This is a short story I recently wrote. I really like how it turned out actually and plan on turning it into something more.
So if you are an artist that might be interested in working on something set in this world please contact me.
Print is Dead.
The Panda Food police cruiser pulled into the EasyShop convenience store on a Tuesday morning. It was cold for February. Officer Marcos Vellam, a rotund middle age man with a receding hairline and one of the world’s worst mustaches, slammed the door of the patrol car and made his way to the front of the convenience store. His untucked shirt was a painful reminder of yesterday’s lunch. His partner, officer Audrey Windsor, appeared soon after from the passenger side. Audrey was a stark contrast to Marcos. Her outfit was firmly pressed against her slim figure and her officer’s badge meticulously positioned on her belt. She had a clean look about her. It was not even a month since she had graduated from the Academy and her uniform still bore the tell-tale fold marks of a new garment.
This particular EasyShop sat on the corner of Van Houston and Bleakman in the small city of Bakersfield. The front of the store was made of large semi-transparent AdverScreens that displayed various sales and specials that the establishment offered. Cut into the center panel were two twin glass doors that opened into the main shopping area.
Audrey drew her gun and waited anxiously for Marcos to give her the signal.
“Relax Audrey,” Marcos said. “We’re just here to ask a few questions.”
Audrey withdrew her firearm and stood awkwardly outside the doors of the convenience store. Out of habit, she rubbed her Panda Food Police badge. She hated to admit it, but it felt cheap. The badges were still made of a metal alloy, but the Panda Food logo that had been affixed to the top was clearly made of plastic. Panda Food had only recently won the state contract, so perhaps in time, they would incorporate the logo into the actual mold. It was a minor grievance she thought, she was still quite proud of what she had accomplished. Becoming an officer was an arduous process and most recruits washed out in the first six weeks of training. Audrey had graduated in the top of her class.
Marcos opened the door to the convenience store and the two officers entered. Audrey immediately noticed the Observer Station on her left and the squirrelly looking gentleman behind its glass enclosure. He was feverishly reading something on his SkyPad. He wore a blue tight fitting jumpsuit that bore a large Panda Food logo across the right breast. Under the logo, in a relaxing yet authoritative font, was the word “Bill”.
The Observer Station was a standard component of any modern convenience store and this particular EasyShop was no different. The station consisted of an enclosed room that housed a single easy chair, monitor, product deployment interface, and personal sanitation depot. The station was staffed by a single employee whose primary job consisted of monitoring customer activity and assisting in the purchase of BlueSky Data Cards.
The station looked out over the main shopping area where three parallel rows of product dispensers stood. Behind the dispensers along the back wall were in-wall freezer units, a small door to a back office, and the hot beverage station. There were no customers.
Bill looked up from his SkyPad and said, “Good morning officers, can I help you with anything? Fill a prescription?”
“We’ll ask the questions sir,” Audrey said. Marcos shot her a disapproving glance.
“Whatever I can do to help,” Bill said. “So how you been anyway Marcos? Shoot any more bad guys?”
“Only in my dreams Bill. Was a good one last night too, you subscribe to Cop City?”
“No man, I don’t go for any of that network junk,” Bill replied. “So predictable. To be honest with you, I’m thinking of opting out of the service entirely.”
“Excuse me, but we’re here because your establishment has been accused of trafficking in illegal goods,” Audrey interrupted, “Please step out of the booth. My partner and I would like to have a word with you.”
“Don’t mind the little one Bill,” Marcos said. “She’s new.”
“Audrey why don’t you give Bill and I a minute here. I’ll get the information we need okay?”
Audrey flushed. She did not appreciate being talked to in that manor, especially by someone like Marcos. He represented everything she hated about the modern age. He was fat, lazy, and refused to follow proper rules and procedure. He let others do his work and often took credit for it. Marcos however, outranked her, and she would have to keep her criticisms to herself. At least for now. Besides, she could best investigate the place on her own and really, the only thing more boring then hearing someone talk about their dreams, was someone complaining about them. Opting out? Why on earth would you want to dream about the mundane everyday of your own life when you could be apart of something really special like Emergency Hospital? This season was really excellent too she thought.
Walking down the center aisle, Audrey passed the usual assortment of Panda Food items: Relaxation pills, Comfortable Taco Wraps, Fried Meat Pockets (in both Stress and Power flavor). Nothing out of the ordinary, and nothing to suggest any nefarious doings. Audrey made her way to the back of the store and stood in front of the office door. Behind her, Audrey could still hear Marcos and Bill talking as she entered.
