Chapter 6: Failure and Frustration

Al couldn’t stop thinking about Liberty. From the moment they said goodbye in the rainforest, he was filled with regret. She had been the best thing that had ever happened to him. Why had he pushed her away? Why hadn’t he begged her to stay?

As time passed, he figured out the answer. If she had stayed with him, she would have eventually come to see the truth — that he was a big flop. Become a rock star? Ha! The band he’d formed with friends, The Fire Brigade, had fizzled before they even made it to their first gig, thanks to a huge blowup between the drummer and the bass guitarist. So Al took to the road as a solo artist, which he quickly learned was harder than he’d anticipated.

He earned a few clients while singing or laying his guitar at local amateur nights, but the only gigs he managed to snag were small parties and musician hour at coffee shops.

He was also not doing so well on the social scene. He went out with friends, but his mind was often thousands of miles away. He bored his friends to death by talking nonstop about Liberty and Selvadorada.

Other times, he would zone out while friends were talking, laughing to himself about some private joke he and Liberty had once shared, or checking his phone for a miracle text from her.

“Look face it, you’re not going to hear from her,” said his friend, Dirk, while they were working out together. “You never gave her a phone number, remember? What are you expecting her to do — hire a private detective to track you down?”

Not a bad idea, Al thought. He wished he could hire a private detective to track her down.

But he couldn’t even remember her last name. They’d never had to use them during the mission. To him, she was always Liberty. His Liberty.

He was a flop on the dating scene, too. “No one will ever be able to measure up to your ex-girlfriend!!” Charlotte, one of the women he’d been dating, said in frustration. “Nobody could possibly be that perfect.” She left the date in a huff, leaving Al to pay a huge tab.

After several years of failures, Al finally had to face the truth. His career was getting him nowhere, he was burning too many bridges to count, and thanks to a lack of music gigs and a lifestyle he couldn’t keep up with, he was running out of money.

“Why don’t you come and live with us for awhile, until you get back on your feet?” His sister, Polly, suggested. So Al packed up his life and moved across the country to the Oregon coast, where his sister and her son shared a small house with about a hundred cats. Okay, maybe it was more like three or four cats, but to Al, it felt like one hundred.

“Just until I get back on my feet,” he said, as he brushed cat fur off his clothes.

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Chapter 5: Dr. Lehoia’s Diagnosis

The night before the mission came to an end, Liberty and Al joined the volunteers for a big feast in the village. There was music and dancing, and heaping plates of juane, steamed tigerfish, and papaya salad. Liberty was breathless by the time she and Al took a break from dancing to get some fresh air.

“I’m going to miss all of this.” Al motioned at the lush forest all around them, which was alive with the chatter of birds, monkeys, and frogs.

“So…” Liberty chewed her lip. “We haven’t really discussed…after.”

“After?”

“After this. I mean, you can come up where I live. Gold Valley is just your basic suburb, but it’s pretty nice.  My house has plenty off space. Or I could come down to your state, if you prefer.”

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“Libby.” Al took her hands. The pained looked in his eyes made her stomach drop. “I love you. But we can’t do this. Not now.”

“Why not?” Her voice quavered. “Don’t you want to be together?”

“Some day. But I want to get established in my music career before settling down. I’ll be traveling around a lot, taking every gig that comes along.”

“But…I can come with you. I can write, and–”

Al was shaking his head. “I just don’t think we’re ready. I’m not ready. I’m sorry,” he added, as Liberty burst into tears. “I’m so sorry.”

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They spent one final night together in the house that had been their home for the past year. Then, with broken hearts, they said their goodbyes and went their separate ways.

Liberty’s house was too big, and too clean, and too quiet. The only sounds she heard were an occasional car passing outside, and the click click click of Katniss’s toenails on the hardwood floors. She missed the noise, and the constant activity, and the people of the rainforest. Most of all, she missed Al.

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The symptoms of nausea and fatigue still continued to plague her days after returning, so she went to visit her doctor. Doctor Lehoia was a very, very very old friend of hers, and a skilled doctor who could solve just about any problem.

