Ryder hogged the bathroom as usual. Mackenzie groaned in frustration. Her brother was going to make her late. She thumped on the door again.
“Hurry up, Ryder.”
A mumbled response indicated she was in for a wait. She would shower after breakfast. On warm, well-worn slippers she padded down the hall to the kitchen to find it empty. Her mother, Astor, had left for work already.
“Lights,” she prompted, and was rewarded with illumination. “Coffee.”
A machine on the counter to her left gurgled its response in the spacious, modern kitchen. Within moments the pleasant aroma greeted her. Collecting her mug, she spoke her way through preparation of breakfast consisting of cereal and toast.
Although their voice automated house was convenient, Mackenzie thought it pretentious. One of the perks of being the family of a deceased government official: a fully loaded house in ‘Cherrywood Estate’. Of course, having her brother, Cody, serving as a general in the army also helped.
Ryder shuffled into the kitchen, chestnut curls ruffled. He mumbled a command, eliciting no response.
“You have to actually speak to get it to work, Ry.”
“Coffee,” he repeated.
The machine gurgled again.
“Are you going to see Cody today?” she asked.
“Yeah, new recruit training starts next week. Cody wants me to start then.”
Taking the mug from the coffee machine, he wrapped his hands around the warmth, and blew on it to cool it.
“Do you really want to join?”
“Don’t let him pressure you, okay?”
“There isn’t really much else to do, is there?”
Since the war against the renegades began, universities had closed to encourage all men to join the army after high school. Ryder had graduated the previous year, but had been dragging his feet for months about whether he would join their older brother. The last thing he wanted to do was conform.
None of them actually wanted to. Many of the policies, such as this one, didn’t bode well for Mackenzie, but unless she became a renegade, there was no other choice. She understood why so many rebelled against order and the restrictions placed upon them. However, the rebels’ inhumane methods and war mongering ways weren’t the answer.
Thousands of people had suffered because of the rebels’ stubbornness, including her family, who had lost a husband and father in Matthew. Their brother insisted the war wouldn’t end until the last of the rogues were imprisoned and the rebellion disbanded. So the government recruited and protected.
“You could join the party, start as a junior politician. Maybe when the fighting is over, you can study what you want then. This is the only way to get the opportunity to learn a trade, you know that. It can’t go on for much longer. Cody told me there was only one compound of renegades left. If they stop them, the gangs will disband and order will return.”
“Order … you sound like Cody.” Ryder spat the words out and the ferocity surprised her. “Is that what we really want?”
“It has to be better than living behind fences.”
Cherrywood Estate might have all the luxuries of the modern world, but it was still a prison as far as Mackenzie was concerned. The tall, laser fence surrounding homes might serve as protection, but they also made her feel like a caged animal.
Ryder shrugged. “Aren’t you going to be late?”
“Oh, yes! I’ll see you tonight.”
Ryder was immersed in the latest music on the ridiculously large television when Mackenzie left for work twenty minutes later.
Never being overly concerned about her appearance, it took her little time to ready herself. Her long dark hair was twisted up into a simple knot and she wore no make-up apart from a little gloss. Enhancing her large hazel eyes and smooth olive skin only drew unwanted attention from the rogues that roamed the streets. Leaving the estate was scary enough without being accosted.
The government building where she worked was a short distance away and, under normal circumstances, Mackenzie enjoyed walking to work each day, but instead the idea of setting off on foot filled her with dread now. Having no form of transport meant she had to travel everywhere on foot. Not that she went anywhere except work.
The heavy knot of anxiety hanging in her chest caused her heart to thump as she approached the large looming perimeter fence. It hummed as she used her barcode identity to open the gate.
BIT’s, as they were referred to, was a tattooed code on the inside of every citizen’s wrist and was the only way to gain entry or exit from compounds, buildings and vehicles. It was also the only means of payment for goods and services. Everything a citizen did was recorded via the use of the barcode and all purchases instantly logged against their monetary ledger. Money didn’t exist in Artinean, merely earned credits serving as payment for wages and in turn used for living expenses. They lived in a paperless world.
Once the laser gate dissipated, Mackenzie inhaled and peered out to check the street, finding it empty. She let out a relieved breath. On occasion going to work could be dangerous, yet it wasn’t as risky as coming home in the dusk. Regardless, it always paid to check. Government troops patrolled the streets, but they weren’t always around to ensure safety and order.
Mackenzie had been robbed of her comp-phone more times than she wanted to count. She never wore jewellery or carried anything valuable, to limit temptation.
Being wary of her surroundings was the key to safety and survival. Occurrences of gunfight on the streets near her home weren’t as prevalent as it was in other parts of the city, particularly in the desert lands to the south where the main compound of the rebels was situated. Being accidentally caught in a cross-fire or encountering a rogue soldier was always foremost in her mind.
Seeing it was clear, she thought it safe to shut the gate.
Mackenzie strode towards the large skyscraper where she earned her spending credits. All the houses lining the streets were abandoned and vandalised. Few citizens and families lived outside of large, fenced compounds like Cherrywood Estate.
Artinean had once been a pretty city, but now it lay in ruins from years of street fighting. What didn’t lie in tatters was hidden behind a barrier of buzzing laser screen walls. Mackenzie never understood why it came to this. Sure, some of the laws imposed by the new administration could be considered authoritarian, but without the rebellion the city would still be in one piece, and safe. She couldn’t remember a time when she didn’t fear life in Artinean. She couldn’t really remember life before her father was killed three years ago.
As the large grey building loomed closer, she prepared herself for the day ahead. Her work, though dull and repetitive, was a requirement of the government. Men became GAPs, went into politics, or held professional positions. Women worked in the monitoring centres, held clerical positions in other government departments, or worked in the Government owned retail outlets and warehouses.
