THE LONG OBLIVION

Rafael Ward Book Two

Free Preview of Chapter One Below

Chapter 1

 

She ran the full way, just over a mile, to the Quick Price Convenience Store & Truck Stop. She didn’t have to. There’d be ten minutes or so to spare before Curfew if she walked, but Samantha Vasquez wasn’t taking any chances.

Ten minutes would barely be enough time to switch out the register, roll over the codes from Mia—who’d stayed the extra hour to cover the shift until Sam could get there—and run the lockdown protocols. No time to find out who she’d missed. No chance to catch Dragon Lady before she skittered off. No shot at winning the contest.

So she ran, her apron bundled under her arm, her Port wrapped in the apron, her legs churning harder than they had since the end of track season. Despite how cool it was for early June in Arizona, she was sweating hard and breathing harder when she arrived at the Quick Price with twenty-five minutes to spare.

The always-too-slow automatic doors dinged as she pushed through. Mia stood behind the checkout kiosk to the left, helping a hunched old woman in a green-brown trench coat: Dragon Lady, so named by the Quick Price employees for her fearsome breath and rasping voice.

“Thought I mightn’t had enough,” Dragon Lady said, more to the pile of coins she’d dumped on the counter than to Mia. “But there it is, alright. Thank God.”

Sam winced, as much due to the stabbing ache in her side as the language Dragon Lady used. Mia, her eyes rounder than coffee lids, looked to the ceiling. To the security cam above the register. Sam could tell what she was thinking: They can hear her, can’t they? They’ll be coming for her.

Fear gripped Sam deep in her stomach. Edict 7, the guiding principal of the Republic’s faithless perfection, was not to be played around with. Curfew could be broken by a few minutes and you might be okay, if you were still in high school like Sam and Mia. Maybe a fine and a night in jail to scare the shit out of you and your parents. Maybe get put on a list if the cops who caught you were in a bad mood. But get caught saying something against the government after the terrorism in the Atlantic District a couple years back, after the rise of the Seer and his fanatics, and there could be a black bag in your future.

Get caught praying, or even just saying the word “God,” and sure as lizards creep around in the desert, you would disappear forever.

Sam’s fingertips tingled. She needed a prod of Lito, but she didn’t dig into her pocket for the injector. She’d already taken her daily half-dose with breakfast, and she didn’t like the way a second dose made her feel, no matter how many people told her it was perfectly normally and safe. Forget that everyone at school prodded halves and three-quarters for each quiz or presentation. Forget that her teachers, her doctor, her mom, even the news feeds preached how Lito was the cure-all for every high-schooler’s anxiety. A second prod, even a quarter-dose, made her feel slow.

Not Mia. She was fitting her injector over her left ring finger as Dragon Lady gathered her bounty—a couple rolls of toilet paper and a bottle of wine—and waddled to the door, the smell of gin and urine trailing her.

Ding.

“We didn’t stop her,” Mia said, calmer but not fully serene. She must have been incredibly frightened. “Are we in trouble? Will they come for us too?”

The question made Sam’s heartbeat drive up into her throat. Mia was right. They hadn’t stopped Dragon Lady. They were accessories.

“No,” Sam said. “No, no, no.”

Then her injector was in her hand. All her fingertips tingled. She couldn’t remember which one she’d prodded this morning. She shoved the injector over her left thumb. There was the faintest hiss. A sharper, more energetic tingle in her thumb. Her pulse slowed. The danger became less immediate. They hadn’t done anything wrong. Dragon Lady was the criminal, not them.

She skirted the kiosk and put her arm around Mia’s shoulder. “It’s okay,” she said, believing the words as she spoke them, as if their sound made them real and true. “They’ll take just her if they heard. Only her.”

“Of course they heard. They’re always listening. That’s the point of the whole thing, right? Unity for Peace. Witness-Report. You can’t not report. It’ll all fall apart.”

