Cover illustrations created exclusively for Tunnel Vision by Paul Naylor, https://paulnaylor.wordpress.com (Inside Illustrations created exclusively for Tunnel Vision by E. Styffe)
The following is the unabridged first chapter of Tunnel Vision. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the Forum pages. Thanks for supporting the Eyes to See trilogy! -Darrell
Tunnel Vision, book one of the Eyes To See trilogy, is available for a limited time at the discounted price of just $4.99 (Kindle edition)! You can purchase it through Amazon by following this link: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B01G0WXE4K
The chief night shift guardian was in a rage long before she turned the corner and saw the intermittent blue light indicative of her nemesis. The telltale light flickered from a solitary station of the otherwise dormant study, and she felt her blood pressure rise with her pace as she raced to the door.
Adele Cuff was charged with keeping order and maintaining discipline in the nursery and she took personally any action that made her job more challenging. She knew who she’d find sitting in front of the computer monitor in the study, and she knew what he’d be doing. She’d seen the little outcast there so many times she’d lost count. He was always staring at a screen flashing text and images so fast it was mind-numbing.
On several previous occasions, she’d taken time to watch him. He never moved, never reacted in any way to the flashing screen. He just stared. He’d blink occasionally, but the only other discernible movement was the opening and closing of his fingers as his right hand floated above the control pad for the computer.
As near as she could tell, the boy was looking at or looking for something academic. She never saw any images she’d suspect a 12 year-old, curfew-violating, stiff-necked kid to be viewing. She only caught pages of text, interspersed with diagrams, charts, and the occasional small photo. It didn’t matter what he thought he was doing, she reminded herself; he was, in fact, violating the rules—and that made his intentions irrelevant.
Slink just saw images racing by in breath-taking ascent like steam escaping a boiler, yet he effortlessly absorbed every idea, equation, and image they contained. On and on they came: mathematics, chemistry, physics, engineering. Each appeared for no more than a second before being supplanted by the next. He glanced, he captured, and he retained the information they bore. It was as effortless and natural as breathing, only far more satisfying.
He didn’t really feel the first strike; everything just disappeared in a blinding flash. Then his ears started ringing like a firecracker had exploded too close to his head. Had he been struck by lightning?
With the second strike came darkness. He felt the third strike in his aching bones, then his burning muscles, and finally his paralyzed lungs.
Slink was vaguely aware of his body crashing to the ground. Surely something had hit him, he thought, as he fought desperately to open his eyes and find shelter from the storm. When he finally managed to crack his eyelids, Slink was startled to see cold metal posts rising from a tiled floor. Then he registered a dozen or more lights bathing him in their sterile glow, and suddenly–sensation–the cold floor against his backside, searing pain along the right side of his face and neck, down through his shoulders and along his side. The ringing in his ears subsided enough to hear–something. What was it?
He dimly registered movement to his left just before he felt the back of a hand make contact with the side of his face followed closely by the back of his head cracking the tile floor. His ears rang anew, their complaint reaching the back of his eyes. His vision clouded again, shrouding his assailant. He couldn’t fight through the swirling fog quickly enough to avoid a fifth blow, a foot striking his solar plexis. He instinctively rolled onto his side and brought his knees up to his chest. His panic rose as his lungs begged for air, overcoming his aching body’s desire for unconsciousness.
“What the hell are you doin’ here?” a deep female voice demanded.
“How many times do we have to go through this?” she continued.
“If you think I’m going to get tired of kicking your little butt and leave you to do whatever you please, you have another thing comin’, Mr. Macdonald,” she bellowed.
This time he saw the kick coming, but he was powerless to do anything about it. His shoulder took the brunt of the impact just as the first breath finally seeped into his lungs. The sound of air across his vocal cords gave the impression Slink was trying to say something.
“Eeeee,” he squeaked.
“Pleeeeease?” Mrs Cuff mimicked.
Suddenly she wasn’t bellowing anymore, her words rolling off her tongue with a sickening sweetness between wheezes. Her piercing black eyes, peered from under her equally black bangs and over her puffy red cheeks. “It’s too late for favors, my little friend. Ya knew the risk when ya chose to leave yur bed durin’ curfew. Actions lead to consequences. Ya know that better than most, don’t ya now?”
She grabbed Slink by the back of the neck and pulled him to his feet. The exertion made her reach back to steady herself against a post. Three or four at a time amid her asthmatic gasps, her words barely churned over her lips.
“I don’t know…why yur comin’…down here to stare…at a monitor all night…instead of sleepin’…in a nice warm bed…but I don’t really care.”
Mrs. Cuff hacked and spat and her words came in bigger chunks,
“We must be makin’ yur life too comfortable. We’ll fix that. Evenin’ kitchen duty outta do the trick. For the next several weeks…when ya finally make it back to the dorm…you’ll be too stinkin’ tired to leave your bed.”
Mrs. Cuff half carried, half dragged Slink through the room. He was tall for his age, but he was rail thin. None of the outcasts had a chance to get fat, but they were wiry and limber where Slink was skinny and frail. Slink hadn’t yet started his final growth spurt, and he was already well over five feet tall. Mrs. Cuff was a full six feet and she outweighed him by a hundred pounds. She tightened her grip around his neck and shoved him out the door. The pressure of her grip cleared his head, though, and Slink recognized the entrance to the study as she dragged him through it out into the hall.
“I have to hand ya one thing, boy,” she barked. “Every time I find ya here, you got some uppity science, math, or some other hoo-ha on the screen. Don’t know how ya switch screens so fast, but ya ain’t foolin’ me. Think Mrs. Cuff don’t know what a 12 year-old boy is sneakin’ a peek of? Ya may fool the teachers, but I’m too smart for ya, Mr. Macdonald!”
By the time she finished belittling him, Mrs. Cuff had hauled Slink down the hall to the discipline chamber. She selected her favorite tool of the trade, a long, bright red paddle with holes drilled into it.
“Ya know the routine, Slinky. Bend over and grab yur ankles,” she commanded.
The first swat knocked Slink against the wall. He’d learned he was going to end up there eventually, so he now stationed himself a few inches from the wall so he wouldn’t have to crumple to the ground, pull himself up, and resume the position so Mrs. Cuff could hit him again. The second and third swats spread the stinging down his thighs and into his knees. The fourth and fifth ones froze his trembling legs in place. When Mrs. Cuff reached down and pulled him upright, Slink gasped. He never intended to hold his breath, but he found the first swat always took his breath and he never managed to inhale again until the beating was over. Five swats was the most allowed at any one disciplinary session, and Slink had been receiving the maximum as long as he could remember. It seemed odd to Slink that Mrs. Cuff thought nothing of violating the limits of corporal punishment, slugging and kicking him elsewhere in the giant nursery complex, but she always followed the rules inside the discipline chamber.
“Third time this week, Slinky! Think I’m enjoyin’ this more than usual,” Mrs Cuff chortled. “Ya do keep my blood flowin’, I’ll give ya that. Now get yur aching butt back to bed before I haul ya out of here and hit ya some more!”
Slink shuffled out of the room and hustled down the hall, around the corner, and into the outcasts’ dorm. He knew the pain was going to get a lot worse, and he wanted to be coiled on his side in bed with his pillow between his teeth before it hit.
