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The Fence by Apollo Papafrangou (with Jess Mowry) all rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this work by any means except short excerpts for use in reviews. The Kindle edition, to date, is the only legally authorized ebook or web-accessible edition of this work. If you find this book being offered anywhere else, either as a download or to be read online, it is there without the author's permission (aka STOLEN PROPERTY) and in violation of copyright law.

The Fence

In the near future, and after many thousands of years of hate, racism, religious and ethnic persecution, bloody conquests, inequality, exploitation and war, the world’s people are finally beginning to come together, most realizing that none will truly be free until everyone is. There is peace in the Middle-east; most countries have abolished sweat-shops and now trade fairly with each another. There is also a young United Africa, a truly democratic society, which has solved most of its problems and is becoming a significant power.

Peace and renewed economic prosperity have also come to the United States of America: crime and violence have been drastically reduced; this accomplished in part by the Federal Resettlement and Environmental Enforcement Act... or FREE.

FREE Corporation, which had previously built and operated privatized prisons throughout the U.S., and having decades of experience with behavior modification, re-education and putting prisoners to profitable work, was contracted by the government on a multi-billion dollar scale to solve America’s problems of gangs, guns, drugs and violence in black inner cities. This resulted in a massive Resettlement and building huge walls -- politely referred to as Fences -- around most black “ghettoes,” and a Re-education and training program to make the inhabitants peaceful and productive FREE Citizens.

It also created two separate classes of black Americans: Afromericans, those who live on the Outside, and FREE Citizens Inside the Fences. However, as with virtually all Americans no matter what color, neither Insiders nor Outsiders know anything about each other except what they’re shown on their television screens and what the government and FREE Corporation chooses to tell them.

It has been almost two decades since the Fences went up, and the System appears to be a success: besides eliminating violence, gangs and crime in its ghettoes, the U.S, has once again become competitive in the world market, mostly thanks to FREE Citizen labor... so much so that China has many things made by “FCs,” who also process much of the world’s electronic data at carefully filtered terminal centers.

Inside the Fences, formerly poor black people who were once plagued by drugs, gangs and black-on-black crime, now seem to be living the American dream; all having what most of middle-class America has -- safe neighborhoods patrolled by FREE Corporation’s smiling “Security Sentries,” clean and comfortable housing, and an abundance of food and personal property (Per-Prop) -- and most wouldn’t venture Outside... even if they could.

Most older or “pre-FENCE” FCs, have been successfully reeducated and have all but forgotten the bad old days of gangstuhs and thugs, while those born Inside -- such as 16-year-old Simba Carter, a Citizen of FREE’s Los Angeles, California South Central Fence... the first Fence, and FREE Corporation’s model Fence -- know nothing about the Outside except what FREE tells them, and nothing about history or the pre-Fence days except what they’re taught in FREE schools.

Simba, whose FREE-Choice Career Assignment is Data Processing Technician (DPT) would be perfectly happy with his life, if not for his pre-Fence father constantly dissing the System and trying to educate Simba to what he calls reality... that FREE Citizens are slaves, and the most hopeless kind because they’re slaves in their minds. This troubles Simba because it goes against everything FREE has taught him.
But it isn’t until an accident puts Simba Outside locked in a railroad boxcar, only to end up Inside the West Oakland, California Fence, that he sees the truth with his own eyes. Then, together with a posse of unlikely freedom fighters -- boys no older than he -- and an Outside girl who calls herself a New Black Panther, he tries to tell this truth to the world and bring the Fences down.

Originally written when the author was only fourteen, The Fence manuscript was optioned for a feature-length film.



                                                The Fence 

                              © 2012 by Apollo Papafrangou

                                        (with Jess Mowry)

