"Are you happy now?" Jason glared at Rebecca from across the small plastic table. But Rebecca didn't care. She wasn't here for a repeat of yesterday; she wanted to do this on her own terms.
Rebecca's own terms had included a quick trip to the mall. Her most immediate concern was ditching the pyjamas she was still wearing and finding something more appropriate. She could get away with them at the hospital, but not out in public. At least, despite all the confusion she had left her apartment with her phone and hence all her shares data.
The diversion seemed to frustrate Jason immensely. Rebecca wasn't sure if it was just because she was keeping him waiting or because he was still worried they might be caught by the machine he'd called a Peacekeeper. Despite the events of the previous night, Rebecca was not worried. It was daylight and they were out in the open, in a busy shopping centre, around other people. It wouldn't come after them here. And one thing she was certain of, she was not spending the rest of the day in her pyjamas.
Food was next on Rebecca's list. She had chosen a fast-food restaurant on the sidewalk just outside the mall. Not the best choice for breakfast but she figured she deserved it after everything that had happened to her. And she seriously doubted Jason could handle waiting for much longer.
"I'm far from happy, Jason. But I'm ready to talk."
"About time." Jason drew in a breath and glanced cautiously over his shoulder. "Just as long as you think it's safe out here."
"Positive." There was another reason Rebecca had picked a busy area; she had no intention of letting Jason take her some place secluded. "So you said that thing was a Peacekeeper?"
Jason nodded. "I didn't think they'd be chasing you and not with one of those. I don't know if they want you for their own reasons, or because they somehow know we want you. But I've never heard of Peacekeepers in your City. That's not how the System handles you guys. But I've seen more than my fair share."
"... out of town?" Rebecca asked, raising an eyebrow.
"So, a Peacekeeper trying to find me is bad. But you're after me too. So what exactly do you want to do with me? I'm not just going to let you use me cause you're a bit less scary than the alternative."
Jason paused for a moment, eyeing the burger Rebecca had bought him. Then he picked it up and attacked it like he hadn't eaten in months.
Rebecca chewed her lip but said nothing. She had a strong suspicion that this was payback for her hurried shopping trip.
"Excuse me; I've hardly eaten since I got here."
"I can tell."
"Rebecca," he began, once he had consumed the burger in record time, "I know you're probably not going to believe me but at least hear me out. This," he pulled out one of the gloves from his deep coat pockets. "Is what Controllers use. Well, the chip is. But I don't really like the idea of injecting it into my hand. And this makes it easier to share." He tossed the glove across to her and then pulled out the second and slipped it on himself.
Rebecca examined the glove again, before slowly slipping it on. It was a bit big, but then the material suddenly shrunk to fit her hand. She blinked.
"It's nanite infused."
"I thought you didn't like nanites?"
"Only in my bloodstream."
"Even if this was... I can't use it, I'm not a Controller..."
"Yes, you are," Jason said firmly. "You've just never had one of the chips to try with."
"And before I try," she said, forcing herself to look Jason in the eye, "you're going to tell me exactly what you want with me."
Jason met her gaze for a long moment and the faintest hint of a smile crossed his face.
"Nothing, you just reminded me of someone..." Jason waved a hand dismissively. "Alright, I'll explain it to you, but I need to explain a few other things first. Like where I'm from. It's further than out of the City. Not in any of the factories or farms out in the valley either. Where I come from, the people don't exactly have it as good as this damn City. I know it's been crammed into your head that this tiny chunk of earth you've got your City floating over is the only habitable bit of rock left..."
"Wait, wait, wait," Rebecca squeezed her eyes shut and held up a hand. "You're one of those weirdos who thinks the earth isn't round?"
"I thought you wanted to hear me out?" Jason growled. He leaned back and folded his arms.
Well, why not? She was deep enough in this already. Rebecca sighed. "Fine."
"Look," he continued, "here if you do something wrong or you're no longer useful, you might lose your job. You might lose all your shares. Out there, people get killed, families get broken up, and half the time they don't have enough to eat..." He looked at the paper wrappings that were left of his meal in disgust.
"Out there where, Jason?"
Jason paused, as if he had already guessed what her reaction to his next words would be. "Below."
Rebecca groaned. "I knew it..."
"You said you were prepared to listen."
"No, you listen to me," she said, "let me explain to you how the world works, because you're obviously confused. There isn't anything 'below'. There's just solid rock..."
Jason leaned forward. "Really? And where do you suppose that giant toilet you dump all your garbage into goes to?"
