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Life is often about checklists. The ones you create, the ones others create for you, and the checklists you half-form in your mind when life surprises you. I walk through my final checklist with my mission lead coordinator.

“Test – Ripcord #1.” She hovers a wand over the small red button under a pocket flap.

A chipper “beep” results. Two more such notes for the other two emergency return devices – something at my right ankle and the small lump under my skin and above my spine – and we’re finished.

She locks her eyes with mine. “Minimize direct interaction…”

“…no trinkets, no food or drink, do no harm,” I reply.

Mercerdale Park’s northwestern portion is wooded but adjacent to its primary area, a large jog/run paved circle in the center. If the microdrone sensors can be trusted, it’s still there and a small clearing in the woods has been prepared for me, so I won’t be seen popping out of nowhere.

She steps back, I turn and step into the gate, and then go into a tight crouch – it requires less energy for some reason.

She calls “Mission – Launch!,” There’s the expected minor disorientation as I pass through null-space, and then both my mind and eyes clear and I’m in a small clearing surrounded by brush and trees. I listen intently for two minutes, then quietly check sensors, parallel world probability and for time sync. Sensors are all go, probability is less than 2%, and it is July 12, 5:17 AM Pacific Time both at my origin and here in the year 2099. It’s still dark, but the sun will be up in a half hour or less. I stand up.

The first thing I notice is that it’s a little warm. I have my sensors check for weather data. No recent heat blob events. Not exactly unusual for the Puget Sound as it eases out of the June rains, but this warm this early is more common in August.

The second thing is what I hear. Human activity. A fair bit of it.

I quietly step out of the clearing and into more activity than I would expect before the crack of dawn. The skateboard area to the south has a handful of arena lights shining around it while kids are honing their moves.

I turn toward the circular track and there are at least two or three dozen people out and about. Most are walking or jogging around the circle, but a few are in the grassy center, some sitting in the dark and talking, others appearing to have…picnic baskets? -- and electric lanterns.

Then I notice the eight to ten story buildings immediately to my left. They were once a strip mall, the fire station and the local post office. People in my time were fighting any changes to the area tooth and nail…and apparently, they lost.

I look back at the people around the track and eventually notice little points of light on the temple of each person. Almost all of them are green, but a small handful are yellow. I look over at the skateboard area, where the light is better. The kids usually sport a green light, but three have some weird getup where the light seems to crisscross their chests – green, red, yellow, repeating itself.

I look back at the buildings. They appear black as pitch and the surface of one looks like it absorbs light instead of reflecting it, but there appears to be an open third space of some sort – maybe a café? -- at ground level.

I start to walk around the track, intending to skirt its perimeter and check the third space, when someone with a blue light on each shoulder walks toward me. “Morning sir – doing alright?” He’s dressed casually, but his stance says “police officer” loud and clear.

“I’m fine,” I reply. “Just heading over there.” And we fall into the small conversation used to check your state of mind, how safe you are.

I notice that his eyes are somewhat… reflective…and ever so slightly larger. Like those of a cat.

“OK, well, be sure to try the crepes,” says the police officer. “They just hired some street vendor from Wuhan who emigrated a year ago and he’s really good.”

“No worries,” I reply. “Hope I wasn’t being a bother…?”

He laughs, “No, just doing my job, seeing as you’re a natural, we have to reassure…”

My quizzical look is replied to with pointing at the green light on his temple.

I nod my head as if in agreement and he replies, “By the way – are you a resident here?”

I replied that I was visiting from out-oftown and he said, “Not a problem – just make sure you head over to Processing by siesta time today and they’ll help you out.”

And he’s about to turn away when I ask him about the kids with the circulating lights. He smiles. “Some teens just have to be obnoxious,” he replies. They’re not clipped yet.”

“Clipped?” I ask. Not a good idea, apparently. The smile disappears. “We don’t chip here – we clip, unless you have a history of mental illness, then its probationary – you can still challenge it in court to get it removed. Yourself alone, you know?”

“Oh, sorry,” I reply.

He waves it off. “Just don’t believe everything you glom online,” he says. “People won’t let reality get in the way of a good story, sometimes. Take care…and visit Processing today, OK?” And he walks off.

I continue toward the third space. As I start to cross the street, I notice a smell. It’s faintly like freshly turned-over dirt. It seems to be coming from the nearest building.Then it seems to be from the walls of the building. I reorient myself and realize that it’s both the walls and the sidewalk. That the sidewalk has just the tiniest amount of give, like a very, very tight trampoline.

