Chapter 7, Scene 1
THE SOLDIER TORE EVE FROM SHARON’S GRASP.
“No!” Sharon strained to hear the words her wife mouthed, I love you. Her own inner voice, tinny and distant, cautioned that Eve existed only in dreams. She held tight to sleep. “Eve!”
Curling his finger around the trigger of his spectraletto, a second soldier pressed the muzzle to Eve’s temple.
“Let her go.” A burst of terror let loose in Sharon’s belly. She rode it to her throat where it wedged. Mustering her voice, she managed to beg, “Please.”
A nudge to her boot prodded her further from sleep.
“Leave us alone.” She lifted a knee and slammed her boot onto the floor. The sting to her heel hoisted her out of slumber.
“You were dreaming something bad.” The fluid voice of Federico filled in the blanks of consciousness.
Her leaden limbs reminded her that it had been almost two days with no sleep and no Eve. The inside of her mouth begged for water, her belly for food, and her eyes for rest.
“Lo siento. I had to wake you.” He smiled. “Before you busted my head in.”
Sharon followed his eyes to her hand curled tightly around the handle of her hammer tucked into its baldric. She let go and shook out the tingling in her fingers. Pulling the chartreuse costermonger coat over the hammer she said, “It was a very bad dream.”
“Looked like you were tangling with a nasty phantasm. Didn’t want to be in the middle of it.”
“Where are we?” She rubbed the residue of the nightmare from her eyes.
“Maybe ten minutes or so from Chicago.” Federico twisted the cap off of a filtering flask. “Agua?”
The risk of getting sick from a stranger’s flask outweighed the discomfort of dehydration. “No, thank you.”
“Bueno. Suit yourself.” Federico gulped from his flask. A tattoo resembling a snowflake stretched over the inside of his wrist. The snowflake had a circle at its middle bisected by two perpendicular lines creating four quarters. Pointing from the circle were six short crystals alternating between six long ones. He wiped his mouth with his sleeve and replaced the cap. “You were calling the name Eve in your sleep. Is she your wife?”
“Why did she leave you?”
“She didn’t.” Sharon cleared her dry throat. “NONA took her from me.”
“Ah, I see.” He slipped the flask into his coat pocket. “I’m very sorry. What virus is she suffering from, then? Or do they claim she committed a crime?”
“Neither. She’s not sick from a virus. She’s Chinese. And…” She blinked, trying to erase the gauzy image of the nightmare from her mind.
“And, what?” Federico asked.
“She has a blood cancer she’ll die from without treatment. NONA took her to the Asian internment camp in Chicago. Haven’t you heard? NONA’s rounding up people of Asian descent?”
He shook his head. “I’m surprised I haven’t. Although I did hear that Prime Minister Tang is ratcheting up his tired threat to occupy the Manitoba Grasslands.”
“Because the Thwaites glacier is going to collapse,” she added.
“They’ve been saying that for years. For as long as Tang has been threatening to take over NONA’s only food basket.” Federico stretched his long limbs that had been scrunched into the small jump seat. “It won’t be long before NONA starts drafting young men to fight Tang if it’s already plucking people of Asian descent off of the streets.” He snorted. “It’s ridiculous. Really. Given the number of people who have Asian blood, who would be left to fight Tang? How does one even measure who’s Asian and who isn’t?”
“I don’t know. And I don’t care.” Her headache grew more intense. She rubbed her temples to tamp it down. “I just want to find my wife. When I do, we’ll disappear someplace safe until the world goes back to simmer from a boil. Like we always do.”
He touched her arm, his eyes soft with compassion. “It’s very difficult to get into the camp now. A new virus has sprung up. NONA closed it to visitors yesterday.”
Needles of panic pricked her skin. “Why the hell would they bring new people there? Eve’s body can’t handle fighting a virus.”
Almost whispering, he said, “You don’t want me to answer that.”
“Yes. Put a bunch of sick people NONA doesn’t want around in a place they can’t escape. Well…” Federico paused. “I’m sorry.”
