I stared at the blinking computer screen. The piece of crap was decades old. I kept it more out of nostalgia than any practical use. Most people wouldn't even know how to turn one on. But here I was staring at an incoming message.


I already knew whom it was from. Already knew I didn't want to see what was on the other side of that message. My fingers shook as I typed. I wasn't supposed get nervous. I wasn't supposed to get sacred. I had been through my worst nightmare, but it looks like it had come back to haunt me via a late 20th century laptop.






I slammed the computer shut.

Part ONE

VIRN: Virtual Integrated Reality Network. More commonly known as humanity's new home. After a decade of biological warfare and rapidly depleting food sources, the scrapes of humanity escaped to the safety of quarantine and virtual reality. VIRN is a real time, computerized network of virtual existence. Careers, weddings, birthdays, and even funerals take place inside VIRN. Life carries on in the same way that it has always carried on. Existence is the inside of a tiny cell, and life is a series of computer-generated images.

Wake up, plug in, get dressed, go to work, and come home to a spouse, 2.5 kids, and the family pet. Nothing has changed, except reality.

Feeding tubes and a strict regiment of nutritious mush are pushed down throats at timed intervals. Coders program an image of filet mingon with lobster risotto and grilled aubgrines, while VIRN forcesslush down inert throats. Yum.

There are benefits to VIRN. Violent crime is the lowest in recorded history. Last year, there were only 34 confirmed homicides worldwide. I am proud to say that 12 of those kills were mine. Life expectancy increased by 15 years, and the majority of communicable diseases have been eradicated.

The wealthy spend their money updating their VIRN equipment: sensory deprivation suits, and "Create A Fantasy" experiences. You can have it anything you want, as long as it isn't real.

Not everyone is a fan of VIRN. World governments banned together to safely immigrate as many people as they could, but massive social upheavals always come with a price. Cyber attacks quickly outpaced violent crime. A group of rogue hackers unleashed a virus that disabled an entire compound within hours. Dozens died in the attack. VIRN, terrified that people would flee back to the remnants of the cities came up with a solution: enhanced, reformed, genius level reformed criminals, concerned citizens.

Protectors were an elite group of citizens picked from the slime of humanity to hunt down rogue hackers. Inside of VIRN, protectors functioned as a human firewall, capable of manipulating the computerized reality to trace possible suspects. On the outside, protectors pursued offsite hackers with deadly ferocity. They annihilated every person, every piece of technology, every weapon that could threaten VIRN. The raiders came shortly after. There were enough of them that no one cared if the raiders were breakable. They functioned as bullet shields for the protectors and were paid with passage into VIRN. People with more power and foresight than me determined that it was too risky and costly to build more compounds. Immigration ceased and everyone left on the other side was abandoned to the earth's empty skeleton.

With VIRN sealed, and the raiders dispatching large pockets of stable communities, the protectors were no longer needed. The protectors were disbanded and replaced with less violent, mentally stable programmers, who monitor and track potential malicious activity. Cyber attacks were increasingly rare, with the most recent killing only 3 people last year. If the hackers are our demons in this world, then the programmers are certainly our saints.

The majority of the population lives in VIRN, but it's exclusive and easily cramped. Criminals are given a maximum of three convictions. The fourth conviction, regardless of severity, criminals are sterilized and exiled. Most estimates place the outside world population between 10-15,000 and quickly dwindling.

I live outside of VIRN, away from the programmed perfection of virtual reality. I live where sadistic streaks must be satisfied with the crack of breaking bones, and slippery of heat blood trapped underneath fingernails. We exiles need violence. We need the bruises and the fighting. We need the hunger, the fear, and the sweaty pliancy of a willing body pressed against ours.

Outside of VIRN is where I live: a forgotten protector roaming the wasteland of an abandoned world. And It's my empire as much as it is anyone else's.


Connecting to VIRN outside of an authorized location is highly illegal. In fact, it is a wonderful way to get you and the next 10 square miles obliterated. Lucky for me, I am smarter than the people they send after me. Even luckier, I'm more deadly.

Illegally piggybacking on to the VIRN system is far from pleasant. My outdated equipment exacerbates the problem. The connection isn't stable enough and the program is too slow to launch. There is a second before VIRN fully loads where it always feels like I'm falling into a void. At least my setup lacks the usual feeding apparatus. I count my blessings when I can.

The helmet fits over my head like a motorcycle helmet. It blocks out any outside noise and gives me a 360 degree view of VIRN. A dozen speakerphones and half as many microphones are scattered across the inside of the helmet. The speakers switch on and off to give me the "real world" experience of sound. The only thing it gives me is a migraine.