"The Purge? I don't know, underground?" Rebecca waved away the comment. "That's not important. Humans messed up the world long ago, this valley is the only habitable bit that's left, that's why we have to take care of it so carefully. It's why people like you need to pull your weight, not go on about the earth being flat, or whatever it is you..."
"I never said I thought the earth was flat," Jason growled. "I said I was from below. Flat doesn't have a below. What it isn't is round. Not anymore. It's like..." He fumbled in his pocket and pulled out an apple.
"Where did you get that?" Rebecca asked suspiciously. She certainly hadn't paid for it in their hurried shopping trip.
Jason ignored the comment and held the apple up in front of him. "You're right about one thing. Humans did mess up the earth. A lot more than you think. You think the earth is still like this? In reality," Jason took the apple and bit out a series of chunks. He was left with mostly the core, with only a few parts of the apple still intact towards it's top. "It's more like this..." he said, through the mass of fruit still in his mouth. He swallowed. "This is you, somewhere up here," he pointed to the relatively intact part of the apple. "And this," he pointed to the chewed up part, nearer to the core, "is below."
Rebecca scooted her chair back a few inches. "You're insane. And that's disgusting."
"No!" Jason pounded a fist on the table, with enough vehemence to bounce the salt and pepper shakers and cause Rebecca to start. "You want to know what's insane? What you have in the valley, even the factories up towards the outer mountains - none of that is anywhere near enough to support this urban monstrosity you've built. So you take food and resources from below. And then you won't even acknowledge we exist! Sitting happy on the top of your little apple." He tossed the core into the middle of the table. "And it’s because of that that the people there are getting taken advantage of and even killed because..."
"It doesn't exist, so no one's getting killed."
"Yes, they are," Jason insisted. "I've seen it. Just like..." He held up his gloved hand and pointed his finger in the shape of gun, "… that."
Rebecca glanced over her shoulder. There was a television on the wall behind them and it now had a massive crack through its screen. It gave out one last pathetic spark as the image died to a few disappointed moans from some of the other customers.
"You can't argue with me about the Control," said Jason. "Not now."
"Because of the television? What you did that just like a Controller? What about the bus?"
"And what about that Peacekeeper that tried to kill you?" Jason growled.
Rebecca paused, frowning. "That could definitely control machines. I saw it. And I don't know why it's chasing me. Which is why I came to you; at the time it seemed the only thing I could do to get some answers. But I'm not convinced you can control machines with just some dirty old glove. Maybe, but..." she sighed, and dropped her head into one hand. What was she thinking? Even if Jason was a Controller, with all the other garbage he was going on about... "And there's no one being taken advantage of 'below'."
Jason leaned back in his chair and gripped the edge of the table as if to steady himself. "Forget it. I should have known better than to try and convince someone from the City. You think you know everything, don't you? No, of course there's no below, and hardly any Controllers, and no one can control nanites, everyone is happy in their perfect little jobs and no one gets killed it they can't do them..."
"Keep it down," Rebecca whispered harshly. Jason's voice was carrying now his irritation with her was growing.
Jason lowered his voice only slightly. "Well, I apologise for my ignorance. I can't convince you with words. But I really don't think you're stupid enough to go on ignoring obvious demonstrations. So all I can do is show you what I can do and hope you're not so blind it doesn't sink in." He shifted his chair so he was facing out towards the nearby road.
Rebecca sat up straight. "Jason, no, don't do that again."
At least the traffic was moving slowly. This time though Jason didn't go anywhere near the road. The bright yellow sports car that was his unfortunate target only wobbled slightly before veering off the road, one wheel riding up onto the kerb, and ran into a light pole. The car was left with only a decent dent but that was enough to have the owner cussing and throwing his hands in the air as he exited the vehicle to survey the damage.
Rebecca winced. "I'm pretty sure that was expensive."
"It's just a car. Yet another piece of the unnecessary junk you people insist on keeping." Jason glanced sidelong at her, raising an eyebrow. "And if you don't think I'm a Controller, why are you blaming me?"
"Okay, okay." The television she could possibly ignore but Rebecca couldn't convince herself the car was just a coincidence. But Jason was still a nut. That was just her luck. "You don't need to do it again.”
At that moment Rebecca's phone beeped, along with every other in the immediate vicinity.
"What was that?" Jason was on edge. He glanced warily over his shoulder.
Rebecca pulled out her phone. "It's just a vote. You haven't had any shares in a while, have you?"
"Somehow, getting to vote based on the number of shares I owned never appealed to me. No wait, I never had any. I'm not a citizen of this City!" Jason pushed his chair back and stomped to the kerbside.
Rebecca sighed and shoved her phone back in her pocket before going after him. Voting on whatever had come up would have to wait. It was never particularly important anyway. "Where are you going?"
