A fictional story by Melpomene based on the characters and backstory created by Melpomene.

Survival Instincts in a World Gone Mad

part one :: part two :: part three :: part four :: part five :: part six :: part seven :: part eight :: part nine :: part ten

‘It’s been ten years now. The world is a stranger to me, America is a ravaged battleground, freedom is but a pipedream.’

She stared at the words that flickered on the testy computer screen. The decade-old monitor whirred companionably enough in the silence of the room, even if it could use a lot of repair work and a few new parts. Too bad the entire Gateway manufacturing complex had been demolished in the “Terror of ‘07”, a year after her extended warranty would have expired had it not been a meaningless contract for four years already.

Years before the “Terror”, as the continent-wide bombing attack had come to be known, sent the population running for the hills computers had become an outlawed luxury item, right along with Rolls Royces, fresh produce and pets. Anyone found in possession of such luxury items was subject to sand before the New World Order Triumvirate for swift and unrelenting disciplinary measures. All the lawyer-speak roughly translated into long stretches of forced labor at the weapons manufacturing yards for anyone found in violation of the law.

Emma had been lucky thus far. Not only had she managed to avoid being squashed directly by one of the enemy’s bombing raids during the war, but she had also managed to keep her computer hidden from triumvirate detection and even had it up and running most of the time which was, in and of itself, a miracle considering how much she had always loathed computerized technology.

Her hacking skills were growing by leaps and bounds and the cyber-mag she kept up had been the focus of more than a dozen government searches. So far she’d been able to elude those who would shut her down for good.

‘New World Order to be blamed for the destruction of New Brunswick, Maine witnesses say, not rebels. Death toll estimated to be in the thousands.’

Emma’s fingers flew across the grimy keyboard she had balanced in her lap, her eyes glued to the faded screen in front of her. If she was fast enough, the tracking devices the government had begun to use would be unable to track her through the dozens of satellites and dialups she regularly utilized to avoid easy detection.

Five minutes was the usual limit for her updates, giving her plenty of time to post notices of new destruction and add to the ever-growing list of deceased civilians who had been caught up in the on-going war. The last she’d checked, the list of known deceased was in the millions.

Satellite pictures, that she was banned from accessing but found anyway and posted on the site, showed a north American continent pockmarked with gaping craters where major cities had once stood. New York City, LA, Chicago, Houston, Detroit, Miami, Seattle, Washington DC… they had all been destroyed early on in the fighting. The satellite photos of other continents were no better. The raid that had demolished Auckland, New Zealand also sunk the rest of that country’s northern island.

New York had been the first hit, even before war had been declared; more than 5,000 civilians had been killed in the attack. A year later when Houston was hit, it had gone up in a blaze of fire, the refineries that spider webbed out from its apex set most of southeast Texas ablaze as well as far western Louisiana.

When Houston went up in smoke, it took with it most of her family and friends. She had grown up on the outskirts of the bustling city in a house her grandfather had built in 1953; her grandmother had remained there even when it was obvious the US mainland would be heavily attacked, preferring to die on her own terms and in her own home.

Every possession, all the mementos Emma hadn’t carried with her on the bus ride to Omaha had been demolished as well: her son’s baby pictures, family heirlooms, everything she had owned and hadn’t been able to fit into the three suitcases she had juggled from bus to bus in the wake of the original World Trade Center and Pentagon bombings.

But that was all in the past and Emma didn’t let herself dwell on what she couldn’t change.

She quickly logged off the site and shut down the computer, yanking both the power cord and the connection to her likewise outlawed cell phone before the government hounds could pinpoint her location. Easily dropping an empty crate over the illegal technology, she covered the crate with a heavily soiled and barely recognizable American flag and hurried out of the crumbling garden shed, sprinting across the buckled soil and into the maze of cement alleyways that separated the shed and the dilapidated tenement dormitory her remaining family had been forced to move into.

Each family had one room in the building; each floor had two bathrooms that had been designated for that particular floor’s use and no one was allowed more than a pint of water per day whether for consumption or hygiene usage. Considering their options, most of the citizens of New World Order didn’t exactly smell like roses. Emma was thankful that there were only three of them in her family: her mother, her son, and herself. She knew families with six people crammed into the tiny fifteen by fifteen foot rooms.

She shook her head over the depths everyone had been forced to stoop to, over the magnitude of changes that had transpired in so short a time. When she was a teenager in the booming 1980’s, she never would have been able to imagine the US being altered so drastically, but at the age of thirty-five, she knew imagination had nothing to do with the reality in which she fought to live as freely as she could.


Emma stopped short at the door that lead to their tenement room and glanced down the hall toward the voice that beckoned her.

“What is it? What’s wrong?” Sudden icy panic flooded her veins at the unexpected appearance of her son.

“You’ve been at it again. Haven’t you?” It was a statement, Koi didn’t ask questions. He hadn’t asked questions since the first time he witnessed a black-market dealer gunned down on the street by the triumvirate’s police force. The man had been guilty of selling a quart of milk to a woman and her starving child. Swift and unrelenting punishment indeed.

She looked directly into the dark eyes filled with accusation and reproach that stared up at her. The only life Koi could remember was the war, he had no recollection of the more or less peaceful world he had been born into and his eyes were evidence of that loss. He’d only been four years old when the World Trade Center and the Pentagon had first been attacked, much too young to have had any comprehension of what was happening in the world around him.

“Koi, I don’t know what you’re talking about. Why aren’t you at the school?”

He worried her, this child who knew far too much and understood so very little.

“I was… now I’m not.” The boy stared evenly at her with chocolate brown eyes that gave away nothing, his mouth a grim line. “They’ll catch you, you know. They’ll catch you and then you’ll be sent to one of the labor camps. Or they’ll just put a bullet in your brain and save themselves the trouble of transportation.”

“Koi! Go back to the school. Now.” Emma stared the boy down, watching as he finally turned and slunk out of the building, kicking at the loose pebbles of the alley on his way back toward the triumvirate-instigated school.

Enemies at every turn; she couldn’t even trust her own child. The little boy who had been so sweetly adoring of everything around him had grown up to be an angry fourteen year-old who was suspicious of even the evening breeze.

She leaned heavily against the door once she had slipped through into the room they were forced to call home. She craved the privacy she had once accepted as her right, craved it so strongly that she could barely contain her cry of frustration at her living conditions. The tenements allowed for only the vaguest hint of privacy, and even at that her neighbors knew every word that was uttered on her side of the paper-thin walls. She couldn’t even sneeze without someone in another family cubical blessing her.

Every time she tried to remember what it had been like before the war, she could only recall sitting on her couch with a bowl of popcorn in her lap and a very young Koi snuggled up next to her while she indulged in one of her television obsessions: Dark Angel. Looking around at the world she inhabited now, she supposed James Cameron hadn’t been so far off in his perception of a war ravaged and government crumbling future.

Emma knew for a fact though that there wasn’t any genetics-testing going on. No perfect soldiers were being engineered to defeat the enemy; even had there been such a project at the onset of the war, the enemy had long ago blown up the research labs.

No, the war had taken an unexpected turn and the US had found itself on the losing end of a deadly battle. In the end, everyone had lost. Now the enemy was supposedly gone, only to be replaced by the triumvirate that was purportedly watching out for the best interests of all the citizens of the planet.

The New World Order governed not just a single country but the entire planet. One governmental body to control whatever was left of the earth’s population: an estimated 2.7 billion people. The idea of such a wide-reaching control still sent shivers down Emma’s spine.

She reached out and brushed her fingers across the rough and battered surface of the utilitarian desk the room was furnished with. The drawers were filled with everything that wouldn’t fit in the small dresser: paper, pencils, a small handful of photos she had salvaged from the last triumvirate raid, half a dozen matchless socks and, buried at the bottom of the pile, a half-empty pack of cigarettes.

Smiling, she slipped the battered cardboard into her pocket, smoothing the scruffy leather jacket she wore down over the slight bulge. Cigarettes had become a black-market item as well. And like her computer, they were something that she was unwilling to do without, all-seeing triumvirate or not.

Dashing back out of the building and away from the stench of too many unclean bodies living too closely to one another, she carefully picked her way back to the musty shed and her beloved computer.

Along the way she shook her head at the irony of the illegal posters that were plastered on the brick walls of the passageway. When she had begun reporting on the events by way of her website, she had never imagined the impact she would have.

Let Freedom Ring had become the most widely read piece of anti-triumvirate literature available. Every week she stumbled across printed copies of her writing stuck to windows and walls, her headlines were spray painted on the sides of buildings.

She often listened to others as they speculated about the author: Liberty. Wouldn't they all be surprised to discover that rather than the ceaseless freedom-fighter most people imagined her to be, Liberty was just a warehouse worker with a knack for sticking her nose in where it didn't belong and saying exactly how she felt.

Just one more post for the day and then she'd head off to the supplement warehouse for a few hours of grueling stocking behind the controls of the area's only forklift.

'Black-market still functioning despite the best efforts of the "tri" to dissolve it. Stock up on beer and cigarettes now, folks, there's no telling when they'll finally wise up.'

The Cons of Living Through the End of the Known Civilization

‘New World Order leader promises a “New Deal” for the new world. Six hundred citizens go missing in triumvirate raid in on Catholic mission in El Paso, Texas. Lourdes, France held in official dispute over veracity of grotto.’

They’d already done away with government, Emma guessed religion was the next logical step in the destruction of everything that was understood by the remainder of humanity. What would be their next target… sex?

Shutting down her update for the time being and hiding away all evidence of her illicit activities, she peered out through the rough uneven slats of the shed’s door, being careful to blow the smoke from her cigarette back into the building behind her and not outside where it might be detected by some amazingly well-scented guard. No one ever wandered so far from the tenements but it didn’t hurt to be careful, especially with the sidelong glances she’d been getting from Koi.

She knew that she needed to be even more careful than she had been before; not only was her son having to decide for himself what was right and wrong, but now more people than she could even imagine relied on her thrice weekly postings to Let Freedom Ring. If Liberty herself were caught by the “tri”, no good would come of it and she wasn’t sure how many others would be willing to take up the torch she had so readily accepted. So to protect Koi from feeling the need to turn his mother in and to keep some hope alive she would just be even more careful.

