Author: Elanor Lawrence
Genre: YA dystopia
When I open my eyes, I’m in Paris. The Eiffel tower is ahead of me, a stark contrast to the white skyscrapers around it. It seems smaller than when I saw it last. Maybe the skyscrapers are taller.
There are people all around, most of them dressed in the traditional flowing garments. When I look down, I’m wearing one, too. At least it’s purple. Purple makes everything so much better.
Darius, my squire, is standing next to me, staring at the satellite map on his wrist. We’re at one end of a plaza with the Eiffel tower at the center, surrounded by a narrow strip of gardens and fountains. After that are only more of the boring white apartment buildings, just like back home.
“What do I have to do?” I ask. Normally I research the mission before I leave, but this time I wasn’t allowed to know anything. That’s the whole point of this test: to see how quickly I can adapt.
“They’ve given you very little to work with,” Darius explains. I shift my weight from foot to foot. This isn’t a normal mission, where I can try again if I fail. The results of this test actually matter to me. It’s not like last mission, where I spent half an hour exploring a Scottish castle before the operators realized I wasn’t fighting the battle. This is a special test, trying to force me to care. As if fighting all America’s battles isn’t hard enough.
“We’re the only ones here,” Darius continues, staring at the satellite map on his wrist. It’s disguised as an antique piece of jewellery called a watch, but really it shows the position of every human in the area. American soldiers are blue. European soldiers are red. Ordinary citizens are grey. Right now the screen is covered in grey with two little blue dots and absolutely no red. If I didn’t know better, I’d think that this assignment was easy.
Darius and I start walking so we won’t seem as conspicuous. “You have to contact someone on the 27th storey of the Animate Art building.”
See? They’re being purposely vague. I’ve never been to the Animate Art building before, but I know all about it. They program the different styles of virtual reality there, all the ones the government deems appropriate. At home, that would mean top security, but here Animate Art is nothing but entertainment.
In America, virtual reality is a way of war.
The building looms on the other side of the square, not as tall as the others but at least three times as wide, taking up one whole side of the plaza. Windows stare at us, hundreds of them in endless columns and rows. All of them are blank, with the sky blue one-way glass blocking my attempts to see inside.
I don’t even glance at Darius to ask for a hint. The operators are looking for signs that I’m still fit to lead these missions, so I can’t show anything that looks like hesitance. They’ll be watching my every move.
“We’ll bluff our way in,” I say, staring at the triple doors in the center of the building. “Give me the pass cards.”
“It’s Saturday,” Darius responds in a monotone.
I let out a deep breath, trying not to let my irritation show. How hard would it have been for them to tell me what day of the week it is? Back home it’s Monday, but since it’s the weekend here, all the Europeans will be on holiday and the automatic doors won’t accept Level One pass cards.
“Alright. Let’s be maintenance workers.” Darius pulls a tool bag out from under his cape and hands it to me. It’ll still be hard to break through the doors, but this will give us a disguise.
Gripping the tool bag in sweaty palms, I walk over to the imposing triple doors. Off to the side is a computer panel that lights up as we approach.
“State your number and intention, then scan pass card,” the door instructs, the panel turning red to indicate where I should place the card.
I read the identity number off the top of the box and hold the surface up to the card scanner. It blinks green and states, “Please proceed.”
The first door slides open. Darius and I hurry inside, turning towards a panel on the wall. At my command, Darius unscrews the panel and hands me the forging tool. There are two more glass doors we need to get through before we’re actually in the building. This one should be pretty simple to open. The second layer of a European security system is notoriously easy to crack.
I guide the forging tool through the circuits, switching wires and polarizing electrodes. It’s a routine job, really.
An alarm blares. Beneath my hands, the wires glow bright red.
OMGoodness. The Europeans finally changed the code.
“Out. Now,” I order. Darius grabs the kit and dashes behind me out of the building. Right behind us the doors slam closed; a second later and we would have been sealed in.
“Scan initiated,” the computerized voice intones. The building hums gently. The security system is scanning for life forms. Unless our contact has some sort of cloaking device, he’ll be found and disposed of.
I’ve lost the mission.
I close my eyes, willing myself not to cry. I, Astrid K-937, smartest girl in the entire world, don’t lose. This can’t be happening.
Then, miraculously, it doesn’t. “Scan complete,” the building informs us. “No intruders detected.”
“Check your map,” I say, turning to Darius. “Where’s our contact?”
“Twenty-seventh floor, just as planned,” Darius says.
I can’t imagine how he escaped the building’s notice—cloaking devices aren’t standard—but I’ll take whatever I can get. I haven’t lost yet. Now all I need is a way to get into the building.
The doors are already out. The walls are brick and steel: impassable. The windows are covered in sensors so that if the glass is broken another alarm goes off.
Was the window open before? I search through my memories, trying to remember, but I’m drawing a blank. I don’t think it was.
The contact must have opened it for me. Somehow he managed to evade the building’s detection and open a window, which means that he must have special European authorization, yet the blue dot on Darius’s satellite map means that he’s an American.
Could the contact be a traitor? The thought makes my heart beat faster. The operators are all sitting back home with bated breath, waiting to see what I’ll do. Try to find another way inside and waste precious time? Or head in through the window, perhaps straight in to a trap?
“Give me a smartchain.” I face the window. Darius fumbles under his robe for a smartchain and hands it to me. As soon as I touch it, the cord takes a DNA sample from a dead skin cell, processes my preferences, and turns purple. I love it when it does that.
Taking aim, I swing the rope around a couple times and let fly. The pronged end latches onto the windowsill, sending tendrils through the atoms and joining itself to the building. I grab the other end and climb up, hand over hand, my feet against the side of the building. Below, Darius holds the rope steady until I reach the windowsill.