Chapter Twenty

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Rachel fell to the ground as the forest dissolved around her and the dark room with the blue, flickering lights came back into focus. She dug the contacts out her eyes and gripped them in her palms and gulped down air to try to calm down.

If Abby saw her like this she would think she was weak.

Lights flickered on overhead, chasing away the last of the darkness and clean, white walls greeted her all around. Rachel stood, forcing her legs to stop feeling like jelly but the room still spun a little.

The single door in the room slid open and Abby walked in, her lab coat slung over her shoulders and she was wearing a tight pencil skirt and a ruffled blouse.

"I'm impressed," Abby said, holding a hand out to Rachel. Rachel looked at her hand but didn't shake it.

"What was my score?"

"Walk with me, Rachel."

Abby spun and began walking away. Rachel looked around the empty room and decided to follow after her.

"Would you like to know what we scored you on during your three virtual realities?"

"I'm sure you're dying to tell me," Rachel replied.

Abby entered an office surrounded by floor-to-ceiling windows that overlooked an ocean. As Rachel knew they were nowhere near the ocean, she assumed the view must have been fake but it sure made the office look big and airy and peaceful.

Abby approached a coffee machine sitting in a corner of her office and poured two cups. She motioned for Rachel to take a seat but instead Rachel went to the windows and grazed a finger over the glass. Her fingertips sent the pixels scattering where she touched and when she pulled back they dropped back into place.

"Coffee?"

"Sure," Rachel replied. She took the cup from Abby and pressed the warm liquid to her lips.

"Doesn't it make you wish you could really be there?" Abby motioned with her cup towards the window and stood beside Rachel.

"I suppose." Rachel replied, letting herself watch the undulating waves of an ocean that wasn't really there.

"That's what we're fighting for here, Rachel. That's what we want you to be a part of. Tell me—"She took a sip from her cup and fixed her eyes on Rachel's face. Abby's eyes were gray and flecked through with yellow and her hair was dark but stained grey in several places. Her face, though, looked surprisingly unwrinkled.

"Don't you wish you could be free to go anywhere you wanted? To be able to walk beside the ocean with the sand in your feet and the ocean breeze in your hair without the fear of being captured and marked? Wouldn't it be nice if one day your children could live in a world like that?"

"I'm never having children." Rachel said in a matter-of-fact voice. "Why bring them into this world to suffer, anyway?"

"I see your point," Abby mused. "But still, you must have family—someone that you would love to see live a long, happy life?" Sure she did. She thought of Ruth and her friends, she thought of Jed and of Hector and of everyone she cared for. She even thought of crazy Charles.

"Is that why you're here? To give your kids that future?"

"Yes—that's exactly what this place was built upon. We were once like you too, Rachel. Scared, lost in the wild. When the mark struck, my kids and I had to flee to the mountains. My husband was a marine at the time."

Abby's voice took on a different tone and her eyes looked off into the distance as if seeing things only she could see.

"They were the first to be Marked, you know? The military."

"Why's that?"

"Why else? The army was the CN's weapon of choice. Who better to rally up the civilians and to hunt down people than those who were trained for just that?"

"So what happened to your husband?"

"He found us, of course. He told us, in his own words that 'shit had just hit the fan' and that we had lost the war. Disease was killing off people faster than they could reproduce worldwide and the mark was supposed to help administer food and medicine in a quick an efficient manner."

"I never heard of that before."

"Well," Abby replied, her eyes shooting back over Rachel's face once more. "I lived through it myself." She sighed and turned toward her desk and sat down, clasping her hands in front of her. Rachel followed after her, engrossed in the details of her world's past and took a seat across from Abby in the opposite chair.

"Soon after, our borders were sealed and communication to the outside world had been cut off. Our nucelear weapons were pointed out and we never really knew why. The media became nonexistent and there was no way for anyone to know what was going on outside our walls. The CN promised peace and safety but we had to get the mark. Their excuse was that the mark would make it easier for them to ration our resources but not everyone was convinced."

"Everyone had a simple choice—to be marked or starve to death—and so every able-bodied person was stripped of their coherent thought and turned into mindless machines. Now, most of them don't even remember how they got there and are just puppets to a corrupt government. And the rest, you know."

Rachel leaned back in her chair, surprised at this new bit of information. She had never known their history quite like that before and she was shocked. So that was the reason why the city people never killed children or the strong, she thought. The city needed them to expand their army. But an army for what?

"When things began to fall apart, my husband knew of a military bunker that had been abandoned for years. It had been built at the beginning of the third war and wasn't active any longer and no one so much as paid attention to it. That's when he gathered a crowd of people and together, we began to build a home."

"How did you keep them from discovering you?"

"It wasn't easy but we moved quickly. In all the commotion and with trying to implement the mark and trying to outpace a deadly disease, the country was swamped. We had a hacker amongst us infiltrate the system and bring up death records and swipe any history of our new home from the web. We waited a few months, with fear always hanging over us.

They began discarding the dead like old trash bags -there were so many of them- and this part is disgusting but you should know—we dug their marking chips from each of them and gave our own soldiers new identities so that we could blend in if ever discovered."

"Wow," Rachel breathed.

"After that, we began searching for survivors in any corner of the world. We infiltrated the capital with our fake marks and our fake identities and now we are here, needing to outnumber them so that we can finally free our people."

Rachel couldn't think of a single thing to say.

"I know you think us strange- to put you through simulations like that. But we need to build only the strongest of soldiers and in order to do that we need to make sure that you are able to do three things to help us defeat the poachers."

"And what are those?"

"First, we need to know that you would be willing to kill for the innocent. Second, you must prove that you are selfless enough to give up your life for the cause. And third, and most important of all," Her blue-grey eyes stared at Rachel with intensity. "That you will not, under any circumstances, ever jeopardize the mission."

She pulled out a thin, electronic device from her lab coat pocket as she let that sink in and spared Rachel a look that was almost kind. "Congratulations Rachel, it looks like you made the soldier ranks." She handed Rachel a white watch.

"You begin training tomorrow. Now go and always remember what you are fighting for."

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