Aside from needing a good sweep, the small room was rather unremarkable. A small desk and chair sat against the back wall while various Plastique storage crates lined the side walls. Audrey made her way to the desk and examined its contents. The desktop was uncluttered, the only item on its surface being a video monitor. Aside from a few fingerprints on the screen, it was also rather common looking. Tapping the screen, she was greeted with the observer’s BlueSky login. He was at least bright enough to disable auto start she thought.
Giving up on the endeavor, Audrey decided to check back in with Marcos and perhaps give the back alley a quick peek. As she turned to leave she noticed something peculiar. One of the ceiling tiles was slightly askew. Audrey slid the chair into place under the tile, stood on the seat, being careful to balance herself, and pushed upward moving the tile to one side and placing her head into the space above. She estimated that there was a least an additional foot or two between the tiled ceiling and the actual roof. Audrey looked upward and immediately noticed a flat piece of Plasti-board that ran under several joists and created a sort of shelf. She removed a small flashlight from her belt and she shone its light to get a better look. There was something there.
Before she saw it, she could smell it. It was faint, but it was definitely the real thing.
She had been trained to smell the stuff in the academy, but it was nothing like this. The stuff they used at school was new, processed, clean. This was old. This smelled musty. This smelled dangerous. Her face flushed and her heart rate elevated. She began to shake. So much so that she nearly fell off the chair. This was no time to act the rookie she thought. Audrey found her nerve and grabbed the carton in her hand and pulled it down toward her.
The object was made of a dull brownish material that was most definitely paper based, and had it been empty, would have been enough on its own to make an arrest. It, however, was not empty. Audrey judged by the weight that there were at least a half dozen toner cartridges inside, maybe more.
Audrey considered calling out for her partner but decided against it. She remembered her training. A sordid lot dealt in the toner trade, and she would be completely vulnerable if she alerted the wrong person with half her head in a ceiling. Besides that, Audrey needed to be absolutely sure of her discovery before potentially embarrassing herself and violating the shop owner’s rights. The law was clear. One was allowed to search private property only if something was first found. A good officer would always perform a proper “discovery” to determine if an official declaration of search was to be issued. It was one of the first things you learned at the Academy. She lowered herself carefully down and off the chair. When her feet were firmly planted on the ground, she moved the box to one of the nearby Plastique brand storage crates to get a better look. She took a deep breath and opened the deteriorated top.
Inside the box were ten packages of LaserTone. Audrey had hit the jackpot.
As all new recruits to the Panda, Audrey was assigned to the Print and Vice Unit. In 2045, under the Diamond-Blade Clean Shaver Information Accessibility Act the last of the libraries had finally completed its conversion and the crude practice of print had been outlawed. Printed materials were gathered up and placed in commercial recycling centers where they were turned into clothing for the poor. It was one of the nation’s greatest achievements. Working in the PVU was dangerous, but a vital part in the war on paper. Printed material couldn’t be indexed, which meant it couldn’t be searched. It was the ultimate propaganda and communication channel among terrorist cells. Terrorist hated our freedom of information Audrey used to tell herself.
Fifty thousand in toner wasn’t a particular large score, but it was enough to get herself noticed. Perhaps she would be promoted she thought. She might even get her own office. Audrey could certainly use the bump in her BlueSky plan. On her current salary, she could barely afford the basic package. In fact, the previous night she had to delete her Aunt Helen’s 90th birthday photos just to make room for her Academy Graduation video. She could always buy them back she thought, especially now that she might ascend her rank. Executives were rumored to have unlimited data plans. Unlimited? The thought was overwhelming.
Audrey snapped back into reality when Marcos entered the room. He saw the box in her hand and his demeanor stiffened.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“Marcos,” Audrey said. “You are not going to believe what I-”
“You can’t search this premises, we don’t have the authority,” he said.
Marcos walked over to the box, taking in its contents.
“It’s not much, but it’s enough to close this place down. At least for a little while,” Audrey said. “Do you want me to call it in?”
“You’re not calling anything in Audrey. You’re going to leave everything as you found it and then we’re going to leave.”
“You can’t be serious? There are at least 12 different violations,” Audrey said as she lifted up handfuls of cartridges.
“Audrey, you’re going to make great police. I can see it. But you don’t understand the whole picture. There’s something bigger at play here. A system that you had better learn if you want to be an effective member of the team. Some battles are lost so that the war may be won. The clerk here just provided us with valuable information. Information vital to tracking down the real terrorists. We do not have the resources to stop every person in this city that deals in printer supplies. Leave that to the neighborhood watch. Now put everything back as you found it. I’ll be waiting in the car.”
Marcos turned abruptly and walked out of the room.
Audrey stood motionless for awhile. She couldn’t believe what had just happened. She held the boxes of toner in her hand. It felt wrong. What was she to do she wondered. She was new. She didn’t want to make waves. Not like this. Audrey began to pack the box up.
