Sneak Peeks

Read the First Two Chapters of The Dark Intercept

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The Dark Intercept—available October 31st—is the beginning of a “riveting” (Emmy Laybourne) science fiction adventure that challenges the voluntary surrender of liberties for the perception of safety.

When the state controls your emotions, how hard will you fight to feel free?

In a radiant world of endless summer, the Intercept keeps the peace. Violet Crowley, the sixteen-year-old daughter of New Earth’s Founding Father, has spent her life in comfort and safety. Her days are easy thanks to the Intercept, a crime-prevention device that monitors emotion. But when her long-time crush, Danny Mayhew, gets into a dangerous altercation on Old Earth, Violet launches a secret investigation to find out what he’s hiding. An investigation that will lead her to question everything she’s ever known about Danny, her father, and the power of the Intercept.

Much like the device itself, The Dark Intercept will get under your skin. Please enjoy this excerpt.

1

Moment No. 327

S he watched.

It was her job to watch, but Violet would have watched anyway. She leaned over her keyboard, slinging her body so far forward that her nose almost bumped the screen. Her heart was jumping around in her chest. She could feel the sweat pooling in her palms.

The short, dirty person zipping across the picture on her monitor was named Tommy Tolliver. His nickname was Tin Man.

Violet knew those things because the data showed up in a small square box next to his face on the screen. The information only stayed for a flicker of an instant before it was updated, but that was long enough. In livid orange letters, the box told her that he was sixteen years old and really, really scared.

So scared that he was running as fast as he could through the twisted filigree of streets on Old Earth. So scared that his pulse rate was leaping up and up, and his thoughts were a crazy gray tangle.

The cop who was chasing him was named Danny Mayhew. Violet didn’t need a box next to his face to tell her that. Which was a good thing, because there wasn’t one. The Intercept didn’t track cops. It only kicked in for the bad guys. Not the good guys.

Tin Man was fast. But Danny was also fast. In fact, Danny was a tick faster. Which meant he was catching up.

Violet sucked in a deep breath. She didn’t let it out again right away. She was too focused on the action in that strange and distant place to remember to breathe. When she did remember, the breath came out as a frustrated sigh. She used her thumb to flick impatiently at a triangular slice of dark blond hair that had drifted onto her forehead.

Oh, Danny, she thought. Not again. What are you doing down there, anyway?

Tin Man swerved into a filthy alley. It was always raining on Old Earth. Or at least it seemed to be on those not-very-frequent occasions when Violet was required to look down there. The rain draped the place in a greasy sheen, slickening the bricks.

Tin Man’s luck suddenly left him.

He slid. He slid hard, and he wasn’t able to catch himself before he crashed into a row of four garbage cans. They were the ancient gray aluminum kind, flimsy and dented. The kind you never saw on New Earth.

Tin Man bounced, teetered, and fell on his narrow butt. The computer connection was excellent and so Violet heard the whump sound crisply and clearly. She winced, even though it was happening to him and not to her, and even though it was happening thousands of miles away on Old Earth. She knew what it felt like to trip and fall on your butt. Everybody did, right?

Somehow, despite the fall, Tin Man managed to hold on to the ragged cloth sack he was carrying. The sack was tied off at the top by a little drawstring that looked like a brown shoelace. Violet watched him jam it into his front pocket with frantic fingers. He tried to scramble to his feet again, but he was trapped in a sticky makeshift maze of upended cans and still-wobbling lids, plus assorted smelly shreds and rotting lumps and gooey rinds. His feet kept skidding out from under him. His butt bounced against the grimy ground over and over again.

Tin Man felt helpless. Violet knew how he felt because a rolling ribbon of flashing numbers at the bottom of her screen told her.

It wasn’t that the Intercept could read his mind—or anyone’s mind. It couldn’t. It didn’t have to.

By riffling through the archives of his past emotions and using the algorithm to apply those emotions to the present situation, the Intercept extrapolated the probabilities of his current feeling and, in less than a trillionth of a second, selected the most likely one and sent it via numeric code to Violet’s computer. Tin Man knew he looked ludicrous—big tough gangster-boy, marooned in moist trash. That made him feel vulnerable and ridiculous, which in turn made him feel extremely pissed off.

And a pissed-off Tin Man was a dangerous Tin Man.

Violet leaned even closer to the screen.

Let him go, Danny, she thought. Just let him go.

And then she lectured herself: Yeah, right. Like that’s gonna happenGet a clue, girl. Danny never backed off from a fight or gave up on a chase. Never had, never would. She understood, because she was the same way—but that didn’t make it any easier to watch.

Anxiety was skittering madly through Violet’s body. What would Tin Man do? Her throat felt dry and tight. She couldn’t remember the last time she had blinked. She was afraid to blink. Afraid she might miss whatever was going to happen next, because everything was happening so fast.

Tin Man groped in the waistband of his jeans, twisting and grunting and yanking. The slab gun had been digging into his skin while he ran, its louvered sides sharp as a shovel’s edge, its muzzle pricking him like a hypodermic. Violet could almost feel the slab gun against her own skin, even though she’d never touched one, much less hidden one in her pants.

Tin Man’s mind, according to the box that followed him on the screen, simmered with petty irritations as well as great fear, a fear that spread out over the rest of his thoughts like a black rainbow.

A holster would have made the gun easier to carry, but a holster would’ve been harder to hide, especially on a body as skinny as his. So Tin Man had carried it in his trousers, despite the very real risk that his body temperature would rise high enough to trigger the thing.

Violet had read about that. And she’d seen pictures, too—hideous, look-away-now pictures, filled with liquid and anguish. People sometimes forgot about the heat-sensitive firing filament, and in a terrible tenth of a second, the slab gun would blow a hole in their side so big that they could reach in and rearrange vital organs like cushions on a sofa.

