“The Library Shall Fall”
A lone highway stretches into the mountains east of Hemlock, climbing and climbing to roughly four thousand feet. On Ganymede, this is high enough to attract violent snowstorms during the winter months. Berms of ice towered us on all sides, gusts of white powder raining down and cutting us to the bone. Only after we had crested the summit did the road become a tad less arduous.
To ease the flow of traffic up the hill, we adopted a staggered formation of ten-person cells every two minutes. On the downward slope, the two lane highway opened up with a middle passing lane. Leaders of each cell fired off flares warning oncoming traffic to steer clear, and we rushed to the bottom in record time. A vista on the side of the road allowed us to stop and look out toward the expanse of stony ridges which blanketed the Feather Creek Desert.
We were officially out of the Navaro district, and I knew that it was a matter of time before the police would have to start searching for me. To make matters worse, I knew next to nothing about the geography of this area. Skimming through a set of topographic maps in my phone, I attempted to get my bearings and formulate a plan.
Francesca was parked aside me and downing a bottle of water. “It feels like my face is going to freeze off! I thought deserts were supposed to be hot!”
“There’s no moisture in the air, so there’s nothing to stop the heat from escaping into the upper atmosphere,” I retorted. “Anyway, shut up; I’m trying to think.”
“I take it heading into the next town is a no-go?”
“Not unless you want me to end up back in police custody. It looks like an auxiliary highway starts there and goes around a dry lakebed. There’s a small hyperloop transfer station with its own spur that goes deeper into the desert. I have a feeling that’s the way we need to go.”
“Okay, so how do we get to that highway?”
“Hrm…” How to get there, indeed… The vista bordered a series of cliffs, and we could see the hyperloop tube along the bottom of the ravine. It would be impossible to climb down from here, and trying to reach the connector normally would place us too close to the town. “I have an idea, but it’s a little risky.”
“There’s a campground about ten miles back which should be closed, but it dips down to the base of a creek which crosses under the highway.”
Francesca shrugged. “Okay, so what? Are we going to just ford the river or something?” I flashed a grin and her brow furrowed. “So we’re fording the river. Jade, have you lost your mind? It’s below freezing and you expect us to trudge knee deep in ice water? Will our vehicles even survive it!?”
“Right now it’s the only way,” I concluded. “If we cross under that bridge, it will eventually put us parallel to the hyperloop line and we can follow that straight to the transfer station. I can’t think of any other way to do it.”
“Well, you are the commander, so…” We sent bulletins out to every driver and then turned around, doubling back until we reached the turnoff. It took a bit of doing to destroy the gate, but soon we arrived at the campground. The creek was shallow as predicted, but chunks of ice and snow flowed along it, hinting at its frigid horror. “Well, commander? This was your plan after all.”
I glared at her, removed my shoes, and then slowly inched my craft into the current. The undersides of our motortrikes were waterproofed, but the depth soon crested my ankles. “Shit, that’s ice!” Taking a breath, I inched along slowly, trying to find the best line through the center of the creek. Francesca followed directly behind, and slowly we formed a single file line down the mountain once more.
Thirty minutes later, we crossed back under the highway and descended to the bottom of the ridge, the hyperloop anchored to outcroppings on the far shore. We followed this until finally, a maintenance road allowed us to leave the river for good. The ordeal had extended our trip by an hour and a half. It was now half past midnight on the thirteenth.
There were trees and vines along the cliffs behind us, so we climbed up and cut down several, using them to build fires for warmth. Plumes of smoke mixed with the lowland fog, further masking our presence. This was as good a place as any to hunker down for the evening, so we set up watch and let people sleep in three hour rotations.
On the second rotation, Gabriel performed some reconnaissance and I greeted him openly on his return. “Well? How far is the complex from the transfer station?”
“It looks like the transfer station itself forms the lower boundary,” he speculated. “The lakebed itself boasts massive solar arrays, water purification towers, and what appear to be mineshafts. None of this showed up on satellite imagery, meaning this is a literal black site.”
“What about the loop spur heading south?”
Gabriel shook his head. “There’s absolutely nothing worth investigating from here to the horizon. It’s so off the beaten path that it feels like a red herring. My gut is telling me that the lakebed is the answer, but I’m not sure how or why that is just yet.”
