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Chapter 2

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Dinner time was always the worst as everyone would pile into the overheated dining hall and battle for eating space. It was the only hot meal of the day that the foster kids had together since breakfast was pretty much a grab-and-go with their lunch being provided by the school. It was here, every night, that Ger had to stake out his turf and defend it from the mob. Being NPC Ger was the goal as he grinded his way through the lukewarm meal, keeping his head down and basically making it to the end of the dinner level staying as GTG as possible. I’m a non-playing character. Don’t bother engaging. I’m not here for long.

‘Bots travelled from kid to kid dropping food trays that were all the same.

Generic drink, fake meat, plastic fish or soy chicken plus a combo-vegetable soup came packaged in plain white boxes along with a container of mystery milk substitute. Most of the other foster kids complained about the food’s quality but Ger always packed it away glad that he didn’t have to cook it himself — or steal it. Back when he was living with Mom, they’d gotten by on mostly street food and the stuff she would ‘rescue’ from work. She had a full time gig at the Peoples Automat servicing the government building and whatever they didn’t eat during the course of their day, ended up on their table. When she got sick, they stopped eating - and when the money ran out, Ger started stealing online. Then Mom got sick. Super sick.

Ger fumed.

He’d gotten maintenance work at the home because the only computer got fried by him. It wan’t even my fault. How did GNGR346 do that? She’d ducked the cluster and ghost-nuked me over the web. How was that even possible?

‘Hey, Scrub. Nice going’

Ger stared up into the flushed face of Tyrone — at two hundred and forty pounds, he outweighed Ger by a good hundred pounds and he leaned over him clearly pissed about something. Or someone.

Like Ger.

Ger played it off as everyone knew Tyrone could snap and pound them into paste for any reason. He was that kind of foster kid. He’d been there forever and nobody was coming back to pick him up.

Leaning back in his scuffed plastic chair, Ger tried smiling at the angry bully.

‘Hey, Tyrone. What’s happening, my foster brother?

Tyrone smacked Ger in the back of the head.

The rest of the room, up until now concentrating on their meal, all sneak-peeked the looming battle. Better him than them.

‘Don’t brother me, camper. You fragged our only ‘puter. How’m I supposed to get my look on now?’ panted Tyrone.

Ger shuddered at the thought of Tyrone locked in the small room for ninety minutes trolling adult sites and chatrooms. He made a mental note to thoroughly wipe everything down once he got his privileges back.

Ger tried to blow if off in a breezy I-got-you-covered way leaning in to Tyrone and motioning him closer. Tyrone stank like baby powder and hard luck up close as Ger tried not to breathe the sticky man-boy funk the talcum had failed to cover.

‘I got some top-end hacks of some dark-web nasties I can hook you up with. Tripe A. Triple X. I got master-codes and everything. You can max out on DLC.’

BAM! Tyrone smacked Ger with his plasi-tray breaking it over him spilling the grey food and drink everywhere.

The rest of the kids in the room exploded as the house 'bots moved in to keep the peace. 

‘FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT!’

<Cease your activities. Return to your chairs. You have been warned>, admonished the guardian 'bot who rolled towards the boys.

Ger stole a glance at the advancing machine knowing full well that more demerits added to his current downgrade would result in privileges lost and even more work around the home. Burning out the computer and now fighting with Tyrone meant that he might find himself in the lowest part of the building in the area reserved for violent wards of the state - if he was caught. He’s heard horror stories about what went on there and had no intention of spending the night in The Box.

Ger’s plan was simple. Plead his case to the supervisor 'bot and have them play back the CCTV video from the room. They were always recorded. Everyone would see that Tyrone started the fight and that Ger was innocent.

‘You fragged the drive and lost all my favorite stuff,’ menaced Tyrone who tried to grab Ger.  ‘Now, I gotta go find it all again… and I don’t know where I got most of it!’

Tyrone neatly ducked the lumbering menace and leapt up —  directly in the path of the approaching guardian. Just stay outta his way. No PvP contact.

<Freiling, Gerald 464. Cease and Desist your Movement>, blared the speaker on the robot’s chest panel.

Even in this moment of ‘fight or flight’, Ger couldn’t help but laugh at the rolling metal guardian. Shaped like a refrigerator on wheels, the industrial caretaker units had previously served time on assembly lines for auto-cars and cruisers. Their long spindly arms and glowing central eye had been the target of countless tags and graffiti markers over the years and this unit was no exception. A large cartoon pair of lips had been slashed beneath the eye port and kittykat ears and whiskers had been drawn on in thick black lines. It looked like a metal clown cat trying to act tough.

Ger snorted at the retro-fitted guardian. It looked funny.

‘Whatchu laughin’ at, GERO-main? You trashed the system and now none of us gotta ‘puter to use. You don’t care what happens to our stuff!’

