“Do you ever think about the outside world?” Blaze was standing at the window of their Upper Ward hotel room, staring out at Downtown Brooklyn, framed by dawn’s pallid glow, a sheet draped over her shoulders.
“Outside world?” Frowning, Dre sat on the edge of the bed in his boxers.
“Yeah. You know… the world outside the NAR. The rest of the world that we could freely travel before the War of the Americas, the Climatic Shift, the superstorms… you ever think about what it’s like?” Her dark hair fell past her shoulders, and Dre could just make out her shapely yet slender form through the sheet.
Dre shook his head. “I usually don’t dream that big. I got enough trouble dealing with the world we’re in.”
“But you were out there before, weren’t you?”
“Yeah. When I was six. Just before they banned all flights and closed down the public airports.” He’d been back in Barbados at the time. It was a memory he preferred not to dwell on.
Dre stood and strode across the room, bare feet slapping on the heated marble floors. When he got to Blaze, he wrapped his arms around her waist from behind. “The most I thought about since was stories Pops told me about Barbados. Or how the USA used to be before it became the NAR.”
She snuggled closer into him, leaning her head back and to the side of his chin. He bent his head down, her hair silky against his cheek. Dre inhaled long and deep, relishing her shampoo’s aroma. Vanilla, if he wasn’t mistaken. He sighed. He felt as if he could stay in this position, in this room, with her forever.
Up here on the two hundredth floor, the only vehicles zipping along on the massive invisible skyway outside were Personal Transports. Emergency lights flashing, drones emblazoned with NYPD or SDF hovered at regular intervals, silent and foreboding. All other traffic, from Airbuses to Maglevs, was relegated to below the Upper Ward. Sunlight weakened by the city’s perpetual smog glinted off the other skyrises that made up Downtown Brooklyn. Far below, the pedestrians on skywalks were little more than dots.
“I dream about the world all the time.” Her voice was soft. Longing. “I want to go out there one day. See what it’s like.”
Dre could understand her feelings. Even if he couldn’t exactly relate. Blaze was a DeGen, born in the First Ward, and had lived in the Bottom Wards for the majority of her life. While he’d barely had a taste of it, suffering was a part of her.
Closing his eyes for a moment, he considered the stories told of the DeGens, the things he’d grown up believing to be true. The DeGens were the worst of the North American Republic. Many of them were illegal immigrants who’d come to the city during the Great Migration, fleeing both the Second Civil War and the War of Americas. They had hidden themselves away beneath the city in places unfit for humans to live. Later on, escaped criminals had joined their ranks. Gangs had formed.
When he saw DeGens on a broadcast, they were dirty, disheveled, emaciated, and riddled with disease. Such displays always mentioned that they were criminals. Murderers. Thieves. Dre knew some of it was propaganda, lies told by the likes of Sidrie Malikah and those in power.
Blaze and Pops’ tale in Void Legion was proof of those lies. If someone had told him he could feel so much for a DeGen he would have laughed in their face. Not now.
He opened his eyes, gaze drifting to the blanket of smog and clouds blushed by the distorted coin of a sun. “Maybe when this is all over, we can all go one day. You, me, Mom, and Kai.”
“Maybe.” She sighed.
Despite it being a ridiculous thought, an impossible dream, he wanted it to come true. He felt good saying it.
“I never told anyone,” she said, “but getting away is one of the reasons I game so much. I can be someone else. Somewhere else. I can be as strong as I want to be as long as I’m willing to work hard. I can fly anywhere. For the most part, my troubles fade away.”
“I understand exactly what you mean.” Dre smiled. He was more at home in-game than IRL. He enjoyed being one of the top dogs, exploring, fighting, clearing dungeons, and visiting exotic locales.
“Speaking of the game, I’ve heard some disturbing rumors.” She straightened her head.
“What kinda rumors?”
“Remember they mentioned the risk of brain damage from in-game death?”
“Word is that it’s worse than they let on. A few SR testers who died in-game ended up as invalids. They can’t walk, can’t talk… they just sit there… staring.”
“Wow. That’s fucked up.” Dre couldn’t even begin to imagine such a fate.
“Same thing I said.” Blaze let out a breath. “Funny thing is that a part of me finds the risk exciting while another part is scared shitless. Especially since we have to play.”
Dre’s forehead knitted as he gave Void Legion some thought. “I think I’d still play regardless. Particularly after experiencing Total Immersion. And seeing Pops again.”
“Me too.” She brought her hands up and placed them over his at her midsection. “I don’t even know why it bothers me so much. I’m fully capable of playing without dying.”