       Michael Carter stalked into the living room, reminded of why he hated the most comfortable home he'd ever had. The room had all the personality of a turn-of-the-century mid-range motel; beige walls, utilitarian aluminum coffee table, cream-colored couch and two matching chairs of the commercially plain and sturdy construction usually found in waiting rooms, the latter three items bolted to the floor in someone's idea of their proper positions... facing the telescreen. And a square of industrial peach-colored carpet, also attached to the tan vinyl floor and precisely a foot from each of the walls. A perfect clone of the two-hundred other apartments in FREE Housing Unit 716. Even the pictures were Standard FREE-issue; one a still-life of some fruit and a pitcher, the other an abstract of circles and squares, and neither inviting a second look. Per-Prop artwork wasn't Forbidden, but required Supervisory Approval and filling out a three-page form, the exception being Welcome School art. Michael knew why; extreme emotion was not encouraged; neither was deep introspection. But when he was angry the apartment’s blandness was easier to forget; its muteness colored by vivid tones of rage, his mood throwing a red fog over every surface. Anger was his only method of escape. He tried to generate a new sense of fury, but it was no use. He looked for something to throw, but there was nothing worthy, and damage was a Thoughtless act.
       Suddenly, a plastic cup came spinning at his head. Michael ducked easily, feeling a small twinge of satisfaction that he'd provoked that much from his son as the cup bounced harmlessly off a wall.
       “You know you’re wrong!” snapped Simba, stomping in from the kitchen. “That’s why you walk away from me. Things are better now!”
       Michael sighed. “I walked away because I’m tired of arguing. Don’t want the truth from me? Then you’ll learn it the hard way... or maybe not if you don’t wake up and use you mind.”
       Simba punched the wall in frustration, his fist doing no damage to the plastic composite. “We’ve changed for the good! Don’t you ever...?”
       “Watch The Video?” Michael turned toward the wall-mounted telescreen, sneering at its images like they were nothing more than third-rate cartoons on a low-budget kid’s show. “I’ve actually lived a free life, and I know the truth.” He jerked a thumb at the screen. "All they show on that thing are lies and propaganda. Think we’re really free here? Where you goin’ right now? Your Career Assignment. Have you ever taken a sick day? Or ever just skipped out?”
       “We’re slaves, goddammit!” roared Michael. “The most hopeless kind 'cause we're slaves in our minds! Wake the hell up! You think people who get Reassigned are actually sent somewhere?”
       Simba had been raised in FREE Housing Unit 716, and through the years had become a piece of it, like everyone else. ...Except his dad. Simba's gentle face sometimes reflected the same blankness as the walls, like he was growing into one of FREE’s structures, bland, controlled and safe. “The way you talk... all that Thoughtless shit... you might get Reassigned!”
        Simba threw up his hands. “How can I make up my mind about things and live my own life if you’re always on my back? I’m sixteen, goddammit! I just want to go to my Assignment, do what they tell me, and come home!"
       “I been sixteen," said Michael. "And it’s a long way to go from where you’re at to where you need to be. ...And I'm trying to help you live your own life, not FREE's idea of what that should be."
       Simba snatched up his FREE-issue backpack and huffed out the apartment, the door making a swooshing sound as it slid automatically shut.
        Simba’s South Central neighborhood was a living California postcard of lush palm trees and smooth sidewalks that barely looked stepped on; not even a scrap of litter. And there were dispensers on every corner beside the trash cans that provided bags for pet droppings. The newer FREE buildings were glass and steel, and gleamed in the sun. In one of the mirror windows Simba saw his chubby image, all rounded curves like a cute cartoon, somehow clashing with the stark-angled architecture, though the child-like softness padding his face might have hardened if given a hardship. He’d been called handsome, with a dark chocolate skin tone, a small-bridged nose that widened at the tip, and expressive full lips. His eyes were a shimmering shade of ebony, often empty, echoing imagery of his world’s smooth surface, and offering no hint that anything lay behind them. It was the look his peers had, too, a taught and practiced gaze of unquestioning obedience.
       Simba checked that his uniform was clean. The standard FREE-issue outfit of blue-jeans and white T-shirt -- baggy or oversize clothes were Thoughtless, so his belly peeked out from under the shirt and the orbs of his chest were proudly displayed beneath the tight cotton -- didn’t require much Maintenance, but neat appearance was Thoughtful, especially the green band on his wrist that he Thoughtfully washed every morning.
        Today’s argument was a continuation of a single fight, never a start or finish, only a pause overnight to be resumed the following day. Usually, he could balance his father’s rants with things he’d learned from FREE’s teachings. Lately, though, there was something extra heavy in the man’s voice. Did he know things Simba hadn’t been taught? Of course, Simba had speculated that getting Reassigned might mean execution, though most people whispered about HazMat Clean-up, and there were rumors you were exiled Outside.
       But, whatever happened to Reassignees, they vanished forever; and if you were a Thoughtful Citizen, you didn’t ask why. FREE gave you plenty of chances. Yeah, one of his friends had been Reassigned, but he had deserved it.
       But that was the great thing about FREE. No sneakiness. Its cards were always on the table. Cameras in the open, looking down like protective parents who let their children roam and play but kept an eye out for their safety. If you misbehaved, you got spanked. Simple. Didn’t his dad see that?
       As for Career Assignments, they were sensible, too. You worked long hours, but that was part of life. Maybe people had too many choices when his dad was young? And so much time to choose that they ended up choosing nothing? Standing on the street corner, hustling instead of earning an honest wage. Dealing drugs or robbing stores. Joining gangs. Whatever his dad could argue against FREE, Simba felt freer than his father had ever been. He was sure of that. He'd never seen a gun in Realtime, or heard a shot that hadn’t come from a telescreen show. There had never been a murder in his Sector. Or even a robbery. That was freedom!
       From what he’d been taught of the past, more than a few of his dad’s friends -- homeboys -- were killed before they reached Simba’s age. If his father knew people whose Thoughtless behavior had helped raise the Fences -- like he said he did -- Simba would have liked to go back in time and shaken their hands!
       He approached a Security Sentry standing at a Scan-Station, a plain aluminum booth among other metallic scenery, like a silver box painted on a silver canvas. The man pointed a scanner at passers-by, the device no bigger than a turn-of-the-century wireless phone. People hardly lost a step obediently displaying their wrist bands. Simba slowed, nodding to the blue-eyed officer, who tipped his cap and said good-morning, Citizen. The scanner beeped approval, and Simba passed on.
       He reached a lamp post, and its camera shifted. He paused, hearing his father’s voice in his head, and his confidence waned. That’s how life was for Simba, a chess match against his dad, back and forth trading pawns, both seeking to conquer each other’s ultimate beliefs, their separate ways of looking at the same world. Why these things always starin’ at you, boy? Nothin’ to hide, right? Got us on camera so much, we should all be movie stars. Hollywood ain’t so far Outside, and we’d be the last people to get stage fright!
       Simba almost heard his father’s laughter, and shook his head to clear it. “I never been good at playin’ a role, so acting wouldn’t suit me. Those cameras are makin’ sure we’re safe.”
       “Who you talking to, Simba?”
       Simba turned and Carmen was beside him. He puffed his chubby chest and smiled. The girl was a dime for sure, candy-coated pocket change with a caramel complexion and cocoa eyes.
       “Oh, hey.”
       Carmen had a laugh sweet enough to cause cavities. “C’mon. You’ll be late.” She brushed her hair back, the green band around her slender wrist glowing like jewelry.
       Simba glanced over the girl’s shoulder, spotting a nearing crowd. “I’ll probably beat you there.” He started walking again, striding ahead of Carmen. He would have liked to walk with her, but that might have been Thoughtless for reasons he didn't want to think about now. Nudging for space in the stream of people, he forgot his dad’s speech, rescued by the workers’ voices. Chatter swirled around him, the happy noises of a new day. The speakers were all black, as were the silent people. Some wore Personal-Property business suits -- though Simba had never understood why -- though most were dressed in Issue blue denim and white cotton like Simba. This Sector was mostly for Techs... a nice neighborhood, though Simba had never heard of any that weren’t. The Environmental Manual Laborer Sector might have been a bit rowdy, but was certainly never dangerous.
       But, and whatever their attire, all the people wore green wrist bands. The age range was wide, oldies like his dad who came from a time before The Fences but had been Reeducated, to those barely into their teens, their Education considered sufficient for evaluated Career Assignments. But conversation was carried on between young and old, stories traded with the trust and respect of family. No generation gap here.
       The crowd thinned as people entered offices or stores along the way. Simba walked with a smile and his head held high, glancing at all the familiar sights while cameras craned their necks like curious birds. He waved to a man stacking boxes of oranges out front of a FREE Enterprise market, and grinned at a woman arranging flowers on the narrow porch of her own little shop... black-owned businesses had been rare before the Fences, even in all-black neighborhoods. He moved with pride, wedged tightly between the other FREE Citizens. He looked at them all, saw himself in each face. He nodded to a few he knew, then to a few he didn’t, and got a smile every time. In the crowd there was a sense of oneness, a feeling that you all worked for a common cause. A good cause. Simba felt the System’s wheels churning, its gears meshing, and understood that he and his peers, young and old, made all this greatness go. Marching to work and to their futures while cameras captured it all. It would be a crime to not have such a noble thing on record.
        The System had the upper hand in Simba’s mind again, and he was powered up with patriotic thoughts... until the group neared the railroad yard. Then he shivered, his palms getting damp as he stared at the huge space. The massive freight trains lay at rest, sleeping vipers stretched along the tracks. He wasn’t sure why he’d feared them since childhood, maybe just their size and power? Or because on their journeys to farmlands and distant factories, gathering up supplies to fill the FREE markets and malls, they traveled through places of violence  and death. 
       He went to the chain-link fence and watched the locomotives, inching away one moment, stepping back the next, ping-ponging between the people trekking past up the street and the shunting trains in the vast open space. He pressed against the barrier and gazed at the hole in a corner, trying to pretend it wasn’t there. Cutting through the yard would save having to walk a few extra blocks. He watched the other people heading for the safe pedestrian overpass, and almost broke into a run to catch up. Most days he paid no attention to the trains, but sometimes his father’s voice in his head got too loud:
       Dammit, boy, you only take the foot bridge because you’re told to! Quit bein’ a fool and slip past the cameras like I taught you!
       Today he almost did, envisioning himself at a younger age, being led by his father’s hand through weeds nearly as tall as himself, his dad forcing him across the yard and into an act of Thoughtlessness.
       But then he looked up at a bright yellow sign with bold black letters: ACCESS BY FREE CITIZENS FORBIDDEN. Those words were enough to silence his father’s voice, and scare Simba most of all. He sprinted after the other people. Crossing the overpass, where small signs reminded young Citizens that spitting on trains was Thoughtless, he reached the bus stop. The streets, as always, were empty of traffic, not a car in sight, parked or moving; and supply trucks ran just before dawn.
       People began to put on their Visors. When in use, the Visors gave the wearer a robotic look. Simba got his out of his pack and slipped it on. The screen filled his vision with transparent file icons and document titles. Just like the desktop of a regular computer, but he could see through it to keep aware of what was happening in Realtime. By focusing on a virtual folder, he opened it and cycled through. There were technical notes, records of computer repairs.
       A bus glided up, running silent on flywheel power, and Simba got on with the other people. He watched the passing scenery through his Visor. Above him, mounted from the ceiling, were telescreens, smaller versions of what he had at home. Out on the streets, much larger screens were placed at every corner, all playing The Video. Like everyone else, Simba stared past these images. Around him, people talked Mass Entertainment sports or handled business while the screens began another showing of their film.
       Opening scene of this mini-movie focused on two male gorillas. Foliage in the Congo served as background while the apes circled each other, thumping their chests in the rage of mating season madness. In a flash the big beasts were wrestling, tearing and biting.
       The film segued to a boxing match. The fighters, both black, pounded each other, not even bothering to dodge punches, trading blow for blow in a bloody mess.
       Scene three had two black teens scrapping in a dirty little alley, lips and noses bleeding.
       The picture changed a fourth time, flashing a series of images from a random inner-city, Anytown USA, circa 2012: A barrage of drive-by’s and drug deals, projects and poverty. Then a close-up of a young black boy firing an AK-47 served as the cue for a pleasant-voiced narrator: Not long ago, sections of American cities looked much like this. Plagued with epidemic violence and crime... then came FREE!
       The screen went black, red letters soon appearing to spell FREE. Words followed beneath: Federal Resettlement and Environmental Enforcement.
       The picture resumed with the same boy, but without a gun. He now aimed a push-broom and was sweeping a sidewalk, wearing a green Environmental Manual Labor tank-top and a wrist band like Simba’s. The city around him had been transformed. Crack vials had vanished. Run-down buildings replaced by shiny towers. Just like those all around Simba now.
       Simba and a few other people got off the bus and crossed a street. On the opposite corner, another telescreen was playing a continuation of The Video. It showed a bird’s-eye view of the new inner city, the FREE Zone, revealing a massive Fence encircling its borders, protecting it from the surrounding urban decay. The narrator was speaking: FREE has ended the cycle of violence! No longer do impoverished youth slaughter each other in the streets! FREE has freed you within your Fences! But in the world beyond...
       The picture transformed a final time, traveling out of the FREE Zone, over the protecting Fence, then down to street level and scenes of continuing violence. The narrator’s concluding words: Gangs, guns, drugs and violence! Chaos from which you are FREE!
       Simba couldn’t help but watch the screen, no matter how many times he’d seen it, or how stupid his dad thought it was. The hairs on the back of his neck stood up as he watched The Video play its portrayal of the savage Outside. Finally the screen dimmed, then brightened again with an ad for Kool Kat Malt Liquor. Simba felt his stomach unknot, then joined a line at one building’s entrance: TERMINAL #685.
       A helicopter soared overhead, and a blimp floated close behind, the message FREE YOUR MIND flashing along its flanks. A Bradley Peace Patrol Vehicle rumbled past. It was a boxy-looking machine riding on tank treads, but painted peacefully white. A blond Sentry standing in its turret, which mounted only a water cannon, waved as the vehicle passed. Some people in line, including Simba, saluted in return.
       Simba had never seen a Peace Patrol water cannon used for anything but gently spraying laughing kids during the summer months.
       He reached the terminal doorway, greeted by a cheerful white Sentry who aimed a scanner at Simba’s wristband. Simba went into the locker room through double doors that snicked open after another scanner checked his band. He stuffed his pack into his locker, put on his I.D. card necklace, grabbed his tool belt and buckled it low beneath his belly like a cowboy’s gun belt in a movie.
       He entered the huge Terminal room, which was alive with the beeps and clatters of hundreds of keyboards. Rows of Data Processing Operators, most ranging from early teens to mid-twenties, all black, all dressed in denim and white T-shirts, with green wrist bands sat at  numbered monitors. Their faces were fixed in concentration and lit by a bluish tint from the screens. They also had green I.D. cards around their necks, and many wore their Visors to provide Data enhancement. Surveillance cameras were panning constantly, mounted on roof support pillars and jutting from wall corners. Telescreens were present here, too, playing The Video.    

