The day after her eighteenth birthday, Amber disconnects herself from a safe and surveilled world to seek her father’s killer. No one can tell her what to expect in the long-abandoned island nation where she follows his trail.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
“Thank you for riding Levitrain; your destination is our command. Remember, Levitrain and the US Government consider your safety our top priority.”
“As if we could forget,” I mutter to myself as I step out. I avoid looking at the station cameras as the automatic doors swoosh closed behind me. My nose wrinkles at the overpowering scent of garbage, and I consider turning back. But I don’t.
My father was murdered when I was six. That messed Mom up pretty bad, which messed me up pretty bad. For as long as I can remember, I’ve only been sure of one thing: I want revenge.
I know it’s wrong, but I genuinely can’t feel passionate about anything else. Believe me, I’ve tried. And the closer I got to my eighteenth birthday, the more I thought about how adulthood would only mean more surveillance, more accountability for my actions. How could I know I wouldn’t spend the rest of my life feeling nothing about anything until I confronted his killer? Was that life worth living?
So, last night, after my friends left and the portable retro movie theatre rental was returned, I said goodnight to Mom and locked myself in my room. No one but I knew that my birthday party was a goodbye party. I took the pocketknife I’d acquired through my contact on the dark web and carefully cut the hems of my SmartWear outfit for this journey. With my fingernails, I picked out the power converters tucked inside, peeling them away from the fabric and sewing the hems back up. I was less concerned about not being monitored by the National Health and Medical Emergency Division, more concerned about them using the embedded GPS to find me. I’d long decided that I’d sacrifice safety for freedom.
As for my phone, the mandatory GPS-identification-camera-microphone-payment-alerts device citizens are required to carry, I left it behind in the trash. I pried the battery and components out, hoping that an absent GPS signal would pass for a malfunction and buy me more time than a phone left at home on a school day.
Currently, I have more pressing issues to think about. My Levitrain pass was on my phone, which wasn’t with me as I walked into the station and boarded. That will have tripped an alert. Now, I need to get out at the end of the line without being caught.
I keep my face as neutral as I can while I scan the sky. As I suspected, two drones hover by the station exit. Usually, they fascinate me. I always wonder what their view must be like as they move through the air. But right now, they’re dangerous. I walk slowly, falling to the back of the crowd pushing past me, and move to the furthest exit scanners to wait.
A buzz and red light on the far end from me signal a faulty scan, common at this ill-maintained and distant station at the end of the line. The drones swoop in on the poor woman who triggered the alarm; she’s already holding up her phone to show her digital ID. I slip through the furthest scanner. Another buzz and red light go off, but I’m already on the crowded street, not looking back.
I pull my hood up, breathing through my mouth to avoid the stench, and focus on remembering the directions I’d read online. Left at the post office, three blocks, right at the boarded-up diner, five blocks. There it is: the ocean. I think. It’s hard to tell through the grey air, but it becomes clearer as I approach. I’ve never seen the ocean before, at least not that I can remember. Mom and I couldn’t afford to travel after Dad’s death. Another thing stolen from me. I approach the docks and look out over the water for the first time.
Trash. The ocean is filled with trash as far as I can see. Disappointment crosses my face, but disappears quickly when I realize I’m being watched. The fishermen have noticed me.
I need to be smart. The right fisherman, the right bribe, can get me out of danger and carry me to freedom. The wrong one could turn me in for a reward. I walk down the dock, acting as if it’s something I do every day.
I see a fisherman with his back to me. That’s what I was told to look for. The reward-seekers are always on the lookout for their next payday; they won’t have their backs turned. This one’s standing on the dock, rubbing the grey stubble on his chin while looking at the equipment in his boat, muttering to himself. I take the chance.
“Taking any anglers out with you today?” I ask cheerfully.
“Eh? I haven’t taken anyone out in…oh,” he stops as he faces me. “You’re a bit young, aren’t you?”
“Turned eighteen yesterday, actually.”
