Of all the married couples in the world, Anna’s parents were quite possibly the oddest. Her mother was an Operative for Order, spending her days resolving potential fights between countries and slaying alien lifeforms. Quite the thrilling life. Her father, on the other hand, decided to go for a more safe and mundane job. He was an architect for Unity, working day in and day out to expand the city.
Normally, this wouldn’t be a job that most people would even bat an eye at. An average architect for the city simply designs the buildings for their respective Sector, goes over the blueprints for the bullet train tunnels, make sure the gates to the Central Sector are both safe and flashy, etc. It was an important job, yes, but not one that most people paid attention to.
Which was exactly what Anna was hedging her bets on. She spent the night digging through the files on her father’s computer, memorizing the various layouts and schematics of the German and Central Sectors. Then, as she went to get what little sleep she could, she started work on the plan itself. After crafting and re-working it to perfection, she took an early leave of the apartment and beelined to the city gates.
The gate from the German to the Central Sector was as busy as ever. The gateway itself was as tall as it was wide; it towered over the Sector, emptying half the space where most of the wall usually was. On the upper half, large hovering crafts carried supplies to and from the different areas of the city, filling the air with a loud, vibrating buzz. Beneath that, crowds of people passed into and out of the gateway, slowly shambling through the checkpoints, with two on each half of the tunnel. Behind them, a door, which was almost certainly unlocked, was all that stood between her and the interior halls of the walls. One of which would lead her directly into the Central Sector.
Despite the early hours, the tunnel was already abuzz with life when she arrived. Anna made her way into the mob, acting as casually as she could. She kept her head low, moving as if she belonged with everyone else. No one around her paid her much attention, and they didn’t seem to care one way or another if they did. The crowd slowly thinned into a single-file line as they passed beneath the archway. The people in front of her began fishing through their pockets and purses for the necessary papers.
Anna strummed her fingers against her arm. She leaned her head around the man in front of her. There were still so many people between her and the goal. Move faster! she cursed beneath her breath. I’m running out of time!
The man in front of her shot her a glance. “Are you always this fidgety?” he spoke in a deep, American accent. “Or just when you’re traveling?”
His voice made her jump. She had been so wrapped up in her own head that she hadn’t paid any attention to him. But when she looked up at him, she wondered how she had missed him. He wasn’t much taller than she was, but he was certainly a well-built man. His features could easily have been described as handsome; his dark brown eyes matched perfectly with the well-combed mop on top of his head, as well as the groomed beard covering his cheeks and chin. He was dressed in a simple brown suit, with an oddly charming yellow shirt hidden beneath the jacket. A white rabbit’s foot dangled from his neck. Something about him was oddly familiar…
“Guten tag?” he gently flicked her forehead, startling her into reality. “Still in there, miss?”
For a moment, Anna’s vocabulary escaped her. Act natural, she ordered herself. She took a deep, quiet breath before she spoke. “Y-yes, sorry!” she briefly stammered. “I got up early, that’s all. I’m fine.”
He tilted his head at her. “Are you sure about that? Because you’re as pale as the third moon.” A frown lowered his lips. “Or was it the second? Sorry, I’m still new to the city. And the planet.”
She was surprised to find a genuine laugh escape from her. “The first moon, actually.” She corrected him. “The second is orange, and the third is green. I’m fine, really. Just… a bit sick. And tired.” She peered around his frame again; the check-out station was still a long way off. “And stressed. More than anything else at the moment. I’ve never been out of the Sector.” She added quickly.
The American seemed to believe her, as he nodded sagely as she spoke. “Don’t worry; the Central Sector is usually one of the nicer parts of a colony. Though they can be a little bland. As it turns out, ‘neutral land owned by no one’ translates to ‘bland’ in terms of architecture.”
Anna considered asking her father about that when she got home.
He offered her a hand. “Name’s Lucas Brimley. And you are?”
“Oh! Uh… Anna.” She said awkwardly, clasping his hand firmly in her own. “Anna Ironchase.”
Lucas raised an eyebrow. “Ironchase? Huh.” He raised a hand to his chin and stroked his whiskers. “That sounds familiar. Have we met?” he shook his head as soon as he said it. “No, I’d definitely remember that. Oh well.” He shrugged. “I’m sure it’ll come to me. So, what are you leaving home for, Anna Ironchase?”