“I have to get her out of there.” Sharon tore her eyes from his. Staying in the moment buttressed her from the parade of horribles trying to march through her mind. She fixated on the cloudy Plexiglas containers in front of her that secured supply crates and costermonger carts to the floor. A thread of red light ran the length of the narrow walkway between the containers and line of jump seats. The MagLev bucked, then decelerated.
Costermongers slept, chatted, or watched the news screens that dropped down from the ceiling of the MagLev supply car. The programs were exclusively NONA propaganda acted out by government-paid journalists in silent skits annotated in English, Chinese, Spanish, and French subtitles. A line of flashing red words interrupted the program: Prepare for Arrival in Five Minutes at Chicago, the Capital City of NONA.
Federico leaned into her and whispered, “There’s no time to explain. As soon as we stop, you have to come with me if you are to have any hope of finding your wife.”
“Who are you, really?” Reflexively, she reached for her hammer.
“Easy.” He lifted his hands. “I’m only trying to help. I know a way to sneak out. He won’t be able to see you.”
“Who won’t be able to see me?” Sharon studied Federico’s face for a lie or setup. Decades-old advice from her grandfather had taught her how to size up people and their motives. Always measure a person by what their eyes tell you, he’d say. But the only thing gleaned from the man next to her seemed to be genuine concern.
“Listen to me.” Federico gripped her elbow. “If the passenger who helped you back at the station finds you, you won’t live to find your wife.” He pointed to her face. “He’ll do a whole lot worse to you than those bruises and that cut.”
She touched where the NONA soldier’s weapon had slammed into her. Annie’s magic salve had gone a long way toward healing the gash. But the bruises from the soldier’s strike and Mags’ head-butt were still tender. And the persistent ache in her shoulder blade was maddening. Federico was talking about the nice-looking man who smelled of sweet fern. That didn’t make sense.
The MagLev heaved left, then right. The g-force pushing Sharon against the seat slackened as the train decelerated. The red letters on the screen scrolled, Prepare to Stop in 45 Seconds. “Why should I be afraid of him?” She pressed her thumb to the latch of the jump seat restraint. The strapping retracted, freeing her from the seat.
Federico stood, pulling Sharon with him. “I’ve been watching him watch for someone. For days he’s been waiting. Finally, that someone came along. And it was you. I don’t know why. You have to get out of here because he works for the Strelitzia. Come with me. We’ll help you find Eve.”
“I’ve never heard of the Strelitzia. You both must’ve mistaken me for someone else.” Dread wormed into her belly. Getting caught up in a case of mistaken identity would slow her quest to find Eve. “I’m just a poor farmer from Maine looking for my wife. That’s all.”
“Maybe so. But just in case you need help.” He reached into his pocket and retrieved an acupalmtell. With his forefinger, he scrolled through several photographs on the small handheld computer. “Here, take a good look. If you run into trouble, come to this building. You won’t be able to get in. But we’ll know you’re there.” He stowed the device. “To find us, stand south of the Cloud Gate sculpture in Millennium Park. It looks like a big silver bean. In fact, that’s what people call it. Once you find the Bean, look to your left. You’ll see the building.”
“I really appreciate your help. But I’ve got to go.” She tried to push past him.
Federico blocked her path. “I’m trying to help you.”
“If you want to help me, tell me how to get to the internment camp.” Sharon glanced at the line of costermongers marching forward out of the train. “My wife needs me. I have to find her now.”
Federico sighed. “Very well.” He bent to her ear and spoke quickly. “The MagLev surfaced where the old interstates 90 and 290 intersected. The only way to go when we exit is east on West Harrison toward the lake. There aren’t many streets left open by NONA. Only two go north toward your destination. The camp is just north of the Jardine Water Purification Plant.”
Shouting erupted at the front of the line as NONA soldiers ordered the cargo operators onto the train to unload the Plexiglas boxes.
“Harrison ends at the entry to Millennium Park,” Federico continued. “Go north through the park. Most people will go south to skirt it and then north again on Lake Shore Drive. That’s the way the passenger will expect you to go.”
“What makes you think that?” Sharon asked.
“Because no one goes through Millennium Park. Not even NONA. Banditti gangs rule there. If I were you, I’d take my chances with the Banditti before the Strelitzia. Go fast and careful.”
Alarm drummed an ominous beat through her veins. Sharon turned away and got moving.
