Authors: Simone Pond
Table of Contents
va stood in
the middle of the village, surrounded by Lillian and her people. Morray pressed the gun deeper into her side. She glanced at Grace’s pale and sweaty face, blood seeping from the gunshot wound shredding her thigh. Ava’s eyes darted to Morray’s gun, silently communicating with her daughter.
We need to get it. Now
“Phoenix,” Morray cried out. “My son.”
“What did you call me?” the confused teenager asked.
“I’m your father. I’ve come here to bring you home, where you belong.”
Phoenix stared at Morray. “I don’t know you. And I belong here, with my people. With my mother.”
“Your mother is the one who took you from me. Where is she?” Morray yelled.
Sarah came forward and stood next to Phoenix. “You can’t have him, William. This is his home. I don’t want you anywhere near him. You need to leave.”
Morray’s face contorted, and the gun began to quiver in his hand. Grace inched closer, her eyes fixed on the gun. How did they end up inside the program? It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Morray had sent Ava back to Ojai Village centuries earlier to retrieve his son, Phoenix, so she could take him to the Royal Palace. But Grace had intervened, changing everything.
“He’s my son, Sarah. You can’t keep him from me. I won’t let you win, not this time!” Morray’s finger curled around the trigger and he fired, the bullet burrowing into Sarah’s gut. The woman staggered back against her son and grunted.
Grace moved as fast as she could, knocking over Morray and pinning him down. Ava pried the gun from his hand. “Hold your fire; we’ve got him!” she yelled to the villagers. “I have the megalomaniac bastard,” she said, pressing the gun into his cheek.
Confused, Phoenix fired his gun and the bullet went into Ava’s shoulder, knocking her to the dirt.
Grace jumped off Morray to shield her mother from any more shots. “Stop! You want him, not her!”
Morray got to his feet and scurried toward the woods like a rodent.
“Don’t worry about me. Get the gun. I’ll get Morray.” Ava squeezed Grace’s hand and pulled herself up. “I love you. I’ll always be with you.”
Ava sprinted after Morray, snagging the edge of his suit jacket and pummeling the side of his head into a birch tree. They both rolled to the ground with a groan. Grace was quick on her heels, steadying the gun in her hands for a clean shot.
“Now, Grace!” Ava yelled, holding him down.
Ava struggled to hold down Morray. She glimpsed the barrel of the gun from the corner of her eye.
And then they vanished.
Inside the endless white space, Ava glanced at Morray, doing her best to avoid direct eye contact. Direct eye contact was never a good idea with Morray.
She glared. “I’m really sick of that song.”
He ignored her and continued humming.
The repetitious melody grated on Ava’s nerves and made her want to smash something over Morray’s head, but there was nothing available. Not inside the never-ending expanse of nothingness surrounding them. How long had they been stuck in mainframe limbo? It was hard to tell. Ava had no concept of time or physical dimension. Morray had finally achieved what he had always wanted––Ava all to himself.
Ava felt the virtual walls closing in. She tried to pull in a full breath, but her ribs wouldn’t budge to allow for more air.
Morray stopped humming. “Can you please stop breathing like that?”
“Like you’re hyperventilating. We’ve been over this a hundred times. We’re inside a program and your body isn’t real. It’s unnecessary to have a physical reaction to anything. Why can’t you grasp that concept?” He rolled his eyes.
“I guess because it feels so real.” Ava held up her hands, suddenly smooth and young. “But I know it isn’t, because I’m still inside my eighteen-year-old body.”
“Again, you don’t have a body. It’s only your perception. All of this––everything––is in your mind.”
“I find that hard to believe. If this were only in my mind, you definitely wouldn’t be here with me.”
“Stop being so difficult, Ava.”
“I’m struggling to accept that this is my fate. Of all the places to end up––and with you. Do you even know where we are? It’s just absolute white with no exits.”
Morray smoothed back his dark hair and jutted out his chiseled jaw. “If you and your daughter would have just followed the rules and completed the mission, we wouldn’t be in this situation. I see that she took after you. Stubborn as a mule.”
“Why? Because we don’t want to sacrifice our freedom and live in your prison world?”