“You’ve been a great help,” I replied with a smile. Internally, however, I was rather concerned. “One more thing, did any third parties move to or from the area while your team was investigating?”
“You know, that’s the damndest thing? We saw a few flatbed trucks pull up to the transfer station to swap out cargo, and then drive into the lakebed where they just vanished without a trace.”
“I don’t follow.”
“I want to say it was pieces of shipments, one to two man jobs each time. The hyperloop containers would be opened up, they’d pull things out and then put similar looking things back in. Then they’d close the container up and send it back along the loop. We tried to figure out where these trucks were coming or going from, but no dice.”
“You know, I’ve never been a fan of mysteries. At six hundred, we’re moving out, just you and me. Nothing wrong with playing things by their rules for a bit, wouldn’t you agree?” The wind picked up during the next hour; and by the time Gabriel and I set off, a sandy breeze had replaced the fog. Reflecting the blood orange of Jupiter above, the haze perpetuated an atmosphere of unease.
Like clockwork, a flatbed truck was parked at the transfer station. Crawling along it, we let ourselves in through the now unlocked doors, sneaking behind shelves and storage boxes. I readied my slingbow, and Gabriel unraveled a bracelet of parachute cord. The sound of footsteps alerted us to the presence of the two men.
As the first man entered my line of sight, I released a dart which impaled itself in his hip. He screamed and fell to his knees, dropping his side of a large yet narrow case. As Gabriel rushed to tie him up, I loaded my next dart and rushed out, pointing it at the other man. “Hands in the air!”
“A woman!? Wait! Don’t fucking shoot!” This man did as I commanded, staring me down with a look of horror. It didn’t seem that he was armed. Gabriel quickly used more parachute cord to tie him up as well. “Sh-Shouldn’t you brats be in school!?”
“Shut up!” I shouted. “I won’t hesitate to shoot you again if you give me any lip!” I stared down at the case the two men had been carrying. It appeared to be made of an insulating polymer, but it was still icy cold to the touch. Liquid nitrogen…? “Now, I’m going out on a limb and assuming this is Ganymede Algae.”
“I swear we don’t know anything!” gasped the man. “We just swap the cases when they come in! They don’t tell us more than that!”
“Oh? And who are they? Think carefully about your situation before you answer.” My threat caused the man to break into hysterics, and I could only sigh. “Gabriel, watch over them. I’m going to go look around.”
“Roger that!” My partner’s enthusiasm aside, I did my best to focus on the matter at hand. The corridor led into a series of docking bays, one of which was currently occupied by an open shipping container. The whole interior was coated in ice, with the containers further chilled using liquid nitrogen. Each container had a sticker corresponding to an identification serial, but there was nothing else to indicate the contents.
There were shelves to my left and filing cabinets to my right. Opening one of the cabinets, I searched for the most recent tracking sheets and skimmed through them. Dammit, everything is written in code. Wait, is this a geotag label? Maybe my phone can… Quickly, I used my phone’s camera to scan the label, and sure enough, it pulled up a map of the sending location. I did it! Alright, now to find the right document…
I compared the content of each sheet to the serials on the boxes, but none of them appeared to be the correct one. That’s when I noticed the terminal to the right of the container was blinking. Peering closer, it appeared that the shipment information was displayed but had yet to be printed. Here goes nothing! I clicked the print button, and out popped a tracking sheet with the word DRAFT as a watermark – likely a failsafe since the container was still open.
The geotag label was thankfully in the same place. I scanned it quickly, and what I discovered shocked me more than anything else I had learned thus far. This… This is where the cryovenom was coming from!? I slipped the paper into my knapsack, photographed everything I could with my phone, and rushed back through the corridor.
“There you are, Jade! Did you find anything or what?”
“I think I hit pay dirt, but we won’t know until we get back and regroup.” I looked down at the men who were still tied up. “This was truly a pleasure, but I’m afraid we are going to have to leave you here for now.”
One of the men began to shout, “Y-You two won’t get far! The base has probably realized we aren’t coming back and sent scouts by now!”
