Echo, Part 21

Ana stirred behind him.  Her hand found his without getting out of the bed and she asked, “What is it?”

Henry didn’t immediately answer.  He was about to but then thought better of it.  If those men were out there to spy on Henry and Ana then it would be a mistake to be vocal about their presence.  It was better that they were out in the open.  If they knew that they had been seen perhaps they would leave only to be replaced something more hidden, something unseen.

Ana sat up and said, “What’s the matter?”

“Can’t sleep.  Going to go get a drink of water,” Henry mumbled.

He didn’t let go of her hand though and tugged on it gently, indicating that she should come with him.  With only the slightest hesitation she responded, “I’ll get a glass too.”

Together, hand in hand, they walked the dark hallway from their bedroom to the kitchen.

“While we’re up, I’ll just watch these dishes,” Henry said, turning the faucet on full blast.  He clanked the plates and forks in the sink together noisily and Ana stepped close to him.

“The car is back,” he whispered.  “Two men, I think, sitting in the front seat just across the street.  They were doing something.  Some sort of device was glowing in there with them.”

She whispered back, “Are you sure it’s the same car?”

He nodded that he was.

Ana frowned and bit her lip in thought.

Henry dumped some soap onto the sponge and actually began to wash the dishes.  His hands were already wet so he figured he might as well.  Plus that would give him something to do while Ana thought things over.  The sink emptied quickly, though, and then he forced to turn off the faucet.

Ana, poured two glasses of water and handed him one, “Thanks for doing the dishes.”

“One less thing to do in the morning.”

“Anything else got you up?”

She practically purred the question and leaned further into him, tucking one of his legs between her own.

“Now that you mention it…”

“I was thinking about jumping in the shower, care to join me?”

Henry didn’t bother answering, he downed the rest of the water and placed the empty glass on the counter, and then followed Ana into the bathroom.  She turned the water on and quickly disrobed.  Henry stripped off his own clothes and joined her in the tub.  They stood facing each other beneath the showerhead, their eyes locked.

“What should we do?”

Ana’s whispered question was fervent, impoloring.  Her eyes flicked back and forth between his own, searching for comfort, for an answer, for anything that could alleviate the fear he knew she was feeling.  This wasn’t just about Henry and Ana anymore.  They had to protect their new lives so they could protect their child.

“We could run,” Henry answered but he shook his head as he said it.  “No, we can’t.  We should pretend we don’t see them.  We should watch them while they are watching us and see if we can figure out who they are and what they want.  And then maybe we can make a better decision about what to do.”

“How are we going to do that?”

Henry stuck his head under the flow of water and let it soak him.  The sensation was relaxing, calming, and he desperately needed that.  His heart was racing.  His mind was reeling.  After he had collected himself a bit, he moved out of the stream and looked back to his wife.

“We could reach out to the system, see what they know, see if they can help monitor things for us?”

“Not my first choice.”

“We could go back to the people we got our credentials from and see what they have that might work for us?”

“We couldn’t trust that they wouldn’t go running to the system to tell them what we are up to.”

Henry shrugged.  He had considered that but, as far as he could tell, there was no clean way to do any of this.  No part of this was clean anyway.  They were being watched.  That wasn’t paranoia.  That was a fact.  And that was dirty.

“You don’t think they’ll do anything tonight do you?”

“No, if they wanted to do more than watch and listen they would have already made their move without risking being seen.  They’d have shown up lights blaring and handcuffs at the ready.”

“That’s what I was thinking to.  So, we don’t have to figure this out right now.  Let’s see what the morning brings.”

Henry nodded and then reached for the faucet handle.  Ana stopped him.
She smiled and winked.  “Ready to get out so soon?”

“Now that you mention it…”

Echo, Part 20

Leaving a doctor’s appointment, where the mom-to-be was given a clean-bill of health and they’d gotten to hear the baby’s heart beat again, which was always exciting for Henry who could never feel as connected to the child as Ana, he noticed a dark sedan following their car home.  He didn’t even know why he noticed the car.  He had stopped looking for the feds a year ago.  But, for some reason, he saw the car making the same turns and kept watching, his heart rate increasing with each followed movement as the car followed them onto their street.   As he turned into the driveway, Ana, who had been daydreaming while looking out her window, noticed that he was agitated.

“What’s wrong?”

