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Chapter One: SKIN
The first installment of TECHNATE 2051
The megacity’s skin shimmered and buzzed, casting the forest’s edge in a metallic light.
Zappa Dobroshtan shrank back into the shelter of the trees. He had never stood so close to Charlanta’s border. In fact, he felt sure he’d only survived the past quarter century by avoiding it like a plague.
A heedless bat flew screeching out of the canopy above, diving straight for the luminous skin. It must be a tourist, this bat, thought Zappa. Surely the local bats, if there were any left, would have learned not to fly so perilously close. But the hovering nanites that composed the skin must be tantalizing to newcomers—looking and sounding deceptively like a great swarm of mosquitoes. The skin swallowed up the bat on impact—caught it, immobilized it, encapsulated it all in the space of a nanosecond, and there the bat hung: a swollen, distended knot in the skin like a boil ripe for lancing.
Where were Shen and that stupid boy? Zappa inched forward to scan the tree line once more, alert to any slight sounds or movements. But all he could hear was the buzz of the skin, all he could see was the writhing motion of its trillions of nanites, the eerily lit forest, and the pale expanse of grass between. They had to be close. They had no more than a half hour’s head start on him, and he’d followed their tracks until nightfall.
She hadn’t even left a note, just taken off in the early morning hours with this new boyfriend of hers, but Zappa had known immediately where they’d gone. He sensed it. Zappa’s granddaughter was growing up, testing boundaries. She thought herself ready to strike out on her own, make her own decisions. He’d been watching the two of them lately. Furtive looks exchanged over the tub of boiling clothes on washing day, hushed conversations in the berry patches alongside the road. They’d been planning something, and Zappa had known. He’d known what it was all about, and he was right. For people like them, in times like these, there was only one way for two young lovers to rebel. Goddammit. Don’t those kids know anything?
Charlanta’s perimeter was a misshapen loop—at least a thousand meandering miles of skin. He could continue on in one direction, or the other. If he chose wrong, it was hopeless. Shen would be lost: swallowed up by the megacity or, more likely, exterminated like that clueless bat.
And it would serve her right, Zappa thought. She should know better. Hadn’t they spent her whole life running from the Technate? Hadn’t she heard all the stories around the campfire? Hadn’t the family made it perfectly clear, the danger of straying too near Charlanta? But no, she’d allowed herself to be tempted by this dumb boy, telling tales of twenty-four hour electricity, running water, a full belly every night—never mind that it might be full of unidentifiable protein mush. He ought to turn right around and go back to the camp. Shen was seventeen, old enough to be a fool if she wanted to, old enough to lie in the bed she’d made.
But Zappa couldn’t do it. He’d been young once. He’d behaved stupidly, carelessly. He’d had desires and gone after things that he’d have been better off leaving alone. He’d been tempted by the allure of shining experiences, beautiful people—only to find them full of rot on the inside.
The world of his youth had been a softer place, more accommodating to teenaged foolishness, less prone to catastrophe. The world had changed, but evolution hadn’t had a chance to catch up. Kids were still prone to stupid, careless behavior. It just meant that those with the wisdom of age must be even more vigilant to protect them from their own stupidity. He had to go on, had to find Shen. Now, which direction?
Zappa looked north, and south. There was only one thing to do, the same thing he’d been doing every day, for every difficult choice he encountered, for the past thirty years. It rarely led him astray. He closed his eyes, shutting out the world, the forest, the grotesque skin, and the danger that lay beyond. He turned his body one way and then the other, feeling for the gut sensation that would guide him. And there it was: a magnetic pull, like the slightest tension in his shoulders, knees—tilting him toward the south. It might have been an effect of the uneven ground on which he stood, or a sensitivity to the electromagnetic field of the skin. But it wasn’t; he was sure of that. Others might think him a crazy old coot, but he’d survived in the wilderness this long.
Well then, south it was.
It wasn’t long before he found them, sitting on a knoll overlooking the border, awash in nanite-blue light.
Shen hadn’t seen him yet. She was gazing at the skin, entranced, her pale face frozen in terror or awe. The boy—Mark, his name was—regarded Zappa calmly as he strode up the hill toward them.
He came very close to them, only a foot or two away, and still Shen’s focus on the skin remained unbroken. “You’re not going in there,” said Zappa.
She turned her face toward him, slow and dreamlike. She looked at him but did not quite seem to register his presence. Mark said, “Shen, your grandpa...”
Recognition dawned on her face and her eyes came alight with that fierce spark that always reminded Zappa of Shen’s grandmother, Keiko, rest her soul.
Shen rose to her feet. It surprised Zappa that she was as tall as she was—taller than himself by an inch or more—though he’d seen her only yesterday. How did she get so tall?
“You followed us,” said Shen. An accusation.
“You’re not going in there,” Zappa repeated.
Shen’s eyes narrowed. “You’re going to stop me?”