“So? If we have to, we’ll take them out too!” I chuckled as I stowed my slingbow and pulled the air rifle from my back. “As far as I concerned, all of you have fallen into the wrong crowd, and not even God can save you. Come on, Gabriel; let’s go!”
Sure enough, upon exiting the transfer station we witnessed more trucks driving up from deep within the compound. I took aim from behind the parked flatbed and began to fire at the tires and windows of the enemy vehicles, getting off a clean shot roughly every three seconds. “Gabriel, light the flares!”
Loud screeches pierced the air for miles around as the flares ascended toward the sky. At their crest, they exploded into a trio of bright blue lights, dwarfing the orange of Jupiter’s reflection. I felt myself going blind and deaf, yet all I could do was keep firing the air rifle like my life depended on it.
The seconds climbed in a hail of bullets, assailants beginning to fire back at the flatbed we were using for cover. Gabriel hunkered down next to me, using his sidearm to provide additional support. I could hear the rounds which whizzed past our faces, terrified that one could make contact at any moment.
A second echo of flares signaled the entry of our allied squads to the battlefield. “Duck and cover Gabriel!” Pulling him back toward the wall of the building, we watched a volley of arrows fly over us, land on the desert floor, and explode into shrapnel seconds later. Cries of agony rang out through the tumultuous sand gusts, alluding to widespread casualties on the side of Xandria. It was time to mop up.
The members of Reserve Class descended from the ridge, and as a united front we began to capture and incapacitate all who opposed us. Grueling though it had been, we pushed on and made our way into the complex proper. Congregating around one of the mineshafts, I ordered a roll call.
Francesca stepped forward. “We have three wounded, no fatalities! The enemy has been suppressed with injuries and fatalities along the span of their fighting force!”
“Comrades!” I bellowed. “The past year may have been simply a game, but we now stand in a very real life-or-death situation! I never expected that these skills would manifest in such a way, but when life gives you lemons you cannot allow them to spoil or rot! I want each and every one of you to make survival a priority! If it comes down to them or you, do not hesitate to strike first! Are you with me!?”
“YEAH!” It was a cheer of perfect unison. This deep into the dry lakebed, we could finally make out the vehicle entrances and other access hatches which led underground. Splitting off into groups of twenty, we sent two groups down the shafts and three through the vehicle bays.
Given our manpower, it took no time at all to discover everything – the gem extractors, cutters, bottlers, sealers – an interwoven array of conveyors and pneumatic tubes flowed between stations of the production process. As most of it was automated, there weren’t many human workers; something we used to our advantage as we continued our assault. Every laboratory and office was ransacked in our quest to document anything and everything.
Descending to the lowest floor, I broke off from my squad and investigated a long hallway which appeared to be vacant. Swapping to my slingbow, I stalked the hall slowly, ready to shoot at the first sign of movement. Nothing came, and eventually I ended up in a small computer room. Lowering my weapon, I let out a gasp.
The wall displayed an electronic map of Ganymede, orbiting space stations, and other locations stretching all the way to Jupiter. A vector pointed to one of the space stations, and using a joystick to zoom in showed the source of the vector as being the hillside immediately west of us. Holy hell, I know what this is… This is the space gun control unit!
Its interface was surprisingly simplistic. Payloads could be constructed in real time through use of deviation boxes set along the conveyor network. It looked as if most of the casing shipments heading to space were empty, bypassing the stage where they became filled with vials of cryovenom. I still had no idea what they were used for, though I somewhat remembered what my dad said about their value being higher when empty.
There were so many things I still didn’t understand, and perhaps I’d never be able to. Deep down all I knew was that this scheme, this farce, had gone on for too long and hurt too many people in the process. Did it really matter what these damned things were worth? Did it really matter how they were used after the fact? No, it did not. What truly mattered was that these innocent-looking crystals had been a front for smuggling drugs, and that I too had blood on my hands for the lives this drug had adversely impacted.
The people who roped me into this whole ordeal, and the people protecting the true masterminds, would likely all go free as my father had warned. Taking down this facility and exposing the trade routes might curb sales in the short term, but the drug would likely proliferate again in the future, and by those same hands. Knowing this, I could not believe that there was justice in this world.
