The train moved quickly, high speeds of over 200 miles per hour. It is really hard to get a glimpse of much when you are moving that fast along the ground. But we could tell that life here was anything but normal. There was rubble and debris everywhere you looked.
I could feel the train slowing and was glad to finally be doing something. I felt bored and full of anticipation and dread all at once. I was always the jump now, think later type of guy so I just wanted to get started.
We stopped at the station in Surrey, near Guildford, and our doors opened. As we hit the ground, a backpack was thrust into our hands, as promised. I knew it would be heavy, but I hadn’t really thought it would weigh as much as I did. But I slung it over my back and slipped my arms through the padded straps.
I took that moment to survey the area of decimation. Homes were torn into pieces, store fronts were leveled. Smoke curled into the sky intermittently. I could hear screams of pain and terror, babies crying for their lost parents, and a complete lack of wildlife. No birds could be heard singing and no dogs were barking their warnings. It sounded like listening to the ocean in a seashell. It was strange and muted, disjointed from the rest of the world.
“Fall in, men!” DeVry shouted.
We all did as we were told, Jack sticking very close to me. Perhaps this was what being an older brother felt like…the weaker attaching himself to me and happy to just follow where I went. An odd feeling of watching over him hit me and a slight smirk twitched the corners of my mouth.
“This is Field Commander Jones and Field Commander Wilson. We will do this the easy way. The left side of this group will go with Jones,” DeVry called out motioning to a man about ten bodies in and swooshing outwards with his arms. “The right side will go with Wilson. You left here in the center will come with me. Jones, take the waterfront areas, Wilson, take the north end of the area, we will cover the rest. We meet back here at 1900 hours. Do you understand?”
We all told him we did with one chant in unison. The Field Commanders shouted to their ranks and started walking. Jack and I were staying with DeVry.
“Time to go! Pick it up!” he called out to us and we fell into step beside him.
The longer we were out there with no trees upright and no buildings to shade us, we got hot. I had spent my career to this point in a temperature controlled area, not out in the heat with a 150 pound pack on my back. Where I came from, we trained, but not simulated a crisis.
It wasn’t far to where we were working that day, perhaps a mile from the station. Most of the guys were all puffing and red faced once we had a second to rest. DeVry pulled out a map and unrolled it in the dirt, setting a rock on each corner to keep it flat.
“This is our area. Team up with someone and we will take sections. Got your buddy? Okay. Line up.”
Jonas gave us our orders, of course Jack tailed along with me. I suppose I could have gotten a worse partner for this project. We were to take the northeast section of the city of Guildford. From looking at the map, I felt confident we could find it as long as street signs or landmarks were still in the general area.
Jack and I took off in a trot at my hand signal to come along. Before we could get to our assigned area, we had people running to us and grabbing at our packs in desperation. We helped each other fend off the victims of this atrocity and kept moving but offered apologies to the people as we went.
We ran up Woodbridge Road until we hit our barrier of Ladymead Parkway. Jack and I agreed that starting at the back of our threshold and working our way back would be most productive. It was as I would imagine a war zone. Just piles and piles of stone and concrete littered the roadways so that we had to climb in places just to reach our destination.
“You start here, I will go just next door. If we are both working every other house, we will cover more ground!” I hollered at Jack. His nod told me he understood what I said.
It was as if we entered a whole new world. It was eerily silent except for the sound of my boots against the rocks and chunks of debris. The home I stood before looked like an unfinished jigsaw puzzle…the old fashioned kind that came in boxes of a thousand pieces. About a quarter of the home was still standing, three floors high, with only a few items of furniture out of place. The rest of the home lay in jagged bits like the puzzle pieces waiting to be locked into place.
“Hello?!?” I called out. Closing my eyes, I bowed my head slightly in an effort to concentrate on the task at hand. I wanted desperately to hear a plea for help but there was none.
I could faintly hear Jack the next house over throwing boulders of concrete against others. With a deep breath, I took off my pack and began to dig through what was out there.
In an hour’s time, I reached a smashed television and what used to be a bowl of popcorn. Someone was here.
“Hello?” I called out again and kept digging.
Stumbling across a sign of life made me realize that this was real. This was no exercise. Someone’s mother or father could be in this mess. Someone’s child could be too hurt to cry out. It made me hurry even faster.
