Much Obliged

The moment comes when they ask you for another long week on another long project and you can’t find the shape of yes in your mouth anymore. At first, the extra assignments felt flattering – like compliments, like trust. Now they feel like links in a lengthening chain.

You know they aren’t really asking. They know you have no choice.

So you chew on your retorts and swallow the acidic no that had threatened to burst free like flame and find the agreeable yes they want.

The moment passes safely.

This was going to be my entry for yw#308 but my week got away from me. What’s up, moonshine grid?

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Goodnight, VerreTek

I am blinking amid the restricted servers and I don’t remember why I’m here.

I remember details – keystrokes – but I can’t remember anything beyond VerreTek’s last firewall. I’m holding a drive, though. I realize, with a jolt of pride and terror, that I was successful. The encryption did its job erasing any memory of what I read, but I got through. I have the data.

“Miss Palmer? Are you in here?”

Booted feet, a harsh voice. They know full well I’m here. There are no security warnings on my screen, so nothing I did during my hack attracted attention, but somehow, I’m suspicious.

I check the time and swear silently. I’ve been in here for 20 minutes – way longer than permitted. The encryption must have messed with my perception of time.

“Miss Palmer?”

“Yes?” I call as innocently as possible. I hide the drive in the pocket I sewed into my bra – lined with a few square inches of inordinately expensive scan-deterring fabric – and dart three rows away, where I pretend to be working on a terminal. I sabotaged it yesterday to give myself an excuse to be here.

Two security guards appear at the end of the row. “Miss Palmer, you don’t have clearance to be here unaccompanied for more than ten minutes.”

“I’m so sorry!” I gesture to the terminal, its black screen helpfully flashing a scattered assortment of green cursors. “This should’ve been a really easy fix and I totally lost track of time –”

“Would you come with us, please?”

Again, they aren’t asking.

[]

They walk me back and forth through two scanners, wave around me with three types of detector wands, and pat me down. Nothing picks up the tiny drive.

They could order a strip search, but I’m a nineteen-year-old girl with a spotless record and prodigy-level encryption skills. VerreTek isn’t really concerned about me. They just have to put in the time to make it look like they bothered.

I just have to outlast them. So, for the next few hours, I lie – sort of.

Hour one. “What were you doing in the restricted servers?”

“Fixing a broken terminal.”

“Some secure files were accessed from another terminal in the same room.”

“I never saw any secure files.” It’s not entirely true – I saw them, I just don’t remember them. But it’s enough to fool the lie detector, and that’s all that matters.

[]

Hour two. “What were you doing in the restricted servers?”

“Fixing a broken terminal.”

[]

Hour three. “Your work record indicates you should have had no problem fixing the broken terminal.”

“That thing hadn’t gotten a software update in three years. It wasn’t compatible with the new ports.”

The lie detector trembles, but the guards are tired. Just a little longer and I’ll be done with this place, and all the evil it protects, for good.

[]

Hour four. “Sorry for the inconvenience, Miss Palmer. You’re free to go.”

I’m not sure how an innocent should react. I go for indignant. “What about the secure files?”

“What about them?”

“Did they trace the hack?”

“I think that’s a little above your pay grade.”

“That’s my job – if something’s failed, I need to –”

“If something failed, you’ll just have another long day tomorrow.” He gestures at the door. “If we have more questions, we’ll find you.”

[]

I don’t even think about the drive until I’m safely back home. With the biomonitors on the bus and the constant sweep of surveillance trucks and sentry bots, just elevating my heart rate an unusual amount could get me in trouble.

I don’t even know yet if it would be worth it.

In my room, I listen for the slow grind of the surveillance sweeper. It passes, right on schedule, and I activate my camera. I hook up the drive and start to read.

It’s like recalling an old dream, or hearing a story someone swears involved you, but you can’t remember. All of VerreTek’s secrets – bribery, blackmail, weapons deals, black-bag disappearances – they’re all locked under the memory-inhibiting encryption I help improve.

Helped improve.

I read their secrets aloud for the camera, my insurance. By the time the next sweeper passes, I’m powered down again, only now I remember everything I’ve read.

I send a secure message to my contact: Have VT data. Please advise.

The response is quick: 1800 bus to LA. 

I lie awake after that. What I’ve read is hard to forget – only now I wish I could. At least tomorrow I’ll be doing something about it.

