Delek watched as the man in the black Syntech uniform tapped on his tablet’s touchscreen. The guy was a foot shorter, and about half as wide. He looked like a mech pilot in comparison to Delek’s massive frame, as if he could climb into a cockpit in Delek’s chest and operate him from the inside. The Syntech logo glowed lime green on the LED-infused fabric of the man’s shirt. A digital patch displayed his name in matching green letters: Roi.
“ID?” the man asked.
Delek slid up the sleeve of his work shirt. His thick forearm muscles rippled as he rotated his arm toward the ceiling, revealing a diamond-shaped formation of raised dots embedded in the underside of his wrist. Above the dots was a tattoo of a stylized skull, along with a banner reading Kill. Bathe. Repeat.
A laser the same color as the Syntech logo beamed from a lens above Roi’s touchscreen and scanned the dots. A friendly confirmation tone sounded.
“Got it.” Roi ran his finger down Delek’s dossier on his touchscreen, reading as he scrolled. He cocked an eyebrow and whistled. “Nice. Check out these numbers.” He tilted the tablet so Delek could see.
“What about them?”
“Highest I’ve seen for a Sentinel. Or for anyone, honestly.”
Delek motioned to his wife, Neera. She was standing behind him, leaning against the kitchen counter with her arms crossed over her chest, her taut biceps forming solid curves of muscle under the sleeves of intricate tattoos that covered her arms.
“Take a look.”
“I don’t want their money,” Neera sneered. She balled her fists and took a menacing step toward Roi. “Get out.”
Roi’s hand instinctively dropped to the electroshock baton dangling from his belt. Delek extended his arm, putting himself between his wife and the nervous Syntech rep. “Neera, please—”
Neera tried to push past Delek’s arm, but it didn’t budge. She stared up into his eyes, her jaw set, her teeth clenched. “I don’t want the money.” She poked her finger into his broad chest. “I want you. Here. With us.”
Ignoring Neera’s obvious displeasure, Roi swiped his tablet screen to reveal a long block of small-print text. “These are the terms of the agreement…”
“I’ve read them,” Delek replied pointedly, his gaze remaining locked on Neera.
Neera’s eyes narrowed. The thick cluster of dreadlocks bundled on top of her head swayed as she pivoted and opened the dented refrigerator. She snatched a bottle of Glint from the mostly-bare shelf, then slammed the door shut with a thud.
“Great!” Roi said. He handed the tablet to Delek. “Thumb, please.”
Delek turned back to Roi and gave him an apologetic look. “I’m sorry. We’ve talked about this.” He took the tablet, pressed his thumb to the fingerprint scanner until it beeped, then handed the device back to Roi.
“You’ve talked about this,” Neera corrected.
“And you listened,” Delek shot back.
“Right.” Neera pressed her lips into a bitter smile. “That makes one of us.” She twisted the cap off the bottle and drained half of the sparkling silver liquid.
“Hey, look. I get it,” Roi said as he tapped the touchscreen. “It’s a tough decision. But you’re doing the right thing.” A drop of water dripped from above and plunked onto the screen. Roi looked up at the damp bloom of black mold on the ceiling overhead, then wiped the water off with his sleeve. He tapped the screen once more, then looked up and smiled at Delek. “Okay, we’re all set.”
“And the money…?” Delek asked.
“Should be in your account by morning.”
“The money’s just the start,” Roi continued, directing his sales pitch at Neera. “Anything you need, Syntech will cover it. Clothes. Food.” His eyes darted to the wide expanse of pill bottles lined up on a nearby shelf. “Meds.” He smiled reassuringly at Delek. “Don’t worry. They’ll be set for life.”
“You hear that?” Delek asked Neera. “For life.”
“We don’t need them. We’re fine.”
“No, we’re not fine,” Delek snapped. “This,” he gestured around the tiny, sparsely-furnished apartment, “is not fine.” He shot his arm out and pointed toward the short hallway that branched off from the kitchen. “Sev is not fine.”
