Hacking the Sun

 

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Prologue

Under the morning rays of a New York City sun, traffic is still terrible. But, energy circulates around every corner of the bustling streets. Just a restless Tuesday, grind to grind, coffee to coffee, and hot dog to hot dog. People eventually learn to get along with the stipulations of one sunrise and the next.

New York Post, Premature Elation read the cover. In one bench or another, typical political faces told better tales than the information within. Then posters here and there - on corners, fronts, and apartment sides. Everywhere, paperback letters shouting warnings. But the news was not a concern to the street artist; not to the performer, not the demo distributor, or entrepreneur, and not the morning jogger.

Man's elation to the terror of the morning workday - smiles. Sometimes they are scarce, despite the homeless man on the corner of Greenwich and Fulton promoting them with a cardboard sign. Alas the aim of a weekday, even sunny ones, is to keep moving.

So he kept moving, contemplating, second-guessing, watching through his thick sunglasses the day-to-day minutia coursing the city's veins. "Watch the road!" He could only just hear the exclamation outside his headphones. Thus, he turned his attention left toward the street and found the middle finger sticking out the taxi window.

Muffled vehicle engines, ghostly faces under urban boughs. He passed the whites and reds of cement and brick, in the direction of the tallest building he could find, past another tall building. Another squirrel would pass his gaze, past the solemn building with arches for windows and a cross in the center. Greenery gathered before his gaze until he reached the wet squares of New York City's most recent memorial.

Among the solemn souls already visiting the park-venturing through bushes, meditating throughout concrete-one person heeded his phone's screen along the black edge of inscribed names.

A young Caucasian student in a green hoodie, regular jeans, and wearing glasses patrolled the square pools. His smartphone seemed to maneuver him, guiding his eager steps, so much so that he failed to heed the impending trench coat coming his way. "Ah!" he suddenly yelped, stumbling but grabbing the edge of the pool to avoid falling. Quickly recovering, he faced the unheeded stranger.

The stranger, a tall man in a white trench coat, stood upright and seemingly unfazed. His hands automatically reverted to the rim of his thick-sunglasses as they reverted to the student in his hoodie. With a meager expression, the student turned in response to their collision; his gaze fell on the thick sunglasses and large headphones over a beanie worn; pale skin in the vestiges of his clothing.

"Apologies!" the stranger expounded.

"That may have been my fault," the student said apologetically, scratching his head before returning to his phone. "Damn! Almost had a Squirtle."

"No matter. It may be that I could have avoided you if my thoughts would only return to what they were."

The student looked up from his phone, having caught an air of remorse in the stranger's voice despite his invisible expression. Placing the device in his pocket, he looked back at the names inscribed in marble, before turning back to the older stranger. "Did you lose someone? If you did, I'm sorry."

But the stranger shook his head. "These are not the names clouding my thoughts."

"Just out for a stroll? Me too."

"I do wish it were but a simple stroll..." and the strange man's eyes swept the ground. But quickly, his focus leaned on the student. "Excuse us. Questions, they keep stirring around my mind. Can I confide in a stranger like yourself to answer just a few?"

The student shrugged. "I guess. I got some time before classes."

"You attend an academy?" inquired the stranger, stepping closer.

"Yea, I go to a University," answered the student, eyeing his strangeness.

"Which one?"

"Columbia."

"One of the good ones, yes?"

"Heh! You aren't from around here, are you?"

"It is, as they say, a long stor-... We should sit down."

Both of them paced backward a few feet, to one of many benches flanked by white oaks. Thus, awkwardly seating themselves in view of the black square, they felt the cool November breeze. The strange man wasted no time. "Do you think the planet is in a fair state?"

Wincing, the student replied, "Kinda depends."

"Because you do not know? Or because it is a question that cannot be answered?"

"I mean...Could be better. But it could always be better, right? It's a really broad question"

And the stranger looked away, twiddling his thumbs in silence to himself. "I suppose you are right." Then he returned his eager attention. "What of these posters around the city? Could your election improving things?"

The student cynically scoffed, a white smile painting his face. But a few seconds into the question, the smile faded, and his demeanor retreated into sobriety.

"I-" he hesitated. "Things aren't looking good. And I can't really explain how it ended up that way. Maybe if you asked a Political Science Major." Looking over to the stranger's lap, he noticed his gloved thumbs still twiddling, and his knees quietly trembling. "Are you okay, man?"

"Yes!" he wobbled. "I've just been without my, umm... Something once calmed me."

"A medication?"

"Yes! A medication! For the past few months, I have been without this medication, and I don't perceive anything as I once did."

An emphatic look then dropped from the student to the stranger. "So that's why-"-he coughed-"Why go without your medication?"

"I've been here for too long. I injected all of it. And there is no more."

"You try a pharmacy?"

"I know it does not exist here. Only where I'm from."

"Well, you can Amazon that stuff. Or something. What's it called?"

"Hmm?"

"The name of the medication?"

But the stranger sighed obliviously, losing himself in thought while veering his tinted gaze to the sky. After collecting his vision of the sun, he stood from their bench, meeting the student's gaze one last time. "What is your name?" he asked.

"It's Adam," he answered.

"Adam from Columbia. I wish you grace on your path. And hope what comes next only befits your aspirations."

"I appreciate that!" Adam enthused, extending his arm. "What's your name?"

The stranger stared at Adam's hand suspiciously, at first. "Mik' ael," he answered, then shook his hand.

"Mick Al," he tried enunciating. "Nice meeting you."

"And you."

Amicably, they parted ways, one departing the memorial and one sauntering into the city's tallest building nearby.

"See forever." Darkness in the elevator rising up the skyscraper. After a long ascent, hundreds of years had passed before Mik' ael's eyes. A winding screen had depicted the relatively brief history of this part of the city. Something about seeing the towers disappear on-screen had made him nervous, lament almost.

Now he was in a queue, alongside the same group of people who accompanied his elevator ride upward. They were environed by shadows and light painting their room a dark blue, flanked by bright tapestries of New York City that lighted every step on the path towards See Forever Theater.

Being nervous was not going to help him or anyone else. He knew that. It's the right thing, he mentally repeated over and over again. Then the blackness came undone, the dark walls rising, rising on all sides, and the sun beaming through and through every surrounding window. In all his time, he never recounted anything so mesmerizing. New York City's morning glory reigned nowhere more apparent than it did this high inside One World Trade Center.

A stream of emotions flooded him with the sunlight. Its careening morning melody gravitated him towards the windows as he stared across The Hudson. For this, he had to calm his breath. Everyone else dispersed throughout the room, taking pictures, utilizing their tablets, posing alongside the grand view. Contrarily, he stared, simply stared and loaded everything he perceived into memory. How to proceed from here, however, that question heaved his heart.

Rebounding from his long inhale of the city, he looked down, away from everything but the floor. Sighing a long and sorrowful sigh, he would eventually return his gaze. Only a few clouds in the sky made it seem rather empty.

"I wonder how events would have transpired." Finally, he removed his glasses and beheld New York's Jewel through his unadulterated gaze; he had bright yellow Irises. He removed his headphones, followed by his beanie, letting his long, tapered ears hear without hindrance. Just a figment of his reflection shown on the window, a pale complexion, unlike any human.

***

After the large elevator reached the bottom floor, a man in a suit and his entourage trod a series of hallways toward a steel set of double doors at the end. In its center, The Great Seal of the United States illuminated by a single light, just like the berets of its two military guardsmen. They stood aside after saluting the approaching center staff member, then inserted keys to unlock and open the seal as he set foot inside.

Presented before the V.I.P. entourage was a dimly lit room of sundry monitors and plenty of computer desks operated by uniformed personnel. Awaiting on the other side stood a man just past middle age, wizened, and a determined look about his graying complexion. He extended his four-star uniform's blue sleeve, greeting the suit in the middle of the entourage.

"Secretary Carter."