“Please, Sharon.” Federico called after her. “Stay safe.”
She rushed past men and women dressed like homogenous robots in stark black uniforms. They worked in silence, unlatching the containers. Sharon stumbled on the last step up into hot humid air hanging over Chicago. Stopping briefly, she wrestled out of Annie’s warm coat and stuffed it into her satchel. To conceal her hammer, she slipped on her old jacket. Falling into the current of costermongers and passengers surging east toward their mundane machinations, she felt inconspicuous.
Battered by war and storms, the infamous Willis Tower loomed over the city like a defiant ogre. To the east, a three-story brick barrier walled off Lake Michigan from the thirsty. It ran north and south as far as she could see. Graffiti decorated the barrier in an incomprehensible jumble of exaggerated letters, symbols, and pictures. She’d read that NONA built the wall using bricks from the one that had separated its predecessors, the U.S. and Mexico, at their former border. Erasing the tangible boundary, NONA tore the wall down and rebuilt it around the precious water of Lake Michigan.
A dreary miasma of gray sky and gray smog framed the gray buildings. The smokestacks of the long-dead steel mills to the east jabbed at the distant horizon. Her late grandparents had honeymooned in the city more than half a century ago. Sharon imagined the sickening sulfur smell of quenched coke as her grandmother had described it. On reflex, she lifted the scarf at her neck over her nose and mouth. Eve’s scent reached deep into Sharon and tugged at her worst fear of losing the woman she loved. Jostled by a sea of people shoulder to shoulder hurrying along, a hollow loneliness settled over her.
Ever since she and Eve had gotten together, Sharon always felt her wife’s presence even when they were apart. The thread that tied them thrummed with Eve’s energy, somehow, always. Sharon put a hand to her heart, confident that it would lead her to her.
Someone bumped her from behind. She looked back only to see faces masked in indifference. Satisfied that the passenger Federico warned her about wasn’t following, she kept pace until the street ended. Stepping aside to let the herd move south, she entered Millennium Park.
A vast shanty town built of scavenged materials made from old vehicles, dilapidated buildings, and hunks of random plastic, metal and wood extended the length of the makeshift settlement. The cornucopia of ethnicities, including Asian, surprised her, given that NONA was plucking them off the streets.
Young, old and middle aged, everyone shared the common characteristics of being rail thin and unwashed. Even though Sharon was relatively healthy, the densely populated park and her filthy clothing helped her blend in.
Conjuring her brother Jon’s last words to her before NONA shipped him off to fight and die in the War of Earth’s Rebellion, Sharon squared her shoulders and set her face in a hard expression. Especially when you’re scared, carry yourself like a mad woman who kicks ass. I love you, sis. “I love you too, Jon,” she said under her breath.
She continued north until a line of people blocked the way. Carrying a variety of containers, they shuffled toward an odd marble structure. At its center the marble formed what looked like a layer cake. Surrounding the cake were four pairs of weathered bronze seahorses in various states of disrepair. One had no head while another lay in pieces.
A teenaged girl with stringy hair carrying a five-liter bucket shuffled next to her.
“Where’s everyone going?” Sharon asked.
“The Buckingham Fountain.” The girl lifted the bucket. “NONA turns it on once a day. Got to get a good spot since they only leave it on for about five minutes. Everybody knows that.” The girl looked at her curiously, then rushed ahead.
Sharon salivated at the mention of water. If she hoped to keep her strength, she needed to drink. She opened the satchel flap, fished out her empty water flask and followed the teenager.
People shoved and jostled for space around the empty pool that surrounded the fountain. In front of her stood a tall gangly man holding a bucket and large plastic bag. A small boy held to one of his legs; a little girl clung to the other like human weights keeping him tethered to life. He caught Sharon’s eye when he tried to move closer with the children in tow. After wedging in near one of the seahorses, he motioned for Sharon to move closer.
“Thank you.” She squeezed into the offered space.
Staring straight ahead, he nodded.
The mouths of the seahorses and top of the cake sputtered, blew mists of water, and hissed before spewing jets of clear liquid. The crowd shook as thirsty people buzzed in a frenzy to fill their containers.
