Susan recognized the sound of the footsteps coming near her before she even saw his figure turn the corner. Her heart seized up instinctively. She placed the paint brush in the jar and stood, frozen, waiting to see his face. Would he look the same? Did she look the same? Self consciously she ran her hand along her braids and pulled a few strands forward. It had been a long day, working on the mural at what seemed to be, in her opinion, a random empty outpost of Romer Onyx owned properties. This was the first of several mural installments she had been contracted to paint.
Her bronze arms were spackled with paint and dust. This site was a ghost town out here. Why would they bother with mural art, here? she wondered. But she dutifully did what she was instructed and had the first traces of a large 10 foot high, eight feet wide image of a flower garden emerging along the side of a grey brick wall. In two weeks they had made good progress.
Before he could disarm her with his flash of a crooked smile and perfect teeth, she frowned and said, more loudly than was necessary, “Well, I’ll be. Kelly! What on earth brings you to these hinterlands? What…did you get lost?” Anything she said just felt silly. She forced a hollow sounding laugh.
He played along. “I was in the neighborhood.”
Inwardly, she couldn’t imagine what would compel him to come out here to find her. No sign of him for years and years, and now, here he was. Out of the blue. Her bravado could not mask her fear. He smiled softly and gave a long pause. Everything inside him buckled into a heap of mixed emotions.
“It’s been too long, Susan” he said moving towards her. She froze in place and allowed him to place his arms around her. They held each other for nearly a minute. Then he pulled away and said, “But I am not here simply to say hi. There’s something very wrong.”
“But…” she stammered, recovering her senses. “How did you even know I was here?” She waved her arms around wildly.
“Keesha”, he said flatly. “She’s waiting in the car around the corner. I tried to keep the car hidden. It’s hopefully blocked from arial view where it is.”
Her confusion thickened. “Keesha? What on earth are you doing talking to Keesha? Is she in trouble?” How could she be? Susan had been keeping laser like attention on her ever since Keesha had moved in. They were together nearly all the time, painting and planning. What could Kelly know that she didn’t?
“Why isn’t she with you? Why is she waiting in the car?” He ignored this last question and jumped in. “There’s so much to tell you.”
He face was weary, older, than she remembered. “It’s Romer Onyx” he continued, glancing around as if someone might sneak up behind him at any moment. But in all directions not a single car or pedestrian had passed by all day. There was nothing around them except for this warehouse, crumbling on three sides, with boarded up windows and littered by some sparse trees refusing to die. “Let’s sit down,” he said reaching for her elbow. The feel of his fingers on her skin electrified her in ways that incited both arousal and anxiety. She pulled away and say down defiantly. He laughed to himself. The world around them might be changing but she never would. There was something immensely comforting in her consistency.
“We’ve been guarding the data pods all these years. But we were wrong. We’ve been distracted by fighting at the wrong front line. Whatever is, or was, stored in those data pods isn’t what they’re after. RO found another way to reclaim control. And Keesha, with her two faithful side kicks, Ryder and Deacon figured it out.”
“I don’t understand…” she mumbled. Susan had not overcome the shock that Kelley was even here, sitting right beside her.
He explained to her about the plans that Keesha had uncovered. “Now don’t get mad at her!” Kelley interjected before Susan could react.
“She’s been goin into my stuff….?”
“She had to!’ Kelley said. “I’m here because she sent me here to talk to you. She’s afraid you’ll be mad at her. That’s why she hung back.”
“Well, she’s damn right!”
“Ground her later, Susan!” he said, exasperated. “Right now we’ve got bigger issues.”
“How can you actually rely on anything the three of those kids tell you, Kelley? How can they be sure!”
“Because. We have had confirmation from English.”
“I haven’t seen him in ages! He’s still alive?” Susan remembered him fondly from the days on their block having summer evening cook outs. He was famous for his pulled pork.
“Well, Barely. He’s been working for R.O in the food and catering group. He was watching and listening. Two days ago he was working one of their stock holder events and he heard what they’re up to. Poor man, just fainted dead away. Fortunately Ryder was there too, impersonating a food server. He was able to rescue English before any noticed the old man went down. No one saw it but Ryder. They snuck out unnoticed. English was able to pass the information along to Pops.”
“Pops! You got that poor old man mixed up in this, too?”
“Now just hold up!” Kelley demanded. Susan looked at him startled by his tone. “Just let me finish!” He added more softly, “I know what I’m tellin you is a lot to take in. But it’s all true.”
“So Pops sends messages through the old tunnels to Deacon who passes the information along to Ryder and Keesha.”
“What does Ryder’s mother think about all of this?”
Kelley paused, his eyes revealing guilt. “She doesn’t know.”
Susan gave a disapproving sigh. “And..?” she said indignantly.
“And….we will tell her. Eventually. We told her that Ryder was in Arizona working on the water project there. He’s been hiding with English. He’s safe. Don’t worry, He’s in the car with Keesha right now. Sometimes he stays with me and Deacon in the tunnels or anywhere else we can keep ourselves out of sight. What English heard confirms what Keesha has discovered.”