My least favorite part is the bio monitors. They reach out like a thousand, tiny, itchy feathers across my face. They read every muscle twitch, smile, and sneeze. The helmet is also equipped with a portable brain wave monitoring system. At the compounds, the helmets are customized to each person. Buzz cuts are standard to ensure accurate readings. My helmet is old and ill fitting so the probes constantly get caught in my hair. My thick, black curls are a senseless lapse into vanity, but I don't care how much the probes tangle. I'm not getting rid of my hair.

Once I'm logged into the system, I am automatically routed to the "dressing room". It's a soothing navy color with elevator music humming in the background. There is an array of basic avatars that I can customize. For all the flaws, VIRN is a wonderful equalizer. The disabled, amputated, blind, deaf, and mutilated all have the same prefect avatar in VIRN. No one has to know if you are missing a leg when you can select a 6ft, 180lb, brown eyed adonis as our personal avatar.

Some people chose unnatural body features: ruby red zebra strips, electric blue hair, or purple lips, but most people stick to the natural color scheme once the flame of teenage hormones has calmed. Anything and everything on the avatar can be modified. Smaller nose? Bigger breasts? Washboard abs? Everyone is beautiful in VIRN.

I pick an avatar that's ridiculously far from my real body. She's the petite, tan, smiley, girl next-door type. She gorgeous, but so is everyone else. She will fit right in.

Once I was satisfied with my avatar's appearance, I entered VIRN. I chose Washington D.C. so I materialized at L'enfant Station. I'm crammed against a dozen other avatars, and already my system is starting to glitch. I bite back the wave of claustrophobia at the sheer number of people surrounding me. The flood of noise is over powering. There is a rumble of half finished conversations, screaming advertisements, and the constant hum of a thriving city.

Since I am logged in illegally and exceptional at hacking I can jump to any city at anytime, but I find myself in downtown Alexandria most often. It's too noisy, too crowded and after a few hours I get a headache. But if I had a home I always pictured it as Alexandria.

In VIRN the D.C. is full of verdant parks, history rich museums, and a bustling populace. In reality the city is an overgrown swap. There is nothing left of the world-renowned museums, and the roads are so overgrown that it is impossible to get into city proper. The closest anyone can get is an expansive graveyard a few miles west. The rolling hills are covered in itchy, knee-high grass, and white marble tablets. I lived there for a few months in a broken down train car. The wheels had rusted away, and vines had grown over the car sealing the windows and doors shut. Unreadable graffiti covered the sides, but the inside of train had remained untouched for the better part of a decade.

When I found it, it took me an hour to pry the doors open. The burst of stale air smelt like exhaust and rotten food. A tie-dye backpack was slumped against one of the seats, surrounded by abandoned metro passes. A sun-bleached map showed that once upon a time, D.C. had been a thriving city. It was my very own time capsule. The plastic seats were hard and uncomfortable, but the roof was intact. That train car served as my home for close to a year.

I made my way out of the train station, and my connection to VIRN stabilized. The social feed of everyone near me began to filter in: names, ages, profession, open to chatting, etc. The feed was like blue tooth; once you got close enough to an avatar cursory information began to pour in. I ignored the stream of updates. I was tracking one specific person, and I needed more than information than 28, hetero, and looking for casual fun.

Ironically, restaurants were still popular in VIRN. Something about humanity demands the ritual of breaking bread with loved ones. I have been told that pretending to eat makes it easier to digest the slush.

My timing was just right. My mark ducked into the restaurant a few seconds before me. He selected a seat outside to enjoy the artificially sunny day. He was tall, muscular with deep tan skin and a rough five o' clock shadow. I slipped into a seat a few tables away and ordered a tea. Sipping fake tea, at a fake restaurant, to track down a fake person. I hated VIRN.

My mark went by the name of Jonathan McFinnegan. It was an alias of course. His real name was Maximilian Sawyer. He had been born in the dredges of poverty. He and his three older brothers had bought their way into VIRN by serving with the raiders. When that didn't pay enough Max took on side jobs helping rogue hackers slip each other information. The protectors found out of course, but not until after Max had built a hefty nest egg. Sawyer was killed in action, and the body was never recovered. McFinnegan appeared out of nowhere. He made a name for himself by financially backing the movement to disband the protectors. He was also one of less than a dozen people that had seen VIRN headquarters.