Roi closed the cover of his touchscreen. “Ma’am, with all due respect, the contract is final. And it’s effective immediately, so…” He motioned Delek towards the door. “Shall we?”
“Can you give us a minute?” Delek said to Roi.
“The transport’s waiting.” Roi’s tone was colder now. It was clear his patience was wearing thin.
“Thirty seconds.” Delek took Neera by the elbow and guided her into the short hallway off the kitchen, out of Roi’s view.
“What?” she said sharply.
Delek lowered his voice and whispered to her. “You know the deal. If I try to back out now…”
“I know. That’s why I was trying to get you not to sign the fucking thing.” Neera slumped against the wall. Her arms dropped to her side. All the fight seemed to drain from her body. She looked tired. Defeated. She thumped the back of her head against the peeling plasterboard. “God damn it, Delek.”
Delek peeked around the corner at Roi. The Syntech rep was impatiently bouncing his electroshock baton against his shoulder. He idly picked up one of the medicine bottles off the shelf and inspected it, turning it toward the light as he read the label. His eyebrows shot up.
Delek ducked back into the hall. He took Neera’s hands in his and kissed her fingers. “I’ll be all right. And so will you. You’ll get yourself a new place, somewhere safe, outside the city. Get Sev the help he needs. Take him to Tuamotu. Teach him how to surf.”
“I can’t do that without you.” She exhaled a shuddering breath. “I need you, D. We need you.”
Before Delek could respond, a series of hacking coughs echoed from the next room. A small, weak voice called out. “Dad?”
Delek and Neera both turned toward the sound, then looked at each other.
“One second, Sev,” Delek called. He leaned down and kissed his wife’s cheek. “I better go say goodbye.”
Delek padded silently into the apartment’s sole bedroom. His six-year-old son, Sev, lay on a small mattress on the floor, facing the wall. The boy was bone-thin and shivering, his frail frame barely covered by a too-small blanket. The floor next to the mattress was littered with pill bottles, half-filled glasses of water, and crumpled tissues mottled with dried blood. Off in the corner, an empty IV bag hung from a rusty IV pole.
Delek lowered himself to the floor next to the mattress. He stroked the boy’s thinning hair with his hand. “Hey, Sev,” he said softly. “You okay?”
The boy rolled over. His face had a sickly yellow pallor. His eyes were wet. “You’re leaving?”
Delek didn’t answer. Instead, he opened his arms. “Come here.” The boy crawled onto Delek’s lap and closed his eyes. Delek enfolded his son in a warm hug and kissed the top of his head. “Take care of Mom for me, okay?”
“Until you get back?”
Delek noticed Neera leaning in the doorway, watching them. She put her hand over her mouth to stifle a sob.
“Yeah,” Delek lied. “Until I get back.”
The air inside the Syntech transport was rank with the smell of sweat and fear. The lights from the street outside strobed through the narrow, prison-like windows as the darkened transport rushed through the city towards the monolithic Syntech tower looming in the distance.
The transport was long and narrow, with benches running the length of the vehicle. Both were loaded with volunteers, about a dozen on each side, facing each other. Most were men. At the front, separated from the passenger cab by a thick pane of Plexiglas, were two forward-facing seats. The driver sat in one; Roi dozed in the other, his head resting against the window at his side.
Delek was seated toward the back of the transport, shoulder-to-shoulder with a pair of other volunteers. On his left was Paul, a hard-edged forty-something man with callused palms and grease caked under his thick fingernails. On his right was Adler, a wiry Black teen in an oversized Seattle Synths jersey and a pair of cargo shorts.
“This is bullshit,” Paul complained. He twisted his wrists in the heavy electronic cuffs binding his arms. “They’re treating us like fucking prisoners.”
“Or slaves,” Adler said.
