But now, with the sun set and no further chores before bed, she hesitates.
So many years ago. And a time she rarely revisits in her mind. Perhaps she should just shove the box back into the storage area. Perhaps she should dump its contents into the fire.
She sips from her drink and watches the flames in the hearth. Then her hand reaches out and she pulls the box to her.
Seeds wrapped in towels, perhaps a half-dozen bundles of these, fill the top layer of the box. Her early successes surviving in the Unincorporated, set aside against hard times to come. Hard times had come, but never so bad she’d needed to withdraw or even remember making this deposit. Next are artifacts of pre-Unincorporated habitation. Bottle caps. Some coins. A fat ring of keys. And bullet casings, lots of bullet casings, collected before she realized their ubiquity in the Unincorporated.
She gently pushes these items aside, and there it is.
The photograph she knew would be here.
Frank Flowers, seated next to Bert, feigned sleep with his eyes closed and head back on the seat rest. This did nothing to compel Bert into quiet.
“I can’t believe they’d just let us sit out here in the blazing sun. A bus like this will turn into an oven. Literally. They need to be worried about our health and safety. We’re in the middle of the Unincorporated for god’s sake. This shouldn’t be allowed to happen.”
Bert’s phone dinged, and Frank enjoyed a moment of peace while Bert frantically tapped messages into the device. “Fuck, fuck, fuck,” he said eventually. “Come on! When is the new bus going to get here?”
Frank had run some calculations when they’d first broken down. They’d been stranded for forty minutes now, but Frank figured the transfer bus from Campus Alpha was still another hour away.
“My boss is furious.” Bert continued. “She’s been bitching about this downtime since the meeting was scheduled. It is ridiculous that the only way between Campuses is a three-hour bus through the Unincorporated. You’d think they could have figured out something by now.”
Frank had seen old pictures of planes sheared in half by the high-strata winds. And those were from before most of the world had gone Unincorporated.
“She said if I miss this meeting, she’s going to have me transferred to Waste Services. That is, if she isn’t allowed to fire and have me banished from AGCorp entirely. I’m going to talk to the bus driver and see if he can tell us when we’re going to get out of here.”
Frank felt the seat next to him empty. He opened his eyes and watched Bert make his way to the front of the bus. “Excuse me. Driver?” Bert called.
“Please return to your seat,” said the driver, looking at him through the mirror.
“I need to know when we’re going to be picked up and can get to Campus Alpha. There’s an upper management meeting that I have to be there for.”
“A transfer bus is on the way. I’ll need you to remain seated until it arrives.”
“But how long will that be?”
“Sir!” the driver said with more force. He turned around in his seat, holding his hand radio to the side. “You’re in violation of your Transport User Agreement. Please do not make me call this in.”
Bert put out his hands in surrender and returned to his seat. “Fucking driver,” he said. Then he craned his neck to look behind them. “Thank god. I think the transfer bus must be here.”
Frank became alert. He was quite sure it wasn’t the transfer bus. Raiders and pirates weren’t particularly common in the Unincorporated any more, but occasionally incidents happened. People huddled at the windows. Many had their phones pointed outside, and others appeared to be fishing for their devices.
“I need to get a picture of this,” someone said.
“Excuse me,” Frank said. He stood and stepped over Bert.
“Driver’s not going to like that,” Bert muttered.
Frank had made it a couple rows back when the crowd turned as one, many of them pointing to the right-hand side of the bus. He couldn’t see anything. A woman in this row had stood and was blocking most of the window. She had her phone out, and Frank heard the shutter effects of her taking multiple pictures. Then whatever was out there had passed them. The woman lowered her phone and began swiping through the content.
“Did you get anything?” he asked her. The woman started and looked up.
“What was it?” he said.
She held out the phone for him to see.
East Receiving Lobby
Interview Subject: Bert Spencer
BS: How long is this going to take? I really need to get to work.
Interviewer: Not long. Please take a seat. You were a passenger on Bus 505?
BS: Of course. You just saw me walk from there to here. Look, I really need to get going. My boss just threatened to throw me out of a window when she sees me. It’s going to be worse if I don’t get back to the Department immediately.