“Seems like that’s where you always end up, anyway. In some form or another.”
“I hate that you’re right. I wish I would’ve destroyed the mainframe when the city walls came down years ago.”
“Well, you didn’t. And now you’re stuck in here with me.”
Ava sighed. What could’ve gone wrong with Dickson’s program to cause them to end up in this limbo state? Must have been something pretty bad. Dickson was too devoted to keep his beloved Morray in purgatory like this. She replayed the scene from the village repeatedly, wondering what she could have done differently. Did Grace make it back home? Why did she end up “here” with Morray?
“I want out,” Ava said for the hundredth time.
Morray started humming again.
“What the hell is that song?!” she yelled.
“Old one, long before your time. Rolling Stones sang it best: Y
ou can’t always get what you want …
” Morray smirked.
All she ever wanted was to protect her family and her people from Morray. But somehow she kept sacrificing her own freedom to achieve that goal. He continuously discovered new ways to imprison Ava. She wouldn’t be free of Morray until the mainframe was destroyed with him in it.
“This place feels so real. Even more today than yesterday,” she said.
“There is no today. There was no yesterday.”
“Nothing but this moment, and this moment is nothing.”
Morray laughed. “Don’t be so dramatic.”
“It’s hard not to be. I keep missing out on my life, and the common denominator is always
“Try to get a hold of yourself, Ava dear.”
“I’m trapped inside a program somewhere deep inside the network, with the person I despise the most. I have no idea how long we’ve been here, or if we’re ever getting out. Getting a hold of myself won’t help!”
Morray gently stroked her cheek. “There, there, my sweet Ava. You don’t despise me. I created you. You’re nothing without me.”
For something that wasn’t real, it sure felt like every cell in her body cringed at his touch. She batted at his hand. The man had corroded every aspect of her life, and now she was stuck with him in a barren universe. Morray was deluded to think she’d ever be okay spending eternity in his company.
“Don’t touch me,” she snapped.
He straightened his suit jacket and backed away.
“You know what would be most spectacular right about now?” he asked.
She rubbed her temples. “What is that Morray? What would be
“A steak dinner with a nice bottle of Romanee Conti. Some candlelight. Mozart streaming in the background.” He closed his eyes and moved his hands like a symphony conductor.
“You can dress it up however you’d like, but we’re still in a prison. And you don’t seem too concerned about getting out anytime soon. I’d think the all-powerful Morray would want to find a way back. Don’t you have a world to destroy or something?”
“You’re mistaken, my dear. I have everything I need right here.” He winked, sending chills up Ava’s neck.
Disgusted, she turned away and walked into the whiteness. The smack of her boots trudging on the polished floors echoed. Along with the song Morray had started humming again. Now knowing the lyrics made her hate the tune even more. The melody jackhammered in her ears––even though she didn’t have actual ears. She quickened her pace, but her efforts were pointless. No matter how much distance between them, he was still omnipresent. They were locked together like planets in a solar system, unable to divide.
Until she could find a way out, she needed to make peace with the torturous circumstances. The more she focused on him, the more distracted she became. She needed to get away from Morray, and to get back to Grace and Joseph. That’s all she really wanted––her family in one piece.
The song echoed all around her.
“Pick a new song!” she yelled over her shoulder.
Morray’s laugh traveled across the emptiness.
race thought about
Christian’s six-month birthday and the way his sparkly Insider eyes lit up as she sang to him. She had convinced Ruth, the uptight head nurse, to let her and Lucas take Christian outside. They walked along the Waterfront. Not the real one, but the simulated version inside the Seattle City Center. She kissed the top of Christian’s soft head as he rested against her chest in a sling. Lucas gently squeezed her hand and smiled.
“You’re happy,” she said.
“I like seeing you happy. It’s a nice change from the doom and gloom. You’ve really gotten attached to this little fellow.”
“Well, after months and months in here with no sign of my mother’s return, this baby has saved my life. I’ve been so busy in the nursery helping with Christian, I don’t have time to think about how I failed at saving my mother.”