Jason shoved his hands into his coat pockets and started walking. "It's bad enough I gave into your little shopping spree. We shouldn't be out here and I shouldn't be showing off."
Rebecca almost had to jog to keep up with him. But her need for answers was still greater than her fear of Jason. "You can't just expect me to believe all this garbage! I mean, if what you were trying to explain was true, we would have figured it out already. The people in the City, I mean. We're smart people..."
Jason laughed briefly.
"There are far too many distractions here for you to figure out what is really going on. The System is using you too, but be grateful; you've got it a hell of a lot better up here."
Rebecca huffed. "Look, what I mean is the people in this City are mostly involved with, you know, the sciences, and engineering, and stuff like that. We'd be smart enough to figure out something like that. And the System doesn't take advantage of anyone, it's just there to keep everything running..."
"Will you stop talking?" Jason finally stopped striding along the pavement and turned to the road again. "You've got one of the Controls. If you don't believe what I say, why don't you try it for yourself? I'm sure you'll believe what you can do over anything I do or say."
"How can you know I can do this?"
"Just try it! We're not arguing!"
"That's all you people do..."
"What, people from the City?"
"No! Engineers..." Jason growled. "Never mind." He drew in a breath. "Will you please just try?"
How much could it hurt? It might at least convince Jason he was wrong, at least about her. With a sigh, Rebecca reached out the hand she wore the glove on towards the traffic and waved it around. A woman in one of the passing cars gave her a funny look. "This is stupid..."
"You're not trying!"
Rebecca's phone trilled again.
"For gods sake," Jason growled. "That better not be another vote."
"It's just a phone call. I'm taking it. "Rebecca put the phone to here ear. "Hello?"
"Bec, it's Leah! Are you okay?" Her housemate sounded a little flustered.
"Yeah, I'm fine why..." And then Rebecca's head caught up. "Oh, the apartment!"
"Yes! I came home and there were cops all over the building and they wouldn't let me in and then I found out it was our apartment and then no one could find you..."
She'd completely forgotten about Leah! She should have called her right away. And here she was wasting her time with Jason. Rebecca felt a wash of guilt. "Leah, I'm so sorry; I'm fine. I just left because of all the confusion. I'm sorry, I didn't even think about you coming home I was so... stressed."
"Oh it's okay," said Leah. Her voice was now noticeably calmer. "I just needed to know you were okay. And the cops... it's all routine stuff but they said they want to see you."
Rebecca could feel Jason standing just behind her shoulder. He could probably overhear but frankly at the moment she didn't really care. "Okay. How soon do they want to see me?"
"Look, I don't know if you're hanging out with some boy or something but this sounds important. Something weird went down and I think some of the cops got killed. They're probably going to want to see you soon. Can you get down to the station?"
"Yeah, sure. If they ask you tell them I won't be long."
"Alright. Stay safe, hun."
"Thanks, Leah. I'll see you soon." She hung up and turned to find that Jason was indeed right behind her.
"You can't go and see the cops," he said. "It's a trap. It's got to be."
"That thing killed some of them!" Rebecca snapped. She took a few steps back. Jason was far too close for comfort. "They're not working together, so there's no reason why I should be worried about going to them."
"They take their orders from the System, so that means..."
"Everyone takes their orders from the System, Jason!"
Jason took her by the arm. "You just have to trust me," he growled, his voice low.
Rebecca pulled away. That was it. She'd had enough. "No, no I don't. I've heard you out and all you've done is tried to fill my head with all this garbage!"
"Like about the glove? You admitted a moment ago that I could control..."
"Maybe. But I can't use it. And for all I know what you did was just some party trick. Controllers don't need some sort of device. And everything you said about people getting killed, where you're from. Well, you're still alive, aren't you? You're not dead; you're just unemployed!" Rebecca dragged off the glove and tossed it back at him.
Jason grabbed it as it slapped into his chest. "Everything I just told you," he seethed. "I've seen it myself..."
"I don't think you have."
"Don't tell me what I have or haven't seen!" Jason exploded. "You don't know everything!"
"I'm an engineer; I'm employed! I know a lot more than you! I don't even know what you do, or did, before you lost your job. Which isn't at all surprising."
"I try and fix the mess this City causes!"
"Well, aren't you just the hero? Forget this; I'm going to the cop shop. And you can't convince me otherwise. Maybe they'll have more answers for me now."
Jason swallowed hard. "You will be walking into a trap."
"It's better than what I've walked into here." With a huff, Rebecca stomped back to the kerb. She was looking for the nearest bus stop. At the moment, any bus would do; she'd access the schedule on her phone once she was actually on one.
