Clear Sky and a Tank Full of Gas
Five minutes, engine running. That was the rule. Anything past five minutes and she could bug out, hit the highway. Anything before, and whatever happened, they’d be in it together. Zoe checked the pocket watch hanging from the rearview mirror. 3:40. Cutting it close, Toby. I will leave you here. She snapped the watch’s cover closed.
She leaned back in her chair and saw him coming out of the doors in front of her, clutching his black bag, his long coat whipping in the wind. Zoe smiled.
“Do you have it?” Zoe asked as Toby opened the car door and sat beside her.
He placed his bag on the floor between his legs and nodded.
“Say the words, please.”
Toby sighed and looked at her. “I have it.” As if to prove the point, he leaned over, unzipped his bag, and removed the book. It was wrapped in archival mylar. “First edition, near mint.”
“I assume you checked it.”
“Of course. Wearing gloves, naturally, but I can verify that it is the genuine article. Our client will be very pleased.”
“Sounds like we hit paydirt.”
“I’m more concerned with making sure it’s safe. It’s a shame that it will have to stay in the hands of a private collector to survive.”
Zoe shrugged. “Everything ends up with one of them anyway.” She put the car in reverse, pulled out of the parking space, and accelerated toward the highway.
They hit the first checkpoint as soon as they took the on-ramp. The ramp was clogged with vehicles, each lined up and waiting for their turn to enter the large scanning system that had been erected over the on-ramp’s single lane. Zoe shifted into neutral and waited. Toby glanced at the revolver wedged into the small storage slot of her door. She swore the scans missed it because of the position, but it always felt like an unnecessary risk. The line moved slowly – a single scan took about a minute before one of the armed guards waved the cleared vehicle through.
Zoe’s knee bounced against her seat. The scanners always made her nervous. Toby’s backpack should be enough to get them through – the inside was lined with a material that should hide the book from the scanners, as was the hidden compartment above the glove box they’d shoved it into, and the agents minding the scanners never looked too close, but you could never be sure. There was always a risk when you were carrying a book.
She glanced at Toby. He looked at her, then at her knee, still tapping against the seat.
“Relax,” he said.
She nodded, forced her knee to a stop. The agents waved the car in front of them ahead, and it pulled off lazily toward the highway. It was their turn. The agent on the other side of the scanner held up his palm, and the car came to a stop. Zoe rolled down her window so she could talk to the one closest to her.
“Evening miss,” he said, squatting to see through her window. “Sir. License and registration, please.”
Zoe pulled both from the rubber band tying them to her sunshade and passed them through the window. The agent examined both, then handed them back.
“Looks good. Once the scan clears you, you’ll be on your way.”
The guard stepped back from the scanner. Zoe rolled up the window. The enormous, U-shaped scanner began to slide over the car, covering it in green, crisscrossed beams. The agent watched them through the window. Zoe drummed her fingers on the steering wheel, feigning boredom. The scanner’s lights ticked off and the scanner returned to the next position. Zoe looked at the agent who had checked her papers. The fingers of his right hand were touching his ear. Zoe’s hand touched the gear shift. Then he moved his hand and waved her through.
She exhaled and shifted the car into first. She floored it once they hit the highway, sliding between the slower, self-driving cars bound by their speed limiters. Hers had come with a speed limiter and an autopilot, but she’d pulled the former out immediately and recoded the latter. She didn’t trust any networked computers. She dropped Toby at his apartment, a grey multi-storey monolith in a sea of grey multi-storey monoliths. Before he got out, she held up her credit chit.
“Never,” he said, removing a tablet from his bag. He took the chit and inserted it into the top. His fingers flew across the screen, and a moment later, he handed the chit back to her. The implants in her neck flashed a picture of her updated bank balance to her right eye. It was a very large number, made a little larger by the recent deposit. The amount matched what they’d agreed upon.
Toby nodded and swung out of the car. “I’ll call you when I have the next thing.”
“I’ll be waiting.”
