CHAPTER 5: WHO ARE YOU?

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There was a bus waiting when Mr. Betts ushered Norma from the icy confines of the wall surrounding Eutopia. It was a whole new world beyond the barrier. Unlike the desert that rippled outside, a forest sprang from rich black dirt, and a white ribbon of asphalt snaked through the sapling trees.

"Geo-engineering combined with a little ingenuity," Mr. Betts supplied at her questioning look. "We've completely altered the climate to make this place livable and sustainable. Now, the bus is programmed to take you straight to your new home where your friend is likely getting antsy."

"I wonder who will be keeping watch over me while I watch over this place," Norma said off-hand.

He gave her shoulder a squeeze. "The pill you were given contained a tracker. It has embedded itself somewhere within your digestive tract. Getting it out will be a task and a trial, which I wouldn't recommend."

"Thought so," she muttered. Probably has a kill-switch, too. "Well, am I allowed to tell Skylar why we're here, at least?" She crossed her arms as she imagined trying to keep the rebellious artist from striking out on her own. Without valid answers, Skylar wouldn't stay put, and Norma wouldn't blame her.

"You're welcome to tell your friend whatever you like. Anyone within these walls has already seen too much. Once this is over, it won't be a secret anymore. It'll be humanity's greatest triumph." He stuck out his hand and smiled. "It has been a privilege and a pleasure to meet you, Ms. Mansfield. Your daily assignments will be delivered via insert. I can't wait to see your work in action."

She reluctantly shook his hand and wondered how much of a goodbye tis was. Once she boarded the empty bus, she peered behind her at the wall. Then she faced the road. In the distance, she could see buildings carved with dark-tinted windows. Her very own city.

It was like a virtual game come to life. The drive was brief, and within minutes, she was leaving behind stark, empty enterprises for empty rows of houses. Eerie. Her ride hissed to a stop at a modular home with concrete walls the color of peonies. Looks nice, she thought.

Stepping from the transport with a flutter of anxiety, she spotted Skylar in a window upstairs and moved faster. They hadn't harmed her, thank goodness. The front door opened at a touch of the biometric scanner. Norma raced past the glamorous living room to the elevator she saw ahead. As soon as the lift opened on what she hoped was the right floor, Skylar caught her in a hug.

"They got you, too?" Sky sniffed, tightening the embrace. "These men dragged me off the plane in handcuffs. What the hell is going on, Norms?"

Norma eased from her arms and scanned the other woman's worried frown. She wished with everything in her that she had been honest sooner. "Sit down. We need to talk," she said tiredly.

Skylar arched an eyebrow but led her to a bedroom where a round pedestal bed squatted beneath a picture window. The miniature cityscape beyond the glass was charming. A tasteful pendulum chandelier dangled overhead, and Norma's feet sank into thick smart-polymer carpet she knew could be transformed into hardwood at a command. Aside from comfortable club chairs, the other furniture was an illuminated drafting table that showcased the painting Skylar had been working on.

Pivoting to her friend, Norma spit out the truth. "You're here because of me."

"No shit. It's a kidnapping. You're worth five of me." Skylar's quirky grin made her chuckle, but this was serious.

"They don't want a ransom, Sky. Sit." Norma wrung her hands.

Skylar crossed her arms. "Ordering me around won't get us anywhere."

"Fine," she grumbled and took a seat, herself. "Look, I'm not who you think I am. And I know that sounds like a cliché prelude to how I'm slightly out of the ordinary, but you know how much I hate hyperbole. I mean, I'm really not who you think—"

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