Genre: YA dystopia
I, Astrid K-937, am the smartest teen in the world.
Maybe that sounds egoistic, but it’s true. Everyone has to take an intelligence test when they turn eighteen. I passed it—with flying colours—at twelve.
That doesn’t mean I’m perfect, though. Far from it. That’s why I’m here in Paris. The Eiffel tower is ahead of me, a stark contrast to the white skyscrapers around it. The sight is actually disappointing; 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 aide, is 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.
Now is no time to think about home. I need to complete this mission as quickly and efficiently as possible. It’s time to become Astrid: Superspy.
The building is on the other side of the square, taking up the whole side of the plaza. My mind takes in the details.
Reinforced, imitation-brick walls a foot thick. One-way windows shining like glass; they’re touch-sensitive. Triple doors, obviously sealed because of the blue pin-prick light flashing every two seconds. Electrical wire running in a grid on the flat roof. Weighted security pads on the ground.
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. In this case, the most direct move is the best.
“We’ll bluff our way in,” I say. “Give me the pass cards.”
“It’s Saturday,” Darius responds in a monotone. I hate what they do to him for tests. Normally he’s friendly and cheerful; I actually enjoy spending time with him for missions. But for my tests he has to act like this, all stiff and formal.
Also, it aggravates me that they didn’t bother to inform 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. We’re on the security pads now so they will register our presence, but they’ll think we really are maintenance workers. 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, say: “Routine maintenance” 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. Red wire to blue terminal. Switch the twenty seventh and twenty ninth nodes. Release the anterior energy converter.
An alarm blares. Beneath my hands, the wires glow bright red.
OMGoodness. The Europeans finally put a sensor on the energy converter.
“Out. Now,” I order. Darius grabs the kit and dashes 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. They’ll find our contact and dispose of him.
I’ve lost the mission.
I close my eyes, willing myself not to cry. I don’t lose. This can’t be happening. I don’t even want to imagine what the operators will do to me if I fail. Maybe I’ll lose my job. American will start to lose battles. Europe will conquer us. I’ve failed my government, my country and myself.
And then, miraculously, I haven’t. “Scan complete,” the building informs us. “No intruders detected.”
My eyes flick open and I turn to Darius. “Check your map. 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.
Then, taking a couple steps back, I see that at the side of the building, one of the windows is open.
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. This means that he must have special European authorization, yet the blue dot on Darius’s satellite map means that he’s 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?