Zappa had been a father and a grandfather long enough to know that it did little good to exert authority over a recalcitrant teen. What you might gain in momentary obedience, you lost in respect. Force bred rebellion. He had to handle this carefully, use all his powers of persuasion, get her to see reason. “No,” he said. “If you’re hell-bent on crossing that border, there’s not much I can do to stop you. But use your brain, Shen! People have been killed trying to get into Charlanta.”
“I won’t die,” said Shen.
Mark cleared his throat. “They don’t kill refugees,” he said.
“How can you possibly know that?” Zappa asked.
A silent conversation passed between Shen and Mark, written in their facial expressions. He’d caught them in their secret plot to ruin their lives and bring misery to their families, but still, they were secretive. Still, there was something they did not want Zappa to know. There was no point in trying to pry it out of them, whatever it was. Not until he got Shen home.
“Mark spoke to a man at Asheville,” said Shen, finally.
“So what? I’ve spoken to plenty of people at Asheville. They put on airs of being independent, but they work for the Technate, every one of them. You can’t trust anything they say.”
“This man was once a refugee,” said Mark. “He told me how to get in. He gave me these.” Mark pulled two objects from the pocket of his many-times-patched denim jacket and showed them to Zappa, cradling them reverently in two hands. They were small, black plastic items, rectangular with rounded edges, each studded with a tiny, dim light, flashing green. They reminded Zappa of key fobs. Key fobs—a term and a concept that hadn’t crossed his mind in many years. Strange how his memory clung to these useless arcana.
“You trust this Asheville guy?” Zappa asked Mark. “You’re sure he’s not just an undercover feral-hunter?”
“Yes,” said Mark.
“And you trust this young man? You’re sure he knows what he’s talking about?” He asked Shen.
“Fine. Assuming you can get past the skin without being exterminated like flies, what happens next? A refugee camp? Nanite injections? Years of hard physical labor just to prove yourself worthy of the scraps from their table?”
“I’m used to living in camps,” said Shen, fire in her voice. “And I’ve been doing hard physical labor all my life. At least in there, I’ll be guaranteed three square meals in exchange for my work. Four walls and a roof. A bed. Medicine if I get sick. Air conditioning, maybe.”
“A prison cell and chains, if you’re lucky. These promises are poison, Shen.”
She crossed her arms over her chest. “I’m old enough to make my own decision, and I’ve made it.” She looked at Mark. “You’re sure this is the right spot?”
“Positive,” Mark nodded.
“Then let’s go.”
She spared Zappa the barest glance as she lifted her backpack and slung it onto her shoulder. He couldn’t read the look, but it felt significant. It might be defiance, or fear. It might be a challenge. Maybe deep inside, she wanted him to stop her. Well, it was worth a shot.
“Shenandoah Lainey Dobroshtan!” He shouted in his most commanding voice. “You stop this instant!”
Shen laughed at him. Laughed. It turned an auger in his heart. “That’s not going to work on me like it did when I was a kid,” she said. “Go back to Mom and Dad. They’re probably worried.”
“Wait,” said Zappa, and he grabbed Shen’s hand as she shouldered past him. “Wait.”
“You’re right. You’re old enough to make your own decisions. But you know that once you go in there, there’s no coming back, right? You won’t be able to change your mind if you don’t like it. No one leaves a megacity alive. You’ll never see your parents again, or your brothers, or me.”
Her resolve faltered, then, visibly. He could see the uncertainty in her eyes.
“What would I do without you, Shen? Without my little acorn?”
Her eyes filled with tears and she fell into his embrace. Her head rested in the crook of his neck and he felt the wetness of her tears, soaking his shirt. “I don’t want to leave you, Grandpa,” she said, her words muffled. “I don’t want to leave Mom and Dad, or the boys, or any of them, but you most of all.”
“Shh, shh, it’s okay,” Zappa said, patting her shoulder. “Grandpa’s got you.” He kissed the crown of her head. “It’s not too late. We’ll just go back. Back to camp. We’ll be there by dinner time tomorrow. No one will be angry with you. And next time we stop, it’ll be in a house, not a camp. Promise.”
Shen hugged him tightly and then let go. She wiped at her eyes with the dirty cuffs of her sweatshirt, pushed her brown curls back from her face, and stood quiet for a moment, composing herself.
“Shen—” Mark began, but Shen shot him a look that shut him up.
Good. She’d come to her senses. Zappa was anxious to head back, before she changed her mind again. They would need to stop and make camp for the night, but they must put some distance in between them and that terrible skin first. His mind turned to logistics. It was dark in the woods now. He pulled the old flashlight out of the chest pocket of his overalls. He’d put in a pair of fresh batteries he’d found rummaging through some basement, but he worried the beam wouldn’t be bright enough. He clicked the button on and off to test it. “Well, we’d best be going,” he said.