       Simba skirted the rows of terminals to stand against a wall. There was a padded bench, but he seldom sat down, partly because he was usually busy but mostly because it looked Slackish. The tapping of keys was as steady as rain, fingers rising and falling as far as Simba could see. He pulled a test instrument from his belt, checked its functions and cradled it in his fist, ready. Other Data Processing Technicians filed in to join him, most sitting down. Carmen slinked by, smiling at Simba as she went to her terminal. Simba’s eyes followed her, until his view was blocked by Darryl, a muscular dude of eighteen with skin the color of dull copper and the reckless swagger of the Thoughtless bully he was.
       “Assess,” said Darryl. “Well, if it ain’t the Cowardly Lion.”
       Simba frowned. Talking in Compu-Speak was encouraged while performing this CA. Supposedly, it let you Interface better, and you even got Thoughtful Points; but sometimes it was tricky to switch languages, especially first thing in the morning. “Query. What’s goin’ on, Dee? ...An' how you know what my name means?”
       “Not Essential, mark-ass! Maybe I seen a nature show. Just remember who king of this jungle!"
       A few red lights flickered among the rows of monitors, like little lighthouses flashing warnings across the ocean of dark bodies. The room was kept at a Green temperature, a little too cold in winter and a little too hot, as now, in summer, so many young males had abandoned their shirts though still, of course, wore their necklace I.D.s. This was considered mildly Thoughtless but most Supervisors allowed it. Data Processing Technicians sailed out into the rows like rescuers, making their way toward malfunctioning computers. Simba took the lead, bending over a monitor while its Operator sat with his Visor pushed high on his forehead. He was about fourteen, and like most DPOs was chubbier than Simba from sitting twelve hours a day at his screen... disregarding two ample meal breaks. The blue radiance from the monitor and the red tint of the warning lamp masked his face in purple shadow as he watched the repair. Simba snatched equipment from his belt, tester in one hand, probe in the other. He plugged the tester into the monitor’s port, waited for a reading, then traded places with the Operator. Simba turned the machine around, opened a compartment in back and plugged in the retractable cable of his Visor. Next, he fiddled with connections. Patching things up in a matter of minutes, he saw the computer was running properly and moved on to the next red light.
       He was well into his third repair while most of the other DPTs were only completing their first. Breaking his pace for a moment, he looked to the row behind him where Darryl -- shirtless of course to show off his muscles -- and one of his yes-boys were teamed on a single computer. They’d been “working” that machine for twenty minutes, dodging the closest camera while flirting with the female Operator. Simba shook his head, but knew it wasn’t unusual. All across the terminal room, in pocketed blind spots of surveillance, a few DPTs were getting by on the lowest level of effort. They were careful not to make mistakes -- Errors meant Thoughtless points -- but were well practiced at Slacking.
       Simba started on a new monitor. Thoughtless or not, he understood why some of his fellow DPTs didn’t work very hard. After a few years -- he'd been at it since 13 -- the job did get monotonous, and hitting cruise-control was a tempting option. Simba, though, took on every repair with the same fire, pushing himself to the limit of his skills. As lame as it sounded to some DPTs, he wanted the Operators to remember his work and hope he returned the next time a problem arose. His father had called it "house-niggerish," but Simba figured it was the least he could do for FREE. People on the Outside had no opportunities, living in their violent, drug-induced hell, their friends and family dying left and right, and lucky if they reached 13.
       At the front of the room, the telescreen was showing The Video scene right before the old ghetto morphed into a new FREE paradise. Simba gazed at it for a few seconds, remembering his first morning of Welcome School, four years old and sitting before a theater-size display, learning to recite The Video’s dialogue word-for-word. In a week’s time he was able to speak along with the narrator and not miss a beat. Later, when asked to perform the speech as part of an oral test, he’d been overcome by grown-up feelings of pride and belonging.
       He looked away from the screen, finishing his latest repair. It was somehow strange to think how familiar those feelings were in his life now.
       Simba sensed eyes on him as he headed for another red light. Looking over his shoulder, he saw Darryl seven monitors behind, crouched beside an Operator’s chair but obviously tailing him. Simba walked a little faster. What was up with that fool? Was he really that Thoughtless to try something here? Simba zig-zagged along another row, trying to lose Darryl, but no luck. Finally, he just headed straight for the MalFunk monitor, its Operator slouched in his chair, Visor still over his eyes, head swinging around as he searched for assistance. Simba reached the computer and got to work.
       Darryl appeared at Simba’s elbow. His voice hit the air in a quiet hiss. “Assessment! I just heard you tryin’ to scheme on my girl!”
       The Operator perked up, his Visored gaze going from Simba to Darryl and back again.
       “Data Faulty.” Simba didn’t look at Darryl while tweaking the monitor’s circuit boards. Instead, he noted the nearest camera in the corner of his eye, almost ready to turn.
       Darryl checked the camera, too, its lens still facing away. “Don’t play it off, boy! You know what I’m sayin’!”
       Simba cleared his throat. “Query. This about Carm?”
       Darryl loomed closer. “Affirmed!”
       “Download. She just wanted me to tell you something.”
       The Operator watched the unfolding bit of Terminal drama like there’d never been a sitcom as entertaining.
       Darryl’s scowl etched angry lines into his forehead. “It better be good!”
       “Well, the last time we were together..."
       “Uh-huh.” Darryl grabbed Simba’s arm.
       The Operator had taken off his Visor, staring at Simba and Darryl, awed at Darryl’s blatant Thoughtlessness.
       Darryl suddenly snagged a screwdriver from his belt and jammed the blade to Simba’s throat. The Operator reached for his Panic Button, but Simba signaled with his eyes to Delay. “Uh... Query?” said Simba, his voice a little shaky now.
       “Don’t ‘query’ me!“ snarled Darryl. “The fuck’s goin’ on?”
       “Carmen said to tell you she loves you. Said it would sound cool coming from me... maybe chill things out between us.”
       Simba couldn’t tell if Darryl looked shocked because he finally knew how Carmen felt, or because it was a total one-eighty from whatever he’d probably expected. In any case, the dude just stood there, his mouth opening and closing silently like a fish’s. Then he realized the camera had caught him with the screwdriver at Simba's throat. Any Thoughtless Act toward another FREE Citizen meant penalties... and violence was the most Thoughtless of all. He shoved the tool back in his belt, but it was too late... a pair of burly Security Sentries were already on their way, Tasers out and ready.
       Simba finished his job, glancing up only once to see Darryl being escorted out.