Danny was coming up fast. Violet, right along with Tin Man, could hear the rapid and relentless smacksplat smacksplat smacksplat sounds of his boots as they struck the wet bricks.

Violet watched. She had to wait until the last possible second to intervene. Intervention had to be absolutely necessary. She couldn’t be wrong.

Tin Man was tensed and ready. There was only a thin grazing of light left in the alley, and so the cop, he surmised, most likely wouldn’t see the gray flank of the slab gun until its pulverizing ray had peeled back his skin and melted a portion of whatever it hit. Sometimes it happened so fast the victim didn’t even bleed. The heat of the light-pulse instantly cauterized the wound at the same time it created it.

Violet saw the numbers jump and squirm at the bottom of her screen, recording a probabilistic shift in Tin Man’s emotions. She interpreted the numbers instantly, reading his feelings as if he were writing them in a journal in real time:

Tin Man was confused. Why the hell had this cop shown up, anyway? Cops almost never came down to Old Earth anymore. For anything. New Earth didn’t bother to monitor it regularly. New Earth had given it up for lost, and Tin Man approved.

Lost was how he liked it. Lost let the monsters loose. And that was how Tin Man saw himself: as a monster. Old Earth had made him that way. Old Earth—and the people he needed to protect from its many perils.

A quick visual of the previous three minutes of Tin Man’s life popped up in the bottom corner of Violet’s screen. The pictures came from the squad of drones that patrolled Old Earth. She followed the video avidly, so that she’d have full information before Intercept Deployment:

In the fragile, moody pallor of dusk on Old Earth, Tin Man had been selling the day’s last bag of deckle. He hadn’t even bothered to divide the bag into smaller parcels. He didn’t need to. His customer was happy to snap up his entire supply of the pink powder, and to pay him well for it.

For the past several months, Tin Man had run a good, steady, efficient business in illegal drugs. He sold a lot of deckle. When the deckle ran out, he switched to tumult, and when tumult was hard to come by, he could always dig up a bit of trekinol. Trekinol was trash, but if nozzled directly into the heart, it could create a flutter. A baby buzz.

The transaction had been seconds away from completion. And then, from out of nowhere, the cop showed up.

Tin Man heard an official-sounding voice say, “What’s going on?” The customer heard the voice, too, and it caused him to jerk in the middle as if somebody had pulled an invisible string knotted around his waist. The customer vanished, twitching through the mud-colored twilight of Old Earth.

Tin Man also took off.

And then the cop, to Tin Man’s surprise, had followed him.

What the hell? was Tin Man’s irritated thought while he slammed across the dark and dismal streets. Nobody interfered with drug deals down here anymore. Nobody. It. Just. Wasn’t. Done. This cop, though, apparently had missed the memo.

Tin Man ran. The cop ran faster.

“Hey, wait!” the cop had yelled. “I just want to—”

Tin Man kept running.

The alley. The rain. The skid. The spill. And now, in a very short space of time, The End. For at least one of them.

But the question was: Which one?

Smacksplat. Stop. Danny hunched over Tin Man. He was panting, his black-booted feet spread wide, his body quivering, his hands grabbing the fabric that bunched at his knees. His blue tunic was flecked with mud. His dark hair was wet from rain and sweat. His face was pale.

Tin Man stared up at him, incredulous. All this trouble for a bag of deckle? New Earth didn’t care about Old Earth crimes anymore. Old Earth could do as it pleased, even if that meant the people down here ripped one another to shreds, or poisoned themselves with drugs, or whatever. Nobody cared.

What was wrong with this guy?

Tin Man didn’t wait for an answer. The cop had to die.

Tin Man wrenched the slab gun out of his trousers.

 

“Sector four,” Violet said.

She’d seen enough. All the official criteria had been met:

Imminent bodily threat to a New Earth citizen.

Lack of plausible escape parameters.

Reasonable expectation of negative outcome.

So now she had a job to do.

“Seventy-eighth parallel,” she added. “Old Earth zone sixteen.”

She gave her partner a quick sideways glance to make sure he was listening to her. Their workstation was one of a thousand two-person modules arranged across the glass-walled Protocol Hall, the nerve center of New Earth.

“Why’s he down there without authorization?” Rez said. “What the—”

“Sync up the parameters,” Violet declared, interrupting him. Rez’s screen was next to hers, but he’d been watching something else. Another sector. Or maybe playing a game. Whatever. “It’s my call.” Her voice was cold and steady. She’d gone through the checklist in her head. Twice, even. “And I’m calling it.”

“Copy that.” Reznik squinted, reading the swath of rich code that decorated the bottom of his screen, catching up with the information that Violet had been absorbing for the past few seconds. He laughed. “So—is that right? ‘Tin Man’? How’d he get such a stupid nickname?”

“Don’t know. It’s the alias of record.”

“What’s Danny doing down there, anyway?”

“You already asked me that. It’s irrelevant. Go on. Lock and load.”

Reznik shrugged. He fist-bumped four buttons in rushed succession on the console in front of him. His screen shifted to another variety of code. He punched another button—last week he’d actually cracked the red cover-cap on one of his console triggers, so violently emphatic were his gestures when he was in the throes of his official duties—and the orange-tinted code shimmied and wiggled as the algorithm automatically recalibrated itself in response to incoming data.

