PASADENA LEVEL 5— MONDAY, JULY 3, 2141 2:00 P.M.
I WALKED PAST THE greenhouses, breathing in air thick with the memories of open sky and soaring peaks—a world away from this damn city that wanted to suffocate me with every step. The smells of flowers and earth, carried in the slight breeze generated by the overhead fans, quelled the uneasiness inside me for the first time in weeks. I could almost imagine there wasn’t a ceiling over my head.
I stopped to stare past the shinrin-yoku sign on my right. It meant “forest bathing,” a place to relax, to lose yourself in the trees—in nature—where the worries of the world could fall away for a while. To me, it used to be one of the most beautiful places in San Angeles. Now it held a barely heard whisper of memories. I’d promised myself I wouldn’t be distracted, wouldn’t let the hurt pull me in. The promise was as empty as I felt.
Past the sign, through the greenhouse’s open doors, warm grow lights reflected off the slender white trunks of birch trees, their branches of delicate leaves reaching for the ceiling. A carpet of tender green grass grew between the strong roots, interspersed by gravel paths worn flat by people who could afford to live up here.
We’d buried Ian’s ashes in there only two short weeks ago.
I held back a cry. Pain and loss cascaded through me, raw, untempered, tearing down walls I’d barely had a chance to build around open wounds that hadn’t had time to heal.
Without realizing, I moved my hands to my belly, resting them there gently. At eight weeks, I was hardly showing, but to me it was obvious. I dragged my hands away, shoving them deep into my pockets.
Pat had told me to wait, told me it was too soon to get back into the field. She didn’t know about the baby—no one but Doc Searls did—but she was worried it was too close to Ian’s death. I couldn’t wait anymore. Sitting alone in the small room the insurgents had given me was slowly turning my brain into mush. The walls pressed in on me, and I had nothing but time. Time to remember, time to dream of what had been lost. Time to go over what I could have done differently. It was all time wasted.
This was my first run for the insurgents since I’d decided to take back control. Seeing the trees, I wasn’t sure I had made the right choice. Ian’s loss was still too fresh. It was my fault he was gone. What if I made another bad decision? Would someone else die? I wasn’t sure I was doing the right thing for the baby either, if I had the right to put him in danger.
A hand touched my hip—a light touch, and then it vanished—followed by a hissed “Hey.” I didn’t have time to react. Someone from my team—her name couldn’t fight through the onslaught of memories—strolled past me as though the touch was accidental. I realized I’d stopped walking. How long had I stood here, staring at the trees?
Now was not the time. Never was the time. Not now, not tomorrow. Never. I had work to do, and people—families—on the lower Levels were waiting for the food I would help bring back. What was it that Ian had said to me once? Fake it till you make it. Don’t let them know you’re hurting, don’t let them know you’re unsure. Just do it.
I turned my back on the greenhouse and crossed the street, mingling with the afternoon crowds going back to work, or maybe just trying to enjoy the day. Our goal was ahead of us, two greenhouses down from the stark white trunks. Unlike the shinrin-yoku greenhouse, this one wasn’t open to the public. It was SoCal-owned, like most things in San Angeles were, and its interior was shrouded in soft, opaque windows. The buildings went on forever, two rows separated by a parkway with benches and real grass, vibrant under artificial lights. This was one of the hundreds of places where SoCal grew its food for the lower levels. It would end up on grocery store shelves on Levels 4 and 5 until it got too old, then it would be moved to Levels 2 and 3. Level 1 got whatever was left after that. At least that’s how it used to work. Now it all went straight to Level 6 to feed the rich. The privileged.
SoCal was one of the big three corporations that owned most of the world’s resources and production. They’d built San Angeles and controlled almost everything in it. We were here to hijack one of the trucks loaded with fresh produce and get the food to the lower levels, where it was so desperately needed. Where it belonged.
There was a small loading dock on one end of the SoCal greenhouse that could only fit a couple of trucks at a time, yet there never seemed to be a lineup. A new truck showed up seconds after the old one left. Each one had a single driver that helped load it before driving off. They all took the most direct route to the closest up-ramp, waved through security after a cursory inspection.
The insurgents had sent a small team to grab a truck last week. They’d failed. By the looks of things, their botched attempt had changed the procedure a little. The driver that got out of the vehicle wore a sidearm, and I thought I saw a passenger in the darkened cab. Two people would make it tougher. The guns even more so. I grabbed my comm unit and connected with our team leader.
“Billy’s gonna bring a friend and some toys,” I said.
“No worries, thanks.” The link closed and I tucked the comm unit away.
We had ten minutes before the truck finished loading.
I strolled past the greenhouse, keeping up with everyone else, and pulled the comm unit out of my pocket again. I punched in my access code. The insurgents had guaranteed this corner wasn’t monitored—one of the dead spots in the network— and I could change my tracker ID. I made sure there were no drones overhead and cycled the ID. It still seemed strange, knowing I and almost every other person in San Angeles had a tracker embedded in them. They injected us with a vaccine when we were kids. It contained the tracker, which sent out coded signals with every heartbeat. ACE had learned how to cover the technology with their own, making the signals modifiable. Almost no one knew about the trackers. First ACE, the extinct anti-corporate movement, and now the insurgents wanted to keep it a secret. I still didn’t understand why.