The hardest thing about these beatings, as far as Slink was concerned, was that he could never remember leaving his bed and going to the study in the first place. As far as he was ever aware, he was just having very vivid, bizarre dreams–always with the endless parade of images–never the kind of dreams his friends reported. Every image bore complex information, but Slink never had a problem remembering each one in vivid detail. Why, then, couldn’t he remember leaving his bed? He was always mystified when Mrs. Cuff started hitting him and he awoke to find himself at a desk again. She said she wanted to know why Slink was so stubborn. Heck, he wanted to know what drove him to the study night after night.
Slink tried to puzzle out his late night wanderings as the stinging in his butt gave way to burning pain and the tears started trickling down his cheeks. The skin on his buttocks and the back of his legs felt like it was on fire. He forced himself to think back, to try to remember waking up, getting out of bed, walking down the hall, sitting at the desk, turning on the monitor–anything. He couldn’t remember one step of the journey he’d obviously taken.
Slink sometimes thought maybe his wanderings were caused by the surgeries to correct a rare pituitary disorder. After all, the surgeons had stuck instruments into his brain. Maybe they’d nicked something, damaged his ability to regain consciousness once he fell asleep. The pain running down his backside overwhelmed his thoughts, and Slink started to whimper. He curled his body as tight as he could and wished his mother, whoever she was, was here now; wished he could escape the nurseries and Mrs. Cuff; wished his life was a nightmare from which he would awaken to find a loving family gathered around his bed soothing his discomfort and wiping his tears.
Jonathan and Adela Lansing’s great grandson never heard a robin sing, never saw a sunrise, never felt the rain softly pelt his skin or the wind blow dust in his eyes. Stanis Web Macdonald lived his first twelve years in a bubble, or to be precise, he lived his first twelve years under a dome, one of three giant domes he shared with Garsow’s three thousand other inhabitants of the Ideal Society. Stanis grew up thinking his name was Slink. He knew neither the source nor the meaning of his nickname. He left the Garson nurseries, the only home he’d ever known, just after his twelfth birthday. His was not a grand rite of passage as was common for children coming of age, but a quiet disappearance noted only by a few nursery guardians, his dorm mates, a small surgical team, and a handful of people who knew of his notorious heritage.
Every child on their solar-edge outpost grew up in a nursery, and nearly every child left that nursery between the ages of ten and thirteen. In respect to his nursery upbringing, Slink was much like any other Garson child. In most other respects, he couldn’t have been more different.
Slink cared for the citizen children two years younger than he and helped them prepare to take their places in the society from which he was forever excluded. One night, as he was performing his nursery duties, Slink’s life took an unexpected turn.
He’d heard of the technoids, but he never expected to encounter one of the notorious terrorists. The technoids knew all about Slink long before he ever heard mention of them. Though they spent nearly all their time in the tunnels just beneath the Garson surface, the technoids had better access to information than the average citizen of the Model Society. They knew more about Slink than he knew about himself: descended from Garsow’s first family, separated from his famous family when they were imprisoned for treason. In addition to information the technoids gleaned from the Supernet, the many outcasts who escaped the nurseries ahead of Slink had told their tunnel rat and technoid rescuers of the bizarre boy so fascinated with learning that he endured countless beatings to pursue forbidden knowledge. They reported overhearing the guardians’ whispered references to the Lansing family whenever Mrs. Cuff hauled Slink off and punished him for overstepping his bounds.
The Technoids were the only organized resistance to the Model Society. Desperate to avoid the mandatory surgical implant of a commlink, a dozen women and men had gone underground and formed the Technoids, swearing to bring down the Supernet, the wireless network at the heart of the commlink technology.
By the time Slink came to the Technoids’ attention, nearly three generations after they’d forsaken the surface, the Technoids recruited most of their members from the Tunnel Rats–nursery escapees living a marginal existence as scavengers in the service tunnels beneath Garsow. When the Technoids learned Slink was the great-grandson of Jonathan and Adela Lansing who’d become symbolic of the resistance movement, they set out to add Slink to their ranks. They turned to a beautiful, young Tunnel Rat named Neoko who had refused the coveted invitation to join the Technoids so she could apply herself to freeing as many children as possible from the servitude of the nurseries.
Garson society’s mandated commlink couldn’t be tolerated by a small percentage of its members, and if those “unfortunates” survived a failed attempt to implant the commlink, they became nursery attendants. Within a generation, Garson had more nursery attendants than it needed.
The Tunnel Rats were the subject of halfwitted social commentary and halfhearted legislation. Politicians depicted the Tunnel Rats as a drain on the Garson economy, though in reality every would-be nursery attendant who joined the Tunnel Rats relieved their society of the burden of supporting them.
Beyond the economic relief the Tunnel Rats provided, they filled other essential roles for the Model Society. Every society needs scavengers, and every body politic needs scapegoats.
Neoko regularly visited the nurseries in search of the free spirits who could not abide a life of servitude. Those who never resisted their relegation to nursery duty could not imagine enduring the hardships of tunnel living. Neoko drew from amongst the unfortunates those who would choose a life of freedom even when it meant harsh living and further marginalization. Recruiting for the Tunnel Rats or Technoids was a capital offense. Hers was dangerous work, and she relished it!
On the fateful night of his departure as he entered the pantry for yet another clandestine meeting with Neoko, Slink couldn’t be certain he’d spent his last day in the nurseries, but the goose bumps running down the back of his neck betrayed his hope. He couldn’t place a finger on any one reason he thought this might be the night. She’d said nothing to tip him off or asked him to make any particular preparations. Of course, he knew Neoko would not and could not. He’d seen some of his fellows disappear. Their few belongings were always in order the morning their absence was discovered. Though they’d almost certainly cooperated in their disappearance, (there was never any sign of struggle) they’d clearly made no plans in anticipation of their departure.
Slink yearned to escape the ever more frequent beatings he was enduring. He’d made no progress understanding what compelled him to leave his bed two or three nights a week. He still couldn’t once remember waking and walking to the citizen’s study. His fellow outcasts avoided conversing with him for fear of being thought guilty by association. Slink ached to be free.
From early morning to late evening, the pantry was filled with outcasts working at a feverish pace, so naturally it was deserted after dinner as everyone scrambled for a few hours of rest for their weary bones. During the day, the kitchen was filled with the pleasant aroma of baking bread, fresh fruits and vegetables, simmering soups, and hearty stews, but the scents elicited no joy amongst the outcasts. For them, the kitchen meant seemingly endless days of hard work and food became little more than a requisite for survival.
Most of the outcasts kept their heads down, did their jobs exactly as they were trained, and stayed out of the way. No matter how many times he resolved to go along so he could get along, Slink couldn’t resist the impulse to improve on recipes and regimens. He had to fine-tune the soup with some fresh oregano or polish off the french bread with a little egg-white glaze. He was always asking why “this” and why not “that,” to the point that the head chef, who had a soft spot for Slink, took to calling him “Mr. Why.” Slink was never satisfied knowing what he was expected to do, he always wanted, no, he needed to know why he was supposed to do it, and if he thought he had a better approach Slink seldom asked anyone for permission to try it out.