Reznik’s gaze followed the vapor trail of the code’s gyrations like a man in love. Code was a thing of beauty, like a really great song. That’s how he had described it once to Violet. He’d practically swooned when he said it. Sometimes, he would add, looking glassy-eyed and bewitched, he loathed the sluggishness of his brain when he beheld code. Compared to the cool sleekness of code, he told her, his brain was like a sweaty fat boy trying to climb a rope in gym class, all sagging butt and pitiful little grunts of doomed effort. Reznik didn’t have happy memories of gym class.

Violet occasionally wondered how his love of code registered in his Intercept file. Code recording his obsession with code: It would be like taking your finger and writing the word sand in the sand. He was totally smitten with code. Sometimes it got a little weird.

But no matter how obnoxious he was, Violet had to admit that Rez was a good person to have as a workstation partner. He knew all the shortcuts in the Intercept. He knew all the tricky little backdoor maneuvers that helped them do their jobs—as well as a few that had nothing to do with their jobs.

“Okay,” Rezink said. “Ready to rock ’n’ roll.” It was a funny-sounding phrase he’d picked up in Old Earth history class.

Violet did what she often did when she was nervous: She touched the small area in the crook of her left elbow. This was the spot where the Intercept chip had been inserted, slipped under the skin so swiftly and so delicately that she hadn’t even felt it. No one did. There was no scar, just a slight area of discoloration in the shape of a tiny crescent moon. Violet’s father, Ogden Crowley—Founding Father of New Earth—had insisted on that: Nobody should feel any pain during the installation. He’d ordered his staff to find a way. Because the Intercept wasn’t there to hurt. It was there to help.

And as always, they’d done it. People wanted to please Ogden Crowley. Violet had noticed that from the time she was a little girl.

“Ready,” Rez said. “Four. Seventy-eight. Sixteen. On my mark.”

“Copy that.”

“Mark.”

“Protocol initiated.” With two fingers, Violet depressed the black bar across the top of her keyboard. She felt a surge of relief. Everything was going to be okay.

Well—not for Tin Man. But that was his fault, not theirs.

She studied the screen. Tin Man tightened his grip on the handle of the slab gun. He aimed its ugly gray snout.

And then the Intercept pounced.

 

No sizzle, no crackle, no whoosh, no boom. No thunder. No lightning. Not even a click or a ding. For a second there was no outward sign that anything at all had happened.

But it had. Irrevocably.

Deep within the sprawling catacombs beneath their workstation, tucked snugly inside a computer system unfathomably vast, the Intercept was roused to invisible fury.

Tin Man was about to enter hell. But for Violet and Rez, it was just another day at work. Their job was essentially finished. There was nothing more for them to do. Except watch.

“Got any big plans for the weekend?” Rez said.

Violet shrugged. She had plenty of plans, but none to share with Reznik. He was always hinting around about wanting to hang out with her and Shura Lu, her best friend. Not gonna happen, Violet thought. Not meanly, just firmly. She wished he’d get a clue. Why was it that the guys you didn’t really care about were crazy about you, while a guy you did care about—in fact, a guy that you thought about a lot—kept you guessing about whether or not he even noticed that you were. . .

No. No. She elbowed the thought out of her mind. She wasn’t going to give the Intercept anything to work with. Nothing beyond her annoyance, at least. Nothing beyond her irritation that Danny had put himself in jeopardy. Again. What was going on with him?

Reznik didn’t seem to mind that Violet had ignored his question. He was used to it; she ignored him on a regular basis. It couldn’t dent his good mood. Their shift was almost over, and once it was, he could get back to doing what he loved to do, which was to use his computer savvy to explore the depths of the Intercept.

“Showtime,” he said.

In the crook of Tin Man’s left elbow they spotted a brief flash of blue. That meant the Intercept chip had just been activated. Their screens immediately shifted to the scene that was frantically flooding Tin Man’s brain, surging and grinding inside him.

Reznik leaned back in his chair and piled his big feet up on the desk they shared. He pretended to be eating popcorn from a bowl on his lap. He grinned and fluttered his fingers, as if he was digging in.

He tossed an imaginary kernel up in the air and caught it in his mouth, chewing with exaggerated vigor.

A small square in the lower right-hand corner of their screens continued to follow what was happening in the alley. The video was supplied by the drones making their grim, endless circles in the drab sky over Old Earth.

Reznik tossed another fake kernel up in the air. Snap, chew.

Violet rolled her eyes.

“Cut it out, Rez,” she snapped. “Don’t be a jerk.”

He snickered. Hopeless, Violet thought. Expecting Rez to act mature—that’s a lost cause. Totally.

They watched their screens. The Intercept had selected one of Tin Man’s memories from a decade ago and fed it back into his brain.

It was tearing him to pieces.

 

Molly Tolliver, aged five years, three days, four hours, twenty-two minutes, and eight seconds, lies in the ill-lit, foul-smelling room. She is too light to leave an indentation on the thin mattress. Her pale body, covered by a wispy blue rag that doubles as her dress, is cocooned in sweat.

An odor of decay rises from her. The vapors are thick and shimmering. Most of the bad scents are not produced organically by her body but by the artificial enzymes that have been pumped into her for three days now, in a frantic attempt to save her. The enzymes, as they break down, induce an accelerated tumble toward death. Sometimes—not often, but sometimes, or so the theory goes—the free fall of decay will reach a critical point and then use its accumulated energy to kick-start a rally in the opposite direction. You never know, someone had said about the fever’s lethal whimsy and the possibility of a turnaround. That someone was a fellow scavenger, sharing their hollowed-out, roofless house. Worth a shot.