“This is a pretty classic case,” he told her after her tests came back. “I’d say you’ll start feeling much better in about seven months. Just in time to hold your new baby.”

ancient old friend

“I’m having a baby?” Liberty was stunned. “Al’s baby!” she clapped her hand over her mouth, dismayed. Al, who was traveling around the country, taking music gigs and had no home address. She didn’t even have his cell phone number, since cell phones hadn’t been allowed on the mission. He was going to be the father of her baby, and she had no way to tell him.

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“Well, Katniss, it’s not going to be just you and me anymore,” she told her dog, who wagged happily. As the months passed, Liberty prepared her life for the baby’s arrival. She painted a spare bedroom for the nursery, and folded stacks of tiny clothes and onesies. She took a part-time job taking inventory for medical supplies to make ends meet as she worked on her writing.

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She often thought of Al, which filled her with sadness and longing. But she had no way to find him. The internet was filled with Al Donaldsons, and none of them had his face. On a cold morning in February, baby Callen was born. Liberty wept as she clutched him in her arms. He would never know his father.

baby Callen

Chapter 3: The Map to Paradise

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Liberty never would have believed how much she and Al had in common. Now that he’d finally loosened up around her, they spent plenty of time getting to know each other. Al enjoyed reading, like her, and loved the idea of her becoming a writer. He came from a close-knit family, all of whom were crazy about music, like him. “My dad’s a police officer, but he plays weekend gigs with a bluegrass band,” he said. “He’s the one who taught me how to play guitar.”

“Does he know you’re hoping to become a full-time musician?” Liberty asked.

“Nah, he’d kill me if he found out that I was wasting my shiny, expensive business degree.” He frowned. “He thinks I’m going to look for a nice, stable desk job in a cubicle jungle after I finish my stint in this jungle.”

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During their work days, they slaved away as usual, helping to improve the lives of the natives. On their free days, they sometimes stayed close to home, trying new foods in the village. Al often strummed songs on his guitar as Liberty sang along, or recited literary passages to the music. Other days, they explored the rain forest together, snapping photos of wildlife, examining ancient ruins, and pretending to be expert archaeologists.

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They grew so close, that it felt completely natural when their relationship evolved to another level. When they kissed for the first time, the birds of the rain forest seemed to sing louder than usual, as though cheering for the couple.

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During the nights, there was no longer any arguing over who would sleep where.
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One warm, muggy day, they trekked further away from the village than they had ever ventured before. Marta, one of the village women, had told them about an amazing waterfall, and they were eager to find it. After a few hours of hiking, however, they realized that they must have missed a trail.

Al studied the crudely drawn map Marta had drawn for them. “I think we can find the trail if we circle around this way, he said, leading the way.

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Instead of the trail to the waterfall, however, they discovered a hidden lagoon, with clear green waters that sparkled beneath the blazing sun.

Liberty flashed Al a mischievous grin. Then she slid off her clothes and slipped into the cool waters. “It feels sooo good!” she said. “Come on in!” Al shed his clothes, too, and joined her. They paddled around lazily, drinking in the sunshine and one another’s company.

“We’re like Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden,” Al said.

“It sure feels like paradise.” Liberty said with a laugh. “If I see a talking serpent, I’ll be sure to stay away.”

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After leaving the magical lagoon, they made another surprising discovery. An ancient pyramid, still standing in the middle of the rain forest.

“I don’t see this on Marta’s map,” said Al, puzzled.

“Maybe she doesn’t know about it.” Liberty stared in awe at the vine-covered structure. “Think we should check it out?”

“I don’t know…” Al hesitated. “Maybe we should tell someone about it first.”

“Oh come on. Where’s your sense of adventure?” Liberty forged ahead, with Al close behind. Inside the ruins, it was cool and dark, and smelled dank. Liberty let out a shriek as a colony of bats swirled overhead, their leather wings beating against the air before they flew out into the daylight.

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“Hey look!” Al hurried across the chamber, where a row of skeletons stood, jewels sparkling in their rib cages. Each clutched a spear with a sharpened stone for a blade. As Al studied the skeletons, Liberty noticed other abandoned treasures scattered about the chamber.

“Do you think we’re the first people to discover this stuff?” she asked. “Maybe we shouldn’t touch anyth–”

But it was too late. At that moment, Al grasped one of the skeleton’s spears and gave a tug. The skeleton’s sapphire eyes began to glow.