McFinnegan had little information coming across the feed. Apparently, he didn't want to be bothered on his lunch break. I set my avatar to a pre-determined routine. She would glance around, smile, sip tea, and do whatever fake avatars did. That allowed me to open a secondary screen and begin the real work. McFinnegan's first few firewalls were easy to surpass. I pulled up all his social profiles, financial information, and public records. It was strange that he had gone to such lengths to protect this type of information. It was useless to anyone but big league hackers. And if a hacker like that decided to attack you, it was over long before you noticed. I took what I needed and closed down the secondary screen. I didn't find his compound location, but for that I would need more time and privacy. Then I could start planning my brief, but hopefully fruitful in person visit.

In the mean time, his profile indicated he was single and preferred busty, dumb brunettes. A few more clicks and I was 2 cups sizes larger and my hair a few shades darker.

I shut down the preset routine I set and took back control of the avatar. I slid out of my seat and sauntered over to him. It was vaguely disgusting the way his gaze immediately focused on my hacker-enhanced chest. I smiled at him and flipped my long, brunette hair over my shoulder.

"I'm so sorry to bother you," I used a prerecorded voice modulator so my voice came out light and breathy. I hoped I sounded like another pretty face gold digger. I wanted to gag. "You are Jonathan McFinnegan right?"

He leaned back in his chair, "Who's asking?"

I shook my head and gave him a coy smile. It nauseated me, but I batted my eyes at him. "No one. I just wanted to thank you. My brother- he died at the hand of the protectors. Caught in the cross fire," I shook my head with pretend disgust. "Thank you for getting rid of them before they could hurt more people."

McFinnegan's frown softened. "Of course. I warned people for years how dangerous they were. I only regret not getting rid of them sooner." He leaned forward. His gaze darted back down to my chest and his frown was turned into a smile.

"What's your name sweetheart?"

"Delilah Turner," I beamed at him.

"Would you care to join me for lunch Delilah?"

I graciously took the offered seat. A few more smiles and casual touches and I had a date to a private fantasy club in three days time.

I exited to the dressing room screen. I took a few minutes to change to another masked IP address. It was illegal to have more than one avatar, so I wanted to be sure there was nothing that could connect my various personas. I had three avatars; two female and a male. I selected my other female avatar. She was tall and dark skinned. This one might have looked like me if I had lived a cushy life inside the safety of VIRN. Her dark hair fell in long beautiful waves across her back and her skin was a deep amber color. Her dark eyes were painted with dramatic makeup giving her a surreal edge. There was a metallic blue swirl curling around her eye, marking her as a hacker. I didn't care for the strange mark, but it helped me blend in with like company.

A few hack codes later and I was standing in an alley way somewhere in the heart of Seattle, Washington. Rain drizzled around me and the sky was overcast. I was stuck in an alley no more than a yard wide. It was one of a thousand overlooked programing glitches in VIRN. No one came back here that didn't already know what they were looking for.

Hack dens were small pockets of unregulated computing space inside VIRN. It wasn't hard to create one. You hacked the system, created the space you needed and then rewrote the code back over it so it was a cramped alley, a window looking out a brick wall, or some other everyday glitch. Criminals flocked to hack dens to purchase illegally downloaded material and information. Most dens were as exciting as a seedy bar in the rough part of town. They weren't dangerous, as long as you knew how to bite back. More sophisticated dens were rare. They catered to specialized hackers and were by invitation only. Even if you were adept enough to hack your way in, the den would be deserted by the time you got there.

This particular den was lackluster at best. It was about the size of a small apartment and had very little additional software. I had been here a few times before and enjoyed the anonymity of the small location. The only reason this den survived for so long was because it wasn't large enough to ping any radars.

M A few clicks and I was in. My scenery flickered and I was standing in a lowlit room. Tables and chairs lined the walls, but there was only a handful of people present. They hunched over their computers. Worn out hoodies and neon colored hair hide any recognizable features. The only person not actively trying to hide their face was a slender man sitting at the farthest table. He had stringy blonde hair and a delicate, almost feminine face. He squinted at me through thick-rimmed glasses. I gave him my patent glare and slide into the nearest seat.

A virtual screen turned on and I began the tedious process of accessing the VIRN mainframe. While I waited I sent Cyan a quick message. If I had friends, I would consider her one. At the very least we put effort into not killing each other, which with our backgrounds that was equitable to soul mates.

Every few minutes my computer would ping as it hit another block in the security system. The program protecting VIRN's base code was changed every few hours, so it was a challenge to get past it. I placed a tracer on McNamerson, but now I had to activate it. Once the trace was in the mainframe it would search out McNamerson, then stream me information until I ended the program. The computer pinged again. I hit the last firewall. VIRN froze. There was an abrupt second of silence before everything resumed.