Sharon submerged her flask into the pool. When the bubbles stopped, she gulped the water until it was gone. She savored the cool liquid deep inside her body as it hydrated and revived her. She filled it again, then moved back to let someone else take her place. She found a quiet spot near a large tent with a bent pole. It leaned heavily to one side like a sailboat in a brisk wind.
Lifting the flask to her lips she drank again, slowly, in spite of the heavy chlorine smell. The water soothed her mouth, while the chlorine stung her dry, cracked lips. When she lowered the flask, she noticed two young men standing near a lorry with no wheels. Banditti.
She tucked the flask into the satchel as the jets of water at the fountain went dry. The crowd groaned. Like zombies, they turned and began to lumber away. The man with the two children emerged from the others carrying his full bucket and bulbous plastic bag. Instead of hanging at his legs, the little boy and girl held tight to the back of his shirttail.
The two Banditti in stealthy unison locked onto the man like predators to prey. One of them, his face pocked with acne, grinned at the other. Sharon guessed he was barely out of his teens. The stick-skinny thieves followed the man. Sharon followed them.
“Hey, you, with the water,” one of them said.
The man with the two kids stopped and turned.
“Leave our daddy alone.” The little girl glared.
“We will,” said the acne-faced Banditti. “As long as he gives us his water.”
Sharon debated whether to intervene. On the one hand, time kept ticking down for Eve. On the other, the man with two little kids had shown her kindness. Plus, he looked no match for the two Banditti men. And the brave little girl tugged at Sharon’s conscious. She slid her hammer from its baldric. “Leave them alone.”
Acne man turned and pulled a knife from his back pocket. He sneered and flicked it open.
The father set his water down, shielding his kids with his arms. “Take it.”
“We intend to.” Acne man lunged at Sharon, who had interposed herself between the thieves and the water.
She dodged the guy’s blade and swung her hammer, making solid contact with his jaw.
He howled and dropped to his knees, cupping his mouth. “My…” He moved his bloodied hands from his face, and two teeth clinked onto the concrete.
She stepped toward him with her hammer raised.
He cowered as his formerly brave accomplice ran off.
Sharon returned her hammer to its baldric and realized she was panting. Her body ached with exhaustion.
“Let us share some of our water with you.” The father put a hand to her shoulder. “To repay you. We have some food as well.”
“No, thank you,” her voice quivered. “I still have some left.”
“Are you all right?”
“No, but I have to keep going.”
“I understand.” He lowered his hand from her shoulder. “May Earth keep you in her good graces.”
“It’s been a long time since I heard someone use that saying.” Sharon managed a faint smile. “You as well.”
“Earth and the people we love carry us through.” He laid his hands on the heads of the boy and girl. “I remind myself every morning so that I have the strength to keep going. You keep going too, stranger.”
“I will.” Sharon turned and walked north away from the man and two children. Death in a place like Millennium Park, she suspected, came quickly and often. She hoped that he’d live long enough to raise his kids. They reminded her of Inu. She missed him.
As she continued on, her legs grew more tired. She needed food, water, and rest. A man yelled something in the near distance. He spoke like a preacher and grew louder the closer she got. A flash of light like the sun hitting metal and bouncing off burned her eye. She turned her head to see a giant glistening object shaped like a kidney bean. The Cloud Gate sculpture Federico described.
The preacher stood on a bench nearby with his hands held toward the sky. “Oh, the end of times is upon us. Repent now.” He shook a fist. “No one believes anymore. This”—he spread his arms wide—“is how we die.”
Ignoring the preacher’s superstitious yammering, Sharon stood in front of the glassy bean and studied her refection. Her face sagged under the weight of despair and exhaustion. Bags circled her eyes and the color of her skin had gone ashen. Her thick dark wavy hair curled in haphazard directions. A yellowed bruise marked the middle of her forehead where she’d head-butted Mags. Crusty dark blood discolored the glue Dr. Ryan had used to close the gash at the side of her head. “Whatever happens, keep going,” she said to herself. She closed, then opened her eyes as if somehow that would help.
The scent of sweet fern wafted over her shoulder as a familiar reflection joined hers in the bean. The passenger from the MagLev platform.