But Shen didn’t appear ready to depart. She was looking at Mark with misty eyes.
“Mark is welcome to come back with us, of course,” Zappa said, though he hoped Mark wouldn’t.
“I can’t go,” said Shen.
“That’s right, you can’t,” said Zappa. “You’d be selling yourself into slavery.”
“No, I mean I can’t go back with you,” said Shen. “I don’t expect you to understand. That’s why I left without telling anyone. Of course you’d try to stop me—you’re my family. But I can’t go back.” She took Zappa’s hands and squeezed them. “This is something I have to do.”
Zappa was speechless.
“I love you, Grandpa.” She hugged him again.
“Love you, too, Acorn.” He returned her embrace.
“I promise I’ll be fine. Trust me. You have to let me go.”
She turned to walk away, but he had her by the wrist and he wasn’t about to release her.
“Are you serious?” The fire was back in her voice. She twisted and pulled, but Zappa would not loosen his grip. He was strong from thirty years of hard living, of felling trees and chopping firewood, of carrying water in five gallon buckets, of protecting his family from ever-present dangers. Shen was family, the megacity was danger, and he was not going to let go.
She lashed out to hit him with her free hand, and he caught it at the wrist. “I can’t let you do this, Shen. It would be a mistake.”
“I can make mistakes if I want to,” she yelled, kicking at his shins now, flailing her arms against his grip.
“Come back home with me and you can make all the mistakes you want there.” His breath was coming hard and ragged now from exertion, but still he gripped her wrists like a vise.
“Mark, help me!” Shen yelled.
All this time Mark had been standing there with his jaw hanging open, but he came to her aid, pried at Zappa’s hands with sweaty fingers. “What do you want me to do?” He asked. “I can’t punch him, he’s old.”
“He’s not that old,” Shen said, as she attempted to punch Zappa herself.
“I understand you’re angry,” said Zappa. “When we get back to camp, you can punch me all you want. As long as I know you’re safe.”
“I AM NOT GOING BACK WITH YOU.”
The eery artificial light changed suddenly from blue to red, and all three of them paused to look around. A short distance away from them, a machine hovered, large but light and sleek. Its propeller blades whipped the night air, producing a sound no louder than a whisper.
“That’s it,” said Mark.
“A drone,” said Zappa. These machines had been known to carry feral-hunters, or worse. “Quick, into the forest!”
He let go of one of Shen’s wrists and started scrambling up the hill, dragging her along behind him, but she resisted, throwing herself to the ground. Try as he might, Zappa could not wrestle 125 pounds of dead weight up the hill. He lost his balance, and as he fell, she wrenched herself free of his grip. He tried to leap back to his feet, but Shen delivered a strong open-handed blow to the side of his head, sending waves of screaming pain through his eardrum, and he fell back to the ground and tumbled down the hill, straight toward the buzzing skin.
He landed in a heap on his back at the base of the knoll, just inches away from the skin. Its buzzing was no longer merely audible, but a thing he felt deep in his flesh and crawling in the marrow of his bones.
“Grandpa!” Shen cried out. “I didn’t mean to—Mark, help!”
The hearing in his left ear was impaired, but through his right ear he could hear them racing down the hill toward him. He could see nothing. His vision was obstructed by a thousand tiny pinpricks of light, sparking and dying. The side of his head throbbed from Shen’s thunderous slap. Dizzily, he tried to roll himself over onto his stomach, push himself up, but his left hand was caught in something.
Above him, Shen’s voice said, “Grandpa, are you okay? Oh my god, I’m so sorry!”
Zappa tried to form words but he found he couldn’t move his lips or tongue. Even his vocal chords failed him.
“Help me get his hand out,” said Shen. “It’s spreading up his arm!”
“No, look,” said Mark. “It’s already crossing his chest.”
“Help me!” Shen cried. Zappa felt her pulling at his flannel shirt, but it was a sensation once removed, like pushing against water.
“Shen, it’s too late,” said Mark. “Stop touching him, or it’ll get you, too.”
“We can’t just leave him!”
“Once we get in we can send someone to help him,” said Mark. “They have medics, they’ll know what to do.”
“No!” Shen wailed. “No, no, no!”
“I’m sorry,” said Mark, his voice cracking. “Shen, we have to go.”
Zappa could hear her sobs, loud at first, fading as they made their way up the hill. He heard a sound like a mechanized door sliding open, a few seconds of scrambling, clambering noises, the door sliding shut again, the whipping sound of the drone’s propeller, louder now, struggling under the weight of extra cargo.
One by one, the thousand tiny pinpricks of light sputtered out, leaving his vision a field of absolute darkness. The throbbing in his head slowed to a dull thud and then stopped. All physical sensation faded, followed by what was left of his hearing. Damn, was Zappa Dobroshtan’s final thought as his consciousness ebbed: The Technate absorbs everything, eventually.
CONTINUE TO CHAPTER 2
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