The dinner room erupted in approval.

Ger had stopped everyone’s online time and Tyrone was a hero for once instead of the bully everyone hated.

Tyrone tried to grab Ger by his wet shirt as he slipped through his fat fingers.

Vaulting up onto the wobbly plastic table, Ger leapt over the kittycat clown 'bot and skidded to a stop on a neighboring table.

‘GERO-MAIN! GERO-MAIN!’

The room exploded in online flame taunting as Ger looked frantically for an exit.

He stared down at an angry loot shooter he knew who’d been flipped by the dark web cops like him and was waiting time to get out and get back to it.

TANYA-OMG glared up at Ger in sneering distaste as her carefully painted eyes shot daggers at the desperate Ger.

‘Tanya, little help?’

Folding her arms across her chest, she pursed her black lips in obvious distaste.

‘Get outta here, you filthy casual,’ Tanya spat.

Ger felt the burn all the way down to his now-soaking feet as he moved on quickly.

All around him the room was flooded in laughing or angry kids who all hated Ger for frying their sole computer.

Tyrone thundered after him as more robot caregivers descended upon the dinner hall.

‘You fight like a dairy farmer,’ screamed Tyrone as he attempted to catch Ger leaping from table to table.

Ger looked frantically around the room from his elevated position. Think, Ger. Max out on game cred here and pretend it’s a level. How would you beat this?

He assessed the room and the odds were not in his favor.

Three guardians, a room full of laughing kids that hated his guts and one pissed-off Tyrone made for a total free for all where everything was up for grabs.

He dug deep into his RTS playbook and decided that forward motion was the only option.

He leapt into the air over Tyrone and deaked around kittykat computer as he strafed his way towards the dining hall exit.

Around him, the other kids burst into applause who recognized a hot run when they saw it. Ger was living the dream and going full berserker on the room. I am Kill-Dozer. Witness me!Ger slipped across a nearby table avoiding guardian 'bot No. 2 who tried to snatch the errant teen with its plier-like hands only to smash directly into the third metal supervisor landing in a heap on the floor as cartons of milk and plasti-trays flew through the air hitting him on the dirty linoleum floor.

Looking up at the advancing robots, Ger had no option but to give up.

The last thing he heard was Tanya calling out from across the room the ultimate gamer burn.

‘You’re such a Rust Lord.’

“Oh, do sit up straight, dear. You are ruining the line of that dress.”

Isla tried not to show her obvious distaste at her mother’s attempt to ‘culture her’. Who cares if I sit up straight — or use the right fork — or even use cutlery. Who cares? Really? #Not_Me.

Isla smiled sweetly at her mother making a half-hearted effort pulling her napkin into her lap for full effect.

Marta smiled at her daughter as she waved absently to the 'bot to now begin serving dinner.

The dining room was, as always, immaculate with a fresh pressed tablecloth, sparkling silverware and cotton placemats marking their two separate spots on the long table. The 'bot rolled in with two steaming plates of soy pasta and real meat as Isla nodded to the mechanical servant in thanks. She appreciated being served - even if it was by a machine and knew that the gesture would be lost on her mother as she flicked through the comm-link attempting to set up the call with her husband.

‘I have a good feeling about tonight,’ Marta noted as the ping of an interstellar connection being made sounded through the speakers.

Isla waited in anticipation. Would this call actually go through?

Ignoring her meal, she stared without hope at the large screen that dominated the room. Like most in their exclusive neighborhood, they benefited from the company-provided tech devices. Everything in their home was the property of the sprawling Axxiom megacorp with updates provided every year in keeping with their station. As Alpha Primes, they benefited from the enhanced executive luxury package including the satellite link to off-world postings

‘It’s ringing,’ enthused Marta as she fluffed her hair and motioned to her daughter to smile. ‘Smile, Isla, please. You don’t want your Father to see you frowning. Do you?’

Pasting a false smile on her face, Isla played with the meal pushing food around on her plate as they waited. And here it comes.

<Connection Lost. Subscriber Unavailable> flashed across the console as the interstellar call dropped.

‘Oh, this thing,’ fussed Marta as she attempted the reconnection. She snapped a look at Isla toying with her food. ‘And eat something, Isla. Please.’

She dragged a soggy strand of pasta to her lips and slowly sucked the noodle in as Marta ignored the gesture, drumming her fingers on the table waiting for the connection to re-establish. And so goes our nightly dinner of calling and waiting and redialing. I don’t know why she bothers.

Marta, as if reading her daughter's thoughts glared at her.‘Because this is what family does. We try. We make an effort. Even if we know things are hopeless or impossible -- we try.’

<Connection Lost. Subscriber Unavailable>

Marta slapped the remote control on the table sending it skittering across to Isla who snatched it up eager to break the tension.