By the time he was eleven, he knew every recipe the kitchen offered and could prepare any dish requested. None of his fellows ever taught him anything, shunning the lanky kid who had a way of attracting trouble. Still Slink watched, he learned, and he mastered everything around him.
Now as he stole through the deserted pantry, Slink thought about the first time he’d met Neoko. He’d been in the company of his fellow outcast, Dante, who along with Slink, had been assigned the punitive evening duty of laundering the soiled aprons, towels, and dish rags in the basement rooms beneath the kitchen. Dante was about a foot taller than Slink and hadn’t yet grown into his feet. Though his final growth spurt had spread his weight more evenly over his frame, he was anything but athletic and his face still looked like it belonged to the pudgy kid who’d worn it for the first sixteen years. Dante was serving evening kitchen duty because his upper body had yet again set a pace his lower body could not keep while he was conveying the midday soup to the serving table.
Slink and Dante had shared this duty many times before. Slink felt bad for Dante, thinking it unfair that Dante was being punished for the effects of a growth spurt he did not choose. Dante felt for the younger Slink who seemed incapable of escaping the wrath of Mrs. Cuff for more than a couple days at a time. In each other’s company they found an unspoken camaraderie forged in misery.
Images of Dante gave way in Slink’s mind to the tantalizing image of Neoko as he stopped along the back wall of the pantry and slumped down on his haunches. Slink smiled to himself, transforming his habitually gloomy countenance. If anyone else had wandered into the pantry at that moment, they might not have recognized the young man crouched down and staring wistfully across the kitchen through sparkling blue eyes. Early for what he hoped would be his last rendezvous, Slink now waited in the shadows of the quiet pantry and reveled in some of the sweetest memories he had.
On the night of their first fateful encounter, as he and Dante entered the pantry, the odor of cleaning compounds was already giving way to the pleasantly sour smell of rising bread dough. Slink had drawn the moist, tangy air into his nostrils and known without looking the cooks had doubled the usual amount of dough. The citizen children were in for a pleasant surprise!
Dante and Slink had gathered the aprons and other laundry, and just as they had turned to leave, Slink had seen her. She’d been squatting in the corner near the rear entrance to the pantry. She’d held a slab of bread leftover from the loaves Slink had helped bake earlier that morning.
Dante had threatened to call for security before being silenced by a wave of Neoko’s hand. Later that night, Slink would think back and realize Dante had only feigned surprise at Neoko’s presence.
She’d been dressed to look like a man, but with the hood of her cloak pulled back and her shoulder-length jet-black hair pulled outside the cloak, her masculine attire couldn’t hide her gender. And those eyes…Slink had been transfixed by the young woman’s gaze; he hadn’t even seen her subtle hand signal to Dante, hadn’t made the connection that Dante knew her.
Neoko had looked to be Dante’s age, about six or seven years older than Slink, but it hadn’t taken long for Slink to realize she was a thousand times more worldly wise than either boy. She’d held herself alert to every movement, every sound, every nonverbal cue of the boys in front of her, yet her voice had been relaxed and steady when she’d spoken. Her eyes had darted from Dante to Slink, from Slink’s eyes, to hands, to just over his right shoulder while her almost lyrical voice had broken the silence between them.
“Well, ya goin’ to stare at me all day or offer me somethin’ to go with my measly crust of bread, boys? You can tell by lookin’ at me that it’s a bit long since my last meal, eh? How’s about gettin’ me a plate of whate’er it was you had for supper, boy?” She’d stared at Dante as she spoke the last few words.
“No problem, miss. We’re always ready to help someone in need. Back in a flash.”
She’d showed her teeth in what might have been a smile if it had ever reached her eyes. Her lips had closed over her teeth as she’d waved Dante away, and he’d disappeared before Slink could take his eyes from Neoko.
“Never seen a visorless outsida’, have ya?” she’d asked.
While Slink had stood speechless, she’d chuckled and said, “no, the only visorless folks ya’r used to seein’ live with ya here, they do. You’d not be used to seein’ anybody come through a door from beyond yar little world without a damned visor.”
It had finally dawned on him then. That was why her gaze had held him mesmerized—her dark eyes were easy enough to get lost in, but his mental alarms sounded because those beautiful eyes should have been hidden behind a visor! When she’d gazed at him through those dark brown eyes, Slink had felt like Neoko could see right through him. Then she’d shocked him even more by pulling a visor from her long, black cloak and slipping it onto her face, deftly tucking the lead wires under a braid of her hair and hooking them there so they seemed to emerge from her scalp as they would any Garson’s.
“How’s that do ya, honey?”
Slink’s knees had buckled and he’d dropped to the floor. It was strange to see an outsider without a visor, but it was impossible for anyone to attach or detach lead wires from his or her skull. Slink had seen the visor demonstrations offered the citizen children while he completed his housekeeping duties or set supplies out for a class. He knew the visors could be removed to sleep, but the lead wires were disconnected at the visor, not at the person’s scalp. Neoko’s visor was a fake! She’d jerked the visor off her face and bent down over the trembling boy. Her countenance had hardened, her eyes had narrowed, and her Alpha Sector drawl had disappeared.
“I’m sorry to hit you with this so quickly, Slink, but I don’t have time to go through the song and dance I usually do when I meet a new potential. We need you to join us. I grew up in these nurseries and I knew, just as you know now, there was no way I could be a servant all my life. The taunting and teasing of the citizens (she spat the word more than spoke it) got to me because I knew they were no better than me. If I couldn’t be one of them, and I couldn’t remember ever wanting to be, I needed to get away from them completely. Tell me you want more than anything else to be forever free of them. Tell me that, and I’ll make your wish come true. Tell me!”
Her eyes blazed brighter then, black pupils swallowing their brown irises. Her high cheekbones and sharp, pointed chin had seemed sculpted from Garson stone. Slink had felt lost in her gaze, and Neoko had seemed ready to pounce on him and shake the answer she wanted out of him, but his momentary shock had been no equal to his seething hatred of this place. He had been in constant pain from the relentless discipline he’d received for what was characterized as his stubborn, uncooperative attitude. The ruthless beatings had neither softened his bearing nor broken his spirit. He wasn’t meant for the servile life of a nursery attendant, and he’d known it long before Neoko asked him to articulate it.
“I hate this place!” he’d croaked. Then he’d raised his face and locked eyes with Neoko. His voice had steadied, then grown hard. “The citizens…the guardians…and most of all, Mrs. Cuff! I hate everything about her!”
Slink had drawn a long, deep breath.
“I want out…and I’ll do anything to get out,” he’d hissed.
Questions had poured over his trembling lips before Slink took another breath.
“How are we going to get out of here? When do we leave? Will I need to bring anything? Where will we go? Will anyone else be with us? Will you stay with me?”
Neoko had stopped him with a gentle finger across his lips when he’d finally paused to inhale.
“We’ll leave without warning one night when I come to meet you. Be ready each time you hear my signal.”
He’d opened his mouth to question her, but had stopped when she raised her hand in front of him.
“Dante will teach you how to know I’m coming. You know nothing of the Model Society, and I can teach you little. I’ve been away from the surface too long to teach you much about its ways. I live with others who’ve rejected the society that would reject us. We live beneath the surface in the tunnels your great-grandparents designed and developed.”
Slink had again opened his mouth to speak, and just as quickly Neoko had raised her hand to stop him.