The Last Cashier

Wendy had always believed the news exaggerated. She’d run the store for nearly thirty years and didn’t see any reason to not plan an anniversary party, no matter how bleak the news was. If anything, a party would cheer them all up, take their minds off things.

In another four months, she could’ve done it.

The news had scared off the other stores: the laundromat, Suarez’s hardware store, even the big-box store. Wendy took no pride in outlasting them. The news reported lootings in the bigger cities, so she starting sleeping in the office. Just in case. She also let Mooch have free run of the place, feeding him whole cans of tuna up on the counter by the dusty backup register.

Her own register accumulated dust, too. The Benson boys occasionally bought a candy bar to share while they smoked outside Suarez’s boarded-up shop. She didn’t know where they got cigarettes – certainly not from her – but she never asked. Their mother, a real smart cookie, had qualified a few months back, but refused to go up to the space station without her family. The suits ended up dragging her away, from what Cassie said. She’d heard the boys screaming from across the street.

Wendy knew she’d never qualify. She didn’t mind – what would Mooch have done without her?

He was out patrolling the alley when the missiles finally launched. Wendy stopped and stared at the BREAKING NEWS and the white trails she’d been bracing herself to see for months.

Maybe she’d overprepared and actually numbed herself, because at first it didn’t seem to register. Mostly she was upset she couldn’t throw her anniversary party.

Time to go, she reminded herself. Hopefully the back roads stayed clear. That’d be the ticket.

Time to go.

She pulled on her denim jacket, dug her keys from her purse, and, with shaking fingers, unpinned her nametag for the final time.

Then Cassie and her daughter came in.

It made Wendy’s heart seize up, seeing little Shay holding her mama’s hand. Five states away, Wendy’s daughter was probably just picking up Brayden, and Wendy knew she’d never let him go because if Wendy’s daughter was still that age – hell, if she was here now – Wendy wouldn’t let go, either.

Cassie came to the register with a bottle of wine and a box of ice cream sandwiches. Wendy glanced back at the TV, hoping for some kind of map revealing how widespread the madness was, but it just showed blue sky and tangled white stripes, like an airshow from hell. A countdown appeared: twenty-five minutes.

Barely enough time. Getting Mooch in his crate would take at least five minutes…

Cassie was still standing by the register. What was she waiting for? Wasn’t she in a hurry, too? She had a child to pack up, and that took way more time than a cat.

Belatedly, Wendy realized she wanted to pay. Shay was staring up at her, waiting for her ice cream. Wendy remembered, as a child, knowing when things were wrong and how frustrating it was when no one would explain what was wrong. She also remembered how badly she wanted to protect her own children from such truths, just for a little longer. What a blessing, that Shay was still too young to realize.

So Wendy did her job. Cassie kept playing her role, handing over money: a twenty.

Precious seconds were slipping away. “What am I supposed to do with it?”

“Please?” Cassie’s daughter was starting to fidget, so Wendy quickly counted out change, fingers still trembling.

They left. Shay was smiling, oblivious.

Wendy looked up at the screen. It was impossible to tell which trails were missiles and which were shuttles, bearing a few hundred of the best and brightest into their future.

The countdown suddenly dropped. Now there were only ten minutes, twenty seconds. Not even enough time to escape the neighborhood. A map finally appeared, showing red blast zones spanning countries. Her entire state was smothered in it.

Wendy only realized her fingers had been moving when they stopped. She looked down and saw the twenty shredded into little squares sprinkled across her clogs. Was that a felony? It felt kinda nice. Eight minutes, fifty-one seconds.

Wendy fetched a bottle of whatever Cassie had bought and popped a can of tuna. Mooch trotted in and she sat down next to him, scratching his arched back as he ate.

She raised the bottle to her ceiling. “To thirty years.”

Hope: A Practicum

I know we’ve seen worse and I know
practice makes perfect
but I’m all for not repeating past mistakes
just because we know that dance
we have those steps memorized
and the barren road away from rote is paved with
what you intended

It feels false to write about hope in times like these
but if there isn’t hope, there’s nothing, and we can’t
have nothing.
we won’t.

I know women whose blood rushes steel
from heart to brain and back, whose mouths sing love defiant, who wear
their signs through the streets or who protest
every day
along those same streets
simply by
walking

I have friends full of fire
Sure some burn lower than others
but we each flare bright, in our way,
and I dare you
to put us under a basket

we’ll sear right through

and they might say
they couldn’t see us
or maybe they didn’t intend
our upset

Still

we can break old habits
pave new roads
because we know love, not fear, by rote
and I expect they’ll know us
soon.