Everything was owned by the Government. Businesses that once were private were now all possessed by Sinclair. It didn't seem right to her that people lost their businesses to the Government, but it was the way it was.
Mackenzie worked in communications, which entailed reading endless onscreen transcripts of telephone conversations. Every comp-phone carried a monitoring chip, which fed the information directly to her department. Her job was to report conversations deemed a breach of government policy.
In her three years at Gov-Com she’d rarely seen anything to report. The renegades had probably worked out how to disarm the chip without disabling the phone.
As she rushed into the building, Mackenzie again let out a relieved sigh on arriving without incident. She went to stand in the long line of employees waiting to scan their code, verify their identity, and gain entry. Gazing around the large and sterile glass-walled entrance hall, Mackenzie cast her eyes towards the huge reception desk running along the far left wall.
Her mother sat with three others at their assigned post. Their job entailed directing incoming calls and attending to visitors. Half of the desk sat to the rear of the BIT readers where Mackenzie was awaiting her turn. Astor worked on the secure side, answering calls on a wireless switchboard system.
At last she became next in line. After scanning her wrist and sending a quick wave to her mother, Mackenzie went up with the streamlined, high-speed elevator to her mundane work station, where she found her oldest friend Sasha waiting for her.
“About time you got here. Hilda’s been looking for you. I covered for you. Again.”
“Thanks, Sash. Ryder held me up.”
“Speaking of your brothers …” Her sea-blue eyes twinkled as they always did when she asked about Cody.
“No, I’m not setting you up with Cody.”
“He’s so hot and you know I like them tall.” With a sigh Sasha examined her perfectly manicured nails.
“He doesn’t date, remember. I think if he could marry the army he would.”
“I just want one chance to change his mind.”
Pleading eyes ensued. They went through this often. Mackenzie shook her head laughing. If anyone could convince Cody to have a personal life, it would be Sasha. Short, curvaceous and blonde with a perky nature to match, she captured a lot of attention, and frequently dated GAP soldiers.
“Sash, Hilda’s coming.”
“Think about it,” Sasha whispered, winked, and darted off to her station.
Mackenzie sat, opened her assigned log and attempted to concentrate on the tedious task. Hilda scowled at her as she passed. Mackenzie pretended not to notice.
After another long and boring day without any information to report, and a headache from staring at her screen and reading all day, Mackenzie logged off and rushed to the elevator, eager to return home before dusk turned to darkness.
Astor had finished hours earlier and, until recently, waited for Mackenzie to finish so they could walk home together. They felt safer in numbers. A few months ago she’d insisted her mother not wait the two hours for her to finish. It seemed pointless. For a few weeks Astor would return or send Ryder to walk her home instead. After strenuous insisting, they’d stopped coming to meet her. She disliked having to put them out.
When twilight arrived, there were extra troops out anyway, and her walks were, the majority of the time, uneventful. In the past, when approached for what little valuables she carried with her, she handed them over without a fight. Stories abounded of sexual and physical assaults and although they could well be true, she didn’t know of anyone who’d experienced it. Mackenzie hoped it was myth or Cody’s way of scaring her into being extra cautious.
When she stepped out onto the street, she was thankful to see troops patrolling. Mackenzie walked a little slower than usual towards home, feeling slightly safer knowing the GAP would be about, whilst enjoying the waning sunshine and cool evening breeze. Being outside was always risky, and Mackenzie liked to savour it when she could.
The vacant houses appeared eerie in the dark. She ignored her imagination, which had her seeing shadows.
About a block before her estate, an alleyway ran to the rear of an abandoned office building, which always spooked her. Her apprehension intensified as she approached. If she was going to be mugged, it would be here, a blind spot from the road. She held her breath, double checked over her shoulder to ensure troopers were still in sight, and picked up the pace.
Apprehension became fear when a dark figure stepped out from the shadows. The glint from his knife froze her to the spot. Two others stepped out, encircled her before edging her backwards towards the darkness. Her scream was muffled by a dirty hand clamped hard over her mouth.
Groping in her bag, she pulled out her taser. Before she could use it, her wrists were grabbed from behind. Her taser crashed to the paved ground in a scattering of pieces. A menacing laugh sent a chill up her spine. Intense fear dimpled her skin.
“We found us a pretty one,” the big one standing in front of her said. The others sniggered. “Check her bag.”
When her bag was ripped from her shoulder, Mackenzie realised she was being held by only one of her assailants. Perhaps she could break away and make a run for it. She wriggled her hands, but the assailant’s grip held. She determined he only held her with one hand as his other was clamped over her mouth, yet she couldn’t break free. Her continued attempts at dislodging her hands proved futile; he was too strong.
Mackenzie’s heart pounded as thoughts flashed through her mind about what they planned to do with her.
A thud sounded further down the alley. Mackenzie guessed this to be her handbag being disposed of. Now they’d robbed her, would they let her go?
The hand roughly pressed against her mouth was released, but before she could scream the tall rogue behind her pushed her further into the alley and shoved her face first against a wall. Her wrists were shoved above her head. Her forehead scraped against the cold hard bricks, but she ignored the sting and the trickle of blood winding down her nose. Air squeezed from her lungs as she was shoved harder against the solid surface.
A scream died on her lips. Fear gripped her. Drawing a breath continued to escape her. It was almost impossible to inhale. Dizziness assaulted her. Bile rose in her throat. They were going to do just what she hoped they wouldn’t.
This caused her heart to race. Hot tears spilled onto her cheeks at the thought of this being the way she experienced her first time.