After that, my father became very distrustful of the network. As much as he loved the system, he became more and more suspicious that someone was using it to monitor everyone. He had no proof, try as he might to find some, but that didn't stop him from acting. Soon after they took my mother, he woke me up in the dead of night, told me to pack my belongings and get ready to leave. I stumbled around in the dark, cramming everything necessary into one bag before leaving to check on my brothers. We all met, bleary-eyed and blinking in the hallway, bags in hand.
My father led us out of the house into the night. The dim core light reflecting off the water gave us means to see, but just barely through the night shield. We slipped from the settlement into the desert, my father refusing to tell us where we were going, just grunting and continuing to move. We traveled for a long time, but one thing was clear: we moved in circles, the settlement always to our left. Just when the night shield was about to lift and the full core light return, my father stopped walking. On the last circuit, we’d moved closer to the settlement, and now we stood, quiet as the night, backs pressed against the smooth wall of the settlement's primary water control station.
Most people avoided the tall structure standing along the settlement’s northern edge, a Seeker outpost adjacent. Why we were here, only my father knew. After several moments at that wall, my father motioned us to wait and moved toward the entrance. A single door granted access into the tower on the settlement side of the building. We waited, straining our ears for any sounds.
My father returned moments later, padding along in soft-soled shoes. A breath I hadn't realized I was holding slipped out. He waved at us to follow, then slipped back toward the entrance. We made our way into the structure, and the door slid shut behind us, sealing with a faint shift of metal in the wall. The main floor of the control station held a single large network touch screen. The translucent panel stood before me, facing away toward a chair. Beyond the terminal, a set of stairs spiraled up to the second floor. The Ancients that designed the stations long ago had lacked imagination. We would find the equivalent to living quarters: kitchenette, washroom and several sleeping quarters on the floor above that. They meant the station to be self-sustaining, as it was much older than the settlement and meant to stand alone.
My father held a finger over his mouth then nodded toward the stairs. All of us ascended to the second level, where my father touched a panel, closing a door hidden in the floor.
"We'll be safe here," he said. "Micaela, figure out what supplies we have. Donovan, get Maryn settled in a bed. He looks dead on his feet. I need to think."
"Why are we safe here?" I asked, not moving. "Are we in trouble?"
My father shook his head. "No, not in trouble. Just safer here." He sighed. "No unwanted eyes."
The place looked sufficient, but drab and very simple. I couldn't put my finger on it, but Donovan saved me the trouble.
Looking around proved him correct. This had to be the first room I could recall that didn't have a network access panel of some kind.
My father nodded. "And a little privacy to boot. Get to it."
We settled in to the water control station. My father made appearances of returning to the house over the coming few weeks. When asked how long we would have to stay in the control station, he would say, "Until the eyes go away." I pressed him for some meaning, but he never offered more than that.
A routine of sorts took over our lives. We'd start each day with our lessons, but my father would interrupt Donovan and me - one of us in the morning, the other in the afternoon - to help him with a problem. Beyond these occasions, he forbade us going near the network station, a point of contention between him and me, you can imagine. That machine held a special draw for me, so full of knowledge and possibility. Still, he insisted, and despite my disappointment, I acquiesced to keep things calm. When my turn would come, however, I leapt at a chance to be near the terminal, even if for but a moment. Father would show us data, information that was related, but he wouldn't tell us how. He'd let us look for a moment, then take us away. Each evening, as we ate, he would ask us what we learned from the information.
"Honestly, I'm having a hard time seeing a connection," Donovan said at dinner one evening. "A little context would help."
My father just sat there, eating in silence. Donovan shrugged and looked at me. I decided to try a different tack.
"Maybe if you told us why you want us to look at the data, Father." He paused to contemplate my statement. "We can see it's important to you. We just want to help, and, to do that, we need a little nudge."
"All our lives depend on that information," he stated and returned to his meal.
I pondered his words, shuffling the data in my head. "Water?"
He smiled, a small act just touching one side of his mouth. It was the first time he’d done so in weeks.
"Now you have your context." He pushed his plate away and stood up. "I've got a bit more work. Chores before anything else."
He left us and returned to the workroom below.
"Nice guess," Donovan whispered.
"It wasn't a guess. It's the only answer to his clue."
Donovan frowned. "Still doesn't help me with those numbers."
"Me either." I spooned a bit of soup into my mouth, hardly noticing the taste. "But there's something there. Why else put us to it?"
Donovan shrugged. "He may not be right in the head. There may be nothing to what he's showing us."
That earned him a glare, after glancing once at our younger sibling eating at the end of the table. Maryn seemed oblivious to the dinner topic.
"He may be sad, but Father's just as sharp now as he's ever been," I retorted.
"Calm down, Sis. I didn't mean anything by it." Donovan glanced at Maryn. "But he has been acting odd. Moving us here, for example."
