Duke leaned up against the tall brick building and lit another cigarette. Hell of a day.He knew the teachers got mad at him for not listening to their directions, but he’d never been threatened with expulsion before. Not that I care,Duke reflected. He puffed on the cigarette slowly.
“Aren’t you going to Assembly?”
Duke jumped. He’d almost forgotten Jessica was there. He threw his cigarette into the asphalt, letting it die out, and shook his head. Waste of time and effort,he thought. Jessica looked at him like he’d just divulged a plan to kill someone.
“Nah. I have better things to do. Like get the chips out of this damn
Jessica rolled her eyes. She’d told Duke a thousand times it was pointless to try and remove the microchips that were implanted in everything from coats to computers and what little books still existed.
“Good luck. Even if you get them out, they’ll find you. And it won’t be pretty.”
Duke paid no heed to Jessica’s warning and kept feeling his pockets for any chips that might be hidden. The school bell rang, and Jessica turned to go back inside almost instinctively.
“Wait. There’s got to be somewhere better than this. Run away with me.”
As Jess always did when Duke made this request of her, she nodded her head to the electric fence that surrounded the schoolyard. The fence was only disarmed between certain hours, when the kids were allowed to take lunch breaks or go home for the day. Other than that, they were prisoners.
“It’s not that I don’t want to, but we’ll never get over that fence.”
Duke shook his head and waved for Jessica to get back inside. What a prison this whole city had become. Duke leaned back up against the wall of the courtyard so he could listen to what bullshit they were feeding the kids in school now.
“In 2030, which city tried to mount a rebellion against the capital?”
All the kids would know the answer by now. It was probably beaten into their heads, Duke thought as he lit up another cigarette. Duke mouthed the answer as the question was being posed.
“Memphis, Tennessee,” a young girl answered.
Duke heard the teacher gush over the girl’s answer. He stepped a tiny bit away from the wall and eyed the electric fence. Today’s the day I get over that fence. He heard clapping as someone finished a presentation in one of the classrooms, then he heard the teacher asking questions again.
“Okay, I’m going to have you read Section Eight in your e-books for homework, but first, who can tell me what happened to Memphis after the revolution?”
Duke tried to stop listening, but was for some reason drawn to the conversation. Through the windows, he could see a boy raising his hand.
“The city was taken over by the federal government and renamed Liberty City. All the rebels were slaughtered.”
Duke recalled reading about the so-called “Liberty City Seven,” the men and women who had first sparked the revolution. Somehow, he didn’t fully believe they were dead. Duke took the entire cigarette container in his hand, turning it over and over. When everyone had left the courtyard, he threw it at the fence. Let’s see what happens.The container was ash within several seconds. That could’ve been me,Duke reflected.
At least now he knew the true danger of leaving the school grounds, not that the danger would stop him. There has to be a way to jam the system.Instantly, before the thought was even complete, a large television screen mounted on the wall lit up, showing the image of a short, plump man with a backwards baseball cap.
“Are you looking for a better way to protect yourself? Rex’s Home Security Systems are trusted by humans in every space colony!”
Duke ignored the rest of the ad. This is why I need to get these chips off my body.Every time something was purchased within the capital’s territory, a microchip embedded in the product would broadcast the buyer’s tastes to advertisers.
This was supposed to make ads more personal, but Duke saw these chips as an invasion of privacy rather than a “technological marvel“, as the media liked to call it. Stupid personalizers.He removed his jacket and placed it on the ground.
The jeans Duke was wearing had been purchased from a small collective outside the capital’s land, so they were unlikely to have personalizer chips inside them. Duke began stomping on his jacket to crush any chips that might be left behind.
A tall woman with curly black hair entered the courtyard, making her way toward Duke rapidly. Oh great, another lecture from Ms. Wahlberg.The school Vice Principal had it out for him, Duke was sure. Why else would he have had to repeat Ninth Year for the third time?
“Duke! What are you doing?“
Every other time he’d been late or missing from Assembly, Duke had an excuse ready, but this time, Ms. Wahlberg had caught him off guard. He tried to judge the distance between himself and the electric fence that blocked him from freedom.
Duke watched from outside as the Eighth and Ninth Years poured into Assembly, where they would surely be told how they “had“ to get into a good college, and “had“ to work a good job to make lots of money. That wasn’t the way Duke was going to act, that’s for sure.
