Legends of Moebius-9, Milo's Escape
Liz's face twisted in a sharp look of disgust.
Years of grueling work in the Pits had trained her body to withstand formidable resistance. But the day had been long; by now, the 40-pound machine felt twice as heavy as usual. Sweat dripped down her arms to the tightly gripped handles, dancing across her fingers to finally connect with hot metal and evaporate.
She was standing next to a cold rock wall. Long shadows stretched across the uneven surface, lit by an array of industrial lights fastened along a bleak cavern. Thick black cords hung from each lamp to the next, following a narrow passage that curved out of sight and upward toward the surface.
She had discovered the void nearly two weeks ago when she broke through, giving way to a massive cavity within the giant silicon-infused quartz deposit. The area had since been set up as a checkpoint area, complete with a rationing post for food and water, a miserably small medical station, and a military tent now occupied by armed officials, security advisors, and management staff.
Liz wasn't the only worker in the cavity. About 25 miners were laboring to extract the quartz at all times, followed by hauling it to the nearest submerged-arc furnace for purification.
The world had long since encountered staggering shortages in oil, leaving society reeling from its over-dependence. In response, the government began resorting to primarily electrical means of advancement and industry. Without the option of heavy machinery that oil had once powered, mining the precious metal had become an especially labor-some process. The local government employed thousands of people from across the nation to help extract and purify silicon into a usable state for microchip production, creating a lifeline for an economy on the verge of collapse.
Suddenly, Liz felt a tap on her left shoulder. She cast a glance without pausing and noticed that Amy, a coworker she often looked out for in the mines, was holding a small canteen of water. She turned off the jackhammer and removed her ear protection, her body reverberating as the machine rested.
"Is that for me?" She shouted, talking above the noise of nearby workers.
Amy stood on her tiptoes and cupped her mouth with her free hand to funnel her voice, yelling in response. "I owe you a credit, remember?"
The girl was about 8 years younger than Liz, standing just high enough to reach her shoulders. Her large round glasses were smudgy and fogged, the metal frames glistening in the yellow light. Her hair was pinned in a utilitarian bun to avoid unnecessary upkeep, and she wore leather overalls that popped against darker skin. A yellow scarf was wrapped loosely around her neck, and on her right shoulder was a pinned button that said Rookie, marking her experience level.
Liz smiled at her, remembering the bet she had made with her the other day, and gladly took a sip. It wasn't much, but with rations allowing only a cup of water every three hours, it was a welcomed refresher. She stopped drinking halfway and returned the canteen to Amy.
"Thanks," she shouted, her energy beginning to return. Leaning closer, she placed her hand on the girl's shoulder and said, "You better get back to work. Shouldn't be over here anyway."
Amy protested. "You didn't finish the water!"
"Of course not! I can't have you dying on me," she jeered. "I'll lose a lifetime's worth of bets!"
Amy couldn't help but smile at the joke. She quickly drank the rest.
"Now get out of here," Liz yelled, "I'll see you after shift!"
As Amy skipped away, Liz glanced at her watch. It was almost time. With renewed vigor, Liz restarted the jackhammer and slammed it into the rock.
The sky was dark when Liz exited the Pit.
Occasionally, an easterly wind would blow the smoke from the furnaces far enough away from the mines that she would get a glimpse of the stars. Tonight was one of those nights, the sparkling lights vignetted by a blanket of smog stuck to the horizon. The sky burned red in quiet tranquility, illuminated by the glow of nearby refineries.
She breathed deeply, thankful to avoid a mask while the smog was thin and distant.
The Furnace District, as afflicting as it may have seemed to outsiders, had a familiarity that reminded Liz of home. The odor of melting rock and silicon, creating an unrelenting cloud that hung in the air and stung her throat, conjured up memories of her childhood. The pollution that shrouded the landscape had become as much a part of her as her own skin. And while she detested much of what happened within the Furnace District, she couldn't help but feel a sense of belonging, as if she was just as broken as the earth beneath her feet was.
The Furnace District sat atop a massive quarts-rock hidden deep under the surface, with multiple entrances to various silicon-rich areas. These entrances were referred to as Pits by the local inhabitants of the District. Moreover, they were heavily guarded, with checkpoints at each entrance to prevent smuggling.
Walking forward from the elevator lift, Liz approached a long line now forming from workers ending their shifts. A few paces inward, she caught a glimpse of a hand waving frantically in her direction.
It was Amy. "Over here!" she yelled.
Liz walked over quickly and jumped in line. A man behind her yelled something rude but was thankfully too tired to do anything about it.
She wrapped an arm around Amy and said in a cheerful voice, "Hey there, girl. How'd you do on your quota?"