The sun was sinking low in the sky when I heard a whoop come from Jack. I was tired and sweating from the mild temperatures that felt so hot since I was engaged in such physical activity.
“You find someone?” I yelled out on the still air.
“Yep! No vitals though!” he hollered back.
I let out a quiet growl. “You’ve got to be here!” I whispered.
Darkness was closing in and I knew it was time to head in for the day. I threw out one last stone with the thoughts that I could be burying those I was looking for in my newly formed pile. I felt defeated. Tears of shame stung my eyes and I fought to control them. A sigh rushed from my chest and I glanced down at my boots, dusty and filthy. I also saw what looked like a hand.
“Jack! It’s almost time to head back and I found someone! I called out. “Come help me quick!”
I worked feverishly to unbury what appeared to be a man, a young man. I could hear the footfalls of my comrade as I uncovered the man’s head and part of his torso. Together, we were able to pull him out and lay him on the ground. I crossed his arms over his chest. He was terribly broken. We looked for signs of life, but I called him as being dead.
We removed his right shoe and sock, placing a red tag around his big toe to show the cleanup crews that he was gone. Letting go of that tag was probably the hardest thing for me to do. It meant that a life had expired, that he would never rise and walk again, that his parents- if alive- would grieve his loss. He was no older than me, I speculated.
A lump of sadness grew in my throat, to my surprise. I couldn’t understand why I was so emotional…I was not an emotional person.
“Can you give me a minute, Jack?” I asked, my voice sounding raspy and strained.
“Sure Wes. You okay?”
All I could do was nod and I knelt beside my victim. I heard the crunch of earth beneath Jack’s boots as he walked away from me.
“I’m sorry you died, chap. That is what you call each other here, right? Chap? I hope you can sleep peacefully, my friend,” I said to him and patted his hand.
I heard a tinkling of metal on rock and looked for the item that had slid out of place. It was his medallion which slid off of his neck and onto the asphalt below him. I picked it up to put it back on him and I chanced a glance at it. Instant familiarity hit me and I sat still a moment, my mind searching its memories to recall this exact shape.
I gasped when it came flooding forward. This was the medallion that matched the princess. The Princess Paige of the royal family. She would have no mate.
Without giving it another thought, I quickly swapped mine for his.
The ID number! Panic made my heart thunder in my ears and my breathing came faster than I could handle. I had to disfigure that number on the man’s wrist. Digging in my bag I came away with a pair of scissors that I ran across the numbers. I could barely believe I was doing this. I could be killed for deviating from the path. I was committing a crime…or was I? I would be responsible for the Europe Nation’s royal family to continue on. But if I was ever found out, I would be in some serious trouble.
My scissors left a nice gash through the tattoo. Satisfied that no one could piece it together again, I felt a wave of shame run over me. I just desecrated a dead body for a reason I didn’t even understand. It wasn’t like I loved the princess. Maybe I admired her, but I definitely didn’t know her.
There was still time…I could put the medallion back. I could continue on as a nameless, faceless soldier here to dig the dead out of their graves so they could just be buried again. I froze. Something kept me from going back to who I had been my whole life. This was a medal I could wear proudly. It was a medal of defiance meant to snub the very ones who thought to control the world and how people felt about each other. This medal would change my fate.
“You ready to head back?” Jack’s voice startled me.
I spun on him, my new medallion making noise against the buttons down the front of my jacket. I’m sure my eyes looked wild and the quickened breathing gave me away. I saw his eyes look at the medallion and knowing dawned over his face.
“What do you think you are doing, Wes?” he freaked out at me but kept his voice down.
I just put my index finger over my lips to hush him. Then I bent down to grab my pack and threw it over my back. “I’ll explain later, Jack.”
My mind was whirling with so many different thoughts. I would have to do a really good job of covering this up if it was going to work. In the forefront of my mind was how to change the number on my body? I knew it was impossible to involve anyone else. I had to figure out how to alter it on my own.
And what was I going to tell Jack? I had no idea why I did it in the first place. How in the world could I explain this? Subconsciously, I slipped the medallion within my jacket. If asked why, I would simply tell them it was in my way while digging. That would buy me a little time.
There was just an error, I justified to myself. If anyone says a word about my identity, I would merely shrug it off as an error. We are, after all, only human. Errors are made all the time.