"He's scared. We all are."
Donovan nodded. "But he's the adult. He's supposed to set the example."
"He's doing the best he can. He just lost his wife and daughter. You think you feel bad; imagine how he must feel."
Maryn looked up from his food. "I miss Mommy."
That ended our conversation. Donovan cleared the table while I took Maryn and put him to bed. I went to my room, one of the three in the building, and lay down myself. I stared at the wall for hours, contemplating numbers, water, and my mother. Just as sleep began to take hold, it struck me.
I pushed myself out of bed and went downstairs. My father sat at the network screen, staring at a large data set. The now familiar script of the computer screen dominated the panel from one side to the other.
"A thought, my dear?" my father asked, not taking his eyes from the panel.
"Someone's stealing our water."
My father stopped what he was doing and turned to look at me. "Explain."
So I did. He brought up the numbers and listened to why I thought it referred to our water. I extrapolated the data out to the potential conclusion.
"The only thing I don't get is, why?"
"You can't think of any reason someone would want to steal our water?" he asked.
I shrugged. "Short of forcing us all to leave?"
He raised one eyebrow.
"They want us to die?" I asked.
This time he shrugged. "Either one is a good reason. Another is they don't know it's happening."
"Or they do, and they can't stop it?"
He nodded. "Also possible. Or they do, but they have to do it. The point is, there are a lot of reasons why it could be happening."
"How long do we have?"
My father sighed, rubbing a hand over his face. "It's hard to tell from here. Cycles, possibly, unless the rate of decline suddenly accelerates."
"The data shows it's been steady for years now," I said, pointing at the panel.
He raised his eyebrows and pursed his lips in thought. "And that leads us back to why. If decline's intentional, it's been at this rate to hide it. If it's not, then who knows why the rate's been consistent. Whatever the cause, we need to assume the rate can suddenly change."
"What do we do?"
He smiled, another small one, gone in an instant, but I did see it. "We find a way to steal it back."
So we set to it. Over the coming weeks, we worked together to break apart the network coding and figure out how it worked. I say “us,” but the lion's share fell to him, as he understood the system better. He kept me there for a set of fresh eyes on the rare occasion when he got stuck. I didn't complain, as it let me near the network, even if vicariously.
Donovan took to keeping Maryn out of our hair. The two of them became almost inseparable up in the water tower. Once the Seekers lost interest in our settlement's supposed outbreak and left, my father let us leave the station. The two of them would escape out into the desert for hours on end. I chose to stay with my father. The work helped me not think of those lost to us, during the day, at least. Nights were a different matter, involving many tears and no sleep. It was the only time for tears. The rest of the time, my family needed a strong face. Well, it seemed they did.
Several weeks later, my father cried out in surprise. Lying on the cold floor behind him, I had just closed my eyes, the code dancing in my mind from all the time spent staring at it. He stood partway, hands raised overhead.
"I think I've done it!" he said, waving me over and sitting back down.
I scrambled to my feet. My father highlighted the bit of coding we'd wrapped our brains around for the past three days.
"The control code?"
"No, that proved impossible to alter, as you said," he answered, nodding at me. "So, I tried something else." He pointed to another part of the screen. "Can you spot it?"
My eyes darted about, reading the complicated scripting. It branched up and outward in structures known only to exist in this language. I muttered to myself as my finger traced the source code, reading, adding, and jumping around. These columns contained the most complicated structures I'd viewed. After a few moments, I highlighted a secondary line branching off from the main code.
"This, is it the allotment coding for each outlying station?" My father nodded. "This is how the system determines how much water is needed at each control point." He nodded again. Understanding dawned like a flame lit anew. "You tricked the algorithm into thinking we need more?"
He smiled. "Better. Keep going."
I went back to the coding, following each line back to its connection to the main control code. Then, I saw it.
"Here." My finger hovered over a key connecting symbol joining one random code line I'd passed over at first. "This is code for another control point." My father raised one eyebrow but remained silent. "But we're the end of the line. Why does this have another control point beyond us?"
He just sat there, not answering. I stared, then looked back at the code. "Oh, brilliant, Father. You tricked the system into thinking there's another control station beyond us that needs more. Not much, as we don't want it to stand out."
"Exactly." His grin split his face open.
"So, what do we do with the extra water?" I asked.
"For now, nothing." He used his fingers to grab a different section of code and pull it to the front. "My calculations show that even with the new water rations, it will take close to a cycle before our storage tanks are back to what they were before the decrease began."
"And what then?" I looked down at him, one eyebrow cocked.
He shrugged. "Either we find some new storage, or we adjust the rate again."
A map of the settlement appeared at a touch of my finger. "New storage won't be easy to hide." I pointed at the four main tanks distributed around the settlement, each branching out from one main line that left the control station. "Those are the largest structures around. If we add another, someone is bound to notice."