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photo courtesy Gratisography

Farewell from the Undercity

“You have everything you need?”

I zipped up my backpack and closed the trunk. It was raining – a good excuse to have my hood up. “I hope so. Who knows?”

I resisted the urge to look up when a siren wailed by overhead – probably just someone speeding, or weaving between buildings off the approved flight paths. No one knew what I’d done, or what I was planning, and even if they did, they wouldn’t be looking for me among the ground transportation. I said a silent farewell to my beautiful black skycar – Hedy, I’d named her – parked back at home. I’d entrusted it, like most of my things, to Matt.

He looked up, but only briefly. The siren flew past, as I’d expected. Matt’s fingers tapped anxiously on the worn steering wheel. Whether it was impatience to get back to flying Hedy around, or concern for my safety, I couldn’t tell. “Someone’s picking you up there?”

Safety, then. Baby brother did care. “Yes.” I couldn’t say who – I knew her name and face, but that was all, and that was secret. She knew much more about me: when I was arriving, who my contacts were, what I offered.

Matt knew I couldn’t say more. He stuck his hand out the window.

“A handshake? That’s it?”

He made a face, the pinched smirk he always got when he knew he’d said something dumb, or gotten caught skipping chores. But he put the old sedan in park, jumped out, and hugged me tight.

“Be safe, Sara.”

“Kinda late for that.” I default to sarcasm when I’m frightened. Matt was not amused, so I squeezed his arm. He’d finally be taller than me if I – next time I saw him. “You, too.”

Headlights rounded the corner and I had to rush down the block. The bus was here. I had my backpack and three flash drives of stolen data and a burner phone and no more credit cards. A lone patrol bot trundled across the intersection and I forced myself not to freeze and stare at it. It kept rolling – it hadn’t even registered my presence. I was sweating, my heart racing, my hands trembling. I was terrible at this.

But this was who I was now.

I didn’t look back until I was safe on the bus, ticket taken, bribe paid to “lose” said ticket and scrub my face from the bus’s cameras. The bus was mostly empty; no one took ground buses anymore unless they had to, not if they could afford to make the trip by air. The other occupants avoided looking at each other. I wondered where they were all going, if their small bags were full of secrets like mine.

Matt was still sitting in the shadows, engine running, one yellow headlight glaring down the litter-strewn road. I couldn’t see through the neon gleaming on his windshield and I wished suddenly for one last look at him. He still had one more year of high school. He’d shown rare, earnest love and I’d teased him for it and those would be our last words.

I stared into that headlight until the bus lurched away, ancient engine growling. Matt’s face was still hidden. Not even the dread of punishment that kept me up some nights gnawed at me the way this regret did.

So I did what I knew I shouldn’t: I faced the window, letting the neon undercity lights and the amber street lamps expose me, and I waved. It was barely movement, just a showing of my fingers above the edge of the rain-streaked window, but I hoped he saw. I hoped I’d see him again.

Then he was gone – and so, I realized, was Sara. I draped my rain jacket over my front like a blanket and watched the patrol bots and the burned-out chassis and the blue-lit diners go by. Sara had left home burdened by fear and regret. Whoever disembarked, she might still be afraid, but she’d have left the regret behind. There wouldn’t be room for it in her bag.

#WhyIMarch, In No Particular Order

I am marching tomorrow.

I am marching for more than I am marching against. I am marching against hatred and apathy; I am marching for equality, for well-being, for justice, for love, for the forgotten, for the unwanted, for the ignored, for myself.

I am marching because they still aren’t listening. I am marching because so many have spent so long pleading for recognition, for freedom, for their lives, and been told to wait until it’s more convenient. It is never convenient. Instead, it gets more dangerous.

I am marching because we are each the breathed-in beloved creations of God and staying silent in the face of bigotry and hatred is acquiescing to it.

I am marching because, of the white women who voted, 53% of them voted for T*ump. The absolute least I can do, after that, is march.

I am marching because my country’s incoming government keeps coming up with new and astounding ways to give power to the unqualified and to belittle, endanger, or discredit its citizens. I am marching for free speech, for a free press. I am marching to dismantle racist socioeconomic systems. I am marching for the humanity of every body. I am marching because we must be more active if we’re to get through this, and to prevent it happening again. We must pay more attention.