It didn’t work. Now the stink is tremendous. It’s bigger than she Molly is long past being embarrassed by it. But for her family—which means her mother, Delia, and her older brother, whose real name is Tommy but who is mostly known by the nickname Molly gave him, Tin Man—the reality is that they cannot not notice the rancid smell. This isn’t fair. It isn’t right that their last memory of Molly is wreathed in a disgusting, vomit-calling smell, an abomination that’s like the mingling of dog shit and cat shit and rotten fruit and moldy basement and a shotgun-spray of farts. It’s disrespectful.

Tin Man blinks. He reaches out to touch his sister’s forehead, not knowing if her skin will be hot or cold.

It’s both.

How can it be both? He doesn’t know. But it is.

Before she got sick they were together all the time, he and Molly. They played, they ran, they chased each other across the broken streets of Old Earth, running and giggling, stealing what they could find to steal, darting through the wet, cold, smelly alleys. Molly was quick and small, and she could scoot into places that most people couldn’t, like a sleek letter opener sliding under the sealed flap of an envelope. That’s how Tin Man described it once to their mother. He knows about letter openers. He’s swiped a few from the smashed cabinets in the abandoned houses. There’s always junk left behind by the people rich enough to have scored a ticket to New Earth. Letters, packages, catalogs—they had made a big comeback in the mid-2280s. People realized that they missed running their hands across real paper. Missed folding it. Missed the elegant ritual of dealing with it. Thus letter openers became a hot item. The fancier, the better. Electronic mail is quicker, yes, but it doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t seem to satisfy a certain longing in the soul. So on New Earth, the volume of Touch Mail is rising. And letter openers are easy to sell to New Earth tourists who sneak down here for a walk on the wild side.

A few days ago, Molly coughed. She covered her mouth. She pulled her hand away and looked at her small palm. Sticky orange webs of phlegm were strung between her fingers like cobwebs in a corner. This is Missip Fever—named after a river called the Mississippi, a river that dried up a long time ago. Notorious viruses are christened for the trickling remnants of once-mighty rivers along whose raggedy, germ-sown banks they first gain a deadly foothold.

It’s a week later and here she is.

Dying.

And doing it both too fast and too slow.

Tin Man watches. He draws back his hand, having grazed her forehead and found it both hot and cold. Inside his own body, he is aware of an excruciating pain, a pain made up of a savage mix of emotions: anguish, helplessness, fear, puzzlement. These feelings have squatted right down in the center of his brain and won’t budge. He’d swear his mind is exploding, over and over again, each explosion igniting the next one in line, and then the one after that. He can’t turn away from the pain any more than he can turn away from Molly.

The pain isn’t just inside him. The pain is him. He is all pain, everywhere.

His sister parts her tiny white lips. She whimpers softly, like a pet seeking treats. Watching her, hearing her, Tin Man feels as if every cell in his body is being dragged in a separate direction, fingernails scraping the ground as the cells twist and writhe, fighting their fate. He wants to scream. He wants to hit something, smash it, destroy He wants to cause physical pain to himself, so as to balance out the emotional pain, the pain in his head. He is silent. He does not move. He believes in nothing.

Molly Tolliver takes a small sip of breath.

Lets it out.

Takes another breath.

Lets it out.

Takes another breath.

This time, she doesn’t let it out. Her eyes are glassy, fixed.

She’s gone.

She is five years, three days, four hours, twenty-two minutes, and eleven seconds old.

 

As Tin Man squirmed on his backside in a filthy alley in the midst of a cold rain, his curled finger tensed against the crude trigger of his slab gun, he was engulfed by the memory.

The sadness raced across his brain, showing up from out of nowhere—or so it felt to him—as he aimed his weapon at the cop who had chased him here.

The remembered scene rushed at him: Molly in the bed, Molly stinking, Molly dying. The images attacked him like his worst enemy would. They pierced him, paralyzing his trigger finger and the rest of his body, too.

His sister’s waxy sunken cheeks.

Her eyes, orange and staring.

The sour smell of her—the smell of death, of ruined and rotting things, of the Absolute and Final End.

And then the realization that she was dead. Dead. He would never talk to her again. Never hear her laugh. Never watch her run.

Ever.

Ever.

All of it invaded him, overwhelmed him, plunging its tentacles deep into the tender pink core of his brain and rooting there, refusing to be dislodged.

Instantly Tin Man was sick. The nausea blotted and coated his throat, locking it shut, bubbling up in a thick bath of black acid. He was sheathed in pain. Shackled by it. His logical mind was swamped by what he was feeling. He was hurled aloft onto a gigantic and terrifying wave of toxic pain, a pain that roared and climbed and then twisted back around again, crashing down on him, smothering him, trapping him inside an endless, edgeless, boundless, all-over agony.

Tin Man couldn’t see. He couldn’t breathe. His body felt as if it were splitting into a hundred billion sharp-edged little pieces. He was hollowed out by the pain. Scraped raw by it. He was reeling and he was helpless.

Violet switched her attention from the Intercept feed—the record of what Tin Man was enduring inside his busy furnace of a brain—to the drone’s real-time recording of the drama in the alley.

Tin Man was sobbing. Spit foamed over his lips. He was shaking so badly that the slab gun vibrated right out of his hand, falling to the bricks with a sad little clatter.

Danny kicked it away, far out of Tin Man’s reach. He looked over at the drone that had dropped and roosted amid the greasy welter of garbage cans. Knowing they were watching him from New Earth, he smiled a crooked half smile. Not a smile of triumph—a smile of relief. He saluted the camera as he silently mouthed the word: Thanks.

Violet blushed. She felt the warmth rising in her cheeks. There was a small flash of blue in the crook of her left elbow.

It had all happened in a smattering of seconds.

 

Reznik grunted.

“I don’t like that guy,” he muttered.

Tell me something I don’t know, Violet thought. Reznik did his job—he would save Danny’s life when it needed saving—but that didn’t mean he had to like it.

