He doesn’t know how long he’s run; how far. It must have been days. He’s in a tree now, eyes fixed on its base. If he cocks his head the right way, he can hear the rustle of the grass below. He can hear the clink of those boots every time the owner takes a step. In the forest, there are no echoes. The foliage absorbs the sound.
Clink. Rustle. He slowly turns to the side. She sees him. And she’s tapping her foot, impatient. “Get out of the tree, K21.”
“What do you think?”
He hesitates. He doesn’t know how to answer that. He hasn’t been programmed to. “I.. I don’t think.”
She smiles faintly at this. “We can fix that, you know.”
He doesn’t respond. Her promise to fix things was what brought him to the academy in the first place. He can’t believe her anymore. He realizes that now. Stuck in a tree, twenty feet above her, in a forest miles away from the academy, lit by moonlight and the occasional spark as she scrapes the metal on the buckles of her boots against the shards of flint on the ground. He flinches. It’s a strange sensation; the bright lights are somewhat beautiful, but the noise makes him want to close his eyes and never open them. It reminds him of surgery.
It’s a scare tactic, of course. After all, she deals in tactics. That’s how she first requested that he volunteer.
“Come down, K21. I can’t climb a tree in these boots.”
“Then take them off.”
“I can’t do that.”
K21 stares at her. He blinks occasionally; just enough to keep his eyes wet so that he can continue to stare.
She stares back. She can’t afford to look away, in case he does something stupid and falls out of the tree. Repairs are expensive, after all.
But he isn’t coming down. He’ll probably stay in the tree for the rest of the night, and then a few days later. He’s hungry now, but knows that a small bit of hunger is worth the taste of freedom.
She knows, that, too. “What are you going to do about water?”
He can’t respond. She’s right; he might be plugged full of survival hardware, but he’s still human. He’ll have to drink sometime. Worse, if he builds up an electrolyte imbalance, all of that hardware will have to be cleaned. That’s going to hurt. Will it hurt more than continuing to run? He isn’t sure. So he waits, instead of answering the question.
She can’t afford to. It galls her to take off her boots, but she has to. “Say, K21. If I take off the boots, can I come up?”
“I can’t exactly stop you.”
“Funny.” She hikes a leg up and pulls at the metal; it pulls away in a hiss of velcro. She pulls down a zipper, then the other. The boot goes into the shoulder bag she’s carrying. It’s soon joined by it’s partner. She leaves on her socks; they’re built for harsh conditions. And then she’s pulling herself, hand over hand, into the sprawling arms of the tree.
K21 stares at this, recording the moment. When she agreed to take off the boots, he knew that was the end. There was no way out. So he waited some more for her to join him in the nook he’s found. Instead, she moves past him, a little up a level. It’s a small display to show their respective levels. More tactics. The boots clink in her bag as she settles in.
It’s a testament to her fitness that she doesn’t appear winded from the climb. It’s a testament to his willpower that he doesn’t reach up, grab a foot, and pull her down, so that she’s falling, to the ground. But every moment has been recorded. He hasn’t displayed any outright hostility. They’ll probably lessen his punishment for that. They can’t control his thoughts, they say. Only control their effects. At least, that’s the goal.
She stares down at him, arms folded across her chest, legs locked straight to keep her solidly braced. He can’t look away, out of safety, not pride. “Say, K21. What do you plan to accomplish when you leave the academy like this?”
He doesn’t want to say it. She has a way of making his words feel thin and cliche. He whispers, instead, so that the words might belong to someone else. They reach her ears all the same. “Freedom.”
She smiles. “Are you not already free?”
He blinks. “Are you?”
She blinks. He’s displaying a higher level of despondence than she expected, to ask such a question, blatantly, and think such a question is okay. It isn’t. “I suppose there’s no point in mentioning that I am a voluntary member of an order devoted to protecting freedom. Since you already know that, then there’s no reason to reiterate that I am more than content to improve the lives of those I contact, which is, I think, the most liberating endeavor on this planet. So, I won’t mention any of that. However, I will say that if I thought either of us were not free, we wouldn’t be sitting together in a tree tonight.”
“Yes, but… are you free?” K21 asks.
She smiles. “Of course, K21.” She pulls an unsnapped glowstick from a pocket and starts to play with it. A bubble of air meanders back and forth as she tilts and rotates it. She echoes, “Are you?”
K21 shakes his head. “I’m stuck here in a tree with an Enforcer.”
She grins. “You know that’s not what I meant.”
K21 sighs, finally closes his eyes. She’s smiling. She isn’t going to hurt him. “I’m stuck in a cell for most of the day, evaluating the hardware and software you guys crammed into my body. I used to have a family. I used to be able to walk around the downtown ruins.”
The mention of downtown surprises her. He wasn’t supposed to remember that. It doesn’t show on her face, but she knows he senses her flicker. She masks it with an off-topic question. “That reminds me, K21. How big is your ‘cell,’ as you put it? Twenty, twenty-five feet square? Sounds pretty spacious to me; my room is about twelve square.” She glances aside, at the horizon. There’s no hint of a sunrise.