Hendry didn’t immediately answer.  The car didn’t stop behind them but continued on down the street and then turned at the end to head deeper into their little slice of suburbia.

“Nothing,” Henry said and breathed a sigh of relief.

Ana looked startled.  “What did you think was wrong?”

“I was just being paranoid.  I thought a car was following us home from the doctor’s office but it didn’t stop behind us.”

Ana craned her head to look back onto the street and see if she could glimpse the vehicle but it had already turned out of sight.  “What did it look like?  Did you get a look at its license plate?  Did the rear plate have tags?”

Henry held up his hands defensively, “Hey!  Everything is okay.  It was nothing.”

“You don’t know that!”

It was true.  He didn’t.  He didn’t want her getting upset over this.  It was getting closer to baby time and she needed to keep her own blood pressure under control.  He reached out for her and pulled her hand into his own.  “I did get the license plate.  I’ll write it down and put it on the fridge so we can be on the lookout for it.  And I’ll put the make, model and color of the car too.  I was being paranoid and I’m sure it was just a relative or a friend or something like that going to visit someone and it was a total coincidence that they happened to be behind us as we drove home.  But, I’m still me, so of course I noticed all those details.”

She seemed relieved.  “Good.”

He smiled at her and a moment later she smiled back, while one hand absentmindedly rubbed her belly.  She had been doing that more and more.  It was endearing and he couldn’t help but lean over and kiss her cheek.

She pushed him away playfully and got out of the car.  Henry exited as well and hurried his steps to get the front door.  When he turned around after unlocking the deadbolt he saw that she hadn’t followed him all the way to the door.  Her gaze lingered at the end of the street where the car had disappeared.  Worried that vehicle had turned around he practically ran to stand next to her.  There was nothing there, though.

“Come on, I’ll make you dinner.”

“You better.  And massage my feet, too.  And put on my favorite music and movie and read me a book and…”

Henry laughed and let her ramble on for a bit.  That she could so quickly get back into her normal joking banter meant that she wasn’t as worried about the car as she had seemed.  That was good.  He had just been paranoid and there was no reason she needed to worry needlessly.

Ana drifted into the home and Henry reengaged the deadbolt behind them.  Not for the first time he wondered if they should look into moving.  The place was plenty big enough for their growing family but moving would mean that they could completely walk away from the system.  They could abandon the car and look into renting a place of their own somewhere else.  It would be tricky because even renters had to have their background checks run for most places and that would create a public record that the system could find and use to track them down.  But, there were ways around that.  And renting would create far less of a paper trail than owning.

“Where’s my dinner?” Ana called from the living room.

Laughing, Henry went to the kitchen and promptly forgot all about the car and his concerns about the feds and the system tracking them down while he meticulously crafted a gourmet meal for his beloved.  They dined and laughed the night away, talking only of the future and the possibilities to come.  Then later, as the day waned towards morning and Ana slumbered peacefully next to him, Henry woke with a start and stared into the darkness.  Headlights splashed against the ceiling and the muffled rumble of a car filled the silence before both sound and light faded away.

He carefully got out of bed so as to not disturb Ana and then Henry went to the window and peeked through the blinds.  The car that had followed them was parked across the street.  Two shadowy figures sat in the front seats.  The glow of equipment pulsed against their nearly invisible faces.

They’d been given two years of relative peace but now it seemed that Henry and Ana would have to start running again or figure out how to fight back.  Who would they be fighting though?  Had the feds found them?  Why weren’t they knocking on the door with warrants and handcuffs?  Was the system just trying to keep tabs on them since they were no longer connected?  Was this something else entirely?  Was he just being paranoid?

The glowing light clicked off and the two figures in the car disappeared into darkness.  Henry backed away from the window, unsure what he should do next.

Echo, Part 19

– Two Years Later –

She lounged on the patio, one leg stretched over to rest on top of the table and the other leg tucked underneath.  She held a book in her hands, with it gently resting on the small bump forming at her belly button.  He was fascinated by how quickly that bump would change in the coming months.  It had already been half the time and she was only just beginning to show.  The life within her would grow so much more before she came to term.  Or, perhaps it wasn’t any faster in these final months, it just seemed that way because the child had started so incomprehensibly small?  A smile tugged at his lips while he studied her and she, perhaps sensing his gaze, peered over the top of the book.  Her eyes met his and they burned with intensity.  Mischief.  Love.  Hope.  There were many facets to Veronica and Charles loved them all.

