Forgetting the black box in her hand, Cecilia shuffled across the street supporting her engorged belly to avoid the bubble-eyed kids. The stench of her fear was as thick as the smell of vomit penetrating this part of the City. They whooped and hollered as they crossed en masse, ignoring the one lone headlight passing through the street.
Cecilia took her stand in the lighted hutch of a bus terminal. Faded remnants of a circus poster still clung to one side. The clown's face in the poster was stretched into a grimace. On the other wall, a newer poster with the words 'One World, One Child, One Billion' around an Earth, taunted her.
They encircled the hutch and a strangled gasp slipped from her lips in response to the absurdity of her pursuers. The oldest could be no more than eleven and the youngest only slightly older than her Lily. In the five years she'd been in the City, she'd never gotten used to the black goggles suctioned to the faces of those living full time in the Digital Sea. Now, eight or nine children, their black goggles reflecting in the pale light, pawed at her. She kicked indiscriminately, hitting nothing but air.
Small hands grabbed at her purse, yanking it from her shoulder. The pack of children pounced onto the purse. During the tug of war, an elbow hit her stomach. The feral part of her—as a woman thick with child—erupted.
Assaulted by a maelstrom of feet and fingernails, her attackers fled like hyenas. They skittered into the darkness. The image of the youngest with two front teeth missing stayed with her long after the children had disappeared. Lily had lost her two front teeth—the Toothless Wonder.
A solid kick hit her from the inside. Cecilia crouched down onto the bench holding her belly, trying to gulp big calming breaths.
The purse was gone. A couple of hundred dollars contained within. The last of her and Lily and the baby's money. They were alone now. She squeezed the tears back. No time for them.
Through the entire struggle she'd forgotten about the black box in her hand. She needed the money more than the box. But she couldn't let go. It was the only thing worth taking when she'd left the morgue after identifying her husband's body. The urge to throw it into the sewer was as strong as the urge to break down.
The box fit into the palm of her hand. She'd never liked the feel of them—the shell made from a bioengineered version of spider's silk: strong, resilient, supple. The electronics heated it from within, giving the feeling of a live organ, like a heart, still warm, but beating no longer.
A fingernail caught on the rough edge of an access not seated properly, undetectable by the eye. Got damaged when they shot him. Piece of junk. Barely useable. Those kids have better systems than he did. Never got us rich as he said it would.
From the day they'd left for the City, Jimmy promised they'd get rich there. Had to get to the epicenter of it. The world was changing. A locomotive barreling into the future and they had to get on board, even if they were in the cattle car. Cecilia had laughed and kissed his fingertips then. Gently, each receiving its own light touch from her lips. Magic fingers that had made him a star pitcher. Magic fingers that had made her feel like a shooting star under the covers. Fingers that lay cold and lifeless in a stainless steel box now.
When he'd shown her videos of the City in its full digital regalia, it'd made her swoon. Cars were golden ships floating down the street, buildings dancing to ethereal music, and aerial battles of imaginary airships overhead. And then the people. It was as if all the world's books had been tipped over and out came every fanciful character. The impossible nature of it made her feel little, but alive.
Her excitement died their first day in the City when she stepped on a rat chewing on a hunk of garbage. Hooked to the Digital Sea, the City vibrated for Jimmy. Without the glasses, she saw the real City beneath. It reminded her of Grandma Adele before she'd died. The wasting sickness had rotted her from the inside, so she caked on the make-up and perfume to cover it up, but the stench couldn't be avoided.
The baby in her stomach gave her another kick. Time to get moving she guessed. The boy—it was a boy, she was certain—had his hand against her belly, and she could see the outline through her stretched shirt. She kissed her fingertips and laid them against the bumps on her belly. I'll name him Jimmy.
She stopped in the darkness between two distant streetlights, her hand drifting to her face to wipe away bloated tears. I can't name him. I can't even keep him. They'll take him away when I can't pay the child tax and sterilize me.