The suit, another grey-haired man of wise years, met his greeter's handshake; he carried a natural squint in his eyes above toned cheekbones pointing directly at the blue uniform he respectfully acknowledged.

"David," the suit coolly returned. "There was something you needed me to see."

"Yes, sir. More than that, I think you'll want to."

Joint Chiefs of Staff member David Goldfein led Secretary Carter across the immediate balcony, and down the stairs toward the busy floor of Air Force fatigues. Almost everyone's attention lay on the overhead monitors spanning the dark wall, if not their computer screens. The monitors relayed various photo-stills of outer space.

"China provided the earliest reports," Goldfein resumed, "but around roughly 0600 hours, NASA recorded several astronomical anomalies traveling past Saturn's rings at uniform acceleration."

Secretary Carter stopped halfway down the stairway. "Anomalies? Where are they headed?"

Chief Goldfein halted at the base of the stairs, bracing the secretary with his sober face. "As you can see,"-gesturing towards the skipping monitors-"they disappeared from Saturn's orbit after ten minutes. The president is being briefed in the White House, and I suspect he may cancel today's rally."

The Secretary stared at the monitors, attempting to register the blips by Saturn's asteroids and elsewhere. But he needed to see more before succumbing to awe. "So where are they now?" he questioned, stepping onto ground level.

"They have been in constant displacement, and fast," replied the chief. They stepped to the foremost row of operational terminals, settling between a pair of subordinates with nametags reading 'Alba' and 'Rita.' Chief Goldfein then pointed to Saturn's rings. "Magnify."

"Sir!" confirmed Rita. Nearly a dozen distinct shadows, cylindrical in shape, appeared floating over Saturn's orbit. But the satellite's distance was too great to find any detail.

"Switch to four hours ago..."

Clicking hands brought new images on the monitors, six of them displaying Jupiter's cloudy surface. And against its illuminated image there returned several floating husks-more prevalent to the eyes but still distant.

"Two hours ago."

Mars' red surface came onscreen, again serving the backdrop to a cadre of floating vessels. Each time, the satellite images rendered the anomalies more distinct.

"Thirty minutes."

Each image had jarred the Secretary's expression by deep increments, now utterly flooring him with the latest satellite imagery of Earth's moon. Thus, flooded by every ostensible vexation, the floor of personnel accompanied him with jaws dropped, their collective attention deadpanned against every feature on the monitors.

Larger constructs of imagination appeared per screen, just over the moon's craggy surface. More evident than before, they were not asteroids. Everyone could tell.

Chief Goldfein awaited Secretary Carter's processing of the images before proceeding. And awakening from his stunned vexation, the secretary stammered, "That was thirty minutes ago?"

By now, the screens exhibited a conjunction of images detailing Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, and the moon.

"I assessed as much, but had to be certain," resumed the chief. "After checking with NASA, these are in fact the exact same aberrations recorded across our solar system. And they hold firm on their stance that no celestial body is capable of this level of acceleration. In conjunction with external measurements, their constancy of shape, then there can be no doubt..."

"They're already here, aren't they..."

Chief Goldfein, Rita, Alba, and majority personnel planted their disquiet stares on the Secretary of Defense. The entire room was silent. Until Goldfein stepped just within earshot. "China, Russia, and the EU have already mobilized. Our atmosphere will be breached within the hour...Norad is on standby."

Secretary Carter let out a long, deep breath, his eyes fixated on strange crafts ominously afloat over the moon's surface.

"The pistol is cocked..."

***

Back at One World Trade Center, Mik' ael garnered one last look beyond the screen, his final overlook of New York City below noon. Brief recollections of a starry sky accompanied his gaze, recollections unhindered by sun and light pollution. It was a nuanced place without a horizon, the facet of a limitless space. He contemplated the northernmost pole to the southernmost, he debated his lot in life and on the planet before peering toward the future. So his eyes rose to the sky, slave to anticipation of a presence already weighing on his shoulders. Then he checked his watch, viewing the red light and jargon text flashing in his eyes. Reluctant as he felt in his disposition, he reached into his coat pocket to reveal a plastic firearm.

From where he stood, he pulled the trigger and ejected a transparent substance onto the window panes. As the liquid made contact with the glass, it dematerialized everything it touched: the glass quickly melted and oozed its way down the floor.

A middle-aged woman noticed thin smoke rise from where Mik' ael was standing, then noted the strange triggered object with which his hand sprayed the liquid. Jumping, swiftly succumbing to terror, she screamed, "Someone stop him!" This immediately hooked the room's attention. Everyone present for the tour stopped and watched with contemplative horror; people in close proximity backed away; the woman yelped in tears, embracing the old man next to her as tower security sprinted forward.

Two suit-and-tie security guards stop before Mik' ael, hands out with their pistols pointed down. "Sir!" one of them called. At first, they were unsure how to process his peculiar facial features. Their squinting and scowling achieved them no explanation, but one of them proceeded. "Sir, I'm going to need you to back away from the window, put down your weapon, and get on your knees with your hands up."

"It's not a weapon," Mik' ael' humbly replied. "Just a tool."

The security and people present watched utterly rattled as a gaping hole formed on the screen window. The glass itself collapsed on the floor as a viscous material, emanating smoke beside the stranger's feet. It blew over them with the rushing wind that entered the room, through the hole, and chilled their flushed faces. As a result, the panic level grew.

By this point, both security guards were pointing their Glock barrels directly at Mik' ael's head. "Sir! This is your last warning!" A warning slightly muffled by pervading wind.

Nothing changed. Mik' ael was stepping outside the window cavity when the foremost guard fired his weapon. The loud bang of ammunition leaving the barrel led everyone to jump; hands over their ears, their instinctive ducking was accompanied by screams. They were all stunned and just as equally horrified.

But when the ringing stopped, only the wind remained. And people anxiously opened their eyes to the sight of Mik' ael standing by the window completely unharmed and comporting a casual mug. Awe defined the guards' gaze as he continued outside and set his feet on thin air. 

He appeared to be floating, prostrating himself upright against the New York City backdrop. His gaze veered from the frightened group of people and, again, he observed the magnificent sprawl in its entirety. This time, he floated back to get a view of it and One World Trade Center, rotating three-sixty degrees. Complete awe filled his temporary grin as the wind stroked his scalp. Again, it was not his plan to be enraptured by the view; he simply fell victim.

But he was no less awed than the people who witnessed him; people who took pictures from the high room and from behind the new hole in the window. While beaming, they eventually noticed his boots and the strange wave they emitted underneath. Something about them kept him afloat unless he was performing a magic trick.

As mesmerized as Mik' ael was in his levitational musing, a beep and blue light from his smartwatch brought him back to the real world. He was dismayed, his thoughts suddenly falling silent as he stared down at the strange letters on his screen. But when his conscience found its voice, he remembered what he had to do.

Solemn, sober, prepared, Mik' ael's eyes upturned to the sea of sky. His boots carried him farther up to the skyscraper's spire, gravitating to its peak in anticipation of what came next.

Dauntingly elevated, he acquired a vantage of the whole world. Mik' ael had reached the stakes of the great skyscraper's beacon, grabbing onto the metal and staring down the enormous length of steel. His legs remained free, swooning in the air by his dallying. Helicopter rotors sounded in the wind, nearing, loudening. Lifting his gaze, he noted more choppers beginning to circle nearby. A new noise gathered in his hearing; not the wind, not the helicopters: jet engines. Aircraft soared around the New York City's airspace, looming at eye level so that he witnessed their wings deftly navigate the horizon.

Finally, he rose to the peak of New York City's tallest building, peeking at the sky for what was to come. More jet aircraft were already scrambling in the air, environing him with the screech of burning fuel. Then, they came.

The first one eclipsed the sun, a behemoth of a craft literally engulfing Brooklyn in shadow and extending into Queens. Panic, wonder, fear, all aspects of the unknown's arrival.