Someone grabbed her arm so hard it hurt. "You don't understand," Jason hissed into her ear. "I'm not letting you walk into that trap."
There was a vehicle lurking at the kerb. Jason spotted it even before he grabbed hold of Rebecca. It could have been nothing, but a stark white paint job always put him on edge. With their advanced NIAsteel bodies Peacekeepers could take on a number of forms. Perhaps he was being paranoid but paranoia had saved his life more than once.
"We need to get out of here."
An unattended car was parked nearby. Jason shoved Rebecca towards it. Using the Control he hacked the locking mechanism on the passenger door. He pushed her quickly inside and then locked the door behind her. The poor girl seemed so stunned by the sudden turn of events that she didn't even put up a fight. Good. The last thing he needed was to have to wrestle her or knock her out.
Jason dodged around the bonnet, climbed into the driver's seat, and passed his gloved hand over the console. The car roared to life. He let out a pent up breath. It seemed he was getting the hang of controlling the City's machines. It would have been nice if he'd had a bit of practice before the bus though.
Rebecca tugged at the locked door but gave up when the car began to move. Instead, she glanced across at Jason, her eyes blazing. For the briefest of moments Jason found himself staring at her. For the second time that day he found her gaze hauntingly familiar. It wasn't the features themselves; her blond, shoulder length hair was different, and even the blue eyes did not kindle recognition. But some of her expressions, the way she raised her eyebrow… he shook it off and turned his attention back to the road.
Jason gripped the steering wheel and concentrated on the heavy traffic. There was no point driving with the Control; the car was designed to be operated manually and he didn't fully trust his skills controlling new machines with any degree of finesse. He glanced in the rear view mirror. The white car he'd noticed earlier pulled out from the kerb. Jason gritted his teeth. He still wasn't sure if it was following them; it certainly didn't seem to be in any hurry.
"You are so dead."
Jason met Rebecca's cold glare for the briefest of moments. He knew he'd scared her but it didn't matter. There were worst things than being afraid. "I'm doing you a favour. Trust me."
Jason glanced again in the mirror. He couldn't see the other car. Good. Perhaps it hadn't actually been a threat. Despite that thought, he could still feel tension cramping his fingers onto the steering wheel and he'd broken out in a cold sweat. He tried to force himself to relax. As if that ever worked! On top of the fear of being followed he wasn't used to the traffic. Weren't there certain rules one was supposed to follow whilst in the City? Jason knew how to drive, but he suddenly realised he had no idea what these rules were. Not that he gave a damn about the rules but it would do little good if he were arrested for a traffic violation.
"I don't suppose," he said, trying to keep the tension from this voice, "you could let me know if I inadvertently break any road rules?"
Rebecca remained silent.
"Unless you want me to get into another accident!" he snapped.
Rebecca scrunched herself further away from him, up against the passenger door. Her arms were folded protectively across her chest.
Jason gritted his teeth. What the hell was he doing?! He was supposed to be gaining this woman's trust; not scaring her. He knew he had to keep her safe. But he'd probably shattered any shred of trust he'd managed to build with her when he'd hauled her into the car.
Jason drew in a breath and actually tried to think before he said anything more. He had to get her back on side. "Rebecca, I'm serious about this, if you couldn't tell. And I'm not crazy..." He paused, choosing his next words carefully. He couldn't tell her everything, not now. Sarah would tell him that he should just be straight up honest. But Sarah wasn't here. A half truth would have to do, at least until Jason was sure Rebecca would accept the full truth. "You have the potential to be an incredibly powerful Controller; that's why we need you. I had one of my people come here before me. She hacked into your file, the one the System has on you, and that pretty much sums it up. You don't know because there's only supposed to be a certain number of Controllers. They're not going to tell you about it. And all the stuff that's happening down below, well..." For a moment he paused, almost daring to give her the full story. But he couldn't. Not after the way she'd looked at that photo. "Look, I've got a certain task in mind that I need you to do. I'll... I'll tell you about it later..." he finished weakly.
Jason was so focused on choosing his words, as well as concentrating on the traffic, that he had completely forgotten about the white car that had sparked his initial flight. It was not until he felt the tell-tale wobble in his vehicle's steering that he realised something was wrong. Still, it took him precious seconds to react. When he activated his Control to see what his newly acquired car was doing he hit up against the powerful mind that had effortlessly grasped control of his vehicle.
Jason barely had time for the fear to flood his system and then the steering wheel was physically wrested from his grip as the car swerved onto the roads shoulder, braking hard, and crunched up against the concrete barrier with a screech of tortured metal.