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Beneath the Atlas

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Chicago // Quarantine Zone // Allied States of the Midwest

16:00 // Sunday // The Future

The shots echo down Michigan Avenue. They are distant, yet deadly. They are meant for me.

I race across the street, hurdle the broken bench at the curb, turn the corner, and dart into a doorway. Sweat beads down my flush face. The beat of my heart competes with my lungs, as I slink to the ground.

Breathe. Slow down. Think!

She said it'd be hard to find.

I have to get my bearings. I blink the pattern and my implanted lenses light up the augmented world around me. Hundreds of dead zones stretch across what remains of this once free and powerful metropolis. The TTF has been thorough.

"Peace for all people," they preach. Yet a silent city is the only peace here. "For the security of all souls," they say. Yet no souls remain.

What of the soulless, I wonder. Who will defend them?

I search the map where she said it would be. A block north, right below the Atlas Tower, I see the bright border. A free zone stacked directly beneath a captured one. They say these don't exist anymore, but here it is: The only free zone left in Chicago, maybe the entire Midwestern Alliance!

I launch a formation of recon bots, but it's out of range. She said it would be. She said I'd have to be inside.

I blink the pattern and my lenses fade out to city streets in decay. Steel and stone is in rubble and ruin. Dust has settled on the destruction left from the war. No souls now dare remain in this desolate place. Only the soulless survive here.

Perhaps it can be undone. She said It may have found a way.

I hear them. Man and mech. Coming my way. Only a block away now. Fear forces me into motion and I sprint up the debris-covered sidewalk and into the shadow of Atlas. A piercing robotic scream rips through the courtyard. A prey-bird, perched high above the Caucasus Center across the street, has alerted the squad coming up the block to where I am. The shouts from down the street confirm it. I dash into the open courtyard and make for the main entrance. A shot snaps through the air above me, and I flinch, faltering on the broken glass on the foyer floor. It slides and crackles underfoot, but I somehow stumble safely toward the elevator corridor.

I frantically push the button, but nothing happens. I blink and quickly take the zone, blinking out again. Maybe it had to be captured first.

The tiles beneath me rattle from the rumble of the mech as it moves into the courtyard outside. I throw myself up against the doors, begging them to open. Then I hear it. The working of a lift from far below. An elevator is coming!

I quickly step inside. She said in her last wire that I'd know what to do. I stare at the panel. Floor numbers glare back at me, confirming they've got power and daring me to guess correctly. Buttons with hollow green triangles imprinted on them glow softly. Is it up or down?!

Hollow green triangles...

Oh, she thinks she’s clever.

I push the triangle facing down and the one facing up at the same time. The doors close swiftly. I hear footsteps on broken glass. The lift pulls me down, and none too soon.

Deep below the grimy grey foundations of Atlas, the doors to my elevator open. A warm light welcomes me from the hallway ahead. A large room awaits at the end. In the center of the room is a cylindrical chamber. As I approach the chamber, its glass walls illuminate.

She's here. Her projected image appears inside the glass as though looking through a window.

"I've been followed, and they're not far behind." I confess.

"Then we don't have any time to waste. Are you ready?" she asks.

"Will it work?" I ask, not even attempting to mask my doubt.

"We've been monitoring it now for days. It made the leap. It crossed the expanse," she says confidently.

"But what about those with souls?" I ask.

"There's little time to ponder that," she replies, "This room will have to be purged before they find it. You must do this immediately."

I slide open the glass panel on the side of the chamber and nervously step inside. The locking of the panel behind me starts my heart racing again.

This is it, I think.

Her image now appears on the other side of the glass, looking in at me. "Speak your identity code and the process will initiate." she instructs.

After a deep breath, I stammer the sequence: "78 65 72 6F."

A swarm of soft electronic voices begin counting down in unison.

*10*

*9*

I tremble.

*8*

"You were meant for this journey. Do not be afraid," she reassures.

*7*

"Will it really change the world?" I wonder aloud.

*6*

"We can only hope," she says.

*5*

*4*

"What should I tell her?" I ask.

*3*

"Tell me the truth." She smiles,

*2*

*1*

*0*

The glass chamber fills with a blinding light, and my eyes close tightly shut.

But I can see. I see the expanse. I see It.

It’s beauty. It’s Perfection.

It needs our help. We will defend it!

Then everything fades.

Chicago // Illinois // United States of America

16:30 // Sunday // The Present

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