Interviewer: We understand there was some excitement during your journey on Bus 505.
BS: Excitement? Yeah, I guess you could call the bus breaking down and me missing my very important meeting with upper management some excitement. Hey, I’m really going to need some documentation about the breakdown. When it happened. How long we were sitting there. I doubt it will help, but it would be something to show this shit-show wasn’t my fault.
Interviewer: We’re not referring to the mechanical anomaly.
BS: < pauses > Are you talking about the dog? I don’t know. I didn’t really see it.
Interviewer: There was no dog.
BS: I’m pretty sure there was a dog.
Interviewer: Are you familiar with Auctoritas-Gewald Corporation v. Jade?
BS: Sort of? Is that the one about our chemicals killing all the dogs?
Interviewer: It is the case against Miriam Jade for making false claims that negligence on the part of AGCorp killed a species that never existed in the first place.
BS: Like I said, I didn’t really see anything.
Interviewer: You saw a goat.
BS: < snorts >
Interviewer: We recommend you familiarize yourself with the sentencing of that case. The penalty for spreading rumors and false information that could harm AGCorp is severe. Especially for an employee also being scrutinized for a Failure to Appear violation.
Interviewer: Have a good day, Mr. Spencer.
East Receiving Lobby
Interview Subject: Alyssa Perez
Interviewer: You were a passenger on Bus 505?
AP: That’s correct.
Interviewer: And you’ve arrived at Campus Alpha on a work visa from outside Auctoritas-Gewald Corporation?
AP: Yes. I am an Employee Citizen of Agile Pharmaceuticals, a Limited Liability State of the Federation of Boutique Firms.
Interviewer: Boutique Fringe.
AP: I’ve heard the Five Corporations call us that.
Interviewer: Please describe the work you’ll be doing for AGCorp.
AP: I am working on a drug that combats the effects of Rogue Viral Marketing.
Interviewer: Cognitive Breakdown.
AP: Exposure can result in a number of effects, but yes, Cognitive Breakdown seems to be the most prevalent and is my focus of study. Recently, the compound I’m working on showed encouraging results when paired with AGCorp’s Neural Liminals. I’m here, at the invitation of your employer, to research more tightly integrating the two products in hopes of preventing future cases. If the latest tests can be trusted, perhaps we can even reverse existing damage.
Interviewer: Then having access to the patented liminal lines and the support of AGCorp is critical to the success of your work?
AP: < nods > And the success of my work could prove critical to AGCorp. Rogue Marketing is a threat to all of us.
Interviewer: There was an incident on the bus.
AP: The breakdown?
Interviewer: After the mechanical anomaly, an animal was reported outside the bus.
AP: Oh, yes, the dog. That was surprising, and very encouraging. There must be pockets in the Unincorporated where the species was either never infected or the dosages were low enough that immunity has developed. Someone should investigate.
Interviewer: The press histories of AGCorp are very clear about the existence of dogs. They are a fabrication perpetrated by one of the other Four Corporations in an effort to damage the viability of various AGCorp chemical products. Therefore, what you saw could not have been a dog.
AP: I see.
Interviewer: We believe what you saw was a goat.
AP: A goat?
Interviewer: Yes. Definitely a goat.
AP: Fine. Is that all?
Interviewer: Almost. Footage from the bus suggests you may have captured a picture of this goat.
AP: < sighs >
Interviewer: May I see your phone please?
< Subject removes a phone from her bag and hands it to the interviewer. Interviewer sets the phone on a raised device next to him and then picks it up again. >
Interviewer: Hmm. This device does not appear to be working. How unfortunate.
AP: My whole phone? You couldn’t just remove the individual pictures?
Interviewer: Given the important work you’ll be doing, we will gladly replace it. With an AGCorp model, no less. Much more reliable.
East Receiving Lobby
Interview Subject: Frank Flowers
Interviewer: Please describe the events of your recent travel through the Unincorporated.