He smiled. “Hello, Sharon. Please come with me. I want to help you.”
How the hell does he know my name? She wheeled around and reached for her hammer just as Federico jabbed the muzzle of a short-barreled spectraletto at the passenger’s torso.
“Not likely,” Federico said.
A young, well-built man a head shorter than Federico flanked the passenger’s other side. With bright green eyes, bushy beard, high freckled cheekbones and red hair, he looked like a human rarity. “No, not likely at all.” He tightened his arm around the passenger’s.
“Get your filthy hands off of me.” The passenger tried to yank free of the red-haired man.
“No.” Federico leaned toward the man’s ear. “You do not speak until we ask you to speak.” He turned his eyes to meet Sharon’s. “Now do you believe me?”
“You are a…” The passenger’s eyes rolled up into his head and his mouth froze around an empty attempt to finish his sentence. The fingers of the hand at the end of the arm held by the red-haired man splayed out like a claw.
The red-haired man’s thumb pressed into the pressure point at the passenger’s wrist. “I’m a Buddhist. It goes against my grain to hurt people.” He let go. “But it also goes against my grain to let someone hurt my friends. That’s where I make an exception to inflicting violence. So shut the hell up—so I don’t have to hurt you.”
“Thank you, JJ.” Federico smiled at the red-haired man. “This is Sharon. Sharon, meet JJ which is short for Jujitsu Jack. As you can see, he knows a thing or two about the martial arts.”
“I’d be a fool not to believe you now.” Sharon kept hold of her hammer. “Tell me what’s going on?” She locked eyes with the passenger. “How do you know my name?”
“Not here.” Federico held her gaze as if trying to lay open his motives for her to see through him. “The Strelitzia doesn’t play by the same set of rules as we do. Come with us.” He reached into the coat pocket of the passenger and retrieved an acupalmtell. “The Strelitzia has something that belongs to us. We want it back. Given the passenger’s interest in you—you’re somehow connected. You help us, and we’ll help you.”
Sharon studied the three men for clues. The young freckled and red-haired man, and tall slender distinguished Federico, seemed more earnest than the clean-cut passenger, who now seemed sinister. “How?”
“We have ways of getting inside the internment camp.” Federico’s soft voice left no hint of anything resembling a lie. “We can have Eve out by this afternoon. But first, we need to have some questions answered by the Strelitzia.” He tilted his head left. “We go to our building, ask the questions, and then sneak into the camp to rescue your wife. You have my word.”
“I’ve known Federico a long time,” JJ interrupted. “He never lies.”
“Everyone lies,” Sharon said.
“Give us a chance to prove our word is good.” Federico cocked his head. “Take a walk with us to the building I showed you in the picture. We’ll have you inside the camp before sundown.”
Sharon squinted skyward. The sun hung around one o’clock. If Federico kept his word, she would have her arms around Eve within five hours. “If I go with you, I want the spectraletto.”
Federico laughed. “We saw you back there with your hammer. You really need our weapon too?”
“Yes. There are three of you.”
“All right then.” Federico slapped the passenger on the back and spoke into his ear. “You don’t want to know what JJ will do to your pressure points if you misbehave.” He thumbed his weapon’s safety switch to on. He turned it butt end toward Sharon. “Here you go. Now will you come with me?”
Sharon checked the weapon’s energy gauge. The needle pointed into the green at eighty percent full. “For now, yes.” She stuffed the spectraletto into the waistband of her dungarees.
The passenger’s top lip twitched. “You’re making a mistake.”
“No talking.” JJ put a hand to the back of his neck pressing his thumb and forefinger into pressure points at his neck. “I don’t need a spectraletto to shut you up. And hey, there are pressure points you don’t even know you have. Think about that.”
Federico fished around in the passenger’s pockets. He retrieved an SComCat and a knife. “A trade.” After slipping the items into his own pocket, he pulled out a flexible mask. “You won’t be able to see, talk or hear with this on. Not to worry, you’ll be able to breathe just fine.” He slipped the mask over the passenger’s head. “Shall we?” Federico pointed toward the building west of the glistening Cloud Gate sculpture. “Let’s get our questions answered, and then find your Eve.”