“We’ll speak of your family only when we’re safely away from here. When I’ve brought you to the tunnels and shown you to safety, I’ll tell you the story of the Lansing family, and you’ll better understand why I’ve come for you. For now, know I’ll come several more times before I take you. Each time we meet be prepared to listen and learn. I must do all I can to prepare you before I try to bring you out. Life in the tunnels is hard, and you must know more of the trials that await you before you walk away from the comforts of the nursery.”
Dante had returned and Slink had listened as Neoko spoke of dark underground passages, hard sleeping pads, long dangerous days, and endless chores. In her words, Slink had heard only hope. Slink’s response to Neoko’s tales of danger and hardship in the tunnels had revealed his destiny.
After Neoko’s second visit with Slink, Dante had disappeared. She’d said nothing when Slink asked about Dante the next time he’d seen her. Her slight pause and half smile upon hearing the question had told Slink all he’d needed to know. He’d yearned every day since then for the day he’d join his friend.
Neoko had used her subsequent meetings with Slink to school him on the nature of the Model Society. Outcasts usually identified the commlink with the visors that covered every Garson citizen’s eyes. In reality, the visor was the least intrusive piece of the commlink hardware. Three chips were implanted into the recipient’s brain. Transmitters and receptors were fused to the inside of the skull. Of the three chips, one monitored, interpreted, and broadcast information on its host’s identity and vital functions. This information was commonly used to bypass the need for introductions, communicate changes in emotional states, and alert others to rising tensions before they erupted into conflicts. Subtlety was impossible with the commlink, but so was dishonesty. Before long, Garsons prided themselves on their open, honest society, where conflict was rare and mutual understanding was nearly universal.
A second chip translated data from the Supernet servers into text or images for viewing on the lenses of the host’s visor. It also relayed information from the host’s cognitive centers to the Supernet computers. Colleagues could collaborate on projects with stunning efficiency, since every contribution was cross-checked and either stored in data banks for retrieval or bounced back to its contributor for error correction. News and information on any vital subject was instantly accessible.
The third chip translated information into auditory signals that were transmitted through a jewel implanted in the ear of the host. “Linked” individuals, then, received supplementary information through their ears as well as their eyes. A more visual person, because he was more responsive to visual information, would soon find his commlink feed favoring the visor, and consequently, would see most of the information as text or images. A more auditory person, given her heightened response to auditory information, would automatically receive more data via the jewel, and as a result would hear most of the information as a pleasant synthesized voice.
The additional information was, at first, disconcerting to the uninitiated, but given time, the average Garson quickly adapted, then became dependent on the constant images flashing in front of his eyes and/or the promptings in her ear. There was no need to respond to the subtle visual cues of body language or interpret the occasional unspoken gesture. All such non-verbal information was translated by the individual’s commlink and broadcast to any appropriate recipient.
If outsiders had come to Garsow without first undergoing a commlink implant and orienting to its use, they would have been stunned by relative stillness of Garson society. The dome-covered, barren landscape provided far less stimulation than Earthlings expected and Garson citizens fit into their surroundings to a degree that would have been unnerving to the most introverted Earthling. Fortunately for Earthlings and Garsons, they seldom met.
Garsons did not have leisure time. They spent about half of every standard day working, where they were kept on task with constant feedback from the commlink. Most of their remaining time was spent in the modest confines of an apartment limited to 300 square feet plus 150 square feet for each additional person in the same household. Upon coming home from work they first followed a uniform fitness regimen, then ate an evening meal, before enjoying an hour of organized recreation or relaxation carefully designed to meet their needs as identified from their commlink’s biofeedback. Finally, they prepared for the following day’s work before retiring to their sleeping pad for sex with their partner if the desire was mutual, or sleep if not. These activities were guided and reinforced through the commlink. Single adults were scheduled for two nights out each standard week where they would gather in one of six social clubs. Married couples spent one night each week in the clubs. Teenagers also had one night a week out. No accommodations were needed for children or their parents, since children were raised in the communal nurseries until age twelve.
The commlink made communication with “unlinked” adults or children uncomfortable, even baffling. Subtlety, manipulation, humor, outright lying, and other indirect or non-verbal communication was lost on the “linked.” Fortunately for the children and their hapless parents, Garson had a natural supply of “unlinked” adults to raise their children.
These rejects of Garson society though publicly referred to as “unfortunates,” were seen by citizens as unfit for their society. From the time he was born, Slink and the children of the other unfortunates had been the last babies fed, the last to have their diapers changed, and always the last to receive any attention. The first unfortunates were people whose neurological structure would not tolerate the commlink. By the time Slink joined their ranks, most of his fellow unfortunates were offspring of these neurological misfits. Their sin was genetic; Slink’s was genealogical. None of Slink’s peers knew there was any difference. The paths by which they came to be outcasts didn’t matter. Slink and others like him shared the fate their grand society visited on those who could not or would not conform.
Shortly after he learned to walk and talk, the nursery attendants (whom most referred to as guardians) began preparing Slink to join their ranks as they trained him to care for the children who would one day be respectable members of Garson society. Even without their close-cropped hair, no one within the nurseries would have mistaken any of the outcasts for citizens. The outcasts were never allowed to mix with the citizens. They were given different dress, met in separate classrooms for instruction, and ate in separate dining rooms. The outcasts waited tables for citizen’s meals, cleaned the citizens rooms, and held the gaze of their naked, unworthy eyes at the floor, lest they look into the eyes of a citizen. Gazing into the uncovered eyes of a minor citizen brought shame to that child, and any outcast who dared to shame a citizen quickly regretted it.
Slink would never have the status or the recognition automatically granted all the children for whom he cared. Before he could even string two or three words together, he knew he was different from the citizen children, and they knew it too. He was a victim of prejudice in a society that prided itself on its openness and acceptance. Had his parents been members of a racial minority, a religious sect, or even a radical political party, he would have been afforded the same privilege any other Garson citizen enjoyed. Unfortunately, he was an outcast before he was ever born because his forebears had refused to be fitted with a commlink or after being fitted for it, had taken their visor and crushed it underfoot at the now infamous final episode of the Garson Awards.
He had no way of knowing he was descended from those who led the early resistance to biotechnology. Most who shared his fate had parents who seized or stroked when the leads for the commlink were implanted. They were born into their misfortune, had done nothing to deserve their fate as outcasts, and were afforded a modicum of pity blended in their daily draft of disdain that poured from the visored eyes of Garsow’s citizens. By the time Slink approached the age of passage, three generations had come of age since the commlink technology had become pervasive on Garsow. In 60 short years, to be seen in public without a visor went from the norm to an exception that labeled one a pariah. Those who once opposed the commlinks and the visors that marked their hosts quietly dropped their opposition or were forcefully silenced.
For almost three standard months, Slink had met with Neoko about once a week, knowing to meet her in the pantry whenever he heard the syncopated rhythms of the Alley Cats echoing through the dormitory sound system. Neoko could hack the system without raising suspicion, since no one paid much attention to the endless white noise of the looping music. Purely by coincidence, the music he and Neoko used as their signal would occasionally pop up on the evening playlist and Slink would venture to the pantry for a rendezvous that never materialized. On those occasions, he could only hope nothing had happened to Neoko, since he had no way of knowing whether she had met with interference or he had heard the music by virtue of the random playlist.