“He’s just a big show-off,” Reznik added. “And a selfish jerk.”

She wasn’t going to argue with him. “We’re just about finished,” she said. “Then we can move on to another sector.”

“Great. As long as I don’t have to look at Mayhew’s stupid face anymore.”

The trouble was, of course, that Rez had a right to be resentful. Danny caused a lot of trouble for a lot of people. No question about it.

While Reznik punched in the resolution codes, Violet kept her eyes on the screen, zeroing in on Danny’s dark, wet face. Her feelings were all mixed up again. The quick rush of joy she’d felt when Danny smiled at her—okay, at both of them—had faded. Now she was back to being mad at him. But her anger, too, was changing just as fast as the joy had. It was dissipating into something else, another feeling. She didn’t want her anger to soften; he had broken rules, risked his life. Sometimes, though, an emotion had a mind of its own.

Part of her was afraid Danny would never know how she felt about him. Another part was afraid he already did.

And still another part was afraid, period. Afraid of having experienced the feeling in the first place.

Because the moment an emotion was born inside her, it wasn’t hers anymore. Well, it was hers—but not exclusively hers. Within the elegant infrastructure of the Intercept, a new entry in her file had just been created. A series of blunt facts had been inscribed upon an already crowded digital tablet:

CROWLEY, V. V. [VIOLET VERONICA]. Citizen No. 4612-97-8A-QRZ12.7. MOMENT OF RECOGNITION NO. 327 OF INTENSE AFFECTION FOR MAYHEW, D. A. [DANIEL ANDREW]. CITIZEN No. 7414-82-7D-QFP14.9.

SYMPTOMS: EXCESSIVE EXCRETION OF SWEAT IN PALMS, SHORTNESS OF BREATH, DIFFICULTY FOCUSING ON TASK. HEART RATE INCREASE FLUCTUATING BETWEEN 15 AND 19 PERCENT. BRIEF BUT INTENSE.

Moment No. 327.

It was the 327th time she had felt that way about Danny.

And each time she did, the Intercept created a record of the emotion. The moment was gathered up, time-stamped, sorted by intensity, verified by a match against the accompanying physiological changes also supplied by the chip. It was distributed into a category—love or pain, or hate or fear, or surprise or regret or jealousy or melancholy, or boredom or despair or delight.

Or it might be one of those intricate blends of emotions. Moments when you were happy and sad, or scared and excited. The new incident was added to the record. Information was piled atop information.

The Intercept systematically captured and cataloged every flicker of every feeling, every stray inclination or brief fancy or moment of curiosity, every irritation, every disappointment, every passion. As the machinery clicked and shimmied, as its digital apertures opened, the emotions of the world’s population—both worlds, the Old and the New—rushed into its trillions of eager receptors. These emotions might be daily annoyances—exasperation, frustration, mild disappointment—or they might be intense, volcanic feelings that brought about towering, ravaging agony, from love to guilt to grief to the haunting helplessness of remorse.

Emotions were harvested from person after person after person. It might be seething anger at a friend’s betrayal, or the golden exhilaration of finally understanding quadratic equations, or the blue-hued sadness of a Sunday afternoon. Emotions were routinely ransacked from soul after soul after soul, just after the feeling flared.

First one feeling

And then another

And then another

And then another . . .

Each time an emotion spiked, an electrical signal was generated in the brain. The emotion was inscribed on the chip embedded in the crook of the left elbow. Then the chip transferred a record of that emotion—through a Wi-Fi connection—to the murmuring computers that spread out beneath Protocol Hall and then on through the branching network laid out beneath the streets of New Earth, mile after mile after mile. The Intercept caught the signals one by one by one, like line drives snagged by a trillion-handed shortstop, and archived them.

And there the emotion waited. Waited for the Intercept to call it forth when it was required. This storehouse was always at the ready. When deployed back into the individual, the returning emotion created another small blue flash in the crook of the left elbow.

But Violet couldn’t think about that all the time. If she did, she made herself crazy. She got so hyperaware of everything she was feeling, second by second, and of how the Intercept was eavesdropping on her deepest emotions, that she tripped over shoes she’d left on her bedroom floor or forgot to charge her wrist console overnight. She became totally self-conscious. So she tried not to think about it.

True, when she came to work each day here in Protocol Hall she had to focus on the Intercept. It was a job requirement. When her shift ended, though, she’d close that door in her mind. She’d taught herself how to do that. She couldn’t lock it shut—but she could close it.

“After a while,” Violet once said to Rez, “you sort of forget about the Intercept.”

Rez didn’t reply, but Violet knew what he was thinking—because she was thinking it, too:

Yeah, but the Intercept never, ever forgets about you.

2

Danny’s Secret

H ey.”

Violet flinched. She was totally focused on what she was writing and so the voice startled her. When she flinched, her hand jerked and she very nearly dropped her black tablet onto the floor of her workstation.

It was him.

A tiny blue flash winked in the crook of her left elbow. God, I hope he didn’t see that. Her sleeve almost covered it, so probably not. Close one.

“What’s going on?” Danny said. He let his bag slide off his shoulder. He moved closer to Violet. He was standing and she was sitting, so it was even more awkward than usual. A few hours ago she had rescued him from imminent peril; now here he was, as if nothing extraordinary had happened.

Most of the afternoon workers had already gone home. The people assigned to night shift were still milling around in small groups, enjoying their last few minutes of freedom before they sat down at their computers to monitor the Intercept feeds.