The new ID made me out to be a simple courier. Once I got on my bike, I’d blend in with the background traffic. I laughed at simple courier. It had been a long time, a lifetime, since I’d been that. Everything was simpler back then.
I recrossed the street and walked between the greenhouses to the parkway. The sight of the burned-out hulk ahead reminded me of Janice, when she’d tried to kill me and Pat. My pace slowed for a second before I pushed her from my mind. I didn’t have time for that now.
One of the others on my recon team passed by me, heading in the opposite direction. He was a young kid. Too young to be thrust into something like this. The insurgents didn’t seem to have any issues with using kids. They’d proven that when they’d used them to blow up water stations on the upper levels. It took me a while to realize he was probably only a year or two younger than I was. We walked by without looking at each other. There were three of us for a reason, and if he’d been identified and monitored by SoCal, we didn’t want them to learn about anyone else on the team.
The fact that I’d been placed on recon still stung. The insurgents knew what I could do—what
I had done—and threw me in with the rest of the newbies anyway. They couldn’t use my pregnancy as an excuse, since they didn’t know about it, so I figured it was out of spite for leaving Pat behind when I tried to get Ian. I stopped that line of thought right away. There was no point in going over those events again. I’d done it too often already.
In theory, the only saving grace was the job Pat, Kai, and I were doing for Doc Searls. His son was still missing, and we’d promised the Doc we’d look for him. In truth, I hadn’t done much on that either. It was tough to get anything done when you locked yourself in your room.
My task here was to watch the loading of the truck and call ahead as soon as it left the dock. With the tight schedule they kept, it seemed like a waste of time—except that now I’d seen the guns. My job, after the recon, was to follow the truck when it drove out of Pasadena, just to make sure it stayed on route, and then peel off before it reached the intercept point. Like I said, newbie work.
My bike was parked off the main greenhouse and restaurant strip. I headed that way. The other two on recon would stay behind, verifying that the pattern of trucks stayed the same. If it varied, chances were someone knew the delivery was going to be attacked.
I walked past a small street bistro with a swanky name I couldn’t pronounce, surprised it was still open. With most of our food going up to the higher levels, a lot of restaurants had closed. It was tough to sell what you didn’t have. A young couple sat at one table, the waiter hovering behind them. They didn’t even see me. I was just another courier. The bike was parked a little farther down the street. I grabbed my lid off the handlebars and thumbed the bike’s lock. A short ride past the greenhouses and a quick U-turn should put me behind the departing truck.
I was riding by the greenhouse when the truck pulled out. A couple of cars drove between us. I kept my spot and followed it, opening a comm link to let the hijack team know I was in place. The connection was made, but no one spoke. I gave my information and closed the link again.
The truck switched lanes, getting ready to make a left turn. I ended up right on its tail. As it accelerated around the corner heading for the ramp, I passed it on the right, stealing a glance through the passenger window. There were definitely two people in there.
Construction choked the road ahead, diverting traffic coming toward us down a side street, but letting us through. This was it. I raced through the gap and turned right, planning to come back up behind the truck.
The construction had been here all day, put up by the insurgents early this morning, and dozens of trucks had already passed through. This truck and driver would have come through here more than once, taking full loads up and empty ones back.
I zipped around the block, stopping a hundred meters away from the workers. From here, I could see the operation was already unfolding. The truck sat midconstruction waiting for men to carry equipment across the single lane. Almost from nowhere, two masked insurgents ran to the side doors of the truck and yanked them open.
Gunfire pierced the air, and I slammed my bike into gear as the insurgents fell to the ground. By the time I got behind the truck, it was over, and the relative silence of the city descended on us.
I pulled the bike into the construction, stopped, and jumped off, barely giving myself time to put down the kickstand. I sprinted to the driver’s door and almost tripped over the bodies of the insurgents. The driver was still alive. His chest was covered in blood and his eyes were out of focus. He kept blinking, looking confused. I yanked him from his seat and let him fall to the ground, climbing in to take his place.
The construction crew had disappeared when the gunfire started—their job was done as soon as the attack began. Tromping on the accelerator, I raced away from the devastation, the forward momentum of the truck slamming the doors shut. I turned down the same corner I’d taken with my bike and made a beeline for the closest down-ramp. The body in the seat beside me shifted. His head fell in my lap. I shivered and pushed it away, leaving a smear of blood on my pants.
The down-ramp was five blocks away. Once I reached the bottom, a support team would pick me up, and I’d have some protection on my way to the next ramp straight down to Level 2.
I had time to think about what had happened. What the hell was I doing? I’d put myself and my son directly in harm’s way and hadn’t even thought about it. That’s not how an expectant mother is supposed to act.
Only two minutes had passed since the first shot, but it felt like an hour. I glanced out the window, banging my helmet against the glass, and scanned the ceiling for drones. The tightness of being boxed in grabbed hold of me and I held back a shudder. On the bike,
I would have been able to tell if I’d been picked up. The thin slice of ceiling offered through the truck’s window didn’t show anything, but how could I really be sure?
When the front tires hit the down-ramp, I breathed a sigh of relief. At the bottom, I’d have others to watch for me. I opened the comm link again and let them know I was on the way. My hands shook as I took the first corner.