“I was trying to get the chips out of my jacket. I hate chips.“
Ms. Wahlberg seemed more concerned than angry. She took the jacket off the floor and handed it back to Duke.
“Now, you know how dangerous that is? They could put you in jail for that.“
I’m already in jail,Duke wanted to say. Between problems at home and his refusal to attend school, the entirety of New Hope seemed like prison to him. He longed for the days when cars and buses could be found on the streets rather than in the history museum near his house.
“I know. But I can’t take it anymore.”
He thought back to the war that had eradicated the old ways of life, wondering if its leaders knew what they were doing to the country at the time. Ms. Wahlberg began lecturing him about all the absences and late marks he’d gotten at Assembly, but he was only half-listening.
“Why do I have to go to Assembly? I already know what they’re going to say, and I’m not going to college. “
Ms. Wahlberg paused for a second. Duke sensed she didn’t have an answer to his question. She gave him some routine reply about him not being an exception to the rules and so on.
“If everyone else in Ninth Year has to go to Assembly, don’t you think it’s only fair that you do too?”
Duke clenched his teeth, trying not to get angry. A lot of things weren’t particularly fair in New Hope, but they happened anyway; poverty, corruption, lies, scandals, and the arguments with his family, just to name a few. He sighed deeply.
Ms. Wahlberg opened her mouth to say something, but her voice was overtaken by one of the teachers speaking into the microphone at the Assembly.
“Everyone, today we have a very special guest. He’s here to talk to us about getting jobs with the capital if anyone is interested. Please welcome the Director of Values, Dr. John Martin Anderson!”
The room exploded into applause. Duke looked toward the entrance to the school; it wasn’t that he particularly liked any of the Directors, but now could be his chance to voice his concerns about the government.
“All I’m saying is, you should give it a chance. Even if you don’t want to go to college in the fall.”
Duke tried to listen to what lies the Director was spewing, but could just barely hear. How could he make an escape with Ms. Wahlberg standing right there? There was only one way, and it would be very dangerous.
“I guess you’re right. Think I can still get in?”
Ms. Wahlberg smiled. She wasn’t sure how, but obviously she’d been able to reform Duke. And if even one student was more obedient, her job was a successful one
“If you go through the side door, I’m sure the Vice Principal won’t even notice,” she said with a smile.
Duke walked slowly towards the auditorium with a grin on his face. He had no intention of sitting through this lecture.
Dr. Anderson was about 5’ 3“, with thin spectacles and silvery-grey hair. Duke remembered learning that the doctor’s family was traditionally involved in the People Market, where they’d amassed most of their fortune. Duke himself had only been to the market once, to release his sister from a debt she owed, and it was a terrifying experience.
“As many of you might know, I have an extensive network of contacts in the People Market, so if someone should ever want a job there, feel free to look me up.“
Duke scoffed quietly. He would rather die than work in the People Market; in fact, he was fairly certain being sent there wasdeath, at least death of the soul. Duke shuffled quietly towards the exit doors. This is my chance.
He pushed the doors open slowly, setting off the whir of an alarm. Of course it’s rigged. Why wouldn’t it be? One of the teachers, a balding man with a stoic look on his face, rushed to stop Duke from leaving.
“Please return to your assigned area, Duke Farnham,” a computerized voice commanded.
Duke ran as fast as he could down the corridor. Part one is complete,he told himself, now just don’t lose your cool.He ducked into the school’s Visionarium, a place filled with more television screens.
“Show me the quickest way out of New Hope High School.”
The screen flashed an icon of a phoenix flying over an olive branch, the insignia used by the capital to symbolize the country’s resurgence after the damage from the Last War.
“I’m sorry, Duke Farnham. This information is censored.”
Duke rolled his eyes. I should’ve known. He made a mad dash for the windows, trying with all his might to open them. Finally, they gave way just enough for him to slip through. “Farnham, Duke. Return to your assigned area immediately.”
He heard teachers running down the hallway after him. It was now or never. Duke catapulted himself through the opening.
“Computer, alert all guards: Duke Farnham is a fugitive.”
Duke saw guards swarming the campus. All this because he wanted to be free. The electric fence wasn’t far away, maybe a foot or two at most.
Duke kept running. The fence was getting closer; how could he get over it? Someone shot a laser ray at him, grazing his head and missing by mere inches.
“Duke Farnham has proven to be a dangerous criminal. All units shoot to kill.”
