THE GETAWAY by Ralph Weld
Six-month-old Jon, dressed in his onesie and wrapped in a small blue blanket squirmed in Ellie’s arms. The alarms are too loud. He’s going to cry. Through the open door, she watched as other inhabitants of Station Okaasan emerged from their evenly spaced quarters on either side of the polished walkway curving off into the distance. Ellie knew the hall would eventually circle back to the cramped space where she lived with her parents, but as her father had explained, it would take more than an hour to make the round trip. They had never let her walk it by herself.
The glow of the recessed lighting in the hallway flashed red. Hidden speakers barked the warning This is a Level Five evacuation. Please move quickly to the docks, over and over. Ellie fought the crowd, holding Jon tightly, moving carefully through the growing number of people flooding the hallway. At four feet tall, she was one of the smaller ones of her group and was able to squeeze through legs and carryalls rolling behind their owners. There’d never been a complaint from her parents about her size.
Residents, dressed in pajamas, moved toward the main elevator shaft located on the other side of the station. Its lift would take them to Level 82 and the docks. Her father, an Identity Inspector, would be waiting there. She felt something she couldn’t identify, pride maybe, and imagined him guiding people to their escape pods as they exited the elevator with their passes.
She’d forgotten to bring their passes. Clutching Jon with one arm, Ellie patted her pajama pockets. She didn’t have them. Jon gurgled and drooled as if he agreed. Ellie turned and forced her way back through the crowd to their apartment. Just this morning, her mom had checked and updated Jon’s identity pass.
“Most people never need them, Ellie,” she’d said. “They’re for emergencies and contain important information about our lives. Who we are, how much money we have, what we’re allowed to own, where we can go. It’s all on these cards”. She showed Ellie the blue, zippered pouch then put it on top of the refrigerator. “We’ll keep yours and Jon’s here. If you have to leave in a hurry, you’ll know where they are.”
Ellie pushed toward her door, she could see it again, and weaved to the entry panel beside it. The noise of the alarm seemed to grow louder and the red lights brighter. She punched in the code and entered, sat Jon on the floor and moved a chair in front of the refrigerator. On top of the appliance, her small fingers moved through the dust until she found the pouch. She pulled it to her.
That’s funny. It feels heavier than before. While still on the chair, she unzipped the pouch and saw their flat yellow identity cards. She unzipped it further and saw her mom had added small tubes of liquid and several days’ worth of edible papers, folded flat. Ah, that’s it. Her mother had added supplies. Ellie didn’t notice the black felt bag nestled at the bottom, the other item her mother had put in the pouch.
Ellie zipped it shut then looped the cord around her neck and thought of her mom on Level-Fifteen, ten floors above in the energy collection rooms, checking and cleaning solar panels. Her mom loved the work, the silence, and the view through the clear walls into space.
“But what do you doooo?” Ellie’d asked her once.
“I dust. The universe is dusty, Ellie,” her mother had said. “There’s dust everywhere you go, even in space. Little pieces of us fall off. They make a mess and get into all the little cracks. It’s not good for our station. I keep the solar panels clean by dusting them.”
“And on earth? Is there dust there?”
“Oh yes. There’s quite a bit of dust on earth,” her mother had answered. Then she’d laughed while she moved a soft blue cloth across a panel’s flat, shiny surface. “There’s lots and lots of dust on Earth.”
By now the corridor was packed and the alarms seemed louder with the hallway filled with people. Please make your way to the docks-Please make your way to the docks repeated again and again. Ellie, with Jon back in her arms, entered the stream moving toward the elevators. A man pushed her out of the way and she stumbled into a woman pulling her own young child by the hand. The woman had a pouch looped around her neck like Ellie. Ellie felt the weight of her brother in her arms and knew this was a real emergency and not a game. Something shifted in her mind. The station was evacuating. Her paced slowed and several people behind her began to shout.
“Move it!” “Get out of the way!”
She stopped and closed her eyes. I must protect Jon. She thought of options as the crowd bumped and pushed around her. Fear wasn’t a choice, though she looked scared. Her muscles refused to move until she came up with a good plan to protect Jon.
Meanwhile…Fotios Greasen blended into the crowd like a shadow in a dark room. It would be difficult for the Fleet to pick him out of the surveillance footage from the crowd later, providing the station still existed. A sniffer-bot must have picked up traces of the explosives he’d scattered throughout the platform and tripped that obnoxious alarm. He checked his watch and his lips formed a thin line. The package must be captured or eliminated.