The line shifted a few steps forward. Anna considered her answer for a while. Surely it couldn’t hurt to simply tell someone what she intended to do. It wasn’t like she had to tell him she was disobeying the German authorities. “I’m going to take the Order entrance exam.” She told him with firm confidence.
“Oh?” his eyebrows were practically flying off of his forehead. His eyes scanned her over from head to toe. “Aside from the scars, you don’t look much like an Operative. More like a battle-hardened supermodel.”
Anna’s lips twisted into a smirk. She pretended to shift uncomfortably at his gaze. “That’s hardly appropriate, don’t you think?”
He laughed. “I suppose I deserve that. Though I do wish you weren’t so loud about that…” He turned forward as the line shifted forward again. Only a few people stood between them and the station. “You’re sure you want to take that test? Order doesn’t mess around, y’know.”
Believe me, Anna thought, that is the last of my problems right now. She shrugged nonchalantly. “My mother did it when she was my age. I don’t see why I can’t.”
Lucas’s eyebrows returned home, only to descend back down into a thoughtful scowl once again. “Your mother was an Operative?” the stroking of his beard accelerated. “Why do I feel like-”
A voice ahead of them interrupted him. “Excuse me, sir?” the woman behind the check-out desk leaned over, waving him over. “Papers, please.”
Whatever thought Lucas had died in his throat. “Ah! It’s time for the best part of the process!” he delved into his pockets, searched their depths for a moment, and withdrew a simple black leather wallet. “The paperwork.”
Anna’s heart stopped. The paperwork! How did she get distracted like that? She cursed beneath her breath as Lucas handed the woman his papers. Don’t freak out, she ordered herself. Stick to the plan, and everything will work out.
The woman looked over Lucas’s papers, then turned to the old-fashioned monitor, which was about as thin as a sheet of paper. She clicked a few icons and pulled up a densely packed sheet of information. “It says here you checked in to the Sector three days ago.” She told him. “What’s the reason for your stay?”
He simply shrugged. “Vacation.” He explained just as plainly.
In all her life, she had never wanted to punch someone more than she did now. She was hedging a large number of her bets on the person in front of her being much more distracting. At the rate this was going, it would be her turn within a minute. It was only a few minutes in, and the plan was already falling apart!
She did her best to hide her face within her black leather jacket. In retrospect, she should have brought that cute blue hoodie she liked instead. The people behind her didn’t seem to be paying her any attention, as they were either looking down at their holo-phones or up at the passing carriers. Behind the counter, the woman was nose-deep in her monitor. Lucas remained focused on her. It was now or never.
With one powerful bound, Anna leaped silently over the counter and landed directly behind the unsuspecting woman. Lucas’s gaze shot directly to her. The two locked eyes. He scowled at her with a gaping jaw, but he remained silent. Anna took her only second of spare time to decide how to respond to this look. In the end, she gave him an excited, confident grin.
Even years later, Anna wondered which of the two of them she was trying to fool.
With surprising grace for someone in black leather boots, Anna darted to the door. Whoever decided to leave it unlocked was, in that small moment of time, Anna’s best friend. She pulled the door open quickly and quietly, then slid inside as smoothly as the water did between stones in the river.
The hallways within the walls were just as her father described; long, white, incredibly well-waxed, and boring. Lines of blue accented the floor, roof, and ceiling, all glowing faintly with energy. At the end of the hall, the path split both ways, with signs pointing in both directions. A shortlist of areas within the halls were embroidered on their surfaces. The blue arrow, which pointed to Anna’s left, listed: Central Sector, cafeteria, and restrooms. The red arrow, pointing to the right, listed: German Sector, armory, and firing range. Beneath those was a small list of other facilities in the more distant reaches of the inner walls.
Setting her new paranoia about the things only a wall from her bedroom aside, Anna darted beneath the sign on the left. She hugged the wall and peered around both corners. Not a soul was in sight.
She remembered a story her father told her about these halls. He would often pass through here in his early days on his way to his office, and it was just as empty at this time then as it was now. It wasn’t until a few years after he started working there that someone decided to tell him he could shave an hour off of his commute simply by going through the door on the other side of the gate. This was also the first time they told him about the said door.
Anna continued down the hall slowly and carefully. Each squeak of her soles echoed down the corridor like the screams of a banshee. She was half-tempted to simply pull her boots off and proceed with nothing but her socks. But considering how intensely-waxed the floors were today, she didn’t want to risk it. She was in a hurry to take a test, not a spinal x-ray.