“Come on, now. It ain’t nothing like that,” the man next to Adler scolded. He was a fifty-something Black man with a salt-and-pepper beard, named Kevan. “You volunteered for this shit. You’re getting paid for this shit.” He shook his head in disappointment. “Slaves,” he muttered disdainfully.
Delek’s knees were practically touching those of the volunteer across from him, a balding, bespectacled man in his forties named Mirt. The man’s dress shirt was soaked with perspiration. His face was clammy and pale. He raised his handcuffed wrists and tugged at his collar with one hand.
“I need to get out of here,” he gasped. “I can’t breathe.”
“Ain’t no way out now,” Adler said. “Unless you, you know…” He clasped his hands together into the shape of a pistol, pressed them under his chin, and pretended to blow his brains out.
Paul leaned over to Delek and nodded his head towards the front of the transport. He lowered his voice. “You think he’s one of them?”
“The driver?” Delek whispered. Paul nodded. Delek squinted his eyes, trying to see through the darkness. The driver was wearing the same black Syntech uniform as Roi, but with a chauffeur-style cap perched on his head. “I don’t know. Hard to tell from here.”
“Yeah, he is,” Kevan said. “I saw his siffo while they were loading me in. Wait for the next light. You’ll see.” The men paused for a moment until the transport passed under a street light. The glow through the side window briefly illuminated the driver. “See? Right there.”
“Ah,” Delek said, nodding. Sure enough, he could see a small black disc on the back of the driver’s skull, just behind his right ear.
“What’s a siffo?” Mirt asked.
“You know, siffo,” Kevan replied. “C-F-O. Stands for, uh …” He rolled his eyes skyward, trying to remember.
Delek thought for a moment before the words came to him. “Cemi Field Override.”
“Right. That’s it.”
“It’s like a remote control or something?” Mirt asked.
“More like autopilot, from what I heard,” Delek answered. “You’re along for the ride, but you’re not in control.”
“Then who is?”
Adler snorted obnoxiously. “Nobody, dumbass. That’s the point.”
“Syntech’s AI. Same as in a synthetic,” Delek explained, ignoring Adler’s wisecrack.
“Why don’t they just use synths then?”
Delek shrugged. “People are cheap.”
“I think you mean expendable,” Kevan said. “Like my dude here.” He jerked a thumb at Adler.
“Ouch. That hurts, bro.”
Kevan continued. “It’s true, though. Think about it. A siffo costs, what, like thirty bucks? Even with what they’re paying us, it’s still nothing compared to a synthetic. Those things cost four mill, easy.”
“Five,” Delek corrected.
Paul whistled in disbelief. “That much now?”
“They’re complex as hell, too,” Kevan said. “Thousands of moving parts, any one of which could fail and take the whole thing offline. Then Syntech’s gotta get some high-paid technician to peel the thing open and figure out what went wrong. But people? People are disposable. Something happens to one of us, fuck it. Dump the body, swap in a new one. That’s why they give us all the shit jobs.”
“Literally,” Adler added.
Paul shuddered. “If they make me a shit diver, so help me God…”
“Shit diver?” Mirt asked. “Is that a real thing?”
“I think the official term is human waste disposal technician.”
“Oh, God.” Mirt made a groaning, belching sound. He raised his fists to his mouth. His cheeks puffed out as a noxious, vomit-tinged breath escaped his lips. “I think I’m gonna be sick.”
“It’s still better than being a Sentinel,” Paul said. “At least you won’t have anyone shooting at you.” He glanced at Delek. “No offense, big guy.”
“Ay, yo.” Adler knocked his sneaker against Mirt’s scuffed leather loafer. “Why’d you volunteer if you’re gonna be such a pussy about it?”
Kevan elbowed Adler in the ribs. “The fuck’s wrong with you?”
“I’m just asking.”
“No, it’s okay.” Mirt dropped his eyes to his lap. He spoke quietly. “Because of my daughter. Cancer.”