                               *             *             *
       A few hours later, Simba was sitting in the lunch room, which was almost a clone of the computer terminal space, except a cafeteria replaced the rows of monitors and desks with plain aluminum tables. Way up front by the entrance was a long counter where meals were served by Food Prep Technicians. A new line had formed as workers went for seconds, eyeing stainless-steel trays full of everything from spaghetti and pizza to meatloaf and cheeseburgers.
       Simba looked at what was left on his plate; one fish stick and a final bite of mashed potatoes, then patted his belly with a satisfied sigh and gulped from a cup of cherry Kool-Aid while listening to the laughter of Antwone, 18, and Ben, 17, who were seated across from him.
       “Data Request: damn, are you serious, man?” Antwone said, catching his breath between chuckles.
       Simba chuckled, too. "Affirmed: no shit. You should’ve seen Darryl’s face when he realized he was on-cam!”
       "Acknowledged!” said Ben. “He deserve whatever he get!"
       "Re-assess," said Simba. "Maybe not Reassignment."
       Ben shrugged. "If he's outta here, that's cool with me."
       Antwone talked around a mouthful of meatloaf. “Query. So, Carmen really say she loved him?"
       "Affirm," said Simba.
       “Query. What could she see in him?” asked Ben.
       Simba considered. “Assessment. Maybe she just likes Thoughtless types? Like in the old days when good girls went for thugs?”
       Antwone nodded. “Probability good."
       "I think she’s feelin' me, though,” Simba went on.
       “Probabilty good,” agreed Ben. “She’d be a fool not to. You ‘bout as Thoughtful as anyone gets without suckin’ up to Supervisors.”
        Simba shrugged. “Well, Carmen’s fine and all. I could probably snatch her up, but that situation’s packin’ way too much drama with Darryl in the mix.”
       “Probabilty,” said Antwone. "Darryl won’t try nothin’ no more... assumin' we ever see him again."
       Simba pushed his plate aside. "Assessment. Both of you soundin’ like Outsiders now... wishin’ payback on people.”
       Ben raised an eyebrow. “Query. Outsiders? You’re dad still tryin’ to school you about the old days?"
       Simba sighed. “Affirm. I don’t know why he can’t just be happy the way things are.” He patted his wobbly belly again. “How could life be better than this?”
       “Affirm: Got that right,” agreed Antwone, whose belly also rolled out of his shirt. "Query. So, what’s the plan for tonight?"
       Ben shrugged. "Probability: hit the mall as usual."
       Antwone snapped his fingers. "Download. Heard they opened a new pizza joint in the food court. Got a friend who’s a FPT over there."
       Ben leaned back in his chair and burped. "Query. How can you think of food after you just ate so much?"
       Antwone laughed. “Additional Data. Should be a bunch of females there."
       Ben smiled. "Acknowledged. The mall's good hunting ground. Just last week I met this chick while I was walkin’ through Foot Locker. Took her home, banged it out right on my couch."
       Antwone chuckled. "Data Rejected. Man, you a lie!"
       Ben balled up his napkin and launched it at Antwone just as a camera panned in the other direction. "Affirmed, man! I swear!"
       Antwone dodged the paper missile, then Thoughtfully picked it up off the floor. "That reminds me. Y’all remember my cousin Eric? He’s a DPO at Term 314. Smart dude, but a little Thoughtless. Probably how he got stuck punchin' keys instead of patchin' 'em. Anyways, he started messin' with this girl Felicia, right? She’s a Personal Environment Tech, an' you know how they are! So, he’s thinkin’ he’s gonna get turned out..."
       Ben’s eyes were glowing. "Query! Bet that boy got blown and everything!"
       "Yeah, she had some tricks for sure, but my cousin brought some skills of his own. So, things are gettin' real freaky, I mean, triple-X! He's bangin' it out, doggy style, and the girl wants him to talk dirty, right? But, he freezes up!"
       Ben shook his head. "Aw, damn! Like that?"
       Antwone nodded. "Affirm! So, he freezes up, an' the only thing he can think of is some data he’s been typing all day at work. He leans to her and starts yappin', 590842EK166HQR3... some long number over and over! I mean, not on purpose! She freaks and starts dissin' him about his Career Assignment. Talkin' about how he’s just a bottom of the barrel key puncher, and he comes back callin' her nothing but a high class ho!"
       Ben was bursting with laughter. "Query. You kidding me, man?"
       Antwone held up his hands. "Nah, this is Realtime. Career Assignments are with us no matter what we’re doing."
       “Or who we’re doing!” laughed Ben. “Query, Simba. What you think of that one? ...Simba?”
       Antwone touched Simba’s arm. “Query, man?”
       “Huh?” said Simba. “Oh. Blue Screen. ...Maybe I need a night out."
       Ben nodded. “Affirm. You been workin’ too hard, man. So, the mall. Acknowledge? Maybe you’ll get lucky.” He laughed. “Just remember to keep your Comp-Speak under control.”
       "Um," said Simba. "You don’t think Darryl would get Reassigned?"
       "Query? That's what you was Blue Screen about? Nah. Nothin' that serious, man. ...'Least not if he got enough brains to tell Security he was just goofin'. Had a Thoughtless Moment." Ben gave Simba a curious look. "You’re the only person I know who'd worry 'bout somethin' like that."
       "'Least happening to a MalFunk like Darryl!" said Antwone.
       A bell rang and everyone began to get up from their tables.
       Ben sighed. "Assess: Well, it's back to the circuit circus."
       "Affirm," Antwone responded, then looked at Simba. "Query: You gonna be okay, man? Like, I’m sure Darryl’s not in deep shit... not that I give one. Besides, it ain’t your fault.”
       Simba snagged his Visor off the table top. "I'm cool. End Program."

                               *             *             *

       At night, Simba's neighborhood became a new postcard; the perfect nocturnal urban scene, complete with a velvet black sky, that begged to be sent off to loved-ones... at least if they lived behind the same Fence. Steel and glass gleamed in the moonlight. Flashes of neon lit the darkness over doorways in electric tones of green, blue, yellow, or pink. Digitized billboards above the streets advertised everything from Kool Kat Malt Liquor to new Visor skins while corner telescreens played The Video to tired workers heading home, others on their way to Assignments, and eager partiers still out searching for a good time.
       Simba neared his apartment, pausing a moment to get his band checked at the neighborhood Scan-Station. He nodded to the Sentry sitting sleepy in his booth, small among the big buildings and bright lights.
       “Another one down, a million to go, eh, Citizen?” yawned the man.
       Simba smiled. “That’s a good Assessment.”
       The man gave Simba an almost ironic grin, then tapped a keyboard. “There’s a Thoughtful point for you, Alpha-132652.”
       “Thank you, sir. Goodnight.”
       Simba moved on, yawning as he walked and recalling the Sentry's words; he must have meant the routine... work, home, work again. It did seem dull sometimes. But his time at the mall this evening with Ben and Antwone had been what he’d needed to chill. The pizza place was cool, but they must have missed the grand-opening party, because the only girls they had seen were the FPTs working behind the counter and too busy taking orders to give out Personal Data. Now, Simba just wanted to relax on the couch and watch a movie... and he hoped his dad's mood had improved.
       A Peace Patrol Bradley cruised by, its rubber-padded tracks rumbling softly, its engine well-tuned... Simba's father would say. Overhead, a helicopter clattered, shining its spotlight here and there in random reassurance. Simba shaded his eyes and waved as the beam swept over him. Then it trailed across the street, lingering on an alley. For an instant a glimpse of The Fence showed at the end of the alley, a concrete wall forty feet high topped with electrified razor barbed wire to keep Outsiders out. Beyond it was the Safety Zone, a band of bulldozed floodlit nothingness that stretched for hundreds of yards to another barrier of massive transplanted trees that kept the Outside hidden from the Inside. Oh, you could catch distant glimpses from the taller FREE structures, but no Thoughtful citizen wanted to look. Of course, Welcome School taught that not all of the Outside was totally savage; there were semi-peaceful suburbs, but they were so far from the Safety Zone, they might as well have been Dorothy’s Kansas... The Wizard Of Oz was an Acceptable movie.
       Simba reached his building, greeted by a camera as he got his band scanned: “GOOD EVENING, SIMBA CARTER.”
       He boarded the elevator and went to his floor. Entering his apartment, the light went on, and he was surprised to find the living room empty. Usually his dad would be reading on the couch... usually an Unacceptable book.
       “Dad, you here? ...Hey, Dad?” Slipping out of his pack, Simba walked from room to room. Nothing. Finally, stripping off his shirt and kicking out of his sneaks, he settled on the sofa. Maybe his father had gone on one of his restless walks?
       Simba switched the telescreen from its default The Video to FREE-Choice programming. A banded news reporter was talking about Outside crime, giving statistics on the latest rise of the murder rate, while the background visuals were graphic scenes of bloodshed and violence.
       Later, he woke from a doze, taking a second for his eyes to adjust before realizing he was still on the couch. Sensing no activity, the lights had gone out, but the telescreen was still on, back on default. Simba stretched and sat up.
       “Dad? You home?”
       No answer.
       Simba checked the time. Almost 03:00. He was worried now. There was no curfew, but the clubs were all closed, and it was Thoughtless to be out on the streets this late without a Productive Purpose. He stood up, and nearly slipped on a piece of paper. He turned the sheet over and gasped:

    Michael Anthony Carter, FREE Citizen #D755539: REASSIGNED.