She lightly tapped the ash from the end of the cigarette. The pack was nearly empty. She would have to brave the police raids and inept spies and get a line on some more before the anxiety from the nicotine craving gave Koi an even better reason to turn her into the police: “Yes officer, my mother is insane, please take her away.”

The biggest problem with acquiring black-market goods, besides the very illegality of them, was coming up with a method of payment that met with the approval of both parties. The Millennial War had seen the end of paper and coin currency although real gold and silver coins still had some value to them, and standard credit units were worthless everywhere except the triumvirate run supply shops. No, bartering was the only plausible means to acquire anything useful but the only things that could be bartered were outlawed themselves.

The whole black-market set up proved to be a catch-22 situation in many ways: to get outlawed items you had to have outlawed items to trade, and so forth. And then there was always the relative value of the items to be traded in the exchange. Just exactly how much was one stale pack of cigarettes worth anyway? A package of chewing gum, a bushel of apples, an hour spent in the dank and sticky backroom in supposed privacy while you tried to remember how your life had dissolved into such a miserable state of affairs so quickly?

Emma was many things, she had decided at one point long before the war had ended, but the one thing that she was not was a prostitute. She had scavenged boots and buttons off the unfortunate victims of triumvirate-backed raids, dug for wild potatoes with her bare hands by the light of the full moon until her fingers were bled and her nails had broken off beyond the quick, she’d even snuck into the police force barracks once and swiped pockets-full of watches, lighters, matches, and a dozen or so Cuban cigars, and those were illegal even before the Millennial War had begun.

Breaking laws set up by an unrelenting and dispassionate world-based government caused her no concern, robbing the dead didn’t bother her either since it was extremely unlikely that they would ever need the items she relieved them of, but she couldn’t bring herself to degrade her own body by selling it for a pack of smokes. Her opinions were already on the market, in a way, she had to keep some aspect of herself private.

Grimacing at the thought of having to track down her dealer, she slipped back out into the muted light of mid-day. There had been a series of explosions early in the morning that still sent a heavy cloud of smoke hanging over the area. She couldn’t be sure what the target had been but she had a feeling the old USAF base was now nothing more than a smoldering pile of rubble and broken cement.

A new message had been graffitied on the alley wall: Let Freedom Ring-- let Liberty speak.

Shit, when had she become the spokesperson for freedom?! Let Freedom Ring was just her jab at the loss of freedom of the press and speech. All she did was tell people what was actually going on, what the New World Order would rather people not know about. She didn’t profess to be another Mother Teresa or Paul Revere. Before the war she had been one of the least patriotic people she knew, how did that change? Had that changed? All she wanted was social reform, a safe place for the shell-shocked children of the New World Order to recover and grow up in. She certainly didn’t want to become a bigger target for the triumvirate to attack.

Tamping out the cigarette on the wall, she shook her head. That’s exactly what she needed, even more reason for those who would stop her from posting Let Freedom Ring to intensify their search for the illusive Liberty. One last post for the day and she would trudge back to the dark little room where her family would hopefully be safe for the time being.

‘Regarding the word spreading about Liberty and this publication: caution is suggested. Just remember that if the “tri” catch me, I can’t make any more posts… On a lighter note, USAF base Hardingston blown to bits by the New World Order. Anyone in the market for a little asbestos dust? It’ll kill ya’ a lot more humanely that the “tri”will.’

“How was the warehouse?”

Emma shut the tenement door behind her, ignoring the hook and eye latch that was their only illusion of security. “Ugh! I swear that damned forklift breaks down more often than it works. Any excitement up at NWO hospital?” She shrugged out of the jacket that had become a permanent part of her wardrobe and cast a cursory glance around the room. “Where’s Koi?”

Jana closed her eyes in exhaustion as her daughter settled into the room. “The hospital was slow as usual and Koi went with some of the other boys to watch the fires.”

Panic shot through her. “They what?! Mom, why didn’t you stop them? They’ll be caught…”

“No, it’s alright. One of the guards came by and asked if they would like to see it first hand. They have permission to be there.”

“Not from me he didn’t,” Emma fumed. “How dare they come into my… home-like cubical… and try to steal my own child right out from under my nose. And while I was breaking my back at their warehouse trying to repair that rusted heap of junk they call a forklift!”

“It’ll be okay, dear. Koi’s not the fool you think he is. He understands more than you realize he does and he’ll do what’s right… just like his mother.”

‘A word of warning: watch your children. The NWO is launching a campaign to steal their allegiance from us, their families, do not let this happen. If we have any hope of regaining even an inkling of our former freedom, it is only through our children that it will be possible. For them we must be willing to risk everything.’

Watching and Waiting: Someone’s Gonna to Screw up Eventually

‘I remember colors, bright colors everywhere… colors that weren’t just part of explosions. Where did all the colors go? Everything I see is black or gray. Where did the blue and green and red go?’

For two weeks she had gone home each evening only to discover Koi had departed to parts unknown with one person or another. Every day of those two weeks drug on for an eternity in Emma’s mind as she imagined all the things that might be happening to her only child. Her own mother’s assurances that the boy knew what he was doing did amazingly little to reassure her.

“He’s just a child, mother. How can he know what he’s getting himself into? Either he’s joining up with the New World Order and the Triumvirate itself or he’s trying to get behind enemy lines… and right now I really don’t know which would be worse.”

Jana watched her youngest child pace furiously in the confined space. Of the three of her babies, Emma was the only one to live through the war. “You survived worse when you were younger than he is now and that was without a war to blame. You’ve taught him well. He’ll be fine, Emma dear.”

“The world was a different place then, and besides, I never should have lived through my pre-school years. I was damned lucky. I just wish I could be as confident about Koi as you are…”

“Perhaps Liberty ought to start listening to her mother.”

Without even pausing to collect her thoughts, Emma automatically responded, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Emma.” Jana stood up from the sagging mattress and placed a hand on Emma’s tense arm. “Emma, you’ve spent your entire life hiding and pretending to be someone you weren’t. Don’t you think Koi and I knew what you were up to from the very first post that Liberty made on Let Freedom Ring?” Jana closed her eyes and thought back for a moment on the child Emma had been. “You always fought against anything you thought was a social injustice, Emma, even when you were nothing more than a baby… even when your own life was the worst injustice of them all…” She reached out to smooth her daughter’s hair.

Emma stifled the knee-jerk reaction to pull away from the caress, running her own fingers through her hair until the short strands stuck out in all directions. “Yeah well, rooting for the underdog these days is likely to get you killed. If the Tri is going after the kids now, the less Koi knows… the less involved and knowledgeable he is about anything subversive, the safer he is.”

Jana watched her for a long quiet moment before she nodded. “Of course.”

“But I’m still not Liberty,” she insisted, the words ringing false even in her own ears.

‘Estimates of 20,000 held prisoner in New World Order factories to build weapons. Why are we still building weapons if the war is over and our enemies no longer exist? Who will be left to defend if even the children are incarcerated? Add another 785 to the current death toll: Havensport, Mississippi is no more. Stealth bombers flock over Lincoln, Nebraska in a supposed show of defense… but defense against what? Can the rebels really be so big a threat that we require anti-nuke missiles?’

The sun had set and with it curfew had taken effect, shooing everyone inside and off the littered streets. In the beginning, the curfew had seemed like a good idea, the war was waging all around them and being indoors after dark had been the only sensible alternative. It wasn’t until after the war had ended and the curfew was still in effect that opposition to it arose. But like every other type of defiance that arose in the militarized zones under New World Order control, the protests had been quickly silenced, the protestors quietly disposed of.

Emma tiptoed through the empty hallways. The first hour or so of the curfew period saw the halls filled with loudly chattering bodies. Discussions over the garden fence had changed to conversations held at the stairwell entrance. Arguments escalated rapidly in the close quarters and fistfights often involved more than one innocent bystander. But by the time the guard had called the midnight hour, an ancient ritual re-instigated with the illegal status of timepieces, the halls were bare and silent, just muddy footprints, crumpled bits of trash, and scuffed blood stains left behind to attest to the earlier melee.

Creeping up the gritty stairwell as soundlessly as possible, she eased open the roof access panel and slipped out into the heavy silence and deep shadows of the night, the muffled crunch of tar and pebbles beneath her feet the only audible noise. There was a small alcove with a 180 degree view of the city she had discovered by accident one night, an alcove where she could be safely hidden from the prying eyes of the guards who would love to corner a woman alone.

The building had once been a fashionable women’s college dormitory complete with lavish cornices and carved granite statuary. All that was left of the original building’s façade were the recessed shelves that had been incorporated into the upper level. At one time they had housed larger than life reclining maidens that had been shipped in from Italy, but now they were bare and empty, perfect for hiding away from the rest of the world’s prying eyes.

She knelt at the edge of the roof, peering into the darkness long enough to be sure there were no guards below before she launched herself up and over, one hand clutching the small ledge as the other felt for the alcove two feet below the roof line. The scrape of the rough bricks against her palms, the solidity of the wall as her legs slid across it, the jolt that shook her joints when her feet made contact within the alcove itself were all engrained into her memory from having played out the exact scene more than a hundred times, it was the soft body she collided with once she had landed that startled her.

“Oh, shit!” Emma would have fallen backwards and plunged down eight floors to become one very large grease spot had it not been for the hand that shot out and pulled her back, steadying her before she could fall.

Listening to the clatter of loose pebbles as they skittered over the edge, the person Emma had landed on top of at last released her arm. In the deep shadows Emma couldn’t be sure of anything concerning the intruder, nor was she sure she wanted to. One flash of a NWO badge and she would know the end was in immediate sight.

“What are you doing here?” she demanded, falling back on her anger to help her out of the possibly very dangerous situation. “Who are you? No one knows about this place…”

“That would seem to be, in the current circumstances, quite obviously a fallacy.”

“Yeah, I can see that. I’ll leave now--- you won’t come back.”

Smooth as satin and so deep that Emma found herself aching to stay and listen to anything he had to say, the faceless voice spoke up again, “Please, don’t leave on my account. I only wanted to meet you. You should be here.”