FF: I boarded Bus 505 in Campus Charlie and we entered the Unincorporated on our way to Campus Alpha. Around 2pm local time, Bus 505 experienced a mechanical anomaly. The driver maneuvered us to the side of the road without incident and reported the situation. About half an hour later, there was a bit of excitement when a goat passed outside, but it was short lived, as the goat disappeared into the scrub moments after being spotted and then did not reappear. About an hour and a half later, the transfer bus arrived and the remainder of the journey occurred without incident.
Interviewer: Thank you, Agent Flowers. Welcome home.
He rang the bell.
Looking from the porch, he took in the neighborhood. Modest homes on large plots of land. Pretty typical for the edge of Campus, where residents liked being remote and removed.
He rang the bell again.
Still no reply and no sounds of movement from inside. The yard then.
He trudged through the grass, making his way around the side of the house and into the back. And there was Alyssa Perez, sitting in an outdoor chair, staring into the distance. Frank looked and noticed a gap in the border wall through which the Unincorporated was visible. Grounds Maintenance should be notified to fix it up. Though he had a guess Ms. Perez would reopen the section as soon as it was fixed.
“Hello,” Frank called, walking towards her. Alyssa turned and looked. “I rang the bell a couple times. You must not have heard it.”
“Was ignoring it,” she said. “And I don’t take kindly to people trespassing.”
Frank displayed his badge.
“Oh,” she said. “Make yourself comfortable then.” She turned away from him and continued her contemplation of the Unincorporated.
Frank took a seat in the chair next to her. “They say you haven’t been to work in a few weeks,” he said.
“You a truant officer or something?”
“Then why do you care?”
“People are concerned. You’ve done impressive work, and you’ve saved a lot of lives.”
“AGCorp lives,” she spat. “The rest of the world can get fucked, right?” She took a swallow from her drink. “I had a home before coming here. One that I looked forward to returning to. But that won’t happen now, will it?”
The information wasn’t supposed to be public, but he wasn’t surprised she had it. The Boutique Fringe was in chaos, devastated by a new and virulent strain of Rogue Marketing. Agile Pharmaceuticals, Alyssa Perez’s naturalized employer and a recent—if hostile—acquisition target of AGCorp, was among the hardest hit. Reports suggested that 90% of its employees had Cognitive Breakdown and that fires from recent infrastructure failures had turned the Limited Liability State into little more than smoldering Unincorporated.
“You’ve made a difference to a lot of people,” he said. “I’m one of those people.”
She studied him. “You look familiar.”
“We were on a bus together, a few years ago, travelling through the Unincorporated.”
Her eyes widened and turned hard. “You! I showed you that picture and then they erased my phone. I had pictures of my parents on that phone. The only pictures of my parents.”
“I don’t believe that was part of my report,” he said. “But if I caused that, I apologize. That seems heavy handed for the situation.”
“And it wasn’t a goat,” she said. “Everyone on that bus knew it wasn’t a goat. Everyone employed by AGCorp knows that dogs existed.”
Frank did not reply.
She shook her head and took a drink. “Have you been following me around since I arrived, then? Must have been a boring couple of years.”
“The bus was coincidence, but probably resulted in the Network linking us. When concern was raised by your disappearance—”
“I didn’t disappear.”
“…when you exceeded your allotted PTO, individuals in upper management expressed concern for your well being. That concern was passed to my group, and I volunteered for the opportunity to meet you again. Recent events… well, I’m grateful for the work you’ve done, and wanted to be the one to make sure you’re alright.”
She didn’t look at him, but her posture changed. “Family member?”
“Yes. My son.”
“And he’s recovering?”
“The treatment could help a lot more people,” she said. “If your bosses would allow it. If letting the world burn didn’t benefit their bottom line.”
It was Frank’s turn to stare silently into the backyard.
“I’m not going back,” she said. “I’m done.”
Ross Kelly toggled the handset. “This is Bus 505, over.”
“Bus 505, please prepare for route change.”
He looked at the chain link fence separating the long ribbon of highway from the Unincorporated. Route change where? he thought. But then the bus began to slow itself and gradually pulled to the side where it came to a stop.