                                      Chapter Two

       Like most of the buildings around it, the one housing Jimmie T’s nightclub was another FREE refurbished structure salvaged from the pre-Fence days by the work of EMLs. About thirty young people, teens and twenties, were gathered near the entrance, the color of their wrist bands matching the green neon sign above the canopied doorway.
       As a white Lincoln sedan rolled to the curb, the group approached it eagerly. A car behind The Fence was rare... private vehicles weren’t considered necessary for FREE Citizens, and the sight of one always drew a crowd, as if any vehicle other than a HumVee or Bradley had to be transporting a celebrity.
       Director John Crane cut the car’s engine and adjusted himself in the driver’s seat, soft leather cradling his 170 pounds. A mahogany face appeared at his window. Then more curious faces, peering and gawking, straining to catch a glimpse through the darkly tinted glass. Crane found a crumpled gum wrapper atop the dashboard and chucked it at the face nearest him. The little ball of foil bounced off the window.
       The man sitting in the passenger seat, Charles Channing, middle-aged, dapper, and very English in a crisp, pin-striped suit, bent forward to glance past Crane at the spectators.
       “This is... er, quite a welcome party!”
       Next, a woman lightly tapped on the windshield like people tapped on aquarium glass to get the attention of fish. Crane ignored her, tilting the rearview mirror to straighten his tie. “I’m afraid we aren’t the cause of all this excitement, gentlemen. There’s a TV show these people watch... never seen it myself, but I hear it’s a police drama about trying to bring order and justice to the Outside world.”
       “The outside world?” asked the man in the back seat, Randolf Amsbury, also quite British and very well dressed.
       “Yes, well,” said Crane, an expression he’d borrowed from his guests and found he rather liked. “Communication is very limited between the Inside and the Outside, and rumors will spread.”
       “I see,” said Amsbury.
       “Anyway,” Crane went on. “I hear the main character’s got a set of wheels that look like mine. I don’t drive this much... Inside, of course: I have a company HumVee for official use, but it’s a bit too primitive for gentlemen of your stature.”
       “Oh, I don’t know about that,” said Amsbury. “I did some bashing about in Africa in an old Land Rover. In my youth, of course.”
       “But, don’t you enjoy the attention of your citizens?” asked Channing.
       “Doesn’t do much for me.” Crane pointed to the sidewalk. “My father was LAPD. Must have pounded this beat thousands of times. Used to be gang turf here. ...Y’know, Bloods and Crips? When I was a kid I told him my plans to try out for the force, and he wanted to show me the area he worked. So, we drove along, and all of a sudden, we rolled right into the belly of hell! Flames and screams, gunfire, dead bodies.” Crane paused to survey his audience. Both investors -- potential investors, anyway -- were attentive. Crane ran with it, emphasizing words with his hands.
       “All the stores that used to line this block had their windows smashed. Fires burning everywhere. Kids running in and out, arms full of loot... more things than they’d ever dreamed of in their dirty little paws. Whole neighborhood in chaos. We hadn’t been following the news, and it just so happened we were right smack in the center of the riots! ...You remember, don’t you? The Rodney King riots? Cars being flipped. People throwing bricks. Then, a group of youngsters... just like these... surrounded us.” Crane pointed to the crowd still hugging the car. “Except those little citizens weren’t looking for their favorite actors!”
       The businessmen’s eyes shifted from Crane to the black people mobbing the car. Channing cleared his throat. “This was the center of the riots?”
       “Ground Zero,” said Crane.
       “You’d never be able to tell,” said Amsbury. “...But we’re safe now?”
       “Oh sure,” said Crane, then laughed. “To borrow another of your clever expressions, 'safe as houses'." He waved around. "And they’re as tame as chocolate Easter bunnies.”
       Amsbury peered out the window. “Our legal drinking age is sixteen... in public, of course... but some of these people look younger.”
       Crane nodded. “We’ve found that we have far less problems with alcohol by educating our Citizens in Welcome School and granting them full adult rights as soon as they begin their Career Assignments. In other words, when they’re old enough to be productive, they’re old enough to reap the rewards.”
       “That does make sense,” agreed Amsbury. “So there’s no hypocrisy such as one being old enough to fight and possibly die for one’s country yet not be allowed to drink in it.”
       “Right,” said Crane. “People see through hypocrisy, especially young people, and lose respect for a System.”
        “I watched that riot on television,” said Channing, looking around again. “What a change! Everything’s so...”
       “Clean,” finished Amsbury. “Not at all like the colored districts of London.”
       Crane nodded. “Yes, well. In all the years since that day, our citizens have had more than enough time to get busy with brooms and shovels. After all, FREE Corporation stepped in to help them clean up their own mess. ...Gentlemen, why don’t we continue our conversation inside? This is one of the finest night spots Inside.”
       “Excellent,” agreed Channing.
        Crane opened his door and motioned the crowd of dark faces to part. “Nothing to see here, boys and girls! Don’t be Thoughtless now!”
       The trio made their way into Jimmie T’s VIP room, a plush loft overlooking the dance floor, long leather couches and a fish tank almost two-stories tall. Channing took a moment to admire a pair of leopard sharks, while Amsbury absorbed the decor. A black waiter, banded green, materialized to take their orders, then reappeared almost instantly with a tray. Taking their drinks, Crane and his companions settled on a couch. Crane sipped Bourbon, his guests pink gins.
        “Please tell me your impressions so far, gentleman,” said Crane. “Have you seen the benefits of investing in our project? We’ve brought manufacturing costs down so low that China is having some products made here! And our Data Processing Centers are more cost-efficient than...” He chuckled. “Child-labor in Haiti!”
       Channing glanced at his partner, who gave a small nod. “Mr. Amsbury and I have certainly noticed how happy and productive your workers appear. I don’t know what it is precisely, just something in the way they carry themselves that shows they take great pride in their tasks and enjoyment in their lives. Your citizens work extraordinarily well together, and I haven’t seen a frown all day.”
       “All the cameras took some getting used to,” added Amsbury. “And actually seeing The Fence itself was a bit strange, but I would be the first to admit it gives a comforting sense of security.”
       Crane nodded. “It’s there to keep terrorists out. FREE did an exhaustive study that proved it was terrorist agitation that really caused the Rodney King riots, and continued to stir up civil unrest in America’s inner cities. As well as encouraging crime. We also proved that it was terrorists who were bringing in most of the drugs and guns, as well as promoting gang violence.”
       “My,” said Channing with a wink. “I’m surprised it wasn’t terrorists who caused your obesity epidemic.”
       “That might not be far from the truth,” said Crane seriously. “After all, it’s another way to weaken America. Fat kids aren’t fit soldiers.”
      “Yes, well,” said Amsbury, who was rather plump and rosy-cheeked. “I’ve noticed that many of your Citizens are overweight, many rather extremely so.”
       Crane shrugged. “They won’t be fighting for us. And we’ve found that providing ample food is one sure way to keep people happy, so they won’t be fighting against us, either.”
       “Quite true,” said Channing. “Historically speaking, the greatest mistake when... er, controlling people has always been to starve them.”
       “Quite true,” agreed Crane. “Human-beings have only three basic needs to keep them happy and productive; food, shelter and safety, and FREE provides all in abundance.”
       Amsbury nodded. “We’ve certainly been impressed thus far. You’ve taken an historically violent, destructive and largely undisciplined people and made them productive members of your society.”
       Crane finished his drink. “Thank you. But all they really needed besides the ‘big three’ was a firm hand and a little tough-love. Like the good parents few of them ever had. ...But, it’s been a long day, hasn’t it, gentlemen? I’m sure you must be tired of facts and figures. Would you care to relax and see yet another positive side of our Fence?”
       He nodded to the waiter, who ushered in two banded young women no older than seventeen. Both wore simple but pretty dresses, their curves straining the thin fabric, their perky breasts barely contained.
       The guests exchanged glances and smiled.
       “This is Tiffany and Leslie,” said Crane. “Two of our best Personal Environmental Technicians... or PETs. Like all our Career Assignees, they've been very well trained. ....And we’ve done away with ninty-nine-point-five of all STDs behind the Fences so... er, protection is not required.”
       “Please sit down, ladies,” said Channing.
       Crane smiled as the PETs went to work.

                                    *             *             *

       The following morning found Channing and Amsbury looking quite refreshed and standing on the steps of FREE-Control Headquarters, the most imposing structure in the South Central FREE Zone, a pyramid projecting authority from its base to its peak.
       Amsbury bent over a water fountain, about to sip.
       “Oh,” said Crane. “I forgot to warn you that within the Fences the water supply contains an additive that leads to sterilization. Population control, of course.”
       Amsbury gagged and spat as Crane came striding up, snapping open a briefcase and offering both guests bottles of Evian, then patting Amsbury gently on the back.
       “Don’t worry,” Crane went on. “You’d have to drink the stuff on a regular basis for it to have any effect.”
       Amsbury recovered. “I have three children who are nearly grown. The reproductive part of my life is over, anyhow.”
       Crane smiled. “But the fun part is just beginning. ...Of course, genetically-approved matings and births are arranged for selected FREE-Citizens to maintain our work force. ...Let’s go in, shall we?”
       Crane marched ahead like a general, but hardly looked the part with his smallish, somewhat pot-bellied build, no trace of muscle beneath his dark suit, his age showing in the silver streaking his auburn hair. In a war he would have looked vulnerable, except there was something in his eyes. They were a cold bluish gray, the color of storm clouds. His gaze alone was something to put faith in, as if one harsh glare would clear the path of enemy resistance.
       “FREE Corporation was contracted by the U.S. Government to provide a final solution to America's inner city drug, gang, and violence epidemics,” Crane began as they entered the lobby, “Our company was in the privatized prison business, and we had decades of experience with behavior modification, re-education, and putting prisoners to productive work.”
       The lobby was huge, but despite it being the base level of a corporate building, certain touches had been added to give it a friendlier feel. Its floor, for one thing, was a pleasant mosaic of peach and eggshell-white tile. Overhead was an elaborate mural depicting the California State Seal alongside FREE’s official logo of a giant F with an eagle perched atop it, wings spread in pre-flight glory, while clutching a sword in one claw and a key in the other. A small group of banded black people were being shepherded toward desks by uniformed officers who smiled and joked with their charges.
       “Prisoners?” asked Channing.
       “Oh, no,” said Crane. “What few violators... Thoughtless Citizens... we have would be brought through an entrance in back. These Citizens are just here on business; requests for upgraded housing units, a repair of some malfunction, or perhaps to report an act of Thoughtlessness... minor, I’m sure.” He pointed toward a group of children who ranged in age from four to seven. “And there’s a Welcome School tour, come to see how their System works.”
       Crane steered his guests into an elevator where they were greeted by a pretty black woman holding a note screen.
       “’Morning, Director Crane.”
       “’Morning, Lisa.” Crane gestured toward the businessmen. “This is Mr. Amsbury and Mr. Channing. They’re from London. I’ve been giving them a tour. ....Gentlemen, this is Miss Lisa Dawson, my personal secretary.”
       Lisa smiled and nodded to the men, then turned back to Crane. “This is your third tour this month. They should add Guide to your CA.”
       Crane laughed. “And give me a raise!”
       “Your meeting is set for ten-hundred.”
       “Fine. Do I have all the notes?”
       Lisa tapped keys on her pad. “Yes, sir. And I’ve got Data on the Carter case. ...Final Solution Evaluation.”
       “What’s his CA and offense?”
       “MVT. Very Productive, but Chronically Thoughtless in personal life. And encouraging Thoughtlessness in others.”
       Crane frowned. “Sounds like we’ve got a Reassignment.”
       Lisa nodded sadly. “I'm afraid so.”
       The elevator stopped on the sixth floor, and Crane led his guests down a hallway.
       “Busy morning?” Channing asked.
       Crane chuckled. “Are there other kinds?”
       Both men laughed.
       “Where was I? ...Oh, yes, well. FC kids are given aptitude tests in Welcome School to determine their future Career Assignments. They start school at four-years-old where they learn the basic three R’s and social skills that stress Thoughtfulness toward the System and each other... something their race was obviously lacking. Then, they’re placed in other schools depending upon their Career Assignments. Some are graduated by eleven.”
       “Exceptional students?” asked Amsbury.
       “Not usually. Obviously, a child destined for a lifetime of Environmental Manual Labor doesn’t need the same education as, say a DPT... Data Processing Tech. So it would be a waste of FREE money and resources to keep them in school for an equal amount of time. All FREE schools are trade schools. They teach only what each FC needs to know to perform their Career Assignments.”
        “It does make sense,” said Channing. “No one educated beyond their station, and hence no dissatisfaction with one's place in life."

