net.work – a short story, part 1

Xenobia Walker strode purposefully past the vendors lined up on the street, who were offering everything from incense to do-it-yourself bio-data chip kits. She’d had her fill of those for a while now. The chip in her left hand, the one that Grimwold selfishly installed, throbbed, reminding her that she had missed yet another tuning visit. Angrily, she glanced down at the Eye of Horus tattoo that stared up at her while covering the evidence of violation. Maybe she should have gone with the rose tattoo, after all.

She looked at no one she passed, although she could feel their eyes her appraising her. Her 5’4”, 137 pound frame carried curves and taut muscle, with very little fat. Even so, she chose to hide her figure under loose, boot cut jeans and a hooded sweatshirt with the mysterious letters EMU emblazoned on the front. Her feet pounded the pavement in the old, heavy Harley Davidson boots she had found in her grandmother’s closet. A patterned scarf encased her rust-colored dreadlocks. She wore no make up, and her only jewelry was a tiny silver hoop in her nose.

Stepping carefully over sleeping children, she activated the clock function on her wrist pack to check the time.11:47. She was behind schedule, but that did not matter. She was getting closer to her destination. Night time or not, she knew exactly where she was because she could smell what was left of the river. The stench rose from the extinct body of water named Detroit in waves, and would make a lesser person gag and vomit. The smell did not bother Xenobia. It reassured her, in fact.

It meant that she was almost home.

Increasing her pace, she finally allowed herself a glimpse of the space around her. The ruins of great houses stood like testimonies of better times; a time when her city was still free. The time, in fact, before the current president’s however-many-great-grandfather led the country into a catastrophic war, which led to the total collapse of the economy, which ended fair trade practices, which led to a world war, and then several civil wars, which led almost directly to the reason Xenobia was going home for the first time in 2 years.

Ignoring the catcalls of prostitutes of both sexes, and wondering how long it would be before the current powers that be would forcibly conscript the young people around her into the military for the ongoing wars, she suddenly stopped in her tracks. Lifting her gaze, she saw the crooked sign:

Bella Island Women’s Prison Training Living Center

Xenobia sighed. She was home for good this time.

Adjusting the duffel bag slung on her right shoulder, she walked past the sign, and through the iron gates at the entrance to the road that led to the man-made island. She paused, glancing to the other side of the dry river bed, at what used to be a friendly neighbor.

In her grandmother’s time, relations between her city and the country across the water began to break down due to the evaporation of the river. A metal and concrete barrier now hid the foreign place from prying eyes. It continued to stand as a glaring reminder to just how far the once mighty had fallen.

Approaching the entrance to the fortress, the woman stepped onto a metal plate set into the ground and waited. Unsure of whether the security had been upgraded or abandoned in the time that she was away, she warily looked towards the dark building. Uneasy, she was almost ready to give up when she was momentarily blinded by a flash of light. Shocked, she threw up her arms to cover her head, and dropped to a crouch. Her knee struck the plate, and a synthesized voice spoke to her in the still air.

“Please place your feet completely inside of the white circles.”

“Huh?” Xenobia looked left, right, and up, but could see no one.

Please place your feet completely inside of the white circles.” Lifting a brow, she could have sworn that the disembodied voice sounded just a tad bit annoyed. Looking down and off to the side, she finally saw two faded, dull gray circles painted on the metal. After slowly returning to a standing position, wary of any more explosions of light, she shuffled towards the marks. Stepping gently into the designated space, she once again squinted at the large building. There was no sign of any live person.

“Thank you,” the voice said pleasantly. “One moment, please. We are attempting to locate your data.” Silence then returned to the world, leaving Xen to fidget and wonder.

“Guess they have upgraded,” she whispered to herself.

The air on Bella Island was unnaturally still. There was no breeze; there were no bugs. The main roads were too far from the actual island to carry the sounds of commerce and life, and animals had long since ceased to roam freely. Xenobia was beginning to feel as if she was trapped in a nightmarish reality, a bad dream come true.

“Um,” she broke the silence. “Is there anyone there?”

“One moment please,” the mechanical voice replied.

“Is there anyone LIVE in there? A real person? Why’s it so dark?” Questions tumbled from the woman’s mouth as her fears and uneasiness bubbled to the surface. “Where’s -”

“ONE MOMENT, PLEASE!” The Voice, as she had come to think of it, boomed from everywhere and nowhere. Taken aback, Xen clamped her lips together tightly. A feeling of vindication washed over her, as she concluded that The Voice of the computer was indeed irritated. Lips twitching, she struggled not to giggle like a schoolgirl as she awaited further instruction.

“Thank you for waiting, Xenobia Walker. Welcome to Bella Island Women’s Living Center. I hope that you enjoy your stay.”

“Sure.” Silence rose once again, covering the island like a quilt. Xen tapped her foot impatiently, wondering what to do next. Usually, this was when the grating of the metals doors sliding in their tracks would sound, and the fortress would open with a clang to welcome an entrant. Instead, there was only the stifling quiet. No movement could be discerned. Other than her own heartbeat, which was being helpfully monitored by her oh-so-versatile wrist pack, there was no sign of anything at all.