As dusk fell, Protocol Hall took on a new atmosphere. The same number of people were at work in the vast honeycomb of cubicles, because the Intercept ran twenty-four/seven. But there was a different feel to this glass-walled citadel. Through those walls, the rest of New Earth—its spires rising against the coming dark—was visible. Tomorrow at sunrise its six cities would come alive again, with people making their way to work. Here at Protocol Hall, the sun’s light would touch the glass walls like a magic wand in a fairy tale, anointing row after row after row of the stacked cubicles in which the Intercept was administered. The building quivered ever so slightly as the vast machinery of the Intercept clicked through its endless progressions, whirling and spinning. And watching.

Seeing Danny’s face when she wasn’t expecting to, Violet needed a moment to readjust. She had to remind herself that this was the real Danny—and not an image on her computer screen. He was here. Right here.

Something shifted inside her. She didn’t want to identify it, but it was fuzzy and warm. It was also sort of scary.

And then her anger came slashing back, crowding out the soft things she’d been feeling. She didn’t care what the Intercept did with her emotions right now. To hell with the Intercept. To hell with everything.

Too little time had passed since Violet had monitored Danny’s close brush with death down on Old Earth. He had put her in the terrible position of seeing him almost get pan-fried by a slab gun, and she was furious.

“You could’ve died.” Her voice was clipped and brittle. “You know that, right? You could’ve taken a direct hit.”

“But I didn’t.” A hint of a grin. “Here I am—safe and sound.”

“You got lucky.”

Danny nodded. “No argument there. You and Rez had my back. Hey—where’s Rez, anyway? That’s why I came by. To thank you guys again. In person this time.”

He glanced around the compact space, as if Rez might be crouching behind the other chair or hiding under one of the monitors.

“Don’t know,” Violet said impatiently. Her tone said something else: I’m not his keeper. “He took off when our shift ended.”

“But you’re still here.”

“I’ve got some stuff to do.” She didn’t want to tell him what it was, because—well, because it was none of his business. She liked to keep some things all to herself. And the truth was, she was studying Old Earth history, more than what she’d learned in school. She had so many questions about the place where her parents had been born—questions that nobody on New Earth seemed to want to answer. She had pleaded with her father to let her visit Old Earth. He had stared at her a long time before he replied, “Absolutely not,” in a way that let Violet know she’d better not bring it up again.

She would, of course. But not right away.

Danny had been born on Old Earth, too. But that had nothing to do with her curiosity about the place. Really, she told herself. It doesn’t.

“You look exhausted,” she said. He hadn’t changed his clothes yet. He was damp and rumpled-looking, and there was a gray, ashy tinge to his skin. The area around his eyes was smudged with fatigue. He looked tired right down to his bones. And no wonder, Violet thought. The round trip between New Earth and Old Earth was jarring and draining. It took a ferocious toll on the body.

“Yeah. I kind of am,” he said.

“I guess there’s a reason they tell people not to go down there more than once or twice a year.”

“Yeah.” He shrugged.

“And you’ll do what they say, right? I mean—you’ll follow the advice they give to people who go to Old Earth too often? Get a physical? A bone-density scan and all the other tests?”

Danny had made four unauthorized trips back in the past month. And those were just the times she knew about. There  might have been more.

Oh, there were more, Violet told herself with weary certainty. For sure.

Because, after all, this was Danny.

He shrugged again. All at once she realized just how close to her he was standing. If she moved her chair even slightly, she’d be touching him. That caused a fierce scramble of contradictory emotions to start up inside her. Some of these feelings were wonderful; some of them were not so wonderful. But all of them were intense. The swirling mix reminded her of a passage in a book she’d been assigned to read back in her WordArt class—Persuasion, by an Old Earth author named Jane Austen: “It was agitation, pain, pleasure, a something between delight and misery.” That’s how the main character described her feelings when she saw this guy she really liked.

Violet could totally relate. Jane Austen, she thought, would’ve given her Intercept chip quite a workout.

But no matter what else Violet felt about Danny, she was still mad at him. The righteous anger kept slamming up against the other thing inside her—the mushy thing.

The two feelings were like a couple of asteroids that hit and bounced off each other and then hit again, until they were both so nicked and frayed they could barely limp their way across the galaxy.

She decided that she couldn’t stand this polite chitchat a minute longer.

“So why’d you go down there again?” she asked, blurting it out. This wasn’t the first time she had posed the question. She knew what his answer would be—the answer would be a nonanswer—but she had to ask.

Because just as he was Danny Mayhew, she was Violet Crowley. She was just as stubborn as he was—although her stubbornness showed up as a fierce curiosity, while his was reflected in his mysterious trips to a forbidden place.

She kept on talking. “You were almost suspended last month for the same thing, right? And then you turned around today and went back. Without permission. What’s the deal?”

Danny shrugged.

“It’s complicated,” he said.

“That’s what you always say.”

He was quiet for a moment. “Someday,” he finally replied, “I’ll be able to explain it to you. Until then—”

“What? Until then—what?

“Until then, you’ll just have to trust me.”

“Trust you.”

“Yeah. Trust me.” He shifted his weight from one foot to the other. His legs must be aching, Violet thought. All that running down on Old Earth. All that tension—confronting an armed criminal, knowing that you’re seconds from death.

Danny was still talking, his voice measured and sincere. “I hope you can do that, Violet. And I hope you can say to yourself, ‘Well, I don’t understand, but it’s Danny, and so—so I know it’s fine, and he must have a good reason. I can just let things be for a while.’ ”

“It was a pretty close call,” she murmured.

“Yeah. Definitely.”

Violet was still mad at him, but what could she do? He wasn’t going to answer her questions. And his request had been clear.

Trust me.

But why did he do it? Why did he keep slipping back down to Old Earth without official authorization? What drew him to that bleak and broken place?