“By hacking your computer.”
She was too angry now to respond. He knew that expression, but he pressed forward.
“R.O has a plan to recolonize us. It doesn’t matter that we rejected their technology. It doesn’t matter that we decolonized ourselves and have become entirely self-sustaining with the help of sister cities who followed after us. The whole network of us is about to be destroyed.”
At this, Susan paused, sighed and stretched her legs out on the curb. Her anger washed away. She looked back at her emerging mural. The rich blues swirling downwards into loving spirals encircling happy yellow sunflowers. Passionate red tulips peeked through in the edges, demanding the eyes attention. So much joy. So much detail. A hopeful visage. But so much more was still left in traces, undone. Was everything she had been doing a lie?
Kelley continued. “They’ve found a way to force surveillance and control on us. They are creating an environmental catastrophe that will drive our community to the unthinkable. The community has been experiencing some strange events lately. Seismic ruptures in the ground. Loud sounds like an earth quake.”
“Keesha mentioned that to me,” Susan admitted. She hadn’t given it any mind at the time. How far had she really stuck her head in the sand?
“They’re using some sort of fracking machines, some kind of equipment, to manufacture geologic attacks on our land and our drinking water. They’re eradicating our entire infrastructure.”
“Because they have a new way of forcing us to become sites of their data mining. Once we have no more clean drinking water, when our gardens begin to fail –when the water and food of all sister cities is contaminated, they can sell us those things, because we will be in such need of them.”
“So R.O. wants to make a buck by selling us food and water?” This seemed rather small and petty even for R.O.
“No, Susan. It’s more than that. The food, if you want to call it that, isn’t just food. Using GMO research, they’ve figured out how to create food that has microscopic data chips in them. Once in place, everything about that person both inside and out, can be tracked, monitored.” He paused. “And controlled.”
“How could they possibly have done the research to make this happen? How could they have tested this on willing….” Her voice trailed off.
“They used fetal development science. Or…I don’t know. It’s confusing even to me,” Kelley said.
Reality sunk in. A second later Susan leapt up, ran to the sparse patch of dying grass along the curb, and vomited. Kelley respectfully looked away and waited. She purged the contents of her stomach one more time and then turned back toward him.
“There’s something I never told you, Kelley. Something about Keesha.”
“Something about Keesha, what?” a voice demanded. Kelley and Susan whirled their attention to see Keesha standing there, armed with paint brushes and rags. “I wanted to explain to you in person why I’ve been hacking your computer. After I asked Kelley to do it, I felt like a big chicken. So I came to tell you myself. But it sounds now like you’ve got some explaining to do yourself.” From the strained expression across her forehead, Kelley thought she might cry.
“Honey. I…” Susan looked at her hands. She knotted her fingers together. “I just wanted a baby, I wanted you, so badly. I didn’t know…” she put her face in her hands and began to sob. Kelley walked toward her.
“You what, mom?!” Keesha cried. “You didn’t know, what?”
Both women were crying now.
“Romer Onyx offered to provide the technical assistance so that I could conceive you. I didn’t have the money to simply go through the donor program the way I had with your sister. And R.O seemed to so…” her face twisted, “willing to help. In exchange, I had to agree to allow them to alter the genetic make-up of the embryo.” She shook her head, reaching for words, for a memory. “I don’t remember their exact words, now. It’s been so long. It honestly never occurred to me that it would come to this.” Then, as if to re assure herself more than anything else she added, “And they have left us alone. Mr. Parks asks after Keesha sometimes. But no one else has bothered us. Especially because Keesha hasn’t lived with me for years.” Tears forced themselves out through the corners of her eyes.
Keesha instinctively placed her arms around her mother’s shoulders. Anger gave way to sympathy.
“I know, Mom. At least I thought maybe I knew. But I needed to hear it from you.”
“What?” She stared at her daughter in disbelief.
“Well,” Keesha said deliberatively, “I didn’t always know. Just recently. In one of my hacks one day last week when you were out here finishing the grid for the painting, I was alone in your apartment. Kelley and I found some documents intended as memos between Mr. Parks and the Board of Directors. It was a draft of his presentation he gave a few days ago. As an appendix it listed a procedure that was conducted about fifteen years ago. They partnered with a fertility agency and women trying to conceive.” Her voice became dry and strained.
Kelley jumped in. “You were listed as one of the participants. It laid out how they used embryonic infusion with microscopic nanosensors to create a human body that could be designed literally from before birth to be tracked and monitored. The chip is made of copper and magnesium. After being infused with the human DNA sequence, it ‘grows’ a 16 digit code that connects the DNA to a signal that beams the information to a nearby smartphone or tablet that has the security clearance. They needed to see if the chip technology would survive the growth and development of the human body, and if the human body would grow and develop with the infusion of the chip.”
Keesha looked at Kelley. “At first, I fell apart. I was mad. Really mad. And scared. Kelley helped calm me down. I mean, to realize that my whole life Romer Onyx had the ability to know everything about me.”