“It’s fine,” Sam said, seeing things more clearly now. “We’re fine. Remember the guy with the cowboy hat, the night Junot dumped the dog food all over the floor? He said it was a good thing, you know, what happened in Philadelphia.” She wouldn’t allow herself to name the event, the destruction of the Tower by the man the Republic now referred to as simply the Tower Terrorist. “He left that night and that was it. Gone. They never came in here.”

“I don’t want them to come in here,” Mia said.

Neither did Sam. The thought of REC Agents walking through the door was enough to make her legs tremble. The castigating hands of the Republic, Agents had the authority to black-bag anyone, Citizen or not, minor or not, for crimes against Edict 7. Black-bags didn’t go to the local Kingman jail. They didn’t get a jury trial. There was no bail to be paid. Just a transgression and a disappearance. Sometimes the family of the black-bagged never even found out what happened.

Stop it, she told herself.

She looked up, right at the cam’s eye, and said, “No, it’s okay. We’re fine. She’s on the cams, right? That’s as good as calling the hotline ourselves.”

“It is, isn’t it?” Mia asked, less frantic now, then answered her own question. “Yeah, it is.”

“Exactly. If the cams aren’t working, Mr. Gomez is the one in trouble, not us,” Sam said, not happy with the idea of the store manager Mr. Gomez being black-bagged. He was a nice man, but any head other than hers in a black bag was better. Any conversation other than this one was better. “So, Dragon Lady? You didn’t get her, did you? She hasn’t been in for weeks. Junot thought she died or something.”

Mia perked up. “I know, right? But then in she comes tonight, like right when you should have been here. So, you’re going to love this,” Mia said.

 

“And hate me.”

“Oh, Mia, no.” Sam stood back.

“Yes ma’am. I got it.”

Mia held up her Port, a slightly blurry photo of Dragon Lady’s face centered on the screen. Sam wondered, with the old woman’s severe hunch, if Mia had to lie on the ground to get such a straight on shot. But there it was. Seven months into the contest and freaking Mia, who only staked in because Sam needled her to, got the first photo of Dragon Lady.

“Did you get an ID?” Because if she had, Sam was out of luck.

“No,” Mia said, “This building, you know the uplinks don’t work on anything older than a Five.”

It was true. Any Citizen’s Port model older than a CP5 was as useful as a camera and a doorstop inside the Quick Price. Sam’s own CP2—her father’s, actually, not that he used it anymore—sometimes wouldn’t even power on in the store. All the more reason Sam needed to win this contest. Her future Citizenship was on the line. And with Citizenship came a brand new CP8, or maybe even a CP9 if they were out by then.

“I’ll trade you three shifts for it,” Sam said.

“Oh right, your little…thing there. I forgot. I don’t understand why you don’t just make Lucas pay for it.”

Bullshit, Sam thought. You made sure to message me that Dragon Lady was here on MY shift even though you knew I was late because of Dad. Just so you could squeeze me for what? Five shifts? Eight? And Lucas, well, you know the answer to that, too.

She did her best to let none of this show. Mia was her best friend since elementary school. Since Sam had rescued Mia’s pigtails from Anthony Montez during one particular autumn recess period. Best friends or not, however, they were competitive. Grades. Salary at the Quick Price. Boys, like Lucas.

“Come on. It’s not worth anything to you,” Sam said, refusing to get into the Lucas issue again. “You could catch Beard Man tomorrow and you’d still have no chance to beat Junot. I’m the only one who’s close.”

“Not close enough. It’s over on graduation night, remember? You’re going to need Beard Man and Hoodie Guy, plus Dragon Lady.”

Mia was almost right. The contest was simple. Each of the homeless regulars who lived under the I-40 off ramp was known to the Quick Price employees by an alias. Dragon Lady. Squishy Boots. Captain Farts A Lot. And so on. The goal was to get an ID scan on each. Find out their real names. Ten points apiece. Another ten for any warrants that were flagged. And then there were the tough ones. Three who the employees in the contest—Sam, Mia, shift manager Junot, Julian, and Chuck—agreed would be the most difficult, maybe impossible, to get.

Dragon Lady because of her posture and infrequent visits.