And the sky darkened further, the second arriving just above Mik' ael and One World Trade Center. A solid, opaque mass looming adversely to the sun in its descent - A foreboding sight of magnificence, awe, and omnipresence subjugating the heavens. And Mik' ael beheld their descent overtaking Earth's sun, hiding its last light.

Removing his watch, Mik' ael stared down the overhead behemoth. Holding the device upward, his bitterness suddenly prevailed on his face when a grand resonance suddenly discharged from the ship. A chaotic dance of wind, turbines, and echoes thus fondled him in mid-air, never once removing his relentless gaze against the dark mass. "I have what you wanted!"

Echoes, silence, muffling, a frightened city devolving into Pandemonium. Mik' ael stared at the ship as if awaiting a response. Tense, clenching his teeth, a rage accompanied the dauntlessness behind his sun-colored eyes. 

"I have what you wanted! Show me what your word means, Xynocephles, and do as you promised!"

 

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Chapter 1 Dreams of yet Another Retro Geek

A horrid song played in her earphones, a song she was unsure about the moment it began. It collapsed into this strange combination of somber and lifeless, and no, not in any clever representation of the latter. Without meshing well, the notes were just a crime against harmony. This is not the end. Repeating lyric, three keys playing into her eardrums: This is not the end.

But it is the end, she thought to herself, the end of you.

"Babel," she said; a beep followed from her wrist. "Play Sweet Dreams by Eurythmics." And then came the electronic beat, that sequenced synth bass line: 

She listened to the synchronous drum as she stared over the skyline from a sixteen-story complex. A view beholden to its fair share of skyscrapers, flying cars just passed by in the rising summer sun. Hovering lanes at different altitudes were separated by lights that appear as little more than blue dots guiding every vehicle. The morning sun rose over them and the many top-floor domes - transparent bio-domes for tall buildings.

"The best views of the 'modern' city offered by the 'modern' city." Yet they can't seem to stick out more than the ginormous Pepsi billboard on the side of the nearest skyscraper. "All that blue and red, and white; all that red, white, and blue."

But bio-domes were reserved for greener pasture persons. Where Jessica's sat was just a regular roof that happened to have stairs. She never found a use for those stairs.

She simply sat featly on the precipice of old-fashioned concrete while city sounds came to and fro. At last, she heard the door several yards behind her slide open—at which point she looked at the device on her wrist: 9:30.

"Predictable," she said.  And she lip synced with him as he bellowed his sentence.

Hey!" said security guard, "you're not supposed to be up here!" 

As she turned around, her full, delinquent image became plain to see: fitted black pants creasing near the bottom; a pair of mismatched shoes outer-soled with metal. As her arm shot up, it brandished a striped cotton gauntlet, which then lowered as she locked her goggles, lowered to her red polymer vest and a black T-shirt bearing the image of a cross-armed robot. Staring cockily, her sun-grazed hazel eyes beamed underneath the lenses. Thick aviator lenses under black bangs, they reflected the guard's angry figure.

He was an average Joe in a grey jumpsuit with a black, armored vest and matching gear around his arms and legs. Across his utility belt: a smoke grenade and what were undoubtedly cartridges for the stun gun on his right holster. A typical sight.

So, Jessica reacted by looking him in the eye; he definitely seemed adamant about her not being on the roof. That grey hat with a shield stitched, it brought an aura of imagined authority that leered at her with its meaninglessness.

"I'm a rebel, so it's okay," she told him. 

All the while she held a small board in her hand. "McFly," she added, and the board extended several inches, after which she released and let it hover before her feet. So when the guard advanced, she set both feet on the board. It then floated her whole body toward the ledge; not until she cracked a smile at the jogging guard did she dive off.

The stupefied guard bent and peered over the ledge only to find the young woman riding the gravity board downward. She was angled ninety degrees while scaling down the building's length, and her board never touched the surface; it hovered directly parallel the windows as she leaned backward. Thus, in lieu of a teen splattering the pavement, the guard received a humble wave goodbye and a smile as she casually touched down.

***

Welcome to New Sumer, 'Eden' of the Anglo Alliance, what every giant billboard says before entering the city, followed by a bunch of holographic images of people in white jumpsuits staring at a white series of buildings against the sunrise. Images of the like stand visible throughout. Jessica observed every one of them while riding across the clean streets.

"Watch where you're going!" yelled a passing bystander.

"Eyes off your phone, Jackass!" Jessica countered. 

Jessica - A peek into her e-card and one might swipe until they found the identification screen:

Last Name: Leibzen

First Name: Jessica

Height: 180 cm

Address: 3254 Apple Mire, Suite 13 

PD(Population Designation): S1867222

DOB: 03/05/2110

Occupation: Sustenance Delivery. Because 'food' or 'fast-food' delivery is too casual. Then you get the inevitably awkward I.D. picture on the right. Nothing out of the ordinary, just a stone face, longer hair, and the thin white suit that passes for a school uniform. If it were a full body picture, it would show the accompanying red skirt; not because the aliens believe in gender roles but because they find its implementation ingenious to telling sexes apart, despite the fact that the alien physiognomy is negligibly different from humans. Electronic billboards displayed the fact as plain as day. 

Everywhere, advertisements of aliens and humans side-by-side. One that preached the avoidance of burning carbon, then another about recycling properly, and yet another.

"Sing to me with more fake voices," said Jessica, critical of everything she passed.

The biggest propaganda board came with a big font and voiceover: "Make 2129 another year testament to the success of Earth-Azarean relations. Be sure to report any suspicious persons to your local law enforcement," with that overly-chipper female voice and still-images of Azareans in padded outfits.

"And by 'persons' you mean 'humans.' Silly space elves."

Azareans -  A completely odd species as far as earthlings were concerned. Yet what was 'odd,' to the typical human, was their lack of physical and behavioral discrepancies. They seemed, on average, stoic, sharper—whether or not a result of their stoic nature was a matter of some debate—and the ones seen so far always had light, unblemished skin. But aside from uniformity of light skin, they had pointy ears, making nerds everywhere wonder whether or not these spacefarers came from Middle-Earth, which would make no sense for various and obvious reasons. To take matters a step further, the aliens officially deny all affiliations to Tolkien. Nevertheless, people still take to calling them 'space elves' while prolific readers of Fantasy persistently try communicating with them in Quenya. But that is how anyone determined, at a glance, the species behind the uniform - Ear size and shape.

That's when she passed under a shaded sidewalk beneath a smooth-contoured skyscraper. She floated right past a man in a satin coat, noting his violet, alien eyes. Oh, how they scowled at her for riding so close. So she mockingly bowed in passing, feeling his eyes but never bothering to stop.

Azareans have brighter irises; moreover, their spectrum ranged into the reds, oranges, yellows, and violets. Once again she contemplated the physiological reason for this characteristic, but it remained a mystery like most aspects of this species that technically ruled the planet. Perhaps it was to be expected.

"Some of them want to use you... Shit!"

Jessica's ride was nearly tripped up by an egg-shaped object near the corner crosswalk. Looking back, she saw that it was one of many knee-high robots: white, shiny, and smooth little mechanical bodies floating along the streets. When active, their only facial expression was two bright green ovals on heads that were basically black monitors. Because of these little bots, clean pavement littered the streets. 

Despite littering being hugely frowned upon, a 'recycle bot,' as they were so termed, could be found patrolling every city block. The smooth surfaces of their egg-shaped carapaces slid open to reveal small robotic arms that pick up scanned trash along the streets before dispensing it into one of many properly labeled receptacles: Aluminum, glass, plastic, paper, carbon fiber, nuclear waste, and the list goes on with labels supplemented by color coding. Any trash that was 'unknown' went into the black receptacle with a white sad face.

But the bots always got it right, and they had two additional arms, one that sprayed a liquid substance while another —tipped by pink foamy material—wiped surfaces clean. So clean in fact that it's why Jessica nearly stumbled over one; their carapaces matched the pavement.