Amy looked down at the muddy ground in shame. "Not so good," she mumbled. Pausing a bit, she looked up at Liz's now concerned gaze. "I only managed 89% this time."
Liz stiffened. "That's worse than last time, Amy. You must work harder, or they'll start taking your credits soon."
"Next!" Liz looked up, startled. The officer at the checkpoint was motioning them over, visibly frustrated at their lack of awareness. He was standing inside a small booth and leaned through an even smaller window upon a protruding ledge.
"Stay with me, and don't say a word," she said. Liz pulled out her identification card and handed it to the officer. He eyed it closely, comparing the mugshot with her face.
He disappeared into the booth and swiped the card through a boxy terminal that recorded her work hours, ration usage, and anything related to her quota requirements.
Handing it back, he opened his hand toward Amy, who promptly gave him her identification card. Stepping back, he swiped her card just as he had Liz's — except, this time, he paused. He ran it through the machine again.
Liz shifted her weight, clenching her fists as they began to sweat. She glanced at Amy, who was fixating her gaze firmly on the ground.
"It says you only moved 400.5 pounds of rock today. That's only 89% of your quota. Amy, is it?"
Amy refused to look up. Before the officer could continue, Liz interjected and leaned forward, attempting to soothe the situation.
"I'm sorry, officer, it was my fault. We ran into each other while hauling some rocks to the transport. We spilled our loads, and I must've missed some of it when cleaning up." She paused to gauge his response but quickly added, "Please just take it from my quota. I'll make it up tomorrow."
The officer looked at Liz with skepticism, then back at Amy. "You're lucky," he said. "Next time, I'll make you go back and do overtime, ya?"
Amy nodded furiously in submission, tears welling in her eyes. Sighing, he waved them through.
The girls walked without talking for several blocks down the main street of the Pit. Liz held Amy's hand tightly as if she feared letting her go. Once they were away from the bustle of exiting workers, Liz stopped abruptly.
"I can't keep taking the fall for you, Amy! You know I got your back, but bigger things are happening than this that I have to take care of. You have to grow up and pull your weight."
She knew it was harsh, but she also knew the compounding consequences of missed quotas if not kept in check.
By now, Amy's tears were free-flowing, pooling in her glasses like tiny lakes of crystal glass. She removed her glasses in despair and buried her face in her hands.
"I know," she wept.
Liz's anger gave way to compassion, and she hugged Amy in a tight embrace that seemed to last hours. Their bond began several years ago when Amy arrived at the Furnace District with nothing but her clothes and a yellow scarf she had received from her grandmother.
Like many kids who arrived at the Pits, she was orphaned. Her parents had died from Lung Dust, a common sickness that plagued nearby residents who did not (or could not) afford the necessary filtration gear.
With Liz being an orphan herself, their shared loss had been the soil through which their friendship had grown, and Liz had quickly become like an older sister to Amy in a way few could understand.
Liz gently pushed Amy away and held a hand against her cheek. "You'll get there," she said quietly. "Now run off to bed; you're exhausted."
Amy nodded sleepily and gave Liz one final embrace before racing off the street, down a traffic-made sidewalk, toward their shared residence.
After she was no longer visible, Liz turned toward the East. The Lower District was lit in the distance, small pockets of light acting like lighthouses in an ocean of darkness.
Liz noticed the furnaces' smog had begun to retrace due to a diminishing wind (which had until now been relatively steady), and she knew it was time to get moving.
Without missing a beat, Liz walked briskly forward. After a long while, once she had escaped the offense of prying eyes, she happened upon a long stretch of empty road and stopped. Eyeing the landscape around her, she pinpointed a singular bush on an otherwise flat terrain.
"That must be it," she muttered to herself.
Coming upon the bush, she reached under it and, within a small hole in the ground, retrieved a set of black combat armor. By now, the smog had thickened, offering a blanket of privacy by which Liz could assemble her gear. First, she fitted a collection of carbon-fiber pads to her forearms, shins, and elbows. Next, she donned a full vest that protected her front and back vulnerabilities and pulled a black hood over her head.
Giving one more look around to ensure she was alone, she reached into the hole and retrieved a small piece of paper. She held it close, turned on a small green light from her watch, and scanned over the surface of it.
Written in small letters was the simple phrase, "Brandon's Pawn Shop, Falls Church." Her face brightened in surprise. She had never been as far as Falls Church before and wasn't sure if she could make it back in time for her next shift. Trusting the message's source, she shrugged off the worry and stood up.
"Time to see what they're hiding," she whispered. And with that, she disappeared into the night, as silent and deadly as the smog that now surrounded her.