“Hey.” Adler bumped his shoe against Mirt’s foot again. Mirt looked up at him. “Mine too.”
Mirt nodded. A heavy silence fell over the group.
Delek’s thoughts turned to Sev, to the terrible blood disease that was consuming him from the inside out. It wasn’t curable, but it was treatable…for a price. Unfortunately, it was a price far greater than Delek could pay, even with his and Neera’s military pensions, even after his paycheck from operating loaders at the port, or his other paycheck bouncing merk-addled investment bankers at Greenfingers Pub down in the Finance District. He could afford just enough meds to keep Sev alive, but not enough to give him any kind of life. After the boy’s latest episode—a terrifying incident where Delek and Neera watched helplessly as Sev nearly drowned in his own blood—Delek made the call to Syntech.
As the driver dutifully steered the transport through the gates of the Syntech campus, Adler spoke again. His tone was pensive. Subdued. “I wonder what it feels like.”
“Well, my dude…” Kevan leaned forward so he could see out the front windshield. An eerie green glow filled the transport as it passed under a giant Syntech logo and into a loading dock. “You’re about to find out.”
“This conversation will be the last thing you remember.”
Roi paced in front of the assembled group of volunteers. Delek and the others from the transport stood in two rows, roughly in the same order in which they sat during the ride. They were joined by several dozen more, all of whom had arrived at approximately the same time in a caravan of similar transports from different areas of the city. There were men and women, young and old, in every size, shape, and color. The only thing they seemed to have in common was a willingness to forgo their free will in exchange for a sizable payout from Syntech. Of course, none of them would ever see a dime of the money. It was all intended for their designated survivors, the people they cared about enough to give their lives for.
“After this, we’ll proceed to the installation bay for processing, and then you’ll be deployed to your respective units. Are there any questions before we head out?”
The volunteers exchanged glances, waiting to see if anyone would speak up. Finally, a petite Asian woman in her early twenties raised her hand tentatively.
“Yes?” Roi said.
“Will I…will I still be me? When you’re done?”
“Right. Interesting question,” Roi said, nodding. “Physically, of course, you’ll still be you. But Syntech’s AI overrides your conscious thought, so to the extent that ‘who you are’ is defined by what you think, then no, you won’t be you.”
The woman’s expression sagged.
“But!” Roi exclaimed, holding up a finger. ’What we can’t control is your subconscious: your fears, your passions, your morals, what you hate, who you love—the siffo can’t change that. Although, trust me, we’re working on it.” He winked at one of the volunteers, a matronly middle-aged woman who looked like a kindergarten teacher. She smiled in return.
Roi continued. “In the meantime, we can’t make you do anything you wouldn’t do yourself under similar circumstances. That’s why we’ve pre-screened you up front to understand what your boundaries are and how…let’s say…flexible they might be. If you’ve found yourself in a Personal Service unit, congratulations, you are very flexible. Maybe in more ways than one.” A few volunteers smirked and chuckled. Roi returned his gaze to the woman who asked the question. “Make sense?”
“I think so.” She didn’t sound sure.
“Great. Any other questions?” Roi waited for a few seconds. Nobody else spoke up. “Okay then, this is it. Last chance. Anybody who doesn’t want to continue, there’s the door.” Roi pointed at a door to his right marked Exit.
A slight commotion behind Delek caused him to look over his shoulder. Mirt, the bespectacled man from his transport, had stepped out of line and was walking quickly toward the door. He hurried behind Delek, keeping his head down and avoiding eye contact with the other volunteers.
As he passed Adler, the teen mumbled a single word under his breath.
Mirt ignored Adler. Roi met him at the exit and opened the door, ushering him through with a slight gentlemanly bow. “After you.”
The door swung shut behind Mirt. A moment later, a muffled shout was cut short by the sound of a gunshot, followed by the heavy thud of a body hitting the ground.
Roi turned to the rest of the volunteers. “Anybody else?”