On the night of his departure, however, Slink entered the pantry without any doubt Neoko would be waiting for him. The telltale tingling down the back of his neck had started half an hour before he heard the Alley Cats.
The moment he saw her, any lingering doubt disappeared! He felt weak in the knees and ready to jump for joy, so of course he stumbled over his own feet and nearly knocked her over. She had a dark blue cloak for him, identical to the ones worn by residents of Garsow’s Alpha Sector. Slink had no idea what Sector might normally wear the cloak; he just knew Neoko wouldn’t have brought it unless she was taking him with her!
If the cloak wasn’t enough to get his heart racing, Neoko pulled from beneath her cloak a shiny new black visor! To be sure, it was not fully functional, but no one glancing at the pair would ever be able to distinguish them from any other couple out for a walk. Even if they were attentive to the feedback of their visors, any observers would simply receive a signal from a jamming device Neoko wore under her cloak saying:
18 Circle E
26 Circle B
Slink was tall for his age, so Neoko was only a couple inches taller than him. Neoko had chosen a night designated for teenage socialization so they could pass as a young couple out for a date, and a young couple’s privacy setting wouldn’t raise an eyebrow. If the two should encounter someone who had clearance for a deeper scan, their limited broadcast would raise suspicion. Fortunately for Slink, Neoko was especially adept at avoiding those encounters.
Slink fitted the visor to his face and found that, though its lenses appeared tinted from the outside, they did little to change the view of the wearer. The visor pinched the bridge of his nose a bit, but it’d be tolerable. All that mattered was the he’d pass for a newly initiated citizen of the Model Society.
Neoko was not concerned about Slink’s appearance. She was determined to avoid any close encounters during which anyone might notice something out of sorts. Neoko knew Slink’s movements and manner, not his dress, were far more likely to draw attention. She was bent over him, whispering rather harshly, a few inches from his face when he regained awareness of her.
“Snap out of it,” she hissed. “This may all seem fascinating to you, but if you don’t stay focused, we could both be arrested. When we leave here, you’re goin’ to see things that make you want to stop and stand with your chin on your chest. If you do that, we’re doomed! Keep your head down and the hood of your cloak pulled over your head, see?”
She yanked his hood roughly over bristly scalp and kept pulling the hood until Slink was staring at his shoe tops.
“Someday, you’ll have time to see the wonders of our little rock, but not tonight. Don’t look further than your next step. Life in the nursery has left you ill prepared for this little jaunt, but we can’t help that now.”
Neoko cuffed Slink lightly across the side of his hooded head.
“Listen to me!”
Slink had started marveling at the many pockets of his cloak before Neoko had even finished her first sentence. This was the most excitement he had ever known. Now he was supposed to set aside emotion and concentrate? Right!
Neoko knew she was asking a lot of Slink; no, she knew she was asking the impossible. On top of overcoming the excitement he felt, she wanted him to shut his inquisitive mind away and concentrate on her words and on taking one step after another. She knew the boy couldn’t comply, but she could no more refrain from making her demands than he could conform to them.
Neoko encountered challenge with every outcast she freed from the nursery, but Slink was younger than most and more distractible than any she’d freed. She’d known before setting out that evening that freeing Slink was going to be dangerous!
After taking a few deep breaths and repeating her instructions more slowly, Neoko knew she had little time to get Slink out of the nursery, across the transway, into Alpha Sector, and to the remote alley where her friends waited for them. They slipped out the door from the service porch to the narrow pedway running between the nursery and the next building. Neoko grabbed Slink’s arm, pointing him down the pedway toward the transway that ran in front of the nursery. Slink did fine as he and Neoko walked the length of the narrow nursery pedway and turned to their right onto the broader pedway that ran alongside the transway.
As they emerged from the nursery pedway, and the view from the broader pedway opened before them through a break in the heavy pedestrian traffic, Slink noticed the evening sky of Garsow for the first time. During the evening hours, the charge passing through the biodome that formed the artificial sky was reduced by about seventy percent from daytime hours. It gave the sky an eerie green tint set off by yellowish waves that passed from one side of the dome to the other. The evening domed sky was remarkable, unlike the daytime hours when the dome took on a dull white glow like an overcast day on earth or the nighttime hours when the dome looked almost black.
They hadn’t taken a dozen steps amongst the first group of pedestrians before Slink stopped dead in his steps. He’d never been more than a couple steps down the little pedway that ran alongside the nursery. In fact, he’d only been outside the nursery and a step or so onto the little pedway twice–both times for very brief periods, loading staples into the pantry when the autoloaders had failed.
Slink’s eyes flew up to the cascading waves of yellow light, then to his right where the homogenous, round structures that looked like miniature clones of the nursery stretched as far as he could see like a perfect arrangement of giant cereal bowls turned over to dry. Streaming all around him was a sea of visored pedestrians, and to his left sat idle transbots showered in the bright ambient lights of the transway. It all overloaded Slinks senses, and he froze.
Freezing up so close to the nursery would raise suspicion in all but the most disinterested passersby. Inspired by the urgency of the moment, Neoko recognized his paralysis and reacted instinctively; she leaned into Slinks wiry frame and purred,
“You’re so right…this view totally reminds me of the first time we ever went private! You’re so romantic.”
Even while she looked dreamily down the transway in the same general direction Slink stared unblinking, she pulled herself close to him and leaned down to whisper in his ear. Two busy transworkers, grumbling about stupid kids standing right in the way of everything, turned to avoid them as Neoko hissed in Slink’s ear:
“Wake up, Slink, or I’m dumping you back into the nursery pedway to fend for yourself!”
He started and stopped, then after another interminable pause, his gaze fell to his feet and he took a step with his right foot.
“Sorry,” he croaked, “I never….”
His voice trailed off, but his feet kept moving, first the left, then the right, now the left again. She coaxed him along with gentle whispers in between the loud giggles and mindless comments she bellowed for anyone within earshot. DAN agents were few and far between, but the pedway was far too crowded with people for Neoko’s liking. Slink was moving now, but Neoko knew that he hadn’t seen anything yet, and she feared he’d be incapacitated if he ventured another glance above his shoe tops.
For the next few minutes, Slink’s fear kept him focused. He’d seen the duties assigned the outcasts who’d disappeared only to reappear days or weeks later. He knew if he wanted to live outside the nurseries, he’d only receive one chance to do so. He listened to Neoko’s voice, stared at his shoe tops, and counted steps. Still, he was only twelve years old, and he couldn’t hold onto any emotion, even terror, for very long.
When he was tempted to lift his head, Slink considered all the terrible things that might happen if he were caught, hoping this would help him ignore the wonders of the surface. Had he been a little older and more experienced, he’d have foreseen that engaging his imagination would inevitably draw his attention away from his shoe tops. Before long, his mind eased away from his catalogue of fears, he raised his head, and his eyes locked onto a gleaming object as big as the nursery hovering perfectly still above the transway as if it were weightless.
The transbot was awesome! It was huge! Even in the dimmer evening light, it shone as if someone had polished it; no, as if a hundred people had polished it all day. It hummed with a low whine Slink could only compare to the sound of the big nursery washing machines on their spin cycle. His body followed his gaze and he turned and stood staring at the gleaming, whining cylindrical object. He realized it was floating at least four feet off the ground!