“You know that you will have to fake your own death, right?” Jack announced.
“Why would I have to do that?” I asked him, casting him a sideways glance.
Jack looked far ahead down the road.
“You can’t win, Wes. They will still find out whether it is by DNA or thumb scans. You have to find his body again and keep samples of his hair and blood. You will have to disappear, man. They would never believe that an orphan from Chicago could be matched with a person in Europe,” he chuckled.
“Let’s go back and hide his body until I can figure out who he is and what I’m going to do. Come on! Help me!” I cried out and we both ran back to where the dead guy was lying on the ground.
I yanked the tag from his toe and we carried him behind a pile of debris.
“She isn’t just anyone, Jack. She is Princess Paige. That’s who matches this medallion,” I told him as we once again headed back.
“You lucky bastard!” Jack hissed. “I’d probably do the same thing if I were you.”
“How in the world am I going to pull this off?” I asked aloud although it was more for myself.
“It’s not too late to go back, Wes.”
“I feel like I was meant to find this, Jack. Twisted or not, I feel that this gives me some purpose. Something I have lacked all my life,” I smiled feeling invigorated.
Jack shrugged his shoulders. “I will help you as much as I can. But if I get outed, I’m squealing to save my own neck!”
“I don’t blame you one bit,” I replied.
Once back with the rest of our troop, we headed back on the train for what knew as base. We were sent straight to dinner and then had the opportunity to shower and relax a while before “lights out”. This was when most men wrote to their families of which I had none. I did feel a pang of jealousy and desire as the guys pulled out their flat tabs, as they were called, and composed emails to send to their parents or even their wife and children. I wished that Jack was in my room instead of these two yahoos. At least then we could start a game of dice.
I took my flat tab out of my bag and turned on the power. It glowed brightly and I glanced over the top of it to make sure my roomies were otherwise engaged. Then, I opened my browsing window and searched for tattoo ink, where to buy it, what kind the hospitals use and how to apply it. It was unlawful to tattoo the body these days due to an epidemic that began and was traced back to contaminated inks in tattoo parlors clear back in 2098. Shops were shut down and artists were then placed in hospitals to brand babies as they were born.
I sighed and allowed my small machine to rest over my chest. Closing my eyes to think, I must have drifted off for I woke to one of my comrades whisking it off my chest, laughing as he waved it around and then turned it around to look at it.
“What’s Cam been up to? Writing his mommy and daddy back home? Is that why he never talks? He can’t live without his mommy?” the man taunted and pressed the power button.
I panicked. If he saw what I was up to, I would be discovered. I had to get it back!
“Here, let me see,” the second roommate chimed in.
I grabbed at the flat tab and they kept it out of my reach.
“Oh, he has it locked!” they whined and tried to breach my security defenses.
I’d had enough. My temper flared and there was no way I could allow them to see what I had been looking at. I balled my fists and let them fly, solidly connecting with the one holding my machine. It fell to the ground and landed beside the one that had been holding it, but now he was holding his ruddy face where I struck him.
The man who started the situation threw his hands up and backed away. “Whoa, man. No offense…I wasn’t trying to cause trouble, just having a little fun with you.”
I threw him a dirty look and stooped to pick up the flat tab that was blaring the search results I had been looking at. The fall to the floor must have disengaged my lock. Quickly, I took it into my possession and appeared to be inspecting it for damage, casually passing my finger over the history erase button and that got rid of any evidence.
“Don’t touch my stuff. I don’t touch yours, stay away from me,” I glowered and sat back down on my bed, stuffing my tablet into my bag. I pulled my shirt over my head and spread out my body over the thin mattress. I just begged for the lights to go out before anyone noticed that my tattoo did not match my medallion.
“What’s his problem?” the smacked down guy whined.
“Don’t worry about him, Seth. Just leave him alone,” the second guy said.
I could hear the squeaks of the two beds as they hunkered down for the night. It was then that the lights went out but I didn’t fall asleep. My mind raced.
How would I change my identity? How would I create my own death so I could be reborn as another person? Ideas filtered in and out of my crowded head and settled on Paige. Was it possible I felt a twinge of feelings for a woman I had never met before? Was that my motivation for breaking nearly every law there ever was?
