Chapter 1: Peyton
Unfortunately, it was a beautiful day.
Peyton frowned, glancing up at the bright midday sky through the tinted window of her family’s car as it flew down an old country road. The summer sun shone above the sea of tall, green trees in the clear blue sky. Its light tickled her face, but her frown only deepened. This wasn’t what she wanted. Peyton had hoped for a storm as it was the only thing that could save her from the dreadfully boring weekend her family had planned.
A camping trip wasn’t exactly how Peyton wanted to start her summer break. If she had a choice, she’d be hanging out by the pool with her friends and a cold glass of lemonade. Not spending the next couple of days in an insect-infested campground with her dad who probably had a brunch of lectures planned for her. The man loved his lectures. But after two hellish weeks of finals, The last thing Peyton wanted to do was listen to another lecture.
It’s like I never left school, Peyton declared, turning away from the window. She closed her eyes and listened to her all-time favorite band, The Burning Beauties. The sounds of drumbeats and fast-playing electric guitars echoed into her ears, drawing out all the noises. Usually, the band put her in a good mood, but the sting of her disappointment killed any good vibe the music might have brought.
She sighed. This weekend is going to suck. Then her music suddenly stopped. And now there’s that. I just can’t win today.
Peyton opened her eyes and glanced down at the commlink on her wrist. The wristband displayed her music profile. She had at least ten thousand songs downloaded from different genres and artists. Peyton scanned the interface and noticed the problem. Somehow her music was paused. Confused, Peyton pressed the play button, but nothing happened. She did it again. The device remained silent. She sighed, realizing what was going on.
Peyton glanced up at the seat across from her. “You know I hate it when you do that?”
“Sorry, honey,” her mom said. Her apologetic voice echoed from Peyton’s earbuds even though her mouth didn’t move. “But your father wants to talk to you.”
Her mom blinked, ending their call. Peyton’s music immediately returned. Peyton snorted. Unlike her, Peyton’s mom didn’t use a commlink. She didn’t need it. With all her cybernetic implants, her mom was a human commlink. Her job required her to get them. Although most of them were neural units allowing her to maintain the appearance of a middle-aged Chinese American woman. At least until someone noticed her data-jack on the back of her neck, hidden behind her reddish-brown hair.
Peyton took an earbud out and turned to her dad. “You need something, Dad?”
“Yeah,” Her dad cleared his throat.” Listen kiddo, I know you’re not exactly thrilled about the camping trip, but it can be good for you. You’ll get to reconnect with nature and get away from all that tech.”
Peyton resisted the urge to roll her eyes. She figured her dad would say something like that. Unlike her mom, her dad was a normal human, a baseline. He rejected the idea of getting any implants even though their family could afford it. He didn’t like the idea of having too much tech in his body. Peyton knew he wanted her to feel the same way. But she didn’t. How could she? When people were getting stronger and faster by the day, everyone was becoming superhuman. There was no way she was going to be left behind. She was going to become augmented no matter what. Peyton just had to wait until she was eighteen.
Using her real voice, her mom said. “What your father is trying to say is that we only want to spend some time with you. You just finished your first year of high school and it won’t be long before you’re off to college.”
Understanding her mom, Peyton nodded. “But why camping? Why couldn’t we do something fun like go on a cruise or take a trip to Europe?”
“Because,” her dad snapped but fell silent for a second, “I didn’t think of those things. They do sound like fun. How about this next time you get to choose what we do.”
“Yeah, but I want you to at least try to have some fun this weekend, okay?”
That was a pretty tall order but Peyton felt she could do it. “Okay.”
“Well you think of it this way,” her mom said. “At least you won’t be alone. Your cousin will be there.”
Once again, her mom had a point. Ashely was her cousin, best friend, and the only other teenager who was going to be on this trip. Peyton wasn’t quite sure she could do this without her. However, unlike her, her cousin was actually happy about this camping trip. It was all she talked about for the past month, leaving Peyton to be the black sheep as usual. Nonetheless, Peyton knew they would find something fun to do; hiking, swimming, something.
Peyton found herself grinning. Maybe this weekend won’t be so bad after all.
CRASH! Peyton flew forward, nearly hitting the back of her dad’s seat. Her seatbelt caught her. Peyton froze. Her mind blanked. Her heart raced. The car came to a screeching stop. Peyton slammed back into her seat. She glanced up at her parents. They were still moving, still alive.
Her dad asked. “Is everyone alright?”
“Yeah.” Peyton and her mom both said.
Peyton regained her composure. “What did we hit?”
She looked over her dad’s shoulder, expecting to find a dead or wound animal lying on the road. Animal crossings were common in this area and accidents were bound to happen. Although she wondered why the car navigation sensors didn’t warn them. She got her answer when she looked down the road. It wasn’t an animal lying on the road, but a rather large box.
It was like nothing she had ever seen before. It had a sleek black metal shell that screamed high tech. Yet it was glowing bright blood red. Peyton wondered if that was a good thing or a bad thing. She turned to her parents for insight but they looked just as shocked as her. Peyton’s head spun with questions. What was it? Where did it come from? Who created it? How did it get out here? Was there something inside of it? She looked back at the box, wondering what they were going to do now.