This was getting ridiculous. He was now a “fugitive”, just because he wanted to run away? The guards were closing in; soon, he would be trapped between them and the fence. Another laser just barely missed his leg.
Duke tripped and fell, causing the jacket he was holding to fly into the fence. That’s my favorite jacket!He was about to go rescue it, but stopped suddenly; the jacket wasn’t burning. Duke smiled.
The fence can only burn something if there are chips in it!The sound of laser guns firing behind made him jump. Almost forgot about those guys. Duke began moving closer to the fence, removing his shirt.
“What’s he doing?”
Duke swallowed nervously, took a deep breath, and jumped onto the fence. Nothing happened. The guards were attempting to get onto the fence, but Duke knew he was untouchable; their uniforms were mass-produced and surely had Personalizers in them. He scrambled up towards the top of the fence, which was coated in barbed wire.
“The fence isn’t shocking him, but why?”
The teachers and guards were scrambling to find another way to catch Duke. He neared the top of the fence, waiting for just the right moment to jump over. On the other side, Hover Cars were zipping up and down the Martin Luther King Jr. Skyway. If I can time this just right….
“Someone get the Principal! Stop him!”
Duke watched the guards try to climb the fence, but one by one they were electrocuted and fell off or got badly burned. Duke watched a Hover Taxi pass by on the Skyway. It was going pretty fast, but Duke still thought he might be able to catch it. He jumped.
The tube-like tracks that made up the Skyway cushioned Duke as effectively as spikes might. He held his leg and tried to forget about the pain. A billboard lit up nearby.
“Looks like you could use Capital Health Insurance. We’re just a click or call away, and offer much lower prices than public companies can. Find us on the StarNet at www.capitalhealth.com.”
Duke’s brow furrowed. He knew he was still within Capital territory, but how were they able to track him? He ignored the ad. Got to keep moving. He hobbled over towards the Skyway and waved down a Hover Taxi.
“Can I see some ID?”
The driver held his palm out. Duke hesitated for a second before giving his Flyer’s License over to the man. The driver scanned it with an optical reader built into the taxi.
“Sorry, kid. I can’t be driving criminals around.”
Duke took the ID back. How did my name get into the system so fast? The driver took off. Great. Now what?Duke flagged down taxi after taxi, but nobody would drive him anywhere, so he took shelter in a bar across the street.
Galileo’s Bluff wasn’t generally this full on a Tuesday afternoon, but a bunch of college kids were filing in to take advantage of the drink and food specials there. Duke was hyper-aware of his every move, worried he might reveal his true identity.
“I’ll have a Jovian Cocktail, please.”
The voice of the young woman next to him sounded familiar to Duke. Where had he heard or seen her before? Duke thought it had something to do with the Visionarium at school, but he wasn’t sure.
“That’ll be two credits, please.”
Duke watched the woman punch her information into the digital tablet given to her by the bartender. He tried to get a glimpse without being too obvious. He saw the woman write down her gamer tag: “Bitterly Icy.”
Duke recalled being told by his parents not to ask about tags until he was eighteen, and even then they hadn’t told him much, only that tags were often adopted by those trying to hide their real identity. Duke took a napkin and wrote down “Bitterly Icy.“ Maybe it means something, he reflected.
He began trying everything he could think of, rearranging letters, substitution ciphers, and even trying to use it as a keyword to crack some other code. Finally, after about ten minutes, he smiled: The words were an anagram.
Duke ordered a package of Fruit Bytes he didn’t really want so as not to seem suspicious and so he could keep up with the news. He slid the paper back to the woman known as “Bitterly Icy” with his solution on it: “Liberty City.”
“What does it mean?”
The girl looked at him like he’d asked her to become an anarchist. He studied the woman’s long pink hair and the massive sword she had in the sling on her back. Clearly, she was an adventurer, and not one to be toyed with.
The girl brushed her hair away so Duke could see a piece of jewelry made of three tiny stars that were aligned vertically. A rank three adventurer? She’s been around for a while, then. The girl scribbled something else onto the napkin and passed it back to Duke:
“Adventurer’s Tavern, 3:00.”
Duke slipped the napkin into his pocket. It was obvious that whatever she had to say was forbidden and couldn’t be discussed in public. Duke nodded to show he understood. Duke gasped suddenly. I know where I’ve seen her face before.If he wasn’t mistaken, this girl was one of the Liberty City Seven.