Hovering over to the next block, Jessica and her fellow pedestrians passed above incoming traffic through a bridge arcing over the street and reconnecting to the other side. Such bridges were prevalent throughout New Sumer and provided more convenience to people on the sidewalk than anyone else, while cars still had to wait for the blue traffic light.

Jessica's trek took her down a street flanked by man-made terraces: Row after succeeding row of square housing with round posteriors. Starting at the ground level, each row of white houses incrementally rose above the preceding row to fulfill a better view of the street and area below, then parsed with elevating stairs to form four-by-four clusters. A symmetrical setup only interrupted by one and two-story markets: stores, humble restaurants, and cafes that placed all wants and needs within walking distance. Some of the recycle bots were present here as well, except there were also green ones; greens recycled fallen oak leaves and trimmed the many sidewalk hedges. Without greenery, the neighborhood mimicked a blank canvas.

Overhead traffic died down while street traffic primarily comprised of hovering cyclists.

Riding beside the cyclists, Jessica mused over how much faster she could go if she simply released her gravity board's inhibitors. But that would be illegal, she rememberedSo she kept pace with a pair of gents on their bikes until one of them, a dirty-blonde man, noticed her riding alone. So he flashed a quick smile to show off teeth whiter than the pavement. That's when his front wheel hit a hydrant and the poor cyclist lost his grip, front-flipping over his steer and landing on his back. Suppressing her urge to laugh out loud, Jessica stopped just to observe his state.

"Are you alright?" she exclaimed. Fortunately for him, his collar-bound airbag deployed.

"I'm good!" he said cooly from his place on the ground.

"Well, I would go to the dentist."

"Why?"

"Because you just ate shit!"

Useful technology, the airbags - sophisticated. They fully inflate around the body to cushion any impact and fit within a waterproof collar. It was Jessica's moment to appreciate their effectiveness. It is why she wore one herself.

At the end of the housing clusters, Jessica arrived at a corner complex to her right. Eight stories of blue windows surrounded by lush clusters of oaks. Just down that same sidewalk, a park where folk still played basketball.

She walked right past the identity detector at the front entrance, where there was a scanner instead of an actual door. "Good morning, Jessica!" exclaimed the male voice. "Welcome back!" 

Up the carbon fiber elevator to the fifth floor, she exited and walked along the pink carpet corridor of white walls streaked with black, until she reached a sliding door with number 59 lighted next to it. Just an insertion of her e-card and the door slid open.

Inside was a humble space with two tall and opposing plastic shelves for furniture; they flanked the window centered on the opposite wall. A violet-walled room dim with no lighting except what sunlight crept through the tinted window. A bed was attached to the shelf on the right: black sheets, clothing drawers beside. Above the bed, a rack with five of the same red, white, and green jumpsuit. The left shelves were row after row of black cases the size of diskettes; five rows in all. Aside from the Stevie Nicks poster beside the sliding door, the room lacked for character.

Her objective was the clothing rack. Punctually, she replaced her casual getup with the red, white, and green jumpsuit with a t-shirt top, and it automatically adjusted to her size by shrinking over her contours. Practically skin tight without the pockets. Topping it off was a green hat with black letters spelling "Tacquizza" over a yellow oval bearing a white chef's hat in the center. Then, grabbing her board, she departed.

"Thank for ordering from Tacquizza, where your satisfaction is ours." Jessica maintained her widest smile while reciting the delivery message. Not very wide. And the resident man in a white tank top seemed to ignore it while he scanned the carriers in her hand. He appeared in his forties, balding, and had hairy arms. 

"You got here fast, at least," he said in his raspy voice. 

Jessica then read the receipt on her tiny work tablet: "Eight tacos: four de carne asada, four el pastor, all with salsa and lettuce with a side of lemon."

"I didn't ask for lettuce," protested the resident.

"Yes, but it's mandatory," replied Jessica matter-of-factly. "Insurance reasons."

"No tip for you then!" He inserted his transparent card into Jessica's tablet, took the rectangular carrier from her hands, and the door immediately slid shut behind him.

"You're not supposed to tip me!" she hollered.

36. 37. 38. 39...

"Thank you for ordering from Tacquizza, where your satisfaction is our satisfaction." A young-looking brunette woman holding a baby blankly stared at Jessica from the doorway. 

"Right! Right!" the woman said. "Be right back!" After the woman returned with her transparent card, Jessica read the receipt out loud. "Is the chicken farm raised?" she asked. 

Jessica's hazel eyes darted at the woman in disbelief, but she took a quiet breath and humbly replied, "They are whatever you want them to be, ma'am." 

The woman, amicable, simply nodded and accepted the box carrier before sliding her card into the tablet.

60. 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7...

"Thank you for ordering from Tacquizza, where your satisfaction is our-"

"I placed the order over thirty minutes ago!" said the young student, a round fellow standing in the entrance to his dorm room. She noted that if he were any bigger, he would be illegal. That is a real thing; the Azareans placed weight restrictions on humanity a long time ago, because obesity reflects maltreatment of the self and aliens are all about that self-loving. Few exceptions remain, however: any uncontrollable medical problems, for instance, provided they are properly diagnosed.

Keeping her cool, Jessica double-checked her tablet and found the record of when the order was placed. "Martin Haussman?" she asked.

"Yes!"

On her screen, she found the time the order was placed: 13:14. Four more seconds and the time would be 13:35. She then checked the time on her wrist and watched as the minute struck from 13:34 to 13:35. Who taught you how to count?  is what she wanted to say. Rather, she politely corrected him and reminded him that he had to pay. 

Reluctantly, the student inserted his card into the tablet, mumbling something in German, to which Jessica replied, "Das ist unhöflich, Ruck." She handed him the carrier and exited.

Outside one of the terrace houses. "Food's here," she said, the door sliding open. On the other side stood a boy of about twelve: short-haired, tan complexion, thin, and wearing a white shirt with jagged letters in blue spelling 'Iron Coffin.' 

"Apa!" exclaimed the boy, looking away. A taller man, approximately in his thirties and wearing a yellow jumpsuit, stepped before the entry; his image was as an older version of the boy. "Hello!" he greeted with a slight accent. "What do I owe you?"

"Thirty solidus and seventeen centavos," she replied, slipping.

"Hablas español?" the man inquired energetically.

"Si reconozco español!"

"De qué tipo?"

"Puertorriqueño, y conozco un poco de España."

"Órale, jefa!"

"Ich spreche auch Deutsch. Beide sind nützlich."

"Calmate, jefa. Ya no sé lo que estás diciendo."

After an exchange of exclamations, the man paid without fuss and made one final comment on the deliciousness of the pizza before telling Jessica, "Que te vaya bien!"

"A ti tambien!"

The door closed between them. 

That was probably all she needed to consider the day a 'good day' for deliveries. She calculated the current time was 15:47. Glancing at her wrist, she noted it was 15:47. "Thank goodness for five-hour work days."  And descending down the terrace stairs, she put on her goggles before peeking upward at the descending sun. "McFly." Her board extended, and she hopped on to ride around the next sidewalk corner, due east.

Traveling on a gravity board has always been made simple by the lack of physical barriers per housing cluster. No gates, no fences, only convenient railing systems for elderly and handicapped citizens. Of course, 'grinding' on the rails is frowned upon, but doing so is usually optimal for getting from point A to point B. Pythagoras came to mind, cruising down the round sidewalk encompassing a park of pines. If it were a square space, she would have to move horizontally, wait until the corner, and then shift direction; or haphazardly cross the group of kids currently scattered around the grass and playing on old-fashioned swing sets.

Fortunately, Azareans have proven to be centric on concentric urban planning. Hence, she was riding around the children in a steady arc and reaching the next apartment complex with minimal distance. Hence, New Sumer's sprawl is more a series of circular neighborhoods with taller buildings in the center circles. Hence why the Azareans praised the Parisians for being among the first to exemplify such urban planning—even though many would argue the French did not plan deliberately. Also, Azarean planning is more precise. Modern communities accommodate larger populations per square mile than, say, pre-alien society.

