The walls of the National Craylin Crash Site Memorial are awash in spotlights, but the girl is only a vague form hiding in the trees bordering the far edge of the parking lot. The black, skin-tight suit wraps her like a shadow, from her toes up around her head where she’s bunched her bright red hair. Even her face is obscured behind the nanobot mesh – thousands of flea-sized machines linking themselves together to create the shimmering black fabric. They part in microscopic strands across the spaces over her eyes and regulate their color to match the prevailing hues. She’s all but invisible to the guards – at least a dozen more than last week when she broke into the complex.
Peering out from behind the tree trunk, she scans across the pools of orange light cast on the asphalt. A dozen 100-megawatt spotlights angle down from the walkway ringing the top of the curving wall. Her eyes trace a path across the blacktop, dropping digital pins that bob in her e-tac display – markers guiding her route through the spaces where the light stretches thin.
Up near the wall, a row of metal barriers rises like a giant’s game of jacks. Their crisscrossing iron beams punctuate the coil of razor wire looping 6-feet high from one to the next. The setup is impressive and sturdy enough to tear the treads off a tank, or hold back an advancing army of protesters.
Most wouldn’t be so foolish to try, but tonight Claire Revel is an army with a single soldier.
On the other side of the barrier, three AS-52 Hornets hover on cushions of blue-ion glow, ready to jump into the air. Military-developed for combat zones, the buglike vehicles seat three-man crews in their bellies, hidden behind six-inch-thick arcosteel plates that gleam rhino skin gray. Gatling guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers on their roof-mounted weapons racks swivel in slow arcs, scanning the parking lot, waiting, ready.
The leaves rustle as another Hornet glides in above the treetops. Through the branches she can see the trio of ion fan thrusters thwumping as heat-sensing scanners survey the grounds. This is the fifth patrol to pass by in the half-hour since she settled into her spot. Her muscles flex under the thin layer of nanobots, feeling their little pinchers clinging to her skin as they fan away the sweat, masking her body heat signature. The night air swirling off the Hornet’s thrusters whistles through the leaves. It moves on, leaving only the morning breeze and the crickets that slowly build their chirping chorus. The cool spring night still holds the dawn close – not ready to give up the purple darkness to the rising sun.
There is no moon to betray Claire Revel, only the stars and the tight line of air traffic cruising into the Low Port. Their blinking lights dart down the long corridor leading in from orbit.
She blinks and then she’s off, sprinting across the parking lot, dancing through the dark space between the orange spotlights.
The guards are oblivious. The girl’s too fast, too smart, too good at hiding exactly where they expect nothing. She is a whisper, the flutter of moth wings. Her movements hide in the corner of their eyes. By the time they sense her position she’s gone. The night vision goggles some of them wear are only a hindrance, restricting their fields of view. She ducks through the razor wire and adjusts her body into a wide-spread X, arms and legs stretched behind the long iron crosses of the truck-buster. It’s only a precaution. She knows the guards won’t look for her there.
From this position she watches them, feeling the rhythm of their patrol. Breathing in time with it. Filling her lungs.
A Doberman halts at the end of its leash, ears pricked at some sound unheard by its human handler.
The guard in the ticket booth hangs up the phone and stands in the open door, rubbing tired eyes.
Along the top of the wall the guards patrol slowly, pausing now and then to look out over the parking lot before continuing on around the circular walkway.
She choses her moment to move but misjudges the razor wire. It slices into the thin skin of nanobots, which cluster eye-blink quick, dulling the blade before it reaches her skin. Scuttling silently across the gravel path, she reaches the base of the thirty-foot-tall brick wall of the National Craylin Crash Site Memorial. The site’s main compound is a figure eight – two circular walls, each a hundred yards across, with several square buildings clinging to the outside of the walls like barnacles. A tunnel stretches from the crash site to the Low Port complex a hundred yards north.
The western circle of the figure-eight forms the walled arena around the crashed craylin ship. The eastern circle is her destination: the 6.3-million gallon reservoir that supplies water to the adjacent craylin processing facility.
Claire squeezes into the deep crevice formed where the two circular walls meet. She looks up at the old sign painted on the brickwork, its faded lettering – Sponsored by Your Friends at The American Food Production Company and under that, their slogan: We Feed the Solar System – peeling away after so many years.
Thirty feet to the top.
Her fingers dig into the concrete seam and the nanobots react to the pressure by inverting their pinchers and grabbing the wall like gecko toes. Up she goes, scurrying, jabbing her fingertips into hairline cracks and hooking them on sloppy mortar work, bracing her toes against the curving walls, finding footholds where none seem to be – an expert climber clinging to the smallest crevices, her college days free climbing 5.14 pitches in the Colorado foothills finally paying off.
Below her, around the wall: The crunch of booted feet on gravel.
She freezes, bracing herself halfway up as the guard comes along the path and halts right below her.
He looks back the way he came.
Reaches into his pocket.
Pulls out a candy bar and unwraps it.
Takes a bite.