True, she wanted to go—but that was because she’d never been there. He had been there. He knew firsthand what she knew only from drone feeds: It was filthy and scarred and treacherous. Nasty things crawled along its broken streets and slithered up the scorched bricks of its shattered buildings. Danny knew that sad, battered surface all too well. He had to be haunted by his grim memories of its blasted-out towns and poisoned oceans and skeletal trees and stark, wind-mauled landscapes.

Yet back he went, every chance he got.

Why?

When he’d first started his backdoor visits down to Old Earth, Violet had guessed that maybe it was just homesickness. Old Earth might be ugly and depressing, but it was where he’d come from. It was the starting place for all his memories. Memories of life with his brother, Kendall.

Or maybe it was even simpler. Maybe he was attracted to Old Earth because somebody had told him not to go. And Danny was a rebel. A rule breaker. He did things his own way.

Violet could totally relate to that, too.

But each time he sneaked down, he increased the chances that something bad was going to happen. Something dangerous. And maybe fatal. Violet had a powerful recollection of Tin Man’s hate-filled scowl as he aimed the slab gun.

“I hope they locked up that guy,” she said.

“Yeah, they did. Callahan sent some officers down. They hauled him off to an Old Earth prison. That’s what she told me.” Michelle Callahan was the police chief. Danny’s boss. “He didn’t put up any resistance. The Intercept left him in tatters. Weak as a kitten.”

“So you talked to the chief.”

“Yeah. Stopped by on my way over here. Had to pick up my gear.” He used his toe to nudge his bag on the floor. He looked a little sheepish. “She pulled me into her office. I had to watch the playback of the Intercept feed—with her sitting right next to me.”

“Bet that was awkward. She’s got a good reason to hate slab guns.”

It was common knowledge that the chief ’s husband, Paul Stark, had been severely injured by a slab gun attack back on Old Earth. He would never again walk under his own power.

“Yeah, she was pretty pissed off,” Danny said. “You know the chief—she gets intense. But she’s giving me a second chance.”

“I thought you’d already gotten a second chance.”

“I did. This is my second chance at a second chance.” He smiled.

Violet didn’t smile back. She couldn’t forget the dank, shadowy alley back on Old Earth and the sight of Danny in danger.

“It just seems to me,” she said, “that it was sort of an amazing coincidence. You coming across a drug dealer down there, I mean. Totally accidentally.”

He stared at her. “What do you mean?”

“Old Earth’s a big place. The chances of you just bumping into a crime scene like that are pretty slim.”

“Guess so.” He shrugged. “My lucky day.”

Lucky? That’s what Violet wanted to say back to him. Yell it, even. Lucky? You almost DIED.

But she didn’t say it. He already knew. He didn’t need her to point it out yet again. Besides, talking that way would make her sound like a wheedling coward—something that Violet Crowley would never be. She was tough. And brave. As tough and brave as Danny was, actually, even if she hadn’t broken as many rules as he had.

Yet.

“Good thing we have the Intercept,” she said.

He paused. “Yeah. Right.”

His hesitation surprised her. So did his tone. It almost sounded as if Danny was being sarcastic. As if he had some doubts about the Intercept, about the amazing technology that made New Earth secure, day after day. About the system that kept everything running smoothly.

But that was impossible. Because his own brother had invented it. Kendall Mayhew had died a year and a half ago. The Intercept was his legacy. And to Danny, nothing was more important than loyalty to his brother’s memory.

Violet knew that for sure. There might be a ton of things she didn’t know about Danny—such as why he couldn’t stay away from Old Earth—but his love for his brother was beyond question.

What, then, accounted for the odd note in his voice just now? Maybe, she thought, he’d been hearing the same whispers about the Intercept. The speculation swirled in the winds that were pumped perpetually through the atmosphere of New Earth from the giant turbines in Farraday. It rode in the mild rumble beneath the floor of Protocol Hall.

“So what do you think about the rumors?” she said.

He looked at her sharply. “What rumors?”

“That there’s something wrong with the Intercept. A weak spot.”

Danny shook his head. “Can’t be. My brother didn’t make any mistakes.”

“Yeah, but maybe there’s something he didn’t fore—”

“No. No matter what you’ve heard, the Intercept works fine. It will always work fine. It’s perfect. It’s always going to be there. We’ll never lose it.” His voice had a funny edge to it.

“You don’t actually sound too thrilled about that.”

“Why wouldn’t I be thrilled? It saved my life.” And with that, Danny brushed at some dirt on the sleeve of his tunic, even though Violet didn’t see anything in that particular spot that needed removal. It almost seemed like he was buying time while he figured out what to say next. “Anyway,” he went on, “along with telling you guys how grateful I am, I also came by to see how it’s going. Getting ready for your Intercept intervention and all.”

“It’s okay. I can handle it.”

“I know you can.” He glanced away from her again, a sure sign that he was going to say something important. Something that made it hard for him to look at her when he said it. “Everything’s good, Violet. Like I said—just trust me, okay?”

“I do. I mean it. You know that.”

And she did mean it. Mostly.

Because in spite of it all—in spite of the regulations he ignored and the people he pissed off and the trouble he made for Chief Callahan and for her father, in spite of the annoyance and hurt she felt because he wouldn’t tell her why he kept running back down to Old Earth every chance he got—yes, she trusted him. On some mysterious level that transcended all her doubts, Violet trusted Danny.

But couldn’t you trust somebody and be worried that maybe he was in trouble? Couldn’t you trust him and need to find out why he was doing something that might get him hurt or killed?