Beard Man, the one who’d inspired the contest when an impromptu attempt to photograph his ridiculously overgrown beard had resulted in an inconclusive ID scan. There’d been at least five photos taken of him since, all returning the same inconclusive scan.

And Hoodie Guy. He was the star of the show. Coming in every few days, buying nearly the same thing each time, and never letting anyone get a good look at his face. It was like he knew about the contest and was actively working against them, keeping his head turned always the other way, hood always up, ducking behind displays. No two employees could even give similar descriptions of him, other than the ratty leather jacket and the zip-up hoodie beneath.

Then there were the rumors. There was an extra fifty points in it for whoever guessed Hoodie Guy’s story. Serial killer on the run. Burnout stalking his ex-wife. Former soldier who’d lost his mind. Sam put in for a blathering drunk fugitive—the guy swayed and stumbled almost as good as Dad—from the whole mess up north when the prison burned down at the start of her junior year. Maybe even the one who started the fire.

Whatever his story, if Sam could get Dragon Lady from Mia, she’d be fifty points behind Junot. Beard Man was a lost cause. That meant she would need Hoodie Guy to tie Junot. If she could add a ten-point warrant or nail her guess about his past, she would win the five-hundred-dollar pot outright. That, along with her last two paychecks, would be enough to pay for her “little thing.”

She wants more than three shifts is all, Sam told herself. Probably going for seven or eight. But maybe I can get her with

“Five shifts,” Sam offered.

“I pick?”

“Yes. No. Not school nights.”

“Samantha,” Mia prompted, carrying the last syllable until she ran out of breath.

“Fine. You pick. Just tap it to me.”

Sam unbundled her Port—it powered on!—and held it out, almost letting it slip from her fingers. Come on, Lito, she thought. She couldn’t afford to drop it again. To crack the screen even more.

Mia tapped the corner with her own Port. The photo transferred. In the morning, Sam would uplink it on her walk home. Then maybe her luck would turn. Maybe Hoodie Guy would come in and give her a chance to swipe victory from Junot’s stupid, cocky smirk.

“One condition,” Mia said a few minutes later as they were transferring the codes for the night.

“You can’t negotiate a done deal.”

“I want dinner.”

“I’m working tonight.”

“Not tonight, silly. This weekend. O’Grady’s. Burgers and a milkshake.”

“Deal,” Sam said.

Mia made it out the door and into her car with six minutes to spare before Curfew. Sam brought out the stool the day shifters weren’t allowed to use from the stockroom. She set it behind the kiosk and sat, imagining Junot transferring the full winnings from the escrow they’d set up for the contest. Imagining her and Mia driving out to Las Vegas to take care of her “little thing.” Imagining never having to tell her mother or beg the doctor on Enrollment Day to break the law and take care of it so she could enter her Citizen’s Duty, the compulsory requirement for all Americans to earn their full Citizenship rights.

The register screen flashed yellow then red, drawing Sam from her thoughts. The Curfew announcement then came over the store’s feedback-laden speaker system. Sixty seconds later the front door locks clacked, locking down the Quick Price for the night. Sam spent most of the next eight hours doing what offline homework she could on her Port and fighting the panic each time a trucker came through.

Curfew, like all rules, had exceptions. While the rest of the nation stayed safe and vigilant in their own homes, the shipping industry had to keep moving. Commerce had to be kept alive. So the truckers kept driving, stopping in at registered truck stops like the Quick Price for fuel, snacks, and sometimes showers and naps in the adjacent Truck Center. And each time one of them logged into the Quick Price, Sam jumped a little on her stool thinking it was the REC coming for her.

At exactly one minute to six in the morning, the register flashed yellow then green. The Curfew Release announcement played over the speakers, and sixty seconds later the front doors clacked, the locks disengaging.

No more than a minute later, while Sam was on the floor cleaning up some crumbs from the granola bar she’d just finished, the doors dinged.

“That was fast,” she muttered. She stood and saw a dark shape—a person—disappear down the chip aisle.

Oh shit, no, she thought, her eyes going up to the cam on the ceiling. Agents. They’re really coming for me.

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© Michael Pogach 2015-2018