They can accommodate more if they so choose, but they understand that humans are not sardines.

Hey oh

Listen what I say, oh

I got your hey oh

Now listen what I say, oh...

"Stop Playback."

Pine Rim Hovels read the wooden sign that, for some reason, had green painted pines and a rising sun against white letters. This apartment complex was just like Jessica's in that it required a scanner, yet she simply walked through it. "Welcome, guest of suite 31."

Lithely and with a grin, she frolicked down the floor's red carpet between ivory walls, still wearing her jumpsuit uniform and carrying another red, white, and green box carrier down to the sliding room door with a bright number 31 next to it. She pulled out a transparent card and inserted it into the scanner slot just underneath.

First, she saw the back of a sofa, on which rested a head of long, white hair. The head turned to reveal the clean, wrinkly face of an older woman with a white smile. "Hey Jes," the woman greeted warmly. 

Jessica raised her eyebrows and the box. "Heeeey, Beth. I brought the usual. Without cheese and e'erything."

To the right of the sofa stood a large board of cabinets with drawers below and two sets of double doors big enough to facilitate a bed and closet. In the center was an ottoman with a holographic projector—a base instrument contouring to a cone in its center—projecting images Beth apparently watched. TNN read the bottom right of the broadcast with aliens in coats talking to humans in suits.

She went ahead and placed the carrier on the kitchen counter to her left. A very small space with the table on one side and stove touching the wall. But in lieu of a regular metal stove, there were four squares plainly outlined in a white surface, two by two, one holding a tin teapot; directly above that teapot, a small exhaust hood.

Turning, Jessica observed Beth slightly entranced by whatever was on television: "...The New Pharaoh of Egypt recently held a conference with delegates from The Chinese Confederacy in order to renegotiate the budget for trans-national infrastructure. Namely..." But Beth broke away from watching the news to attend Jessica. "Jessie Jes," she said familiarly with her warm smile. "I prepared tea. Would you be fantastic and turn on the kiln? And have a seat when you're done."

After turning one of four knobs at the kiln, Jessica took a seat on the single stool beside the sofa. "So how was your day?" Beth asked.

"Not bad!" replied Jessica.

"Anything new?"

"During deliveries? Nothing special or really worth mentioning. Some customers are cool, others in need of help. My average travel time rounded to thirteen minutes, with two-hundred and forty-seven officially on the job."

"Less than last time."

"Chya! But not by much, considering the district stretches twenty miles in every direction. Tacquizza, being in the center, leaves a ten-mile radius every way."

"You travel that fast on your board?"

"Yea..."

"You need to be careful."

"I got my airbag!" defended Jessica, pointing to her collar. "I have to be quick since customer interactions add a variable in every outing. My goal: make sure the interactions do not exceed delivery time."

"You're a dedicated worker."

"Well...I'm no half-asser."

Beth laughed softly. "I have yet to find better than Tacquizza's tacos. Pizza's not terrible either."

"Other places are stingy with the meat," Jessica started critically. "Customers like their el pastor, but they don't like it cut into another dimension."

"Anything to make meat invisible to the Azareans, Jes. They have that odd attitude toward meant."

"True, but Tacquizza is family-owned, you know? Owners don't treat the cows like meat-that sounds weird. Animal husbandry is sophisticated. Sophisticated is what it is. So, you have the aliens funding the diets so long as the animals aren't treated like dirt... or animals. English is a terrible language. "

Beth snickered. "Why am I not surprised you know everything, hmm?"

"What are ya watching?"Jessica said, pointing out the hologram. 

"Television."

Jessica smirked. "What is on the television?"

"That political stuff kids don't much care for, or adults for that matter."

"You gonna tell me what's playing?"

"World 'leaders' debating about who gets more water."

"Is water becoming scarce again?"

"No, they just want more of it."

"Ah."

"Then Russia keeps threatening to leave the World Union, for the seventeenth-thousandth time." Beth shook her head at her teenaged friend. "The Azareans would never let them, but that doesn't stop them from saying they will."

"Way more childish than your great grandfather's time, right?"

Beth glanced at Jessica, then tapped the sofa cushion next to her as a gesture to sit. Jessica went ahead and sat as a pretzel beside her, taking off her colorful hat. "You spend quite a bit of time outside," she started. "Tell me. How often do you witness violence?"

Jessica rolled her eyes up and considered Beth' question briefly. "Almost never."

"My father told me things that he only learned from his father, and his father before that. Great Grandpapa..." Beth turned her whole body towards Jessica, brandishing her six-sided star necklace. "He was a passionate man in a time where passions were allocated to wealth. Except, his passion was for his people. During his time, people were killing one another because of skin color, 'race' they called it. People with so much money, so much money, could circumvent the law, break promises, and control political office without running for office."

Jessica listened with eyes like a lynx, intent upon Beth's every word. Her expression denoted seriousness and a measure of disbelief for what the elder spoke. It fascinated her all the same.

"...But the worst weapon used against everyday people in twentieth and early twenty-first century. Remember what it was?"

"Epistemology," answered Jessica.

Beth somberly nodded. "So much money was invested in spreading misinformation that criminals found their place in government, wars occurred without cause or without people's notice--or worse, people thought there was a cause where none existed--and some were actually convinced that humans have no effect on climate."

"But that sounds so far-fetched!" Jessica hesitantly interrupted.

Beth shrugged. "I know it does. That's why I have trouble even saying it."

"So what did your great-grandfather do?"

"He continued fighting against all of it until his very last breath. And he almost rose to a position where he could have made the most meaningful changes for the people he loved."

"That didn't happen, did it?"

More solemnity from Beth' eyes. "This has become very gloomy. You shouldn't be putting up with an old woman's gloominess, Jes."

"Come on, Beth. I always want to know more. But that's the thing, I don't want to bother you too much."

"You most certainly do not bother me. Only every time you visit."

Jessica and Beth exchanged looks before bursting into simultaneous laughter.

Afterward, Jessica looked at her wrist. "Frak," she said, "I have to go."

"Oh, yea?"

"It's about time to go nocturnal."

"Whelp, I won't keep you. Just be sure to stay safe!"

Jes put on her hat, grabbed her board, and made her way to the door. "See you, homegirl."

"Guten nacht, Jes. And noches buenas... Did I get it?"

Jessica grinned. "Yep. And almost." The door slid open, and she was out.

Jessica reflected, standing outside the door to Beth's room. Every night was just the right amount of humor and life. Typically, it was all she needed.

***

"Welcome back, Jessica!" Back to her little room, room 59. First act: she slid her finger down the white wall pad beneath Stevie Nicks. "Autobots, roll out!" A tiny red light appeared and quickly turned blue.

All of a sudden, the entire room's furniture shifted. The bed carried upward and disappeared into the hanger closet while both shelves began sliding toward each other, to the center. Very quickly, the room had transformed with alternate spacing.

To the left, where the shelf used to be, there now lay a single kiln counter-top.  Then a mannequin in the far left corner outfitted with a blue Star Fleet uniform; her skin got tingly when she remembered outbidding the bastard who almost took it home. It was a decorative, prized possession that went well besides her second prized possession, the coffee maker. 

On the far right, a black and white poster of Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs back-to-back wearing sun-glasses-carrying iPhones like pistols - "Apple Inc. Saints" it read.

But to the direct right lay a completely new room feature: A round desk sticking out from the wall; it held a keyboard setup with a small mouse and black holographic projector with designs matching a very large and sleek desktop underneath. The desktop's design bore grooves colored black and blue, the blue color glowing like neon. Also, it bore stickers.

Along with the computer setup came a cascade of new characteristics. The desk came with a cushioned, black chair that detached from the shelf as soon as the room transformed, one with wheels. On either side of the cone-shaped projector were two miniature models, one R2D2 on the right, and a BB-8 on the left. Rising in front of the projector and dominating the right wall was a large poster displaying white letters: R, W, B, Y, and four female silhouettes in colored backgrounds, red, white, dark grey, and yellow respectively.