His lifeless dark eyes scanned the pulsing crowd, now fully clogging the hallway as they tried to push their way to the elevators. This is going to be close. Fotios had tracked the package for six months, too long to give up now. In his line of work, a close call was fair trade for what he wanted. Check that—for what his employer wanted. He pushed his way down the hallway, watching the red dot on his handheld. What he’d searched for, killed for, was a hundred and twenty meters ahead.
He was close.
“You’ve got to move, dear, or you’ll be trampled. Come on, I’ll walk with you.” Ellie recognized Aunt Jem’s voice before she looked up at the tall woman dressed in a utility uniform like her mother’s.
“I want to see mom,” Ellie said after a quick hug. The force of the crowd moved them down the hallway. Jem nodded and reached down to stroke Ellie’s back.
“I’ll walk with you to the elevators.”
Jem kept her hand on Ellie’s back, helping her stay focused as they waded through the river of people, sometimes guiding her to the left or right. Ellie whispered into Jon’s ear she’s taller than me and can see better. Hold on. We’re going to see mom.
The woman’s touch was comforting, and Ellie was less confused with an adult present. Jon wailed, and Ellie held her brother tighter. More residents pushed out of their quarters into the hallway and their pace slowed. Ellie counted doors as they passed. She was up to eighty. Forty if she only counted one side.
“I’m tired Aunt Jem.”
Jem patted Ellie’s back and said, “Just a little further.”
“Nooooo. I want to rest. Let’s go in there.” Ellie nodded at a door up ahead on the right. Its label read “185T-L5 – Quiet Area – Children and Minders Only – No Signals”. Each level had a similar room for the children.
“We’ve passed forty doors. It’s another two hundred and thirty to the elevators,” Ellie said. “Four hundred and sixty if you count by twos.”
“How do you know that,” Jem asked.
“I dunno. I just do.”
“We should keep moving, Ellie.”
Jon cried loudly and Ellie said, “But I’m soooo tired. And Jon’s too heavy.”
“All right,” Jem said. “But only for a minute.” She looked behind her and scanned the crowd. Ellie noticed.
“What are you looking for?”
“Someone I know, that’s all. Come on now. Let’s get inside.”
Ellie watched as Jem put her thumb on the print reader and the doors slid open. Ellie longed for next year when she could come alone, without a minder. Her parents said, “Next year, Ellie, next year.” They’d said that every year for as long as she could remember. Ellie wanted to put her own thumb on the small glass reader.
The door swooshed shut behind them.
“Rest,” Jem said. “But just for a minute.”
On the wall were large shutters. The playground monitor, Mrs. Jasper, opened them while the children rested, eyes front, a nutrition wire attached to each wrist as they lay side-by-side in straight rows on their mats. Ellie was older and allowed to sit by Mrs. Jasper who’d point and pick out the stars in the void beyond the walls. Ellie had learned them all.
Her Aunt Jem picked up a wire, bigger than a normal lead and wrapped its Velcro band around Ellie’s wrist. Ellie turned to her and said, “Watch this.” She pushed a button on the desk beside them and the panels began to shift. As they parted and slid behind each other, Ellie and Jem could see outside the station into the darkness of space. Jem uttered “oh…” as the first escape pods raced away. The distance to the next Platform, Otousan, was too far without a hyper drive. Platforms were isolated from each other in case of outbreaks. Escape pods were only good for waiting until the authorities arrived with a fleet cruiser for pick up, if they came at all.
“Ellie, we have to go.”
Fotios watched as the red dot on his handheld device disappeared. The blue dot representing him continued to flash. “What the..?” He shook the screen out of frustration and stopped in the middle of the hallway. People pushed around him.
“You’re holding us up. Get out of the way.”
A man tried to shove him to the side and move past. Fotios grabbed a fist full of shirt and lifted the man until his feet were off the floor. “Not now,” he raged and tossed the man against the wall. He stepped over the body and expanded the view on his handheld screen to represent a square meter then calculated how far their last position had been. He touched the device to start a pace count and began to move forward. At seventy meters he stopped. The door on the left was labeled 305T-L5. Up ahead and to the right was 306T-L5-School Cafeteria.
Fotios walked to 305T and tried the door. The occupants had locked the door. Like it matters, he thought. It took him only a minute to pick the lock while the stream of flesh behind him continued to move. He would check every room between here and the elevator if necessary. He entered the quarters and began to search.
Jem knew pausing in the playroom was a mistake, but a crying baby and a slower, over protective Ellie wouldn’t work either. Her pace endangered the child. They needed to move. Now.