She wasn’t really Veronica anymore though, just as he wasn’t Charles.  The people they had been before were long gone in more than just name.  Veronica was now Ana.  Charles was now Henry.  They were friends with their neighbors.  They both had jobs.  They were a part of this new community they had been moved to.  Their lives had become even more tangled.  Their new identifications had stood up to the scrutiny of getting married, a civil ceremony six months before, and with each passing day Charles and Veronica were further and further lost and Henry and Ana were more and more solid.

When he’d asked her if she would marry him, Ana had said, “As Veronica I would have said no.  She distrusted such things.  She was known.  As Ana, however, in this new beginning we have together, I will say yes.  My distrust in the world has not changed but I do trust you and that’s reason enough.”

Henry had been surprised and happy that she’d agreed and had booked them an appointment at the court house two weeks later.  They hadn’t discussed doing it any other way.  While they had their new friends, having only that small group at a wedding just would have led to questions of where their families were and where the rest of their friends were.  Those were easy questions to deflect away from in normal conversations but at a wedding they would need answers.  Besides, while they were friendly with their neighbors and coworkers they weren’t so close that they’d want to share their special moment with them.  There was something poetic about two former loners not sharing their wedding as well.  It suited them.

The pregnancy had been decided on, though.  No accident there.  Once they were married their conversations had turned towards children quickly.  At first they had agreed that it would be a mistake to bring a child into their messed up lives.  It wouldn’t have a name that wasn’t real.  It’s parents were living a lie.  It would be at a disadvantage to every other child.  That view softened though as their conversations continued.  Henry and Ana had seen some of the worst society could throw at them and had come through it and their child would benefit from their experience.  And it would be loved.  Perhaps that was the only thing that really mattered.  So, they had changed from their initial positions and decided to get pregnant.

Now halfway through term, they were slowly changing things around in their home to prepare it for one more life.  It would be a challenge but they knew they had years to figure it all out.  When they child was small it wouldn’t care that its parents were living under false names.  Since their marriage hadn’t raised any flags they had little concern that having a child would be a problem either.  Their neighbors and coworkers were all excited for them.  Everything seemed like it was falling into place and would be okay.

It had been so long since they had heard from the system that they had half-forgotten about it.  It would have been impossible to completely push it from their minds of course.  Their two years of bliss together could not overwrite the years they had lived before or the harrowing weeks of their journey to freedom.

Henry and Ana had initially made a habit of taking turns going to sit in the car for a few minutes at a time once a day.  That became once a week and then only as they thought of it and then not at all.  They still used the car to get around town, run errands, go to the movie theatre, and so on.  They no longer sat in it while at home to see if the system had any news for them.  Henry hadn’t asked Ana but he no longer cared to get his old life back.  He wouldn’t turn down the chance to drop the charade and become Charles again but he wouldn’t pick up stakes and move back to his old home and he was sure she felt much the same.  Thinking of the future, once the baby came Henry doubted he would even care about getting his old name back.  Once he held his son or daughter in his arms, Charles would cease to exist entirely.  There would only be Henry, Ana and the baby.

Echo, Part 18

“Can you please move with some haste?  There is still a chance you can get back onto schedule.”

“No.”  Charles was surprised with the conviction in his voice.  He was annoyed, yes, but he wasn’t sure that was enough on its own.  Then he felt the squeeze as Veronica lent him some extra strength and he realized where it had come from.  It was because he wasn’t alone anymore.  Together they were stronger than they had been on their own.

“No?  What do you mean?”

“I mean, we will take our tower.  Shower.  Eat breakfast.  And then we will get in the car and you can send us where you will.”

The line went silent.

Charles looked over to Veronica and she smiling at him.  His heart soared.  How interesting and wonderful it was to have connected with her on such a level when he hadn’t been looking for that connection, when such a thing had seemed the furthest thing from a possibility when they were thrust together.

The voice clicked back on, “Please hurry.”

Charles nodded towards the house and Veronica opened her car door.  They slid out the same side, still holding hands.  As the entered the kitchen, Charles headed towards the fridge but Veronica stopped his progress.  He looked towards her and she arched an eyebrow at Charles and then winked before leading him back into the bedroom.  The bed welcomed them back in an embrace of tangled sheets and disheveled pillows but, as far as Charles was concerned, nothing had ever felt so divine.