‘News okay with you?’ Marta ignored her daughter and concentrated on her own meal, disappointment echoed in every action.

Isla fired up the local news affiliate in hopes that her mother wouldn’t notice that she wasn’t eating. Again.

Onscreen, the coiffed Linda Oh stood in front of PS 327 chattering in clipped TV speak as behind her students streamed out of the school laughing waving their comm-links. ‘… hacked with what has been another act of cyber-terrorism by the anarchist known only as Jericho…’

Isla leaned forward in interest at the sound of Jericho’s name. Oh, my God. He did it. She held her breath desperate to not let her mother see how excited she was.

‘Turn it to another channel, Isla. I’m sick of hearing all this bad news.’

Isla focused in on the screen ignoring her mother’s complaint.

The newscaster, clearly relishing the hits this broadcast would bring her, droned on - smiling slightly as she continued delivering the bad news. ‘It seems that the self-appointed information warrior has broadcast live the personal data accounts, banking information, and more personal...documents housed within the faculties private records across the entire school ecosystem and out onto the web.’

Onscreen, carefully edited images with digital pixelated photographs obscuring faces, actions and financial records flashed in an inset window as the station web ID logo asked viewers to log on to find out more and to see hidden exclusive details. The chipper voice of the newscaster droned on.  ‘Parents and students were shocked to learn the amounts paid to senior PS 327 administrative staff versus the compensation offered the teaching faculty. Not to mention the more personal photographs and messages sent back and forth within the online learning management system reserved for official school use only.’

Isla laughed out loud as Linda Oh onscreen shared the information unable to contain herself.

<Plink>

The comm-unit shut down as Marta punched the off button.

‘It’s disgusting,’ her Mother sniped as Isla tried to turn the unit back on. ‘Leave it alone, Isla, we don’t need to see any more of that.’

Isla sighed, crossing her arms across her chest as she stared daggers at her mother. ‘I don’t think it’s disgusting at all. I think what he’s doing is great.’

Marta sighed, pushing an errant strand of hair back on her tightly coifed head, fixing her daughter with a practiced stare. ‘Great? How could this be great?’

‘He’s exposing the hypocrisy of the system. Making them accountable for their actions. Letting us know how they’ve lied to us. I think he should do this to everything, everywhere.’

‘Everywhere? What this — person — is doing is terrorism. Extortion. It’s wrong.’

‘How is this extortion, mother? Is he asking for money? No. Is he doing it for profit? No. He’s doing it to prove a point.’

Isla stood, her meal forgotten and walked away from the table to the back patio door.

Looking out into their manicured lawn, her voice sounded small in the large room.

‘There’s no point to any of this, Isla.’ Marta’s shoulders quaked as she started to cry softly with her back to her daughter.

Isla stood, moving to her mother wanting to finish their conversation and torn to see her mother in tears. ‘Of course, there’s a point, Mother. To all of this. We’re just cogs… cogs in an old machine and we have to do something if we’re going to be just used and thrown away when we’re outdated and broken. Jericho’s saying, he’s had enough. It’s time for a change.’

Marta turned, her mascara wet on red cheeks, anger flushing her face.

‘What do you know about being used and thrown away? Don’t you have everything here you could ever want? Haven’t your father -- and I made all these sacrifices so you can have everything you want?’

‘Did I ask for any of this, mother? Did I? I don’t need -- we don’t need this to be happy. Do we?’

Marta’s anger soured her pursed tight lips. ’What would make you happy?’

Isla turned, out of frustration at her mother, lost in a whirlwind of her own conflicting thoughts. I don’t know. I don’t know. Anything but this. ‘I wish I knew, mother. But watching you every night reaching out trying to find Dad, watching you get smaller and smaller every day, knowing that you don’t even know I’m a vegetarian -- all of it isn’t helping. I don’t know what I want and I know you don’t know what I need.’

Marta slumped, making herself small, her doe-like wet eyes fixed on her daughter. ’Since when have you been a vegetarian, Isla?’

Isla sighed. I can’t help her. I can’t help me. This is a waste of time.

 

Upstairs, Isla tore off the dinner dress letting it drop to the floor.

She padded over to her street clothes and pulled her shirt and jeans on as she stuffed her journal and pocket comm-link into her messenger bag. I’m not staying here anymore. Not tonight.

Tucking her pants inside her boots, she pulled her scuffed leather jacket from inside the too-large closet and raced to her bedroom window.

Below, her black e-scooter sat on the small patio waiting.

She climbed out of the window clambering down the trellis and stomped to the flagstones. Looking up at the house, Isla shook her head in frustration.

I don’t belong here. I don’t belong anywhere. Nobody understand me. Except Jericho.

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