Suddenly, someone appeared in a doorway that seemed to magically materialize in the side of the transbot. Then a staircase emerged from somewhere beneath the floating floor and provided a graduated path from the doorway to the ground! The person in the doorway descended the stairs in Slink’s direction while he stood immobilized, staring open-mouthed.
“You’re going to get us both killed…or worse!”
Neoko’s words would’ve escaped him had her hand not closed around his left shoulder, fingers biting into the soft tissue just beneath the bony curve of his shoulder. Her arm was wrapped around him behind his back and she spun him back to his right. She was wheezing as she fought back the panic that rose swiftly in her throat again.
“Listen to me, Slink. We have to cross this transway a little way up from here, and you can’t falter.”
“NO, SILLY, THAT’S NOT SAMMY. SAMMY WORKS DAYS!” she bellowed and followed it with raucous laughter.
“Any hesitation will call attention to us, and the crossing is under constant surveillance. Do you know what that means? Someone is always watching.”
Slink took a deep breath and nodded, then dropped his eyes to his shoes.
“COME ON, WE’VE GOT TO GET HOME SO YOU CAN SEE ME AGAIN NEXT WEEK.”
“They’ll snatch anyone who stops moving while we’re crossing, afraid some fool will try to stow away on a transbot. Keep your eyes down and keep moving. Do…you…understand?”
He was embarrassed to recognize how easily his attention had been drawn from Neoko and the task before them.
“I’m sorry,” he rasped, breathlessly. “I won’t do it again. I promise!”
Once again, his fear served him well, and he watched his feet and started counting. He could only hope his focus lasted longer this time.
As they approached the crossing, out of the corner of his eye Slink saw a sudden flash of reflected light illuminating the translucent barrier that separated them from the expansive transway. He hadn’t noticed the barrier before because it was nearly invisible. Constructed from some sort of transparent material, it was as tall as any of the smaller buildings on the other side of the pedway, and was made up of long panels connected at points Slink had taken for light poles. Now he saw these poles were the connecting points for the great panels as well as the structures for the light sources lighting their way as they walked alongside the great transway.
He snapped his attention back to his shoes and resumed counting his steps. He’d never realized staring at his shoes could be so hard!
Neoko knew crossing the transway was the biggest challenge they faced. The crossings were always bottlenecks where life slowed to a crawl. As such, they served perfectly the purpose of those paid to be suspicious; DAN agents could silently survey the good citizens in search of individuals who merited closer inspection. The agents were easy to spot even when they wore plain clothes. They always stood in one place too long, looking like they were peering right through people.
Neoko had brought more than a dozen escapees from the nursery through this crossing and into Alpha. The oldest of the surface settlements, Alpha provided the easiest, most discreet entry into the tunnels. In Alpha sector, most of the entries to the tunnels were in remote alleys away from residential domes.
The previous day’s article decrying the despicable tunnel rats had been written to pressure DAN to arrest more of the subterranean exiles. Neoko knew from experience that DAN would increase the number of agents on duty for a few days to appease the public. The article’s appearance on the daily vid broadcast had nearly scrapped Neoko’s plan to bring Slink out, but in the end, the many factors that favored this night as the one for his escape overcame the concern over the article and any reaction it might cause.
Neoko didn’t know all the reasons the technoids were so interested in this kid, but she was beginning to regret her promise to bring him out. She’d managed to maintain a professional distance from the previous escapees, but Slink had broken through her defenses almost immediately. The others she’d brought had been at least five years older than Slink, and though none of them was as bright as the precocious kid, they were more mature, more passive, and more desperate. Their age and their demeanor made it much easier to sneak them by any watchful eyes. They followed directions, kept their heads down, and stayed focused. Slink was too innocent, still too hopeful to bring out safely. Neoko knew he’d have suffered untold abuse every day he remained in the nursery, so she wanted to bring him out, but if they were apprehended–Slink’s life would be far worse than he’d ever imagined.
She liked the kid–and that personalized her concern. She didn’t want to end up in a detention center–the worst fate for a tunnel rat, let alone one caught smuggling nursery attendants. Still, she found herself trying to figure out how she could give herself up to give Slink a chance if they were stopped. He and his heartbreaking stories of the ruthless Mrs. Cuff had cracked, then shattered, any semblance of professional boundaries. His story called forth protective maternal instincts Neoko didn’t even know she had. He’d become like a little brother to her, and she was starting to hate the technoids for asking her to do this. If he was so important, why not leave him in the nursery until he could make this run without giving himself away so easily?
The command came while Neoko was still lost in her recriminations. She’d been so worried about Slink giving them away she’d tipped the DAN agent off when she had walked through the entry point without waiting to be waved on.
Neoko’s pulse instantly doubled, her breath caught, but she managed to stifle a groan. The command called for everyone waiting at the crossing to activate public access to his or her commlink.
When Neoko failed to comply with the sharp order, Slink and she would be pulled out of line and questioned. She needed to explain why she and her companion would not go public. She’d never heard anyone else refuse the order when given. She gathered her wits, smiled without looking into the face of the DAN officer barking orders, and hoped her gift of gab would serve her now.
“I’d love to, sir. This long walk bein’ private the whole time is creepy, you know? But my brothers commlink has been acting up. He just received it, you know?”
Her voice steadied and she let the words tumble from her lips so fast they blurred together.
“My Daddy–he asked me to take ‘im to Urgent Care to have it checked out. It comforts ‘im so for me to stay private with ‘im, you know, so he can hear my voice over the interference he’s gettin’. Please let me stay private for his sake, sir! He’s only been out a couple days now and everythin’ is still so confusin’–you ‘member how that is, right? Well, on top of all the normal shit of gettin’ used to ‘is commlink, now he’s got this screamin’ in his head, and its scarin’ him to death, you know? The doctor says it’s just a minor adjustment, but it don’t feel too minor to ‘im, you know?”
By the time she finished talking, Neoko’s words were coming so fast the agent was squinting like he was in serious pain. Neoko snatched a quick breath, but before she could say anything else, the man waved her forward.
“Get going, get going. Both of you–get goin’. We’re not interested in your life story.”
Neoko grabbed Slink and shoved him through the entryway. They were half way across the transway before she took her next breath.
Slink had no problem staying focused for a good while after the encounter with the DAN officer. The pain shooting up his arm from his wrist, where Neoko held him in her powerful grip demanded his attention. Twice, he whimpered for her to let him go, but her icy glance silenced him on both occasions. He had to race to keep up with her or be dragged across the transway and onto one of the pedways that led from the gate on the far side of the crossing. His legs were longer than hers, but he’d never used them for walking any distance. His calves were cramping, and his knees felt unsteady.
Neoko was not angry with Slink, but she was willing to let him think otherwise; she was determined to get him across the transway and into the relative safety of the pedways surrounding the apartments of Alpha. She’d nearly blown it once, and she was not taking any more chances. Once they reached the far side of the crossing, she glanced up at the female guard avoiding visor contact, and squeezed through the gates. Neoko didn’t shove her way through the gate on the far side, but she held her ground amidst the jostling pedestrians squeezing through the opening in the barrier. She and Slink barely fit side-by-side as they jammed through the narrow opening of the transway barrier. They could’ve passed through more easily if Neoko would’ve allowed Slink go in front of her or after, but she never considered it. Slink was going to remain under her protective right arm, his right wrist held firmly in her left hand until they made it to safety or someone pried them apart.