It had been two years since they passed Sagan's Law. When the Greenland ice sheet collapsed and sea levels rose two feet in a few short months killing hundreds of thousands and displacing hundreds of millions, political will hardened into a global law limiting births to one per family to reach one billion people by the end of the century. At least in the States the penalty for the second child wasn't death.
When they'd found out she was pregnant, she cried. They'd never be able to afford the tax, she thought, but Jimmy had promised he'd get the money. He'd always been working some scam that paid in favors and food stamps. But suddenly Jimmy started bringing home money for them to eat out once a month.
The night he came home with someone else's blood on his arm, she'd thrown her wedding ring at him and told him to get out. But she let him back in a few days later.
"Hey fat ass. Don't be taking our business over there." The words directed at her from across the street pulled her out of the past. She hadn't realized she'd stopped on the corner a block from her apartment.
Three prostitutes cackled while they pointed at her.
"Baby, you'd better get fixed, or don't you know what causes that?" the tall prostitute with a dirty blonde wig shouted at her.
The second prostitute, dark skinned with gold lipstick followed up. "Come over with us. We're doing government work. Spilling seed where it don't cause no babies."
She rushed through the doors of her apartment building to get away from the prostitutes to find a 'broken – fix later' sign on the elevator. Her feet throbbed as she trudged up the stairs, one painful step after another. A few vagrants slept on the landing between the third and fourth floor. They had unscrewed the light so they could sleep which made tiptoeing through their sleeping forms even more precarious. A hand grabbed her ankle as she put one foot on the first step so she stamped down on the hand. With a muffled cry from beneath the blankets, her ankle was released.
She reached the sixth floor and paused, holding her belly, catching her breath. A door opened and a familiar head stuck out.
"Cecilia!" the woman screeched as she waddled to her.
Cecilia tried not to gag. The woman, Rosala, wore the same perfume as her Grandmother Adele. Rosala wrapped her chunky arm around Cecilia's waist, pulling her towards an open doorway.
"I heard about Jimmy. I'm sorry. He shouldn't have been running with that crowd," Rosala whispered in her ear.
Spittle hit Cecilia on the side of her face, but she couldn't wipe it off as she braced her arms against Rosala's apartment doorframe before the big woman could pull her in. She needed to see Lily.
"I have to go."
Rosala stopped trying to pull her in and instead grabbed an arm. Rosala's hands had a greasy unwashed feel.
"We can help with your problem, you know. Gonna be real hard to raise two with no man. My Frank got a real government job, too. Making sure them whores keep on their shots. We even give you traveling money to get home. It ain't fair you should have two when some can't have none," Rosala said with her face too close.
Cecilia ripped one hand free and wiped the spittle from the side of her head.
"I have to go. Lily needs me," she said.
Rosala's face, which had been plastered with a toothy smile, soured into a grimace, her lips and teeth disappearing altogether.
"Them men. They come looking for you earlier. Sniffing around your door where your Lily be hiding. I told them I'd called the cops and they'd better get going. But they be back."
Cecilia could smell the lie on her lips as clear as the stench of old cigarettes. No one would be scared of someone calling the cops. If you did, it'd be hours before they came to this part of the City.
But the fact they had come at all worried her. Had he taken something? Jimmy had always talked about flipping the game and getting out of town. She'd never thought he'd be foolish enough to try. But with the baby coming, had he gotten desperate?
"Thank you, but I have to get to Lily." She pulled her other hand from Rosala's meaty grasp.
As Cecilia hurried down the hall, Rosala called after her. "Darling, don't be a fool. We can help you with your problem. Better than orphanages or them packs of little bubble-eyed freaks. It ain't fair you got two."
Cecilia's hands shook as she punched the key code for her apartment. After the third try she finally got it right and entered quickly, afraid Rosala might try to grab her again.
A nest of dust bunnies whirled as the door slammed closed. Since they'd sold the couch the week before to pay for groceries, the main room looked barren. Where was Lily?
After searching the kitchen, she checked the bedroom to find an unmade bed missing all its pillows. She yanked back the covers, expecting to see Lily underneath, instead revealing a faded threadbare sheet.