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Chapter 2: Peaceful, Easy Feeling

The next few days were almost unbearable for Liberty. Not because of the hard work. She was happy to roll up her sleeves and help to dig trenches and lay pipes, happy to work side by side with the Selvadoradan women, learning to pound corn into a coarse flour and mix it with water to make a kind of tortilla. Nor was the setting intolerable, despite the wet, heavy heat and giant mosquitoes that tore at her skin. In fact, she would trade one hundred mosquito bites for having to share a house with Al Gae.

He complained about everything she did. When she scrubbed the tile floors, she left a residue behind. When it was his turn to sleep in the bed, she hadn’t tucked in the sheets tightly enough.

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When she did her best to cook them a meal at the end of a long, grueling day in the sun, he complained that she’d burnt the chicken.

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“It is not burnt!” she insisted. “Dude, what is wrong with you? It’s perfect.”

He tore off a chunk of meat and chewed. “It’s so overcooked, it’s like eating jerky,” he said, his mouth full.

“Fine,” she said. “Then from now on, you can do all the cooking.” And he’d accused her of being a spoiled suburbanite!

“Sorry,” said the mission leader when she’d begged to be reassigned. “Remember, this trip is about getting out of your comfort zone and getting along with all kinds of people.”

Liberty was sure that she’d never get along with Al.

Very early one morning, she was awakened from a fitful sleep on the hard living room futon. Was that music she heard? It was coming from outside. She motioned for Katniss to follow her out into the night. There beneath the trees was Al, strumming a worn guitar and singing softly. His eyes were closed, so he couldn’t see her and Katniss peering at him from behind a clump of bushes. She stayed there for the longest time, listening as his beautiful songs spilled out from his fingertips, mingling with the music of the birds hidden in the canopy.

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After that, she began to soften toward him. There was clearly so much more to Al beneath the surface, more than the grouch who had been attacking her for small, trivial things.

“Hey.” She tapped him on the shoulder at the end of the day. “You want to join me for some food at the cantina?” He eyed her suspiciously but agreed to go. They ordered meat pies that reminded her of pupusas, and for the first time ever, they carried on a civil conversation. She learned that Al’s family lived down south, which explained the slight twang to his voice. She told him how she’d quit her dull data entry job to come volunteer.

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“That was pretty brave of you.” He sounded impressed. “What will you do when you return home?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “Write, maybe. I’ve always wanted to write. How about you? What will you do?”

He pressed his lips together, thinking. “I have a degree in Economics. But I don’t know if that’s how I want to spend my life. I was thinking…I might make music instead.”

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“Yeah?” Liberty raised her eyebrows, as though she had no idea he had a musical talent. “Are you any good?”

He shrugged. “I could play a little, if you’d like to hear.”

She smiled. “I’d like that very much.” They went inside the little cantina, where a guitar and microphone sat in a corner of the room. Across the room, locals and volunteers chatted and drank at the bar. Al picked up the dusty guitar and began to strum and sing an old song by the Eagles. Liberty listened for a moment, entranced, then turned on the microphone and joined in.

I got a peaceful easy feelin’
And I know you won’t let me down
‘Cause I’m already standin’
On the ground

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The other visitors crowded around as they sang, then burst into applause as Al strummed the final note.

“I hope you will come and play for us every night,” said the cantina owner with a heavy Selvadoradan accent. Al gave Liberty a sideways grin. She grinned back. They didn’t argue once for the rest of the night.

 

Chapter 29: Preacher Man on the Rooftop Garden

If not for Graham Glass, I would be fast asleep in my cozy air-bed at home. If not for Graham, I never would have made the impulsive decision to drive up to the Outer Limits.

“Don’t blame Graham,” says Anjelica. “It’s your fault we’re stuck in this pit.”

Let me back up.

It’s like I told you. Anj and I have been living the Good Life, thanks to my miracle ability to wail on the guitar. So there we were, soaking in the plasma-jet tub at the club, chatting with some good friends of ours, when one off them brought up the topic of spirituality.

“I’m not saying you have to convert, like me,” my buddy was saying. “But you’ve gotta go listen to this devvo preacher at the rooftop garden. His name’s Graham Glass, and he changed my life.”

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I frowned. Nothing against religious types, but it’s just not my thing, you know? “What kind of stuff does he blast out?” I asked.

