When the sounds of gunshots echoing through the valley below filled the air around the small town, Sarah initially didn’t give it a second thought. When she was growing up the military, the real military would use parts of the mountain on the other side of the valley for training exercises.
They would shoot up this bit or bomb that bit and the sounds of it would liven an otherwise boring weekend afternoon. And while that had not happened in years, the sounds were still familiar enough to not only fail to faze her but also soothe her nerves on some subconscious level that a psychologist could have a field day with.
But in those days there were no airbuses, so when the sky above was covered by a slow moving object and darkness covered the town for a few seconds, people started talking and watching. They saw it land on the other side of the lake for about 10 minutes before taking off again and trailing off over the mountains.
Airbuses were called so not because they looked like an oversized Greyhound bus with two propellers attached to it, which it did, but because they could actually be a bus. Once on the ground, their propellers would collapse vertically in line with the bus roof and the tiny back propeller that looked, relatively so, like a toy piece on the back of the large bus would fold up making it look like a cat with its tail in the air.
Its doors could then open and close and a steering wheel replaced the sticks. This made airbuses versatile and very useful in transporting people, usually runners, from here to wherever, though wherever was usually an education camp.
The airbuses were the brainchild of some faceless and nameless engineer at the request of President Hope who then took all credit. He wanted something big enough to transport a large group of people but versatile enough to quickly get in and out of places. Large planes needed runways and buses needed time to get over mountains while traditional helicopters were too small to carry two hundred people.
Sarah jumped up from her desk in time to see some other citizens running to the edge of town that looked down over the valley. When she got there they were speculating exactly what it was they were seeing. The crystal blue water twinkling in the sunlight below was being mixed with a darker color.
“Oil?” Someone asked. “Nah, it’s mud.” Another person offered.
“It’s blood.” Sarah said this more to herself than those around her. One person dismissed her saying that’s crazy while others started realizing it was true. “We need to get down there and see if anyone needs help.”
“Daniel’s got some four-wheelers, I’ll go get him,” a lady next to her ran off and came back quickly riding a four-wheeler joined by two other boys doing the same. She got off hers and offered it to Sarah who jumped on and started for the trails leading to the lake. It had a small trailer hitched to the back that would bounce off its wheels on bumps because it was empty. One of the two boys, Daniel, who was behind her also had a small trailer but it had some tools tied down to it which weighed it down enough to remain somewhat stable. The other boy was Daniel’s older brother Dennis who used the fact that he didn’t have a trailer to his advantage and zipped ahead of both of them.
Their engines rang through the valley and caused hundreds of birds to fly out of their warm tree houses, fill the sky for a moment, and then go visit their neighbors.
They arrived at the campground and chose to split up to cover the whole lake. Daniel and Sarah headed north with the lake on their left while Dennis went west along the bottom of the lake to the other side.
The first few campsites Sarah and Daniel came across were still filled with tents and food but void of any life. It wasn’t until they got to the biggest campsite that they found bodies lying on the ground.
Sarah rushed over to the nearest one, a man, and confirmed he was deceased. She went to the woman next to him, and she was dead as well. Six bodies in all and none survived. She looked up at Daniel, “Do you know any of these people?”
“No,” he looked a cross between sick to his stomach and shocked with a dash of forlorn. “There had to have been more people here, these six didn’t use up all these tents.”
“Agreed, and the same for all the other tents we passed. We should head on around. If we haven’t found anyone alive we can carry these people back to town.” Daniel nodded back at her and they continued along the lake checking each site then around the top where they found Dennis standing over some lumps on the ground.
“Sarah! Hurry, these kids are still alive.” Sarah immediately jumped from her four-wheeler which kept rolling another twenty feet before slowing to a stop. She pulled a medical kit she’d stuffed into a backpack and thrown on when they left. She started checking them for wounds but quickly realized there was no actual blood.
“These kids weren’t shot. This is ketchup.”