“Stay in the car,” her mom commanded.
Peyton turned ready to snap. She wanted to go too but noticed her mom pulling her badge and sonic handgun from the glove compartment. She stopped herself. Peyton knew better than to argue with Deputy Julia Chu. It just wasn’t worth it. Instead, she watched her mom exit the car and approach the box. Her mom moved cautiously, looking ready for any danger.
“Miranda, are you there?” Her dad asked loudly.
The virtual assistant came online. “Yes, how can I be of assistance?”
“We’re going to need a tow truck and a rental at our location. We’re not going anyway.”
The program beeped. “I’ll have both sent to your location. ETA will be at least twenty-five to thirty minutes. Also, I must apologize. I was unable to warn you of the upcoming collision. The unknown object appeared so suddenly. I didn’t have time.”
That didn’t sound right. The car sensors should have been able to pick up anything in a nanosecond. Peyton asked. “Do you know how the object got here?”
“I’m sorry. As I previously stated, the object just suddenly appeared.”
Suddenly appeared? That still didn’t seem right. Peyton looked out of the window and scanned their surroundings. There were no trucks or vans on the road. The forest alongside remained calm and undisputed. Even the sky was clear of any aircraft or mechs. Then how did the object get here? It didn’t just appear out of thin air. Or did it? Peyton turned back to her mom and the object. She found the woman kneeling over it. Her mom reached behind her hair and pulled out her data cord.
Peyton immediately knew what her mom was doing. The deputy was going to link into the object. She had heard stories about people who did that. They were called Net-runners. They were hackers who used their data-jack implant to hack into various mainframes and servers. They were infamous for causing problems for government agencies, corporations, and celebrities. But their stories always end the same with the hacker’s brain fried from either virus, firewalls, or other net-runners.
Peyton asked. “Miranda, is my mom going to be alright?”
“I assure you. Your mother will be—-.”
A blast of static filled the car. Peyton covered her ears, trying to lessen the loud sound. Her dad quickly turned down the volume manually. Peyton shook her head, wondering what was that all about. She looked down the road at her mom and gasped. Her mom lay on the ground. Peyton’s heart skipped a beat and her instinct kicked in. Without a second thought, Peyton raced out of the car and down the street. She fell beside her mom, calling out to her. “MOM! MOM! Wake up!”
The deputy remained still. Beads of sweat rolled down her face. Her eyes closed, but her eyelids were moving quickly. Almost like it was blinking. Peyton’s dad moved around them, pulling her mom’s cord out of its socket. Then he dropped down beside her and placed his finger on her throat.
“She still has a pulse,” Dad said, still sounding concerned. “We need an ambulance here now.”
Peyton activated her commlink. “Miranda, are you there? We need an ambulance at our location!”
“An ambulance…has been…your location,” Miranda said, but the transmission was still staticy. “ETA…twenty minutes…You must save…the boy inside the machine.”
Boy? What boy? What machine? Peyton turned to her dad. “An ambulance is on its way.”
Then she turned to the object. It was the only thing that made sense. She rose and approached it. The object’s lid was opened. She figured her mom or Miranda must have done that. She looked inside and couldn’t believe her eyes. Miranda was right. There was a boy inside of the object.
The dark-skinned boy looked around her age, fourteen or fifteen years old. He had short buzzed brown hair and his eyes closed but was blinking rapidly like her mom. He wore a skintight wetsuit with wires and tubes attached to the inner shell of the machine. A strange helmet and an oxygen mask covered his face.
Regaining her senses, Peyton slipped her hand to his throat. His skin was ice cold. She still felt the slow tap-tap-tap of his pulse. Good, the boy’s still alive. But then she noticed his chest was moving. He wasn’t breathing. The machine wasn’t breathing for him anymore. She had to save him. Peyton quickly took off the helmet and mask. Her dad called out to her, but Peyton ignored him. She titled the boy’s head back and listened.
No, he still wasn’t breathing on his own. She had no choice. Peyton Peyton quickly put her hands together, one top of the other. Then she pressed down hard and fast onto the middle of the boy’s chest. She put her body weight into it. She did it at least a hundred times. Then she delivered two rescue breaths by breathing into the boy’s mouth while pinching his nose. His chest rose. Then she continued the compression.
Peyton repeated the action. With each breath she gave, more doubt grew in her mind. What if the boy was already dead? No! She couldn’t believe it. She could still save him. She pressed a little harder as tears streamed down her cheeks. Stop it! This is no time for tears. I can still save him.
“Come on! Breath!” Peyton shouted, slamming her fist into his chest.
The boy suddenly gasped, taking in a huge gulp of air. His brown eyes opened, looking up at her. He looked confused. “Peyton?” He said in Mandarin.
Peyton looked back at him just as confused. The boy knew her name. Did he know her? She didn’t know him. Peyton had never met him before. At least she couldn’t remember meeting him. Before she could say anything, the boy’s eyes rolled into the back of his head. He fell silent again. Peyton checked his pulse again. It was stronger now. His breathing was normal.
In the distance, sirens were approaching, but Peyton ignored them. She looked down at the boy, trying to think of his name. Her mind drew a blank. She didn’t know him. One lingering question into her mind. Who the hell are you?