K21 stares, as if he can’t believe she is so dense. She smiles under it. “It’s not the size of the room. It’s what it represents. Lockdown. Research. Sterility.”
“Enforcement. Understanding. Cleanliness. You signed up for this.”
“I was coerced.”
“Then why didn’t you ask for the removal form?”
“You guys have forms for everything, don’t you? Except withdrawal.”
“No, we certainly do. I don’t know who told you otherwise.”
“No one told me at all.”
Her head snaps back to him. The movement causes the boots in her bag to clang. “What do you mean, no one told you? You have free access to the library. Well, you did, before you escaped last time. But that was reversed. Anyway, you’ve been reading our protocols. What do you mean, no one told you?”
“It’s like when I was younger, and looking for a job. I was too young to work, or so I thought. Everywhere I applied said so. About a year later, I was of age, and signed up. When my mom heard about that, she seemed surprised; she thought I was already working. I asked her where. She said that Fuijin Genetics were hiring kids. As you know, FG is a pretty sweet deal. I asked her why she hadn’t told me before. She told me that I never asked.”
“Sounds like a personal problem to me. It’s entirely irrelevant, though. We are not around to coddle you into action. If you wanted out you should have said so.”
K21 smiles. It’s hollow. “You mean that the suicide attempts and the first escape weren’t enough?”
“Both are side effects from the cocktail of drugs you’re own. And, to be honest, you never said otherwise.”
K21 drops his gaze. “I didn’t think I needed to.”
“Sucks to be you, then. Maybe.” She regards him steadily. Motherly. She wants to roll the long sleeves of his straitjacket up. Maybe send him to a human cleaning unit, too. She should use one, too. She’s been tailing him for about four days. At least they know the survivial modifications work okay. Then again, that means she’ll probably be due for an operation soon, to have some plugged in to her. She doesn’t look forward to this. “When we get back to the academy, I’ll dig up the forms for you.”
“You’ll have to. I’ll have restricted access again, I’m sure.”
“Yeah.” They’re quiet for a bit. She continues to play with the glowstick. It’s the only other thing she feels like doing. Four days is a long time to be chasing a guy who could probably live forever. Although she was trained for events like this, she never thought she would actually need to chase an escapee down. It seems almost beneath her, as a lot of things are. Maybe management is trying to reign her in. Keep her head clean. Like she’s trying to do with K21.
“Say, K21. What were you going to do if I hadn’t come after you again?”
He shrugs. “I don’t know. I’d need to recharge these parts at some point, so I couldn’t keep hiding in the woods. And I can’t go home. There isn’t one. And the city is out, since the software behind everyone’s eyes will probably pick me out. If it doesn’t, the facepoint disruption I’d employ would peg me in the brain’s software.”
“People would notice, even if the software didn’t.”
She shrugs. “Makes sense. So you were planning on doing what, exactly?”
K21 shrugs again. “I don’t know.”
“That doesn’t sound very free to me,” she says.
“Yeah.” He sighs, leans back into the crook of the branches. “Nothing really is.”
For a moment, she feels something like pity. Or sympathy. Being an Enforcer, her situation has its similarities. “So, tell me. When you’ve filled out the datawork and you’re out of the academy, what do you plan to do?”
He’s quiet. “There isn’t much to do anymore. I suppose I’ll build a solar cabin in the woods and live the rest of my life in solitude, like a modern Thoreau.”
“You think you’ll enjoy that? We have you tagged for emotional dependency, and social affectation.”
“If there is no one to be dependent on, there’s no more dependency. Right?”
She thinks about this. “Perhaps. You can talk to a more informed psychologist about that back at the academy.”
“So I’m going back.” He closes his eyes.
“There’s no other course, is there?” He doesn’t respond. It’s quiet again. An owl, or maybe a coyote, calls in the distance. She was never one for animals, so she doesn’t know how far apart those guesses are.
He waits for her to continue. She doesn’t. “Yes, Enforcer? What is it?”
“You need to speak up more. You know that we’re driven by organization and metadata. If you had let us know previously about your… condition, we could have done something.”
“Something about what?”
“Something to… improve your outlook. The world isn’t roses, of course, but it doesn’t have to be thorns.”
“That sounds like a platitude.”
“Maybe it is. There’s no point denying that. The point is that you didn’t have to run away.” She’s silent for a moment. “I’m your proctor, K21. I’ve been reading what your current psychologist has been noting. You’ve never hinted at any of this. Coupled with the adverse drug reactions, this could have turned out worse.”
“So it’s my fault? Are you saying that I should’ve asked, too?”
“No. I’m saying that you’ve been a bit mistaken. And that, since it was preventable, it’s preventable. Which is really saying that we’ll be talking a lot before you sign those forms. You don’t have to leave the academy.”
His eyes snap open. “It’s about the data, isn’t it? From the mods?”
She’s silent; the question took her by surprise. “Partially,” she admits.
K21 is hurt. “You could have lied.”
“You should have.”
But she didn’t. K21 trusts her a bit more. He can start to believe her again.