“I am here… now I’m leaving,” she stressed, reaching around the bricks that made up the sides of the recessed shelf where she stood with her unwelcome company. Feeling for the handholds that would lead her back up to the roof, she gave one last futile glance to the darkness and readied herself to climb the wall.

“Wait… Liberty.”

That got her attention and raised her hackles at the same time. “What the hell… look, just because I stumble across you in a place no one’s supposed to know about doesn’t make me the Tri’s most wanted non-citizen, it doesn’t mean I’m responsible for the most anti-NWO cyber mag on the rapidly dwindling internet,” her words tripped over one another in her rush to deny the damning accusation.

The silence that had followed her outburst sent icy tendrils of real fear chasing through her veins. She knew he wasn’t buying her denial, and even without any evidence, all he had to do was tell one guard he suspected her of anti-NWO activities and she wouldn’t need to worry about how to keep Koi away from the government anymore because she’d be dead.

“You are Liberty.”

“Look, Mister, sorry to burst your bubble but I’m just a warehouse stocker who has a penchant for needing privacy, something which I might mention, I’m not getting with you here.”

The unknown man shifted in the darkness, the sound of cloth scraping against brick grating her ears. “You are a warehouse stocker, yes, but you also have a computer hidden away in an old storage shed on the other side of zone J. That computer is the origin of Let Freedom Ring.”

Emma froze, not only had he accused her of traitorous activities, he had enough evidence to hang her a dozen times over. Her heart pounded with the reality of her danger. And as if being near this man who knew her identity wasn’t enough, she heard a group of guards patrolling in the street below, their raucous voices carrying up to the alcove.

Her choices were limited: either she could try to deny that she was Liberty and probably end up being turned in anyway or she could take matters into her own hands and jump.

Seeming to understand the quandary Emma believed herself to be in, the man spoke up, “I’m not here to get you killed, Liberty. And I didn’t happen upon my information by accident, you are very good at hiding. It’s taken me two and a half years to find you.”

“If you’re not here to collect the reward for catching Liberty, then what do you want? Blackmail?”

He stifled a chuckle. “And what would I blackmail you for? Like you said, you’re just a warehouse stocker.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of…”

“Please, have a seat, they aren’t leaving any time soon I’m afraid.”

Emma leaned over the edge enough to see the dozen guards standing around a barrel, lighting the contents and talking. “Damn it,” she muttered.

“Now, like I said, I’m not here to hurt you, but I do have a few questions and a proposition…”

‘And the race is on to find the elusive Liberty! Don’t worry folks, it’s going to take more than a price on my head to get me off the net, but you know, it the reward goes up any higher I might be tempted to turn myself in. Just remember: the truth cannot be denied forever.’

Choices for the Drowning Few

‘623 to be added to list of casualties of the New World Order. Credits dwindling for “employees” of the NWO and Tri, prices rising at Tri-supply stores. More anti-nukes being fitted to stealth bombers at Topeka. New to list of outlawed items: tennis shoes, lace, notebook paper, all leather items.’

Emma sat back from the computer screen. With the newly outlawed items, she at least had something to barter with again; it sure beat ripping off the dead. She sighed and junked the connection with a vicious jerk. She had seen it coming at the outset of the Millennial War, the destruction of the privacy she had held so dear, the loss of freedom and even of democracy itself. She had watched with horrified recognition as the country ran amok with unreasonable, irrational fear, replaying an updated version of the “Red Scare” and the McCarthy hearings. She had watched but was powerless to prevent it.

With the computer hidden again, she sat back down on the crate she had claimed as a chair and tried to make sense out of the man she had met the evening before. She couldn’t be sure he was on the up and up but at least she hadn’t had the Tri beating down her door at the tenement or busting into the storage shed. At least not yet.

They’d been trapped in the alcove for most of the night before the group of guards had finally tired of their talk and moved on. In that time, she had told her intruder precious little but he had said a great deal and she only wished she could be certain of his motives. Going with her gut instinct, she had posted some of the news he had relayed on Let Freedom Ring. In the end, it didn’t really matter if it was true or not, the vast majority of the public had no means of discovering whether the things she professed to be happening were actually occurring. Although that fact generally made her even more cautious, the time for caution was expired if the strange man’s information was to be believed.

She glanced down at the small watch face that rested on her knee. The watch’s band had disappeared long before, but it still kept accurate time and it fit neatly in her pocket without a telltale bulge to reveal its presence. Twenty more minutes and she would be expected to take up her position in the rusting heap metal they called a forklift at the Tri warehouse, which gave her five more minutes to sit before she had to make her way to zone B and the huge black Tri warehouses with their padlocked doors and electric gates. What lay beyond those padlocks and sizzling wires she didn’t know, nor did she think she wanted to find out.

Resting her elbows on her knees, she closed her eyes and replayed the strange meeting: she had far more questions about the man than she did answers. She could probably pick out his voice in a din of a thousand men, but his face was still a mystery due to the alcove’s shadows, even when she had lit her cigarette the planes of his face had eluded the flickering light from the match.

He had said to trust him. Emma had almost laughed out loud at that. Trust was a fleeting thing in an insane world. Trust. Who did she trust? Her mother? For the most part she supposed she did trust Jana although the extent of that trust was extremely limited. Koi? No, Koi was just a child still, he was also working to embed himself in one of the worst governmental agencies Emma had ever seen or heard of and his motives were unclear. The only person Emma fully trusted was herself, and even then she felt as if the only matter in which she trusted herself was to screw up.

“What’s your name? You obviously know who I am.”

He had sat silently in the void of shadows, his breathing the only evidence of his existence there.

“Alright, mystery guy, fine, you don’t have a name. Where are you from? Your voice… you’re not from around here originally, are you?” She had waited a long time for the answers to those questions, blowing smoke out into the winds that gusted outside the protected alcove. She could smell the rain in the air; they were in for a wet night. “Great. You come in here and tell me I have to trust you but you won’t tell me anything. It doesn’t work that way.”

“It has to, there is no alternative.”

“Oh sure there is, it’s called you introduce yourself and step out here into the very dim light of my lighter and let me see your face. Answer some of my damned questions already!” With frustration building in her body, Emma was hard-pressed not to pitch the man out of her alcove and see if he couldn’t turn himself into a bird and fly back to where ever he came from. Repressing that urge she sat back on her haunches and took a drag of the smoldering cigarette that was clutched between her fingers.

It was no use, he wouldn’t say anything else and she was losing her patience. When the guards had finally abandoned the fire barrel, she had crept up the wall and slunk back into the building as quietly as possible. Although she knew her mystery guest had followed her up the wall, once she reached the door and turned around, he was gone.

‘Guards increase numbers on night patrol. Black-market again threatened by the NWO regime; watch your backs folks, you never know who’s a dealer and who’s a guard. Additional troops shipped to South America to control the rebel uprisings, so far a reported 172 dead so far in the ensuing riots.’

“Get that lift over to the pallets! We’re not running a rest home here, people!”

Emma heaved an exaggerated sigh and cut her eyes in the direction of the dictate. “How fast does he think this piece of crap can move? It would be faster if I just got off and pushed it,” she grumbled.

The woman she had been speaking with chuckled in appreciation, stepping back as Emma brought the cranky engine to roaring life. “Wanna meet up at curfew? We can have some coffee in my hovel…”

Grinning at her, Emma shifted the forklift into motion. “It’s a date. See ya’, Maria, Mr. Oh-so-important beckons.” She maneuvered the machine across the buckled pavement of the secondary storage warehouse, pulling it up within an inch of the supervisor.

“You’re not indispensable, girl,” he growled as she continued to urge the forklift ever closer to his feet. “There are a hundred people out there who would kill for your job.”

“Yeah, yeah… Grecco, if you can find someone else who can fix this bucket of bolts every time it breaks down I’ll take over for your maid and wash your socks and underwear for a month.” Emma shifted gears and brought the machine to a halt. “Until then, put a sock in it.”

Walking back to the tenement after her shift in the warehouse, Emma ripped down some of the more prolific copies of Let Freedom Ring and tossed them into a blazing fire barrel as she strode past. The adoring masses were beginning to be a little too adoring for her taste.

Trudging up the front steps of the imposing brick box she begrudgingly called home, she paused on the threshold to admire the view. The sun had just begun to dip below the horizon, casting a wash of scarlet and ochre across the incredibly silent landscape. The fires had finally burned themselves out, but the air was still thick with the acrid smoke and ash. No matter what happened, sunsets would always be magnificent.

“Hey ya, girl, better get in here before one of the guards come by.”

Emma turned back toward the door, gazing at her friend for a brief moment. “Maria, do you miss the night time?”

“I try not to think about it too much, there’s nada that we can do about the curfew. They’d just kill us if we protested. You know that better than most. How many of your friends have disappeared?”

“Too many.” She stepped up to the threshold and slipped through the heavy front door. “How about that coffee?”

Maria grinned and looped her arm through her friend’s. “It’s already brewing. You know I never liked it much before the war, there’s something about the very wrongness of having it now that makes it taste so much sweeter.”

“Yeah, the sweet taste of breaking every law we can without being drawn and quartered in the process.”

‘Watch the skies. Something is building. More guards have been called to duty in all quadrants across the planet. Religion is no longer tolerated, only attendance at the Satellite Church of the New Order is permitted on alternate Tuesday mornings. And we knew it was coming, folks, sexual relations between opposite sex couples now requires a permit, same sex pairings are seemingly still allowed.’

‘Twenty-three arrested outside the NWO warehouse in Missoula yesterday under suspicion of rebel activity. Six condemned to death in Amsterdam for gathering without permission. The sky is falling, folks, and there is no king to tell.’

Emma sat up suddenly, nearly bumping her head on the springs of the mattress above her bed. It was quiet in the room, far too quiet, deathly quiet. There was something wrong but she couldn’t quite put her finger on what it was.

Casting a glance around her, she could just make out the shape of her mother’s bed across the small room, the blankets rumpled and humped over the form that lay there, she heard the sagging springs just over her head groan softly as Koi moved slightly in his sleep, everything seemed to be in order, at least as far as she could determine in the near total darkness. The one thing she couldn’t see from her place on the bed was the door.