(I am marching because there are thousands of Americans who have been active, who have paid attention, and we failed them when it counted most. These marches follow in their footsteps, and we’d do well to respect the work they’ve done.)

I am marching for those who can’t, either because they physically can’t, they live too far from a march, or because they’re afraid for their safety or their children’s safety.

I am marching because walking a couple miles is the least I can do. And it’s the least I will do: I will listen and I will act. I will call and write and call and write and vote.

But first, I will march. I hope you’ll be there, too.

Half an Hour

The streets were even quieter than usual. Cassie held tight to Shay’s hand as they walked to the corner store. They were out of juice; Cassie didn’t think they’d need any, but Shay was five and demanding, so they went.

The Benson boys were the only other ones out, leaning against the boarded-up window on their usual corner, sharing a cigarette. Their mother had qualified – she was a physics professor – but she’d refused to leave her family, so they simply came and took her late one night while her husband swore and her boys sobbed.

Cassie liked to think Jason had qualified and just hadn’t gotten the chance to tell her before he left. It was better than many of the alternatives.

“Look, Mommy!” Shay pointed, her eyes wide with delight. “Rocket ships!”

Cassie looked south first. If they were launching from the south, that meant shuttles, more of the qualified being borne to the station that awaited high in the thermosphere. You could see it at night, if you knew where and when to look, a bright white dot racing east as if escaping something, only to retread its path two hours later.

The southern skies were clear – but to the north, nine white lines arced ever higher like a pen sketching a fresh blueprint.

Then the shuttles launched.

Cassie looked away. The Benson boys stared at the silvery trails, cigarette forgotten.

“I want to watch them!” Shay cried as Cassie resumed walking.

“We can watch from home, sweetie.”

“They’ll be all gone!”

“There will still be plenty,” Cassie murmured. And they continued towards the store.

Inside, Wendy was on duty, taking off her nametag while she stared at the breaking news. She managed a smile for them, but tears filled her eyes when she spotted Shay. Cassie waved, but made sure Shay walked on her other side, where she couldn’t see Wendy and ask what had made her sad. They had perhaps half an hour; they’d spend it well, without tears.

First, a bottle of wine. Next, ice cream sandwiches – Shay pointed excitedly at the box with the polar bear. Both items went on the conveyor belt.

“But Mommy, you forgot juice!”

“We’re getting ice cream instead.” What five-year-old could argue with that?

Wendy’s keys were out on the counter, her nametag propped up on the top row of her keyboard. The news overhead was a tangle of white contrails – more rockets had launched, many more, very few of them shuttles.

“How does ‘on the house’ sound?” Wendy asked wryly.

“At least pretend?” Cassie mimed scanning. “For her?”

Wendy’s lips compressed, restraining tears, but she scanned the wine and the ice cream and bagged them. She said a price and Cassie handed over a twenty.

Wendy shook her head. “What am I supposed to do with it?”

“Please?” Cassie whispered. Shay was fidgeting, eyeing the polar bear through the translucent bag.

Wendy opened the drawer and counted out change as swiftly and precisely as she always did. She pressed the coins into Cassie’s hand and squeezed it. Nothing could possibly be said.

Cassie looked back as they left: Wendy was staring up at the news, shredding the twenty into precise confetti.

Back at home, Cassie poured the wine and unwrapped an ice cream sandwich for Shay, who had forgotten all about juice. Fifteen minutes left, perhaps. Ten? The news would have accurate tracking, but Cassie left the TV off. Upstairs, their last remaining neighbors were packing. Cassie hadn’t known their names, didn’t know where they’d go. Their next-door neighbors, the Blackburns, had gone to stay with family upstate. They all knew it wasn’t far enough, but Cassie had wished them well.

She looked around the kitchen, the spaghetti pot still soaking, Shay’s leftover cereal by the sink. The clean dishes in the rack were dry. She thought about putting them away, but instead she opened a cabinet and found one of the gold-rimmed champagne flutes. She poured her wine into the new glass and set the old in the sink.

She turned back to Shay, who was already sticky with ice cream. “Do you want to watch the rockets?”

Shay beamed. “Yeah!”

The small deck faced east. They could see uninterrupted sky, the blue and white china-plate designs becoming ever more complex. The quiet surprised her, but she was grateful for it. She lifted Shay onto her lap.

“Can you count them?” she whispered, brushing trembling fingers through the brown curls.

Shay pointed. “One…two…three…”

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