Finally, the right shelf revealed a detachable screen made of cloth-like material. Once Jessica extended the screen around the desktop, it revealed a bat symbol. She sat down in the mobile chair. "Babel, on."

"Voice signature recognized," said the robotic male voice. Suddenly, several screens illuminated above the projector, three by three, each forming part of a whole to display the facial image of a certain breed of feline. "Good evening, Lynx."

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Chapter 2 The White Hat I Wear

"Goliath, Inc."

While new images of rail lines, high-tech trains, transport aircraft, and floating houses appeared on separate holo screens, a female voiceover entered: "Goliath Corporation, proudly serving humanity since 2021. Goliath stands at the cutting-edge of technology through the continued support of advanced A.L.I. interfacing-"

"Skip."

Varied panels displayed over all nine interconnected screens, the top three displaying Goliath in green letters. From left to right and left to right, page labels: "About"Housing," "GTrack," "Aerospace," "Missions," and finally, "ALI implementation."

Jessica rolled her chair toward the bookcase in the center of the room. Row upon row of black tablets stocked the shelves, each stamped with a different letter in sequence: A, K, G, S, four in total, and more clothing drawers underneath. She pulled the first tablet from row K before returning to the desktop.

After turning on the tablet, an ad popped - Back to the Future: The Re-remake now available on Amazon, an advertisement that left her scowling.

"Gotta remember to remove that 'feature,'" she said. Thus, to the section labeled 'Library' she tapped and searched until she found the e-book labeled Essays: First Series; underneath it: R.W.E. She scrolled with her left hand while her right simultaneously typed on the desktop keyboard.

Typing, typing, typing. Jessica was no longer on the Goliath net page but inputting characters into a command prompt. All nine screens filled with bit after bit of code seemingly randomized, and the screen automatically scrolled through them like lightning while Jessica read from the e-book and consumed a single slice of mushroom pizza.

Beeps. She looked up. Backspace. She wiped the remaining pizza from her uniform before pulling up the command prompt again. On the first three screens, parallel tables showed up with lines and lines of characters her eyes easily distinguished. Several keys later, the computer highlighted certain characters across all tables in red.

"No way," she said.

She did away with the screens of code. "Call David from Goliath." The ringtone played while the screen ellipses passed the profile picture of nothing but a green G. During the dial, she turned a knob on the projector.

The screen eventually revealed a sitting man in about his thirties. "Hello," he said in a collected voice. She only saw his face and the green Goliath hat on his head of short dark hair. "Lynx?" he continued, "You have something for me?"

"Perhaps more than you're ready for..."

***


'Computer Software' read the big green letters overhead, as anyone could see upon exiting the 7th-floor elevator. Then rows of holo-projection terminals operated by men and women in white-collar coats. To the left of the carpet was a wall with a memo board, green neon letters statements underneath one label - GOLIATH. Paths on each side of the memo led to a circumventing corridor with three doors, each with their own sign: a stick figure, a stick figure with a skirt, and a stick figure with pointy ears. And just on the other side of the terminals, a single office space with tinted windows. The top half of the door had the name David M. inscribed; below that read: 'Director.'

Within David M.'s office space lay yet another terminal desk with a holo-projector; except the projector was black, the desk longer, and a sofa rested by the door. Occupying the terminal seat was a man in his thirties - short hair, a non-collared, green coat over a white jumpsuit, and a white hat with the words Goliath in green. A lotus vase by his side, he stared into a hologram displaying the still image of a bobcat.

"Five days," said the bobcat screen with a young man's London accent, "I'm sending the functions to you now." Five seconds passed before the hologram displayed two separate screenshots of code, green line after green line nearly mirroring the second and adjacent set of codes with the same characters highlighted in red. "What did you say your bit value was?"

"Five-"

"Five-twelve, right?"

"Yea, this is very strange," said Director David, mouth agape, and brow furrowed.

"Well, whoever these cryptographic hash functions were designed for," the voice resumed cynically, "I hope they don't expect their secrets to stay hidden."

"I need to verify this!" exclaimed David, off-put and eager.

"Be my guest. It's in your email."

A few moments of silence passed in which Director David opened and downloaded attachments from his NovaMail account.

Contact: Lynx

Subject: awww shiiiet xoxo

Screen after screen passed over his projector as he compared Lynx's data with what he had on hand, total focus simmering in his eyes.

"...So how was your day?" asked Lynx, very casually breaking the silence.

"Productive. Fine," David answered. "Revelatory."

"That's cool." Meanwhile, on the other side, Jessica sat elbow over her desk cracking fingers: 1, 2, 3, 4, cracks. Mild boredom played on her face as she watched David work his holographic keypad on the other side. "So how was your day, Lynx?" she mumbled to herself. "Oh, well, you know... Made some deliveries, spent some time chillin' with Beth, found security vulnerabilities in what is most likely signature encryption for essential interfaces like railway and communications infrastructure. Thanks for asking!"

"How was your day?" came David's audio.

Jessica carried a dumb look on her face, then quickly sat upright and pressed the keyboard key. "Not bad," she answered.

"I wonder what that means in your line of work."

"It means I'm still Lynx."

David smirked on the screen.

Finally, a mathematical algorithm hit the blue of his holographic interface. Then another one appeared beside it, that which came with Lynx's data. Both algorithms slid together and merged perfectly, flashing three times.

"By the deities," said David. "You actually found collisions... Frak!"

"Who do you think you're speaking to?" said Jessica.

"Sorry. Just...I gotta get on this."

"Care to tell me about its application?"

"I think it's in your best interest, and mine, that I don't."

"Suit yourself."

"Expect due payment by tomorrow... Good thing you came to me with this as fast as you did."

"You know, I don't expect anything," Jessica affirmed.

"Well, I don't pay you for your skills, I pay for your discretion," replied David. "Although, if you wanted to get paid for your skills, Spearhead has openings."

Jessica rolled her eyes on the other side of the screen, contemplating whether or not David was too generous for his own good. But she definitely could have found worse, as far as computer software engineers go.

"You know," he continued, "that source code went through multiple channels. None of our own staff could hack it or find collision after a month of attempts. You're either very talented or our people very inept... or lazy."

Or worse, Jessica thought. "I had more to work with."

"What operating system do you run?"

"You don't hack and tell," she replied. "Update your hash and you should be fine. Use SHA-5 or something."

"I'll take it up with the top. Should be dealt with quickly, and thanks again." David's screen went blank and Jessica was left in her chair to silently reflect.

"Ghost Wire Forums." Jessica's front screen pulled up another web page: Ghost Wire. A spectral robot with a sinister smiley face and violet cape appeared atop the page, followed by thread after thread of headers, from 'How do I escape Ransomware?' to 'Developing A.L.I. Encryption.' Jessica's clicks carried her to an area of the forum--titled "Corporate-implemented Cryptography"--that displayed an alphabetical list of company names along with the names of supposed ciphers.

Under the Goliath page-the big green G followed by a short company description, she found a long list of user comments. She purposefully scrolled down until she found one comment in the form of a question, the username reading Lynx underneath. Her comment had received several replies:

Lynx: Aside from activities listed on their website, what other activities might Goliath Inc be involved in?

NatsuXDragneel: Why would there be other activities?

SwagCipher067: My goliath has its own activities. Come over and I'll show you.

OhShitItsRomeo: Wanna see my goliath?

Anonymous: I've got a goliath for you.

Eventually, she arrived at a solid answer:

Anonymous: Like many of today's corporations, Goliath's CEO is probably nothing more than a spokesperson for Azarean interests. With that in mind, any of their 'activities' could make it party to aerospace innovation, cyberwarfare applications, and even agricultural development, none of which are officially listed on its website. Furthermore, Goliath is rumored to be developing telecommunications infrastructure in Antarctica at the behest of Spearhead, a subsidiary recognized for its research into laser and plasma technologies. Some say Spearhead is just the government in disguise. Although, no paper trail exists to indicate transactions between corporations and governments. SO beware of black sites.