The man with glasses looked up and cursed, "Security raid. Which one of you idiots tripped a damn alert?" he turned back to his computer, and started pounding at the keys.

If I was lucky, I had a few seconds left. I looked back over my work. I didn't trip the alarm. It was someone else. I scanned the room. One girl, no more than 16, was staring at her computer in abject terror.

"I didn't mean to. I was just trying to get on Becky's social profile. Ohmuhgawd. I'm going to get exiled-ohmuhgawd," her voice rose higher and higher until she started to hyperventilate.

"For fucks sake," Glasses muttered. A door appeared behind him. "First jump is a freebie. You're on their own after that."

Everyone, except Glasses scrambled out the backdoor.

"ATTENTION! THIS IS THE POLICE!" a bodiless voice echoed in a series of languages.

"Yo, crazy chic, the police are here. You gotta leave!" Glasses motioned for me to hurry up.

My computer pinged. The last firewall was down. I just needed to upload the tracer.

Upload 90%...

Upload 93%...

"What are you doing? Get outta here!" The man shook my shoulder.

"No," I growled, not taking my eyes from the screen.


Upload 96%...

"Come on, come on…" I willed it to go faster.

"Screw this. You're on your own, " The man ran back to the open doorway.

"Wait! Please! Two more seconds. I'm almost done," I yelled after him.

"Are you fucking insane? They're here!"

As if to prove his point, the den flickered. The police were uploading a kill code. If I didn't leave now, I could get stuck there.

Upload 98%...

Upload 99%...

Glasses put one foot through the fading doorway. I wouldn't have time to find another way out.

Upload Complete.

The den glicthed, and for another painful second I thought I was too late.

"Duplicating maze code. It will gives us another minute, maybe two, " Glasses grabbed my wrist and tugged me through the door.

We landed in the middle of a writhing mob of people. The sudden transition was more than my failing equipment could handle. My avatar slowed down to a grind, my movements became halted and jerky. The music was loud enough to rattle my teeth, and the lights flashed back and forth. I wanted to rip my VIRN helmet off and force a log out, but that was too easy to track. I grit my teeth and pushed past the thrashing crowd. Glasses pulled me into an empty hallway and my video stream stabilized.

"Thanks," I rubbed my hands over my eyes.

"I didn't do that for you," he huffed. "I didn't need you getting arrested and snitching on me."

"That was your den?"

He gave me a look that was a mix of exasperated wonder and burning irritation. "Yes. And I don't appreciate you destroying it."

"I didn't trip any alarms," I crossed my arms.

"No that was the idiot teenager. You're just the asshole that hacked into the goddamn mainframe. From. My. Nest. I don't want that kind of attention."

"Relax. The police and programmers can't trace the upload."

"You sound awfully sure about that."

I cursed internally. That was a stupid thing to stay. I was cranky and overloaded. I needed to get out of here. I tried to push past him, but he blocked me. Fine. I could take a different route out. On a second screen I started working on a jump code.

"How do you know how to upload on to the mainframe? Nobody can do that without a trace."

"WooOohhhhHHoohhh Magic," I flipped him off, and jumped.

I appeared outside a rundown building in the depths of old town Chicago. An 'open' sign flickered with half hearted effort. People walked past the old pizza joint thinking it was purely for aesthetic, which was exactly what Cyan wanted. The pizza pallor was a front for her fight club that held wholesome, legal boxing matches for bored executives with too much time on their hands. The legal club was its own front for an illicit underground fighting ring. Those fights operated outside VIRN's safety protocols, and were for the desperate, self destructive or insane. I fit right in.

Cyan was one of the few people old enough to remember life pre-VIRN. She was a young girl when the first compound was being built in China nearly 30 years ago. She used the pizza joint as a front because real food was the one of the few things she remembered enough to miss.

The door chimed as I walked in. Cyan leaned against the counter. Her avatar had beautiful blue and ice blonde hair. Her eyes were a neon turquoise that managed to startle me every time I saw her. She was petite and delicate looking, except for the array of body art and piercings that decorated her pale skin.

The twins, Gem and Niya were with her. I resisted the urge to shiver. The twins always unnerved me. Their androgynous features were too chiseled to be conventionally beautiful, but they were striking. In real life and in VIRN they were mirror images of olive skin, black hair, and lithe muscles. Their wide eyes watched me as I approached Cyan. I didn't scare easy, but if you wanted deadly you wanted the twins.