The DAN agents on the Alpha side were unconcerned about people passing into their quarter. Who would come here to cause trouble? Alphas prided themselves on being tougher than their counterparts, and they wouldn’t tolerate some Beta kid coming to Alpha to sow wild oats. The occasional Beta and Gamma kids who thought they could cross the transway and take on a new identity as one of the tough Alpha dwellers learned otherwise very quickly. Most Alphas quietly looked for an opportunity to pack up and move across the transway, but while they lived here, they fiercely defended their turf. The Alphas were the Garsons with whom the tunnel rats and technoids had the most in common, since the former lived just a couple rungs up the social ladder from their outcast counterparts. And so, of course, the Alphas were the strongest persecutors of the tunnel rats and the technoids.
Neoko brought Slink here for several reasons. Tunnel access in Beta sector and Gamma sector was almost nonexistent since the tunnels beneath those sectors had been built to serve only as service corridors. Unlike the Alpha Sector tunnels that originally served as underground communities, the Beta and Gamma tunnels were never built to accommodate human settlement. In Beta and Gamma sectors, nearly all the access shafts were built beneath surface structures that stored equipment in the tunnels. In addition, dressed in her best clothes, even without any stains, tears, or other telltale signs of tunnel dwelling, Neoko still would never have passed for a Beta or Gamma. When she was groomed and dressed her best, she could only hope to pass for an Alpha, most of whom were laborers. So her forays to the nursery were always brief and they always started and ended in Alpha sector.
Once she and Slink had walked some distance down one of the pedways and stood in the shadows surrounded by apartments that looked like clumps of interlinked, stemless mushrooms, Neoko pulled Slink into a dark passageway between two clumps of buildings.
“We’re going to lay low here for a few hours, so we’re not trying to cross the sector during curfew. We’ll start moving again just before curfew ends and the morning chimes signal the start of the day. We’ll have a short walk ahead of us, through some more apartment buildings like these. When the morning chimes go off, the pedway will fill with people, and you need to make sure you keep your cloak pulled up around your neck, like you’re really cold. Your clothes underneath the cloak will give you away as someone who doesn’t live here. You’re too young to be here on any kind of business, and we’ll be heading away from the Urgent Care center, so the story I gave the security agent won’t do us any good. You just need to stay close to me, keep your head down, and let me do the talking, if there’s any talking to be done. When we get closer to the vent shaft we’ll be entering, a few friends are going to join us. When the time comes to enter the vent, they’ll give us the cover we need to lift the grate and drop into the shaft without notice. We’ll have only a few seconds, so you’ll need to stick close and follow my lead. I’ll go over all this again before we take off. For now, get some rest–you’re probably more tired than you think.”
Slink was convinced he was too wired to fall asleep. Nonetheless, when Neoko pointed toward the side of one of the dome shaped buildings and motioned for him to sit down, he did as she wanted. He looked around for a while, but they were tucked back in-between two clusters of buildings and there wasn’t much to look at. Before long, he laid his head back, and a few minutes later, he was sound asleep.
He awoke with a start as he became aware of someone gripping his shoulder and shaking him. Neoko reassured him and reiterated the instructions she’d laid out earlier. Slink nodded mutely to Neoko’s instructions. He was glad to be told to keep the cloak pulled up tight to his neck. He felt really cold, even though he knew the temperature was the same as it would be on any “night” on Garsow. “Day” and “night” were artificial constructs on Garsow, designed to maintain earthside rhythms of a 24-hour day, known across all the Solar colonies as a “standard day.” The daytime temperatures were slightly warmer than the nights, only because some exhaustive government study had suggested people living in controlled environments functioned better when the daytime temperatures exceeded the nighttime temperatures, if only by a few degrees. This night was as warm as any other night. Slink knew it was surely a comfortable night, like every Garson night, but he’d felt chills running down his spine since they left the nursery and he now felt chilled to the bone.
They moved deliberately but not frantically, and Slink sensed that Neoko was no longer as apprehensive. She was looking in the entryways of the buildings they passed and even nodding at the occasional passerby. She seemed much more comfortable with this part of Garsow, and that helped Slink relax. He began to look around and noticed immediately how much different the structures looked. He struggled for a word that described their difference from Beta structures.
They didn’t look older, though he knew from his clandestine studies that they were. Even to his inexperienced eye, the Beta structures looked softer and more appealing. His late nights at the citizens learning centers had taught him the buildings in Beta Sector were built as much for aesthetic as functional appeal with small differences in elevation giving them a sense of individuality. Alpha Sector buildings were never intended to be beautiful. Most still had airlocks left from the days before the domes were built over Garsow. The airlocks extended like long archways from the entrances to the bubble-like buildings. Slink couldn’t tell by looking at a building if it served as a dwelling, a business, or something altogether different. Each one sat within inches of the buildings around it. They all looked like giant half-buried soccer balls made from a burnished orange-brown metal of some sort. It was as if Neoko and he had wandered into some great nesting place of a strange alien race that laid geodesic eggs.
Slink was shocked out of his reverie when the pedways suddenly filled with residents of Alpha Sector. It was as if they’d responded en masse to some imperceptible alarm signaling the beginning of the new day. In fact, that’s exactly what had happened.
One minute he and Neoko were walking quietly amongst the domes in near solitude. The next minute, the doors burst open all around them and the pedways were jammed with pedestrians, most of whom were heading in the opposite direction of the two small cloaked figures who held close to each other and doggedly made their way against the stream of humanity.
At first, no one even seemed to notice the two weary pedestrians swimming against the stream of people heading for another day’s work. Neoko knew it was not entirely out of character for young people to be out and walking the pedways early in the morning. She only hoped their direction wouldn’t raise suspicion. She’d hoped to reach the ventilation shaft before the morning signal. She was familiar with the amazing way in which Garsow mornings began. Occasionally, maintenance work needed to be done during the night on the giant dome over one of the three sectors comprising Garsow. Though these maintenance projects posed little risk to the inhabitants, people had become accustomed to waiting for the morning signal on their visor before leaving their dwellings.
Neoko was only a couple of minutes from the ventilation shaft where she and Slink were to enter the tunnels when she heard Slink let out a cry, followed by cursing in a voice Neoko didn’t recognize. Slink had been captivated by his first sight of a dog, and while he stood motionless staring at the animal, a man with his arms full of books had bowled him over and went tumbling onto the pedway following the same path of his precious books.
“Watch where you’re goin’!” screamed the man. “These are valuable antiques, and now look at ’em!”
Slink looked down and saw the books strewn across the pedway with several clumps of pages separated from their bindings. He’d never seen books up close, but it was obvious even to his untrained eye the man had a legitimate complaint. Slink wanted to apologize, but he had a bigger problem. He dared not raise his head and reveal the nature of his dilemma, but the man was demanding he do just that.
“Look me in the face when I speak to you, young man!” the man bellowed.
Fortunately for Slink, Neoko intervened.