On the way home, she flipped on the recoded autopilot and let the car drive itself. She watched the evening light cut through the skyscrapers of the megacity that had once been several cities up and down the east coast. People still used the old names, sometimes, to tell you what part of the city they lived in. But it was really just one big sprawl, thousands and thousands of buildings, and the highways that ran through them. There was one on the west coast, too, but Zoe had never been there. One day, she thought, when this was all over, maybe she would. She would drive through the open, empty center of this country, the mile markers separated by farms and fields, shuttered towns with empty main streets long since abandoned to the few that refused to embrace the megacity and their robots. And she would get there. Jackie would get there. They would go together. But now she just watched the endless knife edges that cut into the sky, their outlines etched into the sky by the fading light, and exhaled.
Jackie was still awake when she got home. He sat in the dark of their cramped two-bedroom, a single floor lamp illuminating the pages of the book he held in his hands. The windows were open. A faint breeze wafted through, cool but not cold, carrying cricketsong and the smell of barbeque.
“That’s illegal, you know,” Zoe said after she closed and deadbolted the door.
“Says my sister,” Jackie said, without looking up, “the smuggler.”
She crossed the room and sat next to him on their old couch. “What are you reading?”
He flipped the cover over. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.
“A little on the nose, don’t you think?”
“Mom liked it. Even got Dad to read it. Dad never read anything.”
Zoe nodded. “I remember.”
It wasn’t reading the book that was illegal, though she was sure that both the government and the corps that owned them had both banned Fahrenheit 451. No, the crime was owning a print book at all. Something in print couldn’t be edited on the fly the way a digital book could, couldn’t be altered or changed to suit the interests of the corps or the government. Print books were dangerous; their ideas were fixed to a page. The people who owned them tended to disappear. The books themselves were mostly burned. There were exceptions. Certain people, mostly the rich, were granted special dispensation. A few heavily vetted academics to whom money was more important than principle. Internet personalities. But they were licensed and heavily regulated. Rumors said that the government had warehouses full of original copies, preserved just in case, but no one knew. A black market had sprung up around print material, of course. Collectors, archivists, resellers. She would have never met Toby otherwise. An archivist and a track driver. A match made in the hell they lived in.
“Did you ever read it?”
She remembered their mother, leaning over a copy, helping her pronounce the words a precocious child could read, but not pronounce and then pronounce, and not understand. A librarian sharing her passion and the daughter of a librarian a decade before her brother had been born. He was older now than she was then.
“Once,” she said. “A long time ago. With Mom.”
“It’s good,” Jackie said, but Zoe could see the pain on his face. She knew he barely remembered their parents.
She hugged him. She expected him to resist, to pull away, but he returned the embrace, and they stayed there for what seemed to Zoe like a long time. Then she pulled away.
“Don’t stay up too late, okay?”
“Sure,” he said, his eyes already back on the pages, trying to hide the tears she’d already seen.
Zoe closed the door to her bedroom and locked it before retrieving the memory chip from the locked box on her nightstand. She laid down on the bed and pressed the release for the small slot located underneath her right ear. The artificial skin, invisible to anyone who didn’t know it was there, hissed aside. She took a deep breath and inserted the chip. Something moved in her brain, ice so cold it burned. Then the world exploded, reformed. White light.
In the memory, she’s a child, walking through the shelves of her mother’s library, holding her mother’s hand. Leafing through books together. Her mother’s face. Placing the library card on the counter with their books. Stamping books as a volunteer and passing them back across the counter. Staying late, sorting carts, laughing over sodas. A shift, fuzziness. She is different now, and the same. In her father’s garage. He shows her how to check the oil. Change it. In the car, teaching her to drive. Her first time working the lift, rebuilding an engine. Quoting an invoice. Sprawled out in the backseat of a convertible, feet hanging over the sides, inhaling cigarette smoke and a paperback.
The memories continue. In them, she is different, in different places. With her parents. Jackie is a baby. Holding him in the delivery room, her mother’s face, glistening and exhausted. Her father, asleep in a chair, a book open on his lap. A birthday party. A dozen other memories, all happy, occupying different spaces and times. She tried to trace the lines of their faces, so young, even at the oldest. Then a fading, and she was back in her room, on her bed. Tears on her face, though she didn’t remember crying. She thumbed the release, and the memchip ejected into her hand. It dug into her palm as she fell asleep.
