The beach that night was noisy and drowning in the billboards’ neon glare. Makoto and his friends arrived first; Willow arrived alone.
“Where’s Padma?” I asked, catching the burger box she tossed my way.
“Stuck at work. She texted from the print shop – a big job came in and she has to stay late.”
“What kind of job?”
Willow shrugged. “She doesn’t tell me that stuff. She just said she’d get here when she could.”
We set up the tiny grill on a patch of undesirable, rocky beach, the only area where we could get more than ten feet from the nearest cluster of teenage boys taking shots of their older brothers’ moonshine. Out here, the glare from the billboards wasn’t so irritating; if you turned your back on them and looked out to sea, you could see the vibrant flashing lights illuminating the waves and the sunken glassy spires of Old LA.
“Carmen? You want a burger?” Willow held out a napkin-wrapped burger. “Makoto forgot the buns.”
“Thanks. Hey, have you heard from Padma?”
“She must be really busy.” Padma was vocal about her inconveniences: the group chat we all hung out in was flooded by funny and often wildly inappropriate images whenever Padma was stuck on a crowded train, kept late by work, or irritated by the latest political news.
“I’ll send her a pic of that sunset,” Willow decided, raising her phone. “Maybe that’ll inspire her to hustle.”
The sunset was pretty spectacular – gold and fuschia clouds gleaming under the cool white and blue flashes of the billboards – but Padma’s absence was nagging at me. Something felt wrong.
Under the pretext of taking my own photo, I checked the other group chat, the secure one Padma and I were in.
The feed wouldn’t open.
I tried to stay calm. Reception got spotty out here, especially on crowded nights like this. There were plenty of harmless reasons for the chat go down.
“Oh, Olivia’s here!” Willow jogged away, leaving me gripping my phone and the rapidly cooling burger I could not stomach. I set it down on the shell of a rusted-out car.
The feed finally refreshed. A single message from Padma appeared, almost two hours old.
It was a single skull icon.
With shaking fingers, I powered down my phone and pried it apart. The casing would go unnoticed among all the other litter on this beach; the card I’d have to destroy and dispose of somewhere safer. I scooped up a couple large rocks and threw them out into the darkening waves, one at a time, so it wouldn’t look suspicious when I hurled my phone, too, so far that it almost struck one of the old skyscrapers. The nearby boys kept hollering, oblivious.
The single skull was a relief, but that relief was a well of hot shame. Two skulls would have meant our whole group was compromised; three would have meant that most of us had probably already been taken or killed, and whoever was left to see those skulls should run.
One skull meant one agent down: Padma. She’d had enough time to erase her tracks and protect the rest of us, then signed off with that single skull.
The waves around me were washed in red as a new message appeared on the billboards.
“Carmen!” Willow was pale, her hand shaking as she pointed up at the huge screens. Padma’s defiant face smirked down at us from the glowing red arrest notice.
“Terrorist? Anti-capitalist? Padma?” Willow stared, horrified, at the announcement. “I know she had her opinions, but…”
Everyone hated the skyrocketing costs and labor abuses that markets and governments permitted worldwide, but Padma did something about it: she’d run materials for activist groups after-hours at the print shop. And if “terrorism” included protesting the collapse of a state-run apartment tower by shattering a Nuevos Angeles billboard with shoddy rebar from the wreckage, Padma and I were both terrorists. She remained full of love and hope; I was amazed at her mountainous courage.
And she’d given herself up so the rest of the agents could be safe.
Willow was crying; everyone else looked stunned. They’d never know the risks Padma had taken to defend them.
It was never about keeping our network safe, I realized – it was about protecting everyone else, even the ones who’d never know it.
I picked up another rock. “She wasn’t alone.”
I took three steps closer to the billboard, brought my arm back, and let fly.