“Say, K21… You said that you don’t think before. However, you’ve obviously put a lot of thought into escape, and what the organization means to you. What did you mean?”
He closes his eyes. “Every now and then, I can’t think. Everything goes blank. It’s like some of the older files in the library, the ones that are huge and put a strain on the viewer so that they freeze for a moment. My head just freezes.”
“Is that why I overshot you a few times?”
“Probably. I didn’t know where to go, or where I was going, or who I was. I didn’t know anything. So I froze and waited. The worst times were when I could hear your boots clinking. I didn’t know what the sound meant, but I knew it was bad. And when I couldn’t hear you anymore, I started moving again.”
“I find it amusing that part of you equates me with danger.”
“You aren’t scary at all.” It’s a lie, and they both know it. Still, she feels a need to argue.
“I scare my mother sometimes. I tell her about what I think of the future. She says my feelings are devoid of emotion. She says that she doesn’t know how to help me. I tell her that I don’t need her help. I tell her that I have too much to worry about that I don’t worry about myself. I tell her not to worry.”
“I’m one of those things, aren’t I?” K21 asks.
“It’s not your fault. I can’t help the way I’m wired. But it breaks my heart more than hers.” She doesn’t expound further. She’s already divulged more than she intended.
“I thought academy Enforcers weren’t supposed to get close to their charges. Should you have told me that?”
“I can’t help anyone by being distant.”
“Is that why you personally came to capture me again?”
“It’s something like that.” She shrugs, spins her glowstick in her hands. She cracks it open on whim. Blue light illuminates their faces. K21 looks sickly in the glow. Then again, he is sickly. She lashes the stick to a branch above them. The light is unnatural in the forest. They sit under it, quietly, each thinking about the future. For K21, it’s vastly uncertain. For the Enforcer, it’s just another disorganized mess to evaluate and fix. Both views tend to cause a sense of despair. It’s one of the things that she and K21 didn’t realize they had in common.
“Speaking of capture, it’s about time that we head back. This glowstick won’t last forever.”
“Then, can I wait until it fades? I haven’t had real air in a long time.”
“You escaped only a few months ago.”
“I didn’t get very far. I was able to think more.”
“And that made you fail?”
“I was arrogant. I thought I could predict your moves. We both know how well that turned out.”
“Life isn’t a sci-fi novel or a movie.”
“Yeah. It’s not.” K21 would run his hands through his hair if it wasn’t shorn for surgeries. So he rubs the skin around the intravenous ports on his arm. The Enforcer watches him quietly. She’s discovered a lot of data on K21. She’s more worried than before. She shifts to a more comfortable position; the boots that were digging into her back clink softly.
“Say, K21. I’m going to sleep now. Tracking you down has taken a long time, so I’d hope you don’t go anywhere.”
“I think I’m done running,” he says. He takes in a lungful of air. Exhales. “I’m not going anywhere for a while.”
“Good. We’ll talk some more on the way back.” She lashes her back to her limb, then climbs it to the point where it becomes horizontal. The proximity of other trees create an interlinkage of limbs that support her weight. She isn’t worried about falling. She turns on her side, crosses her arms under her head, and starts to drift away.
Her eyes flutter open. “Yes, K21?”
“Thank you,” he whispers. He can’t say the words himself.
“Sure.” In a few more moments, she’s crashed out. K21 can sense it’s not the shallow sleep she sometimes indulges in when she’s waiting for his tests to finish. She’s been genuinely tired, and finally getting some rest.
He’s tired, too, but he hasn’t been programmed to sleep in trees. Instead, he climbs down, rolls into a loose ball, and lets his survival modifications put him into stasis.
The sun is setting when the Enforcer wakes up. When she doesn’t see K21, she is beginning to imagine his death in gruesome ways, but stops when she sees him, curled up on the ground below. “What a child,” she says aloud. She could have thought the words, but speaking them reminds her of old shows where thoughts were spoken for the benefit of the audience. She’s reminded that she avoids audiences. Ironic.
She unties her bag and sheathes her glowstick. Cautiously, she climbs down the tree. On the forest floor, she gently rustles K21.
He rouses, alert. “I couldn’t sleep in the tree.”
“I figured.” She braces a hand against his arm and pulls on her boots. She zips them, then fastens the metal cuffs. Clicks them from habit. Sparks them on the flint. K21 flinches. “Sorry.”
“I can’t help it. I’m sensitive to the point before surgery when the lights flash on.”
“They’re supposed to ease them on.”
“I didn’t know.”
“It’s not your fault. I’ll file a complaint when we reach the academy.” She pulls out a directional transceiver. At her thumbprint, the display pulses, then points to the left; generally southeast. They begin to walk.
“Don’t do this again.”
“Good. Next time they’ll just kill you.” She continues to walk as she delivers this information. It wasn’t a scare tactic, after all. But K21 stops in his tracks. She glances at him. “Are you okay?”
“Don’t be. Since you won’t be running off again, there’s nothing to worry about. Right, K21?”
He catches up to her, and they’re walking again. Her boots clink occsionally. K21 gets used to it. There are a lot of things he’ll have to get used to. But some of them might not be so bad.