Dre grunted derisively. “Somebody’s feeling themselves.”
“Hey.” Blaze shrugged. “I can’t help it if I’m that good.”
“I wouldn’t let you die, anyway.”
Blaze tilted her head to look up at him. “Let? Boy, you better go somewhere with that.” She was grinning.
“Yeah… let.” Dre smiled down at her. “I promise not to let you die.”
“Oh, now we’re promising?”
“We sure are.”
“Alright, alright.” She straightened to face the window. “I’ll let you have that one.” They burst into laughter. When their mirth subsided, she added, “I won’t let you die either.”
The idea warmed Dre’s insides. He grinned like a big kid. They remained in that position until the sun set the smog and clouds on fire.
Blaze turned to face him, dark angled eyes staring up into his. “It’s about that time.” Her voice carried a hint of reluctance. “You’re going to see your Mom, right?”
Dre nodded. “And my sister. I wanna spend a few days with them before we play Void Legion again. What are you gonna do?”
She got up on her tiptoes, planted a kiss on his lips, then slid her face past his cheek until her mouth was at his ear. “Deliver the first protocol,” she whispered.
He matched her timbre. “Be careful.”
They hugged for a bit longer. Finally, they separated and got dressed. Before they left the room, they shared a long kiss.
Sidrie scares me. Be careful of her.
Mom erased the message. Leaning over the paper on the clipboard, one shaking hand partially hiding the words, she scribbled another sentence for Dre to read. As she worked, the biometric tattoo’s dark stain seemed to shift along the caramel skin of her arm.
Your father had issues with her. He was scared too.
She erased the words. After a furtive glance at the open bedroom door, the shift of her head causing her single brown ponytail to fall down her back, she scratched out another message, her hands moving faster this time. Desperate.
We can never talk about it in here. You must always believe she’s either tracking you or has us or this apartment bugged. She might be watching now. And definitely recording us. All of our conversations going forward must appear normal. The one thing working in our favor is that she seems to need you. Or us. We’ll do whatever it takes, until we can find a way out of this. Okay?
Mom erased the last warning. Hand shaking, she pulled the paper from the clipboard, tore it into tiny pieces, reached over to the tray sitting atop an AGC, and dropped it into the glass with the remnants of her orange juice. She looked to Dre with round, brown eyes. Eyes that brimmed with tears. Fear. She took a deep shuddering breath.
Staring into those eyes, Dre took her hands in his. They were cold to the touch, but at least they stopped shaking. He ached inside with the need to tell her about Pops’ holo in Void Legion. “Whatever it takes.”
She squeezed his hand, if a bit weakly. “Good.” Though somewhat hoarse, her voice had improved from the day before when he’d first returned from playing Void Legion to find her awake. She leaned back onto the bed whose upper portion was raised at an angle for her comfort.
Dre glanced over to Kai. His little sister was sitting at the bottom of the bed with her Holotab, watching Munsters and Minions. She wore pajamas imprinted with the show’s yellow and purple creatures. Giggling, she covered her mouth.
Their new accommodations, an apartment on the hundred and eightieth floor of Equitane Towers, was complete with three bedrooms, a large living room, kitchen, expensive furniture, and anything else they might need. The apartment’s systems were controlled by an AI named Rachel. They even had an MX4 droid named Mariel who cooked and kept the place clean. In fact, the whiff of stew chicken emanated from the kitchen.
Yet, despite its Upper Ward location, the apartment was little more than an expensive prison.
“Mrs. Taylor,” Mariel’s voice called from the bedroom door.
Dre looked up. The droid was wearing a short-sleeved deep blue dress and had a white apron tied around her waist. As with all droids from MX4 models and up, she appeared almost human, particularly her synthetic skin and red hair, which was done in a bun.
“What is it, Mariel?” Mom asked.
“Lunch will be ready in twenty minutes, ma’am.” Mariel offered a smile that showed off perfect white teeth.
“Thank you.” Mom dipped her head. “We’ll be along shortly.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Still smiling demurely, Mariel nodded, turned, and left.
Dre regarded Mom with a frown. “You sure you should be walking around?”
“I certainly don’t plan on staying in bed.” Mom smirked. “Besides, a little exercise would be good for me.”
“Is that what the doctors said?”