Sometimes Violet didn’t like the fact that she had such intense feelings for him. She hated being dependent on anybody. Ever. In every other realm of her life, she was capable, confident, self-assured. Some people might even call her cocky. Because she was smart and she knew it. Because she was attractive in a casual, sporty, unfussy sort of way—and she knew that, too.

Around Danny, though, Violet was off-balance, uncertain. And clumsy. It made her wonder if liking somebody would always make her feel so . . . stupid. Or if someday—when she was older—she would turn around and realize that the emotion was making her feel stronger, not weaker. Making her behave like her real self. Not like some disgusting idiot who was obsessed all the time by the fear that somebody might figure out her true feelings. One day, she might look forward to that little blue flash.

Feelings. They had such urgent, scary power—which was the point, of course, of the Intercept in the first place. That was the key. That was why it worked so well. Such had been Kendall Mayhew’s great inspiration: to use the vast coiled might of recollected emotions to control behavior, to force people into doing what they should have been doing in the first place.

Feelings made people so astonishingly vulnerable. The Intercept proved that every day, every minute. The idea of life without it—of a civilization that could somehow function without the collection and re-deployment of emotions—was unthinkable now.

“So,” Danny said. “Wish I had time to grab a coffee or something. But I’ve got a few things to do.”

You always have things to do, Violet thought grumpily. What things? 

“Sure,” she said.

“See you later, okay?”

“Sounds good.” She always pretended that it didn’t matter to her one way or another whether they got together or not. It was a matter of pride.

Could Danny see through her fake-cool attitude? She wasn’t sure. And that made her wonder, in turn, how an emotion such as uncertainty might register on the Intercept—in shades of gray, maybe, with a lot of squiggly lines heading in different directions?

“Okay,” he said. “And hey, listen—thanks again.”

“Sure.” Her next words came out in a rush. She was as surprised by them as he was. She didn’t know she was going to say them until she did. “When you go back down there, is it—is it the same? The same as when you left?”

Violet’s voice was full of wonder. She had a sharp hunger to know about the strange world he had left behind.

Fleetingly, she thought about the Intercept, and what it might do with her deep desire to experience Old Earth, a desire that was rekindled over and over again. How would that emotion register on the Intercept? As an endless longing, she supposed. As a kind of fevered yearning.

Danny didn’t answer right away. She waited. He was still here, yes, but in another way, it felt to Violet as if he was very far away, too. Even if she tried to make contact with him, she had the notion that he would always be—like his image on her screen earlier today—forever out of her reach.

“It’s the same,” he said, in a quiet voice. “But it’s also not the same, you know? Not at all.”

“I bet you miss it.”

“Come on, Violet.” Now his voice was scoffing. “It’s terrible down there. You’ve seen the pictures. Dirt, hunger, disease—you know what it’s like. It was bad when my brother and I left and it’s worse now. How could anybody miss that?”

“I didn’t ask about anybody. I asked about you.”

He closed his eyes. Then he opened them again. “Okay,” he said. He wasn’t scoffing anymore. Violet had the distinct sense that a knot inside him had just loosened a little bit. “I do, actually,” he said. “Sometimes—yeah. I miss it. Even as ugly and awful as it is, I miss it. Funny how you get that. I don’t think anybody else ever has.”

“I don’t know about Old Earth. But I know about missing things.”

“Yeah,” Danny said. She could tell by the way he looked at her that he was waiting for more—waiting for more questions about why he risked so much to return as often as he did. Questions he was ready to ignore or deflect. His guard was up again; the shields had returned to their regular positions.

But she didn’t ask anything else. She’d asked him enough for one day.

“So I get that,” Violet said.

Their eyes locked. The moment was awkward—and the moment wasn’t awkward, too, at exactly the same time. Violet had never felt anything quite like it with anybody other than him. On the one hand, she was nervous, fluttery, uncomfortable—but on the other, she’d never felt more relaxed. Or happier.

Was Danny feeling that way, too? Unless he decided to tell her, she couldn’t know. Only the Intercept knew, based on history and probability.

“I’d better get going,” he said.

“Yeah.”

Violet picked up her tablet as if she was going back to her reading. She didn’t want him to know she’d be watching him leave. But that’s exactly what she planned to do.

As soon as he began his swift, long-legged stride across the wide expanse of white marble on the floor of Protocol Hall, Violet stood up so that she could follow his movements. Looking down from her workstation, she could easily keep track of his progress through the crowd. For one thing, only field cops wore dark blue uniforms. And Danny was taller and leaner than a lot of people. He reached the big glass double doors and waited a brief second for them to swish open. In another minute he would be crossing the plaza in front of Protocol Hall. The plaza, the main meeting spot for people her age on New Earth, was a large flagstone square surrounded by a low stone wall where people sat or leaned while they talked and laughed or read and drank coffee or just thoughtfully watched the sky. There was always a great deal of sky-watching on New Earth. The colors changed all the time.

Now that she was no longer distracted by Danny’s close physical presence, the questions came back to her with fresh intensity, questions she wished she’d had the courage to ask him—instead of putting up with his evasions. He had asked her to trust him. But how could she do that, when his actions didn’t make sense?

Why can’t you just stay away from Old Earth? I wish you’d tell me. Or tell me why you can’t tell me. Why are you risking so much to keep going down there?

Sometimes she had an inkling that—by not answering her questions—he thought he was protecting her. But from what?

From himself, maybe. From a secret he held deep inside, a secret he gripped so tightly that it had grown right into his soul, indistinguishable from his very being.

Or maybe it was something else entirely.

A new suspicion had recently occurred to her, a terrible hunch that had nothing to do with his soul. It could explain all too well why Danny kept sneaking down to Old Earth.

And the thought of it made her go cold inside.

Copyright © 2017 by Julia Keller

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