She quickly rose and crossed the distance in five hurried steps. The latch had been unhooked and the chair scooted back from where it generally rested at night. The chair was too short to block the door effectively but she set it there each night thinking that the noise it would make scooting across the floor would wake her. She had been wrong.

Turning back to the bed, she peered at the top bunk. Koi was there, his eyes closed and his breathing even. She stood there for a long time, watching him to be sure he was truly asleep and not just pretending. The thought of him leaving the tenement at night, against the orders of the curfew, sent a cold fear charging down into the pit of her stomach. But he wasn’t out wandering through the guard-infested streets; he was lying in bed asleep. His exposed arm was cool to the touch but his chest, beneath the thin coverlet, was warm. His feet were bare and clean. He hadn’t been out of the room since they had all gone to bed.

If Koi wasn’t to blame for the opening of the door, Emma couldn’t think of anyone else who could be. Jana was asleep, her light snore assuring her of the fact, and she was very nearly certain she had latched the hook before crawling onto her sagging, lumpy mattress. Maybe she was wrong, maybe she’d forgotten. It wasn’t as if the hook served any real purpose anyway.

Still concerned, Emma cast a final look around the room before she pulled on a pair of crumpled jeans and slipped into the hallway, sliding a jacket on over the t-shirt she had worn to bed.

The dim light that filtered down the corridor from the far end created a menagerie of shadow-forms that slid across the walls and floor as she carefully crept forward toward the stairwell. Their room was on the sixth floor of the old building, four floors down from the roof and her private hide-away, but too near the guard post that was situated on the fifth floor for her own sense of safety.

Even the slightest noise was echoed in that dark passageway, reverberating too loudly off the scared walls and pockmarked ceiling. Her footfalls rang nosily in her ears as she tried to tread quietly along the ragged floor. No other sounds emanated from the rooms on either side of the hall to veil her passage, not even the squeaking of a hearty rodent.

If someone had in fact, broached the door, they had vanished into thin air.

She stopped at the door that closed off the stairs from the corridor. It too was ajar. Just as she was reaching for the knob, a shrill cry resonated up from the lower floors, jolting her into stillness as she listened to the pained call. It didn’t sound human, at least she didn’t think it did, but the familiarity chilled her even more than the cool air.

Fighting against all reason, she bolted through the door and raced down the gritty stairwell, plunging into an inky blackness that stole her balance for a moment. Catching herself against the railing before she toppled down the stairs, she gasped at the realization that she didn’t only recognize the tone of the call, she knew the voice. She had heard it every workday at the warehouse.

Maria had been a stranger to her when Emma first brought her family to the tenement, nothing more than another face in the undulating crowds that filled the housing corridors and supply store. It hadn’t been until they were both assigned to the warehouse that she had taken the time to distinguish the pretty woman from everyone else. Maria had a family as well, a mother and three nieces who she worked hard to protect against the new threats of the NWO.

Racing toward the other woman’s self-proclaimed hovel, Emma heard movement in the other rooms as their occupants woke and barred their doors against the reawakened threat of impending violence. After so many years of death and destruction, people had finally lost their sense of moral obligation and clung to their own survival in a crazy world that had no qualms about killing indiscriminately.

The light on Maria’s floor had been extinguished, a sure sign that nothing good was to come. By the time Emma slammed into the door, the cry had stopped, replaced by a mournful wailing. Thrusting her shoulder into the door again, it finally gave under her weight and she fell into the dimly lit room.

Maria was gone. Only her mother and little nieces sat cowering on a dingy mattress, clinging to one another in their fright.

“What happened?” Emma demanded. “Where’s Maria?”

“They took her…”

Pulling herself to her feet, Emma faced the elderly lady who had spoken. “Who took her? The guards? New World Order soldiers? Who?”

“I don’t-- They didn’t--” She shook her head and tightened her grip on the girls who huddled around her. “Men came through the door and took her. They pulled her out of her bed--” the last ended in a wail as the woman lost the control she had tried to maintain. “Emma, they took her. They didn’t say why, they just took her.”

Emma was out of the room again and dashing down the last two flights of stairs toward the exterior door before her reason had a chance to catch up with her feet, before Maria’s mother could even try to stop her from plunging headlong into danger.

She heard an engine rev outside as she banged through the heavy wooden door and toppled down the steps to land in a cloud of thick exhaust and dirt. The dark truck spun its tires on the lose gravel of the road before it pulled away with its cargo. Emma could see at least a dozen heads in the back of the tarp-covered vehicle, and none of them wanted to be there.

‘Fifty-two civilians taken from NWO housing overnight in five cities across North America for unknown crimes against the government. NWO denies all reports. Attendance at the Satellite Church is now mandatory at least once a week, what’s next? Mandatory sex? Stealth fighters converging in Australasia.’

Emma slumped against the brick wall of the alley. Her shift at the warehouse had been almost impossible to handle. Not only did Maria’s absence go unmentioned, there was already a replacement worker there when she arrived. Yeah, the government had no knowledge of the abductions… sure, she’d buy that one.

The forklift breaking down again was a blessing; at least she could concentrate on fixing it rather than on what had happened to another one of her friends. Each time her mind wandered into unwanted directions she just slammed her fist into the unforgiving steel machine and fought to keep her thoughts on the task at hand.

Maria’s replacement had only attempted to ask her what was wrong once, having been chased back to another part of the warehouse by Emma’s shouted response. She knew it wasn’t the new girl’s fault, but there were some things she just couldn’t handle quite yet.

When the end of her shift at last arrived, Emma had darted out of the crowded collection of warehouses and disappeared into the maze of crumbling alleyways that would eventually lead her into zone J and to her computer. She was anticipating a new message with more information from her mysterious visitor of so many nights before. She hadn’t seen him since that first distressing meeting, and she hoped to keep their relationship pleasantly distant. The less active interest he paid her, the happier she would be.

By taking the alleys, she could bypass the few checkpoints set up within the city itself. Why no one had thought to block off the back door, so to speak, she didn’t know. She wondered what she would do when the guards finally started thinking and did block her passage. She had no official reason to be anywhere but zones C and F, and she had no way of obtaining the passage permits that would clear her passage through the other zones.

Deciding to worry about it when it became a problem, and not before, she turned her thoughts back to the abductions that were still occurring. She knew of at least two dozen, had been friends with at least seven of the people who had been taken in the middle of the night with no known reason. If they were an attempt to stop Liberty and Let Freedom Ring she was unaware of the intention.

Pushing herself away from the dirty wall, she continued on her way to the falling down shed. She cast a glance around her to be sure she was alone before she paused at the door and slipped inside. In the half-light she carefully crossed the shed to her computer hidden beneath the flag and crate.

It only took an instant to realize she wouldn’t be making any more posts. The computer was gone, the crate upturned and the flag ripped to pieces. USB cables and broken glass littered the space where it had been. She had been found out, whether by accident she couldn’t be sure.

A sudden cold fear flooded her as she turned around and listened at the door for the sound of marching feet. Standing in frozen silence, she waited. No one was coming, at least no one she could hear.

Let Freedom Ring was gone, at least until she could replace the computer and locate a new center of operations. But even if the discovery had been by chance, the NWO knew that Liberty would be nearby. They had pinpointed the city, even if they still didn’t have an id. And with the way they worked, wiping out an entire city wouldn’t a problem for them.

Slowly Spiraling Toward Destruction

‘Don’t silence Liberty! Let Freedom Ring!’

Emma stared up at the words that practically shouted out from the ragged brick wall in red painted glory. Three days had passed since she had discovered the destruction of her computer and Emma still hadn’t found a way to remedy the problem. She had tried to get a lead on another computer to no avail, they were too highly prized to come by easily and her black market tie wanted too high a price by far. Ideals were nice if you could afford them; when she first lost the computer she had discovered that ideals and all the actions that accompanied them were far too expensive for her tastes.

She despised the way Deacon leered at her, as if she were nothing more than one of the models in the sleazy outdated and illegal porn magazines that filled his living quarters, but he was the only contact she had and if she expected to trade on the black market she had to deal with his wandering eyes and occasionally groping hands. She just had to remember to dress appropriately, in as many layers as possible, each time she arranged a meeting.

Tugging the hood of her leather jacket forward to help block the bone chilling gusts of wind that seeped through the heavy sweater she wore, she cast a furtive glance around the front steps of the tenement building again before darting out and slipping into one of the labyrinthine alleyways. It never hurt to be cautious as well a quick on your feet, especially considering the increased number of guards who patrolled the city streets.

She was supposed to meet with Deacon in one of the old abandoned factories that sat in great rusting heaps of soulless husks on the southernmost lakeshore. He changed their meeting place each time Emma contacted him, claiming it was due to the need to keep the guards guessing and she had no reason to believe his motives were ever anything but what he claimed. Selfishness pervaded his very way of life, and the preservation of his own sorry skin was just one aspect of that selfishness.

Along the way she tried to blend in with her decrepit surroundings, refusing to look at the spray painted demands that Liberty be allowed to speak the truth and looking right through the new lists of laws and forbidden items and objects. She was fighting a losing battle with the New World Order and she knew it, not only that but they were taking from her the only thing she had left, her son.

Koi was spending more and more time away from the tenements and school, making far too many friends with the soldiers and guards who supported this new and highly restrictive government. She could see it in his eyes, the smoldering contempt he held for her each time she would try to convince him to spend less time with his new collection of friends and more time with her and his grandmother. She was losing him and there wasn’t anything she could do about it.

Scuffing her work boots in the dirt and gravel, she wondered where the mysterious man had gone. Had he too been rounded up in the last abduction sweep? Or was he merely laying low until it was safer to make another appearance? Perhaps he was just a figment of her already over-taxed imagination, a lone collaborator in a world she no longer understood, just a figure pulled from one of the books she once read by the shelf-full, or out of one of her old television obsessions: the dark crusader who sweeps in to save the day despite his shadowy past and against all obstacles.

