by Sebrina Somers

I had tapped into the network and cloned my ID tracker to run the Great Wall Marathon. The point wasn’t to just get the fastest time, any hacker could do that. My goal was to run a race convincing enough to win the cash prize and add the gold medal to the trophy collection in my bedroom. That meant fooling the judges into believing I was actually there. No easy feat when I was sitting on my front porch on the other side of the planet.

I heard a tap on the screen door a few feet away and ignored it. The race was about to begin, and I still needed to tie up a few loose ends. I had uploaded my travel itinerary a week ago and coded my avatar to wander the streets of Beijing for the last two days. Now, I just needed to situate my tracker in the middle of the race pack at the Yin and Yang Square start line, sync it to the timing chips assigned to my race bibs, and run my biometric avoidance program so that I didn’t occupy the same geo-space as any of the physical runners, or other illicit virtual runners for that matter.

There was another tap on the door, a little louder this time. They could wait. The first wave of runners had just set off and I needed to be ready to start with the second wave.

“I…can…see…you…” A quiet voice stammered through the screen door.

I pressed the enter button on my handheld device and looked up. I couldn’t make out the shadow on the front stoop. The sun had set an hour ago, but not wanting to be disturbed, I’d turned off the light sensors so that the porch light wouldn’t automatically engage. If I ignored the shadow long enough, maybe it would go away. 

Standing up from the porch swing, I reviewed a final diagnostic of my race specs as I walked to the door. Then, I stepped inside the house and let the door close behind me.

I set the device on the table stand next to the door and synced my wristband to it in order to track the marathon. Now, I needed to find something to occupy my mind for the next three hours.

As if an answer to my thoughts, there was a knock on the main door behind me. Either the shadow didn’t understand social cues or it just refused to take “I’m ignoring you” as an answer. Either way, now I was intrigued to find out who was wandering around the back side of Watling Island after curfew.

As I opened the door, light from the foyer transformed the featureless shadow into a shivering girl. She was about my height and probably my age. But she was drenched.

It took precisely two point five seconds for me to decide to help her. She didn’t need to say anything. Her chattering teeth and soaked coveralls spoke volumes. She was an escaped factory hand who needed to find a safe haven, fast.

Sticking my head out the door, past her arms crossed over her chest and fingers squeezed into her armpits, I looked around the yard and down the driveway to the main road. She was alone. The moon wasn’t up yet, so I couldn’t be certain what else lurked in the darkness. At least no satellites could spot her from our tree-covered yard. Their thermal imaging might not even register her, judging from the purplish color of her quivering lips. Surveillance drones were a different story though. There was no way to intuitively predict their whereabouts. 

I yanked her inside by the elbow and closed the door behind her. There was no need to wake Nana or Mama; I knew what needed to be done.

“I…just…need…a…change…of…” she tried to connect the words through chattering teeth.  Before she completed her sentence, I had already turned and headed to the laundry room at the back of the house. “…clothes…and…I’ll…go.”

I pulled one of my coveralls off the clothesline and tossed it to her as she peaked into the room. The girl didn’t even try to catch it, so it landed at her feet.

She picked it up and stared at me expectantly. I raised an eyebrow and stared back at her. 

“Where…can…I…change?” she asked. 

I raised my other eyebrow to show confusion. 

“Change…clothes?” she clarified.

“Anywhere,” I shrugged. Some people’s sense of modesty never made sense to me. We had more pressing concerns and if she didn’t realize that, helping her to safety would be harder than I thought. All the better. I could use a good challenge.

“Where…is…the…toilet…closet?” she stammered. 

I pointed to a door in the hall.

I waited until she closed the bathroom door before I shook my head. I had to wonder if she’d been smart enough to find our safehouse all on her own, or if it’d been dumb luck. I stepped into the adjoining kitchen, grabbed a few hunks of johnnycake from the breadbox and transferred them to my vintage Finn Stormtrooper lunch box. 

Then I sat down at the table and pushed away the bowl of chicken souse that mama had dished for me hours ago at dinner time. I couldn’t eat when there was so much to think about. I had already analyzed a handful of scenarios and needed to assess the second half of my plan. I had to find a swift watercraft to transport us to Bone Cay. Chartering a boat was impractical and enlisting the help of any of the island’s underground networkers ran its own risks. The network operated best the more autonomously everyone functioned. It increased the deniability of each point across the net and allowed for seamless repair if anyone was erased.

“Pickney, is that you?” I almost didn’t hear Mama ask. Her voice came from the hall. “It’s late, son. You should sleep.”

“I’m thinking, Mama.” I stared into space and connected imaginary dots with my fingers. “Can’t sleep.”

“Suit yourself.” Her bedroom door clicked shut. She had given up enforcing bed times nine years ago when I was three. Now she was just thankful that I wasn’t keeping her awake all night with endless questions.

Commandeering Bulla Jacob’s speeder would be the safest vessel off the island. Its license sensors could pass through the island’s shields without raising suspicions, and he let me borrow it whenever I wanted. I had just drawn a line in the air with my finger to underscore the plan when my train of thought was interrupted again. 

“Are you some kind of android?” The girl was leaning down toward me. Her peering eyes inspected my face. “You’re so lifelike.” Her right hand reached toward my face as though she meant to pinch my cheeks.

I pushed her away and stood up. “You’re warm now,” I noted, my hand on her shoulder. “Too bad. It’ll be harder to avoid thermal sensors.”

“I guess your model doesn’t have to worry about the thermals, huh?” she asked.

“I’m not a robot,” I replied, grabbing her soaked balled-up uniform from the bathroom floor. I threw it into the toilet incinerator, then headed for the front door.

“Figures,” she sounded disappointed. The coveralls scuffed the floor as she walked behind me. “Well, thanks for the clothes and the hot shower. I won’t trouble you anymore.” She stepped outside. I followed a few paces behind her and studied her gait for clues about where she was running from or to. It’s always the subtle ticks that betray people’s secrets. 

When we reached the end of the driveway, she seemed surprised to see me step alongside her.  But without changing pace, she waved and said, “Buh-bye.”

“I’ll take you to the underground drop point now,” I replied.

That’s when she stopped.       

She turned the wide whites of her eyes on me, and shook her head. “You can’t come. It’s not safe. If they catch you, they’ll sell you to a factory too.”

Her babble was wasting time again. 

I shook my head and started across the road. “I have two hours and forty-five minutes to kill. Come on.”

Sebrina Somers is a writer who keeps returning home to Seattle. She writes science fiction and fantasy, and is completing her first middle grade novel.

Feature image attributed to Helena Bezecna (under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license).

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