WARNING: This series contains violence and graphic language. It may not be suitable for readers under the age of 16.
Water splattered loudly against the white curve of Noah's sink. The apartment building he lived in had oddly high water pressure, which was great for showers, but horrible for anything he did that involved the sink. Water gushed out of the faucet and lightly sprayed the bottom hem of his shirt. One of these days, he was going to remember to get changed after he brushed his teeth, not before.
Noah reached for his toothbrush and squeezed some minty paste onto it. He raised the brush up to his mouth, but stopped halfway there. In the mirror, he could see the shower behind him, but not the one he was used to. He had a small, simple walk-in shower with frosted doors. Noah turned around.
So why was there a tub where there should be a shower?
He reached out for the purple curtain, thumb brushing against embroidered flowers, and drew it aside. A familiar face greeted him, pale and slack. Water sloshed loudly in the silent bathroom. The body submerged in the tub was still fully clothed. It wore a pair of faded out jeans, now dark from the water, and a hoodie. With the added weight of the waterlogged garments, the body did not float. The water reached all the way up to the shoulders of the poor dead doppelganger that lay within.
Tattered, blistered fingers---long and blunt---peeked out from underneath a damp sleeve.
The eyes were closed, but Noah knew what color lay within. He knew they were his eyes. His body. That it was him, another him, a 'could-have-been' version of him that lay in that tub, killed by the disease. Killed like Sandy.
That was when the pain started; a low, aching burn across his lower stomach. He pulled his shirt up with shaking hands to find the skin beneath red and blistered from when he got sprayed by the sink. The angry rash of dissolving skin spread slowly, webbing out across his belly.
He scrambled back with a scream, tripping on the plush purple rug that had been at Sandy's apartment. He fell and---
Noah jolted awake, skin clammy and cold. His room in the Agency base was small, not much bigger than his college dorm room. Two beds could fit in the room, but because the team was small, the wing of the base devoted to Runners and body guards had plenty of room to give each agent their own space. Thus, his room only had a small bed, a desk and a bookshelf. Just enough to be quaint and cozy---not too big but not suffocating.
The sound of water sloshing still echoed painfully in his ears. He dug the heels of his hands into his eyes and rubbed, but not amount of pressure could erase what he had seen. Through the purple dots and splashes of red behind his eyelids, he could still see himself in that tub. The sight quickened his breath.
"It could have been me," Noah whispered.
He pulled his hands away from his eyes and looked at the circular glossy scar on the top of his right hand. He dug his thumb into the scar until he could feel it, and tried to calm his breathing. Sitting like that in the dark of his room, Noah lost track of time. Minutes vanished, replaced by the sound of his breathing as he reminded himself of what was real and what was dreams.
"Mr. Noah?" MII said softly.
"You asked me to wake you up and to remind you to go see Mr. Z," the digital interface said.
Noah swung his legs out from under the covers and over the side of the bed.
"Alright. Thank you, MII-mi. Notify him that I'll be over soon."
"Of course, Mr. Noah."
Now that MII knew that he was up, the interface turned the lights on to a dull, faded setting. So Noah could see comfortably. As he made his way throughout the room, getting changed and ready to go, the lights slowly got brighter. Easing him from his unsettling sleep and into the day ahead.
The IT branch of the Agency base wasn't a huge branch, and that would be putting it politely. To be completely honest, the IT division had the smallest area to work with out of the whole base. Their work space consisted of a long, narrow hall, it's walls curved instead of standing straight up and down. Wires, screens and modems took up most of the space. While the technology was still quite advanced, it's physical appearance didn't really portray that. It looked more like the hall of a cramped submarine than one of than the computer system of a high tech military compound.
Thomas Z was sitting in a chair, talking to another IT agent. When he finished talking, the IT agent took a moment longer to finish swiping their fingers across the wafer thin touch screen computer they were holding, then walked away.
"It never ceases to astound me that you guys don't mind being in this tiny tube of a workspace," Noah said amicably from the doorway. He made his way towards Mr. Z's chair, using the walls, low ceiling and pipes to keep most of his weight off of his bad ankle. When he reached the head of IT, he had to keep his head titled slightly to one side to avoid the drooping, thick wires just above him. "Don't you guys feel like gerbils or something?"