“You didn’t fail anything. This is just a setback.” Lucas stopped walking and leaned down, kissing Grace. It was the type of kiss that locks an everlasting memory into place. The kind of kiss that makes a girl
forget everything else in the world.
Grace didn’t want to get too lost in the moment––not in front of Christian. She’d been mothering him since his inception and wanted to keep that role. Ruth had warned her about getting too attached, but it happened anyway. They bonded right from the start and she felt a responsibility toward him. Christian filled up the emptiness that losing her mother had created.
She continued walking. “I feel like I have a purpose now: protecting Christian from the cruel, cruel world,” she joked.
“Eventually, you’ll have to let him go when he gets adopted.”
he gets adopted. Also, you should know that I’m putting in the paperwork. I’ll be eighteen soon enough.”
Lucas stopped again and stared out at the rippling, dark blue water of the Sound. “Are you sure that’s what you want?”
“A hundred percent positive. Why?” A slight wave of fear rose inside her. Did Lucas think she wasn’t capable?
“We’re so young. Don’t you want to go back to the academy and graduate? Whatever happened to becoming a soldier like your father?”
“Things change. I feel like this is where I’m supposed to be. Taking care of Christian. At least for now.”
Grace would always remember that day as one of her favorites. Lucas had said:
we’re so young,
you’re so young
, implying they were together.
Shortly after that glorious day in the park, Lucas got stationed back East, to be with Grace’s father. She found it ironic that she had joked about protecting Christian from the cruel world, because that’s exactly what ended up happening. Director Faraday, from the Silicon Valley Academy, moved into the Seattle City Center and had taken a sudden interest in the babies that Morray and Dickson had bred. The moment he had relocated to the city center, he began usurping his powers, overstepping his station and trying to implement decrees from the old days. Somehow he’d been gaining leverage with the council. When Grace heard rumblings about his plan to get the rights to Christian to put him into an early soldier program, she had to do something. The child was too young––he could barely walk. But Faraday, who had classic Insider mentality, believed in early conditioning. It was only a matter of time before he’d snatch up the boy.
Grace went to the West Coast Regional Council to bring the matter to their attention, but they ignored her requests. Now the child depended on her as much as she depended on him. She made a solemn oath to protect Christian. She was willing to pay any price if it meant keeping him safe from that tyrant and his soldier program. Late one night, she removed him from the nursery, stole a hovercraft, and left the city center. The two had been living on the Outside with Cari and the natives for the last few months.
Cari plunked down on Grace’s mat. “Can’t sleep?”
“Hard to sleep when you’re on the run.”
Like most things Cari said, Grace ignored the implicated meaning. She got up and went to check on Christian. A native had built him a crib, and he snuggled with a blanket one of the women had knit. She loved watching him sleep. He looked so peaceful, taking in deep breaths with his mouth slightly open and his soft blond curls matted with perspiration.
The sleepless nights started when they first arrived in July. Worried the officials would track them down, her paranoia escalated daily. She wondered if Director Faraday was closing in on her location and what the repercussions would be for leaving the center with Christian. Nobody knew of her plan to flee, not even Lucas. She left without warning or a note of explanation. Hiding was supposed to be temporary, until she had a solid case to present to the council members to grant her adoption rights. She didn’t want to wait until her eighteenth birthday in the spring to legally adopt Christian. Waiting would give Faraday ample time to take custody.
With the winter months approaching, Grace wasn’t sure how much longer she could keep Christian safe. She wasn’t the type to vacillate, especially when it came to doing the right thing, but something had shifted. Almost a year and a half without any hope of her mother’s return had taken a toll on her confidence.
Warmth settled through the cabin as Cari stoked the flames in the fireplace. “You gotta go back before winter. The weather is too harsh,” she told Grace.
“I know. But I’m not quite ready. Faraday’s gonna come at me full force. He probably has a team of Officers just waiting for me.”
Cari rubbed her cropped hair so that some of the colorful pieces stuck up like feathers. “You keep sayin’ the same thing over and over, but do nothin’. You gotta take action, or you’ll just keep runnin’ in circles.”
“You tired of me?” Grace joked.
“If you don’t do somethin’, you’ll get tired of you.”