Twisting through the maze of tunnels and alleys, Emma emerged into the dim light of the overcast day just outside the disused complex of factories, her mind refocusing on the dreary reality that surrounded her. Deacon would be waiting for her somewhere in the deep shadows, of that she had no doubt. He wouldn’t stand her up any more than he’d donate goods to charity; it simply wasn’t in his temperament to decline paying customers.

She watched the shadows for movement. He was too careful to allow himself to be caught but the guards weren’t always so cautious. Movement within the deep shadows would be a signal that Deacon had company and any company he might have with him wouldn’t be the kind Emma had any inclination to become friendly with.

The guards did occasionally get lucky, catching black market deals going down purely by chance, stumbling across the trades in little used and rarely patrolled areas of the far flung zones, charging the buyers for crimes against the government and dispensing with the dealers with a bullet in the back of their heads and a puddle of blood on the ground.

She absently kicked at shards of broken glass and shattered pottery as she slowly approached the gaping gate. The entire area of factories had at one time been fenced off and chained to protect against intruders and vandals but riots and uncaring thieves had cut through the chain long before she first made her way to it. The rusted hinges squawked noisily as the gate swung open a few inches, giving Emma just enough room to squeeze through.

“Emmy, Emmy, Emmy…”

The unheralded voice startled her and she jerked her head toward the sound. Deacon stood with his back pressed up against a wall, a lecherous grin souring his already unpleasant face.


“You made it.”

“Was there ever any question?” she egged. What passed for small talk with Deacon bordered on irritating banter with the woman who stood on guard just inside the fence.

“Just a statement, girlie. Lighten up, you’re wound up so tight you’ll blow a gasket if you ain’t careful.” He shifted against the bricks at his back. “What d’ya bring me?”

“That would depend on what you have.” Emma stood her ground, staying as far from Deacon as possible and as close to her only exit as she could manage without making her presence blindingly obvious to passers-by.

“Don’t worry that little head o’ yours, sweet cheeks, I got what you want.” Gesturing to a bundle set against the scorched and crumbling perimeter wall, he grinned again. “Now, you show me yours…”

Emma forced herself to swallow the retort that was on the tip of her tongue, knowing from experience that her barbs were useless against the cretin who stood across from her. Thrusting a slender hand into the pocket of her jacket, she pulled out several packaged microchips and a stack of floppy disks. She extended the hand in front of her, grimacing at Deacon’s slimy approach. “This,” she jerked her hand away from his greedy bearing, “for a carton of cigs, a liter of Tequila, and three quarts of applesauce.”

“What do you expect me to do with a bunch of computer parts? You’re robbin’ me blind, Emmy.”

“I expect you to sell them to the buyer you already have set up, for five times the trading rate… that’s what I expect you to do with ‘em.” She nodded toward the bundle. “Open it up so I can make sure it’s all there.”

“Now, sugah, would I try to cheat you?”

“Oh yeah,” she assured the lumbering giant who watched her every movement covetously, “you would.”

She watched closely to make sure he didn’t try any slight of hand, and peered at the collection of articles the bundled cloth and paper held. As far as she could tell, it was all accounted for.

“Ya’ know, I got a line on that computer you asked about…”

“No deal, Deacon. I don’t like your terms.”

“You don’t know what you’re missin’, girl,” he jeered.

“Thank God for small favors…”

She returned to the tenement just at dusk, the bundle tucked safely under her arm, and wary of even the lengthening shadows of dusk. No one was standing outside the building, it was too close to the mandatory curfew for loiters and even the lower common rooms were sparsely populated. All it took to shoo people into their rooms was a good ol’ abduction in their own building.

Taking the steps two at a time, she reached the floor where Maria’s family still had their apartment and knocked softly at the door.

“Who is it?” An ancient face peered out at her through the crack of the door, fear and trepidation filling once cheerful eyes. “Ach, Emma, come in, come in.”

Emma slipped through the door, smiling slightly at Maria’s mother. “I brought you and the girls some applesauce. Thought you might like a change for a while.”

The elderly woman shook her head slowly. “You take too many chances, Emma. They will catch you if you continue with your trades.”

“Yeah, I know.” She pulled out two of the jars of applesauce from her pack and handed them to the woman who stood a full two feet shorter than she did. “But that’s the way it goes, I guess,” turning to go, she added, “take care of yourself and the girls, it’ll get better… it has to.”

She reached her own floor just as the last door closed with a resounding thud. No fights tonight at least, no conversation either. Slowing her stride she stopped at the door to her quarters, staring at the numbers painted on its surface with unseeing eyes. She hated her life, she hated life in the New World Order period; she had to do something or she was going to go insane with her loathing.

She didn’t want to open that door and discover that Koi wasn’t on the other side. She didn’t want to spend the night worrying about where he was and what he was doing. She wanted to go back to a time when the worst your teenager could do was use illegal drugs and hold up convenience stores, not morph into a contemporary form of Hitler’s youth.

In the end, she didn’t have to open the door; it opened itself, swinging in with a sudden puff of wind that dashed along the hall from some unseen open window. The scene that met her weary eyes was far from what she had expected.

The cramped beds and dressers, the overflowing desk, the pile of clothes needing to be washed, everything she could possibly claim to possess… it was all gone. Her eyes widened at the sight, unable to make sense of it. When she had left that afternoon, all had been in its own cluttered order, but now…

She looked again at the number on the door, thinking that perhaps she had stopped at the wrong door, or possibly even on the wrong floor. Number 708. I was the right room, it was just vacant of anything that might have possibly hinted at its occupants, not even a scrap of paper littered the swept floor. Worse yet, neither Koi nor Jana were to be found within the badly lit room. They were both gone, the last vestiges of family she could have claimed had disappeared into the NWO night.

Eve of the Apocalypse

She went through the motions of living, unable to focus on anything, unwilling to speak to anyone, incapable of forcing understanding to alight on her troubled mind. Each breath was a concerted effort, every step mechanical. There was nothing left, nothing to fight for, nothing to live for. Every crumb of meaning she had once had, had been wiped away in one fail swoop. Nothing had been allowed to remain behind, not even her own will to live.

Automatically, she walked toward the warehouses. Her job was the only thing she had not neglected although even that was not due to any sense of valiant work ethic. She just needed to have some kind of schedule to her days, even if it was a worthless position in a food supply center run by her greatest enemy.

Five days. It had been five days since Jana and Koi went missing. No one had seen them leave, no one had seen anyone clear out her possessions, no one had seen anything. Somehow the guards had come into the dormitory and removed every last vestige of her residence there and no one saw anything…

She found that incredibly difficult to believe but couldn’t bring herself to grow angry with her neighbors. No one wanted to make waves and thereby bring attention to themselves.

It had been even longer, more than a week, since she had met the stranger. Surely he knew by now that Liberty was gone or at least silenced to the point of non-existence. Maybe he had no interest in her without her ability to post more versions of Let Freedom Ring. Maybe he had realized for himself how pointless it was to fight against the New World Order. Maybe he was dead.

She couldn’t summon up enough emotion to care what had become of him either, she couldn’t even garner enough emotion to even care about what happened to herself.

The warehouses slowly rose out of the cragged horizon, row after row of dark metal buildings that had at one time in the past had housed textiles and machinery. Now the oil-soaked and lint-clogged structures held the food supplies for what was left of a large city. It made sense in a completely nonsensical way.

Scuffing her feet along the pavement, she dropped her line of sight, focusing on the cracks that radiated out from the sidewalk’s seams. There were no weeds fighting the cement for purchase, no dandelions or tufts of green grass, no Virginia creeper to wage war against the intrusion of modernity. The winter chill wouldn’t allow even the barest glimpse of green to lighten the landscape.

Snow was in the air. At least that was what one of the people in her building had said the previous evening. She had passed by the group of gossiping women, brushing by them in the crowded common room on the way to her bare quarters when she overheard that snatch of comment. Snow was in the air.

Her first thought had been to tell Koi. He had loved the snow as a child, he had even smiled the last time they awakened to a white morning, letting go the hard façade of his adolescence for a few minutes to have an impromptu snow ball fight with her in front of the dormitory. Koi would have appreciated the snow far better than she would, but he was gone.

A hand snaked out from the side of a burned out building, snatching Emma’s elbow as she continued on toward the warehouse and pulling her into a darkened alley. Her first thought was to fight back but that response died quickly with the realization that this attack might be the answer to her prayers, a quick death as opposed to pointless living.


She remained unresponsive, crouched on the ground where she had fallen when the interloper released her arm. Her head hung forward, the short strands of her wild hair, once blonde but stained dark with oil and grime, stuck out at odd angles above her brow and prevented the intruder from seeing her face clearly.

“You’re a mess, Emma.”

Without bothering to raise her head to acknowledge the man who had spoken, she responded, “What does it matter to you? It doesn’t matter…”

The unknown man crouched down next to her, tilting her head up with a crooked finger. “But it does matter, Liberty, it matters very much.”

She looked directly into his eyes, vaguely noting the pale gray-green of his irises with little real interest. Her blank stare encompassed all that had happened to her in the time since she had last met the dark man.

She did manage to notice that he wasn’t nearly so dark in the daylight. His clothes were unremarkable, jeans and a t-shirt covered by the thick leather of a black duster, and matched his face in their normalcy. His was a visage that would draw no attention to itself, the only distinctive feature were his remarkable eyes. Emma didn’t want to notice anything about him, she didn’t want to have another face in her mind, a face that the New World Order would rip out of her life soon enough.

“Emma,” his whisper was urgent on the frosty air, intending to draw her attention back to his eyes without alerting passersby to their presence in the alley.

“Emma’s dead.”

Taken aback by her monotone, he studied her for an extended moment, finally asking, “What happened to Liberty? She wouldn’t let them beat her like this, she would fight back tooth and nail until she recovered all she had lost.”

“Didn’t you hear? Liberty took the high road and bailed. She was given a first class ticket to nowhere-land and she’s content to stay there.” Emma paused and drew in a shuddering breath. “Liberty only existed while there was a means for her to speak. With no computer, she’s been silenced. Forever.”

“I refuse to accept that.”