Audrey stood on the chair. She knew she had to place the box back in the ceiling, but she couldn’t fight her instinct. Was Marcos on the take? Printing was wrong. This much she knew for certain. It was a tool of the terrorist cabals. There was no reason someone needed to print, unless they were hiding something. She could report Marcos to corporate. She could, but what if she was wrong she thought. A move like that could destroy her career. If she was going to make any kind of move, she would have to gather evidence. Build a case. Be absolutely sure he had been compromised. Then she would make her move. She would be a hero.
Audrey lifted the box above her head, and placed it back into the hidden shelf. She pushed it upward when it stopped abruptly. There was an obstruction. Something else on the shelf. She placed the box down, resting it across a portion of the ceiling tiles and grabbed her pen light. She had been correct. There was something else on the shelf. She nearly dropped her light when she realized what she was actually looking at. Something she had seen only seen in archival photos and video. It was a book.
She stretched her arms toward it. A little more she thought. At last her fingers found its surface. She pulled it towards her, griping the curiosity. This was something people only talked about, and even then only in hushed tones. Books were archaic tomes that represented an earlier time in her nation’s history when trees were butchered. Even holding it gave her an uneasy feeling.
The toner was one thing, but this was something else entirely. Fastened stacks of printouts and leaflets were quite common in the underworld, but this was truly a rare find.
Audrey slid the book into her pants and tucked her Panda uniform over it. If she was going to build a case against Marcos, she would start with this.
The Panda Food Police station in Bakersfield was located inside an old church, as had been common practice for a number of years. There was deemed no better place to do God’s work. The beautiful stone exterior was several hundred years old and featured a large hand crafted stained glass rose window over which a large canvas Panda Food logo had been draped. Panda Food had been mindful to use canvas as the previous owner, Sun Energy, had used an enormous sticker. They were still trying to get the last of the residue off the stained glass.
The two giant cathedral doors opened on the long side of a large rectangle reception area. On the opposite wall was a long desk manned by two receptionists with touch screens. On either side of this desk were elaborately carved archways that led to the main station area.
Inside the main station area, where many years ago there would have been pews, were two dozen work cubes. Each cube had three walls, a beige desktop, and monitor. As was mandated, there were no personal items allowed. Cubes were shared among officers which led to an enormous cost savings. Personalization was handled through software. The executives offices which lined the east wall, however, were permanent. These glass encased sanctuaries were lavishly furnished and acted as an inspirational reminder of the rewards available to members of Panda Food. Along the west wall, were small windowless interrogation rooms, or “confessionals”. These were used primarily in policing, although on occasion, officers would lunch there.
Along the North wall, on an elevated platform, was a large oval shaped conference room. On either side of that, were two sets of staircases. One led to the second floor where more offices and meeting rooms were situated and the other to the basement where the local data storage and networking equipment was stored. While the exterior of the station might have been several hundred years old, the inside was anything but. Bakersfield was equipped with the latest local cloud systems. This setup of redundant data gave the precinct complete access to BlueSky, even in cases of a network outage.
Audrey had found an open cube just outside the north conference room. She sat down, removed her SkyPad from her bag, and placed it on the desktop. The monitor sensed the action and instantly flicked on. She then entered her login credentials, auto-login was disabled for all Panda employees as a method of security, and was greeted with her home screen.
“Good Evening Audrey,” her virtual assistant said through the tiny monitor speakers. “You have one thousand four hundred and forty five new messages.”
“Create New Report,” Audrey said aloud.
“Searching for Great Noon Resort,” the computer responded and instantly began playing a video advertisement. The ad featured a couple sitting poolside on a luxurious island paradise.
“What a great way to spend our lunch hour!” the handsome man in the video said.
“Yes, this is a great noon resort,” the beautiful woman replied.
“STOP,” Audrey said. This was a common mistake by the software that she found most frustrating.
“CREATE NEW REPORT,” she said, this time enunciating each syllable with a clarity only anger can provide.
“Creating New Report.” the computer responded. A new After Action Report appeared on screen.
“You sound tense Audrey. Perhaps you would like a Fried Meat Pocket? I would recommend Stress flavor,” her assistant offered.
“No, thank you,” Audrey said, “Please let’s complete the report.”
“New report created,” the computer said, “privacy level set at friendly”
“Negative,” Audrey said, “I don’t want this particular report public. Not at this time anyway.”
“Setting privacy level to hostile,” the computer replied.
Before Audrey could begin logging the day’s activity, Neva Burgess a corporate representative of Panda Food approached her cubicle. Neva was a heavyset woman in her early forties. Her hair was two shades of black and featured a bright white stripe that ran down the middle. Her last chemical treatment had gone terribly wrong and the effect was striking.