"Lily?" she called.
Had she left the apartment? Lily couldn't get out of the key lock. What if Rosala had been lying? What if they'd gotten in and taken Lily? She shouldn't have left her, but she hadn't wanted to drag a five year old through the City at that time of the night.
The closet door was slightly ajar, so she peeked in to find Lily asleep on a pile of pillows wrapped around her stuffed puppy dog, PupPup. Realizing she'd never be able to lift her, she shut the closet door and lay back on the bed.
She closed her eyes but fear those men might return kept her from drifting into slumber. And Rosala's words haunted her. What would she do when the baby came? Give it to Rosala or let the government take it? One thing Rosala had been right about, she needed to go back home. With Jimmy gone, there was no reason to stay in the City. Not that there'd had ever been. With all his dreams of getting rich, he'd forgotten about Lily and her. She smiled at her daughter through the closet doors. Their children had been their true wealth. Why couldn't Jimmy have seen that?
He'd taken something, that much she knew for sure, and they were still looking for it. There was one way she could find out, though the thought shook her will. The black box would hold the record of his death. Records of the previous few days were contained within, granting a perfect photographic memory. Jimmy had always tried to use it to win arguments about what had been said before, but she'd refused to look through the glasses.
Rummaging through Jimmy's drawers she found an old neural actuator. Cecilia took a deep breath and hooked to the Sea. Jimmy's display showed a number of standard mods: a minimap of the surrounding area, financial trackers calculating they were broke, a section of to-do notes—none of which she understood—and a few defensive mods.
She'd never liked using the neural actuator. It made her head hurt. The playback mod was buried in a set of programs. She set it for the time around his death, and for a third person view.
The room vanished and she stood on a well-lit street. Jimmy's body lay motionless on the sidewalk with blood pouring out of the holes in his chest. She choked back a gasp and ripped the glasses off. Vertigo made her head swim. She staggered into the bathroom and the vomit came like a fire hose.
After a few minutes of catching her breath, and washing out her mouth with acidic tasting tap water, she went back in to stare at the shades discarded on the floor. She didn't know if she had the courage to look again. It'd had been a while since she's used the glasses. She hadn't realized how realistic it had become. In a decade would the digital and reality be indistinguishable?
She thought about throwing it all out the window until she saw Lily through the barely open closet doors. The glasses slid over her eyes, suctioning to her face, bringing the scene of Jimmy's death back into nearly life-like clarity.
She set the clock back an hour, unsure of exactly when he'd died. The location changed and Jimmy was alive. Cecilia reached out to touch him, but her fingers went through his insubstantial being.
He strolled down the sidewalk with his hands shoved into his pockets. She could see how nervous he was. Shoulders hunched down, trying to look as small as possible, like a mouse weaving through tall grass, eyes glancing skyward.
As he walked, he occasionally pulled the black box out of his pocket to look at it. Something worried him. She thought about shifting into first person view to see what he was seeing, what mods were running, but seeing from his eyes would be too difficult, like inhabiting him.
A car peeled around the corner and skidded up next to him. Three men jumped out. Cecilia couldn't see them clearly. Some mod obscured their digital records.
"Hey bizzos," Jimmy said, acting friendly, but she'd seen him jump when they arrived.
They said something to him, but their voices were muffled.
"I made the drop off, but they'd slyhacked me." Jimmy opened his hands in a 'what could I do?' manner and gave them his best Jimmy smile.
They grabbed him and pushed him against the car, frisking him. Then they shoved him back onto the sidewalk, his heel caught the edge and fell hard on his rear.
"I'm just a courier," he barely got out before they shot him three times in the chest.
Cecilia tried to stop the bleeding, but her hands went through him as she screamed for someone to help, forgetting he'd been dead for hours.
"Mommy?" she heard from her bedroom.
Jimmy's lips moved like a fish out of water as he drowned in his own blood.
Cecilia pulled the shades free from her face. PupPup dangled at the end of Lily's tiny hands. She stared through tangles of hair at her mother. Cecilia pulled her into her arms.