       "One's Assigned place," added Crane.   
       “But, aren’t there gifted children?” asked Amsbury. “Surely it would be another sort of waste to train a child for manual labor who might be extremely intelligent.”
       “We don’t make those mistakes,” said Crane. “Our aptitude tests, backed by genetic Data, are ninety-nine percent accurate. If there’s a four-year-old potential rocket scientist in the bunch... and even with them it’s possible... we’ll find him by age seven.”
       “And the wrist bands?” asked Channing.
       “Each Fence across the country is represented by a different color or combination of colors for instant visual recognition. Ours is green, obviously, which is also shown by our citizens’ I.D. tags and the work clothing of many less-technical Assignments, such as the green tank-tops of EMLs. However, Personal Property... Per-Prop... attire is an Acceptable alternative if appropriate to an FC’s CA. ...Too much jargon?”
       “I think we’re following,” said Amsbury.
       “We’ve found that allowing our citizens choices about small things gives them a sense of greater freedom. The bands are imprinted with all important Data for each FC and updated yearly.” Crane laughed. “Rather like wearing one’s heart on one’s sleeve... in this case one’s life. The bands also function as debit cards for food, meals, goods, services and entertainment, though Outside money is still used to a limited extent.” He laughed again. “Pre-Fencers especially like to feel nigger-rich.”
       “Yes, well,” said Channing. “I’m surprised you haven’t considered microchips to replace those rather crude bands.”
       “Oh, we have,” said Crane. “It’s just that fitting everyone with implanted microchips is a rather costly procedure. ...Of course, with the help of investors like yourselves, we can speed things along and make FREE an even more profitable machine.”
       There was a hint of indecision in the quick look Amsbury gave his partner, and Crane caught it.
       “I realize that I’ve left you gentlemen with a lot to consider. I remember your words from last night, though I can’t put it as perfectly; Mr. Channing described the happiness of our citizens. You said that the enjoyment they felt while at work was plain to see. That statement made me proud of the FREE System and what I do here. If others recognize it, then my job is truly well done.”
       Mr. Channing smiled. “It’s easy to say that your FCs, really do seem free.”
       Crane nodded. “A lot freer than they were not too long ago killing each other for colored rags! ...Shall we continue our tour?”
       The three men entered a large room filled with chairs that faced a huge table with a holo projector above it.
       “This is where we conduct most of our tactical meetings, like the one scheduled for later.” Crane said.
       “You’ll also be discussing a Reassignment, if I understand correctly?” Channing asked.
       “Yes.” Crane flicked a switch and a hologram appeared over the table. “Here we have a map of every Sector where each type of Career Assignment is performed.” He tapped a keypad. “By clicking on one, it brings up a list of names. The names in red are people being considered for Reassignment... less than a dozen, you’ll notice, in all of South Central. Clicking on a name gives us a description of their violation... such as the one Miss Dawson mentioned.”
       Channing nodded. “And there certainly aren't many. ...But what of this Carter fellow... an MVT?”
       Crane squinted at the holo... he was getting nearsighted but had so far disdained glasses, and didn’t want laser-correction on his record. “Motor Vehicle Tech. He’s Pre-Fence. In the early days of FREE, during the Resettlement, we put people through a rigorous Re-education process, much the same way the Army indoctrinates new recruits... breaking them down, then building them up to our standards. The ones who resisted were... dealt with... and that set an example. We still get a few relapses, but they’re run through refresher courses, which usually solves the problem.” He frowned at the Data. "Though apparently not in Carter's case.. he's been refreshed twice and it's three strikes you're out Inside The Fence."
       “So he's being considered for Reassignment?” asked Channing. "Something about a final solution."
       “With him it's a only matter of choosing the degree."
       “But, what is Reassignment?” Amsbury asked. “Something unpleasant, I gather?”
       “Yes, well,” Crane said. “Very unpleasant, but that is the purpose of punishment. ‘Spare the rod,’ you know? ...Shall we adjorn to my office, gentleman?"
       Crane and his guests left the conference room and went down the hall to a door where a banded worker was scraping away the name, JOHN CRANE, below DIRECTOR OF FREE-CONTROL.
       “Pardon our dust, gentlemen. Let’s step into my office while it’s still mine.”
       “If things are so nice here, why are you leaving?” Amsbury asked.
       “I requested a transfer to the Oakland, California Fence because I prefer the challenge of an unfinished system,” said Crane.
       “Ambition and a sense of adventure. Those are fine leadership qualities,” said Amsbury.
       “Thanks. Sometimes I think I missed my calling by not going into the military.”
       Channing chuckled. “Are you sure you’re not being Reassigned?”
       Crane laughed. “Oh, no, I’ve been a good FC!”
       Everyone broke into laughter.