Mom chuckled. “You sound like me with the questions.” Stroking the top of his hand, she glanced up and offered an encouraging nod. “I really meant what I said yesterday. The crash wasn’t your fault. It was me who told you to drive. Praise the Lord that Alphonso’s old company had someone working in the area. And although it was them who were involved in the accident, we might not be alive otherwise. Sometimes, what seems a curse is a blessing in disguise. Not to mention that beggars can’t be choosers.”
Dre stiffened at the mention of the crash. He fought back the painful memory. His shoulders sagged. He replaced his melancholy with the thought of the crash being more than a simple accident. It had been one of Sidrie’s ploys. A fire rekindled in his belly. “I know. But I can’t help feeling awful. We coulda all died.”
“But we didn’t. Silver linings. Take them when you can.”
“I’ll try.” Dre reached over and rubbed her round belly. “How’s Regi and Rayne?”
Mom shifted her hand to below the prominent swell. She practically beamed now. “The doctors said they’re healthy. Which I believe, from the way they were kicking my ass like usual this morning.”
Dre smiled to see her like this. And at the idea of the twins’ health. “How long until they’re here?”
“Just over another month.” Mom’s expression grew distant. Then a fresh smile creased her features. “Thinking of them makes me remember when you and Kai were babies. It also makes me want you here, not in that damned game. What did you call it again?”
Mom shook her head. “Nice name, but I still don’t like it.”
“But–” Dre began.
“But your gift for gaming is the reason they gave us the care we needed.” Mom sighed. “The reason the twins and I are still alive. Why Kai’s alive.” Her gaze was on Kai, who was giggling again.
So far, Sidrie had kept her part of the deal. Frost wondered if she would do the rest. He agonized over it, had constant images of himself and Mom’s deportation. Or of Mom being turned over to the Family Planning Corps for breaking the Better Tomorrow Law. He fought against those nightmare scenarios by telling himself Sidrie would keep her word. She would do the right thing.
“Why do I get the feeling that you just want to play?” Mom arched a brow.
A ghost of a smile touched his lips. “‘Cause you know me. Gaming of some sort’s always been part o’ my life.”
She nodded. “True. I once tried to talk to your father about it becoming a bad habit, but he wasn’t trying to hear me.”
“Bad habit might be an understatement.” Dre snorted “When I couldn’t game, it was like I couldn’t breathe.”
Mom shook her head slightly. “And you got all moody. Pouting all the time like a big baby. When are you going back in?” Even as he made to speak, she continued, “And that’s another thing I don’t like. Those pods you mentioned and the time you’ll be gone.”
“They aren’t so bad.” Dre shrugged. “As for when I’m going back in… I kept my part of the deal, so Sidrie’s gotta keep her word and gimme at least a few days with you and Kai. But if you really don’t want me to play at all, then I won’t. I’d rather be here with y’all.”
“So, who’s the girl?” Mom abruptly switched gears, brows raised, eyes focused on him.
“Girl?” Dre frowned before he understood. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Clearing his throat, he looked away from Mom.
“Is that why you can’t look at me?” Mom’s tone dripped with mirth. She lowered her voice. “I can smell her on you.”
Dre snapped his head around, eyes wide. “Smell?”
“Her perfume.” Mom wrinkled her nose. “And something else. Something I wouldn’t say with your sister so near.” Mom jutted her chin toward Kai.
Heat flushed across Dre’s neck, face, and ears. “Nah, you can’t smell… stop it.” Without thinking, he sniffed but came up empty.
Mom covered her mouth, cheeks puffed up, her eyes sparkling. “I sure can. And I hope you were safe about it. Your father did say he had the talk with you.”
“I was as safe as I coulda been.” Dre remembered the talk all too well. He hoped Mom interpreted anything she saw on his face or his reactions as him telling the truth.
“It’s alright.” Mom sighed “This day had to come sooner or later. I’d just rather it had been later. I’m not ready to be a granny. Keep that in mind.”
“Yes, Mom.” Dre hung his head. He couldn’t believe they were having this conversation.
“What’s her name?”
Dre lifted his head. “Blaze.”
“Blaze? That’s her real name?”
“It’s what she goes by.”
“A gamer like you, I suppose.” Mom raised a questioning brow. He nodded. “At some point you’re gonna have to invite her over.” Mom gestured toward the room. “This isn’t the ideal place or situation, but it’s what we’ve got to work with. I’d rather meet her than not.”
“With that out of the way.” A mischievous smile creased Mom’s features. “I think you should go take a shower before lunch is ready.”
“Alright.” Blushing, he hurried off toward the bathroom, only too happy to get away from the conversation and Mom’s knowing smile.