She can hear the crunch of the peanuts between his molars, the slurp of his lips, the crackle of the plastic wrapper as he pulls it back for another bite. He’s eating too fast and coughs, chokes, covers his mouth and tries to clear his throat.
Hanging just above him, she waits like a spider – the suit camouflage gray like the concrete blocks she clings to, fingers screaming, heart pounding against the backside of the tightly held breath in her lungs.
Her knuckles pop and the guard looks back over his shoulder, whipping around to search for the source of the sound. He doesn’t hear her fall, only feels her legs wrap around his neck, pinching tightly enough to contain his breath and any noise he might make as she rides him to the ground. His legs kick as he grabs at her, but she tightens her hold, compressing his neck until he passes out.
She looks both ways, knowing another patrol will be along in seconds.
Her mind drifts with the nanobots and they form a hook at the end of her left foot. She reaches down as the hook flows out from her toe and she draws it out, away, pulling a micro-thin nano-fiber line behind it. She attaches the hook to the guard’s belt and springs back up on the wall, dragging out more line as she moves up to the rail lining the walkway above.
You wanted a challenge.
She slips like an eel through the barbed wire loops along the rim and lands quietly on the narrow, metal walkway. Two guard stands nearby – they hear her come up and over the edge of the wall but by the time they turn she’s on the first, jabbing three times, her fingers pinched like a bird’s beak as she pokes him with quick, rattlesnake strikes – collarbone, kidney, temple.
The guard falls backward, drops his rifle into her waiting hands.
“Hey!” the second guard grunts as the butt of the rifle connects with his nose, muffling his cry.
She grabs his shirt collar and pulls him toward her, spinning him as he comes, wrapping the rifle around his neck and pressing it hard into his windpipe. As he struggles into unconsciousness she plants her left foot into the walkway and commands the nanobots to pull up the wire. The unconscious guard on the ground comes up the side of the wall and lodges in the nest of barbed wire. The line snaps loose from her foot and as it rushes off like a bullwhip it wraps itself around the walkway railing, tying the crumpled guard’s body tight in its spot just as another patrol comes along.
She crouches on the walkway where the two circular walls meet, sets the rifle down quietly and cranes her neck up over the railing. Out of earshot around the walkway two guards stand close together. She can hear the mumble of their conversation. Rising slightly on her toes, Claire looks down into the crash site on her left. Thirty feet below her the ship sits in the dirt at the center of the ringing wall. Around it lie the five craylin mothers, nearly motionless, their skin shimmering, their tentacles moving in rhythmic undulating motions like grandmothers rubbing their hands in worry. On the wall of the arena a clock counts down the minutes until they give birth.
Every day it happens.
Every twenty-seven hours, thirty-two minutes and forty-eight seconds it’s the same thing. Thousands born, thousands gathered, thousands slaughtered next door and packaged for sale in groceries, or shipped alive up the skylift.
She sighs, shakes her head.
Tries to force away the sickening feeling that nothing she does will ever bring an end to it.
She unzips the small backpack and pulls out the package, remembering the Ratman in his Low Port hovel, moldy rugs hung for walls.
“Just drop it in the water and get out as quickly as you can,” the Ratman says. “Very easy. Very effective. You don’t touch the mothers – don’t do anything stupid.”
She laughs at him. At his gross little face, stretched and bony, thin whiskers and sideways teeth.
“Of course,” the Ratman says with a wink. “Why would you?”
She looks over the railing, down into the inky water.
Sees her reflection looking back, asking her all the usual questions about why she’s doing this.
The cardboard package trembles.
“This isn’t dismantling collectorbots,” the Ratman says. “He’s impressed with you already. He’s ready.”
“I’m ready too,” she says. “Tell him I am.”
The Ratman nods, hands her a package the size of a shoebox. No lettering or symbols, just holes punched in the sides, like a pet store box.
“To let the water in,” he says.
She looks over her shoulder, down into the arena at the five craylin mothers lying like beached squid in the dirt around their ship.
She holds the package out over the lip of the reservoir.
Let’s her mind relax and her fingers follow.
The box falls into the water.
It splashes and floats momentarily before sinking down as the water streams in through the little hole punches. She can see it for a moment just below the surface and then it’s gone, out of sight, leaving only bubbles trailing up to the surface.
Then she’s off, over the railing, back down the way she came.
She lands lightly and whips out a spray paint can, pops the top and sprays out the message she painted on the wall last week after dismantling the collectorbots.
Then she crouches, watching the parking lot for the flash of headlights.
A car parked out on the road.
The nanobots gloving her hand swarm down to her wrist, revealing her fist clenched around a small round object. She presses a button on the top and two tripod legs spring out of one end. She sets the tripod on the sidewalk, propped so the legged-end is facing the wall. A light blinks on the side, but she’s sprinting out toward the parking lot, slipping through the razor wire, skipping between the spotlights to the car parked beyond the line of trees.
The light on the little tripod goes solid.
A green laser fans out from the end, scanning across the cement wall, burning an image onto its surface.
The car door opens and she slips into the spacious interior, takes a glance out as the laser closes, leaving a huge mural charred across the wall.
