Authors: Dima Zales,Anna Zaires
fter the usual psychedelic whiteness
, I find myself back in the real world.
I’m standing in a little meadow, surrounded by forest on all sides. Dusk has settled, and the first stars are visible above the Dome.
Phoe is already standing on a disk, floating about a foot above the ground.
Next to my feet is my own disk.
I step on it, taken aback by my Guard-issue white pants and boots, since in the cave I was dressed in jeans and sneakers.
“You know the drill,” Phoe says and aims her palm upward. Responding to her signal, her disk hovers a few inches higher off the ground.
I tilt my palm at the slightest angle I can get away with, and my disk floats up.
Phoe zips up faster, and in a second, she’s as far up as the tips of the tallest pines.
“Come on, join me,” she says as a thought in my head. “Or do you need me to literally force your hand?”
I adjust my palm so the disk rises at a steeper angle, while also making a slight forward motion. The only reason my hand isn’t shaking is the knowledge that any tiny motion will be translated into movements of the disk, and flying smoothly is terrifying enough.
“There you go,” Phoe says when I catch up with her. “You’re doing much better.”
As though her words jinxed me, I look down. The treetops look like a solid blurry green patch, reminiscent of grass. I can’t make out the frightening spaces between the trees.
“That’s because I’m taking liberties with Augmented Reality,” Phoe admits. “Unless you need to see something below, I figured I’d spare you the adrenaline spike by blurring your view.”
“Thanks,” I whisper. “Can we fly close to the treetops for now?”
“Sure,” she says. “Catch up.”
She does something that looks almost like a karate chop from a martial arts movie, and her disk rushes forward so fast I suspect the only reason she doesn’t fall off is because she’s an AR avatar.
“I’m simulating what would happen with the disk exactly,” she says as a disembodied, grumpy voice to my left. “If I were flying for real, this is exactly how it would look.”
I push my palm forward as though I’m about to plunge it into boiling water. My disk understands the command as an invitation to go at least ten breathtaking miles per hour.
“Slowpoke,” Phoe says once I’ve caught up to her, a few feet away from the edge of the forest.
“I have a strong sense of self-preservation,” I mumble. “Is it safe to fly above more populated areas?”
“It should be in three, two—” Phoe looks at the starry sky. “Now.”
I follow her gaze.
The air near the Dome lights up in a gorgeous aurora borealis display.
“I completely forgot about Birth Day,” I think, unable to peel my eyes away from the mirage-like colors.
“You’ve had a long day,” Phoe says. “I understand. Hopefully, this explains why no one should notice us, as long as we fly in the areas that do not contain the aurora. No one will be able to look at anything but those lights, and the dark spots in the sky are even darker now. Plus, the bottom of your disk is painted black.”
“It might be odd to keep staring up as I fly,” I say, still looking at the spectacle.
“You don’t need to keep track of the lights. All you need to do is follow me.” She starts flying again and says over her shoulder, “I’ll take the path no one should see from the ground.”
“Is the aurora borealis Augmented Reality?” I ask as I gingerly order my disk to follow her. “I never questioned this before, but I have no idea how the Adults create this spectacle. All I know is that for the ancients, seeing this required visiting Santa at the North Pole and wishing to see something cool.”
“Right, visiting Santa. You nailed it.” Phoe chuckles. “But to answer your question: yes, that is Augmented Reality, but the fireworks are very real.”
Punctuating her words is a roar and a colorful explosion in the distance—the fireworks.
“Great,” I think more to myself than Phoe. “I’ll be flying through projectiles.”
“Oh, how dumb do you think I am?” Though Phoe said it in my head, I can picture her red lips pouting. “Most of my attention is focused on the trajectories of those fireworks.”
She stops suddenly and looks left. I stop too and look at what drew her attention.
About a hundred feet away from us is a Guard. He’s easy to spot because of the northern lights and the fireworks. His white uniform looks like a rainbow of reflected colors as he hovers in the air on a disk.
“Crap, where did he come from?” I mentally shout at Phoe.
“I’m sorry. He must’ve been flying above us. I can’t scan our surroundings in all three dimensions at all times; the resources that would require—”
“Never mind that. Maybe he didn’t see me?” I subvocalize, refusing to succumb to literal wishful thinking.