The only way this will ever stop is if those hands were wiped off the planet… Wiped off the… I found my right hand reaching for the joystick once more, changing the targeting vector and slowly centering it on the Navaro District. Zooming in further narrowed the target to Hemlock, and finally, to the buildings of the secondary academy. The propulsion calculations updated to form a perfect arc, a projected flight path with perfect accuracy.
I could feel my heart begin to race, my blood pressure beginning to rise. A plethora of thoughts circulated in my brain, none of them pleasant. I begin to delve deeper into the control program, slowly adjusting the configuration, marveling at just how easy it was to do so…
“Jade.” It was Francesca who called out to me. She was leaning in the door frame, her sidearm pointing in my general direction. “We finished what we came to do. That’s enough for now.”
Felicity was with her, though her sidearm was currently pointed downward. She said nothing, only stared at me in confusion. Frowning, I continued to trace my fingers along the joystick, making the on-screen cursor twitch slightly. “I don’t believe I’m doing anything out of the ordinary, Francesca.”
“The fact you didn’t notice our approach says otherwise, Jade. It looks like you have every intention of making a mistake that you’ll regret for the rest of your life.”
I couldn’t help but chuckle. “I regret so much already; certainly that has become apparent by now. Mine is an existence steeped in poorly-thought ideals, falsehoods brought on by a desire to be known for something, anything at all.”
“And that’s okay, Jade! There is nothing wrong with desiring something greater, even if this wasn’t it! You can still back out, and you know this yourself. So come on, take a step back for a second.”
“Francesca, let me ask you something now.” I glared at her, long-repressed anxieties and insecurities beginning to boil over. “Do you believe that little mantra applies to all of the people we just maimed and killed? Do you believe that Carmella Albury didn’t have ambition when she used her role as a school principal to conceal her involvement with the drug trade?”
“I get it, Jade! Actions speak louder than words and you feel like your actions make you bad, but that’s not true at all! You are not like the members of Xandria Holdings. You are not like Carmella Albury! You are you and you do not have to follow her path! Just step away from the monitor, Jade! Don’t let this be your legacy!”
“Do me a favor, Francesca. Since I’m still wearing my vest, be sure to aim for the head.”
“Jade!” As she brought her finger to the trigger, I turned and reached for the launch switch. Before I could press it, there was a loud screech and I felt a burst of agony that brought me to my knees. My right arm began to twitch violently, and I found I couldn’t consciously move it anymore.
“Th-That’s… Impossible…!” Slumping against the massive machine, my left hand moved to my right shoulder, searching for a bullet wound that wasn’t there. “How…!?”
The two rushed forward, Francesca holding me down while Felicity used medical tape to bind my wrists. Neither one said a word as they pushed me back through the corridor toward the upper levels. On the surface, police had finally arrived on-scene. Handcuffs replaced the medical tape as I was taken into custody for the second time that week.
I no longer had tears to cry; I merely sat in silence and awaited my fate.
We touched down at the hospital and I was admitted to a room without a single word of explanation. My possessions were confiscated, but other than that I was treated like any other patient. When I asked the nurses what was going on, they deflected my questions and told me to focus on recovery. None of it made sense; aside from my shoulder – which had shattered yet again – I was perfectly healthy.
Felicity was the one who shot me. She was using one of the wave guns from the war game, modified with more of a concussive effect. The moment the pulse hit my shoulder that was it. In hindsight, I was actually really impressed with her. It turns out she was much more capable than I gave her credit for.
When Dr. Lawrence came to do a follow-up evaluation, he too was rather subdued. The events of the Xandria raid were glossed over very briefly, and he recommended I seek counseling if I felt overwhelmed. He then slid a sheet of paper face down on the bedside tray and disappeared into the hall. The results of prior bloodwork were displayed in bold on the page. Under the heading for HCG hormone, the result was positive.
I slumped back against my pillow with my gaze traveling aimlessly across the ceiling tiles. I can’t believe it… We’re actually having a child… I was already aware that Raiden’s condition had completely destabilized in my absence. A conversation between two nurses had let slip that his parents would be taking him off life-support in the morning. As such, he would never know of the legacy he would be leaving behind. On Valentine’s Day too; life really is too cruel…
My thoughts were interrupted by a knock at the door, to which I shouted, “It’s unlocked!” I was surprised to see the slightly wrinkled face of Lorraine Megaera, dark circles of worry etched under tired eyes. She was dressed in a dark green business suit, and I recognized the pearl necklace which was often the centerpiece of her wardrobe.