In her dream, the library burned. She and Jackie and her mother coughed smoke, running. They had stayed late to help sort books. Her mother got them into the car. Handed her the pocket watch, told Zoe to leave if she wasn’t back in five minutes. Then their mother went back in for their father, who had been in the bathroom. She waited five minutes. Then ten. Longer. Then, though Jackie begged her to stay from the back seat, Zoe did what her mother told her to.
The fire was intentional, set by secret police after her mother had refused to start pulling books from shelves. The government had no authority, she said. There was no law. Many libraries burned that night. After that, the crackdowns got worse. She was convinced they would come for her, for Jackie, at some point. But they never did.
Sometimes, the memchip helped block the dreams, replaced the trauma long enough for her to sleep. It helped calm her. She was always afraid she would forget those times, her parents’ faces. When she had gotten the chip, she had required that night be left out. That had made it more expensive, but she didn’t want it there, even sealed off so she could never access it. She knew she would never forget that night. It was as seared into her as strongly as the burns on her arms.
Toby called again two weeks later, “I think I’ve got one.”
“How big?” she could hear his smile over the phone.
“If it’s true? Pina Coladas on the beach in a non-extradition country. I still have to make sure, mind you. But I’m cautiously optimistic.”
“Call me when you know.”
“I will.” A pause. “Be careful, Zoe.”
The job was legit, at least as far as Toby was able to tell, and the money was good. Too good, maybe, but too good to pass up, too. So, they went. Before they left, Zoe uploaded most of her money to Jackie’s credit chit and made sure he was packed.
“If I’m not back by 6 PM, you get in the car and drive to Canada.”
He looked at the chit, then at her. “Okay.”
“Is your passport current?”
“Good.” She hugged him. “I love you, little brother.”
He hugged her back. “You’d better come back.”
And as she walked out the door of their apartment, waving goodbye over her shoulder, she tried to make herself believe it.
“I supposed you’ll be leaving once this is over,” Toby said.
They were on the highway, weaving through traffic. Zoe flipped her sunshade down to block out the light shining off of the skyscrapers.
“That’s the plan.”
“Where will you go?”
“Europe, I think. Spain, maybe. Ireland. Somewhere pretty. With history, where you can read books.”
He nodded. “That sounds nice.”
“What about you?”
“I’ve considered it. But I find myself thinking that I’m meant to be here, doing this.”
“You’ve already done a lot, Toby.”
“And yet, more remains. It always remains. We do the work of our time, Zoe. Whether we want to or not. And no matter how much we run, hide, or fight, that work will always find us. And only we can decide when that work is done.”
In her mind, Zoe saw a library on fire. “Sometimes,” she said, “the work decides for us.”
“Start the clock. Five minutes.”
Tony pressed a button on his wristwatch and Zoe on her pocket watch.
“Be careful,” Zoe said.
“See you soon.”
In the driver’s seat of her car, Zoe lit a cigarette and watched the clock run. The pocket watch hung from the mirror in slow rotation. A minute passed. Two. She glanced at the doors of the building Toby had entered. Nothing. Aside from a few other cars, the lot was empty. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. But Toby still hadn’t come back.
Three minutes ticked by. Then four. Then time began to slow. She watched the seconds tick down. At 4:45, she shifted the car into neutral. Ten seconds. Five. Five minutes. She looked at the doors. Nothing.
She imagined Toby being tortured, dragged away. Saw Jackie getting into his car, waiting long past six, and then heading for the border. Saw the secret police raiding their apartment, gathering their books to be burned. Her father’s face, the last time she saw him. He had smiled at her. Her mother, telling her to wait in that car, and then running into the burning library. She saw herself in that parking lot again, a scared kid, barely old enough to drive, Jackie crying in the back seat. She returned to that parking lot often. Sometimes, it felt as though she’d never left.
She rolled down her window. Outside, past the endless parade of skyscrapers, the sky was clear and blue. The few clouds there were meandered in slow circles. The car had a full tank of gas. She could go anywhere, do anything. The future could be anything she wanted.
The doors were motionless. The pocket watch turned, rotating from its place in the mirror. Zoe took it, snapped it closed, and held it close to her heart.
Then she turned off the engine and waited.
Will Borger is a fiction writer and essayist. His work has previously appeared in Marathon Literary Review, Purple Wall Stories, and Into The Spine, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He lives in New York with his wife and dreams of owning a dog. You can chat with him on Twitter @bywillborger.