She chuckled, showing the first real emotion she had in days. “It’s not up to you. It doesn’t matter if you want her to exist or not. You aren’t Liberty, you never were.”

Hunkering down even further to the ground, he maintained eye contact with her. “And what if I were to tell you that there was indeed a way for her to carry on?”

“I’d say you were too late.”

“No.” He stood up, pulling her with him in his haste, and strode out into the street just as a group of guards came barreling around the corner, headed toward the warehouses. Nodding toward the confusion at the entrance gate, he added, “You’ll want to stay away from the warehouses today, Emma. They’re not fit for man or beast at the moment.”

“What?” Confused, she peered down the street, watching the milling crowd that had gathered around the chain link fencing. “What’s going on?”

Continuing to steer her across the street, the man paused long enough to stay out of the path of an oncoming NWO van. They turned when they reached the sidewalk on the opposite side of the street, hurrying down the pavement in quick steps.

Emma craned her neck around, trying to see what was happening behind them but the crowd was too thick and she could only see a mass of moving bodies. Turning her attention to the man who still held her arm in a death grip, she asked again, “What’s happening and how did you know something would be going down today?”

“Let’s just say that Liberty isn’t as dead as you might have thought.”

The End of the Beginning

“What the hell…” She pulled out of his grasp and whirled around to face him.

He stepped back just before Emma’s fist flew through the air toward his jaw. Anger brewed thickly in her eyes as accusation danced in her expression and she pulled her fist back, undaunted by his maneuver, to try her attack again.

He caught her hand on the second swing, closing his fingers over her fist and pushing her arm down to her side. His eyes trailed away from her face and to the whitewashed wall behind her and the sheet of computer printout that had been plastered to it. Another edition of Let Freedom Ring had been distributed and was in fact the reason he had sought Emma out again. “Look and you’ll understand.” He motioned to the paper and watched as she turned to peer at it in confusion.

“Wait a minute… I didn’t write this.” Emma scanned the words quickly, her mind straining at the consequences of what she read. “Oh my god… They’re being led to a slaughter.” She spun to face the nameless man. “Who would do this?” she demanded.

“Someone who doesn’t think the same way you do,” he said simply. “This segment of your little publication was most probably instigated by the New World Order to eliminate some of their more antagonistic opponents.”

Emma looked back the way they had come, noting with rising distress the growing number of people who had gathered at the warehouse gates, supposedly on Liberty’s suggestion that a riotous mob would gain the attention of those who resided high in the New World Order’s hierarchy. Oh, it would gain their attention alright, it would gain so much attention that all those who had gathered would most likely be gunned down.

“We have to do something,” she demanded, looking back up into the man’s pale eyes.

“The vans have already arrived. There is nothing we, or even Liberty, could do now.”

“But we have to try.” Emma’s head swiveled around again at the first sound of gunfire. “We can’t let them die thinking Liberty led them into NWO hands.”

He stared down at her, an unreadable expression on his features. “Why? Because that’s what’s best for them, or because of your own feelings of guilt in the matter? You’re as aware as I am that those people back there might as well be dead already. What does it matter what they think of Liberty now?”

Shrinking back to lean heavily against the wall where the fabricated issue of Let Freedom Ring was still pasted, Emma considered his words. She had been so wound up in her own dismal depression that she hadn’t considered Liberty’s silence would open a new venue of attack for the New World Order.

It was bad enough that people were already dying without adding to it a new slaughter all in the name of Liberty and Let Freedom Ring. With all else that was occurring in her life, Emma wasn’t entirely sure she could manage to handle this new installation of insanity.

“This is crazy,” she muttered, her hands trying to rub some sense into what she was seeing. “What am I supposed to do now? How am I supposed to do anything? They stole my computer, they took my family and the last of my friends, they confiscated all that I’ve ever been able to claim as mine. They’ve won. I can’t fight them anymore. I admit defeat at the hands of the New World Order.” She looked away from his face, suddenly raising her voice to a shout, “You won. Do you hear me? I admit it, you won.”

“Like I said earlier, there is a way for Liberty to carry on with business as usual.” The man caught her eyes again and matched her stare. “All you have to do is trust me.”

Emma snorted. “I don’t trust anyone, especially not men who appear out of nowhere and disappear when the going gets a little tough.”

“Then I guess Liberty is dead after all.”


Emma still didn’t know the stranger’s name. She had followed him through the streets and alleys, through cavernous burned out office buildings. Headed anywhere that was away from the carnage at the warehouses.

It had been while they were walking through one of those buildings, that she remembered a friend she had made when she had first fled Texas. He had been a programmer, one of the computer gurus who had made his first million before he was twenty-five and without ever having sat in a single college course. He had filled his loft with extravagance and wealth and she would never have crossed paths with him had she not been out walking one night just after midnight.

He had been drunk, she had kept him from falling into the storm sewer, and they had formed a friendship of sorts. Years later, the Dark Night had seen the end to the computer industry and all the office buildings had been vacated, equipment and mementoes left behind only to be pilfered and sold later on the black market, it also ended any good humor Michael might have managed to hold onto. Three days later, Emma had walked up to his loft and found him hanging from one of the polished oak rafters, one of his expensive designer chairs overturned beneath his feet.

Michael was the first friend she lost to the NWO war, but he was far from the last.

Emma remembered it all as she followed the mysterious man. Maybe he had a point, at least Liberty might be able to continue if he was being honest about knowing a way to get her back online. If she just threw up her hands in defeat and walked away from it now she’d be no better than Michael, swinging in the early morning sunshine at the end of a silk rope. Besides, she didn’t have anything else to lose.

“How?” She pulled back out of his grasp once they reached the street in front of her tenement. They were still several blocks away but close enough that Emma wanted to stop before they drew an attention from those that knew her from the dorm.

“How what?” He turned those icy eyes on her again, sending involuntary shivers down her spine.

“How can you get me back online? You’d better not be lying about that or I might be tempted to turn you over to the guards myself.” Emma squared her shoulders and folded her arms across her chest, waiting for his reply.

“There’s a place…”

“What place?” she persisted.

He shook his head as if to scold her impertinence. “It had a name before the war began but it’s been lost, now those who live there call it Miranda’s Paradise.”

She scoffed. “That cult compound out in the desert? You’ve got to be kidding, they’re even too insane for the NWO to waste its time with. Their leader is some kid who’s Koi’s age.”

“And they have a heavily fortified bunker housing a vast array of technology.” He glanced around at the empty street before adding, “I’ll be at the Wains Street Bridge at eleven o’clock tonight. If you have any desire to clear Liberty’s name and keep posting Let Freedom Ring, I suggest you meet me there.”

She knitted her brows. “But that’s after curfew…”

“If you want to leave, you’ll be there.”

Emma watched him walk back into the shadows of the alley, its shade swallowing him before anyone saw they together. She had a decision to make but she wasn’t certain she would be able to make the choice in such a short time. She needed another day at least.

His voice called out softly from the nothingness he had disappeared into, “They’ll be coming for you tonight, Emma. They’ve received their orders already. If you stay, you’ll be dead too, just like everyone you’ve ever loved.”

“And I still won’t know your name,’ she muttered to the gravel beneath her feet.

“Daniel,” came the reply from further along the alley, “Daniel Blackstone.”

Emma grinned. I really must be going crazy, she thought. Shouldn’t Daniel be leading me out of the lions’ den, rather than into it?

Betwixt and Between

She heard the guards trudge past the front stoop of the dormitory. It was hours past curfew, the streets long since devoid of anyone not in a NWO uniform. She knew she would need to slip past the sentries somehow and make it across the remains of the financial and theater districts to the Wains Street Bridge in zone T, crossing through four zones she had no business wandering through in the daylight, much less after curfew. She knew she needed to get there and she knew she could manage it, she just wasn’t happy about it.

What Daniel had said returned to her, his words carrying to her again on the wind as she peered through the crack of the door at the moonlit street. They’ll be coming for you tonight. It brought to mind the faces of her missing friends and family mingled with pencil sketches she had once made when she had still been a teenager to accompany the poem The Highwayman.

"I'll come to you by moonlight, watch for me by moonlight. I'll come to you by moonlight, though hell should bar the way..." She murmured the poem's tragic promise under her breath, remembering only too well how the story ended. She had no intention of being shot down because of some overblown sense of duty and honor. The truth was that honor and duty would make no difference if she were dead on the street, shot down by the New World Order itself. That and she had never wanted to be in this fight to begin with. Somehow she just couldn’t imagine the NWO leaders would listen to her pleas of innocence by disinterest.

Standing in the threshold, she waited for her chance to escape. No one was prowling the hallways and common areas so late at night, everyone had assignments to report to the next morning. There were far too few workers to fill the positions even before the morning’s massacre at the warehouses wiped out almost fifty people. She still felt responsible for the deaths regardless of whether the edition of Let Freedom Ring had been bogus or not.

There should have been a way to prevent so many pointless deaths. She would have thought of something if Daniel hadn’t pulled her in the opposite direction. It was a lie and she knew it. Despite her fear that there would be deaths, she wouldn’t have been able to shove aside her own will to live. To step out and declare herself Liberty would have been an instant death sentence.

She sucked in a deep breath and forced her head to impact solidly with the crumbling plaster wall, a dull thud resounding softly through the otherwise empty room. She hated the woman she was but tried to not sugar-coat the truth, in the end only truth mattered, not virtue.

“Are you having a problem, Emmy?”

Jerking her head away from the wall and her thoughts from self-analysis, she scanned the heavy shadows of the entry room. She recognized the voice. “Miss Adele? What are you doing up so late?”

Adele McPherson was sixty-five if she was a day, but looked more like she was nearing the centennial mark of her existence. Emma had never known quite how to deal with the woman who always looked to be cooking up a plot of some kind and she reminded her of those who had been among Hitler’s closest confidants during the Nazi occupation. She worried Emma to no end.

“Oh, I’m just getting in a little exercise for these old bones of mine,” Adele said, her voice sliding through the darkness.

Emma still couldn’t see her although she knew she had to be close for her voice to be so clear. “Well, I’d be careful if I were you. You never know when the guards will make a surprise visit. I’d hate for you to be caught in their crossfire.”

