Episode Thirteen ♦ Sunlight 

Alone in the preparation room, Luis felt less certain of his decision than he had the night before. While removal of the chip was not permanent, it had a feeling of finality. He wondered about life without it and what his parents would think happened to him, worried about not knowing where Avinashika and he were headed nor what happened to Willem, and struggled with understanding why all this was happening to him.

He looked around the room. It reminded him of other examination rooms but for the dark stone walls. He sat in one of two stiff-backed office chairs. There was no exam table. Along the wall across from the door was a small basin but no spigot. To its right was an empty cabinet with glass doors above a small table.

There was a brief knock on the wooden door. It was Catherine. “So, are you ready to remove your chip?”

“Um…” He felt very unsure and began to stall. “When do I meet the doctor?”

“That generally doesn’t happen.” She was still confident and direct. She sat in the free chair and leaned towards him. “I have to ask you to trust me. I promise that the doctor is competent, well-trained, and board-certified to work on Informateur implants. Given the grey legal area of their work here, they prefer to remain anonymous. However, I can ask about meeting…”

“No. That will not be necessary.” He looked into her eyes, sensed her understanding of his fear, but said no more.

“Second thoughts?”

He shifted position in the chair. “Yes. Until you left me alone in this room, I was thinking about an adventurous life – out on the Great Plains. Have they started on Avinashika?”

Catherine smiled. “I believe they have. Like I will do for you, I helped her onto a gurney and administered a short-acting sleeping aerosol.”

“From a can?”

She nodded.

He said, “We had some of that on the way here.”

“Maybe it’s the same. When you’re asleep, I’ll wheel you into the operating room where you’ll be given a local anesthetic. A small amount of hair will be shaved around your incision to allow the surgeon to access the socket. The surgeon will make a small cut, peel back the skin, and unscrew the cap. Once the chip is removed, the cap is replaced, and the skin reattached with bio-adhesive. The whole procedure takes less than thirty minutes.”

Luis swallowed, unable to find the right words. He started to chew on his upper lip.

“Any questions?” Catherine asked.

Starting to tremble, he shook his head.

She rested a warm, steady hand on the back of his forearm. “We don’t have to do this right now, or ever, if you’ve changed your mind.”

“No. It’s okay. I’m ready.” He took a steadying breath before one last wave of panic overtook him. “Can I get my identity back?”

“If you ask for it tomorrow, most definitely, but once you leave here it’ll be transferred to our chip management unit through intermediaries. The whole process is designed to obfuscate their handling. I’ll be unable to locate it.”

“That sounds like a good thing.” He nodded, returned her smile, and swallowed his trepidation. “I just had to know. I’m ready now.”

She reached into a jacket pocket and produced an inhaler. Luis wondered if she had always worn a jacket; he had not noticed her clothing before that moment. “This is the sleeping aerosol.”

“It’s different,” he said.

She replaced the mouthpiece with one from a sealed packet. Holding it upright just in front of her mouth, she said, “All you have to do is put it between your lips, squeeze the top and bottom between your thumb and forefinger, and inhale. But let me get a gurney before you do that. You’re ready?”

He took the inhaler and nodded.

♦ ♦ ♦

Avinashika sat at the dining table enjoying her bowl of curried vegetables and rice. The food was good and there always was plenty, but she missed being able to cook for herself. Luis sat across from her; Catherine, at the end of the table. They seemed to be enjoying their food which also included chicken.

Missing sunshine, foliage, and birdsong, Avinashika wanted to begin the next stage of the journey. “So, about these disguises…”

“I was thinking we should go Twelfth Night,” Luis said. “I can be Cesario.” He looked at Avinashika. “You would make a great Orsino. Only problem is, do we use Elizabethan costumes or another period?”

Was he serious? She looked at him then made sure her own mouth was closed. He smirked. Avinashika struggled for any comeback.

“I was joking!” Luis burst out in laughter. “Sorry. Sorry. It’d just be fun to dress up like that – a man impersonating a woman impersonating a man. Had to suggest it.”

Catherine said, “As much fun as that might be, it’s better to be less conspicuous. The best disguises are natural and require very little maintenance. I was thinking along the lines of aging you both. It would be easy to give you some grey hair.”

“Let’s keep it simple,” Avinashika said. “Some hair dye, a change or two of clothes, cheap wedding bands, and the like.”

Catherine nodded. “Let me see what I can do. Just remember, from now on you’re George and Anita Winston.”