An older man with blazing white hair crouched over, typing frantically on a dusty keyboard. Wires crisscrossed around the edges, forming a twisting maze of interwoven digital highways. Disappearing into the shady corners of a crammed computer desk, the cords attached to a myriad of oversized hard drives, computers, and other exotic devices.
The man rubbed his eyes and continued typing. Dr. Xavier was a lower-level scientist in a newly established research institute called Digitech. Commissioned by the local government in Washington D.C, the company was funded primarily by wealthy individuals from The Perch.
Specifically, Xavier worked in a poorly funded department focused on R&D for brain-computer interfaces (BCI). And while he thought himself a pioneer in the field, hardly anyone took him seriously, as most believed that BCI was impossible. Still, the research looked good at shareholder meetings, so Xavier remained employed in a basement storage room.
With an unquenchable supply of ambition and after years of being ignored by his peers (the basement was, after all, easy to forget), Xavier had long since departed from the realm of empathetic research.
Slowly and steadily, his mind fell victim to a cold obsession bent on one purpose: digital ascension. If no one appreciated his work, he thought, they certainly would after he achieved immortality.
"Okay... Now, if we just... No, that won't work..."
His constant muttering was the only sound in the room, save for the dull hum of computer fans and the playful grinds of data being written to several storage disks at once.
"That's it!" he shouted gleefully, looking around for someone to tell but quickly realizing that he was, in fact, alone. Shaking his head, he looked back at his desk and pushed several cords aside to reveal a loose one with an open end, an adapter protruding out.
Standing up with the wire in his hand, Xavier turned to face an extended workbench that was surprisingly bare and clean. On the far right of the table were several empty cages stacked in a disordered mess, their small doors open and closed in no particular pattern.
In the center of the workbench, there sat a singular cage. Inside, a rat of considerable size was eating its dinner, too enthralled to notice Xavier now peering down at it.
To the left of the cage and within reaching distance was a clean towel decorated with an empty beaker, a long needle with an adapter at its base, and a scalpel. Also on the towel was a loaded syringe; its fluid glowed green with an otherworldly presence. Unlike the rest of the items in the room, each was arrayed orderly and remained free from dust or blemish.
"Hello, Davis!" Xavier blurted, breaking the silence. "Ready to get to work?"
Davis continued eating without acknowledgment.
Humming to himself and shrugging, Xavier reached for the luminous syringe. Next, he opened the cage and pinned the rodent down, taking special care to place his fingers firmly and directly behind the ears while resting his palm on its back.
With a motion born from repetition and muscle memory, Xavier jabbed the needle into the part of Davis' spine where his neck met his shoulders and injected the fluid; a mischievous smile crept onto his face as his subject squealed in pain for a brief moment, only to go limp with glazed eyes.
Davis wasn't dead, but he very much appeared to be. "Don't worry," Xavier whispered as he picked him up and laid him on the table. "I think we may actually get results this time."
Next, he grabbed the needle, attached it to the cord, and pushed the sharp end ever so slightly into the back of Davis' brain. He did not move nor wince in the slightest; the effect of the serum was now in full swing, and his body was altogether lifeless.
Next, Xavier skipped to his chair. Continuing to hum, he began to type furiously. An optimistic expression covered his face as code began to fill the computer screen in front of him. The hard disks started to sing with fierce devotion, and the fans erupted in a chorus of jubilation.
Xavier sat back and intertwined his fingers behind his head in astute satisfaction. He smiled as the program took off on its own, the sound in the room nearing a deafening cacophony of electronic noise.
However, his optimism was soon vanquished when a power surge caused every device in the room to suddenly turn off. Fans slowed to a stop, and the brief whine of computer power supplies releasing their last bit of juice gave way to a room of utter silence.
Xavier clenched his fists. His heart skipped a beat in rage, and he screamed as loud as he could. His fists rose in the air and came down to meet the desk with a mighty slam. He breathed deeply through his nose and then, through clenched teeth, let out a growl that would have sent a chill up any onlooker's spine.
Just then, the door opened.
Light poured into the room from the hallway outside, silhouetting a tall female figure in the doorway. She stood there, staring at Xavier as he stared at his desk in defeat.
"Well then, I take it we're not there yet," the woman said.
Xavier declined to respond, still in a rage from his failure.
"Alright then," she said calmly. "I'll have another shipment sent to you as soon as possible." She turned to leave and then stopped, glancing over her shoulder. "Oh, and Xavier?"
He looked up slowly in humiliation, avoiding eye contact.
"I'm a patient woman, but I have my limits. Get it right, or I may need to find someone with more...capabilities."
With that, the woman left as quickly as she came. Xavier rubbed his hands through his hair in a stressful motion and stood up. He ran to the door, looked down the hallway, and yelled, "Yes, ma'am! You can count on me, ma'am!"
But she was already gone.