“I wouldn’t be worring about me, Emmy,” she replied. Adele emerged from the shadows to stand just beside Emma on the dormitory threshold.

“Why not?” Adele’s chilling tone crept up her spine, leaving in its wake a trail of bitter fear.

“No reason.” Adele moved stiffly toward the door, her arthritic hand hovering over the corroded knob. “Have the guards been active tonight?”

Emma edged away from the door and Adele, suddenly wanting to put as much room between herself and the elderly woman as possible. “No, no more than usual,” she said quietly, wanting neither to agitate Adele nor expose her own unease. She held her breath as she watched Adele’s fingers rest on the doorknob, willing the door to remain shut until she could be certain the street was empty.

“Weren’t you supposed to be at the warehouses this morning? You know, when the mob tried to break in?”

Emma’s heart gave a disquieting little pause at the question. “Usually, yeah. But I was late gettin’ there today and when I saw the crowd I figured it was a bad situation that would only be getting worse. I decided to stay as far away from it all as I could.” She didn’t want Adele’s tainted version of events but she knew if she was going to find out anything about the morning’s attack she’d have no better chance than by asking the old woman. “What did you hear about it?”

The elderly woman grinned. “It was that no good Liberty stirring up trouble for a bunch of damn-fools with Let Freedom Ring. As if we were worse off now than we were before. She thought that by organizing and picketing they could get their way, win with their mob justice.” She chuckled, a heartless icy sound in the echoing room. “Had signs and everything, they did. Just like this was still the United States of America and not the New World Order but the guards put a stop to it right quick. More work now for those of us who know what’s best, now that so many ruffians have been taken care of.”

“Oh.” Emma pressed her back against the cool plaster of the wall. She’d heard people speak with venom in their words before but it sounded even viler coming from the mouth of someone who could be her grandmother. “So it was Liberty’s doing, their congregating this morning to demand an increase in food supplements?”

“Liberty indeed. It’s not even their real name. But that’s no surprise, is it? Cowards never change where it really counts, do they? They never can stand up and take responsibility for their actions.” Adele’s voice rang harshly through the still air, her hand remaining a hair’s breadth from the doorknob. “They spout their foolishness to anyone who’ll listen and when the going gets dicey, they abandon all those people who listened to them in the first place.”

“Yeah,” Emma whispered, her guilt eating away at her determination to flee. Adele was right, if she were brave, if she wasn’t such a coward, she would stand up and take responsibility… and be shot down in the street to spill her blood in the dirt. There was no easy decision.

Adele’s sharp eyes watched Emma slowly sink away from the door as she toyed with the knob. “Don’t worry, dearie. They only come after you if you break the law. You wouldn’t be breaking any laws now, would you?”

Emma could only shake her head, her mouth frozen in sudden unrelenting fear of what might be waiting beyond the thick wood of the front door. Were the guards waiting for her, alerted somehow by the elderly lady who stood before her? If they arrested her would Daniel be able to rescue her before a sentence of death was carried out? Would Daniel even try?

“Well, it’s late, dear. I hope you’ll be off to bed soon. We’ve all got work to do in the morning.” Adele watched her a long moment and with a final tap of the doorknob with her fingers, she turned and in her halting gait left Emma alone to the comfort of silent shadows once again.

Emma took a shaky breath before creeping toward the door again. Daniel was right, things were becoming far too volatile for her in the tenements. If Adele’s increasingly odd behavior was anything to draw from, her name was definitely on the list for imminent eradication.

Steeling herself against possible discovery, she eased open the heavy door and crept outside into the heavy air. Footsteps reverberated off the brick walls of the surrounding buildings and she slunk back as far as possible into the deep shade. She crouched in the shadows just within the confines of the tenement until the sound of the guards' feet faded away into nothing. Darting her head out of her sheltered position, she scanned the empty road. If she were going to try to escape, there was no better time.

Through alleys and abandoned buildings, behind dumpsters and within shadows, Emma silently moved through the sleeping city, ducking down in the muck of the alley floor when a procession of trucks and vans passed her by. The guards were less prolific than she had predicted and she had little difficulty slipping past the few groups she saw. Mainly they patrolled the residential sections, keeping away from the dilapidated warehouses and office buildings when the sun sunk below the horizon.

Once she was within sight of the Wains Street Bridge, she paused. The whole time she was working her way through the city she hadn’t stopped long enough to consider the very real possibility that she might be walking into a trap. She knew nothing about this mysterious man, only that he knew who she was and that he seemed determined to make Liberty return from her premature demise.

The bridge was empty and silent in the dense night, a sudden wind carrying with it thick clouds that obscured the full moon and disallowed her to clearly see the details of the structure. In its heyday it had been a wonder of cables and iron, a suspension masterpiece designed out of great bands of curving chrome and copper colored cables as thick as a man’s thigh. However those halcyon days were long past and now the monstrosity rose up above the surrounding buildings a skeletonized dinosaur among the decaying wrecks of a once great civilization. Like the cockroaches, it would survive the cataclysmic changes of the altering world and live to see the dawn of a new age.

Peering into the dark, she saw the slightest hint of movement on the far end of the bridge. Daniel had said he would be there waiting for her and her contraband watch faintly glowed the eleventh hour. She had no other choice but to cross the span of sheet metal and asphalt, walking into her own lion’s den filled with deadly worry.

With more bravery than she felt, she stepped out from the shadows and onto the cracked roadway. The only way to discover what was waiting at the other end of the bridge was to cross it and see it with her own eyes. If any luck was still remaining on her side of the cosmos, what she found there wouldn’t kill her.

With every step she took more of her contrived resolve crumbled into dust leaving behind a gaping hole of fear. Her thought flew wildly through her head, turning up long forgotten memories much like the rising wind was kicking up dead leaves and discarded bits of rubbish all around her faltering feet.

Koi’s face, young and trusting, rose up from her past, his smile tugging at a heart she had thought had been destroyed when the NWO stole him and Jana away. She tried to brush away the vision of that sweet child she had seen an unjust and corrupt world government destroy, tried to bury his memory in the depths of her thoughts but other faces joined his. Faces of the children who lived in the tenement, the terrified eyes of Maria’s little nieces as they huddled around their elderly grandmother, all the children she saw every day who had never known what it was like to walk outside in dew-damp grass to gaze at a harvest moon, or stroll into a supermarket and buy anything they felt like eating.

They were the reason behind Let Freedom Ring. Those little children were the only real hope for a future the world had any more. They were what she fought for.

Her hesitant steps led her to a large dark vehicle that idled soundlessly at the end of the bridge and seemed to seep up from the distorted shadows the closer she came to it and mold into solid form before her unbelieving eyes. She was over-tired and her eyes were playing their own game with the shadows making an all too solid object ripple in the darkness like a wraith.

The truck must have been what she saw move, possibly the opening of a door or something similar. She couldn’t see through the darkened windows to distinguish any people who might be lurking within, nor could she determine anything from the outside of the matte black truck other than the fact that it had been a Brinks armored truck in its former life. The eyesore that she stood next to had been altered from anything the Brinks developers had ever so much as dreamed of, from the complete lack of motor noise to what looked like a row of cattle prods mounted to the front grill like a porcupine’s quills.

The whole contraption looked like something straight out of a Mad Max movie, without the excessive noise and exhaust, and she grinned in spite of her frayed nerves. She had just walked out of a horror flick into a “B” grade futuristic drama. A giggle escaped as she tried to decide if she was going from bad to worse or worse to worst.

Great, she thought, this is not the time for hysteria to take over. But she couldn’t prevent the laughter that bubbled up and spilled from her lips. It had been far too long since she had laughed, since she’d found anything remotely humorous in her surroundings, but the armored truck was in a class all its own.

“I’m pleased to provide you with some amusement.”

Hearing Daniel’s voice didn’t stop her laughter but rather intensified it until she was clutching her stomach and wiping the tears from her eyes. She was going to die in an armored truck, penniless and without possessions except for the three packs of stale cigarettes she had tucked away in her jacket pockets. The irony proved to be too much for her overworked brain to handle.

Sitting down on the road, she scrubbed her face with her fists, trying to bring her runaway emotions back on track and sober her hysteria. “It’s been a long day,” she wheezed at last, not daring to look up into the face of the man who had disembarked from behind the driver’s seat of the truck. If she looked at his strange eyes and stoic face, she’d simply start laughing all over again.

She was aware that Daniel knelt down next to her, felt the warmth of his hand on her shoulder, but she still didn’t look up, not even when the laughter gave way to hitching sobs. The emotions coursing through her conscious mind wouldn’t be shoved aside anymore and came rushing out in a tidal wave of pain and despair.

“I can’t do this,” she muttered after a few minutes on the cold ground.

Daniel shifted his weight and took her shoulders in both his hands. “Yes, you can. Whether you admit it or not, you’re stronger than they are.”

Emma shook her head miserably. “No, it’s all just a ruse, a joke. I’m a great actress when it comes to pretending I can handle things but I can’t actually deal with it. I can’t.”

He forced her to look up into his face and stared into her eyes for a moment. “You can. I know you can.”


He smiled grimly. “Because if Liberty can’t survive the NWO, none of the rest of us has any chance at all. And we have to go on, Emma, if we don’t…”

“Then they win,” she finished.

“Yes. And they can’t be allowed to win.” He pulled gently on her arms. “Now come on and get into the truck before we both end up being arrested.”

“You’re not going to make me call you Mad Max, are you?” she teased as she allowed him to pull her to her feet.

“Call me what?”

Emma brushed off his look of confusion. “It doesn’t matter.” She climbed up into the truck and eyed the panel of glowing lights and buttons. “So, how fast can this baby go anyway?”

They were already nearing the barricades that blocked all persons from exiting the city undetected. All they needed to do was maneuver through the rest of the zone and drive past a final checkpoint to be rid of the guards. It was the checkpoint that concerned Emma. She had heard rumors about lists that were issued each day with that evening’s ordered arrests and abductions as well as descriptions of each individual to ensure they didn’t manage an escape. If Daniel’s comment about her name being on the list was true, she’d be sure to be detained.