♦ ♦ ♦

Anita sat in a separate mine car. Padding had been added to the bottom and sides to protect passengers from what promised to be a rough ride to the surface. She would have preferred to be wearing jeans, but the ankle-length dress would keep her covered. The long sleeves, high neckline, Jane Austen waist, and sober navy fabric made her feel matronly. The bag she brought from home sat next to her in the cart.

“Don’t you think it would be fun? Like a roller coaster maybe?” she asked George.

“This is one ride I’d prefer to be asleep for,” he said. He wore a formfitting athletic shirt under an airball jersey with jeans and jump-nikes. A valise from Catherine, with two changes of clothes, sat next to him. He leaned against the back of the car with his legs outstretched.

Catherine smiled. “You don’t have much choice. Like your journey here, you must be asleep for most of it. But before you go, I have something for each of you.” She handed a plastic box to Anita.

Anita snapped down the side catches, lifted the lid, and flipped through various packets. “A first aid kit. Thank you! It’s the sort of thing I would have brought, if I had time to pack.”

Catherine winked. “Just a little something to help you get started across the plains. And for you George. I hope you enjoy them.” She handed him four bound volumes.

“Cather’s Prairie Trilogy, Dickens’ Great Expectations, Ronda’s Lewis and Clark among the Indians, and Hesse’s Siddhartha. Wow! Thank you. I will miss my book collection. Do you have any idea what will happen to our belongings in Hartfield?”

“It’s hard to say. Since Avinashika lived in a free settlement, I assume the community will redistribute her things at some point. Luis lived in De Authoriteit housing. Eventually they will declare the room abandoned and take his property.”

“Really? What will they do with it?” he asked as he unzipped the suitcase.

“That I can’t say. I guess it’ll be resold or recycled depending on its value.”

“It’s rather odd to think about. If no one enters my room for a year or two, the plants will just continue to grow.”

Anita looked at him. “Why?”

“Automated lighting, watering, feeding, and climate control.”

Catherine held up a canister much like Cordella had offered some days earlier. “And this should ensure you sleep well. It’s simple. Start a deep breath, press down, inhale…

“And hold for thirty seconds. We remember.” The travelers said in unison.

“Keep in mind you’ll be transferred between vehicles and people. I don’t know how many times. So just remember that when you wake up. It’s been a pleasure and good luck in your new lives.”

“Thank you Catherine.” Anita took the can. “I appreciate all you’ve done for us.”

“Yes. Thank you,” said George, packing his books.

Anita started to inhale, took her dose, and waited. As George took his, she released her breath, sat back against the cushion, and said, “Goodbye. Thank you again.”

♦ ♦ ♦

George awoke lying on his back. He was uncomfortable, but well-rested. The sunlight seemed more brilliant than he remembered.

“So, you’re awake?” It was Avinashika, no wait, Anita. “Don’t worry, I haven’t been awake long either.”

“Where are we?”

“No idea. On a platform next to The Track.” She sat on the concrete, legs crossed, and looked at him.

George stood up and stretched. All he could see was a large concrete slab surrounded by forest. “It’s nice to be outside, but the sun is so bright. How long do you think we were down there?”

“No idea. It’s going to be hard to tell. I won’t ask anyone or they’ll think we’re nuts.”

“What do you mean?”

“Everyone knows what day it is – it’s on the Informateur.”

Her statement was a wake-up call. “Right.”

George walked around the platform. He estimated the ground was at least four meters below with an equal space between the platform and trees. “Well, there is a path down there that goes into the forest. Do you think it leads back to the mine?”

“No. They’re way too careful. We’ve already been transported some distance away. There’s no telling where we are.”

“And they just left us here?”

“So it appears.”

“What are we supposed to do next?”

“I’ve no clue,” Anita said.

“Well, we cannot walk on The Track, so it’s either we walk underneath it or find out where that trail goes.”

“Or we can just wait here until someone comes along.”

“But that could be days!”

“I doubt it. Think. Since the diner, everything seems like it has gone according to plan. Someone will be along.”

Yeah. Right. George was skeptical. “I wonder why there’s no control panel or anything up here.”

“Why do you need a control panel if you have an Informateur?”

“But what if it stops working?” George’s question awed him. Only days ago such a concept was inconceivable. Now, not only had he experienced a system failure, he no longer had an Informateur.

“You should put your hat on,” Anita suggested.

“What hat?”

“It’s by your case.”

Behind the valise George found a wide-brimmed sun hat made from woven straw. He put it on. “I hope we haven’t been out here baking for very long.”

“It is a warm morning, that is for sure.”

George walked around the platform. “Hey, there is no way down!”

“You noticed that.”

“Why would there be a platform and no way to get up to it?”

“Oh, I’m guessing there’s a way to get up — just no way to get down.”

♦ ♦ ♦