Genre: YA dystopia
When I open my eyes, I’m in Paris. The Eiffel tower is right 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 me, 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 personal assistant, 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.
“So, what do we have to do?” I ask tersely. As my personal assistant, Darius is the one who organizes all our missions. Normally I try to figure out a bit of what’s going on before I leave, but this time I wasn’t allowed to know anything. The point of this test is to see how quickly I can adapt.
“We have very little to work with,” Darius explains, and I sigh. Just what I expected. Supervised testing is a yearly thing, but this is the first time they’ve given me so little info. It must be their version of revenge for last mission, when I spent half an hour wandering around a Scottish castle before they realized I wasn’t actually commanding the battle. They’re trying to make sure I care about what I’m doing. As if fighting all America’s battles isn’t hard enough.
“As far as I can see, 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. “We have to contact someone on the 27th storey of the Animate Art building. Probably some intelligence that’s too important to be sent over the nets.”
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. But at the side of the building, on the third floor near the right, is one open window.
Leaving a window open is such a stupid mistake that, in a normal mission, I would call the operators and tell them to abort the mission right away. In this situation it must have been purposely left open. It’s probably a trap.
The thought makes my heart beat faster. The operators are all sitting back home with bated breath, waiting to see what I’ll do. Find a safer route inside? Or risk everything by trying the window?
“Give me a smartchain.” I face the window, wondering what’s inside. 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.
Inside the building, all is deserted. The room is lined with blank vidscreens. There are a couple chairs arranged pleasantly in the center, but no people. I pull myself into the room and motion for Darius to follow. As soon he climbs inside, I squeeze the SmartChain and it detaches from the window and rolls itself up again.
Immediately we press ourselves to the walls. I’ve seen people do it in old movies before and I never really understood why. In this case, it’s to evade the heat sensors. The Europeans have advanced technology allowing them to locate people by their body heat. The problem with their system is that the power systems that run through their walls give off a similar heat signature. If we stay close enough to the wall, we won’t be registered.
We slink along the wall like super spies—which is exactly what we are. Just ahead of us is an open door revealing a hallway leading along the building to a center atrium. I slide out of the door and wait for Darius.
No trap so far. I have to admit, I’m a little surprised. According to the satellite map there’s no one here except our contact.
“He’s upstairs,” Darius says. “27th floor, just as planned.”
I sneak a quick glance at the map and see a flickering blue dot somewhere above us. “He’s chipped,” I point out. “A Cognate.”
The Europeans can track people by their heat, but the North American Union keeps a record of their citizens by the chips in their brains. If someone shows up blue, then they must have a chip. When the light flickers, that means they’ve passed the intelligence test to be a Cognate, one of the intelligent elite. This means our contact is from the NAU, and he’s smart.
Technically, getting up twenty-four floors to our contact is easy; there’s an elevator just ahead that would take us there in seconds. Unfortunately, it won’t take us on without scanning our handprints, which would be a bad idea in this situation.
According to Darius’s plans, there’s a maintenance point just slightly along the hallway, across from the elevator. There’s a lock on that, too, but it’s older than the one on the elevator. I can even see screws attaching it to the wall. Darius has no trouble removing it and fiddling around with the mess of wires inside.
It’s so quiet that I can hear my heart pounding in my ears. Until now, I hadn’t even thought about being scared. Nervous, of course. If I fail this test then I’ll lose my status and possibly my place on the Island. Despite that, I never seriously thought I could fail. But now, in the darkened hallway, I can feel danger lurking around the corner. The operators had placed something here that could change my life and I have no idea what it is. If I knew what they wanted, then I know I could pass with flying colours. It’s the uncertainty that drives me mad.