Automatically, Jessica replied to the reply: "How the hell do you know all this?"

An answer came immediately, much to her surprise. It read: You asked, I answered - Anonymous.

"What is the probability of such a thing as a black site?" she asked herself. "What is the probability of foul play in Azarean-regulated business?" The probability of error in human-run applications, at any one moment in the world, is 100%. The probability of error in alien-controlled action: unknown; the probability of alien criminality, different but still unknown. Azareans are secretive and have always been an enigma for their closely guarded secrets.

Another thought then tackled Jessica, "The probability of David's awareness to potential foul play: 50/50."

***

Morning. Jessica dressed in a blue vest this time. Then, with nothing but her gravity board and the contents of her pockets, she made her way to the elevator. As the door slid open, she observed its occupation by a man in a sleek grey coat and glossy black shoes. She almost thought he was an alien, judging by the uni-lens sunglasses and silky hair.

The stranger talked out loud and managed to avoid eye contact before and after she entered. Ignoring his conversation proved impossible, even after putting on her earphones; he talked—ranted more like it—all the way down:

"I know I can get another one! But I just really needed those files and don't have the money for its unlock... Do you know of a way to get around it? Didn't think so... Yea, right now it's useless, as I will soon be. Whatever! Thanks for nothing."

The doors opened to the first-floor lobby. Jessica followed the stranger and haphazardly poked him on the shoulder. He then turned, wondrous.

"I couldn't help but overhear you need a new Vit!" she told him, then affirmed, "I didn't mean to snoop."

Dismay over his face, the stranger adjusted his glasses and, presumably, looked her in the eye. "Misfortune," he replied. "Looks that way. Why so curious?"

"You could save money by wiping everything and starting anew. You won't keep your files, but I know a guy who could do it on the cheap."

"Well..." the man hesitated. "If the lock timer dials true, then I've got less than an hour before everything is wiped. Undoubtedly, I cannot undo the virus in so little time."

So, it's malware. "Welp, tell you what, I'll buy ya a cup of coffee and you can show it to me. Unless you got somewhere to be right meow?"

"Generous." The man checked his wrist. "No. Nowhere to be as of right now, but soon."

"To Dolcini-Cini's!"

Dolcini-Cini's: White letters on the window panes of a humble café within three blocks of Apple Mire apartments. It was sparsely populated: five tables for two and five stools at a counter where drinks were served adjacent the cash register. Five people were sitting and thirteen were in a que.

Jessica immediately found a seat and turned to her companion. "Tell you what," she started. "How about you get the drinks and I check out your Vit? It helps my friend to know what he's dealing with beforehand. Here." She handed him her card. "That's so you don't have to worry. Get whatever you want and I'll take a frap."

"Gratitude..." he replied, his glasses untinting as he examined the card, "Jessica." He then reached inside his over-the-shoulder satchel, retrieved the tablet in question, and handed it over.

It was yellow, which didn't match his attire in the least and completely startled Jessica's aesthetic sensibilities. But she recovered. "Cool..." she said in a low tone. "I. Will. Look. At. This."

"Do as you will. I could get nothing more than the same red screen." Thus, the man took himself and her card to the register line, where a woman in a black apron and Dolcini-Cini's hat took orders from customers in thin coats. In witnessing the coats, Jessica temporarily forgot that it was summer.

Onward with the Vit. She unfolded the tablet and let the screen in front of her, leaving its holo-imaging off. Yet there seemed to be little she could do, the screen displaying nothing beyond a red background and letters with instructions for obtaining the decryption key: Your personal V.I.T. and its files have been encrypted. Follow these instructions... A pair of black angel wings appeared over an input box, evidentially where the encryption key had to be entered.

"Typical," said Jessica. "And so solved typically."

Out of her pocket, she retrieved her miniature R2D2; she removed the head to reveal a USB stick, then took apart the stick to reveal a chip she softly inserted into the appropriate side port. "Shut down all the compartments..." She made beep noises for her own amusement. A random key then generated inside the input box. Enter. Away went the red screen, overtaken by an anime wallpaper. Alas, Jessica could not read the Japanese letters, but she was done.

Jessica sat quietly and awaited her 'frap,' which came no more than five minutes later. Her apartment kinsman arrived, trembling with two drinks in hand and setting her card down, going as far as to announce himself.

"Arrived I have. And hope you don't mind; I took liberties and got both of us decaf. I don't assume you have eaten and did not wish to leave you diuretic. Also, I guessed that you did not want whip crème."

Jessica's eyes fell on him like glaring bubbles; they spoke for the gigantic question mark burning through her head. "How fucken dare you," she muttered under her breath.

"Hmm?"

"Nothing!" She collected herself. "I thought you said there was something wrong with this tablet?"

"Yes, there is. Just look at the screen."

She turned and held the tablet for him to see: it was void of its red screen and deviant instructions. He almost dropped his coffee, surprised as he was to see his anime wallpaper, his eyes lighting up--so she guessed from behind his glasses--and his mouth agape.

Setting his coffee down, Jeffrey practically seized the tablet from her hands and began tapping his skeletal fingers all over the screen. "My files!" he started excitedly. "They're here! How is this-WTF! Pardon my language!" And thus, he nearly fumbled his Vit for being so astounded. At last, after registering the functionality of his tablet, he returned his gaze. "Jessica?"

"My friends call me Jess. So yeah, you can call me Jessica."

"Jeffrey is my name," he said with an awkward smile. "And I thought with certainty that my Vit was undone by ransomware."

"Don't know what that is."

"Aha!" he stammered. "Most people aren't even aware of this common plague to our virtual interfaces, despite all the technology surrounding us. Ransomware is the terrible software installed by cyber hooligans to hijack our computer files, by encrypting them and selling users the decryption key to unlock, as I believed was the case here."

Jessica's mouth fell artificially agape, and she gasped while holding her head. "Are we all at the mercy of these people who can...encrypt stuff?"

"Hackers, all of them. The worst sort of people, if you ask me. Taking our technologies and using them against us. Not this day!" Jeffrey started quietly snickering. "Well, Miss Jess, I hope it goes without saying that I no longer have a reason to sell my Vit. But I would very much like to thank you for offering your solution and for the coffee."

"Welp, I am glad, for your sake, that the issue has been resolved. May the Force be with you."

"And may the Fourth be with you."

Jess once again glared at him, this time as he pompously exited Dolcini-Cini's. "This tastes terrible," he said after sipping from the foam cup, then he tossed it into the recycle bin, but not before dumping out the contents as he was apparently the conscientious type.

Jessica was unsure what to make of their whole interaction. Remaining seated, she took a sip from her frap. "Not bad."

Down street after street under the morning sun, all the way until she reached Ninth, there came the turn into Elysium Lane. When Jessica arrived at the intersection, her gaze fell south, onto a forest exterior. Twenty miles of tree and shrubbery inlaid within the city, and long-winding roads extending into more roads throughout the sylvan interior. To her, it was like the terminus of the world--at least her world. Of all the places to become lost, there was none better within New Sumer; an entire section of city reserved for recreation and conservation. But there was more to it than that.

Observing the road as it disappeared between two groves, she always wondered if she would find more than the usual, the normal, and the canny. The tall elm trees had that effect on her, peculiar as they were to erect and bend as they did; they were like the incarnation of Uncertainty. She could have ridden into the groves with her gravity board, but she decided to walk.

Other pedestrians were already present as she found herself roaming the hills. Joggers passed by, moving up and down the roads where no vehicles traveled. More active folk were playing with their pets, involved in picnics, or both. Jessica observed one couple laying out their all-in-one picnic: essentially, a floating table with kitchenware or viscous material hardened into the shape of kitchenware so as to leave nothing more than biodegradable surface once used. But Jessica was more awed by the fox.