The Adventurer’s Tavern was a tall tower made of transparent blue glass and balanced by small green disks that were placed on every other floor. Duke often joked that the tower looked like a blue stick of salami. He remembered Jessica sharing her dreams about one day qualifying as an Adventurer, and being dragged to all her training simulations so he could help evaluate her.
Duke himself had never expressed his wish to become an Adventurer, but it was something he’d desired since childhood. He always thought it would be a good way to escape New Hope with the government’s blessing, if nothing else. A tap on his shoulder made him shiver.
The girl he’d met at the bar was standing behind him. She looked different, her hair pulled into a tight ponytail, and she was now wearing a thinner tunic than the one from before. Duke noticed it was green and gold, the symbol of an elite class of Adventurer.
The girl smiled, though Duke was unsure whether it was at his awkwardness or she was just trying to be friendly. The Adventurer took her sword out of its holster. Duke jumped back.
“Relax, I’m not going to hurt you. I want as little attention on us as possible.”
Duke tried to look calm as he studied the ancient markings on the sword. The language they were in was one called English, the forefather of BleepSpeak. It looked so intelligent compared to BleepSpeak.
“What’s this word mean?”
Duke pointed to a word that was inscribed on the sword. The girl looked down at it slowly, as if it were full of memories.
“In the Old Language, ‘free’ meant you were allowed to do something. Like Freedom of Speech. This is the sword I used to help fight the Last War.”
So it’s true!The girl wasone of the Seven. Duke had known all along that the Seven had to be alive; if they’d really been executed, there would have been rioting in the streets. He looked the girl’s legendary armor up and down in sheer awe.
Duke touched the sword and ran his fingers across its metal. He was no expert, but could tell the quality was a lot better than the ones made now. The girl pulled the sword away from him abruptly.
“This is no time to get distracted. Now, what’s your name?”
Duke told her. The girl told him she went by the name Mia, a name she adopted because it was the abbreviation for Missing In Action. Duke saw the necklace she wore, ironically engraved with the symbol of the capital.
“Why do you wear that?”
Mia toyed with the necklace in between her fingers, as if hesitant to reveal it’s meaning to a total stranger. She glanced to the East, where the suburb of Luna Del Mare lay. Or what’s left of it, Mia thought.
“Luna Del Mare is-or was-my home. My father went off to aid the rebels in the Last War. He didn’t come back. I keep this as a reminder of his bravery. Same reason my chosen name is MIA.”
Duke nodded solemnly. He pitied the girl and had no real desire to pry any further. Duke glanced at Luna Del Mare for a long moment, studying the way the sea lapped at its sandy shores.
“It looks like a nice place.”
Mia shrugged, and Duke could tell she also had no desire to talk about it anymore. She turned her back to him, hoping to catch a slight sea breeze from the salty air. Mia brushed the hair out of her face, trying not to let Duke see her cry a little bit.
“Anyway, let’s get down to business.”
Mia removed two photographs from her tunic. Duke recognized them as two other members of the Seven, a man nicknamed Blaze and a girl who went by the name Angel. Angel was tall, blonde-haired with blue eyes, and slightly attractive, Duke thought. Blaze was a huge dark-skinned man with muscles protruding from a white tank top.
“These two are the only others I know that are still alive from our group. They’re imprisoned in Luna Del Mare.”
Duke saw Mia nod her head to a tall tower in the East. The tower was surrounded by crenellated walls, which were protected by guards both from New Hope and Luna Del Mare.
“Oh, no. You can’t possibly expect me to go in there.”
The Tower of the Damned was the most secure prison in the entire country, a formidable fortress holding only the worst offenders. Duke had heard that the prisoners there were even brutal to their fellow cellmates, sometimes executing their own brand of vigilante justice.
“You do what you want. I’m either going alone or with you.”
Mia turned and started walking towards the gates that separated Luna Del Mare from the Adventurer’s Tower. Duke was annoyed by the sheer confidence she seemed to have, though he couldn’t exactly decide why. Easy for her to say, Duke thought, she’s a legend. If the tower’s history was any indicator, he’d probably get killed inside.
The western half of Luna Del Mare was nothing but charred ruins, a makeshift monument to those who had died hoping for a chance of a better life.