“Oh all kinds of things. But he’s got some interesting stories about his work with the Unregistereds.

“The Unregistereds?” Anj’s eyebrows flew up so high, they just about disappeared into her hairline. She’s got a thing for the Unreges. She watches this shallow TV show filled with all kinds of seedy, backwards folks who live in the Outer Limits. Mostly, they turn out to be thugs, thieves, and druggies, but sometimes, there are scandalous love affairs between a no-good Unreg and an upright, legal citizen. No doubt she was hoping to catch some of this drama in live-action.

So, long story short, Anj and I headed up to the rooftop garden at two o’clock and join the small flock that was gathered around this guy standing at a pulpit. He looked about my age, and was clean-cut and normal-looking in every way but one. Unlike the relaxed, no-anx expressions that define the faces of most peeps I know, this preacher guy had a fire blazing in his eyes as he spoke to us.

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“Are the Unregistereds animals, that we keep them locked in a cage outside of our boundaries?” He was saying. “Are we animals, that we deny them the privileges afforded every human being? Nutritious food? Decent shelter? Education for their children? They are human!” The fire in his eyes blazed brighter as he said this. “They may lack the genetic engineering that we have; the genetic mods that keep our skin from burning, and keep us healthy and strong. But they are every bit as human as we are.”

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I had never heard anyone speak with such conviction and compassion before. Especially about the Unregs, who most people regarded as unmodified Hill Trash. But Anj and I hung onto every word. Then, the next day, when she and I were in the car, about to head to the club, she grabbed my arm. “Can we go see them?”

“See who?” I asked. But I already knew. Anjelica wouldn’t rest until we had driven up into the hills, beyond the boundaries, to catch a close-up glimpse of some real, live Unregistereds. So what could I do? I drove. And what happened?

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The car broke down.

Right in the heart one of their backwards, ramshackle communities in the Outer Limits, my car ran out of juice. If I’d been at home, I could have easily gotten it charged up. But here, in No Man’s Land, there were no service stations that I could see. No extra fuel packs. No auto robots to give us a boost.

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Die-sel!” Anjelica’s voice takes on that shrill, whiny tone she gets whenever she’s frustrated, bored, or doesn’t get her way. “What are we supposed to do?”

I stare at the car, feeling useless. I check my phone, which, in these hills, is also useless. No service at all. “I could try walking down toward civilization. Maybe I’ll pick up a signal to call for help,” I suggest.

“But it’s getting dark!” says Anjelica, panic flooding her face. “You want to leave me here in this place in the dark?”

I’m tempted to remind her that coming up here was her brilliant idea. Instead, I march toward one of the ancient wooden houses nearby.

“Diesel! Where are you going?” says Anjelica, hurrying after me.

“To ask for help,” I say, and knock on the front door.

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Chapter 28: The Hill Folk

Sycamore Hills.

That is the name the Unregistereds give their community, although the Registereds have all kinds of unflattering names. The Sticks. The Black Hole. That Place-Which-Must-Not-Be-Named.

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But to Tabitha Hall and her neighbors, their home will always be called Sycamore Hills. There are more than just sycamore trees, of course. There are also oaks, and birch, and many other types that no longer exist down the hill. The Registereds decided long ago that they could no longer be bothered with trees that dropped their messy leaves and blossoms all over the pristine city walkways.

It is not an easy life, being Unregistered. That failure of Tabitha’s parents to have one tiny microchip embedded under her infant skin resulted in  a life sentence of living outside of civilization. No chip, no access, is the law of the land. No chip means no education in the city schools, no access to hospitals, no ability to shop at stores. The unchipped must weave their own cloth, sew their own clothes, and build their own crude wooden houses and furniture. The hardest part of being Unregistered, Tabitha thinks, is the hunger. They do their best to cultivate their own crops, and raise chickens and rabbits for meat. But often, it seems that there isn’t quite enough to go around.

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Sometimes, very late at night, Tabitha and her husband, Jake, hike all the way down to the city. They creep through the silent streets, past enormous buildings and pristine parks, until they find a community garden, or perhaps a kitchen garden, ripe with fat tomatoes, juicy eggplants, or crisp cucumbers. She could never understand how the the Registereds were able to produce so much more food, or why it grew so much larger than the vegetables the hill folk struggled to grow.