Something in my helmet makes a strange static noise, and I hear a male voice say, “Noah? Is that you?” The Guard, who I assume is the speaker, flies a foot in my direction. “I thought you drew the short straw and had Quietude duties tonight.”
Acting on pure adrenaline, I punch the air with my outstretched hand. The disk rushes away from the approaching Guard with a whoosh of air.
“You did the right thing,” Phoe whispers in my head. “Our best course of action is to lose him.” Ahead of me, Phoe’s disk appears, a reminder that she’s not flying for real. “Follow me,” she says.
I try to match her speed.
“Noah? Where are you going?” the Guard’s voice says in my helmet. “Is everything okay?”
I keep jabbing the air with my palm, my disk moving faster and faster. To Phoe, I mentally say, “Can you make him Forget he saw me?”
“Not a good idea,” she says. “Making a single Guard Forget can easily put us on the Envoy’s radar, and given that he already messaged his fellow Guards, I’d have to make all of them Forget, increasing the risk.”
She takes a sudden left, and I follow, mentally shouting, “So I just try to outrun them?”
“That’s the best course of action, yes. They don’t know who you really are. They think one of their own is acting funny. If we lose them, it’ll never get back to you. Once we finish the Test, I might be able to make them Forget in a way that would not alert the Envoy—” Her words cut off, and then she whispers, “Shit. They’re already here.”
Two Guards are in front of us, the fiery display reflecting off their astronaut helmets.
We turn so suddenly I feel lucky the food I ate in the man cave was virtual. Otherwise, it might’ve joined my heart in my throat.
Phoe is going at least fifty miles per hour as she whooshes ahead. I follow her, going nearly as fast, but to my dismay, she mentally shouts, “They’re gaining on us. Watch out!”
If she hadn’t warned me, my pursuers might’ve had to peel me off the metal surface of the cone-shaped building. The side of my disk scrapes the sharp metal tip of the structure, sending sparks flying, and my disk shakes violently. In a miraculous feat of agility, I manage not to fall off the disk.
“If by ‘miraculous’ you mean I took control of your hand just in time, then sure,” Phoe says. “Watch for that one.”
I duck instinctively before I realize why.
A white-gloved hand slides over my helmet.
“Instinctively, sure,” Phoe murmurs in my ear. “Nothing to do with me.”
“Don’t distract me by taking credit for everything,” I think back. “Wait, why are you going up so sharply?”
Before I get the chance to hesitate, my palm points up, and I do a swift reaching motion, as if I’m trying to grab something before someone can steal it from me. I’m not sure if this movement was mine or Phoe’s influence, but I do know that it caused the disk to torpedo up so fast that I can’t help but close my eyes in horror. When I open them, I see Phoe’s disk in front of me, zigzagging madly. I realize my disk is doing the same and fight the urge to close my eyes again.
“Noah, stop, what are you doing?” a voice says over the helmet’s radio.
If my pursuers are concerned about my maneuvers, I figure I should be worrying three times as much. To distract myself from the dread gathering in my stomach, I ask, “Phoe, how do they know I’m this Noah guy? All the outfits are the same.”
She clicks her fingers and says, “Look at the other Guards.”
I do and see little nametag-like labels show up on the interface of my visor for each Guard.
“You each have a unique radio identification in these helmets,” Phoe explains.
I glance back again and reflect on the fact that the Guards are clustering. It’s odd that they’re
closing in on me. They’re acting as though something is giving them pause.
Something bright and loud explodes next to my right shoulder.
I’m nearly blinded by the sudden flash of red fire. Then there’s a green explosion, followed by a yellow one. Did the Guards shoot a bunch of rockets at me?
Then I understand. These are rockets of a different sort; they’re the Birth Day fireworks. To punctuate my realization, another piece of artillery explodes about a foot away from the bottom of my disk. Another one hits the disk, the impact nearly pushing me off.
“Phoe, you flew us directly into the fireworks? Are you insane?”
A new explosion erupts two feet above my head, and a rain of small firefly-like embers descends. The few specks of fire that land on my helmet and shoulders go out without causing any damage.