They would do anything to get the package, and she was sure they’d sent someone and that person had caused the evacuation alert. Jem hoped the maintenance shuttle she’d disabled was still at the dock and some overzealous mechanic hadn’t boosted it for herself. It had a hyper drive. One of the few permanently assigned vehicles at any station to have one. She’d taken its Electrocard, tucked firmly in her pocket, to keep the craft dockside until she was ready, but the cards were interchangeable in case one was down for repair. They needed to hurry.
“We have to go, Ellie. Here, let me take Jon.”
“No! He’s my brother. I should carry him.”
“And you have. You’ve done wonderfully. But we need to move faster and I’m bigger. Let me help.”
Ellie walked back to the open shutters and watched as another escape pod moved into the void. Otousan was a light-day away. “Did you know a light day is 25,902,068,371.2 kilometers? The pods will never make it to the next platform will they, Aunt Jem?”
“No,” said Jem. “Not without a hyper drive.”
Ellie nodded. “You can carry my brother, but I’ll watch to make sure he’s okay.”
Jem picked up Jon and cradled him in her arms. “Let’s go,” she said and they exited the room, turned right and were once more a part of Okaasan’s flotsam.
Further back and many rooms away, Fotios had finished his search of 305T and now prepared to trash his way through the next room when his screen beeped. His jaw dropped when he spotted the red dot a hundred and twenty meters from his location and moving with the other Level Five residents toward the lifts. He looked, but knew the curvature of the hallway around the station would prevent seeing his target. By the time he’d reentered the crowded hallway, the red dot had pulled away. He looked anyway. Nothing but a sea of bobbing heads giving off a stench of fear. But he wasn’t worried. He knew where the red dot was headed—the docks on level eighty-two.
Jem could see the large elevator doors. The crowd’s movement had pressed them against the side walls of the hallway as more and more people pushed forward toward the large shut doors waiting for the next car to descend. The cars could carry a hundred and three passengers. More pushed on each time it returned and the sound of straining metal sounded through the station with each ascent. Jem knew eventually the elevator motors would overheat and shutdown. That would prove fatal.
She’d sensed someone was close after she re-entered the hallway outside the playroom, but it was no more than a warning whisper to her skin, goosebumps that shouted somethings not right! The stop had been a mistake. Her training prepared her better, but the girl needed rest and energy if only for a moment. Ellie’s reserves were typical for her age, but she couldn’t handle moving and carrying Jon for much longer.
Jem scanned the crowd surging behind with a retinal-binoc implant and spotted him almost immediately–Fotios Greasen, sixty meters back behind at least two hundred people. The mass tightened and pushed toward the elevator doors creating a solid wall of flesh he couldn’t push through. She knew he would kill everyone on Level Five to get the package, but it wouldn’t be quick enough before Jem whisked Ellie and Jon onto the elevators. The elevator would take them to the safety of the docks before he got on.
Fotios’s own retinal-binoc spotted Jem at the same moment she’d locked on him. He cursed. This was unexpected. He’d no idea The Collective had sent her. Fotios looked at the crowd in front of him and regarded the wall of people, impossible to get through before the next elevator arrived. His only hope was to push through enough of the crowd and be swept on to the same elevator with Jem before she could shut the doors. Then he could take his time asking her where IT was hidden. He would enjoy that. He pulled a weapon from its wrist sheath and touched a button on the handle. Suspended by the crowd, the body in front of him fell to the floor as the jostling mass moved forward. Blood began to spread as Fotios dropped more people and took another step. The bodies continued to drop.
Cries behind Fotios began to sound as the citizens watched him move forward through the falling bodies. Few in front turned to look, but those that did screamed and began to push harder to escape the growing massacre. Each time the red alarm light flashed, pools of red blood on the walkway grew and turned black like ink spilled on a dark night. The crowd, now alarmed, surged forward to get away from Fotios and jammed tighter in the hallway.
The screams and shouts alerted Jem that the assassin was making his move. She pulled Ellie and Jon closer to the elevator door then looked back. The crowd pressed against them. A struggle seemed to be moving from back in the crowd toward her and the children, like something you couldn’t see moving through a cornfield. They had to move.
The elevator settled and stopped. When the doors opened, the crowd surged.
“Get on the elevator, Ellie. No matter what happens, get to the docks and find your father and give him this.” Jem handed Jon to Ellie and pulled the Electrocard for the shuttle out of her pocket. “Your Dad will know what to do.”
The crowd pushed as the doors opened wider and soon they would be swept into the lift. Ellie tugged her sleeve. “Mom’s on level fifteen. Please.” She pointed toward a small door next to the elevator. “I want to see my mom!”