                                      Chapter Three

       Simba’s days were running together in a mess that not even routine with all its structure could clean up. Mornings, afternoons, and evenings spilled into each other as a sloppy pool of hours that drained away uneventfully, signaling their beginnings and ends with dawn or dusk. In the week and a half since his father’s Reassignment, Simba had spent his free time shuffling through the apartment like a zombie. Somehow, he made it to his CA in the mornings, which forced him to feel again; but stepping out into the neighborhood was like being punched in the stomach. One moment he’d want to question everything he saw and check for flaws in all FREE had taught him. The next minute he’d side with the System, angry at his dad for being so Thoughtless.
       He supposed it was denial, but no matter what side he took, family or FREE, he couldn’t accept his father’s fate. It had been Acceptable when he’d heard about other people disappearing, but when the hurt hit home that was different. How could it happen to him? To his dad? Simba had considered demanding an explanation from FREE-Control, but his friends had warned against that, reminding him it would be Thoughtless.
       Of course, Simba wondered what his dad’s crime had been. Had someone at FREE-Control started reviewing surveillance tapes and paying attention to his father’s militant roar; though as far as Simba knew, speaking your mind had never been Illegal, just maybe a little Unacceptable. His father seemed determined to go against the grain, but he’d also done his job as an MVT on FREE’s busses, Bradleys and HumVees, and done it well.
       At first, Simba had moved cautiously through the neighborhood, the buildings looking more like sneaky structures than proud ones now. He’d scoured the cleanliness for dirt that wasn’t there. Peering up again, he’d scan the cameras and watch them watch him. Moving on, he’d meet up with the commute crowd as usual, but walked sluggishly, unable to fall into rhythm with the others for the first time in his life. 
       Then, as the days passed, and the reality of his father’s disappearance sank in, Simba began to think rationally. Reassigning an innocent person was wrong, but how was he sure of his dad’s innocence? The man had always told Simba that people should be free to express what they felt, as long as they spoke responsibly... no one had the right to yell “fire!” in a crowded theater. But Simba remembered his dad often worn out after preaching to his brick wall of a son, fed up to the point that he’d take those sermons to the street. Simba would watch from the apartment window, seeing most of the passing crowd hurry on by, gawking back at his father as if the man was crazy. Still, he’d usually been able to gather enough listeners to interest the Security Sentries. They’d politely say something about him creating a Thoughtless disturbance and advise him to go home. Almost getting yourself arrested hardly seemed responsible, at least not to Simba.
       In fact, the more he reflected on it, the more he saw the man as guilty. Guilty of exactly what, he didn’t know; but it was clear that FREE had given his father a lot of chances, the same chances it gave to all FREE Citizens. Cold as it sounded, maybe he’d just gotten what he’d had coming? And, if so, how could Simba blame FREE?
       Trying to convince himself that must be the case, Simba leaned harder on the shoulder of the System for support, as if The Fence itself was keeping him from falling off the edge of the earth. He was fearful that his father had somehow passed on the curse, that FREE would soon be serving up Simba’s own Reassignment!
       If his dad had only listened, just tried to cooperate -- or even just fronted cooperation -- this would have never happened. Why hadn’t he changed? Accepted his Re-education like so many others of his age?
       Simba stumbled to the couch, flopping on the cushions and propping his feet on the coffee table. He felt the weight of the last twelve hours, as if the whole terminal building had ridden home on his back. His feet ached from pacing the monitor rows, and his fingers were cramped from gripping the equipment. He tried to nap, but his head swam, and red warning lamps flashed in the black when he closed his eyes. He glanced at the clock and groaned, remembering plans to meet up with Antwone and Ben later on. Using the sofa’s arm for support like a weary old man, he stood up and Assessed the room, as if finally emerging from the ten-day trance. Clothes were strewn across the top of the couch and jammed between pillows, empty fast-food containers piled the coffee table. Dust coated everything. Hard to believe he’d let it all go to hell so fast... then again, his dad had always done most of the chores.
       For an instant his heart skipped in fear... what if he couldn’t take care of himself without his dad around? But that was ridiculous: he was sixteen, and FREE would always be there. ...But it wasn’t going to wash his dirty boxers.
       He grabbed his things off the couch and went to the kitchen. After
dumping the garbage down the recycle shaft, he tossed his laundry into the washing machine. Then he was stuck, half expecting the thing to start by itself.
       He studied the instruction sticker, then felt frustration foam from within like his own spin cycle. How was he supposed to know whether to use hot or cold, high or low, gentle or regular? He was a DPT, not a... whatever the CA was that did laundry... Domestic... something. Where was the damn detergent? He stomped down the hall, almost cursing his father, as if it was the man’s fault. Marching into his dad’s bedroom for the first time since the Reassignment, he rummaged around.
       A few minutes later he took a Re-assessment, realizing he wasn’t going to find any soap in here. Instead he began to dig through the dresser, searching now for some random piece of the puzzle, one that might furnish a clue to his father’s disappearance. Then, something on the floor, half under the bed, caught his eye. He knelt and picked up a slim black pamphlet, then flipped through it, eyes widening as they scanned page after page of anti-FREE propaganda!
       He couldn’t help himself: fascinated, he read the whole thing.
       Then feeling sick, he plopped down on the bed. Where had this come from? Were there more of these things? He envisioned FREE-Control agents tearing through the room and finding these little blasphemous books. With that kind of evidence against him, his dad could have been banished Outside!
       Then Simba realized that this might be evidence of terrorist activity, and he was trapped in the middle of it! He couldn’t believe that whoever had taken his father away had missed that pamphlet. They were waiting to see what he would do!
       A good FC would have run to the closest Sentry to turn in that booklet the instant he found it, but Simba had done nothing for over a week!
        He didn’t know what to do now: he pictured himself at FREE-Control, trying to explain that he’d just found the book, and of course he hadn’t read it. Then an agent would ask, So, how did you know what it was?
       Maybe if he’d been an EML, he might have gotten away with saying that just the title, FREE IS SLAVERY! had shocked and confused him; but DPTs were expected to read things. And even if he burned it now, they would still think he’d read it first... and worse, that was the truth.
       He suddenly wished he could Delete part of his mind as easily as Wiping a virus-infected file. He had to get out of this tainted Program and Assess the situation! FREE could have planted a camera in here!
       He tried to find comfort in that, to put faith in FREE’s wisdom and justice... a camera would show that he hadn’t been in this room all this time. And it surely would have captured the horror on his face when he realized what he’d been reading.
       But it would also prove he’d read it.
       Was running away logical? Something any scared and confused DPT would do in the same situation? Antwone or Ben would let him crash at their Single Male Efficiency Quarters until he could fully Assess this and do the right thing. Going to his room, he plowed through the closet, jamming jeans and T-shirts into his pack. He shoved in his Visor and a toothbrush.
       Minutes later, he emerged from the building. It was almost 20:30, but the sky had only darkened to a ruddy gold shade at horizon’s edge. Summer was Simba’s favorite season, he loved warm weather. This evening though, he felt the sun’s fading glow as if it was an X-ray machine trying to penetrate his skull and expose his treacherous secret.
       Glancing across the street, he focused on the alley where part of the Fence could be seen. Long shadows of its razor wires stretched over the sidewalk, reaching toward him. He hurried away.
       Nearing the Scan-Station, he kept his head lowered, unable to meet the friendly Sentry's eyes. As soon as the scanner blinked Acceptable, he hurried away, feeling the man's curious gaze but not looking back.
       Next, he approached Liberty Market, a FREE Enterprise storefront with a patriotic green awning. Mr. Jefferson was sitting out front, surrounded by bins of fresh produce, oranges, grapes, cabbage, collards, and yams. Simba’s heart almost stopped... Mr. Jefferson was reading a black pamphlet! How many had of those gotten around?
       Then, to his relief, Simba saw that the man actually held a pocket sized Bible... religion was Acceptable as long as it didn’t make you Thoughtless. Simba’s nerves calmed a bit, but the incident had shaken him even more. Staring at his feet as he walked, he slammed into something and got knocked on his ass.
      “Woah there, Citizen! You okay?”
       He saw a Sentry standing over him, this one a red-haired Amazon. Running into her had been like slamming a wall. The woman's face was round like a full moon come to cast its light. She extended a hand, and Simba took it, letting himself be lifted back to his feet.
       “Sorry about that,” the Sentry said, then chuckled. “Guess I was being a little Thoughtless. You all right?”
       “Uh, yes, ma'am,” Simba replied. But he really wanted to drop to his knees and confess everything. Luckily, she said, "be seeing you," and walked away before he could.
       “Damn, bra, that was pretty Thoughtless.”
       Simba recognized the voice as Ben’s, and sure enough, his two friends had appeared.
       “Hey,” Simba said, his voice breaking.
       Antwone asked, “Somethin’ up, Simba? You look about half De-rezed.”
       “Just tired. Need a drink. Wanna go to Khan’s Klub?”
       “We thought you'd already be there,” said Ben. “We were supposed to hook up, remember?”
       “Yeah,” added Antwone. “We were comin’ to get you.”
       “...Oh, yeah,” said Simba. “Sorry I’m late.”
       “What’s with the pack?” asked Ben.
       “...Just some dirty laundry,” said Simba, not wanting to tell the truth and drag his friends down with him. He suddenly felt like a virus, infecting anyone he Interfaced with.
       Antwone laughed. “Lookin’ for a Domestic Services Tech? Might be a few at Khan’s. Let’s go.”
       Several hours later, Simba and Ben staggered out of the club after several too many. It was just the two of them, Antwone having bailed early. Several couples were gathered near the door, embracing beneath the green neon in various stages of undress. Naked curves were being traced by eager fingers, young men gliding their palms across feminine terrain, cupping breasts and squeezing thighs. A few of the males paused their pursuits to laugh as Simba stumbled past; then Simba lurched sideways, almost teetering off the curb. Ben caught him, pulling Simba’s arm over his shoulder to keep him on his feet.
       “Carefully, bra,” Ben soothed. “You liable to bust your ass.”
       Simba tried to walk straight, though the pack wasn’t helping. Easing one foot in front of the next, he almost fell a second time, nearly taking Ben with him. Ben leaned back, kept balanced, and steered his friend along.
       “I’m Wiped!” Simba muttered, tasting Kool Kat when he burped.
       “Makes two of us,” said Ben. “But, try not to Download, okay? I just got these Per-Prop kicks.”
       Simba glanced up at a blimp overhead, its flashing plea to FREE YOUR MIND fuzzing out of focus. He’d been trying to do that all evening. Maybe if he took the booklet to FREE-Control in the morning, he’d get out of this mess? After all, he had lots of Thoughtful Points.
       “How 'bout we take a shortcut?” said Ben. “I don’t think you’ll make the overpass.”
       Simba sobered for an instant, seeing they’d come to the train yard. “You crazy, man? We can’t go through there! It’s Forbidden!”
       Ben laughed. “More like just Highly Unacceptable. The worst that could happen if we got caught would be gettin’ a few Thoughtless Points. An’ we got enough Thoughtful ones to even things out. I can’t carry you, man, an’ we both be lookin’ Thoughtless anyway if we out on the street much longer.”
       “...Well...” Simba peered at the motionless trains. They didn’t seem as scary tonight, tamed by the alcohol in his brain. Even the big warning sign didn’t strike its usual chill. He thought of all those times he’d resisted the temptation to shave a few blocks off his daily commute. Looking at the locomotives now, hearing the powerful throb of their engines, he wondered why he’d never given in. And the yard wasn’t very well lit, not being an actual part of The Fence and not under FREE’s jurisdiction, leaving plenty of shadows for cover. Then he heard his father’s voice, still taunting him from some unknown place: For once in your life do somethin’ Unacceptable!
       Simba clenched his teeth, muttering, “Got yourself Reassigned, fool! An’ maybe took me down, too! Why should I listen to you... wherever the hell you are?”
       “Huh?” asked Ben. “Dammit, Simba, stop babbling! I’m tired an’ I wanna go home. Get your ass through that hole or I’m gonna leave you here!”
       Before he could change his mind, Simba dropped to the ground and squeezed through the opening, his elbows scraping the jagged mesh, his pack nearly getting stuck. Ben shoved him on through and  followed. For a moment the duo crouched in dry weeds, which rustled in a diesel-scented breeze. They spotted a camera on a pole and ducked as it scanned in their direction. Simba flattened himself to the earth, hearing the camera’s servo whine above the deep rumble of diesels, digging his fingers into the grass, clutching soil in dewy clumps, its grave-scent filling his nose. He watched the cam swing away, then felt Ben grab his shirt tail.
       “C’mon, Simba!”
        A second later they were sprinting drunkenly toward the tracks, weaving a little, weeds lashing their ankles. Despite not being in very good shape, Simba found he was almost enjoying this. Reaching a long line of boxcars, he and Ben stopped to rest against one, rusty orange with Southern Pacific dim on its side. Simba scanned around, spotting a small building with a lamp glowing in its window... maybe a Sentry post? “Remind me to exercise more,” he puffed.
       “Yeah, sure,” panted Ben. “When you change your CA to EML!”
       Simba examined the boxcar, peeling off fat flakes of rust. “Dad used to tell me stories about the Porters. Ever heard of them?”
       Ben huffed and puffed. “Can’t say I have. They a famous family or somethin’?”
       “No, man, train Porters. Back in the days after slavery, when a lot of black people were migrating to the North from down South, one of the best CAs we could get was a Pullman Porter. Basically, that meant we were waiters an’ servants who worked on trains. Supposedly it was a respected job ‘cause Porters got to travel and see the country.”
       “Guess the Outside was better back then.”
       “Probably more like the Inside. But the Porters were treated like shit anyway, just because they were black.”
       ”Big surprise,” said Ben. “An' that’s ancient history, bra.”
       “Yeah. But then, in 1925, a guy named Randolph ...Phillip Randolph or something like that... founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters as a union. He wanted better wages for the Porters and fought the rail companies in court. The Brotherhood won and became the first black labor organization.”
       Ben only shrugged. “Sounds like a story your dad would tell, an’ it’s Non-essential Data. ...Lotta good it did us! Just one more thing the thugs an' gangstuhs fucked up.” He thumped the side of the car. “Now we ain’t even s'posed to get near a train!”
       “Hey you kids!”
       Simba and Ben froze as a voice boomed out of the shadows. A flashlight beam stabbed the darkness. “What are you doing here? This is railroad property...”
       Then the voice paused as the light caught Simba and Ben’s reflective wrist bands. “Freeze! Get your hands up!”
       But instead, Ben whirled to run as the man approached and seemed to be drawing a gun. Simba hesitated, confused. Somehow he’d known this would happen! Like a last Thoughtless joke his father had played! He started to raise his hands, distractedly realizing that a Security Sentry would have ordered them to assume the Submissive Position, kneeling on the ground. Then Ben grabbed his arm.
       “He’s an Outsider, man! He’ll kill us!”
       That shocked Simba into action! He bolted away to his left, as Ben charged off to the right.
       But Simba scrambled under a car, then dashed across three sets of tracks and around the front of a locomotive idling unattended. Gasping for breath again, he pressed himself to the huge machine’s trembling side. Above its throbbing iron heartbeat, he heard booted footsteps crunching gravel. Just his luck! The guard had chased him and not Ben!
       He felt his train phobia return as beads of icy sweat. Again, he heard the guard, and now saw the searching flashlight beam. There was a sputter of static from some kind of Com-Link...
       “This is Donaldson! Just spotted two FREE boys in the yard! East side! ...CRACKLE... Yeah I’m sure! They had those green bands! Call FREE!” A few moments passed, then, “...CRACKLE... Donaldson! FREE Security’s on their way! If you catch them first don’t talk to them! Don’t listen to anything they say, and don’t tell them anything!”
       Simba darted across more sets of tracks toward another idling locomotive. Then he spotted a rusty boxcar with its door standing part way open. He glanced over his shoulder to see the guard’s flashlight beam just rounding the front of the locomotive, then scrambled up and into the car. It was empty, echoing, and almost pitch black. He pressed himself into a corner as far as he could get from the door. Suddenly, there was a deep booming rumble of mighty engines throttling up. Then a rippling clash of steel couplings came running down the line of cars, followed by a lurch as Simba’s car jerked, slamming him to the rough wooden floor. The door rolled shut, and a lock clanked solidly into place!
       The train was moving!