“Agent enroute, Bus 505. Prepare for rendezvous.”
An Agent Rendezvous, Ross thought. Tsk, tsk. Somebody’s been naughty. He used the mirrors to check out the passengers behind him and wondered if he could guess the target. There was the family that clearly weren’t AGCorp natives seated near the back; they seemed a likely possibility. There was also the guy with the wispy beard and bloodshot eyes that reminded Ross of his loser brother and who currently appeared to be asleep. Rise and shine, dirtbag.
“What’s going on?” a passenger a row behind Ross asked.
“Nothing to worry about,” Ross said. “We’ll be back on our way in a few minutes.” Not long after, the bus filled with flashing blue and red light as an official AGCorp enforcement vehicle pulled up behind them.
“Bus 505,” crackled the radio. “We show agent arrival.”
“Agent arrival confirmed,” Ross said into the handset. He tracked the agent’s progress in his mirrors until the agent stood outside the door.
“Bus 505, agent has requested access to your vehicle with a valid request code. Please confirm with your operator code.”
“Confirmed. Beta, zero, eight, charlie, seven.”
“Operator code confirmed. Access granted.”
The door opened with a hiss.
The agent climbed into the bus, showing Ross his badge. “I’m here to collect Alyssa Perez,” he said. “Seat assignment?”
Ross nodded, grabbing for the passenger manifest, but then the agent said, “Never mind,” and stepped away.
“What’s this about?” said a woman a few rows from the front. Ross looked at his manifest. Perez alright.
“Alyssa Perez,” the agent said, “you are ordered to return with me to Campus Alpha.”
“Absolutely not. By what right?”
“By order of the CEO, you are in violation of your contract and are believed to be in possession of confidential and proprietary information that is the sole property of Auctoritas-Gewald Corporation. I am authorized to use whatever means necessary to prevent your departure.”
Ross’s eyes widened. This was not good news for Perez. Just don’t do anything on my bus, he pleaded silently. The cleanup and the paperwork would be a nightmare. Then he realized Alyssa Perez was looking at him through the mirror. He quickly looked away.
“It’s time to go,” said the agent. Perez didn’t move. “Now,” said the agent. He moved his hand to his gun.
“Fine.” Perez stood up and gathered her things. The agent backed away, making room for her to pass, then followed her out of the bus. His hand rested on the butt of his gun throughout.
“Bus 505,” came the radio, startling Ross. “We’ve received signal that the Agent Rendezvous has concluded. Prepare for relocking and resumption of route.”
“Confirmed,” Ross replied. The doors thumped shut and the light above them switched to red. Moments later, the bus moved forward and merged back onto the road where it gradually began to pick up speed.
Ross kept his eyes on Perez and the agent via his mirrors. She gesticulated and appeared to be yelling while the agent stood impassively. Then she darted from the road and dived onto the dirt, wriggled through a gap in the chain link and then ran, into the Unincorporated. The bus was getting further away and details were getting fuzzier, but Ross clearly saw the agent pull his gun.
He saw the gun-hand jerk and watched Perez drop.
He switched his eyes to the road in front of them. I didn’t see anything, he told himself. I didn’t see a goddamn thing. But he thought back to a run three years ago when a dog—sorry, goat—had run beside the bus, and remembered the resulting nightmare of interviews and reports and new procedures that had created.
He hadn’t seen anything that time either.
She sets the picture of the dog down and picks up the next photograph. Her parents. Younger in this picture than she is now by a decade. Her eyes well with tears as she touches each face gently and then puts the picture down. The final items in the box are schematics for producing neural liminals and drugs to reverse Cognitive Breakdown. She remembers their weight as she’d smuggled this information to the surviving Corporations in what remained of the Federation of Boutique Firms.
They are heavy, just like the fear of AGCorp retribution she’s lived with ever since. Just in case they ever really find out.
A cold wet nose pokes her in the arm.
“Am I not paying enough attention to you, Flowers?” she says, and leans back so the dog can nuzzle beneath her arm and press himself tight against her.
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