Chapter One – The Mole
Loud music blocked out the ambient noise around Ela, so all she could hear was the lyrical tune and her own dull voice, exhausted and repetitive. She rubbed her weary eyes and flipped to the next page of text displayed on the screen. It was just after midnight, and she had been studying for over four hours. Tana still hadn’t returned from gallivanting with her boyfriend Demant. Each night became a little bit lonelier for Ela.
Staring at the words, they began to blur together in a mass of black swirls on a white background, and Ela knew she was finished studying for tonight. She thought-commanded the computer to turn itself off, and the screen projection faded into the wall, and the keyboard faded into the desk’s surface. Ela pressed a small button on the coin-like commander device on her right temple, unpeeled it from her skin and put it on the desk. Out the window, the inky black sky was dotted with glowing stars and a dull moon that cast a pale light over the campus.
Blocks of dorms spread out across the expanse of student accommodation complexes, and from Ela’s room she could see mountains towards the south-east, training fields to the north-east, and the rest of campus stretched out westward. The dorms were in blackness this late at night, and hers was the only room emanating a dim light. The odd security personnel wandered the grounds, even though there were enough cameras and sensors to do their jobs for them; they acted as a reminder to any students thinking of skipping curfew, and a reminder that HQ was always watching. None of that ever deterred Tana.
Ela preferred waiting for her friend to return to the dorm before she attempted sleep, otherwise Tana’s safety, or unsafety, would worry her restless. Glancing at the time on her wristband, she decided to turn in and voice-commanded the lights go black. She climbed to her bed above the desk, and looked over at Tana’s empty bunk opposite her. Taking the music buds from her ears, Ela emerged into the quiet reality of her life on campus, the only life she’s ever known.
A screaming alarm punched a hole in Ela’s chest, and she jumped down from the bunk.
“Gather in the piazza immediately.” The dorms A.I. switched on all the lights.
Ela pulled on a jacket sitting atop her footlocker, slid open her door, and joined the other girls making their way downstairs and outside. All students hurriedly migrated out of the gates and into the piazza, which joined the three separate student complexes. Security guards stood around a dais in the centre of the murmuring crowd.
“Hey, you OK?” Trix had found her.
Trix was taller than Ela and could see above the sea of heads. “They’re preparing to address us,” he said.
“What do you think is happening?” Ela’s throat was dry. She’d never heard this type of alarm before, not even in practice scenarios. Different alarms. Different threats.
“I don’t know. When was Tana supposed to get back?” Trix asked.
“She never says. Just whenever,” Ela scanned the faces for Tana, hoping she was there.
A security guard stood on the dais, holding a palm-sized sound-magnifier to his lips. Everyone shut up, and stared wide-eyed, starving for an explanation.
“Listen carefully, I will only speak once,” the guard shouted over the blaring alarm. “A mole is attempting to escape campus.”
The crowd began murmuring and then shushing each other.
“Second and Third Gen, return to your dorms immediately. First Gen, mobilize and start searching the grounds with security.” He finished with that and stepped off the dais, disappearing into the crowd.
Ela searched the dispersing crowd desperately, but didn’t see Tana. She and Trix headed back into their Third Gen complex. The alarm sent unsettling vibrations through her limbs, and she felt dread deep inside her gut. Where is Tana? Is she safe? What if she is confronted by the traitor?
Campus is big, accommodates over 10 thousand people, but only 3 ½ thousand of which are students. The rest are personnel who work indoors, underground, out of bounds, and campus is deserted during the night. No one will be able to hear her if she calls for help. She doesn’t carry a gun when she’s sneaking around at night with her boyfriend. Sure, Tana is deadly without a firearm, but a mole won’t be trying to escape without at least a gun, and she can’t dodge bullets.
“Go inside and stay safe. I’m going to find Tana,” Trix squeezed her arm gently, a sign of reassurance.
“Be careful.” Ela said it as if it was a question, but she knew he would keep himself and Tana safe. That’s him.
He smiled. It comforted her. And then he ran off to his dorm, blocks away. Ela went inside and stood in the living room with the other girls, waiting for the A.I. to explain the situation. She naturally stood nearest Sicili, the toughest girl in their dorm besides Tana. She never showed any kind of fear, or anxiety. Almost perfect.
