“We have to go back,” Naomi said. They had stopped their car on a back alley once they figured they had gotten far enough.
“Let’s just do what Thomas told us to and leave the city,” Jason snapped. He was still tensed from their earlier ordeal and squeezed the steering wheel like he had forgotten how to let go.
“He would not like for us to risk our lives for his. Besides, we could not even get close to the building, even if we wanted to.” His voice sounded close to breaking, which he tried to mask with anger.
“Let’s just head for the coast. He’ll catch up.” She swallowed, looking miserable, and turned to gaze emptily out of the window.
They hadn’t really asked Lucas anything, so he stayed silent. That didn’t bother him, quite the opposite as he didn’t know what he wanted to do next. Going back to the house would be too dangerous, so that was out of the question. But to leave and head to the woods was a horror of a different kind, to be left without the modern comforts he was accustomed to. He could not enter his carefully crafted virtual space without an internet connection! Even the augmentations would cease to work when the connection cut, eradicating the protective layer between him and the harsh, ugly reality around. And where would he get his medication?
But he could not just get out of the car since he knew he would not last long on his own. He would have to find a way to contact Routh and explain he had overreacted earlier and would now be glad to follow him if he was allowed to stay in the city. He had put out some messages online, trying to contact him, but thus far he had received no answer. So, for the time being, he would just have to go along with the others.
They set out the quiet streets as the sun rose, casting more shadows than light amidst the tall buildings. Their progress was slow as they took every corner carefully and had to look for detours numerous times. The sun had come up when they neared the edge of the city, the clear dome of their vehicle offering no protection from the blinding blaze, and the cooling air of the AC didn’t quite reach the back seat, even on full blast. A grey car slowly creeped down the road and they ducked out of sight in their seats. Lucas turned on his laptop’s camera and lifted the laptop up, using his it like a periscope to keep an eye on his surroundings. On the screen he could see the obese man inside the car had stripped down to his underpants in the heat and glistened with sweat despite fanning himself with both arms. Was the car trying to kill him via dehydration, or simply conversing energy? Once the way was clear they drove up a ramp to the raised highway to examine the way ahead.
The vista opening before them made her gasp and Jason curse. Surroundings the city was a ring of vehicles stretching from one side of the horizon to the next, gleaming in the otherwise bare desert like teeth in a desiccated corpse’s mouth, swallowing them down. One of the cars darted ahead, chasing away some birds and returned to its spot.
“These one’s are not letting anything pass,” Jason said, the statement resounding in their minds like a death knell. “We are not going anywhere.”
They headed back, unsure where to go, unsure if it even mattered where they went. They were stuck as surely as the people being roasted alive within the vehicles encircling the city. They came across a rundown mall that seemed deserted and parked by the entrance. They headed in to gather some supplies and their thoughts.
The welcoming signs and virtual personnel greeted them as they stepped in, and everything gleamed like polished and waxed a minute ago. The grand ornamentations on the walls and ceiling were meticulously realized.
“What a dump,” Jason said.
At first, Lucas was at a loss with how someone could be so unappreciative of such beauty, but then realized he was not wearing any reality augmentation gear. He hesitated before doing something he didn’t normally do and peeked over his glasses. Without them correcting his refractive error he could only see a blur of his surroundings, but he figured that was most likely for the best. What he could make out was the mall was a drab shell of dirty, grey stone, the stores that were so welcoming in the virtual world mere holes in the walls with shelves empty apart from stickers with QR codes that matches with products one could only see with VR glasses. The wall ornaments were replaced with crude graffiti, the infomercials with dated posters peeling of the signs. He had seen enough and adjusted his lenses, entering a reality more to his liking.
“I hoped there would be a supermarket or something,” Jason said, “but there’s nothing but the shelves.”
“All the products are virtual,” Lucas read from the mall’s homepage. “You pick what you want, and it’s delivered straight to your home.”
“I know that’s how it goes in most places,” he said, “but there’s got to be a café or something. I mean people want their drinks when they’re thirsty, not when they get back home.”
He searched for the closest diner and received the directions overlayed on his vision.
“This way,” he said, and they headed further in. Without the glasses the diner was just another unmarked hole in the wall, and they would have passed had Lucas not acted as their guide. The glass counter still had some of yesterday’s dried pastries to which they helped themselves before sitting down. At the back corner there was a large bin filled with books thrown in a haphazard pile.
“This place used to be a library,” he read aloud from the website.
“Thought those shelves seemed unusual for a store,” Naomi said. “Why the change?”
“To better serve the people,” according to the page.
“Wasn’t all the public funding from libraries and museums and the like cut a while back?” she mused. “I think it was part of some stimulus package to help those who had lost their jobs recently.”
The men shrugged as neither had paid much attention to politics. She was about to say something when something made her turn her head sharply to the exit.
“You hear that?”
“What?” he said, turning the outside sound amplification of his earbuds up. Now he could hear them too. Footsteps, getting closer. Jason was already up, checking a door behind the counter, but it was locked. The only way out was the opening back to the hall. The flimsy furniture of the shop offered them little protection. If these were the same people that had attacked them at the apartment building, they could gun them down without any issue. The thought made him choke on his bagel and he coughed violently despite all his efforts to stay silent. Tears welled in his eyes.