Neva had once been the youngest executive in Panda Food history and over time had developed somewhat of a reputation for being difficult. Audrey did not agree. She did not confuse ambition with callousness. Neva was an inspiration to her. She was also a strategic ally in her planned ascension among the ranks. Audrey dreamed of being an executive, and being on good terms with someone like Neva was starting to pay off. She had taken an interest in her.
“Windsor. I need your post action, what’s the hold up?”
“I’m doing that now ma’am. I only need a few more minutes,” Audrey replied.
“How are you and Marcos getting along?” Neva said.
“It’s an adjustment. I just think we have different methods-”
“Is there a problem I should know about?” Neva asked.
“Nothing I can’t handle on my own,” Audrey said.
“That’s good Audrey. Smart. It’s much too early in your career to start making enemies. Not yet. Plan your moves. Do not rush to action. This is a game, and someone always loses.”
“Thank you ma’am. I’ll remember that.”
“We’re watching you Audrey, do not disappoint us,” Neva said and walked away.
Audrey slid the shower door open and stepped into the cold air of her apartment bathroom. Her naked hand fumbled for the air dryer switch and instead found the lights. The room fell into darkness.
“Oh come on,” she said. Frustrated more at her own incompetence than at the failure of modern convenience, Audrey switched the lights back on and slapped the air dryer switch with violence. The ceiling vents slid open and the tiny bathroom filled with the soothing hum of the industrial strength suction system.
“What are you doing in there?” Audrey’s boyfriend Vance said as he opened the door to the bathroom.
Vance watched as Audrey spun around effortlessly, gently held in the air by the Air Dry Super System. Beads of water were running along the smooth contours of her naked body, making their way upwards toward the ceiling fans. He stared at her for a moment, lost in the beauty of the form that hung mid air in the tiny bathroom. Vance very much wanted to make love to her right then and there. The thought was fruitless however, as Vance was out of pills. He really needed to space them out more. Next month, he told himself, he would make them last.
“I hit the lights again,” Audrey said as the dryer fans spun down and she came to a rest on the linoleum floor of her bathroom. “Whoever built this place did a lousy job. Why on earth would you put those two switches so close together?”
“You almost ready to go?” Vance asked. “Our reservation is in an hour.”
“Yeah, give me a minute,” Audrey said as she buttoned up her blouse.
Audrey finished getting dressed and joined Vance in the living room. The space was small, but cozy. It had most of the standard features of a Living Well apartment stack. Four video walls, a comfortable couch, and mid sized coffee tables. On one of the tables was a small stylish silver and gold frame that currently displayed a photo of Audrey and Vance. It had been taken on their trip to the Winery just before she had joined the academy. They had both gotten terribly drunk. It embarrassed Audrey. She was a much different woman then.
Audrey found Vance sitting on the couch, her police bag opened on his lap. He was holding the book.
“Vance, what are you doing?” she yelled. “Put that away, right now”
“Do you know what this is Audrey?” he asked.
“It’s a book Vance. Of course I know what it is?”
“Do you know how much this is worth?” Vance was clearly excited and could barely contain it. He immediately started typing into his SkyPad.
“That is evidence. Which means it’s the property of the Panda Food Corporation.”
“If it’s the property of Panda Food then why’d you bring it home?” Vance shot back.
“It’s complicated,” Audrey said. She was beginning to wonder herself why she had not just logged it. Not reporting something like this could get her into serious trouble.
Vance began to examine the book closely. He opened it. Flipped the pages between his fingers. He listened to the crack of the binding as it opened wide. It was small too, no more then five by seven inches. The cover was a soft, but firm, piece of heavy paper. The interior was a gray drab. It was very light.
“It has an odd odor to it,” he said as he turned the pages.
Inside, words were printed in a fixed size. Across the spine was written what must have been its title. At the bottom of the spine was an additional piece of paper affixed to the base with some kind of glue. On this paper was a seemingly random set of letter and numbers.
“Audrey,” Vance said. “This book shouldn’t exist.”
“Of course it shouldn’t. No books should exist. They’re barbaric. Not to mention illegal.”
“No,” Vance said, “I mean this book. It doesn’t exist.” Vance swiped his SkyPad and the back wall lit up. Audrey and Vance were now looking at Vance’s query of the book’s title.
The wall displayed a smiling face with a rather cute look of consternation and the words, “No results”.
“See. There’s a copyright notice in here from 1998, so how come I’m not getting any hits?” Vance asked.
“What are you talking about. Give it to me. You’re spelling it wrong or something,” Audrey said.
She grabbed the SkyPad from Vance and spoke clearly into the receiver. Audrey tried multiple times, searching more and more repositories. The results were always the same.