FOUR YEARS LATER
Neera gripped the overhead handrail as the maglev train left the station and began picking up speed, quickly accelerating to over 200 mph. It was the thick of evening rush hour, with hundreds of commuters packed into the cramped confines of the train, their bodies pressed together in strangely intimate ways. Neera always thought it odd that the only acceptable places to maintain such intensely personal contact were on public transit and in the bedroom, and few places in between. Today, though, it would work to her advantage.
As the train approached the next station, Neera released her grip on the handrail. The momentum of the rapidly-slowing train sent her stumbling against the man next to her. He was forty-ish, handsome, with graying hair combed into a neat part. Based on the expensive cut of his suit, he appeared to be an executive of some sort. Neera ended up nearly face-to-face with him, bracing her hand against his torso to steady herself.
“Whoa, there,” he said with a laugh. “You okay?”
“Oh my God, I am so sorry!” Neera exclaimed as she backed away. Her hand lingered for a moment on his chest. A brief but intense moment of eye contact flashed between them. She brushed a loose dreadlock behind her ear and smiled shyly. “I’m Ainsley.” As the man opened his mouth to reply, a pleasant tone sounded and the doors to the train opened. Neera was immediately swept away in a tide of exiting commuters. “Nice to meet you!” she called as she was crowded out through the doors.
“You too!” The man smiled at her wistfully. Then another tone sounded, the train doors closed, and the moment was lost.
Neera looked down at the ID badge she had swiped from the man’s chest pocket. The logo on it was a stylized illustration of a bank vault, next to the words Ironwill Financial. Below the logo was the man’s name, Reston Wills, and his title: CEO.
“No, really,” Neera said to herself as she pocketed the ID. “The pleasure was all mine.”
Neera stepped into a gilded elevator, swiped the purloined badge across the card reader, then punched the button for the 85th floor. A woman’s silky voice emanated from an overhead speaker. “Welcome back, Mr. Wills.”
The doors slid shut silently on their air rails. Neera felt her stomach lurch as the elevator accelerated upwards. Within seconds, it arrived at its destination. Neera glanced at the digital display as the doors opened, mentally noting the time: 1:05 AM.
“85th Floor. Executive Suites. Have a nice day, Mr. Wills.”
Neera stepped from the elevator into a lavishly-appointed lobby with an emerald green carpet and rich leather couches. Exquisite lighting bathed the space in a warm amber glow that made Neera think of liquid gold. A pretty blonde woman was sitting behind a mahogany reception desk emblazoned with the Ironwill Financial logo. She looked up from her computer and smiled.
“Hello. How may I help you?” Her voice was the same as the one in the elevator.
“Yes, hi. I’m here to see…” Neera reached into her jacket, withdrew a small black pistol with a silencer, and shot the woman directly between the eyes. The woman’s head snapped back with the impact. She slumped in her chair, then slid soundlessly to the floor behind the reception desk.
Tucking the pistol back in her jacket, Neera quickly circled the desk and squatted down next to the woman’s body. There was no bullet wound. Instead, a flat disc made of matte composite material was embedded in the receptionist’s forehead. The edge of the disc was ringed with tiny, needle-thin electrodes that dimpled the woman’s flesh where they had punctured her skull. Her eyes were wide open, revealing irises that flickered from black to neon green with thousands of pulses per second. After a moment, the flickering stopped. Her irises faded to a dull, lifeless gray. Her head lolled to the side.
“Sweet dreams,” Neera whispered.
Satisfied that the synthetic had been neutralized, Neera quickly made her way out of the lobby and through the darkened office until she reached a pair of doors with a brass nameplate: Reston Wills, CEO. With a swipe of the stolen ID badge, Neera slipped into the office, then closed the doors behind her.