When they were done, they went and showered together before making it back to the kitchen.  Charles threw together a large breakfast that they took their time enjoying.  Then one final walk through to see if there was anything worth taking with them, and two hours later, they went back to the car.

“We’re ready,” Charles said while engaging his buckle.

The system did not respond but once Veronica had buckled in a moment later, the garage door opened and the car started.  It moved out in the bright sun of midday and their temporary shelter was quickly left behind.  It hadn’t been much but it had served them well.  He briefly wondered if he would look back on it fondly in the years to come as the place where he had fallen in love.

The car merged onto a freeway that Charles didn’t recognize and he let the landscape fade into the background.  He turned to Veronica to ask her a question but she shook her head and tapped on her ear.  The system was listening.  As long as they were in the car she wanted them to be careful about what they said.  She was right, of course.  Just because the system was helping them  now didn’t mean it always would.  They should be mindful about what information they divulge.  The system already knew a lot about them, was setting up their lives going forward, but that didn’t mean the powers behind the system needed to know everything about them.

“It’s a beautiful day,” she said, winking at him.

Charles looked back outside and agreed, “It really is.”

An hour later the system finally spoke up again, “We have managed to reschedule your rendezvous for the credentials.”

Neither Veronica nor Charles responded.  When the ordeal had first started he would offered his thanks whether he felt grateful or not.  Now he was through with playing the game like that.

Instead, he turned to Veronica and said, “Yep, beautiful day.”

She rolled her eyes and laughed.

The rest of the trip passed in silence.  The car, being controlled by the system, weaved through a network of freeways and city streets that all blurred together for Charles.  He had no idea where they were, where they had come from, or where they were going.  He supposed it didn’t really matter.  He hoped to not need to make a second trip wherever they were going.  One new start was one more than he’d ever thought he’d need.  Then again, with his current strengthening misgivings over the system itself, perhaps it would be wise to be able to figure out how to get new papers on his own.  He started reading the signs they passed and looking for other landmarks he could use.

A few minutes later the car turned a corner and slowed to a stop in front of a restaurant.

“Go inside and ask the greeter to be seated in Walter’s section.  Order what you would like, the food is included in the service fee and we are picking up the cost, of course.”

Charles detected a hint of spite in the voice and once again wondered who or what was behind the system.  Could a computer feel anger?  Could it feel like it had been disrespected by Charles and Veronica earlier?  And if not that system, if there were in fact people helping them behind the code and algorithms, behind the artificial intelligence, then how long would it be before they made a mistake that truly did cost Charles and Veronica and all the others their freedom?

After pausing for a moment, the voice continued, “After you are done with your meal, your new identifications and everything else you need will come with the receipt.  Your waiter will show you to the exit out the rear of the building where a new car will be waiting for you.  The directions to your new home are programmed into it.  Your voices will be used for authentication before it takes you there.  We will do our best to leave you two alone until we have come up with a strategy for getting you your old lives back.  If you have need of us, turn on the system connection in the new car and the line will be opened.  Again, your voices will ensure authentication.  Do you have any questions before you start your new life?”

Veronica exited the vehicle without saying anything.  Charles lingered a moment longer, caught between being ready to start this next chapter and feeling like he should show some gratitude for all that had been done for him.  Then he followed her out without a word.  In the end, he decided that even if wanting to do the right thing was part of why they had helped him and the others, the system had its own agenda and no thanks for necessary for something they chose to do on their own.  He hadn’t asked for their help.

Once he was out of the car, Charles looked around to make sure he would recognize the restaurant again if he needed to get back to it, then he took Veronica’s hand and the two of them walked in.  Their new lives, separate and together, waited.

Echo, Part 17

Despite their misgivings, the operations to remove their chips went fairly smoothly and nearly painlessly.  Veronica’s chip had been in a little longer than Charles’ so hers was a bit tougher to remove but it came out and neither of them were worse for the wear.  A small bandage covered the stitches and scar just above their right temples.  The doctor came, did his work, and left with hardly a word or sideways glance.  Whatever his deal with the system was, he seemed content to simply carry out his task and then depart.  Charles and Veronica were thankful for that.  It was awkward enough having him show up and do the surgery without him wanting to chat about anything.