“Ah, well, happy birthday then,” he offers uncomfortably. He eyes me suspiciously. “Well, can you pay?” he asks, pulling his phone out to start a transaction.
“Oh, uh, yes,” I answer, pulling a corner of the wad of cash out of my pocket so he can see it, “I don’t have ID,” I whisper, keeping eye contact with him.
“Oh, I see,” he says. His eyes dart to the side, looking over my shoulder. “No, don’t!” he warns, but it’s too late; I’m already turning, and I look straight into the camera phone of another fisherman.
“Get in!” my new friend, I hope, commands. I obey, jumping into the boat as he unloops the ropes from the dock and guns the engine, churning up the trash in the water around us as we take off out of the marina.
“You won’t be able to come back if you take me!” I yell over the roar of the engine and splash of the trash, unsure if he’s had time to weigh what he’s doing.
“I don’t plan on coming back!” he yells back at me.
Shortly after we clear the marina, a drone appears. Again, a part of me envies what it must see from so high above the water, looking down at us, but mostly I feel fear.
“We’re being followed!” I shout again.
“Don’t worry, I have more fuel than it does!”
A few hours later, the boat is moving at a less maniacal speed and I’m finally seeing the ocean, the real, trash-free ocean, for the first time. The sun is setting over the water in a thrillingly unfamiliar display of oranges, pinks, purples and blues. My reverie is interrupted by a splash.
“Told you so,” the fisherman says. I look up. The drone is gone.
“It just falls into the water?” I ask.
The fisherman nods. “It follows and transmits until the battery dies.”
I turn back to the sunset, watching it disappear. The sky turns purple, then black.
“The stars!” I laugh as they come out. “There are so many!” The fisherman smiles.
I watch the stars, exhausted from the day, until I fall asleep.
My father’s business partner, Blyden, was a jealous man. In his eyes, Dad had it all: loving wife, healthy daughter, and a beautiful house. Dad and Blyden made the same amount of money, but Dad managed his better, Mom explained. Blyden spent his on booze, drugs, and expensive restaurants: a never-ending carousel of temporary comforts. When he felt he needed more money, Dad disagreed.
Blyden didn’t like that, and he made it a little too clear one drunken, drug-laced night.
Mom didn’t like talking about it, Dad’s death. I don’t know if she realized how hard that was for me, when she was the only one who seemed to know anything about it. We moved after he died, away from family and other people who could talk with me about it. Her pain became mine, and we’ve always been distant because of it. Blyden ruined my life before I’d even had a chance at one, and then he ran away to the islands.
The islands opted out of the safety and surveillance measures long ago, literally cutting themselves off by sawing through the fiberoptic cables that connected them to the world wide web. With that, the government decided they were on their own and cut them off from everything else, too. Once you’ve crossed a certain distance from the continent there’s simply no going back. You’re gone. If you try to return, they lock you up. They don’t want anyone spreading news they can’t spread themselves. Even the dark web isn’t sure what the islands are really like.
The fisherman, Greg, and I talk about it during our journey. We’re both ready to be gone, whatever it may bring.
We use some cash to pay for fuel at rickety island stations along the way, always advised to make our way to Big Island, where most refugees go. We’re most likely to find anyone we’re looking for there, they all say. My determination builds as we press on.
The high-rise buildings come into view first, and we can hardly believe it. As we get closer, I see something impossible.
“Are those HoverCars?” I nearly scream. I can hear the smile in Greg’s voice.
“I guess without the surveillance drones, there’s no need for a citizen airspace ban.”
I laugh, speechless. As we get closer, I can even see people using jet packs and hoverboards in some kind of rooftop sport. I’m so entranced that I nearly miss what’s happening right in front of us.
“Look down!” Greg says, slowing the boat, and I do. The water is growing shallower, more turquoise, and it’s so clear I can see a rainbow of wildly shaped stone on the ocean floor.
“What is that?” I ask.
“A reef, ha-ha! Live coral!” He laughs joyfully. I have no idea what coral is, but Greg’s smile is wide and cracking at the corners, as if breaking new ground. His eyes shine as he navigates the boat to the dock ahead.