She turned to find herself in a sprawling executive suite with a breathtaking view of the city lights. A desk the size of a small aircraft carrier dominated the center of the room. Behind it was a credenza with an ornate wooden box in the middle. The box seemed to be an antique of Southeast Asian origin, with intricate carvings of dragons embellishing the lid and sides. Neera ran her fingers along the side of the box until she found a small latch hidden in the tail of one of the carved dragons. She flipped the latch.
After a moment, a hidden drawer lined with red velvet slid out from under the box. In the middle of the drawer was a flat, thumb-sized rectangle, titanium gray with the Ironwill Financial logo laser-etched on the side. A small LED screen on the front of the thing cycled continuously through a series of strange digital runes. It was a hardware authentication key, the kind that had to be physically present to access the bank accounts of high-net-worth individuals. Oil barons. Heads of state. Narcoterrorists. The kinds of people whose accounts had more zeroes than people had fingers.
As Neera slipped the auth key into the pocket of her jeans, a flashlight beam swept through the glass walls of the office. Instinctively, Neera dropped to the floor and belly-crawled across the luxurious, deep-pile carpet until she was concealed behind the desk. Another beam joined the first one, playing across the credenza where she had just been standing. The muffled crackle of a security radio echoed through the otherwise silent office.
Shit, she thought. Sentinels.
She had a full clip of disruptor rounds in her pistol, but those only worked against synthetics—they were useless against Sentinels. A disruptor worked by short-circuiting the complex electronics in a synthetic’s Cortical Processing Unit. A Sentinel’s brain, on the other hand, was organic. An ordinary hollow-tip round would turn it into pudding; a disruptor would just shoot out a few harmless sparks before getting flicked away like an oversized mosquito. It was a nuisance at best.
Neera looked around the office, searching for something she could use to extricate herself from her current predicament. Her eyes settled on a small mini-bar set up in the corner of the office. Crystal decanters of alcohol sparkled in the moonlight streaming through the floor-to-ceiling windows. A flash of inspiration curled Neera’s lips into a small smile.
She knew what she had to do.
The Sentinels swept through the empty Ironwill Financial office, their flashlights cutting through the darkness. They had discovered the incapacitated receptionist during their routine hourly rounds. The lone elevator was still on the 85th floor, meaning whoever had attacked the synthetic was still in the office somewhere.
The larger Sentinel, a muscular Japanese man named Aki, motioned to his partner, indicating the CEO’s office. His partner, a fair-skinned Swede named Nils, nodded. Aki approached the double doors from the left. Nils approached from the right. They pressed their backs into the wall on either side of the entrance.
Suddenly, the sound of shattering glass rang out from inside the office. Aki sprang into action, kicking open the door and sweeping into the office with his compact assault rifle at the ready. Nils followed him in, right on his tail. Both men were immediately buffeted by a freezing, gale-force wind blasting through the shattered 85th-floor window. The men rushed to the opening. Shards of glass crunched beneath their boots, concealing the squish of the sodden carpet underneath.
“The fuck?” Aki exclaimed. He edged carefully towards the broken window and looked down at the street. The wind whipped his black hair around his face. “You think he jumped?”
Nils knelt and picked up one of the several crystal liquor decanters lying empty in front of the window. He lifted the bottle to his nose and sniffed, then touched the soaking carpet and smelled his fingers. “Whiskey,” he said. He dropped the decanter, wiped his hand on his pants, then stood and joined Aki at the window. “Anything down there?”
“Not yet,” Neera said from behind them. As the men turned toward the sound, they found themselves doused with a flood of stinging alcohol. The liquid drenched their faces. Their hair. Their uniforms.
Before the Sentinels could react, Neera raised her silenced pistol and fired at the floor by the men’s feet. Pfft. Pfft. Pfft. The sparks from the disruptor rounds ignited the alcohol-soaked carpet, engulfing the Sentinels in blinding columns of flame. The fire consumed flesh and fabric alike, turning both men into whirling bipedal torches.