“Weird right?” Vance said. “Maybe they changed the name or something?”
“No, it would still register,” Audrey replied. “Something’s wrong. If it would be anywhere, the shopping channel would have it. Everything has been sold at some point.”
She asked the program how much the book would be worth. The wall thought for a moment, cross referencing every known transaction in recorded history. Finally, it reached its conclusion.
“No transactions match your request. Reminder: Everyone’s Important starts in five minutes,” the wall displayed.
Audrey thought for a minute. It was impossible for anything written prior to 2045 to be unindexed. Everything was searchable. Everything. Every object had a record, and the data was redundant.
Vance flipped to the back of the book and found something he thought was even stranger. A card was inserted there. It was a slip of firm paper with a series of random dates printed on it. Some of these dates followed a pattern occurring at regular intervals and others had large periods of time between them.
“It’s probably a fake,” Audrey said. Because books of this type were so rare, it was not completely unheard of for terrorist groups to attempt to duplicate one. If the book wasn’t in the system, it wasn’t real. It couldn’t be.
“If you were gonna fake a book, why would you fake this?” Vance said, holding the card up to Audrey, “I mean what is this thing? It’s like a schedule or something.”
The card didn’t make a lot of sense to Audrey. The more she thought about it, the more she began to doubt herself. What if it was real. This was no longer a simple case of a rogue book. This was something else entirely. She wouldn’t just be noticed, she would be famous. She’d make the feeds for sure. Maybe even meet the president of the company. This wasn’t something she could sit on. She needed to find out exactly what was going on at that store. And she needed to do it tonight. Vince would have to wait.
“So you ready?” Vince said, standing up and placing the book on the coffee table.
“Don’t be mad.” Audrey said. She grabbed the book and card and slid it under the couch. This was not something she could leave lying around Audrey thought.
“You’re not going are you?” Vince snapped.
“We can do something this weekend,” Audrey replied.
“That’s what you said last time.”
“I’m sorry, I’ll make it up to you.” Audrey said. She zipped her cushioned wind vest and opened the front door. “I promise.”
“Yeah, I bet you will,” Vance said as Audrey walked into the hallway and closed the door behind her.
The rain tapped on the windshield of Audrey’s small Econocar as it sat parked in a shadow pocket on Bleakman Street. Her car was situated just two blocks away from the EasyShop. From this particular vantage point, Audrey could make out any traffic coming to the store from either Bleakman or Van Houston. Audrey removed her SkyPad and pointed the device toward the store. Her screen lit up with a blurry image of the EasyShop. She zoomed in closer. The SkyPad focused on one of the large AdverScreens.
“Print is Dead! Report Any Suspicious Activity to Your Local Police Department Immediately,” the advertisement read.
Audrey couldn’t help but laugh at the irony. She panned her SkyPad over to the double doors and could still see Bill inside the Observer station. He was eating a fried meat pocket and watching the feeds.
Audrey patiently observed the shop for a few hours. In that time, a half dozen or so patrons went in and out. A pregnant woman and her three kids stopped by for a vat of sugared bacon and two teenagers bought six packs of Energy+. She found that drink to be rather nasty. She could only describe the taste as being somewhere between fruit punch and battery acid. The latter of which turned out to be true incidentally, for after a series of chemical burns the manufacturer was forced to retool its patented “Kick”.
Energy+ always reminded her of Vance. It was something he had often used to get through his day at the meat factory. Poor Vance she thought. She didn’t feel very good about how she had left things, but for Audrey, there was no other choice. Vance knew from the beginning what her job entailed. She didn’t have the luxury of a ten hour day. Still, she felt the need to make things right. She decided to give him call.
Audrey spoke quietly, alerting her digital assistant to call Vance. After a few moments her assistant responded, “I’m sorry. I am unable to reach your party. Would you like to leave a message?”
“He must still be sore,” she thought. “No,” she said to her assistant, “I’ll try him again later.”
No sooner had Audrey finished her sentence then a Panda Food patrol car pulled off of Van Houston and into the EasyShop parking lot. The door of the vehicle opened and out walked Marcos.
“Son of a bitch,” she said.
Audrey leaned forward and tracked Marcos as he made his way into the store. She watched as he approached the observer station and the two began a rather heated exchange. Bill was clearly angry about something and pointed wildly at the back room.
Audrey watched as the two men entered the back office and after several minutes emerged with large Plastique crates. They exited the EasyShop and placed them in the trunk of the patrol car.
“They’re moving it,” Audrey thought.
Marcos nodded at Bill and got back into his vehicle. He started the car and backed up.
Audrey quickly started her engine and was about to throw her car into gear when she realized that Marcos wasn’t exiting back onto Van Houston, he was heading down Bleakman. He was heading directly towards her.