My pulse hastened involuntarily when thinking of the consequences of my actions. I just couldn’t do it. I made up my mind to go back in the morning and switch the medallions back. There was just no way. Even if I could alter my tattoo, passing the DNA and fingerprint checks would be a disaster. It wasn’t worth the stress.
Morning came more quickly than I had expected. I felt unrested and irritable from my lousy night’s sleep. No one in my room said a word and my roommates left for breakfast before I did.
Digging through my bag for clean pants, I stuck my finger in something sticky. I didn’t remember packing anything like that, so I pulled it out to find that it was a putty to hang things on the wall. A chuckle of insanity escaped me and I tossed my head to look at the ceiling, pocketing the putty.
New ideas sprang to life and I began to rethink swapping my necklace again.
“Heard you laid out Seth last night,” Jack laughed when I caught up to him at the buffet.
“He had my flat tab and wouldn’t give it back. So I showed him I meant business. I was freaking out, dude!” I replied and lowered my voice to a whisper, “I was searching tattoo information on there. If he had seen it, I would be so done for!”
Jack’s mouth dropped open and his eyes grew wide. “Are you kidding me? Oh, man! You were lucky! But punching him in the face makes people wonder what you are hiding, you know? You have to tone it down a little bit.”
“I know, I know. I had decided to take back my medallion as I fell asleep last night. But I woke up this morning and came across this,” I whispered holding out my hand with the putty in it.
“What’s this for?” he asked me.
“For making a mold of the guy’s thumb print. Look,” I said and squished my thumb into the soft substance. Pulling my finger away, it left a perfect imprint of my thumb.
“Wow! You are a genius, dude!” Jack squeaked out in excitement.
Quickly, I hid the putty away. “See, Jack? Every time I decide not to go for it, something else pops up to make it possible! This is my fate. I am supposed to follow this path and not the one the monarchy made me choose!”
“I envy you so much. You aren’t afraid to step out and be your own person. I hope that one day I can do the same,” Jack told me.
“So do it,” I replied shoving eggs in my mouth. “We can figure it out together.”
“Naw, man. I’m just too chicken. Not my style. But I will help you as much as I can.”
“I still have a really long way to go, Jack. But I do feel I can do this,” I said and shoveled more food in.
My roommates called out across the room, “Looks like we have conspirators in our midst, boys! Cam and Allen over there are probably spies from another nation to bring us down from the inside! Probably from the Russian Nation or something!”
There were many snickers that went around the room. I wanted to kill these two fools. So I stood up to stare them down. “That’s why I talk with such a thick accent, you morons! You should be careful who you are calling out, guys. I heard what you had to say in your sleep, Seth! But don’t worry, your secret is safe with me…until you make me mad!”
The room erupted into laughter and Seth bowed his red head in embarrassment. I could hear Jack giggling like a little girl, trying to hold back. I sat back down and finished my breakfast. It worried me a little, becoming something of a celebrity meant it would be more difficult to disappear.
I was befriended by several guys in the unit between the buffet and returning to our site. Backpacks were distributed once again and we took off for Ladymeade Parkway. I felt light as air and it hit me that any reputation I gained would be lost when I took another man’s identity. But if I could hold my own against my military unit, I was positive that I could pave my own way as a member of the royal family.
The first thing we did was verify that the man’s body was still there where we left him. He was. Being unsure of how long he would stay supple, I took out the putty and smoothed it the best I could. Then I pressed it securely against his thumb, pulling it away and revealing a perfect mold for a print.
I studied the man’s face and wondered what his name was. He didn’t look all that different from me in that he had a sandy colored head of hair, just a tad darker than mine. His was a little longer in length and able to be combed neatly at the part. It looked as though he hadn’t taken the time to shave for a few days as the light sprinkling of facial hair dotted his chin and upper lip. I pried his partially open lids further apart to reveal blue eyes behind them. Mine were close, but held a bit more green to them than blue.
“You are going to have to swap him clothes, you know. He can’t be you if he isn’t wearing your uniform,” Jack pointed out. He was right.
“How do I get back to base without my blues?” I asked.
“You just gotta make the break, man. You do it and don’t look back. Let’s search the house for clothes. Then, tomorrow, you can make the switch and disappear,” he replied.