"Just the person I was waiting for," Cyan smirked at me.

"That sounds ominous."

"Hold on," she lifted a finger. The open sign switched off, the door locked, and the blinds shuttered close.

Gem and Niya took their cue to leave. I gave them a curt nod before they disappeared.

"A job came in for you," Cyan took a seat next to me.

"I don't want it."

"I don't think she is going to accept that answer."

I frowned and drummed my fingers against the bar.

"She wants this one taken care of quickly."

"So send the twins."

"You're closer," she countered.

"Send Riley."

"She wants subtle."

I cursed under my breath. "I'm in the middle of something else."

"She's been hounding me for days. Which means I have been hounding you for days. Now that I am graced with your radiant presence, it is up to me to convince you."

"As much as I would love to see that hell spawn beg, the answer is still no."

"She wants this done. Now. In exchange, I can convince her to get you the spare battery pack for your plane."

I let out a long sigh. Cyan knew how badly I needed the spare battery. Mine had died a couple weeks ago. I could fly a few hours without much trouble, but farther than a half day was out of the question. The only place that would have the battery packs were the storage units at the VIRN compounds. Raiders guarded the units 24 hours a day, and were ordered to kill on sight. No exceptions. I was reckless, but even I wouldn't dare to break in there.

"She can get me a battery pack. You're sure of it?"

"I already ran the cost by her. Last minute, high-risk location. She understands you need more than the usual incentive."

The usual incentive being medicine, supplies, and a loose guarantee that Cyan and I would survive another few months. I glanced up at her earnest blue eyes. Looking at the perfection of her avatar, it was easy to forget how old she really was. It was easier to ignore that underneath the swirling tattoos and lip piercings she was sick.

"How have you been?" I changed the subject.

She shrugged. "Not bad. She put me on a new medication that seems to be helping. The attacks are slowing down."

"Are you sleeping at all?"

"Not as much as I should, but more than you. I'm fine. She's not going to stop my treatments just because you turn down a job."

"You have more faith in her than I do," I mumbled.

Cyan grabbed my wrist. The touch was a phantom sensation, like ants crawling on my skin.

"I'm fine," she reassured me. "The meds she's giving me are helping. Take the job, get the battery pack, and worry about your own sorry ass."

I huffed. "Tell her if that battery pack isn't there, or turns up damaged in any way, I'm visiting her next."'

"I'll message you the details later. Now get out of my shop. I've got a fight in an hour."

"The legal kind?" I quirked an eyebrow.

"No. The fun kind. Now get before I throw you in there with them."


Life outside of VIRN is simple. I have a routine. I wake up shortly after dawn, water the garden, feed the animals, and listen to the stray cat yowl until I surrender and find us food. Every so often I take a short flight to make sure the plane is running smoothly. I have three safe houses scattered across the continent in case of emergencies. I visit often enough to scare off scavengers, but not enough that there is anything worth stealing. Life is simple, if not a bit lonely. But, I have learned that solitude is safer.

My current residence is an old whiskey distillery. The stonewalls are sturdy; warm in the winter, and cool in the summer. Ratty vines grow everywhere I don't want them too. The goats eat absolutely everything, except for the useless vines. Determination and a rusted machete keep the worst of vines to a manageable level. Lucky for me, there is still a stash of bourbon hidden at the back of the cellar. Not all of it is good, but it beats moonshine brewed out of rusted tin. Not all of the distillery has survived. There are two collapsed sheds, and an old oak tree fell on the back half of the house years ago. The front room is large enough to fit my makeshift VIRN equipment and a workbench. Before the migration, the distillery ran on hydropower from a nearby river. It took several months of cursing, rigging, and outright violence, but I managed to get the system to work most of the time. At least it gave me enough energy to install a water pump and power my VIRN suit for a few hours at a time.

There is a small band of nomads roaming the area around the distillery. There are about four women and half a dozen children. There used to be a couple of teen boys, but they disappeared a few months back.

The women and I communicate largely with hand gestures and crude drawings. They seem to understand some English, but have no concept of written language, universal or otherwise. The nomads return my lost goats, and give me strips of dried meat. In exchange, I share the few crops I coax out of my makeshift garden.

I have lived here for almost a year. The nomads have yet to say more than a handful of words to me, but they know exactly what I am. Whenever I return from a rough job, there are always a few extra pieces of meat and wilted flowers no doubt left by the curious children. The nomads and I have created a strange sort of relationship that is far from hostile, but it's hardly warm enough to classify us as neighbors.