"Where's Daddy?" the tiny voice whispered in her ear. Her breath felt like snowflakes kissing her face.
Cecilia wanted to lie. To say he was away on business. The lie would be easy to perpetuate indefinitely until Daddy was a mythical figure long forgotten. Lies were seductive, and she wanted the bliss of ignorance. But the world had become cruel, and Lily would have to find her way eventually without Mommy to guide her.
"Daddy is dead, sweetie," she said wiping a fat tear from her cheek.
Lily's hands roamed across her belly. "What is dead, Mommy?"
Cecilia smiled. Children were made for truth.
"Dead means he's gone and doesn't come back again."
Lily pushed on Cecilia's belly button which pressed through her shirt.
Cecilia repeated, "Can't come back."
Lily rubbed her eyes.
"Oh," Lily said. "I'll miss him."
"I will too."
The warm little body slipped from Cecilia's arms and crawled onto her throne of pillows. Lily was asleep instantly.
After closing the closet doors, Cecilia put the shades back on and watched Jimmy get shot again. He'd taken something and hidden it, but had he left a clue? On the fourth viewing, she realized as he died his lips were not gasping for air, but mouthing words he had no air to sound. Cecilia crawled to the digital Jimmy on her hands and knees, and put her ear to his lips and watched again, as her belly scraped the floor.
Jimmy's voice rasped, "I hid it in the Sea."
In the Sea? Was he crazy?
Cecilia rolled over to catch her breath.
I need to see what he took.
She jumped back a few hours on the record to find him waiting on a corner. When he crossed the street, she jumped back again another hour.
Jimmy sat at a café sipping lemonade watching the parade of people. A woman passed with fluttering faerie wings on her back. Cecilia wanted to tear the wings off.
A man slipped into the chair opposite Jimmy. After picking up his napkin, he coughed and dropped it on the table, and left. Jimmy pulled something small from the napkin and put it in his pocket.
Jimmy left the café, continually touching the object in his pocket. When he stopped at a corner, he looked around, as if expecting something. Checking his watch he hurried across the street. At each step he looked ready to break into a sprint.
Then he did something she didn't expect, Jimmy slipped into a peep-show booth. Jimmy disappeared inside, but the record of him couldn't follow. Cecilia didn't know why, until she saw the sign above the row of doors 'Digital Record Jamming Devices Active'. After a few minutes, he reappeared, checking his watch and started walking down the street. No longer touching his pocket.
Did he hide it inside the peep-show?
She watched the record as he walked another dozen blocks. After a while she realized it neared the end when the three men caught up to him.
The item had to be worth enough to pay the tax or he wouldn't have risked his life.
Cecilia rubbed her belly. The baby was asleep.
She woke Lily.
"Sweetie, get up. It's time to go. We're leaving the City."
Lily rubbed her eyes. "Where's Daddy?"
"He's dead, sweetie. He left us a present we have to go find."
"But I'm tired, Mommy. And so is PupPup. Just want to sleep." Lily tried to crawl onto her pile of pillows, but Cecilia pulled her back.
"Time to be a big girl." Was there ever time to be a child anymore?
Cecilia grabbed a pair of backpacks, one for Lily and one for her, and stuffed them with some traveling clothes. She had a couple of bills she'd tucked under the lamp base for emergencies. It was all she had.
They took the back way out of the building, avoiding the vagrants and entered the street from the alley. Never had the streets seen such a strange pair at the dead hours of the night. A pregnant woman with her young child, a stuffed puppy dog dangling from her hand. Cecilia kept the glasses on to help her find the peep-show. She didn't know the City as well as Jimmy had.
The street life barely acknowledged her. Only a lone whistle from a passing car reminded her they weren't ghosts.
This late at night, she was surprised how any noise echoed. Normally the cacophony of sounds overlapped until they became a suffocating blanket. The empty streets during the last breaths of night allowed the City to play a spacious jazz piece.