I sighed deeply. “I’m a little worried that I have no plan, Jack. I have some specifics, but I need time.”
“You don’t have time. This body will start rotting more each day making it more impossible to pass him off as you.”
“I know you are right, but…”
“Here. Get your prints made tonight. All you have to do after that is learn his history. You can take his hair and leave yours on his body. More than likely they will take hair that appears to be sticking up. Just leave a few and some on his clothes. You know, he will need your prints as well, man. Then swap clothes and hide his body back under the rubble. I will report that you had a part of the house fall on you and killed you. From the looks of it, you will be the sole survivor of this family and the real you dies off. Stay in areas of this house until you can find a camp of victims. Sounds like a great plan and you could get it done tomorrow,” Jack said thoughtfully.
“But if you tell them I was buried and killed, they will dig me up and find out that the body has been dead longer than I supposedly was. No, better to return after working tomorrow and tell them I was missing when you came to find me. It might take them longer at that point to figure out where I was, giving me a chance to decompose enough,” I added.
“Good point. See? You have it all figured out just fine. It is a matter of actually doing it now.”
I nodded in agreement feeling numb. I knew he was right.
That evening felt strange to me. We had our meal and sat around just talking…like chums. The more I learned about Jack, the less I wanted to make the break. She was just a girl. I didn’t even know her, but I knew Jack. I could do my work and return to my normal life and still visit this new friend from time to time like normal people did.
I did stop to wonder for a moment if people felt anything close to what I did when they were dying of an illness. Did they feel as detached as I did? Logically, the only difference was, I could choose not to die. I could simply take back my medallion and forget all of this nonsense. Then, my life wouldn’t end.
But, if I didn’t do this, who would? When would this Noah’s Ark approach be broken and people free to do as they wished where love was concerned? I could be a hero, the first to fool their system into thinking I was someone very different.
Could I keep my secret? Even from a woman I might marry? What sort of union could be built upon a lie? These thoughts disturbed me greatly and I frowned.
“Hey,” Jack said in a serious tone, “don’t forget me. When I come looking for you, you had better acknowledge me.”
He took me off guard for I didn’t know our friendship meant anything to him at all. “Of course, Jack. We will always be buds, right?”
He smiled and drank deeply of his cup. “Just feels weird that you are gonna be gone, is all. That’s the way my life has been. I get close to someone, they die or they leave. I wake up each day wondering if my wife will be there when I get home. Rotten way to live.”
“You shouldn’t have to live that way. I give you my promise that I will always be here for you. Give me your electronic address and I will write you when I can,” I replied sliding a scrap of napkin his way.
He gave me a chuckle and pulled out a pen from his pocket, scribbling down the information.
“I need to go find some materials, Jack. Do not follow me. I don’t want you implicated if I am caught. Please say nothing if anyone asks about my actions. Think of your wife and kids,” I pleaded.
Jack nodded his agreement and I left him sitting alone at a table to slink the halls and find what I was after.
Finding a supplies closet, I took a peek around to be sure I was alone in the corridor. Then, I carefully turned the knob and stepped inside, palming my small flashlight as I closed the door behind me. Clicking on the light, I made quick work of looking for something to transfer prints.
I took down a can of liquid latex, one that we used that sometimes for waterproofing our gear. My heart thundered in my chest as I held that small can in my hands. I knew it would dry clear to be unnoticeable. Perhaps some clear glue to affix it, I thought.
Skimming the shelves once more, I did find a tube of glue, strong glue, that I knew would work until I could figure out something else. My breathing came fast and I started to sweat. This was it.
Hastily I set the latex down and opened it, praying it didn’t smell too strongly to attract any attention. I had to work fast. I removed that putty from my pocket. After picking the fuzz from the print, very carefully in fact, I dipped my finger in the latex and smoothed it over the print. I could feel it drying on my skin as I spread it evenly.
The putty sat in my shaking hands and I waited for the liquid to set up, just staring at it and watched it change slightly in color, the gloss slightly turning matte. The edges started to lift so I carefully pinched a spot and pulled gently. It came off easily and I inspected the copied print in the bright light. It was perfect.
A smile spread over my lips and I felt a moment where I wanted to laugh with relief. I set that prototype on a shelf and went about making several copies. I knew one would not last forever. As the putty prints were drying, I filled my time making copies of my own print. That man out there would need my identification.