A flock of monarch butterflies flying above the letters C.L.A.
The door slides shut, the car begins to move, and as her eyes adjust to the dim interior her senses return.
A greasy smell in the air.
Lips licking fingertips clean.
A paper tray slick with sauce clattering to the floor by her feet.
A satisfied sigh and the flick of a little handheld blowtorch.
Across from her sits a shriveled man with wispy whiskers. The little blue flame moves toward a long, thin pipe. The man smiles at her, his face contorting until he looks like nothing more than a scrawny rat.
“Let me see your face,” he says.
The nanobots part like a curtain across her cheeks. They scuttle away, revealing her nose, her cheeks, her long eyelashes. Her short red hair springs out in tight curls.
“So young,” he says, wiping his mouth. “Did everything go as planned?”
“You have my bag?” she asks.
Bonzoi nods, reaches down by the seat and grabs a black duffle. He hands it across to her. Sauce drips on his whiskers.
“You’re eating craylin?” she asks, taking the bag, trying to keep herself from gagging at the sweet, fried smell inside the car.
“I’ll ask the questions,” Bonzoi says.
She bites her lip, sets the duffle bag on the seat, narrows her eyes.
And then smiles. “The package is in the water.”
“And you delivered the message?” he hisses.
She nods. “It’ll take them two weeks to paint over the burn.”
“You’re proving a valuable resource,” Bonzoi whispers, before reaching over his shoulder and tapping the glass that separates the passenger area from the driver. “It’s hard to find people as dedicated as you up here. North America is a wasteland of talent. Or at least that’s what he says.”
The car slows to a stop. “My driver will take you to the city,” he says. “I’ll have instructions for you tomorrow.”
“The market?” Claire asks. “Same place?”
Bonzoi nods, his hand on the door handle.
“Don’t let him down,” he croaks. “The Monarch does not appreciate impulsivity.”
The car door opens and he slips out, across the road to another car parked across the street. As the door slides shut, Claire sees the other car speed away in the opposite direction.
Then she’s moving again, whisked out onto the highway toward Columbus, trying to feel confident, to ride the excitement of breaking into the crash site. But the smell inside the car won’t let her. She nudges the paper food tray with the toe of her shoe, pushing it under the seat across from her, trying not to gag.
De-suit, she thinks and the nanobots release their links and their grip on her skin, swarming off her and forming into a tight, black ball that floats glowing until she snatches it up and tucks it in her bag. She pulls on her jeans and jacket.
The car drops her off at her apartment, a brick box in the student housing district east of Prairie State University.
Inside, she sets the duffle by the door, hangs her jacket on the hook next to her roommate’s.
“You here?” she asks the quiet apartment. “Hailey?”
Down the hallway, the sound of muffled crying.
She looks up at the empty white wall of the living room, shakes her head and sighs.
The hallway floorboards squeak as she walks down to the kitchen. Her roommate is at the table, her eyes red. She wipes her nose and looks away.
Hailey chokes back a sob, doesn’t look up.
“You took down the poster,” says Claire. “Where’d you put it?”
Her roommate looks up at her with bloodshot eyes.
“They’re starting to arrest people, Claire,” she says, her voice cracking.
“We can’t have that poster up in here,” says Hailey. “Not anymore.”
Claire looks around the kitchen, sees the crumpled poster stuffed in the trash bin. “You threw it away?”
Hailey’s voice erupts. The chair skitters away as she stands up. “I don’t want to go to jail, Claire!”
“You’re not going to jail.”
“What if someone saw?”
“We want people to see,” says Claire, pleading. “That’s how a movement builds strength – when people see that normal, everyday people believe what we believe.”
“I don’t believe in blowing things up,” says Hailey. “I don’t want anyone to get hurt.”
Claire sighs. “Whoever’s blowing things up,” she says, “they haven’t hurt anything. They’re going after the infrastructure – the bots, and the…”
Hailey’s shoulders sag.
“I thought you wanted this?” Claire asks. “You told me–”
“I wanted to help the craylins,” Hailey says. “But not this. It’s all over the news. They’re calling us terrorists.”
Claire runs a hand up through her short red hair, scratches her scalp with her fingertips.
“You’re not going to get arrested,” she says.
“I don’t mean to let you down.”
“You’re not letting me down,” Claire says.
“Really?” Hailey asks, wiping the tears out of her eyes. “Because my mom would kill me if she knew we’d hung a CLA poster in here.”
Claire tries to smile. “It’s okay,” she says.
“Do you want to watch Gossip Central? They’ve got a new story about Theo Vanguard.”
“Sure,” Claire shrugs. “What’d he do this time?”
The conversation continues, but her mind is elsewhere.
She doesn’t need to know, Claire thinks. Better to keep her in the dark.
Hailey’s talking, but Claire barely hears her roommate as the girl flops down on the couch and calls up the Feed’s television app, scrolling through the list that only she can see in her e-tacs.
We’re better off without people like you, Claire thinks, watching Hailey manipulate the virtual menu with flicks of her fingers.