By the time she reached the peep-show, her calves and back screamed. Lily had been a little soldier trudging along with half-lidded eyes. She even had to go back for PupPup once when he slipped from her tired fingers.
The peep-show was closed and shuttered with iron bars. Cecilia slumped down in front of the door and pulled Lily into her arms to rest on her rotund belly.
She pulled the black box out of her backpack to rotate it in her hands.
Jimmy's words tickled at her mind. I hid it in the Sea.
Why would the peep-show be the Sea? She felt foolish for dragging Lily all the way across the City. What could he have meant?
"Are you Cecilia?" The voice startled her.
Cecilia dropped the black box, and looked around for the voice. A gray man stood nearby. She slipped the glasses down to see he was not really there. A paper cup blew down the empty street where the man should have stood.
"Who are you?"
"We want what Jimmy took."
"What did he take?" she asked.
"The tears of a supernova," the gray man said cryptically.
"I don't understand..."
The man laughed. "Jimmy was entrusted with a piece of production grade platinum valuable enough to fund a third-world country for a year."
"I don't have it." But when she looked down at the black box in her hand, a pale smile peaked from the gap in the access panel. Jimmy had hid the platinum in the gateway to the Sea.
The man ignored her words. "We're sending someone to get you. Don't bother running. You can't outrun us."
The baby kicked.
Cecilia ripped the glasses from her face and threw them into a sewer opening. She grabbed the box, and hurried towards the nearest subway entrance dragging Lily behind her.
Her hands shook as she tried to get the machine to accept her bills for the tickets. The square box sticking out of the wall had been damaged a few times, but they hadn't bothered to repair it. Almost no one used paper money anymore, but they'd never been able to afford a digital account.
Tickets in hand, her steps echoed in the empty stairway. The train waited for her with open doors. It led out of the City so she could escape to places not yet devoured by the Sea. The car was empty except for the two of them. Lily, unaware of their danger, curled up on the bench with PupPup.
Waiting for the car to move, Cecilia pulled at the access panel on the black box. A piece of pale metal about twice the size of a stick of gum had been wedged into it. She pulled it out. The piece was wafer thin with perforations along the length.
A voice announced their departure would be momentary and the doors closed. She could hear the rumble of another train coming down the track next to them.
A pair of men appeared on the platform across from her. They couldn't get to her, but they had found her so quickly. The ubiquitous cameras tracked everything in the City and they had followed her to the train.
The men saw her immediately.
"You can't run. We can have people waiting at the next stop. Or the stop after that. What you have is too valuable to lose."
Cecilia looked at Lily sleeping peacefully on the bench. The rumble of the oncoming train increased.
"Throw it to us."
She held the small piece of platinum to her belly. The lights of the oncoming train curling around the bend could be seen through the rows of open windows. The stale air of the tunnels moved past.
As discretely as she could, she snapped a piece of the platinum from the sheet and tucked it into her pants. The strain of her belly held it in place.
Cecilia held up the remaining platinum to the men. "This is what you want?"
The voice announced their train was departing.
"Yes," they both yelled at once. "Throw it to us."
Cecilia waited until the oncoming train was almost upon them and launched it out the window towards them. The swirling eddies grabbed the piece of platinum and slammed it into the pit as the subway train ran over it.
Her train pulled away in the opposite direction. She couldn't see the men any longer, but she knew they would be too busy trying to recover the platinum after the train had passed to bother her any longer.
Cecilia lowered herself onto the bench next to Lily. After a few stops the train left the tunnels, and climbed above the ground. She watched the City drift away from her—the scattered lights like stars in the deep sky.
She left the City and with it Jimmy's body, and his dreams. But she left with something else too. One hand rested on Lily's leg and the other on her belly over the narrow slice of their future, and she smiled as the lights of the City faded under the lights of the new born sun.
Tom Carpenter resides near St. Louis with his wife Rachel and their two children. He's written a novel and a series of short stories, including this one, based in the augmented world of the Digital Sea. When he's not busy writing the second novel of his trilogy, he's working on his blog about augmented reality called The Future Digital Life (www.thomaskcarpenter.com).