Nils stumbled away from the inferno. His heel searched for purchase in the open air as he blindly stepped backward through the broken window and into space. As he fell, his weapon discharged wildly, riddling the wall and ceiling with gunfire. One of the errant rounds blasted Aki in the face, sending a spray of blood and brain matter across the office. Aki’s flaming body immediately went limp, then toppled forward out the window like a drunk who had just been cold-cocked during a bar fight. His limp form tumbled lazily head-over-heels behind Nils’ flailing death spiral as they both plummeted eighty-five stories to the street below.
Neera was gone before they hit the ground.
Neera slipped into her apartment and quietly closed the door. It was the same apartment she and Delek had been living in when he signed his contract with Syntech. The place was identical to when he left: same shabby furniture, same dented refrigerator, same bloom of black mold on the kitchen ceiling. The only difference was that the mold had spread into the living area as well. Water plunked from several areas of the moldy ceiling into strategically-placed cups and bowls scattered around the apartment.
As Neera latched the door, a body on the couch stirred, then sat up. The blanket fell away to reveal an elderly Honduran woman named Marta. She squinted against the first rays of daylight peeking between the broken blinds. Sunrise.
“Sorry, Marta!” Neera whispered. “It’s just me. Go back to sleep.”
Marta mumbled something incoherent, then fell backward onto the couch and pulled the blanket over her face.
Neera slipped off her jacket and draped it over a chair, then tip-toed past Marta and into the bedroom. Sev was asleep on his mattress, in the same spot as when Delek had said goodbye for the last time. Now, however, the boy was much bigger. His feet dangled past the end of the toddler-sized mattress, his legs barely covered by the undersized blanket.
His health hadn’t improved; if anything, he looked worse. His hair was mostly gone, with only a few sparse wisps clinging to his scalp in haphazard clumps. His spine and collarbone protruded cruelly through his sallow, tissue-paper skin. A yellowed IV tube ran from his arm to a mostly empty bag dangling from the same rusted IV pole.
Neera knelt next to the mattress and unclipped the IV connector from the needle taped in the crook of the boy’s elbow. Then she climbed onto the mattress and laid down behind him, draping her arm over his shoulder.
Taped low on the wall next to the mattress was an old 8×10 photo of her and Delek, from when they were stationed in the South Pacific. Neera had put it there after Delek left, so Sev could see his father’s face every morning when he opened his eyes.
Delek was shirtless in the photo, wearing only a pair of board shorts, his muscled torso dwarfing Neera’s lithe, bikini-clad frame. A narrow bandage was affixed to her taut stomach—she had been grazed by a pulse round in a firefight a few days prior, and was still recovering. Both of them held surfboards propped up in the gleaming white sand, next to a hand-painted sign that read “Welcome to Tuamotu.” Behind them, water the color of blue topaz glimmered in the afternoon sun.
They both looked so cool and confident, like two surf rats who had grown up with the beach in their backyards. Nobody would have guessed from the photo that they were actually a pair of city kids who had never surfed a day in their lives. The picture had been taken immediately after their first surfing lesson, where they were tossed by the waves like two dishrags in a washing machine. They had bellies full of saltwater and sand gritting in their teeth, but it was the happiest day of their lives.
Neera sighed, smiling wistfully at the memory. The breath on Sev’s neck caused him to stir. He rolled onto his back and opened his eyes. “Mom?” he whispered. His voice was hoarse and weak.
“Yeah, baby. It’s me. How are you feeling?”
“Like shit on a shingle.” He started to laugh, but his laughter quickly dissolved into a coughing fit. Neera reached for a glass of water from the floor and handed it to him. He sat up and sipped it until his coughing subsided. Then he fell back on the pillow and looked at the photo. “I wish I could go there sometime.”
“That beach. Tuamotu.”
“You will. Once you’re better.”