There was a pet fox playing fetch with, presumably, its owner. Eagerly, the small animal consistently went after the same, small, bouncing ball that bounced betwixt trees, only pausing so that it and the female owner could capture a selfie from her floating phone.

Continuing down the road, Jessica crossed paths with a tall individual in black - A body encumbered by pieces of black padding over a black jumpsuit. The padding was metallic, and the face was completely covered and concealed by a black helmet with a yellow screen visor. But she was certain there was a space elf behind the visor, and her eyes lowered unto the pistol magnetically adhered to his hip. In its locked state, it did not appear so menacing, yet she had never seen one used. Not many people, if any, had. As she noticed it, he walked right by as if he did not notice her. But he did; there was no doubt of that.

Coming up the winding road enveloped by greenery, Jessica eventually started to see grey. Her walk among critters, people, and nature turned into a walk amongst the tombstones. A cemetery was nestled beside the road and precipitated another grove.

Down the rows of names and epitaphs, she carried herself to and stopped at a specific pair:

Stephanie M. Leibzen 2088-2124. Gerald G. Leibzen 2084-2124.

Quiescence.

***

It was never enough that she simply attended school.

"I was there yesterday and Ms. Camargo, again, told me about all the work she doesn't do."

Jessica's mom, despite appearing tired much of the time, had a certain youthfulness to her. The way her shoulders peaked from her black blazer made her broad and imposing as she held her hands on her hips. Raised eyebrows over clear brown eyes penetrated little Jessica's juvenile spirit. She saw authoritative arms of tan skin, then looked up at those thick eyelashes she would inherit and that thick, long black hair typically tied into a pony tail before every outing. "Es por tu bien," Stephanie Leibzen would habitually say at the end of a lecture. Then she looked at the time on her watch. "I'll be late for class."

"Mein Liebling, I'll get to the bottom of this." With a voice like kingly admonitions, her father entered the picture. "You don't have to be late."

"I hope you can!" said the mother, before grabbing her satchel full of belongings and exiting through the sliding door directly linking the kitchen to the outside.

Jessica sat at the counter-top stool cross-armed and stern with puffing cheeks, while her father sat right in front of her. Gerald Leibzen, to her, was monumental at a height of six feet. His dirty-blonde hair was not very long for attempting to be long. His eyes, they were the most calming thing about him. Yet their hue of sea blue always entailed some sort of wisdom waiting to expostulate through his words. Every time she looked into them, Jessica got the impression that they were older than the rest of him, though she could never explain that sensation.

"What do you do in class, Jes?" he started, pulling up a stool across from her.

"Nothing!" she exclaimed with finality.

"How much of 'nothing' per day?"

"Nothing to the power of pi!"

"Then what are all these assignments your teacher keeps sending to your mother?"

With her eight-year-old mind, Jessica recollected all the holographic sheets ever set before her in that classroom. "I can divide, multiply, draw, free-writes. But when I asked Mrs. Camargo about polynomials, she said not everyone can do it yet. I asked her why she says 'because they can't.' Argh!"

Jessica's father sighed. "I see where this is headed... You know, the real reason we put you in a school with other children is so that you wouldn't grow up without socializing."

"But I'm not a childrens!" Jessica protested.

Jessica's father grinned. "In many ways, no. But you are eight and not an adult, meaning, you won't always know what's best until you are blindsided."

"What's that mean?"

"It means you can't always solve for X by yourself."

"Oh... Why not?"

"Because even though time is constant, the factors that come with it are not."

"You are confusing me, dad."

"That just proves my point!" Mr. Leibzen held a tablet in each hand, and he handed one to Jessica. He took his own and began tapping the screen with two fingers in tandem. Her own Vit thus beeped, and its screen illuminated. A sequence of binary appeared in her messenger app:

01001000 01101111 01110111 00100000 01100001 01100010 01101111 01110101

01110100 00100000 01101010 01110101 01110011 01110100 00100000 01101100

01101001 01110011 01110100 01100101 01101110 01101001 01101110 01100111

00100000 01110100 01101111 00100000 01111001 01101111 01110101 01110010

00100000 01110100 01100101 01100001 01100011 01101000 01100101 01110010

00111111

So Jessica pulled up the keypad on her tablet and, likewise, tapped with two fingers in tandem, almost as quickly as her father, before hitting send:

01001001 01110100 00100111 01110011 00100000 01110100 01101111 01110010

01110100 01110101 01110010 01100101 00100000 01100001 01101110 01100100

00100000 01100010 01101111 01110010 01101001 01101110 01100111

He chuckled after reading. But Jessica continued typing something else, an apparently time-consuming message, then hit send:

01000101 01110110 01100101 01110010 01111001 01101111 01101110 01100101

00100000 01100101 01101100 01110011 01100101 00100000 01101001 01110011

00100000 01100100 01110101 01101101 01100010 00101110 00100000 01010100

01101000 01100001 01110100 00100000 01100100 01101111 01100101 01110011

01101110 00100111 01110100 00100000 01101101 01100101 01100001 01101110

00100000 01001001 00100000 01101000 01100001 01110110 01100101 00100000

01110100 01101111 00100000 01100010 01100101 00100001

"I don't like that," he said after reading, assuming a more serious tone. "Knowing more doesn't make everyone else dumb, Jessica. And it doesn't make you better. That's not how knowledge works." Jessica began typing on her tablet again, but her father promptly interrupted by brushing it aside so that they could make eye contact. "Whether or not you know more than your peers, whether or not they know less; whether it is because they struggle or you try harder, or their brains simply don't function like yours - Information is there to educate, not discriminate."

Jessica's sullen look said everything. Her glowing eyes downturned from her father's expression, wincing with sadness. "Is this being blindsided?" she asked, sniveling.

Mr. Leibzen sighed. "89 101 115."

"Okay."

"Let's try this: Help your friends with their in-class homework, after you have finished your own, and if your teacher reports better class averages, we'll go to the observatory in the summer. And... camping."

Jessica's face lit up like a Jack-o-lantern. "One-hundred percent?" she asked, afraid to uphold hope.

"One-hundred percent."

Jessica pushed herself off the stool and scrambled to the other side of the counter, her arms lifted. And she met hugs with her father, who lifted her up to hold her properly. She spread a wide smile from ear to ear that colored her juvenile cheeks. "I love you, dad."

"I love you, too, Jes."

***

Jessica tore her gaze from the graves to look backward at the distant green ridge that almost touched the sky. Above the tree line, rising above the distant rock foundations of the park, a white dome peaked above the horizon. On Tuesdays, that observatory was one of the most peaceful places in the world. She remembered that much. After staring for a bit, she turned back to the graves. "I still get blindsided every now and again, but at least I found people to help me solve for X. And I think you'd like them..."

Somberly, Jessica made her way out of the cemetery, her feet stopping at the terminus of grass and beginning of asphalt.

Summer clothes and compact smart cars, she observed the like in passing down the road. Laughter and friendship in so small a space, a consist scene in Sumer Park for hosting its share of university students. Publicly owned smart cars meant to carry at least two people, they were widely available to any citizen in reserved parking lots. For all she knew, the people in them were strangers to one another.

For any Azareans of the same age, however, summer clothing did not apply. One of their cars passed overhead and Jessica witnessed a pair of them looking down their noses at her and the other humans, with their uni-sunglasses and white coat collars sticking out. The hovering car was very sporty; it had a blue, edgy surface and black windows for its screen and two doors: its engines were quiet enough to sneak up on someone. But the way the pair of Azareans lingered and stared, Jessica—if she knew any better—would have thought they were ogling the female college students.

A beep from her wrist. She checked the message, then saw the time. Without more reason to stick around, she uttered, "McFly." Her board extended and dropped to hover on the road. She thus rode it outside of the enveloping greenery that served the trigger of her solemn memories.

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Chapter 3 Arch in My Covenant

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Chapter 5 Connecting

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Chapter 4 Yin-Yang Girl

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