“This is what the sea is meant to be,” he says, wiping his eyes.
With help from a friendly welcome center staff, Greg and I are able to use the cash to find a studio for the week near the dock, where he can watch his boat.
“What you got going on today, kiddo?” he asks as I re-pack food and water into my backpack the next morning. He’s tapping through the island-wide-web information pages on the tablet inlaid into the dining room table, looking up local fishing laws.
“Came here on a mission,” I said, walking out the door. “See you tonight!”
I have one picture of Blyden. In it, he is standing with my father in front of the building that used to be their offices. If Blyden escaped here like Mom said, there was a chance he was still here, or that someone knew where he had gone. I’m determined to track him down. I start with the picture, asking everyone I encounter if he looks familiar.
This goes on for days.
“You know,” Greg says one night as he dishes out another fish dinner, “you might have more fun if you made some friends here, or got a job to keep you busy.”
“I have a job keeping me busy, thank you.” I hope I won’t grow tired of fish.
Though I’m diligent, I’m sometimes distracted by the island and its technology. I’ll walk all day and unexpectedly find rivers gushing with clean, trash-free water. I’ll ask how to get somewhere and be directed to an elevator balcony rising up the side of one of the highest buildings. The first time it rains, I rush to find cover, but it’s so fresh it feels as clean as a filtered shower, and the island is so warm I dry quickly afterward. It feels amazing. And I keep seeing those hoverboards. I resolve to get one, once I find Blyden.
Finally, the day comes.
“Oh, I know him!” a woman says.
“Really? He’s here?” I’m not sure I’m ready to believe her.
“Yes! On the other side of the island.” My face falls a little, and she sees it. “Do…do you need a ride?” she asks. My eyes light up.
I forget all about Blyden during the HoverCar ride. As we zip between buildings in an accident-evading choreography I can’t possibly understand, I finally get the view from above I’ve always wanted. My insides dip and float with the HoverCar’s movement. I laugh, feeling the happiest I’ve ever felt in my entire life. Forget the hoverboard: when this is over, I want one of these.
The lady parks near a beach, and guides me to a daiquiri bar in the sand.
“He’s the bartender,” the woman explains, gesturing to the man with his back towards us. I thank the lady and approach the bar. The bartender turns around just as I get there. I freeze.
Many tears and another HoverCar ride later, Dad and I are sitting on the dock in front of the studio. I’m watching the fishing boats come in, waiting for Greg. Dad has his head in his hands.
“I’m so sorry,” he says for what seems like the millionth time. I tell him that it’s okay. It’s taken a while to wrap my head around it, but I understand now. He killed Blyden in self defense that night, and panicked. With little faith in the system to keep him out of jail, he hastily decided that he’d rather be sentenced to life in the islands. He left, then couldn’t come back. If he had, he would have been kept away from us – we probably never would have known if he’d returned.
The sun is setting behind the boats. They, and the people coming up the dock, are silhouetted against the orange sky, hard to see until they come close.
“Why didn’t Mom tell me the truth?” I wondered aloud.
“She probably didn’t want you to know I’d abandoned you,” Dad said, another tear escaping.
“I just wanted to wait until you were an adult so we could make the decision together,” Mom’s voice said from behind us. Dad and I shoot up, standing to face her.
“Mom!” I scream, jumping towards her with my arms out. She holds me tightly.
“What are you doing here?” I ask through my tears.
“Looking for you, obviously,” she says, laughing and crying. She waves at a fisherman on the dock, who waves back. I wonder how often this sort of thing happens. “I’m so sorry honey,” she says to me. “I just wanted you to have a chance at a normal life before making the decision. I saved all of Dad’s money in case we made this move, and you beat me to it. But this,” she says, taking Dad’s face into her hands, “is a very welcome surprise. I wasn’t sure I’d find you.”
“She found me for you,” Dad smiled into her palms.
“For us,” she said, looking back at me. For us.