“Hey, where’s Tana?” Sicili whispered.
“Out.” Ela didn’t need to elaborate. All the girls in the dorm kept each other’s secrets and had each other’s backs. Out, meant Tana was out. Sicili knew not to say another word about it or mention Tana’s name again, in case the A.I. realised a girl was missing. Ela weighed up the options. Let security find Tana or leave it to Trix? This was a traitor they were all dealing with. A desperate, lying, scheming individual who needed to escape at any cost. If caught, they’d get a bullet between the eyes once the interrogation was through.
If Tana was caught by campus security on the other hand, she’d be put in isolation and forced to stop fooling around with Demant. He made her happy, despite his flaws: arrogant, selfish, possessive.
“Attention,” said the A.I. It was a smooth and metallic voice, but absolutely female in tone and pitch. “On HQ’s orders, all dorms will be put in Lockdown until the enemy is in custody.”
A massive lump came up from the pit of Ela’s stomach and lodged itself in her throat. Her heart pounded painfully hard inside her chest. Tana won’t be able to get inside the dorm if it’s locked down. Regulations dictate that before and after, or at least after, an emergency occurs, all campus occupants must be accounted for before returning to normal conduct. HQ would find out she skipped curfew and spent the night with her boyfriend. Ela couldn’t let that happen.
She weaved through the other girls, climbed three flights of stairs to the third floor and entered her and Tana’s room. Inside the footlocker she grabbed her all-purpose boots and pulled them on. Sliding open a hidden cupboard in the wall beside the footlocker, Ela took her Beretta pistol from its shelf and clipped in a magazine.
Metal shutters began to slide down over the window. Ela tucked the gun into the back of her sleep shorts and zipped up her jacket. She manually pushed the glass open and climbed out the window. The ground was about ten metres below, but the one thing Ela would admit she was good at is free-climbing. Searching frantically for handholds and footholds in the dark, she made her way down the side of the dorm building.
Ela laid flat on her stomach, face on the grass amongst the impeccably maintained shrubbery, struggling to stay hidden, and watched as the dorm surrendered to lockdown. The entire building was encased in an impenetrable metal alloy. When the guards dispersed and streets were empty, Ela evaded the known hidden cameras and took up a new position against the brick wall separating the Second Gen complex from the Third.
Thought-activating a message writer on her wristband, Ela wrote a coded text message and sent it to Trix.
‘I’m Outside. Will Help Find Tana.’
‘Come To Me. At Lake.’ Trix replied.
‘Cover More Ground Separately.’
‘I’ll Cover South. You North.’
Ela crept up to the gates of the complex and waited for the visible rotating cameras to look opposite her, avoided the areas covered by sensors and climbed over. She ran across the piazza’s open space and pressed her back against a hidden corner of the piazza near the entrance to the now-deserted First Gen complex. North of the student complexes was only a small area compared to south of the lake, so Ela wanted to make sure she covered her ground thoroughly.
A search group approached, made up evenly of security and First Gen’s, 6 from what Ela saw through the thin foliage. She had to be careful. Not only did she need to avoid the cameras and sensors, but she also needed to avoid the security groups, and the mole. Sensors and cameras would be second nature to avoid; she, Tana and their friends used to skip curfew all the time when they were younger. The travelable areas were well-established in her subconscious. She waited until the security team were far-enough away, and then she dashed into the cover of the forest across from the student complexes.
Ela ran as fast as she could, found a depression in the forest floor to take cover in and crouched low, hands and knees in the dewy soil. Taking a few deep breaths, she looked around. Everything near was quiet and still. She leapt to her feet and sprinted. Her heart instantly lurched up into her throat, and she couldn’t breathe. Another security team.
The soil beneath her feet was soggy and she tripped, hit the ground on her knees, and crouched into the smallest position possible among the protruding roots of a tree. She slowed her breaths and made them quiet. The team had to at least be equipped with a basic sound-analysis device that picked up non-ambient noises, like heavy human breathing. She waited, and waited. They were searching thoroughly, getting closer.