“Shit,” Audrey said and slid down in her seat trying to avoid eye contact with the approaching driver. The headlights of the vehicle lit up the roof of her Econocar. Audrey was on the verge of passing out when she realized she hadn’t been breathing. The light grew in intensity and then faded. Audrey sighed in relief. She had remained unnoticed.
Slowly, she popped her head up over the seat and could see the patrol car as it disappeared down Bleakman. Audrey immediately knew what she had to do. She was going tail him, gather as much intel as she could this evening, and go directly to Burgess in the morning.
Audrey quickly performed a K-turn under the large watchful eyes that were carved into the Omni Bank building, and proceeded down Bleakman after Marcos. He was much farther ahead and if she wasn’t careful, she would lose him. Eventually she caught him just as he was making a right turn unto Fox street.
Wherein Bleakman was a bright and clean section of town that housed some of the areas most prominent and successful citizens, Fox was a dimly lit reminder of people’s inability to take advantage of all the opportunities this great nation afforded them. The poor lighting of Fox made it an ideal location for illegal activity in the evening. The solar powered street post generators had been badly damaged years ago, and with the residents being as poor as they were, it offered companies little return on their investment.
In addition to being poorly lit, Fox was a part of town that had seen better days. Once a more popular place among Bakersfield’s elites, it had fallen into disarray. It was a shame Audrey thought, but it was nobody’s fault but their own. They were disconnected here. They were off the grid. Some came this way by poverty. If someone was unable to afford a BlueSky account it was frozen and after a certain period of time, if the balance was not paid in full, the account was purged and the assets were sold off. And if the account couldn’t be sold, it was deleted. Once an account was deleted you had to start over, completely. There was no going back. All of your files, everything that was you was gone. You had to rebuild. For a lot of people, when that happened, they quit. They just gave up. They lived the rest of their lives only in the present. No records. No history. No culture. Shells without shadow. What few credits they could piece together was spent on cheap entertainment and food. Most of the residents here never bothered to try and get it together she told herself.
This was the part that always bothered Audrey. Digital space wasn’t free. Having an account wasn’t an entitlement. It wasn’t a right. It was a privilege. Servers didn’t grow on trees. The companies that ran the government couldn’t afford to host everyone. It wasn’t realistic. There were too many people.
Others, like her brother Scott, were here by choice. Artists and revolutionaries who decided to completely cut themselves off. Doing the unthinkable, deleting their accounts on purpose. They called it disappearing. For awhile it was all the rage among the university crowd. Students, like her brother, preached that the process was somehow freeing. That it would put you more in touch with the now. The elation from such an act didn’t last long, and the hangover from deleting twenty years of your life crashed down upon them opening a whole new level of depression. Fortunately, where there was pain, there was also opportunity. As a result of this, many of the Disappeared would find solace in purchasing the past histories from recently purged poor people. It’s funny how the market can sort things out she thought.
Marcos’ car then made a surprise left turn down an alleyway between two apartment stacks. Audrey knew that if she were to make the turn, it would immediately alert him to her presence. She couldn’t risk exposing herself at this stage. Instead she parked her car nearby and took the rest of the way by foot.
Audrey opened the door of her Econocar and closed it gently behind her. She moved as quietly as she could, the rain providing much needed noise cover. As she found the edge of the wall that lead to the alleyway, her hand instinctively found her badge. She rubbed the cheap plastic Panda Food logo as she took in a deep breath. This was crazy she thought. And dangerous. But if she were correct, she could just about guarantee an executive position with the company. People didn’t rise through the ranks by not taking chances. Audrey drew her firearm and slowly, cautiously, peeked her head around the corner.
The alley was a narrow service road that was flanked by two large apartment stacks on either side. There were old leaves, dirt and plastic garbage that had collected in piles like nests. A few of these piles seemed to move of their own accord, when Audrey realized they were actually people. Husks of obscurity. The sides of the apartment units were covered with graffiti. The largest of which was the flaming logo of Pizza Diablo. Vandalism was never a fight that could be won, and after several decades of trying to win the war on property destruction, the nation’s most prominent advertising agency began to bankroll the more prolific artists. Within a few short years it became quite a popular advertising medium.
The alley came to an end about a thousand feet away at the loading dock of a large abandoned shopping center. The dock consisted of an elevated concrete loading platform and two large rusted rolling doors that led to the shopping center storage area. Parked in front of the concrete riser was Marcos’ patrol car.
The door on the left was open and Audrey could see three different men moving the Plastique crates from the trunk of the car to the building. Inside the shopping center, Audrey saw stacks of fax machines and antique photocopiers.