Two months ago, the eldest nomad brazenly pounded on my door in the dead of night. A younger mother cowered behind her, a whimpering child clutched to her chest. An animal had bitten the child's leg, and the summer heat aggravated the festering wound.

The old woman pointed her gnarled finger at me. "Protect," then pointed at the child. "Heal."

"I'm not a healer," I shook my head. The child's leg was a swollen mess of puss and dried blood. Someone further in town would be better suited to cleaning and stitching up the putrid wound.

"You help," The woman jerked her arm in the direction of the child. She was no more than four years old. Her bronze skin was covered in dust, and her thick hair was clumped in mats. Her wide, scared eyes were red from crying. The only reason she wasn't screaming now was because she was too exhausted, or the infection had spread too far.

They had never been inside my home, had never seen the secret supply of medicines I kept hidden in the cellar. For all the times they watched me come and go, they never saw the priceless packages I brought back. But, they knew.

The old woman didn't wait for my consent. She barged past me, dragging the mother and child behind her. They laid the child down on my workbench and waited. The child whimpered as her mother pulled away. The room stank of decay. I flipped on the light, wasting precious energy stores. All the light did was confirm what I already dreaded. If the child didn't receive medication tonight, the infection would spread to her blood.

I ducked out of the room to look through my supplies. VIRN had taken great care to make their protectors as durable as possible. I rarely had to deal with something as mundane as infections. I stared at my collections of bottles and pills trying to remember what would stop the infection without harming the tiny child. I grabbed as much as I could carry and ran back to the front room.

The old woman and the mother grabbed at the supplies and began cleaning the wound as best they could. Sheets of gauze pulled away globs of orangish, yellow pus. The child let out a pitiful snivel, and tried to pull away from the pain. The mother cooed at her until she held still. I prepared the syringe and sterilized the child's small arm. The child was too distracted by the hurried movements at her leg to notice the looming needle. I didn't give her a chance to observe her fate. I administered the dose before she had a chance to scream about the latest violation. The old woman finished bandaging the leg just as the mother broke down in tears. I gathered what was left of the gauze, and a small bottle of antibiotics.

"Three times a day," I gestured to the east, high noon, and west.

The old woman held up three fingers in response. They took the supplies with a flurry of unrecognizable words and nodded thanks. They disappeared into the woods just as the sun began to rise. I spent the next few hours pacing. I was convinced they know too much about me. Why didn't they just steal the medicine? Would they alert the Raiders? Or were they just as terrified of the raiders?

In a matter of hours, I could be thousands of miles away. I could disappear into the overgrown wilderness like I had dozens of times before. It didn't take long to convince myself to leave. I was restless by nature. I dismantled the VIRN suit and took the first load to the plane.

I stopped short when I caught sight of the propeller. To my astonishment, hanging from the blade was a small necklace. The rough beads were obviously carved by a child. Each bead had its own unique shape and color. It was beautiful in the way that a only a child's mismatched handiwork can be beautiful. It was too small to fit over my head, so I carefully wrapped the beads around my wrist. I went back inside and slept the rest of the day.

The next morning there was a basket full of dried meats and wild herbs. In return, I filled the basket with green beans and zucchini. The matter was never referenced again. I still wear the beaded bracelet and the girl waves to me whenever I see her.

That was months ago, and Raiders had yet to come after me. Regardless, soon it would be time to move on. It was dangerous to stay anywhere for very long.

Today, I took my time waking up. The days were growing shorter, and the cold weather brought out my stubborn, lazy streak. The sun rose just enough to take the bite out of the morning air when I ventured out of the warmth of the cellar. The goats bleated with an air of indigence, and the scrubby tabby narrowed her yellow eyes as I passed.

I was headed to the Northeast compound today. I was dreading leaving. I didn't expect to be gone more than a night, but I learned to expect that plans rarely went smoothly.

By noon, my backpack was filled with food, spare clothes, and all sorts of devices that go 'boom'. My rifle and extra rounds were slung across my hip and shoulders. Traveling was dangerous, and I preferred to pack light. The less I had worth stealing, the less likely I would become a target. I had enough to last three days. If I was gone longer than that, I was resourceful enough to make do. I slung my meager supplies onto the plane and began to run my pre-flight tests.

The Northeast compound was relatively small. It covered about 10 square miles. Most compounds ranged between 15-20 square miles. It was the first compound to be built in North America, when everyone still thought VIRN would be a rich man's past time. The compound was old, and lacked many of the security upgrades that decorated newer compounds. The risky part of this job was the location. The compound was nestled in the Appalachian Mountains, a day's walk from old New York City. Winter was in full swing up there, and New York City was a haven for the breathtakingly violent. City ruins always attracted them, but New York was something else entirely. The raiders did what they could to thin their numbers, but the city was a graveyard. The raiders could spend a year there and still not flush out all of the hidden scum.