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Then they lug their bulging sacks of food back up the hillside to share with their family and neighbors. All the while, they are careful to slip through shadows and duck around corners, always alert for the Monitors. Monitors, who never sleep, but roam the city streets, on the constant lookout for curfew-breakers. Once Tabitha and Jake were stopped by a monitor, who scanned them both. As neither one of them wore an identifying chip, the Monitor triggered an alarm. “INTRUDERS! INTRUDERS!” Its tinny, human-like voice was like thunder, echoing through the town. Tabitha and Jake exchanged panicked looks, then turned and fled for the safety off the hills. They haven’t returned since.

The loss of the night raids means more hunger for Tabitha and her family. More restless nights filled with growling bellies. This state of desperation would have continued, too, had it not been for the arrival of the Preacher, Graham Glass, and his car full of food.

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Chapter 27: The Unregistereds in the Outer Limits

“What are you staring at?” asks Graham Glass’s wife, Hayden.

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Graham blinks. He isn’t sure how long he’s been sitting there, staring at the blank wall across from him. “I was just…thinking,” he says. He doesn’t bother to elaborate, as Hayden wouldn’t care to know what he’d been thinking about. So long as he pays the bills that keeps their family living in comfort, Hayden is content.

But Graham is not content. Not at all. As Hayden sits beside him on the sofa and turns on some brainless television show, he continues to think. About his life, his career, his family, everything.

What does it all mean?

He goes to work Monday through Thursday, just like everyone else. He likes his job okay – not that he used to dream of being a robotics specialist, or anything. But it pays well, and is somewhat interesting work.

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It doesn’t make sense, this feeling of restlessness, of emptiness. By all measures, he should be happy. Blissfully happy. His wife and two children live in a lovely home, filled with lovely things. His wife is still attractive, despite her age, and could even be nice, sometimes, when she was in the mood. Nobody’s perfect. And his children are both pretty good kids. They make decent grades, and know how to speak proper Englinish, not that ridiculous cyberslang the kids these days are into.

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Maybe, it occurs to him, he is discontent because everything comes too easy. Like all registered citizens, he and his family have free food, free health care, free extended education. Well, maybe free isn’t quite the right word, since they pay over half their income in taxes. Still, they have the peace of knowing that the government has their back. Registered citizens live long, healthy lives, and no one is required to work very hard anymore, unless they want to amass a greater amount of luxury goods, or travel to a space colony, or something uncovered like that.

“Family,” he announces after this revelation. “Let’s go camping.”

Camping out in The Cracks is not such an unusual thing to do. Many registered citizens venture out beyond the temperature-controlled, high security boundaries of their cities to get a taste of life in the outer limits. They make a holiday off it, cooking food the old-fashioned way instead of creating it instantly in a food replicator, and playing games together that do not require electricity.

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It is the next week that Graham has his second revelation. It was not enough to spend a weekend camping in The Cracks with his family. No…what he really needs to do is go there. To the actual outer limits. He needs to know what life is like for the unregistered citizens.

It is a risky thing to do, he knows. The Unregistereds have not been immunized against measles, influenza, cancer, or even Plague 2. They may be dangerous in other ways, too, since they are far less educated than registered citizens, and therefore, more likely to commit crimes.

Still, he makes the decision to go. Without telling his family or friends, Graham makes the drive. He leaves behind the security gates that surround his city, and climbs high into the Copper Hills, where a community of Unregistereds is known to exist. When he arrives, he at once feels out of place. His car is too new, his clothes too high-tech, his haircut too stylish.

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Still, when he meets two Unregistereds, Mikhail and Char, they turn out to be warm and friendly, setting him at ease. Neither of them has ever held a conversation with a registered citizen before, as most Registereds are too cowardly to venture to the outer limits.

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The three of them strike up an unlikely friendship. And several months later, Graham does the unthinkable. He invites his Unregistered friends to hang out with him back in the city. At first, Mikhail and Char protest. Neither of them has the microchips implanted in their hands. They will be unable to purchase anything or gain entry to any facilities.

“No anx,” says Graham. For the first time, he is thrilled with the skills he has learned on the job. Make a pair of portable microchip cards for two Unregistereds to carry discreetly in their pockets? No problem!

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