She pulled herself back around the corner of the alleyway and dared not move a muscle. She didn’t believe she had been spotted, but there was no way she could approach the building without being seen. She stood for awhile, her back to the cold stone wall of the apartment stack.
A hand reached for Audrey’s shoulder. In an instant she threw the assailant on the ground and pointed her weapon at his chest. Her blood was raised but she remained calm. Just as she had been trained.
“Don’t shoot!” an old man said as he cowered at her feet. He lay in a sad heap on the ground, ashamed in his OmniBank pullover and plastic work pants.
“On your feet,” Audrey said, extending her hand down and yanking the old man to his feet. “You are interrupting official police business, please make your way from this area.”
“Just need a little time ma’am. Couple of minutes is all. I haven’t had a login in over a week.” he said as he regained his footing.
“I don’t have time for your problem sir, now I’ve asked you to leave the area. If you don’t comply, then God help you, I will have you arrested. Do you understand?” Audrey said.
“I’m sorry officer. I- I didn’t mean anything.” he said.
Audrey watched as the man disappeared into the shadows of the bus terminal further down the road. Audrey shook her head and headed back to her Econocar.
Inside her vehicle, Audrey never took her eyes off the alleyway. “What the hell are you doing?” she said to herself. “I should call this in. Now.”
Audrey removed her SkyPad and within minutes was speaking with Neva Burgess.
“Hello, who is this?,” a grumpy sounding voice said over Audrey’s adequate Econocar speaker system.
“This is Officer Windsor. I’m terribly sorry to disturb you at this time, but it’s very important,” Audrey said into the receiver.
“What is it Audrey? Do you know what time it is?” Neva replied.
“Yes, I’m very sorry but I’ve reason to believe that the Print and Vice unit has been compromised. It’s Marcos.”
“Marcos? Are you certain Audrey?” Neva said. “Do you understand what this will mean?”
“Yes, I am sure of it,” Audrey replied. “I’m at the service entrance of the old EasyShop Plus on Fox, I’m going to remain in position in case they make a move.”
“Stay where you are.”
“Thank you Ma’am. See you soon,” Audrey said and ended the call.
Audrey took a deep breath. The wheels were in motion now she thought. Audrey sat in her car thinking about the future.
Audrey was startled by a large rapping sound on her driver’s side door. She jumped in her seat. Outside the window was the old man.
Audrey was angry and embarrassed. She opened the car door and got out. The rain fell harder now.
“I thought I told you this was official police business,” Audrey said.
Before she could finish her sentence, Audrey knew she was in trouble. Standing behind the vagrant were three large muscular looking gentleman . They wore skin tight masks. Featureless and white. Like porcelain dolls. Someone behind her gripped her arms like a vice. The last thing she saw was the smiling face of the beggar as a latex bag was thrown over her head. The smell of burning rubber filled her nostrils and the muted light turned to black.
Audrey’s eyes slowly came into focus and she felt the sting of a bright light. It took her a few minutes to realize where she was. She was seated at a small white table across from which there was another single white chair. The ceiling was a single light panel that run the length of the room and filled the area with an intense brightness. The surrounding walls and floor were also solid white which multiplied the effect. It had an antiseptic feel. All of the interrogation rooms in the Panda Food Police Station were like this.
A portion of one of the walls receded and then slid over, revealing a door. Standing on the other side was Neva Burgess. She walked into the room, smiled at Audrey and took a seat at the table opposite her. She placed a SkyPad on the table between them. Neva’s perfume was strong today. It made the room smell of flowers and maple syrup. She wore a dark navy blue business suit. Across her lapel, was a stylish, yet patriotic, plastic flag lapel pin. Audrey felt a pang of nausea.
“Good Evening Audrey. Can I get you something before we begin? A fried Meat Pocket perhaps?”
“No, thank you ma’am,” Audrey said, ”I’m just- I’m just so happy to see you.”
“Are you? I can’t say I’m very happy to see you. I’m very disappointed in you Audrey. Very. We had high hopes for you.”
“I’m sorry to have let you down ma’am, but I believe when you hear what I have to say you will understand,” Audrey took a deep breath, “I believe my partner might be working with a print cell. Or in the least profiting from one. Yesterday, we had been sent to investigate a possible violation at an EasyShop. While I was there I, following procedure of course, performed a thorough discovery to see if a search was warranted. I couldn’t believe what I found. The place was clearly a Toner Distro. That was obvious from the start. But it was much worse. You see, I found something. I found a book.”
“Interesting,” Neva said. She leaned gently back in her chair.
“It gets better,” Audrey said, she could feel the adrenaline kick into gear as she laid out her findings, “the book has never been indexed. It’s new. Well, it’s old really, very old, but it’s content is new. I couldn’t believe it. BlueSky is going to do back-flaps over this. An unindexed book, can you imagine? We’re all going to be fam-”.