Jem looked at Ellie and nodded. She moved Ellie and Jon into the stairwell. It was empty. No one wanted to climb seventy floors to the docks. Ellie was right. It was the better move.
“Wait here.” Jem left Ellie holding Jon in the small hallway and pushed back into the crowd toward the elevator doors. She took a small metallic button from her pocket and squeezed it between her fingers. She threw the small signal emulation device into the back of the elevator’s rapidly filling car, then pushed and shoved her way back into the stairwell.
“Take your brother and go find your mom, Ellie.”
Ellie gripped Jon against her chest and started up the stairs. Jem heard the labored whine from Ellie and hoped she’d make it. She turned and leaned against the stairwell door while keeping it cracked a centimeter to watch the crowd pouring into the elevator, some falling, trampled underfoot by the scared hoard. She saw the assassin Fotios getting on the lift. If they’d sent Fotios, the stakes were, simply put, escape or die.
But they’d bought some time. There was no way he could know they were in the stairwell. He couldn’t see into the back of the car through the crowd and his tracker would show the simulator’s signal at the back of the elevator. They’d be okay until Fotios killed everyone in the elevator car and discovered the ruse. Jem hoped it would be enough time. She heard the beginning screams as Fotios started to kill his way through the crowd and felt the elevator begin to move up through the station. The walls of the stairwell shuddered and the motor many floors below groaned as it tried to lift the extra weight of the fleeing occupants up to the docks where the escape pods waited.
Jem shut the door and broke the handle. It won’t stop him, but it’ll give us another minute. She climbed the stairs and caught up with Ellie and took Jon, and the three of them continued to Level Fifteen.
“Here we are.”
Jem opened the door and stepped into an enormous space. Ellie ran from behind her into the room. It was an occupational floor with transparent outer walls lined with solar panels to collect the energy that helped power the station. Ellie gasped as she felt the room’s power. She walked over to one of the control desks and placed her hands on two rods that protruded from its surface.
“Hmmm. That’s nice,” she said.
“Ellie?” a voice called from behind rows of equipment. “Is that you?”
A tall woman with short black hair appeared from between a row of solar panels. Her resemblance to Jem was striking. Only the color of her hair and her name tag were different.
“Laura,” Jem said, moving toward her “it’s me and Ellie. I’ve got Jon. We have to leave. Have you finished locking down the automatics?”
“Jem? What are you doing here? You were supposed to get them to the evacuation dock.”
Laura held out her arms accepted Jon. She hugged him tight.
“Fotios was right behind us, Laura.”
“Fotios is on the station?” Her look was one of concern, or perhaps resignation. There was no fear. She looked at Ellie. “She wasn’t supposed to come here, Jem.” Laura’s brow furrowed as she contemplated her daughter. “Ellie, can you come here, please?”
Ellie released the rods. “Mommie!” She hugged her mother’s legs then pulled the Electrocard from her pocket. “Here mom, take this. It’s from Aunt Jem.”
Laura circled Ellie with one arm and cradled Jon with the other. She looked at the Electrocard for a moment.
“Ellie, give it back to Jem, please.” She looked at Jem. “Take the card and Jon, too. Meet Chris at the dock. I’ll stay here with Ellie and draw Fotios back down. It’s the only way to get Jon away.”
Laura handed Jon to her sister then stroked Ellie’s hair. She began to cry as she leaned over to whisper into Ellie’s ear, “I love you” and her fingers slipped between Ellie’s left ear and skull and pulled the switch down. Ellie collapsed to the floor.
“She’s not programmed for violence,” Laura said, tears falling. “Fotios would hurt her.” She looked down at her daughter then back up at Jem. “Her beacon will still draw him here.”
Jem looked at her handheld. “The lift has stopped. It’s coming back down.”
You have to go, Jem,” Laura said. “They’ll cut Jon to pieces to reverse engineer him. He’s the first without an on/off switch.” She drew in a deep breath and let it out. “We are so close to normal.” She looked at Jon for another moment then locked eyes with her sister. “Keep him safe, Jem, and tell Chris I love him.” She leaned over and pulled Jon’s pass and the black velvet bag from the pouch still around Ellie’s neck. “Here. The master schematic is on the chip inside the bag. It’s part of what they’re after.”
Laura sat on the floor beside Ellie and straightened her hair, brushing it out of her eyes. “Jem, I have to tell you something.”
Jem glanced at the handheld. “You’d better hurry. Fotios is on his way.”
Laura nodded and cleared her throat. “The codex egg used for Jon was a combination of Chris’s DNA and yours, not mine.” She cradled Ellie’s head in her lap and wept. “Tell him it’s going to be okay.”