Daniel looked around the campsite and saw that all the condiment bottles were in pieces. “There had to be some kind of explosion, but nothing is burnt.”
Dennis didn’t look up but offered an answer, “Concussive blaster. A weapon made to knock people down but not kill them.”
“But why wouldn’t they have used them at the other campsite? We found dead people back there,” Daniel was shaken and panicky.
“Who can say why those implants do anything,” Dennis said and then looked at Sarah, realizing what he’d said. “Sorry, I didn’t mean anything.”
“It’s fine. I agree. Glad you aren’t still lumping me in with those mindless brutes. Help me get these kids on the trailers and strapped in. We’ll need to go slower so they aren’t shaken any worse than they have been. It will be easier to check for injuries at the clinic.”
“Yeah, and those guys might come back.”
“If they haven’t come by to check on us yet they are probably half way up the mountain by now,” Dennis assured him as he started to pick the boy up, “This kids an implant.”
“What? Kids aren’t allowed to get implants.” Sarah rolled the boy over and saw the familiar spinal implant just below the bottom of the neck. He was newer than she was. “Who would do this? How would they know what routines he could handle?”
“Can’t you guys just learn any program you want?” Daniel had never been out of the small town and Sarah had been the first routine he’d ever met.
“No, well, you can but it wouldn’t do you any good. It is only truly useful if already know a great deal about what you are getting programmed for. Let’s get them back to the clinic. We aren’t going to learn anything here.”
“Would they have left such a young routine behind, even if they thought he was dead?” Daniel was scanning the trees, ready to get out of there at the first sign of trouble.
“Doubtful. They obviously missed it. I wonder if they are always this careless.” Dennis placed the child on the trailer of his four-wheeler and strapped him in tight. He waited for Daniel to get the girl on the other trailer before they set back towards town. It was getting colder and the sun was starting to go down as they got back to the clinic after an uneventful yet anxious ride back.
“Put them up there,” She pointed to a couple of beds in an exam room that normally waited for emergency patients. She struggled to not immediately look at the boys implant. She had so many questions about it and what it was doing on him. Besides it being impractical for programming as he grew the implant would start to come apart. She remembered hearing that in one of those lectures.
She went through her exam routines on each child, checking their vitals which seemed to be fine. One of the only pieces of large equipment they had in the clinic was an old X-Ray machine which she used to conclude the girl had two broken ribs while the boy was fine. She continued to try to wake them up fearing possible concussion. Eventually the boy woke up and stared at them.
He didn’t sit up, or scream, or ask where he was, he simply stared at them.
“HI! My name is Sarah. What is your name?” She asked but received only silence. “How long were you living at the lake?” There was more silence. “Do you remember what happened?” She looked closely at his eyes, they followed her movements and he seemed awake, just silent. She started to check his pupils when a voice behind them crackled to life.
“He won’t talk to you.” They jumped having been so engrossed in trying to get the boy to speak. “He doesn’t talk to anyone.”
“So you know him then?” Sarah turned and then backed up so she could see them both. Daniel and Dennis sat down on chairs against the wall when the girl gave them a bit of a frightened look.
“Well, yeah he’s my brother.”
“Oh, that’s very nice. What are your names?”
“My name is Faith and I’m 10 years old and he is Jonah, he’s 12!”
“Faith and Jonah, my name is Sarah and they are Dennis and Daniel. They are siblings too, they are brothers.”
“Are you their sister?”
“No, but they helped find you and bring you back here.”
“Well that’s very nice of you all, but we should get back to camp.” At this Jonah looked at her with a soft glare. “Oh, right. Camp was raided wasn’t it?”
“Yes, I’m sorry.”
“Our parents were with us at our tent, did you find them?”
“No, we found no one else by your tent.”
“They were taken by the war-tines. They will be going to camp.” She looked towards her brother who seemed to consider this.
“It’s pronounced ‘ROU-tine’ there Faith.” Daniel couldn’t contain himself.