“Beggin’ your pardon, sir!” said Neoko, adopting an Alpha drawl. She stacked the man’s books on the pedway as words tumbled out of her mouth as quickly as they came to mind.
“We’re rushin’ to meet my uncle who’s takin’ my little brother under his care. I just can’t manage for the both of us any longer, ya’ know? Since Dad died, we can’t make ends meet.”
As the crowd of people walking along the pedway slammed to a stop, more than one hurled a sharp word at the three people blocking the path. Neoko wanted to grab Slink and bolt for the next intersecting pedway, around the corner, and down the narrow alley to the ventilation shaft her friends would be encircling. She drew a deep breath and released it. Neoko knew she needed to maintain a sense of normalcy for a few more minutes to get down the last stretch of the pedway without raising suspicion.
The bookman was calming down, although his voice still betrayed his irritation, even as it assumed a more erudite air. He no longer sounded like an Alpha worker but a man of letters.
“I’m sorry to hear about your troubles, young lady, but I haven’t time for your troubles to become mine. I’ve enough troubles of my own. Life is no picnic for any of us, now is it? With the supply ship delayed again, we’re going to have rations tightened once more, and I’m wasting away on the meager supplies we now receive.”
In truth, the man did not look like he was in danger of wasting away regardless of any reduction in rations.
“Now, missy,” he said, “would you care to explain to me why you and your brother have gone private? I’m a bit suspicious of anyone these days who is afraid to let others scan them. So I’d like to hear your explanation, if you don’t mind.”
Neoko responded without hesitation, bowing over Slink protectively.
“My little brother just received his link, don’t you know? It comforts ‘im for me to go private with ‘im when we’re in public. We don’t mean no offense to you or any other.”
The bookman raised an eyebrow and frowned.
“He’ll never grow up if you protect him so. Now, I want both of you to go public, and I’ll have a word with your brother. I want him linked while I give him a piece of my mind, so he can revisit my words when he stops blubbering. Come on…I don’t have all day.”
“I won’t be doin’ that to ‘im!” cried Neoko. “He’s havin’ a tough enough time goin’ to live with our uncle–a man a lot like you who’ll insist he grow up and be quick about it. He’ll have no choice in the matter soon enough, but for the short time we’re still together, he’s stayin’ private, and so am I!”
“That’s no way to talk to your elders, Missy!”
The bookman started looking around at the faces of people passing by on the pedway. Neoko was afraid the man was going to flag down a DAN officer and their charade would come to a screeching halt. Just as Neoko was trying to concoct the means to draw the man’s attention, he stopped cold, then turned back to Slink and her as suddenly as he had turned away.
“I’m late already, young lady, or I’d stay right here and see your petulance punished. I suppose you’ll have your way today, but your brother will be doing well to be rid of you. Perhaps he’ll learn some manners living with your uncle.”
He began to create one tall stack from the many small stacks of books Neoko had created on the pedway. He turned back to Neoko and waved she and Slink away.
“Well then, be off with you before I report the both of you for truancy and see how your story plays to the DAN officers.”
Neoko took a deep breath, still bowed over Slink.
“Beggin’ your pardon again, sir. And you may be right about my brother, but I’ll have my way today and be glad of it. Good day!”
With that, Neoko grabbed Slink by the arm, pulled him up on his feet, and steered him away from the red-faced man as the pudgy fellow bent laboriously and stacked his books on the pedway. They’d nearly turned the last corner leading to the ventilation shaft when the bookman started yelling at the top of his lungs. Neoko couldn’t make out the bookman’s words above the sounds of bustling pedway walkers, but the object Slink thrust in front of her face made the bookman’s meaning easy to guess. Slink was holding half his visor, and the missing half was the one with the lead wire attached!
It took Neoko a second to catch her breath, but when she did, she just grabbed Slink and started running. They were sure to attract attention now, but she had to turn the corner and get down the alley before someone saw Slink’s visorless face and put the sight together with the bellowing bookman, who was probably waving the other half of Slink’s visor as he shouted. Neoko didn’t need to see the sight behind her to know the urgency of reaching and rounding the next corner.
Slink kept replaying in his mind the encounter with the bookman.
He hadn’t seen the man coming. When his face had struck the bookman’s forearm and sent him flying across the pedway, he felt sick to his stomach before he felt any physical pain from the impact. He knew he was in big trouble and he knew he’d drawn Neoko into that trouble. Then, when he hit the ground and his visor fell from his face in two pieces, he knew they were doomed. He grabbed the broken visor, head bowed with his cloak hood pulled up around his face, crouched on his knees, and succumbed to the growing nausea.
He threw up twice in the time it took Neoko to spin another cover story. As he caught his breath, and his head started to clear, he felt Neoko’s hand pull him to his feet by his arm and snap him around to face in the direction they were heading. He was vaguely aware of the visor piece falling from his hand as Neoko plowed through the crowd that had gathered at the bottleneck they’d created.
Now, as they rushed for the corner, Slink feared his mistakes were finally going to catch up with them. He couldn’t look up for fear one of the people on the street would notice he wore no visor, yet he was desperate to know if anyone was trying to intercept them as they ran for the corner. When the cries of “Stop!” and “Grab them!” started from behind them, he had his answer. Neoko removed her grip from his arm long enough to hook her arm around his back and under his armpit. She pulled him in tight to her even as she broke into a hard run. He couldn’t keep pace with her, but he didn’t have to. She was much stronger than her short stature indicated, and she half carried and half dragged Slink to the corner, twice slapping away hands that grabbed at Slink’s cloak. They reached the corner, and just as Slink thought they would continue in the same direction, Neoko lunged to their right and darted into the alley. A moment later, they lunged to their left and into the tiny space between two of the dome-shaped structures. Neoko scrambled between the structures, dragging Slink behind her, then lunged back to their right into another alley.
Ahead Slink could hear voices yelling “Quickly!” and “Hurry up, before they catch sight of you!” As soon as they reached the people whose voices had urged Neoko and him on, and passed into the midst of anxious but friendly faces, Slink saw it. A hole no more than three feet across gaped right in front of him. Neoko released her grip on him and he fell to one side of the ventilation shaft. She dropped into it deftly, then popped her head out and said, “Follow me, feet first. There are rungs along one side of the shaft.”
Before he could react, Neoko disappeared, then someone picked him up by the shoulders and dropped him into the shaft. “Catch one of the rungs with your feet, little man,” said a voice. Slink threw his feet forward and his right toe caught a rung. As he was lowered into the tunnel he stepped down the rungs. Slink looked up and saw four brightly dressed people with long sticks pass between the shaft and the entrance to the alleyway. One dropped a ball onto the alley surface and they began to slap the ball back and forth. As he found the first rung with his hands, the arms holding him withdrew. “Stay close to Neoko, little man, and you’ll be fine,” said the voice. Then stripes of shadow moved across his face as the lights of Alpha Sector were filtered through the ventilation grate being slid back across the shaft. Above him, he could hear the cries of their pursuers and the feigned surprise of their protectors as he followed Neoko’s persistent tugging on his pant legs and descended into the darkness.
Thanks for supporting the Eyes To See trilogy! Book One, Tunnel Vision, will be released late this Spring. Invite your friends to enjoy the preview, and check back often for the exact release date!