Duke remembered reading that a staggering amount of rebels had simply been gunned down by the capital’s guards outside the city’s University. Meanwhile, the capital had suffered little else than a tarnish on its reputation and the deaths of several soldiers who would probably be erased from history anyway.
Duke forced himself to focus on the landscape in front of them. Mia nodded towards a large, imposing tower in the North.
“There it is.”
For years, Duke had been afraid to approach the Tower of the Damned, not because of the potential punishments that could result, but because the guards had been authorized to kill intruders if they deemed it necessary. He trembled a little as Mia advanced towards the tower. She stopped suddenly.
Mia didn’t respond immediately. She seemed to be listening to something in the distance that Duke couldn’t hear. Mia drew her sword and stood her ground.
Before Duke had a moment to react, six or seven dots of light darted through the sky at absurd speeds. Oh, this isn’t good. The ground was shaking slightly as the lights got closer and their forms became more defined.
“How could they know we’re here already?”
Mia shushed him, keeping her gaze fixed on the sky as the lights faded to reveal ships. The ships landed slowly and teams of guards got out, surrounding them. What had they done that was so wrong?
“LPD, hands on the ground!”
Mia’s brow furrowed. She’d assumed from the advanced technology that these ships were carrying capital soldiers.
The local police were usually not allowed to have access to the same improvements as the federal guards. Duke waited to see Mia’s reaction. He gasped as she put her hands in the air. Why was she surrendering? She was his only hope!
Mia started walking towards the patrol ships slowly. He saw her whisper something to one of the guards, who nodded. Were they letting him go? The guards came closer to Duke. He began to run. Mia put her sword in front of him, blocking his way.
“You’re not going anywhere.”
Duke clenched his teeth. She betrayed me! He felt stupid for believing that he could find one of the Seven, let alone get them to help him. I should’ve known. She set me up. Duke looked between Mia and the guards.
“Y-you brought them here?”
Mia didn’t say a word, just blushed. Figures. I can’t rely on anyone here except myself. Duke watched as the guards closed in on him slowly. This was it, Duke thought; he was as good as dead.
“Duke, wait you have to understand…”
But Duke wasn’t hearing any of it. He shoved past Mia and the soldiers, desperately trying to beat an escape path.
Duke felt one of the guards push something into his neck, and then his whole body was involuntarily convulsing. They were tasering him! Duke tried to will his arm into bending backwards and defending him. It fell limply at his side. His felt himself double over without having much control.
Out of the corner of his eyes, Duke thought he saw Mia making a run for it. Great, abandon me on top of everything else! It was hopeless. Suddenly, there was a banging sound to his left. He glanced up. Someone had knocked the tazer out of the guard’s hands! Duke tried to make sense of the whole debacle, but it was all going too fast.
He saw his mysterious rescuer fighting the guards like nobody he’d ever seen before. Whoever it is must be a really strong Adventurer, Duke thought. He paused for a moment to regain his clarity, and then approached the struggle, punching one of the guards. There was no victory to be gained, however; another guard was advancing on him.
“Suspect has assaulted a federal officer. Consider him dangerous.”
Duke barely paid attention. The mysterious Adventurer had vanished from sight now, leaving Duke on his own. Duke noticed one of the guard’s tasers was at his feet and readily accessible. He bent down to pick it up, then froze. Don’t stoop to their level, Duke told himself.
Out of nowhere, the Adventurer returned. Duke saw now who his rescuer was, and gasped in shock upon realizing the figure’s identity. The blonde hair, the stocky figure….he was starting into Jessica’s eyes.
“Jess? How did you…”
Jessica held up a small rectangular device that Duke recognized as a tracker. Duke had to laugh despite the tension of the last few moments. He threw his arm around Jessica’s shoulder.
“Well, this has been quite the adventure. Too bad nobody will know about it.”
Jess didn’t say anything for a long moment. She was glancing off in the distance. Duke followed her gaze to the lit-up billboards that dotted the cityscape of Luna Del Mare and smiled gradually.
The normally pushy voices of the ad announcers had been replaced with cheering. The billboards had pictures and videos of Duke’s adventures.
“Wonder how long we have til the Capital gets to ‘em,” Duke mused.
Jessica hugged him closely.
“For now, let’s just enjoy. After all, today’s the day you start your life over.”
Duke felt her peck his cheek affectionately as they watched the sunrise over the city. Luna Del Mare would never be the same again.
-Kevin Carneglia, May 26, 2013