“What a dumb way to go after what I’ve survived,” he thought.
Jason had picked up a chair and hid behind the wall by the entrance. They waited with their unblinking eyes fixed on the entrance as the footsteps drew near.
Around the corner waddled two morbidly obese men in clothes that hung on them limply like bedsheets. They were joined by an equally fat woman in a wheelchair. All had smartglasses and none of them paid their group any attention.
After collectively letting out a deep breath and briefly debating Naomi and Jason went after the trio. They called out their greetings, but the window-shoppers didn’t react to them before they went to stand in front, blocking their path.
“Sorry, I mistook for one of these virtual criers,” huffed one of the men. “What do you want?”
“Are you gathering supplies as well?” Naomi asked. “Maybe we should group up, it should be safer in groups.”
“Safer how?”, the man asked, exchanging glances with his friends.
“Well we would have more people acting as guards,” she explained. “And more people to help if someone gets injured.”
“You must have us confused with someone else,” he chuckled, pushing his hands in front of him as if to create space between them.
“You must have seen the smartcars acting up,” Jason insisted.
“Mine worked like a charm and there was less traffic than usual, so I have no idea what you’re talking about. Good day.” The man pressed his last words and walked around them, inviting no further discussion. They walked leisurely, glancing quickly over their shoulder to ensure they didn’t follow.
“They had no idea,” she said. “Just like that guy in the apartment.”
“Maybe Routh has other plans for them,” Jason suggested. “They should be fine if they’re not on his hit list.” She just shrugged.
“Hard to imagine how they could be more useful than the people that have been mowed down already,” he added.
“That’s what Amun-Ra is for,” Lucas put in. “I checked their social media accounts, and there really was nothing special about them. People like that have no chance in this world. But Amun-Ra will analyze them and find a way to make them special.”
Jason scoffed and Naomi smiled apologetically.
“It’s not like people like them could understand,” he thought bitterly. “Friends, work, health, they’ve got it all. It’s all luck, and all these things have been heaped upon them while others have to go without. Amun-Ra will fix that.”
Jason cursed and wiped his shoe on the floor, leaving a stain. He had stepped on something, presumably some type of fruit that had gone bad.
“I hate going out in the city,” he complained. “It’s like High Gear is the only place where people look after their surroundings.”
“If it bothers you so much, why not just use the glasses?” Lucas asked. “I haven’t seen dirt in ages.”
“It’s still there even if you can’t see it. No matter how advanced the filters get, they still won’t remove all the muck, filth and ugliness, no matter how one might hope so. Everybody pretending there is no trash doesn’t mean the room is clean.” He gave a self-satisfied grin. “The same goes for people.”
“They will tear you down the moment you have something that lifts you above them, then pretend they are the victims because they had less. Just because they rob you with the law on their side doesn’t make them good. They just make the rules. I’ve met some rough characters in my time, and I’ve learned the only difference between the robber and the leech is that the robber will at least be honest about his moral character.”
Lucas grinded his teeth. “So because I want the same chances you had I’m evil?” he answered mentally but rationalized it would be no use to continue the discussion with someone so uninformed, so he kept his mouth shut, wearing a calm expression that masked his inner unrest.
They went around the mall and managed to scrounge up a few days’ worth of supplies, mostly candy and other snacks. They sat down to discuss their next move, this time near a window where they could keep an eye on the front of the building as well as the mall interior.
“There has to be other survivors,” Jason said. “And there has to be a way to contact them.”
“Ampere controls everything you see online, so the only way would be to run across them on the street,” Lucas said. “That hasn’t really worked thus far.”
“What about radio?” Naomi asked. “That’s what they always use in the movies.”
Lucas hoped his glasses covered the blush he felt rising on his cheeks.
“Not really fulfilling my role as the ‘smart guy’ of the group,” he thought.
“Right, let’s check that.”
He opened the radio on his laptop, clicking though the various channels. Pop music, celebrity gossip, news and a broadcast of harsh digital noises but nothing about the attack. And no calls for help.
“No luck,” he sighed.
“Let me take a look,” she said, and fiddled with the computer, turning back to the frequency filled with grating discord. “See, why is this channel playing something like this? I listen to the radio a lot on work and have never heard this channel.”
“Must be broken somehow,” he suggested.
“Or maybe there’s something there Ampere doesn’t want anyone to hear,” Jason interjected. “That’s how you jam a signal, right? By playing something over it?”
“Can you analyze the sound somehow?” she asked, looking at him expectantly.
“Can you isolate the different tracks of the broadcast?” he told his computer bashfully.
A progress bar soon filled to mark the completion of the task and he was presented with different sounds pulled from the audio. He clicked through them until:
“Calling anyone who is alive. We have a safe location. Go to the following locations, and we will pick you up.” What followed was a list of building rooftops, public buildings and other spots around the city. His computer automatically marked them on his map.
“We are going to fight back.”