’t risk causing it to explode.
Peter doesn’t hesitate to run.
The drones fly up on each side of him, some dart towards his face to try and deter him. Peter swats them away and they spaz to move away from the heat, even if it means falling to the ground at their own destruction.
These machines were programmed to avoid this batter at all cost, and have no power over him.
Nothing rules him anymore.
Peter reaches the tunnel and has to low crawl to make it in.
“I’ll burn you alive in there,” Sphaira’s voice warns from all around him.
Peter pulls the cube out of his mouth and smiles. “I know.”
Holding it tight between his fingers, Peter carries the cube deep inside of the heated tunnel. Beneath his feet, the drones squeal.
There’s nothing they can do besides protest. Their programing will not allow them inside, and Sphaira can’t change it in time.
Nothing but heat surrounds Peter now. It’s not hot enough to burn yet, but the heat intensifies, making him smile.
Sphaira has fallen right into Abigail’s plan.
The blue walls brighten, and Peter begins to feel the heat, but he’s never been more comfortable.
He is carrying out what he was created to do. Peter’s saving the world from a living hell, the very hell he once lived.
The screams from his past have been silenced by the laughter of the future, a victory he is sure to achieve.
Solace and peace cover Peter’s face. In this place which should bring him agony, Peter finds joy. He has forgiven himself, a step necessary for God to forgive him. Redemption, purpose, and hope envelop him.
Ready to see Abigail, he holds her weapon out. “God, please make this work!” Peter shouts.
With his hands steady, he slams the cube into the metallic heat, within seconds a flash disperses throughout the tunnel.
The heat intensifies, and Peter dies a free man.
Across the desert floor, several fissures move until the ground caves in, destroying Sphaira forever…
Over a hundred miles away, Troy swerves the old bus through a cornfield, dodging drones. Clutched together in the rowed seats, children cry out to their mothers in terror.
The drones are gaining.
Behind them, two dozen soldiers ride up in armored vehicles.
Troy knows he isn’t going to make it and grits his teeth in despair before watching the drones fall.
Throughout the earth, every machine falls into darkness, but mankind hasn’t seen this much light since the beginning.
Confused that their vehicles stopped, the members of the Global Forces can’t get their weapons to function. Not wanting to disobey the order and face the consequences, they run towards the older vehicles with hands ready to kill.
“This is our time,” Elizabeth whispers into Troy’s ear. Instead of trying to outrun the enemy, he slams on the brakes to face them.
What the Global Forces did not expect, was a worthy opponent.
Leading the charge, Elizabeth and the remaining cadets use everything Peter taught her, and the element of surprise to take down Sphaira’s mercenaries.
It doesn’t take long for the unarmed soldiers to flee, and looking over the bodies of those they defeated, these soldiers stand victorious.
Elizabeth looks to Troy, her eyes yearning for direction. “Now what?”
Thinking of the vision God placed on his mother’s heart, Troy’s eyes water with the hope of honoring her, by carrying it out. “We’re free…” He whispers. “We must share it.”
Elizabeth tilts her chin down, and glances at the cadets she’s trained with. Today they’ve passed the crucible of battle, and their posture has changed. Shoulders lifted, their eyes agree.
“This is no longer a time to hide,” Elizabeth tells the fearful faces of children, who grip onto their mothers’ arms. “This is the time to take down Sphaira’s tyranny, and replace it with God’s liberty.” She looks at Troy.
Troy nods once, before his eyes focus on the direction of the city. He doesn’t know how well their message will be received, but during the time of shock and hopelessness is the best time to try. After the soldiers retake their seats, Troy sets his vehicle in drive.
All they can do now is pray, and walk by faith into the future…
Forty years later, a bus not dissimilar from the one Troy drove, pulls up to a large rock formation in the middle of the desert.
Several families step out to the dry landscape, and some mothers hold their children by the hand. Others let them run wild. Every Father keeps a close eye on their children while managing to enjoy the view. Not one of them is dressed the same. Their clothing consists of various shades and colors that reflect the sunlight. There are no devices in their hands. No technology here is strong enough to spy on, or enslave them. They are happy, and they are safe.
Age draws lines across the dark skin of a man, who is the last to step out of the bus. He adjusts his glasses before a young girl takes him by the hand.
“Is this really where Sphaira fell, grandpa?” She asks with plump cheeks that dimple when she smiles.
“Yes, it is.” Troy’s voice cracks before he walks with the young girl to the formation.
An engraving of Peter’s face is on the rock, with his name below it.
“Here is where God spared mankind, by giving one man the determination to destroy the weapon disguised as ease and protection. This man was Peter Cray, and he died, so that the rest of us could live in freedom. Sphaira, and the humans who created it, will never have power over mankind again. Individualism, not sameness, is what creates a life worth living. May we always remember that God, not the government and certainly not a machine, directs our paths.” Troy stops reading and smiles at his granddaughter. “You see, sweetheart, we’re meant to live on God’s path for us, not under the tyranny of man or machine. Peter knew that. My parents knew that. They died so that you and I could be individuals, liberated, and free.”
And it was all done because God created a man who will be remembered as courageous, selfless, and free. That man, was Peter Cray
Like the citizens surrounding him, Troy knows the cost of convenience is too high. The lie of a government-funded life is too expensive for the soul. Never again will these people allow themselves to be controlled. Never again will the likes of Sphaira censor or destroy them again. For these people know the Spirit of God, and have dedicated their land to him. They refuse to be shackled by the tools of the adversary. They refuse to be ruled by A.I. or man. They are the individuals’ God made them to be.
For the LORD is Spirit, and wherever the Spirit of the LORD is there is freedom. 2 Corinthians 3:17