My airplane ran off solar power, so I was limited in how far and fast I could go at a time. The fight to north shouldn't take more than a few hours. I would arrive at my safe house by dark. I would sneak into the compound first thing in the morning, and be back home by night fall tomorrow. If everything went well.

I could see the nomads watching about a half a mile away. The ever-hungry goats had wandered over to them in hopes of food. I raised my hand in a greeting, but if they saw they didn't return the gesture.

I clambered into the plane and began readying for take off. The engine roared to life and I entered the coordinates. There was at least 100 flashing screens with what I was sure was vital information. Truthfully, I barely knew how to fly other than landing and taking off. I had stolen the plane in a flurry of gunshots and panic. Everything I knew about flying I learned through the Russian roulette of trial and error. If I stopped to think about it, it was astounding that I survived as long as I did.

I steered the plane to my make shift runway and began to pick up. The tiny plane shook and groaned over the rough ground. The acceleration pushed me back against the seat and I felt my stomach drop as the planed lifted into the air. I closed my eyes and muttered prayers as the plane climbed upward. The auto pilot system would calculate direction, altitude and whatever else planes calculated. My ears popped and the plane tipped back to a level position. When I opened my eyes again. The ground was a brown blur. I loosened my grip on the steering wheel and left out an anxious huff. No matter how many times I did that, I hated taking off.

Four hours later I could make out the skeletons of the old skyscrapers. A few minutes after that, the plane began a rapid descent. It wasn't exactly safe to make such a sharp landing, but I didn't want to give anyone extra time to spot my plane. I gripped the wheel, ready to pull up at the last second. The faded grass rushed up to meet me, and I jerked on the wheel. The back wheels slammed into the ground, and I nearly lost my grip on the wheel. Once the plane was back on the ground it came to a quick stop. The rhythmic ding of the low battery alert was drowned out by the sound of scraping wheels. I steered the plane towards the tree line. The wings scrapped against the smallest trees when the plane dragged to a halt.

I wasted no time in unloading. I had a spare pistol that I rigged so that anyone that opened the door would get a face full of lead, and that was my nice booby traps. My feet crunched on the frozen ground, but there was no snow to leave any obvious tracks. I did a quick survey of the immediate area. A couple hundred feet from the plane was a wide clearing that headed directly into the city. Years ago it might have been a highway, but now it was just a long meadow. I walked down the meadow until if I squinted I could see the jagged edges of skyscrapers in the distance. I pulled up my rifle and looked through the scope. It was still too far to see in detail, but from the destroyed edges of the buildings were stripes of brownish red banners flying in the frigid wind.

My stomach lurched. The banners were a warning. I had heard rumors of cannibalistic tribes roaming further north, but hadn't seen any evidence in my travels until now. The banners were soaked in blood and painted with thick black X's. my hand rested on my ammo belt. The heavy weight of bullets calmed me back.

I walked back to my plane. I couldn't do anything to hide it, but maybe I could scare people off. I pulled out my tactical knife and sliced my forearm a couple times. Hot, red blood spilled over my skin. I let it drip onto my hand and began to smear it across my plane. I painted both sides and the nose in the giant X of the cannibals. Hopefully, any wanders would flee if they saw it. If anyone from the city wandered far enough out to see it, hopefully they would leave it thinking it was part of the tribe's. It wasn't much of a disguise, but if it got me safely back home it was worth a few shallow cuts.

Satisfied that I could do nothing more to protect my ride home, I turned in the direction of the compound. It was still a couple hours away, and I didn't want to be out after nightfall. I kept my handgun cocked and ready. My rifle sat rested against my hip. Both had silencers, so if I came across anything I could shoot it without drawing attention. I gave one last look at my plane and headed further north.

The compound was nestled back in the woods. This time of year, the trees had lost all of their leaves. The frost on the ground reflected the bright sunlight. If not for the wind-chill, it would have been pleasant. There was the occasional chirp of birds, but the forest was largely silent. I went slowly, double-checking every waving branch and constantly scanning the area for any sign that I was no longer alone.

When I finally heard the machine based hum of the compound I relaxed some. I coming from the south and the building that housed people was on the northern most edge. I still had a 5-mile walk to get to the compound. Thankfully, I had been to the compound years ago. One of my very first jobs was at this compound. I doubted much had changed.