The screen went clear. My father's hand lifted from the only button on the desk before him, the control switch.
"That's a problem for another day," he said, standing. "Go. The core won't dim for several hours. You need some light."
I stood, staring at the translucent screen. "Father, what you just did. I’ve never seen such complicated coding." He nodded once. "You've been teaching me the code for years, but I only barely grasp it."
"Don't sell yourself short, my dear," he said, leaning close and placing a hand on my shoulder. "You've got just as much of a knack for this code as me."
I shook my head. "Oh no, not nearly as much as you. It's like you can see where the code is going before it gets there."
"Remember your studies." He grinned at me. "Don't neglect the connecting symbols. Where they go and what they are play a key role."
I stuck my tongue out at his reminder of my weakness in the language. "They don't teach this stuff in school," I pointed out. "Where did you learn how to do that?"
He met my gaze for a moment. His feet shuffled, as he ran his thumb and forefinger through his black and white mustache.
"Let's just say I had a good teacher."
"Out here?" I asked, not bothering to hide my doubt. "Where most people avoid using the network machines when they can?"
It was his turn to rest his gaze on me. "Just because you think we're alone doesn't mean we are." He held up his hand to forestall my response. "Now, go. I need some time to myself."
My father never answered that question, and not for lack of effort on my part. I brought it up at every chance. Never where my brothers could hear, just in case he didn't want them to know. Surprising him with it didn't work, nor did dropping it in an otherwise normal conversation. Confronting him failed as well. He would just smile and change the subject.
One day, I managed to corner him. Anger twisted that conversation, as I insisted he stop hiding whatever he kept secret and opined that he didn't trust me. The look he gave me at those words—well, let's just say I never tried that line of reasoning again.
Still, something must have gotten through, because one day, instead of employing his normal evasive tricks, he turned the tables on me.
"You're asking the wrong question, Micaela," he said before slipping away.
From then on, that was his response, one that infuriated me even more. I got so fed up with this answer one day, it drove me out to the desert. I stormed right out of the control station and, without realizing it, found myself out in the open away from the settlement. I pulled my cloak scarf around my head and torso and stared up at the very same rock outcropping I’d come to before. Glancing down, the gully stood below. Curiosity compelled me down out of the ever-present wind. The rock face felt rough under my hand. Near my feet grew the only plants that managed to survive the desert: yucca and small cacti. The crevice extended several hundred meters in different directions, a spider web of stone hallways hidden from sight below the outcropping visible above. Keeping it in view, I made my way inside the crevice to the nearest point below the rock formation. There, it ended in a wall of rock, forming a small circular alcove with a large stone surface jutting up from the middle of the floor.
To this day, I'm not sure what possessed me to do what I did next. Stepping near the stone jutting up from the floor, I unclasped the necklace given to me by my mother on my last birthday before she was taken. I placed the piece of jewelry on the center of the surface, rested my hand on it for a moment, my eyes closed, then turned and walked away. Inside, a small piece of me fell away, like a feather falling from a bird one might see in a zoo. It's not that my spirit felt lighter or happier. It just felt...different. Settled. Maybe a bit more complete.
That feeling ended when I returned to the control station.
"Why do I get the feeling another member of your family is about to vanish?" I asked, holding a hand up for Micaela to stop.
"Sensing a theme here?" Her voice took on a sour tone.
I stood up and stretched. "Who is it?"
I yawned, brushing some hair back out of my face. "This is where you really grew up, isn't it?"
She nodded once, very slowly. Her eyes moved away, looking around the room.
"I suppose I already had. It's not like life gave me much of a choice." She looked back at me. "They needed me, so I stepped in."
I looked at her, but my mind wandered to the Queen. Someone else who'd been given no choice.
"I see why you are friends with the Queen."
She smirked a bit. "The Queen has no friends. Just people she tolerates." The smile faded. "What friends she did have left her long ago."
I moved back to my seat.
"The control station?"
When the door slid open, I noticed several odd things. The network station stood empty. That was the first thing I found odd. Donovan sat on the floor beyond the chair. That was the second. Maryn was not with him. The third.
"Where's Father?" I asked, the door closing behind me.
Donovan just stared at the screen, not answering.
"Donovan?" I waved from behind the panel. Nothing. "Donovan?"
I moved around the panel to stand next to him. He just sat there, eyes locked on something. Following his gaze led me to a small flashing icon on the screen. I touched it with my finger and my father's face appeared, dominating the room.
"If you're looking at this, someone has discovered us. Micaela, forget your question. Forget the right question. Forget about all of it. Look after your brothers. They need you, now more than ever. Take care of each other. I hope to return, but I doubt I will and I'm sorry for that. I love you all."
His face vanished from the panel, which returned to the blinking icon. We waited in silence. After several moments, my brother managed one word.