Neera frowned. “Hey,” she scolded. Sev turned his head away, avoiding her disappointed gaze. “Hey,” she said again, taking his chin in her hands and turning his face back toward hers. “Look at me.” Sev reluctantly met her eyes. “We don’t use that word, remember?”
Sev nodded. “I know.”
“You’re gonna get better. And when you do, the first thing we’ll do is go to Tuamotu. Okay?”
“You and me?”
“Yep. You and me.”
Neera’s breath caught in her throat. She smiled tightly, then nodded. “And Dad.”
“Yeah, Sev.” She kissed the boy’s forehead. “I promise.”
Sunlight streamed through the open blinds as Marta folded the blanket and hung it over the back of the couch. Neera emerged from the bedroom, wiped at her eyes with her wrists, then trudged tiredly down the hall and into the kitchen.
“Thank you for staying with him last night.”
“No hay problema, Ms. Neera. I sleep better here than in my apartment anyway. Mr. Mejia snores like a chainsaw.” She laughed a hearty, throaty laugh.
Neera smiled weakly. She opened a cabinet. It was empty except for a box of cereal. “Did Sev give you any problems?”
“A few, but it’s okay. He was just tired. He misses his papa.”
“We both do.” Neera poured the remnants of the cereal into a cracked bowl and spooned some into her mouth, dry. As she chewed the flavorless crumbs, she asked Marta, “Can I ask you a favor?”
Marta didn’t respond. Neera turned around to see the elderly woman staring at her, a concerned look on her face. She was holding Neera’s jacket. It was splattered with blood and bits of dried brain matter, from when Nils had blown Aki’s head off a few hours earlier. Apparently, Neera had been more in the line of fire than she had realized.
“¿Qué es esto? Are you hurt?”
“No,” Neera said. She hesitated, then continued. “It’s not my blood.”
Marta nodded warily. “You were looking for Mr. Delek, yes?”
“And the men whose blood this is … They deserved it?”
Neera didn’t answer. Did they deserve it? They were Sentinels, just like Delek. They might not have even realized what they were doing, or why. And yet Neera had killed them for it. She hadn’t been thinking about them as people, as human beings who had been deceived into making the same fateful choice as her husband. She was only thinking of them as targets to be eliminated. But they weren’t. They were people. They had families. Friends. Kids. Why else would they have volunteered to give up their autonomy, if not to improve the lives of people they loved?
Marta hung the gore-splattered jacket back on the chair, then walked over to Neera and drew the exhausted woman into a comforting embrace. Neera wrapped her arms around Marta and buried her face in the woman’s wiry gray hair. A sob heaved through her body.
“You’re a good person,” Marta whispered. “A good mother.”
“I’m not. I’ve done horrible things.”
Marta pulled back and looked Neera in the eyes. “But you’ve done them out of love, yes?” Neera nodded. Marta took Neera’s face in her hands and wiped her tears away with her thumbs. “Then God will understand,” Marta said. “He knows what’s in your heart.”
“How do you know?”
“You’re not the only one who has done horrible things, mi hija,” Marta said softly.
“When Mr. Mejia and I first came from Honduras, we had nothing.” Marta stared down at her hands for a few seconds, then sighed and looked back up at Neera with a tired smile. “We do what we must.”
With that, Marta walked over to the couch, opened her purse, and retrieved an object wrapped in a yellow felt cloth. Placing it on the counter, she unfolded the cloth to reveal a freshly oiled 9mm handgun. Neera watched in awe as the old woman expertly dropped the clip from the pistol, eyed the ammunition, then slapped it back into the gun. She checked the safety, then handed the 9mm to Neera. “Don’t let what’s right get in the way of what’s necessary.”
Neera took the gun and tucked it into her belt. The old woman was right. Neera had to keep doing what she was doing. She had to get Delek back, whatever it took.
“You’ll stay with Sev?” she asked.
“Of course,” Marta said. “Now, go. Find Mr. Delek. And bring him home to your boy.”
TO BE CONTINUED …