"Well, they keep us stocked with fresh woodchips and HsO, so we don't complain," the man said and leaned back to give Noah a better look, "Good to see you're still alive, boy. I saw that van nearly crush you. I can't believe you timed the jump so perfectly."
"One, I don't know where the heck you IT people sleep but I hope you're seriously joking about the gerbil bedding. Two, how did you see that?"
Mr. Z turned his chair to fully face him. He wore simple clothes, things that no one would mourn if they got dirty from anything that suddenly needed repairing. He wasn't a large man, but he wasn't thin either, which made it weird to try and comprehend why he was supporting such an odd, thick lumberjack beard. He scratched at it with large, steady hands, all the while giving Noah a narrow look.
"Seriously, boy? You're really asking me that question?"
He turned back to the large, thin screen of light that hovered over his lap and started to type away. His fingers should have just passed straight through the keyboard, but he always stopped his fingers just shy of doing so. Instead, they would linger just over top of a key for a second, then move onto the next. The keyboard registered which keys his fingers drifted over, then operated just as any other wireless keyboard would.
A few keystrokes later, the screen before them displayed several windows worth of traffic footage. It wasn't raining outside anymore, nor had it been since Noah got back to base. In the time it took to get patched up and rested, the streets and sidewalks had dried. People and cars passed through like normal. As if the streets hadn't been completely empty just hours prior.
"Cameras are everywhere. Attached to traffic lights, attached to advertisements to record who and how long people look at their stuff, attached to ATMs and storefronts and God knows what else. Anything that broadcasts information, I can connect to and use," Mr. Z said, "I can't believe you're surprised by that."
"I forget how creepy you are sometimes, Z," Noah said, "But the beard helps remind me. So what do you have for me on this guy that contacted Sandy before she went missing?"
The IT agent scowled, but moved on. He swiped his hand across the keyboard as if he were brushing off dust, and all the information of the screen moved to another screen to their left. With the one in front of them now blank, Mr. Z started typing again.
Records from the A.R.C. phone company popped up, all related to Agent Sandy Wiles, though the alias they were filed under was Sandy Klines. A moment later, three loglines became highlighted, each with the same phone number. Then, another box opened up---a police record for Joseph A. Hersher.
"Hersher here called our girl three times before we stopped hearing from Sandy. According the APD, Hersher here just got out of a small jail sentence for being a part of a protest a year back. He's on parole now, so we might be able track him down with the GPS chip they planted on him."
"Whoa, wait. He got arrested for protesting?" He asked.
"Seems like it. Took a while to get to trail, but he eventually went in for a month and a half or so of jail time for disorderly conduct and attempted assault. But when it comes to protestors, it's hard to tell you actually deserved to be arrested and who was just being shut up by the APD and their strings."
"Alright, so he's out. Can you send those GPS coordinates to me?"
"Of course. Something you need to know is that he was, and more than likely still is a member of the Underground. Keep your wits about you, they're a paranoid and unpredictable lot," he said.
"Can't say I blame them. They got framed for a bombing at one of the HsO supplement water factories. Whatever message they could have gotten out about how corrupt the government here in A.R.C. is was destroyed the moment that factory crumbled," Noah said, "What else do you have for me?"
"Not much more. We're trying to track a number that this Hersher character called frequently, but from what we can tell, it's from the other side."
Noah gave him a disbelieving look.
"From the states?"
"Yeah, that's what I said, but everything leads to the east coast," the IT agent said, "If it that's true--"
"--Than this rabbit hole is just as deep and dark as I think it is. Peachy," he said, "Okay, send that information my way. I'm going to start hobbling my way back to the garage and get started."
"Be safe, boy."
Noah slowly made his way to one of the more compact cars in the garage.
"Mr. Noah, Commander Valentine said that you have been cleared to take the car you requested," MII said, the digital voice echoing throughout the large garage.