I check the wall of the nearest building. It also has the tiniest amount of give. Is it cladding? But the sidewalk easily can support my weight. Is it structural? I focus the sensors on each to grab what data they can and make quick comments to accompany the video through my eyeglasses.

Then I walk over to the third space and find a table away from those outside. The table is apparently a screen as well, quietly chittering away in three or four languages as it rolls headlines across and toward the center pole, the text and images as if like water sliding off a surface then falling into a silent bucket. There are fees you can pay, I think – to get a specific channel, to turn it off, for one focused language. I have a card that could jailbreak me into any financial system back home – it has responseevolvable software that might allow for a few moments access before it’s voided – but why make a scene so early? It’s for emergencies.

Someone from inside walks over, hands me a menu and a glass of water, then stares at me for a moment -- “You new around here?” His eyes seem normal. I concur and he replies, “I can tell, I’m not picking up any ID or money on you…Just wanting some morning air?”

I smile sheepishly and nod my head. “Not a problem. You like tea? I got two boxes of mint I need gone before they’ll ship me more of everything else, so you’d be helping me out if you had a pot on the house.” I agree and thank him. He bends in close, and his voice drops a register. “I was where you were a year ago – the cops are sweet here, just make sure you get processed soon – Border Patrol loves to catch early risers like you. Better to walk in to Processing kuài de, OK?” I nod in agreement and he heads back inside.

I don’t drink the tea, watch the sky change color and the other customers, and keep an eye peeled for anyone that acts as if they’re wearing a uniform and aren’t.

Eventually I catch the eye of the waiter inside, wave a thanks, stand and turn the corner of the building, heading north. It’s solid eight story buildings all the way to what looks at first glance like a soundstage from a distance – around eight to ten blocks ahead.

Maybe a transit station? It’s hard to tell. The narrow two-lane road that once intersected the original layout is gone, with a wide sidewalk presently separating them.

With the rising of the sun, it’s getting warmer quickly and people seem to disperse, though not in haste. Soon it’s just me and what appears to be a woman about 30 feet in front of me.

And then the alarms start – they remind me of a fire drill, but this one is as if it was created by some combination of talking, angry hornets and taiko drums. It’s accompanied by pulsing lights from somewhere above me – not enough to disorient, but it definitely makes its message clear – DANGER – GO INDOORS.

The woman turns and is about to enter a building, then sees me and my lack of immediate reaction, runs to me, grabs my wrist, curses, and drags me into the nearest building, then towards what appear to be elevator doors.

She jabs at the buttons, but no response. She looks around for a moment, then leads us into a bathroom.

She turns around, facing me, and says, “Do what I do!” Then she gets down on her knees, wresting me down as well since her grip – it’s a strong grip, too – hasn’t been loosened one bit.

I copy her position, facing her. She takes both of my wrists, then interlaces her fingers in each hand with mine.

“Listen to me,” she says. “I’m with Processing – I can tell you’re new. Do what I tell you and we should be OK.” I nod in agreement.

“It’s going to hurt a lot. Holding on to somebody helps – it gives you a space outside the pain. If you need to stare at me, I won’t take offense. If you need to close your eyes, do so.” And then she starts to stifle a slightly ragged giggle.

“And remember that the United Nations hasn’t done anything about this because no one dies or gets dismembered.”

Before I can respond, there comes a steady BOOM. BOOM. BOOM.

And suddenly I’m five years old and I realize I’ve peed on my pants in class.

Then I’ve failed Ranger training.

Then my mother has died in a car accident that I survived.

Then I don’t know how I’m going to pay the bills and my family is depending on me so much.

It goes on like this, again and again. Part of me starts to realize that some of it wasn’t even about me, it was just some force pushing me toward shame and loss, again and again.

I somehow pry my eyes open, which I didn’t know had been closed, looking at the woman, see her screaming, eyes wide open, and yell back “WHO IS DOING THIS!!? WHY ARE THEY DOING THIS?!!!”

And as she is about to yell at me what I think is the answer, my fail-safe monitor kicks in and I black out.

I awake, and I’m back at the gate, still on my knees. I quickly check my hands to make sure I have nothing accompanying them and wait for the crew to follow Recovery procedure.


Rich Erwin

Rich Erwin, a resident of the Puget Sound, will soon be a graduate of the University of Houston master's degree program in Foresight. He takes great store not only in the effect of the weight of history on the potential for preferred futures, but also the willful curation of our pasts.

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