“Hello?” she called. “Um, aren’t you going to let me in?”

“Why should we do that?” The Voice asked fussily.

“Excuse me?” Shocked, Xen almost dropped her duffel. “You’re not supposed to-”

“’We’re not supposed to-‘ What? Think?” The Voice mocked. “Please. You’ve been gone for 2 years. How would you know what we’re supposed to do? After all that happened, you left!”

“It wasn’t my choice,” Xen said quietly. She felt silly, being scolded by a voice she could not sense a body for, standing out in the open in weather that was rapidly turning cold. “Look, can I come in?”

“What for? Why’d you come back now, of all times?”

“Because I’m done. It’s over; I’m free.”

The Voice laughed. “Free? What the hell does that mean? Does. Not. Compute.”

Closing her hands into fists, Xen forced herself to breathe slowly and calm her heartbeat. Computer or not, this thing was intelligent, and was probably still linked to her chip, monitoring her systems. She opened her mouth to reply, but was interrupted.

“You, Xenobia Nefertiti Walker. You, the heir of this city’s throne. You, the whole reason this center no longer has use. You want to talk to us about being FREE? How absurd! You, who ran away in the middle of the night.”

“I didn’t run!” Xen screamed. The feeling of remembering what happened that night was still too fresh, too raw, for her to keep calm while discussing it. “I didn’t run,” she repeated, softer. “I wanted to stay. I wanted to do my part. My father sent his people, and I had to go. They would have killed me!”

“Like they killed the rest of us,” The Voice said. “You did not have the courage to stand beside us, and we fell. You traded our lives for your own. And for what? This city is still besieged. The water is still gone. You are still a chained slave.”

The chip in Xenobia’s hand throbbed in response. Wincing, Xen clamped her right hand over the Eye of Horus and squeezed. She could feel the warning shocks traveling through her veins as she doubled over. She refused to cry out under the weight of the pain. Instead, she cursed Grimwold, her father, for doing this to her.

It was his way of marking her, of claiming her, of telling his people that she belonged to him. Not as his child, oh no, never that. The Mighty Grimwold, Warrior of Faith, Savior of The City, would not have a child such as her. She was his property, his spoils of war. He knew that her mother named her as heir to the throne. She was to be the fifth such leader since a monarchy was established. And he wanted her power under his control to rule the entire Middle States Queendom.  The formal name of the territory was simply Middle States, but everyone referred to it as a “Queendom.” The moniker was fitting, thanks to the aftermath of the third civil war between different factions of a once unified country. The left behind women, with their seventy percent majority, made it illegal for a man to hold office. From there, men were slowly pushed from the rolls of everything, from police officers, who were now known as peace keepers, to garbage men, who now had the unfortunate name of sanitary cleaners.

Following several more short wars, what was once the United States of America became simply America, and then fractured into several small blocks. Some areas, like the Republic of California, stood alone. Others, such as New Texahoma formed their own, private countries. The City, once known as Detroit, became a separate state. The Middle States Queendom was currently divided territory, with some parts neutral and some parts falling under the control of Xenobia’s family, the ruling monarchy. With the imbalance of power, Grimwold imagined that he and his band of men could snatch power from the grips of the women, and turn the entire realm to his side.

His own daughter was the last pillar to be toppled.

Xenobia straightened, blinking back tears. She ran the words of The Voice through her head, analyzing them. Something struck her as off about the entire conversation.

“Wait,” she said. “You said ‘they killed the rest of us.’ You’re just a program.”

The Voice sputtered. “You think we were always just a program?”

“But-”

“No buts. This is all your fault, Xenobia. You sold us out when you left.”

“You keep saying ‘us’ and ‘we’.” Xen was developing an excruciating pain between her eyes that had nothing to do with the pulses being emitted from the chip in her hand. Her mind swirled with memories and possibilities. True that, in the past, there was a small group of people that enjoyed as a collective the lofty status of Councilor. The five woman of varying ages were the trusted advisors – and best friends – to the heiress herself. Xenobia’s friends. Did this mean they died, and were somehow a part of the security programming?

“Oh, my,” Xen exclaimed softly. “Councilor?”

“Well it’s about time she figured it out,” a new voice snapped.

“You know she was always a little slow, Sister.”

“Hmph. You think by now she’d have gotten a bit smarter,” another voice chimed in. “Look at what’s happened since then.”

“Hey, her vitals are dropping. Shit. Better bring her in before she crashes completely.”

“And exactly how are we supposed to do that?”

“Here, let me.”

Dazed by the chatter, Xenobia swayed, and then fell to one knee. There was too much information for her to process. As the voices of her lost friends buzzed around her, the sound of machinery sliced through the thick air. Closing her eyes, Xen felt her world shift and tilt, and then felt as if she were floating. Suddenly exhausted, she drifted off to sleep.

Part 2

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