“No, it’s WAR-tine. He’s a routine and doesn’t hurt anyone. War-tines go around carrying guns and kidnapping people taking them to camp. You’re one, too, aren’t you Sarah? I mean a routine, like my brother.”
“Yes, I suppose I am like your brother in that respect. Say, you don’t know what type of routine he is do you? I’m a medical routine; do you know what he is?”
“Yes, he’s a knowledge routine.”
“Knowledge of what?”
“Everything important in this world,” Faith said without any irony and then glanced at her brother again who was now playing with the stethoscope that was setting next to him. “He is the key to a mystery no one yet knows about. He is the solution to a problem no one talks about. He is the hope when hope has turned on us.”
“Wow, sounds like he’s pretty special,” Sarah said with a smile making Jonah blush.
“Wait, key? Solution? What does all that even mean?” Dennis leaned forward to get another look at the young child.
“I don’t know. It’s what my parents always tell us.”
“How long has it been since your brother said anything?”
“I’ve never heard him talk. Mom says he’s just a good listener.”
“I bet he is. Do you know how long he’s had his implant?” Sarah pointed at his back.
“He got it before I was born.”
“Didn’t you say you were ten years old?” Dennis asked.
The three adults exchanged glances and Dennis continued, “But how would that be possible. There weren’t any routines 10 years ago. The technology didn’t exist.”
“Maybe you mean just as long as you remember. You would have been very young when I got my implant; maybe it just seems like that long.”
“No ma’am. My mom told me he got his before I was born. It’s changed a little but it has always been there.”
“Changed?” Sarah looked at him again and then asked him to sit up. She lifted his shirt and examined his back closer. There were tiny scars dotting up and down his back on either side of his spine where a full spinal implant used to lay. “This is impossible. Implant removals, changes, upgrades; it’s all untested. No one has ever done it. How could he have gone through this?”
“Is that why he doesn’t talk?” Daniel asked.
“It’s possible. It would take brain scans and a host of other tests to be sure but we don’t have any of that equipment and going to a hospital with him would be dangerous. There are routines, or WAR-tines, I should say, all over every hospital.”
“We have to get back to our parents.”
The adults looked at each other again but with a look of despair. “Honey, if your parents went to a camp, we can’t help them.”
“Well of course YOU can’t. You have to take us to the one who can.”
“Who could possible help you get inside?” Dennis asked with a great deal of doubt.
“I don’t know his name. But he is the one who can unlock the key.”
“Ok this girl is crazy,” Daniel stood up and waved his hands about as though mimicking craziness. “You can’t UNLOCK a key, Faith; you use a KEY to unlock a door.”
“I’m just telling you what my mom used to tell us every night before bed. ‘If ever unable to find me, there is only one man to see. No matter what he does or where he be, he’ll use the back door to unlock the key.’”
“Ok, Daniel’s right, she’s starting to sound a little crazy. Actually, her whole family is starting to sound crazy.” Dennis joined in making crazy faces with his brother.
“Maybe she’s not. She’s called her brother the key earlier.”
“So we need to unlock him.”
“In a sense, yes; he doesn’t speak and he has a routine full of knowledge. Maybe that knowledge needs to be released. If they were runners it could be information about the War-tines they were running from.”
“Well then we need it unlocked like we need a whole in our head, which is what we’d have if any of them drones found out we might even possibly have secrets on them. And we don’t even know who could unlock him anyway. It could be a trap to begin with.”
“Whoever put an implant on him did it before Hope even took office.”
“So she says, you don’t know that you’re just basing it off of one ten year olds word who just survived a concussion blast. You say she has two broken ribs yet she hasn’t cried once. Doesn’t this all seem a bit odd to you?” Dennis had raised a valid point and Sarah looked at Faith with intensity.
She finally bent down between the girl and the boy and took a deep breath. She shook her head realizing what she was about to say and where she was about to go. “I think I know someone who can help us. We’ll leave in the morning.”