“That isn’t so surprising, given that you’re wearing a space suit. Even in ancient times, those things were fireproof. What’s important is that I got us away from them.” Phoe looks back.
I follow her gaze.
She’s right. The Guards aren’t suicidal enough to chase after us—fireproof suits or not. As I watch, they disperse, flying in all directions.
“Crap, I think they’re trying to form a sphere around us, like they did before. If we let them, they’ll tighten the perimeter after the fireworks are done. Let’s not let that happen.” Phoe guides her disk right next to mine and tilts her hand downward, almost at a ninety-degree angle.
My lungs seize. “Phoe, I can’t do that,” I think at her frantically. “There are projectiles flying at us, not to mention—”
I stop speaking because, for the first time, I truly feel Phoe’s influence on my hand. Nothing else would explain its current position, with the tips of my fingers pointing at my toes.
My disk plunges toward the ground. A firework is flying toward my face. I swerve, unwilling to learn how impact-proof the helmet is. The rocket misses the visor and explodes with a violent roar.
“Noah, stop. You will get yourself killed,” a voice says over the helmet’s radio. My fellow Guards must be watching my current descent.
For all its insanity, Phoe’s desperate idea has one payoff: there aren’t any Guards in our path. They failed to corner me.
“They failed so far,” Phoe corrects. “We’re turning toward the Elderly section. The Barrier should hide us from them for a few crucial moments.”
This time, it feels like it was me who changed the direction of my flight, but it could easily be my brain confabulating this choice. Whatever the cause, I turn my palm parallel to the ground. The disk mirrors the movement, and instead of falling, I’m now racing forward.
In the distance, Guards are flying down like gigantic bits of hail. The sky is teeming with them. The fireworks enhance the feeling of us being surrounded by some kind of surreal force of nature.
I don’t slow down.
A Guard flies directly into my path, in the spot where Phoe’s virtual form just passed.
“Faster,” Phoe yells, and my hand juts forward.
The Guard races faster toward me too.
This is again like that game of chicken the ancients liked to play, only in the air instead of on a flat surface with a car. I bet even
would consider what I’m doing crazy.
The rational part of me knows that Phoe must have calculated this maneuver with her super-duper AI mathematical skills, and that despite what the lizard part of my brain thinks, I won’t crash into this Guard and die. Still, I swear the black underside of the Guard’s disk—or at least the shiny metal edge—is about to hit my helmet.
Except it doesn’t.
All I feel is a bit of turbulence as the Guard zooms right past me. Thanking the laws of aerodynamics for keeping me alive so far, I project my palm forward with such force that my shoulder joint pops. It’s unclear whether I did that maneuver because Phoe made me or as a nervous tick.
As I continue rocketing forward, beads of sweat drip into my eyes, and the helmet prevents me from clearing them.
“On it,” Phoe says, and a warm puff of air makes the moisture go away.
As my vision clears, I see the Barrier shimmering in the distance. It’s reflecting the northern lights and the fireworks, and we’re soaring right for it.
“Don’t look up,” Phoe says in my mind.
The surest way to have someone look up is by telling them not to.
I look up and regret not following Phoe’s advice. Three Guards are overhead and flying downward, like hawks zeroing in on yummy, fluffy prey.
It sucks that I’m cast in the role of that prey.
Phoe abandons all pretense of giving me free will. My arm tilts sideways, and my disk instantly does the same. It’s a marvel I don’t fall off it.
“Your boots attach you to the disk with a powerful magnet,” Phoe says sharply. “That’s the case with all Guards. How do you think they stay on at those angles?”
I don’t think. I’m too preoccupied with trying not to have a heart attack. I’m doing the disk equivalent of a somersault, over and over.
“Actually, I think the official term for this maneuver is
,” Phoe says helpfully.
I don’t chide her for being a smartass. That’s how scared I am. If the ancient game of football involved people trying to tackle you from the sky, this is what it would look like.
Every time one of them misses me, they join the others in pursuit behind me. I have about forty of them on my tail when I plunge into the Barrier—with another somersault.
When we appear on the Elderly side of the Barrier, my heart sinks, and that’s a feat considering it was already at my feet.