This portion of the fence was ill maintained. The posts had rusted from years of sleet and snow. The electrical wiring was unreliable and sections had holes big enough for vermin and petite, determined women to wiggle through. The back half of the compound was the compost, so raiders either thought no one was dumb enough to come in this way, or they were too lazy to fix it. Either way, I had the opening I needed.

The frigid air cut down on the worst of the smell, but I tried to breath though my mouth. This side of the compound the ground was squishy and wet. I tried not to think about why. The dump was about a mile of wide-open space with absolutely nowhere to hide. I holstered my pistol and jogged across the soft ground. The two manufacturing plants in front of me were the closest possible shelter. Storage was too my right, and while I didn't think raiders would wander to the back, I wanted to get across as quickly as possible.

I stopped to catch my breath when I reached the building. The corrugated steel was like ice even through so many layers of clothing. I couldn't wait to go back south, where it stayed cold for a reasonable amount of time, and there was no such thing as frozen water. I glanced upwards. There were no cameras here, but robots with heat sensing cameras would be roaming the area. I crawled to the edge of the building. Everything was laid out in a prefect square so the robots could navigate the area with ease. From my vantage point I could make out the edge of the compound. Between my current location and my goal there was about 200 yards of vigilant robots, dangerous machinery and possible raiders. I cursed. The first time I was here, there had only been one manufacturing building. This had all been easy to navigate farming land.

I couldn't sneak past the robots, nor could I shoot my way through. Even with my rifle on the automatic setting, I would be put down before I could make it ten feet. The only other option was up. I had to remind myself of the desperately needed battery pack waiting for me. For the plane that was probably getting ransacked by hungry, psychotic cannibals. At least I could use the battery to electrocute them

Done with the pity party, I began looking through my bag for the repel equipment. The sun was already starting to dip lower in the sky. I needed to get in, out and back to some semblance of safety by nightfall. Whatever was happening in the manufacturing building, there was enough banging and clicking to hide the noise of the repel gun going off. I pulled on the rope to ensure it would hold my weight. I pulled my self up the side of the building. My arms shook with the effort of dragging my body weight plus another 40 pounds in firearms and supplies. I dragged myself over the ledge and landed on the rocky roof with a soft 'umpfh'. I pulled my pistol out and shot the two robots quickly wheeling towards me. The lights of their faceplate flickered and they ground to a halt. The raiders would double security up here as soon as they realized why the robots stopped working. I would have to find another way out of the compound, but that was a problem for later.

I walked towards the closes robot and jimmied open the control panel. It took a bit of searching, but I found the insert I was looking for. I connected my tablet to the robot and quickly downloaded its entrance codes and location grids. I did the same thing to the other robot, and jogged to the other end of the building. I glanced down. By some miracle, I caught a break and it was clear. I threw my bag over. Despite the noise, nothing came out of the building to investigate. I took a deep breath. This was the part I hated. I cricked my neck and jumped a few times. I use the rope to ease my way down, but I risked rope burn, and use of my hands was more vital than a swollen ankle. One more quick breath, and I launched over the side.

I landed on my feet and immediately ducked and rolled to spread the force of the impact. The breath was knocked out of me, but I didn't break or sprain anything. I grabbed my bag and darted towards the compound. I stayed as low to the ground as I could. The field between the compound and manufacturing was littered with solar panels. I darted between the panels, stopping when I was a few dozen feet from the corner of the compound.

Now the fun part. I pulled on my bulky thermal evasion suit. The fabric was thick and unwieldy. On top of my other clothes and dragging around my bag it was difficult to move with any precision. I finished zipping it up as a row of robots wheeled up to the door. I scurried in behind them just before the solid steel doors clamped shut.

The inside of the compound was solid white. To save on space, the hallways were three feet wide. There were no windows and no lights save for small, lit plaques marking each cell with a barcode and serial number. Like most compounds, this compound was about a mile long. The cells were broken down into narrow sections that were about a quarter wide and two cells deep. Each level would be identical to this one. There would be no markings to distinguish ground floor from the hundredth floor. There were no rec rooms, kitchens, or common areas. Every centimeter of space that could be spared in a compound went to housing as many people as possible. At the very center of every level was one medical bay. A doctor and possibly a nurse or two would be on staff at all times. Most medical care was performed via robots, but doctors and nurses were kept on staff and in the real world in case of emergency procedures, births or for physical examinations. There would be an elevator at every corner of the compound as well as in the medbay. Today, my job was located on the 19th floor, column 2, row 87. Right in the center. No time to waste.