Chapter 39

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As the sun set and the windows got darker, Zoe turned on the lamp above her desk to continue reading the document. It was only available in paper, to keep it more secure of course, but it had the added 'benefit' of making her strain her eyes more. She never liked reading on paper.

She muttered the words to herself so she wouldn't lose her place. "The President authorizes the Senate, as part of its mandate to protect the best interests of the people in wartime, the extermination of undesirable enemies of the People... Annexation of enemy territory for the glory of the People... this sounds a lot like Paradisian propaganda." She closed the folder holding the document. It was getting late and her eyes were getting heavy. The time had come for her to go home. Or rather, the place where she slept. Everyone knew her real home was this very office.

***

Zoe had driven halfway to her apartment when she heard an annoying beep. She looked down at her dash and cursed herself when she saw the needle on her car's fuel gauge hover right over the bottom, indicating a nearly empty fuel tank. Of course tonight, of all nights, when it was pouring rain and the clouds blotted out any semblance of light in the opaque sky. Unfortunately, the downpour had done little if anything to abate the thick traffic endemic of every street within the city. After a long, slow crawl through an endless maze of neon signs advertising nightclubs, liquor stores, and other unmentionable after-hours establishments, she was finally able to wriggle her car out of the clogged roads and into a dinky old fuel station. Fortunately for her, nearly every fueling station was unoccupied.

With a wince at the money she was about to fritter away, Zoe took out her wallet to pay for the fuel. "So much for supporting the women and men in uniform. How else could those fat old Senators afford another gilded swimming pool?"

The meter rolled on as glowing, prismatic fluid ran through the transparent tube hooked into her car. Even as the fuel tank filled, however, the display board indicating the due payment remained stubbornly low. Zoe rubbed her sleepy eyes to correct her clearly dysfunctional vision. The display board still looked the same: five Marks and twenty three Cens for nearly forty liters of fuel. She let out another frustrated groan and made her way toward the building overseeing the fuel stations with her wallet in hand. The last thing she needed was someone accusing her of stealing fuel over a glitch.

The cashier smiled and shook her head. "Nope, those are the price updates from headquarters for the next day. It's great isn't it?" The old, grey haired woman gave Zoe a toothy grin, showing a jagged mosaic of tan teeth and holes where other teeth had gone missing.

"But really? Ninety percent? I can't imagine the markets are going to respond well to that," Zoe muttered. She kept her head as far down as could be considered polite. The harsh, bleached light flooding the ceiling was giving her a headache.

"Who cares? It's been all over the news. We've been taking Angleyan land left and right. They have enough fuel reserves lying around to keep prices here low for decades."

"Probably enough to boost the car market," Zoe muttered, more to herself than the clerk. "Thank you. That'll be all."

***

The next morning, Zoe knocked on the door with trepidation. Part of her hoped, in spite of the inconvenience it would cause her, that the residents weren't home. It was an old, red brick house with a small and simple yard, one Zoe had spent far too much time getting familiar with. A few seconds later, though, an older woman with light grey hair opened the door.

"Zoe! What a surprise," she exclaimed.

"Hi mom. Listen, I can't stay long just so you know," Zoe replied.

"Oh, I know that. You've always been a busy girl. But come in anyway for a light snack. I have a fresh batch of pretzels with melted butter in the oven. You still like those right?"

"Yeah." In spite of herself, Zoe could feel a smile come onto her lips.

The living room hadn't changed very much since Zoe's childhood. From the two grey couches covered in dark red blankets to the light blue paint on the walls, the entire room felt like a relic of another life. Through the windows at the back of her house, she could see her father hunched down, like always, tending to his sprawling garden of fruits and vegetables with a wide brimmed green hat over his head. There were a few grey strands running through his black hair, but other than that the slim man looked nearly unchanged from what Zoe remembered.

"Have you guys even replaced the TV?" Zoe asked, looking at the dusty old box sitting across from the couches on a wooden stand.

"Why would we? The old one works just fine," her mother replied.

"That thing was old when I watched cartoons on it as a kid." Zoe shook her head. She sat down on one of the couches, just as her mother brought a warm tray of fresh baked, golden pretzels sprinkled with aromatic cinnamon sugar. "Where do you find time to do all this? Don't tell me you're already retired."

"Unfortunately, no." Her mother's expression went sour. She always had something to complain about when her job came up. "I mean the good news is the company's never been doing better. Especially with all the fuel resources the military's been sending back from the frontlines."

"Sorry mom but that's actually part of why I'm here."

Her mother nodded in understanding, though the frown never dissipated from her lips. "I'm guessing you're not here to talk about another one of my idiot assistants."

"Hopefully not. I'm just wondering how the Kohler Corporation got such a head start on the windfall from the war."

"You're investigating the company aren't you?"

"Well... not officially, just more of a background check for-"

"Just make sure I don't get caught up in whatever scandal you're about to cause dear. I'm just an engineer after all. What management does I don't even know."

Zoe let out a small sigh of relief. "Thanks mom." She took a bite out of a warm pretzel. The crunchy sugar combined with the soft, fluffy dough underneath was a welcome diversion from the uncomfortable conversation to come.

"Look, I don't officially know anything but I have been getting a lot of assignments for adapting refinery equipment for the mountain environments of the Angleyan colonies, almost as if management believes we're going to annex it all by the end of the month."

"Just like the idiots spouting about it on the news," Zoe muttered.

"I don't know. What does it look like from your point of view? You're the one with access to military intelligence."

"To be honest it's a mess. We're winning the battles, but for how long? We can't hide our forces inland forever and any chance we had of gaining cooperation from colonial rebels died with the thousands of civilians the military started slaughtering en masse."

Her mother's eyes went wide. "They're just killing everyone? Civilians included?"

"Well we are contacting and making arrangements with some Amazonian natives to the West and keeping a few Trade Cities intact but that's a tiny fraction of the population. It's not going to be enough. And it's all going to catch up to us if the Angleyans ever start digging canals to send their unstoppable Navy after us."

"Well a lot of powerful people seem to think everything's fine, so much so they're pouring billions of Marks into plans for controlling the entire Mainland." Zoe's mom shrugged and popped a bite sized piece of pretzel into her mouth.

Zoe leaned in and looked her mother in the eye. "Who exactly gives you your assignments?"

"You want the whole list?"

"Every single name involved."

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