"Thanks, MII-mi. Hey, where were you a minute ago?" Noah asked. He walked over to the far wall where a large span of hooks hung. From each dangled a different key, each with its own little keychain---a small, thin slab of metal with an even smaller screen in its middle. Noah reached for the closet one and touched its keychain. The tiny screen registered the heat from his fingers and words appeared; the brand and color of the car the attached keys belonged to.
"The head of the IT department has a very specific set of coding in his work space. The code is very complex in its nature, and while I could find my way through, it has been established that he and I work best separately."
"Ah, Z doesn't like sharing, does he?"
"That is one way to put it, yes," MII said.
Noah chuckled. When he finally found the keys he was looking for, he unlocked the car and walked to it. It was a small car, sleek and fast looking, but not attention grabbing. A good vehicle for an agent of the Agency.
Noah got in and started up the car. Once inside, the dash of the car lit up, all light screens and readings about the status of the car. He pressed one hand flat against the part of the driving wheel that would normally be pressed upon to honk the horn. Instead, several lights winked at him from the dash and the engine started.
"Hello again, Agent Noah," said a voice. Unlike MII, the interface system in the car was bland and impersonal, "What can I do for you?"
"Please access my account and download any new information Mr. Z has sent to me. Whatever coordinates he sent, I want to go to them," he said.
"Of course, I'll pull them up now. Will you be driving today?"
"Afraid not. Got a bum foot and I'd rather not tick off the doctor."
One of the screens on the dash lit up, accessing the GPS signal Mr. Z said was tracking Joseph Hersher. The signal was coming from the other end of the Ports District, not an overly long drive away. Noah settled into his seat as the car started to pull out of the base.
"Is there anything else I can do for you, Agent Noah?"
"Yeah. Contact John L'ouppole for me."
"Calling Jonathon M. L'ouppole, please hold."
"Well, you have a lead. That's something, at least," L'ouppole said over the phone. Noah nodded as he watched the Ports District pass by outside his window.
"Could ask around about this Joseph guy? Put your feelers out for any information regarding him, Sandy and anyone he would be in contact with from the coast," he said.
"I think I heard you wrong, kid."
"No, you heard me right. Z seems to think there is a phone line he's been in contact with from the states."
L'ouppole grunted, surprised.
"Alright, I'll keep an ear out."
"Where are you now?" He asked.
Noah looked at the grungy buildings outside. The sea salt stained brick and the heavily clothed people, all wearing water protective garments.
"Still in the Ports District. Tracking this signal. This guy is from the Underground. Anything I don't already know?"
He could hear L'ouppole shuffling through papers on the other end of the line.
"Let me see," he said slowly as he searched.
"Geez, man. You really need to start relying more on computers. How many rain forests you sorting through over there?"
"Hey, if I kept digital records like every other jackass, your IT guy would already have all my information and then what use would I be. Paper is before. Concrete. Dependable."
"Flammable. You got any information of use?"
"Hmm. Nothing you don't already know, it seems. They blew up one of the supplement factories. HsO filed all sorts of law suits against them on top of the charges from the city. Not just one of the regular factories that ship out the bottle drinking safe water. This was one of the filtering factories. The ones that take in the HsO water used for household utilities and the like. Without that factory, a huge portion of the Ports District and a bit of the Second District had to pour bottle HsO into their toilets because there was nothing filtering the old HsO from the tubs and sinks and sending it back out through the pipes. It really put a damper on the Underground's campaign, so I wouldn't mention it. Or Alexander Ross."
At the mention of the ex-A.R.C. Government Officials' name, a picture appeared on the screen of the car's dash, as well as an old news paper article. The headline read " HsO Factory Bombing Tied to Secret Underground Campaign led by Offical Alexander Ross; Accusations Could Cost the Ross his Candidateship for Major".
"Almost forgot about that," Noah said, "Was that really only a year or so ago?"
"Time flies when the bad guys are having fun framing the good guys. Look, I got to go. Keep your nose clean and stay away from those topics unless they bring them up first. I'll contact you if I find anything."
When the phone connection ended, the digital interface brought the map with the GPS coordinated back onto the screen.
"We are now within a 5 mile range of the signal, Agent Noah."
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"ARC" © Kaitlyn Whitehead, 2011
"ARC" © Kaitlyn Whitehead, 2011