“And yet, your report makes no mention of this,” Neva interrupted. “Nothing. Why wasn’t any of this logged?”
“I was planning on briefing you this morning-”
Neva gently swiped the SkyPad in front of her and the four walls of the interrogation room lit up with the large photo of Audrey and her boyfriend Vance at winery.
“Who is this man Audrey?” Neva asked.
“Vance? He’s nobody. I mean he’s my boyfriend. What does he have to do with anything?”
“Vance confessed three hours ago,” Neva said, her eyes cutting through Audrey. “We know everything.”
“Confessed?” Audrey said.
“We know you were planning on selling the book. That you spent time researching its value and were on your way to unload it when our agents caught you.”
“But that’s not true,” Audrey said raising her voice. “I called. I called you.”
Before Audrey could finish talking, Neva swiped her SkyPad again and the sound of Audrey filled the room. It was an audio log of her search query. The two looked at each other silently as they listened to Audrey ask about the book’s worth.
Audrey’s recorded voice seemed to linger in the air longer then it should have. She felt a rush of panic, but tried to remain calm.
“It’s not like that. I was simply trying to find it. Some record of it. And there isn’t. There’s no record,“ Audrey said trying to defend herself. ”I think we’re missing the real story here. I found an unindexed book. I found new information. I have found history. ”
“You have done nothing of the sort Audrey,” Neva interrupted, “the book has been properly taken care of. It has been destroyed and I want no more mention of it.”
“Destroyed?” Audrey said, “You can’t possibly mean that. That’s insanity. Information needs to be free. It’s the first commandment. It’s the basis of everything we stand for.”
“It’s not something you need to concern yourself with any longer,” Neva said. “You are hereby terminated from your position with Panda Foods. Panda Foods can no longer be associated with someone like yourself. Furthermore, your BlueSky account has been deleted.”
“What? No. Please. Is this some kind of joke?” Audrey felt the tears begin to well in her eyes, but she would not give Burgess the satisfaction. “I did everything I was trained to do.”
“Be thankful that you are not placed in a Second Chances Detainment Center like your degenerate boyfriend,” Neva said. “I’ve given you a gift Audrey. Do not make me regret it.”
Neva stood up from the desk and turned to leave.
“I told you this was a game Audrey. And you lost. Officer Marcos will take you home. Do stay out of trouble. The next time, we will not be so lenient.”
Audrey sat in the back of the Panda Food police car that only a few hours ago she would have called her own. In all the time she had ridden in it, she had never seen it from this perspective. She watched through the backseat passenger window as the early morning light flickered between the passing buildings.
“You know, when your BlueSky gets cut, one of the first things that goes is the electric. On account of the automatic billing and all,” Marcos said looking into the rearview mirror. “You got somewhere to stay, you know, until you get a new thing going?”
Audrey didn’t answer. She refused to engage her former partner. Marcos stared for a moment and then looked away. It seemed like hours before they arrived in front of her apartment stack. Marcos opened her door and as she exited the vehicle she could hear him say, “I’m sorry”.
Audrey kept walking.
When she arrived at the front door of her apartment she found it hanging open like a gaping wound. Her living area had been ransacked. The floor was covered with all of her clothing. Her empty drawers strewn about like candy wrappers. Audrey hated a mess and immediately started to pick up her garments. She placed them back in her upturned drawers.
As she collected her things, she noticed the silver and gold frame thrown among some of her old socks. The screen was shattered and it no longer contained the photo of her and Vance at the winery. Instead, it was just the words, “No Connection”. Pieces of the display were everywhere. Audrey crouched down and began to pick them up. She grabbed one of the shards too quickly and a flash of pain shot through her hand.
“Damn it,” she said. Audrey pulled the piece of coated glass from her palm and applied pressure to her bleeding hand. She began to cry. She felt overwhelmed.
Tears rolled down her cheeks and Audrey lowered herself onto a nearby pile of running pants. For awhile she just lay there, curled up in a ball at the base of her couch. It was the first time in her life that Audrey felt truly alone. Directionless. After a moment she opened her eyes and noticed something there under the couch. Tucked away between the synthetic folds of the comforting layer and the plastic base. She reached her good hand into the crevasse and pulled. As her hand retracted back to position she felt the item in her palm. She remembered. It was the insert card from the book. She stared long and hard at the words written on its surface. Underneath the random range of historical dates, there was an address.
At that moment the interior lights of Audrey’s apartment shut off and the room fell into darkness. Audrey, however, felt relief. She had something now. She had a purpose. She had a location. And perhaps, if she were right, she had something more.