Voices reverberated from around the corner. One spoke in Hebrew, with a thick accent of the same origin. The other spoke in the same language, but his voice with heavy with the local German. Anna stopped at the corner and waited for them to pass. She would have listened in, but she decided against using her holo-phone’s translation features. Sticking a glowing blue hologram into the hall was hardly conspicuous.
Still, that didn’t mean she couldn’t listen in. From what little she could gather, neither man was leaving anytime soon, so there was no reason not to. The first man, whom she assumed to be from the Israeli Sector, given how easily he spoke the language, seemed as angry as a volcano was hot. The German man, who struggled a fair bit while speaking the shouting man’s tongue, tried to calm him down. Given the echoes that vibrated down the halls and hurt Anna’s ears, he was failing. They slowly grew louder and louder, so much so that Anna hadn’t realized that they were walking away until they were gone.
With her path clear, Anna continued on her way. Her heart thumped against her chest, sending an exhilarating rush through her body with each pump. Of all the times she’d broken into somewhere she didn’t belong, of which there were dozens, none were as thrilling as this one. Not because it was eventful; because she was currently breaking several laws of the United Earth Alliance. If she was caught, she’d be serving a lot more than jail time.
The thought was equal parts thrilling and terrifying.
Part of her wanted to run around for a while. Another wanted to shout, just to see if someone would notice the echo. But she decided not to push her luck. There was plenty of time before the test; she’d rather spend it exploring somewhere that she was allowed to.
The time between her steps shortened. She ran through the schematics from her father’s desktop in her mind. Take a left, take a right, skip both turns then take the next left, then… was it a right or a left? No, it was another straight. Then it was… she couldn’t remember, but she was sure she could figure it out. So long as she was cautious, she’d be just fine.
She turned the final corner on her journey, which turned out to be a right. At the end of the hall, there was a large, black door blocking her path. Behind that, the Central Sector was waiting for her. If she got through that, she was home free. She broke into a full sprint, ignoring the gleam of the light on the shining floor.
An incredibly loud wail echoed through the halls as Anna’s foot slid off the waxed floor and over her head. Her full weight flew into the air, as if in slow motion, before crashing back down to the floor. Dull, burning pain flew through her back, knocking the wind from her lungs.
A distant echo quickly grew closer and closer. Anna rolled onto her gut and tried to push herself up, but her hands slipped like butter on a hot pan. Who waxes floors this heavily? After she passed the test, she’d come back and make him run across it a few times. That, or she’d do what she was doing now, which was thoroughly smearing every inch of his work. That was a decision for later.
Squeaking footsteps stopped at her side. She felt a firm grip lock onto her arm and pull her to her feet. Don’t let him see your face! Panic gripped her heart like a cold chain. If I throw him over my shoulder, that should buy me enough time to-
“Guten tag, young lady.” A familiar voice said. “Would you be so kind as to not ruin the floors? Taking care of them takes a long time.”
Her eyes flew open. Standing over her, holding her steady, was Lucas Brimley. He bore the same wide smile he had given her in the line.
Behind them, a crowd of men in suits came to a stop. Some slipped just as badly as Anna did, but they were caught by those next to them. “Don’t worry, gentlemen!” Lucas turned to them with that same grin. “My young companion here slipped on the floor, that’s all.” He searched his pockets for a moment before producing a small badge. Anna couldn’t make out what it was for. “So sorry for the inconvenience! We’ll be right out of your hair, promise!”
Some of the men leaned forward to inspect the badge. After a moment, they nodded, said something those who couldn’t see it in a variety of languages, and dispersed. Within five minutes, Anna and Lucas were alone, standing atop a mess of smeared lines.
“Phew!” Lucas laughed. “I have to admit, that was not what I was expecting to deal with today! Do you break the law often? Because you are more natural at it than most criminals I’ve met!”
Many words came to her mouth, but they were all dead upon their arrival. The only one that came to life was the shortest and simplest: “Why?”
“Why?” he repeated. “Well, why would I let a perfectly good candidate go to waste?” he turned his badge on her. “My boss would kill me for it!”
She looked from him to his badge like a deer in headlights. Now, it was her turn to gape. Etched into the golden surface of the badge was a pair of radiant wings, stretching upwards and shielding the Earth. It didn’t take her any time to realize what she was looking at.
That was the badge of an Order Operative.