Rather than rehash all that might occur upon her capture, she stared at the knobs and buttons that dotted the dashboard. She’d never been in an armored truck before but she was hard pressed to believe they were originally so technologically equipped. She also wondered how it had come to pass that this truck had become that way in a world where technology was very nearly completely outlawed.

An indicator light in the center of the dash lit up, blinking frantically in the dark cab and drawing Emma’s unwavering gaze. That didn’t look like a good sign, it looked like a warning, like one of those radar detectors she used to have in her car so that she wouldn’t get quite so many speeding tickets. She cast a sidelong glance at Daniel to see if he had noticed it too.

Daniel’s eyes were trained on the scrap of road just beyond the reach of the truck’s headlamps. They had ridden dark through most of the sector but needed light to illuminate the way as they got closer to the gate, besides, a truck running at night without its headlamps turned on would be a sure sign of illicit activities for the guards. Granted, being outside after dark was already a sign of illegal activities.

“You do have a plan, don’t you?” she asked at last, a hopeful tone forced into her voice.

“Of course.”

She eyed him as he sat stiffly, his hands clamped firmly on the thick steering wheel. “Tell me that this plan is a little more involved than just ramming the guardhouse and making a mad dash for freedom.”

“I wish I could.”

Panicked, Emma jerked her head back toward the road in front of them. Zone T’s point of entry loomed just ahead of them, seemingly impenetrable with its razor wire and iron fortified sliding gate. A row of guards stood more or less at attention in front of the entrance, high power rifles propped on their shoulders. She snatched at the forgotten seatbelt, snapping it frantically shut just as Daniel plunged his foot down on the accelerator, the truck’s engine roaring into deafening life. With her hands braced against the door and the dashboard, she closed her eyes and turned her head. If she was going to die, she didn’t want to see Death coming for her.

Shouts resonated through the dark night, crying out over the howl of the engine in an attempt to bring the black beast to a standstill. The shouts continued even as the sound of splintering wood and grinding metal filled the street, the armored truck breaking through the guardhouse and razor wire and barreling ever faster toward the gate. Guards threw themselves aside, hoping to escape injury by being drug beneath the truck’s wheels, the soft sounds of their landings and occasional sickly crunch of breaking bones was mostly drowned out by the powerful roar of the engine and squeal of metal against metal.

A jar rippled through the truck as it made impact with the gate, followed by a horrid wrenching noise as the metal framework went crashing to the road. The truck tore across the irregular grate, picking up speed again as it returned to the flat surface of the road.

Emma didn’t dare to open her eyes until the sounds of shouting were long since past, first peering out of one eye, and then the other until she was satisfied they had indeed made it away from the city. When she did at last train her eyes on the landscape that whizzed past them, she didn’t know if she should be exuberant or devastated.

She remembered what the surrounding area had looked like ten years earlier when she and Koi had first come to the city, the green grassy fields had stretched into the horizon as far as the eye could see. Now all she could see in the sickly light cast by the truck’s headlamps was sun baked dirt and gravel churned and pockmarked across a barren plain. She had heard rumors about the systematic destruction of fields and grazing lands, she just hadn’t been able to believe the NWO would stoop to such levels to assure its success.

Emma sat back in the seat of Daniel’s truck several hours into their flight, watching the unending wasteland that poured out around them. Her thoughts jumped from their journey to Miranda’s Paradise and back to Jana and Koi who were surely being held somewhere by the NWO. Her guilt at leaving them behind weighed heavily on her conscience and threatened to overwhelm her.

“There was nothing you could have done,” Daniel said, breaking the silence.

“I didn’t even try to do anything.”

Daniel shifted his hands on the steering wheel, jostling them around deep craters in the road. “If you had, they would have shot you. You’re no help to anyone dead, Emma.”

“That doesn’t excuse it,” she muttered forlornly.

They fell into an uncomfortable silence as the truck barreled into the night. Finally, Daniel spoke again.

“Do you think you’ll be able to use that laptop in the back of the truck?”

Emma nodded. “Yeah, sure, as soon as we find a way to dial in.”

“When we get to the compound…”

“And what if they won’t help us?” she asked, cutting off his words and giving into her own fears.

“They will. I know these people, the founders.”

She studied him, unsure how to feel about his comment. All she knew about the religious compound was that they were supposedly highly militarized and the governmental agencies knew about their existence but gave them a wide berth. She could only guess at the reasons behind their inaction.

The sky in the east was gaining the hazy brilliance of dawn, lending a surreal atmosphere to the land around them. It had been a long night, but she had somehow survived to witness the breaking of a new day. She wondered at the probability of such an occurrence.

“It’s going to be okay, you’ll see.”

“I guess I’ll have to take your word on it. I don’t really have anything else to lose at this point.”

They drove for three days, stopping occasionally to stretch their legs and survey the ghost towns that rose up around them. Emma’s supply of cigarettes dwindled rapidly and she was inordinately pleased to find an old gas station that had managed to remain unlooted and intact along one long stretch of highway.

She peered in through the grimy window and spotted the cigarette racks still fully stocked behind the counter. “Hey, you’ve got a crowbar in that thing, don’t you?”

Daniel squinted at her in the bright sunlight. “Why?”

“I’m going to bust out the window and get some cigarettes.” She cocked her head at her companion’s obvious shock. “Do you have a problem with that?”

“I just, well, I guess I didn’t expect Liberty breaking and entering just to alleviate an addiction.”

Emma sighed in exasperation. “Look, I told you already. I’m not Liberty, not really. I’m Emma and I want those cigarettes. There is no United States of America, so there are no breaking and entering laws.” She jabbed her thumb toward the store. “So give me the damned crow bar already.”

Reluctantly, Daniel rummaged for the tool in the rear of the truck and carried it to her. She accepted it, appreciating its weight and solidity, and raised it over her head.

“You and everyone else have this idealized opinion of who and what I am. You don’t know me. Besides, I didn’t see you paying for any of that gasoline we’ve been siphoning out of the old station tanks all along the way.”

“That’s different. We need the gas,” he stated.

“And believe me when I say that I need these cigarettes.”

The window broke with a shattering finality and she grinned. The crowbar was drug against the bottom of the windowpane, knocking the rest of the jagged pieces of glass to the ground.

“I’ll be right back,” she chuckled and climbed through the ruined window.

The interior of the store was musty and hot. An inch of dust covered the counter and its coveted supply of stale cigarettes. Emma found a stack of paper bags beneath a rusting ice machine and proceeded to empty the overhead racks. Content that she had claimed every carton and pack in the shop, she handed the bags to Daniel who waited just outside the destroyed window.

“I’m going to see if there isn’t anything salvageable in the storeroom.” She flashed him a tooth grin. “Back in a sec.”

The door that led into the back room groaned as she shoved it open and she jumped back at the sound of tiny scurrying feet. Hazy sunlight streamed into the room through the gaping door, illuminating neatly stacked cases of water and carbonated drinks. Emma tore into the nearest box and twisted the cap off a bottle of water to take an experimental sip.

“Hey!” she called over her shoulder. “There’re at least a dozen cases of water back here. Tastes alright to me.”

She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and glanced down at the floor. In the dust, a small set of footprints led further into the gloomy room.

“What’s this?” she murmured, glancing around. On the floor, she could distinguish places where the prints were older as well as more recent evidence of occupation. It was as she began to follow the tracks that she heard a small whimper from deep within the darkened room.

“Hello?” Emma called softly, suddenly regretting her loud entry through the window. “Is there anyone here?”

The small sound continued and she followed it cautiously. “It’s okay,” she assured, working to make her voice as soothing as possible. “I’m not going to hurt you. Please, come out so I can see you.”

Crouching down in the dirt and grime near the back wall, Emma peered into the deep shadows where the sound seemed to originate. As her eyes slowly adjusted to the low light, she could see what appeared to be a large nest created from tattered blankets and other bits of cloth. Perched in the midst of it all, with its knees drawn up to its chin and a thumb shoved into its mouth, was a child. It watched Emma’s movements carefully, distrust radiating from every inch of its body.

Emma bit her lip, trying to decide on the best course of action. After a moment’s hesitation, she began to hum an old lullaby, a one-time favorite of Koi’s until he discovered it was intended to lull him into slumber-land. She continued to hum, occasionally murmuring the song’s lyrics, and watched as the child rocked gently in time with the song’s gentle rhythm.

“I won’t hurt you,” she promised once the lullaby ended. “Won’t you come out of there?” Emma raised her eyebrows when the child furiously shook its head. “No? Then I guess I’ll just have to come in there with you.”

It was a tight squeeze but Emma managed to wedge herself into the cubbyhole. Once she had tugged her jacket off her shoulders, she faced the child in the dark shadows of the hiding space. After the barest of seconds, the child’s need for companionship overrode its caution, and Emma found herself holding the little body tightly to her chest.

“It must be lonely here. Are you all alone? Where are your parents, honey?”

At the mention of the child’s family, Emma felt the small body begin to tremble. “The soldiers came. Mama told me to hide until they were gone and when they did leave Mama and Daddy were gone too.” The child’s voice was harsh and soft in the oppressive atmosphere of the cubby and sent chills racing down Emma’s spine.

“Emma! Are you okay?”

She gripped the child’s body even more tightly at the sound of Daniel’s call. “It’s okay. He’s one of the good guys,” Emma soothed, “At least I think he is.” She then raised her voice to alleviate Daniel’s concern, “I’m fine, but I found something else back here. I think you’d better make some room in your land tank out there. We’ve got another passenger.”

Once she had coaxed the child out into the light, she took a quick survey of its apparent health. The child was definitely female, she decided, but aside from some basic malnourishment and a dire need of a tub full of soapy water, she appeared to be reasonably healthy. She smiled as the little girl matched her gaze with intense eyes while Daniel noisily rearranged their contraband supplies to make more room in the truck.

“That’s Daniel and I’m Emma,” she said gently, pointing first behind her and then tapping on her own chest. “What’s your name?”


Emma nodded. “That’s a very pretty name. How old are you, Lorelei?”

The child scrubbed at her eyes with fisted hands. “Ten.”

a work in process

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