I have to move, Ela thought. But they were so close. She peered around the trunk of the tree and counted the bodies. Three of them were about eight metres or so south-west of her position; two were about five metres ahead of her position north-west, and the other one she couldn’t find. She bit down hard on her bottom lip. Maybe the teams weren’t split up evenly? She hoped.
Ela jumped up and sprinted as hard as she could in a northerly direction, avoiding steep depressions in the earth and furthering her distance from the team. She crept through the shadows cast alongside the smaller lake that was shaped like a half-moon, and hid in the trees on the lake’s left side. She caught her breath, and took a moment to think. Where would Tana hide? Trees, probably. You could dig a ditch and cover yourself in wet soil if you really needed to avoid heat sensors. The best section of forest, the densest area with the least amount of natural light and dampest soil, would be near the entrance to the hoverboarding tunnels.
Dogs were barking up ahead in their rows of cages. Drama swirling around them made them uneasy. Ela could use that. She sprinted across the open space stretching around the half-moon lake, and pressed herself against a cage. A Rottweiler inside the cage was only young, still craving attention, not fully trained and extremely vocal. “Good, boy,” Ela whispered.
She swallowed hard and stole through the maze of cages. About a three or four metre gap stood between Ela and the dense section of forest. There were no security teams in sight, but she waited an extra ten seconds, watching, listening. Then she ran. The darkness engulfed her as a wave of relief simultaneous eased the tightness in her chest. Ela crept through the forest. Whenever Tana snuck out, she blocked all messages from being received on her wristband, because she and Demant didn’t like to be disturbed.
Tana might’ve unblocked the messages since hearing the alarm and seeing security teams running around the grounds. Ela figured she’d give it a go. A hand covered her mouth, and she lost her footing, hitting the soil. She instinctively bit down hard on the hand. Ela heard muffled curses only Tana would say, and a smile appeared on her face.
“Sorry,” Ela turned to face her friend.
Tana was fine. A bit messy as usual, but not hurt or bullet-ridden. “What on earth are you doing traipsing around when there’s scum on the loose?”
“I was scared for you. And how’d you–”
“Overheard the security. Come on.” Tana led her into a darker section of the forest, and sitting in the shadows like a sinister presence was Demant.
Ela messaged Trix, ‘Found Tana Safe.’
‘Stay Hidden.’ He replied.
“Now what are we going to do?” Tana asked.
“What do you mean? We need to stay hidden til they catch the bastard,” Ela said.
“As if, I’m tired,” Tana pulled hair up into a roughly tied bun and crossed her arms over her chest.
“We need to head to the dorms,” said Demant.
“They’re locked down,” Ela replied. Demant gave her a sour look and she furrowed her brow annoyed, and looked at Tana. “We need to just lay low.”
“You didn’t need to follow Tana out here,” Demant said.
“I was worried for her.”
“I can keep my girlfriend safe.”
“I didn’t think you couldn’t.”
“Shut up. Someone will hear us,” said Tana.
Footsteps interrupted them, and Ela hid in the shadows at the tree-line, trying to get a look at who it was. She spotted a man; dark hair, pale skin, average height, slim build, maybe thirty years of age. He wore a survival rucksack on his back, and an assault rifle was slung over his shoulder.
Ela’s anxiety returned. He had to be the mole. Tana and Demant came up behind her. “I think that’s him, the traitor.” From what Ela could see, there weren’t any security near. The guy pulled a laser cutter from his pocket and knelt down over the manhole that led down into the campus’ water filtration system. It clicked in Ela’s head. He was going to escape through the river. “He’s going to get away,” Ela looked sidelong at Demant, a First Gen who was supposed to be out doing his damn job.
“You have the gun. Stop him.”
Ela gritted her teeth, turned her head back towards the traitor, and watched him cut away at the manhole, nearing his escape. Demant wasn’t going to do anything. And how could Ela send Tana out to deal with him, when she risked punishment from HQ to stop that happening in the first place? She cursed in her head, again and again.
“Stay back, out of sight.”
Ela stepped out from the tree-line and retrieved the Beretta from the waistband of her shorts. She turned the safety off, and cocked the gun. Digging deep down into her gut for an authoritative voice, Ela lifted the gun and targeted the centre of his crouched mass. “Stop.”