When satisfied that I had made enough, I found a blade and cut just around the edge to remove the excess. Not wanting the newly made prints to bend in my pocket, I found a small plastic sleeve to slip them into…one for his and one for mine. The tube of glue made its way into my pocket as well and I prayed that it wasn’t so obvious that someone asked about it.
My next task was more difficult. I had to alter my code. A temporary fix was not practical. I had to do it right. From what I read with my searching, I should be able to use a pen.
With hands still shaking, I took apart a pen I happened to find on a clipboard. We didn’t have much need for writing pens these days. In efforts to save our planet, or rather the people on it, our society went paperless in every way possible. That implemented the thumb scans. It became our personal digital signature. Pens of all kinds ended up in storerooms like this one. I suppose you could say that I hadn’t ever been so happy about finding a pen in my life.
I used the razor blade to snip off the end of the plastic tube that held the ink. Nervously, I licked my lips and could feel the perspiration accumulating on my brow and upper lip.
I took a steadying breath and removed one of my officer’s pins from my jacket. Dipping the tip of the pin into the tube of ink, I then laid my arm out on a shelf. I went about altering my number: 11593104 to the number on the new amulet: 71608109.
I didn’t care if it were perfect. I had grown since I had been given my number and it had stretched and distorted a bit. No, perfect edges were not of necessity. I just needed it to pass.
Into the skin, into the ink. Into the skin, into the ink. Again and again, changing that 1 into a 7 with just a few pokes. Morphing the 5 into a 6. Hoping the 9 looked enough like an 0. And turning a 3 into an 8, then making the 4 appear a 9. Little droplets of blood oozed where I had pushed the ink under my skin.
Sure, I had read that pen ink could cause infections, it could make me sick, but I had little choice. The only people who had access to the right ink for marking were in the hospitals. They wouldn’t take kindly to someone just walking in asking them to break the law and alter their ID number. No, I was doing all I knew.
Tapping into the first aid kit, I ran a swab of alcohol over the blood spots and dabbed on a germ killing salve. I was not about to bandage it and draw attention to myself so I clicked off my flashlight and sat quietly, hoping no one needed supplies.
Several minutes later, I turned my light back on and wiped my wrist with some gauze before putting new salve on my irritated, raised skin. Satisfied, I pocketed the tube of salve as well. The light went out and I listened intently at the door.
Silently, I cracked open the door and slipped back out into the corridor. It was done. I had no choice now. My number was different, my medallion matched my number. I had my new identity. At this point, if they scanned my thumb, I would see the inside of a prison cell. I was beyond the point of no return.
“Where have you been?” the guys asked when I made it back to our room.
“What are you talking about?” I mumbled back at them and flopped down on my bed.
“Dinner ended hours ago. They just called for lights out about fifteen minutes ago. We were just about to turn in when you snuck in.”
“Oh. I didn’t realize it was that late already. I was just sitting outside in the courtyard,” I lied.
“We didn’t see you, Cam. They had a fire out there tonight and toasted mallows and had beer.”
My heart leapt into my throat. “Well, that’s because I just wanted to be alone a while. Just missing home, I suppose.”
There was an awkward silence. The lights went out and I rolled onto my side wishing my brain to shut down so I had some chance at sleeping. It wasn’t long after that I could hear my comrades snoring.
I really can’t say that I slept at all that night. I could only imagine that was what prison escapees would feel as well. It was the moment of my rebirth.
But who was I? I had no idea who this new man was, who his family was. Yet I didn’t dare to turn on my flat tab. If the guys woke up, my plan would be spoiled.
The wake up call came as the sun was just beginning to lighten the sky that morning. When Seth and Turner left to shower, I pulled out my flat tab and turned it on, finding the identification site. I could find anyone’s identity by scanning their thumb on this website put out by the Chamber. It was the moment of truth.
I took out one of the prints from the dead man and set it on the square that was highlighted on my screen. I pressed my thumb over it, allowing the heat of my skin to activate the search of the database.
The screen blinked at me and blue lines faded in and out over the blackness it had left behind. When the screen returned, it had a name on it and it wasn’t mine. Just to be certain, I checked the ID number. This was who I was. Winthorpe Goldman James.