Susan turned her attention to Kelley, a strained and expectant look drawing her lips into peculiar twist at the edges. “I wanted to tell you,” her voice trailed off. She started again. “Remember that day? In the park?” The tears started again. “I just didn’t know how to tell you. I thought, if you knew the truth, about how I had used R.O technology you would never speak to me again. It was such a betrayal of everything we believed in. And yet…” She gazed deeply at Keesha. “How can anything that brought me my baby angel be bad?”
“Susan,” he said in a soft tone, “Yeah, I was shocked. Hurt a little. But each of us makes our own deals with the devil every day. Each of us makes our choices where and when we might compromise what we believe in for something else we believe in. It’s never that cut and dry. Even for me.”
Kelley moved closer to Susan, hesitantly, not sure of how she might take this news. “I believe in this fight. The resistance. I have given my whole life to it. I love our community. But I also love you. And Keesha. No matter what. And I’ll always stand by you.”
Susan threw herself into his arms, and a thousand ton weight was cast away into thin air. “But we have to keep up the resistance. Because what they did to Keesha, to the other babies who were part of that experiment. They’re planning to do it now to all of us.”
Susan recovered herself. She straightened her braids, and smoothed the wrinkled along the front of her plaid blouse. “I don’t understand. The fertility clinic closed a decade ago,”
“That’s because the fertility clinic was just a trial experiment. To see how people could function with the new technology inserted. As you can see,” he nodded toward Keesha, “It works pretty well. Here’s a healthy bright beautiful young woman standing in front of us as the proof of that.”
Keesha playfully did a small curtsy and giggled. Then she stuck out her tongue at Kelley.
Feeling more able to process and analyze it all, Susan began to worry about what this had meant for Keesha. “But that also means all this time, R.O has had its claws into my baby.” The fight was returning to her. “They know where she is right now!” Susan looked around the building, and up and down the street panicked.
“The good news is that the data from the experimental babies like Keesha was wiped out a few years after they were born. No one knows how. It was one of the greatest data breaches R.O. ever experienced. The Black Hatters weren’t responsible. Hell, we didn’t even know about this until just last week. We retrieved a few electronic uploads of some older high security documents that warned the medical personnel that their project had been breached. They lost all the data. The DNA sensors worked, but their security failed.” He laughed a little. “And the signals to and from the human nano-sensors were broken. Maybe that’s why they gave up the project, and moved to Plan B. But someone…Well, whoever it was, we owe them a debt of gratitude.”
“So, then how do they plan on using this technology to take over the community?”
“By manufacturing a crisis.” It was Ryder’s voice. They all turned and saw him standing at the doorway of the broken down factory 200 yards up the city block. “I decided to look around while I waited for ya’ll. I found something that might interest you.”
They all shuffled slowly, exhausted, toward Ryder whose tall figure in the doorway seemed somehow even taller than usual. Kelley noted how much he was growing to resemble his father. The pang of loss surged.
Their eyes took a few moments to adjust to the dim and empty space. Around them lay piles of old tile, bricks, a few bags of sagging mortar that spilled across the floor. Light shone in thin rays down through the cracks between the boarded up windows that rose high to the fifty-foot ceilings.
“I found this,” Ryder announced gesturing with his arm toward the far corner of the room. A large lump of a mechanical device loomed thirty feet into the air and slumped like a slain giraffe, covered by a grey tarp. They walked over in unison. Ryder gently lifted the cover. “This. I am not sure what it is. But I am pretty sure I know what it does.”
From what they could glean in the half lit environment was a machine comprised of a 25 inch drilling mechanism apparatus, and a motor that would have run a tractor trailer. As if studying a sacred work of art in a chapel, they each stood motionless in awe.
“This must be what they’re using to create seismic disruptions. It’s a re fashioned fracking drill”, Ryder said.
“Paired with drilling to make tunnels. To run toxins into the water,” Kelley added.
Susan whispered, “There is mile upon mile of empty buildings owned by R.O surrounding our community. They must have their tunnels and equipment running out from all points.” Her stomach tightened. “We’re surrounded.”
Keesha said, “Once they destroy our food and water. Once they destabilize our buildings. We will have no choice but to feed ourselves with food and water from R.O. materials they’ve infused with the nano sensors. And we will have to move, too. Into their world.” She spat on the ground.
It finally struck Susan. She exclaimed, “That’s why they want me to work on these murals!”
Kelley looked confused. Despite her fear it felt good to connect the dots and to feel she now had something to contribute that might help. “Because they will want to create these communities for us. They want to create the illusion of familiarity, of identity. Making it look like it’s our neighborhood rather than something they manufactured – for us. They need us to buy into this. So that we won’t realize we’ve been colonized.” A rage replaced excitement. “And they’ve been using me to do it!” Kelley placed his arm around Susan to sooth her. He said, “It’s time to tell everyone the truth. We need Pops. We need English. We need everyone. But I have an idea.”