Grace went back to her mat and closed her eyes, hoping to get some sleep. The lack of it had been siphoning her energy. Energy she’d need to stand up Faraday and the council.
“Do you have any of that root? I need to sleep,” Grace asked.
She shook her head slowly. “You’ve been sleepin’ long enough.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You can’t keep hidin’ in the woods.”
The fire’s soft glow made shadows on Cari’s angular face. She was a warrior, born into a tribe of protectors, and it was her nature to fight.
Grace needed to relocate her own internal warrior. Shame heated her cheeks. “I don’t know what to do,” she said.
“You do. It’s buried deep in there.” Cari pointed to Grace’s heart. “Go down and get it. Before it’s gone for good.” She turned away to go to sleep.
“I’m scared,” Grace whispered.
“Hidin’ won’t make scared go away.”
Grace curled up under her blanket and tried to sleep. She missed her old life. The academy. The Delta training team. Her best friend Marion. She longed for Lucas. Leaving the academy program was the toughest decision she had ever made, but she wanted to stay close to her mother in case she returned from the mainframe. Grace had planned to go back to the academy, graduate, and become a soldier to protect her people. But then Christian came along, and now she needed to protect him.
The next day Grace woke up with an itch in her gut. She had to do
to reawaken her courage. She bundled up Christian and went to see Adyar, an elder who handled food preparations for the village and had a gift for concocting healing remedies. Adyar loved Christian, claiming the child’s bright eyes brought back some of her spark. Sometimes Grace had to pry him out of her arms when it was time to leave.
After she drank some of Adyar’s sage tea and kissed Christian, she left the village and headed into the forest. She hadn’t been in the woods in a long time. The air grew colder the deeper into the trees she walked. The brisk October air cooled her cheeks. According to the natives, winter was coming early. Grace missed her village in Ojai, where the southern sun stayed around all year long. She pulled the blanket tighter around her shoulders and continued walking down the trail. Though she appreciated the simple life on the Outside, she had grown accustomed to the luxuries of the city center and her cottage at the end of town. She missed being able to connect with her father at the swipe of a finger. And she really missed hologramming with Lucas, especially when he teased her about being the hottest “mom” he’d ever known.
She headed deeper into the forest, where she had parked the hovercraft three months earlier. It had been kept dormant and hidden, out of respect for the natives’ ban on technology. Also, she didn’t want to risk getting tracked. But that morning, the longing for something familiar had swelled in her heart, and she needed to feel connected to her life again. Checking her personal messages offline would help take the sting out of being homesick, even though she didn’t know where home was any more.
The hovercraft was buried within the bushes and it took a few minutes to weed through the branches. Sitting inside the craft, she reached under the seat and took out her digi-pad. Excited to reconnect, she hurried to activate it. The device booted up and sprang to life with a symphony of chimes. She quickly downloaded the messages to view offline. The files were organized by date and level of urgency. The first one was a hologram from her father, General Joseph Strader, delivered July 27, 2346.
The hologram illuminated the inside the hovercraft. Tears sprang into Grace’s eyes as she reached out to touch her father’s arm, but her fingers slipped through the 3D rendering, making her miss him more.
“Grace, please tell me the news I’ve just received isn’t true. I’m specifically referring to you stealing a hovercraft and leaving the Seattle CC with Christian. I’m having trouble believing you’d actually pull a stunt like this. Do you understand the extent of your consequences? Not only for stealing the craft, but also for taking the child. He doesn’t belong to you.”
She paused the message. How could her father say Christian didn’t belong to her? He belonged to Grace the first time she picked him up and their eyes locked. There was a connection, regardless if the council members agreed. Christian loved Grace. And she could provide a safe and loving environment, despite her age. Wasn’t that enough? But pleading her case to a hologram wasn’t going to change anything. After a few moments, she resumed the message.
“I’m not saying he
belong to you. I’m just saying there are rules, and yes, they apply to you. If you want to fight for him, running away isn’t the right approach. You’re not winning any favors with the council. I hope you’ll reconsider your decision and return to the city center to face your charges. Contact me as soon as you have received this message.”
Grace sat back, pondering her father’s words. It was going to be a long day.