After the devices had been pulled from their heads, the operator showed them the chips and then destroyed them by dropping them into a jar of acid.  The chips bubbled and dissolved to nothing.  And then he was gone.

They were being given three more days in their current location to recover from the procedure and then they were supposed to get back in the car and they would be driven to their new lives.

Charles and Veronica were both buzzing with excitement.  The prospect of getting to reenter the world had their nerves tingling and their thoughts flying.  The threat of being discovered and arrested still loomed large behind everything else but with each new day that began and they were still free those worries diminished.

They used the recovery time to mostly do that.  They lounged around the house and read stories they’d found on a large bookcase adjacent to the kitchen.  Charles braved the food that had been left in the fridge and cooked a couple fancy meals.  Veronica regaled him with tales of things she had witnessed, heard about, and had happen to her.  Her flair for the dramatic aside, Charles realized that if even half of what she said was true she had good reason to distrust the government and society as a whole.  He we feel the frown tugging at the corners of his lips and then she would smile at him and his worries, his concerns for her alone and the two of them together, would lessen a bit.

It was the second night, before they were potentially leaving the following morning if all went as planned, that Veronica invited Charles into her bed.  Though he was concerned about all the future implications, all the problems a relationship with Veronica could create in their new lives, he went anyway.  They spent the night curled in each other’s arms and chatting back and forth about their dreams for the future.  Some of those dreams were old and half-forgotten in the truths of the world around them.  Some of those dreams were new and shiny and dangerous.  They drifted to sleep sometime before dawn and woke to a voice echoing through the house.

Charles threw the covers off and bounded out of bed, adrenaline burning through him.  They’d been found.  They were going to be caught.

But then he recognized the voice and realized that the system was trying to contact them and was yelling at them from the car parked in the garage.  Veronica had joined him out of the bed and he grabbed her hand.  They quickly went to the garage to hear what the commotion was all about.

Opening the door, Charles heard a hint of relief along with a lot of annoyance in the voice.

“Finally.  We’ve been trying to reach you for a while.”

“We were sleeping.”

“It’s late.  You need to be on the road already.  You were supposed to leave an hour ago.”

Charles, having not looked at a clock in the sudden wake-up and then dash to the car, slid his gaze down to the digital display on the dashboard.  It was late.  He couldn’t remember the last time he’d slept in so long.

“Are we in danger.”

“Not at this time, no.”

Veronica asked, “Then what’s the rush?”

“There is a tight schedule to get you your new credentials today.”

Charles didn’t want to seem ungrateful for all the system had done and was still doing to ensure his freedom but, now that the adrenaline was wearing off, he was getting annoyed.  What was the rush?  Why the urgency?  If they were truly off the grid, why was it so important that they leave at a specific time?  He wanted to ask all of these questions at once and when he opened his mouth his words jumbled up and he couldn’t get one to come out.  Veronica came to his rescue.

“Why?”

Her question was simple and yet still carried the weight of all the questions he’d wanted to ask.  He squeezed her hand to show his appreciation, only then realizing he hadn’t yet let go of it.  She squeezed back and he felt no need to stop the contact.  She didn’t move to pull away either.

The system did not immediately respond and Charles’ annoyance grew.  Understanding that a lot of what he was feeling was likely due to the emotional crash off the adrenaline spike, he took some steadying breaths.   He didn’t feel like being patient but by forcing himself to pause it would get him to the same outcome, allowing the system some additional time to reply.

Veronica did not take steadying breaths.  “Well?  We are waiting?”

“New identifications are not trivial matters.  Getting them is delicate.  Coordinating new identifications across multiple states with a whole slew of people has been beyond complicated.  We understand that you might be feeling off put by the changing plans over the previous week but please be patient with us for this final hurdle.  Once you are established in your safe house with your new credentials we hope to leave you in peace until we are ready to help bring you out of hiding.”

Veronica did not seem impressed with this response and Charles wasn’t either.  This whole ordeal had been one more thing after another and he had little faith that this ‘final hurdle’ would go as smoothly as the system wanted them to believe.  Plus, while he could appreciate that Veronica and he were not the only people the system was helping, he was tired of feeling like they were being jerked around.  The shine had worn of the rescue and now instead of being beholden to the fed it felt like he was beholden to the system.  He wasn’t actually free.