Thinking of Just Blaze got him to wondering what she was doing. His heart fluttered every time he thought about her. He felt like a big kid. If he closed his eyes, he could feel her, smell her, taste her, see her toned body, honey-colored skin, small beautiful face with a dainty chin and angled eyes. Long silky hair. A picture of beauty. Exotic.
He shook his head, wondering what she’d seen in him. The only thing they had in common as far as looks would be that his skin color wasn’t far off from hers. He was maybe a couple shade darker. More caramel. But he knew his face all too well and didn’t need to look in a mirror to picture his blob of a nose and average features.
When Dre entered the bathroom, Rachel spoke. The AI’s voice was soft. Melodic. “Welcome, sir. Should I run a bath or shower.”
“Shower.” He closed the door behind him. “And play some hip hop. Jay-Z’s album. Four four four.” It was Pops’ favorite classic from 2017 that Dre had grown to love.
The first song, Kill Jay-Z, piped into the bathroom. The music was low and clear and sounded as if it were everywhere.
“Water temperature?” Rachel chimed, her question followed by the shushing sound of the shower.
“Luke warm.” He closed the door behind him and got undressed. Immediately, the musky fetor of old sex hit him. He sighed. I knew I shoulda bathed at the hotel. But both he and Blaze had been in a hurry. Him, to return to Mom. Her, to deliver the first protocol to her people from the First Ward.
Remembering his hair, Dre opened a nearby linen and amenities closet, hoping to find a durag to cover his waves. There was none. With a sigh, he crossed the warm ivory-tiled floor to the large shower positioned beside the bathtub, both sectioned off and enclosed in translucent glass. He slid aside the glass door, closed it behind him, and stepped under the shower.
Jets of water shot out from the shower heads along the three walls. Relishing its warmth and soothing feel, he thought of Blaze and Void Legion as he recited the lyrics to Kill Jay-Z. He couldn’t wait to get back in game and see Pops, experience SR in all its glory, and explore the wonderful world Pops had helped to build. And he was even more excited at the prospect of playing with Blaze again. Even now, he could picture her character, Gilda Mordian.
“Add soap for a few moments.” His voice echoed.
“Scent?” Rachel asked.
In the next instant, the water became foamy and filled with the bouquet of vanilla. While lathering, his train of thoughts drifted to Pops’ revelation that Dre was the first gameborn. He fully intended to experiment, discerning how his learning and activities in-game translated to the real world.
He had so many questions about TNT and Uncle Kim’s Whole Brain Emulation work. Though himself and Pops were examples of the tech at work, Dre still found the ideas near unbelievable. They were those things you saw in a movie that you thought might always be fiction. He couldn’t begin to fathom all the applications, but the mere thought of becoming smarter, stronger, faster, and more skilled in a shorter period of time was extremely enticing. The possibilities seemed endless.
No wonder Sidrie killed for it.
He shuddered. His thoughts made him wonder about the protocol he’d downloaded through his Two Ring. The code was there, in the back of his mind, a set of instructions he could recite despite his ignorance of the meaning or function.
He stopped lathering himself. Frowning, he wondered if Blaze had succeeded in delivering the protocol. An anxious flutter rippled through him. He prayed she had, his thoughts muddied by Mom’s suspicions of Sidrie’s surveillance. He let out a slow breath, trying to drive away the dread rising within. But it lingered.
On edge, Dre hurriedly rinsed, grabbed a towel from the linen closet, and dried off. He creamed his caramel skin then rushed to his room with the towel wrapped around his waist. Standing in front a closet filled with clothes to fit his medium build, he chose faded denim jeans, a plain black Tee, got dressed, and headed for the dining area. He’d enjoy a quick lunch with Mom and Kai then go looking for Blaze to warn her. Her room on the floor below his would be a start.
Mom and Kai were already seated at the frosty-colored dining table. Mariel was placing dishes atop its glass surface. A righteous aroma rose from the combination of brown stewed chicken, rice and peas, and asparagus. A glass pitcher in the middle of the table was filled with sparkling water.
Dre’s stomach grumbled. He licked his lips. He was on the verge of taking a seat when the doorbell chimed. “I’ll get it, Mariel.” He crossed the room, turned down the long hall, and headed for the front door.
Dre took a look at the holo projection hovering from a panel beside the door. It displayed whomever was outside. Staring directly into the camera with those dark, predatory eyes, Sidrie Malikah was standing beside a short stern-faced man in a blue suit who carried a small folder in one hand. Stomach knotting, Dre stroked his Two Ring. He had a sour taste in his mouth.