She sat down next to my bed and took my hand in hers. “I’m so sorry, Jade.”
My eyes widened. “Wait, why are you sorry? After I’ve caused you and your family so much pain…”
“Yet you put your life on the line in order to defend Raiden’s honor, and in turn the honor of Arthur and myself. You’re so young, but at the same time you hold so much passion in your heart. I’m sure that your parents are both proud of you, and I am more than happy to call you my daughter-in-law, Jade. I wanted you to know that.”
“Were my actions really so bold?” I asked.
“The evidence you collected will expose Hemlock Community College. It was their Ganymede Algae which was laced with cryovenom.”
“Mrs. Megaera? How much did you really know? About the blackmailing, I mean?”
The elder woman’s brow softened. “I knew enough, as did my husband. Though if we’d also known that you would eventually become involved, I think we would have chosen to act. As it stands, Arthur and I are partially in your debt.”
Silence fell between us for a few moments until I asked, “So what happens now?”
“Now you just focus on being you,” she smiled. “I talked with your father and he told me that the charges against you have been dropped. You’re free to keep living in the Fortuna Hotel, or you can move in with us. Just know that we still expect you to finish secondary school.”
“Yeah, about that; is there even a school to go back to?”
“Both the school and the nearby community college are under administrative review, but word in the press is that neither will lose accreditation. Nobody knows what happened to Carmella Albury, though. She must have skipped town.”
“So much for the war game…”
“You needn’t beat yourself up over it,” Lorraine smiled. “The game may have ended, but Xandria did liquidate its ledgers in accordance with the law. Our accountants were quite pleased with your handiwork, and who knows? You might have a few new job opportunities when you return to the Estate.”
“I am honored, Mrs. Megaera. Truly, I am.”
“Just focus on getting better for now. You can make those decisions in due time.” She stood up and left the room. A nurse returned an hour later to give back my personal belongings, and I used my phone to text Francesca. I decided she was the next person I needed to talk to.
Francesca knocked on my door a few times before entering. “How’s the patient holding up?”
“She’s fine, thank you,” I laughed. “I called you because I had something for you. Can you hold out your phone for me?”
“Okay…?” Confused, she pulled her phone from her pocket and placed it face up in her palm. I pressed my phone to hers and a confirmation chimed across both. “Seventeen thousand… What are you doing, Jade!?”
“Seventeen thousand, four hundred forty Galacticoin; it’s yours.”
“Alright, but where did it come from!? And why are you giving it to me!?”
I let out a sigh. “About two thirds of it came from the war game, and the rest from work. Use it to get to Earth.”
Francesca began to fluster, her face a deep red. “But, but – we still have six months before we even graduate! And besides, this is what you earned, and I can’t take that from you!”
“After the hell I put you through, I think you deserve it more than I do. You’re my best friend, Fran. I want you to be happy.”
In that moment, Francesca began to tear up, something I hadn’t seen her do in years. She threw herself onto me and cried, “Thank you!” at least twenty times. Smiling, I pushed her off and wished her goodbye, insisting that I needed to rest. Once the door had closed behind her, I could breathe a sigh of relief. Only now could I relax.
The city looks so different after a year, or perhaps it is my experience which colors my perspective. A year ago, I took everyone and everything at face value; I believed those around me were genuine even in their moments of hyperbole. I was a fool, and now I see the reality for what it truly is.
There was a time I could have led an ordinary life, though perhaps it is better that I took the road less traveled. I cannot regret failure if it led to knowledge; I realize that much. It is because of chaos that I am able to finally, fully appreciate peace. Walking through Hell has made me stronger; I just wonder if those who walked with me feel the same.
The future of Navaro District, of the city of Hemlock, is unclear. Everything could very well fall apart again someday, but I now feel like I have a reason to preserve and protect it. I rubbed my belly. Well, two reasons to be precise. That in mind, I still have a lot of growing up to do.
Tomorrow is another day. With a sigh, I turned onto my side and fell asleep.