                                       Chapter Four

       The boxcar door slid back with a bang, the glare of lights leaving Simba blinded after two days of darkness. Confused and frightened, he blinked, finding himself face to face with a startled white man.
       "Hey!" yelled the man, jumping back and dropping his clipboard as if Simba was something rabid. "There's a kid in here! Somebody catch him!"
       But the people working nearby, black men and boys, went right on hauling sacks of rice out of another boxcar, not making a move to obey.
       Panic! Simba dodged the man and leaped from the door, gravel spraying from under his sneaks as he landed in a crouch between the train and the long loading platform.
       "Stop him!" bawled some kind of Sentry, bursting out of an office. Another Sentry followed the first, snatching something from his belt. The laborers casually made way as the two men came charging after Simba, who was still frozen beside the train. He stared in horror, recognizing what the second guard was holding. Funny how toy-like a gun looked on the real -- plastic almost -- far less menacing than the ones on the telescreens. Then it fired and he was snapped from his daze, a Realtime bullet whizzing over his head to twang off the boxcar’s rusty side. Totally panicked, he dashed along the train. Cutting in front of the locomotive, he bolted across the maze of tracks.   

       “I didn’t tell you to shoot him, goddammit!” The first guard bellowed, fat and red-faced.
       The other, a slightly thinner clone of his partner, barked back: “You said to stop him! That’s what I tried to do!”
       The fatter man threw up his arms in frustration. Reluctant to leave the brightly-lit platform, he turned instead to one of the workers and demanded, "Was that kid banded?"
       The worker wearily set down a big sack of rice and wiped sweat from his ebony face, a ghost of a smile tugging at his lips. “Too dark to see, boss.”
       The foreman, his clipboard recovered, ran up from behind and grabbed the first guard's shoulder. "He was! But it wasn't the right color!"
       The second guard pushed back his cap and scratched his head. "What color was it?"
       The foreman glanced around, seeing the smirking faces of the workers, who had paused to watch the circus. "Bands are bands! Get on your Com-link and call the west gate! He's headed for Sector Six!" He watched Simba's shape disappear between two tank cars on another track. "Now, get after him!"
       The first guard spread his hands. "Why not wait for the Keepers?”
       The foreman's eyes flicked from the guard to the watching workers. “Because it's your goddamn job!" He poised his light-pen over the clipboard's screen. "So, get your ass in gear or I'll put you on report!"
       "I oughta get overtime for bullshit like this!" grumbled the guard. But he yanked his gun from its holster, dropped clumsily to the tracks, and broke into a lumbering run along the train.
       One laborer, a massively-muscled youth even for only fifteen or so, gazed after Simba and smiled. "Maybe he a terrorist."
       The foreman looked uncertain, but then glared at the boy. "Get back to work or you'll be on report!"
       Simba stopped halfway across the big railroad yard, looking over his shoulder to see the Sentry charging around the locomotive. Simba's breath came in gasps: two days in the boxcar with nothing to eat or drink had drained what small reserves he possessed and left his mind fuzzy and slow. He tugged at the straps of his pack, then loped onward, stumbling over another set of tracks. The chain-link fence ahead of him seemed miles away in the darkness, and the Sentry was gaining. He felt a weird sense of deja vu -- having escaped one Sentry in South Central and now being chased by another... somewhere. Did he have a chance if he surrendered? What if he went into detail about his drunken night with Ben? Just two tired DPTs who’d been Thoughtless and tried to take a shortcut home.
       He took another glance back, seeing the Sentry getting closer. The man was running with his arms out, both hands aiming his gun. No menu option. These were Outsiders!
       Simba forced himself on. His shoes skittered gravel and his chest felt on fire with the furious pumping of his heart. There was a shot from behind, confirming his worst fear, and a bullet hissed past his shoulder. He still couldn’t believe that sound, a pop from the past, long ago silenced by FREE and reduced to movie FX. Changing direction, he ran for another part of the yard where more black laborers were loading crates of produce onto a truck half shrouded in shadows. His fear doubled, danger seemed to surround him: those Outsiders might kill him if the Sentries didn’t!
       But then, amazed, he saw a workman stick his foot out. The Sentry tripped, crashing to the gravel like a tranked hippopotamus. The worker grinned and apologized, then went back to loading lettuce.
       The Sentry spat dirt, yanking the Com-Link from his belt. With no time to wonder why the Outsider had helped him, Simba ran to the fence. He skidded to a halt, checking for a warning sign before realizing how stupid that was. There wouldn’t be any such things Outside. He clumsily climbed the rusted mesh, burdened by his pack and hampered by his low-slipping jeans as he scrambled over the top. Dropping to the ground on the other side, he yanked his pack straps tight again, hitched up his jeans, and took off down a dark, dirty side street. He might have escaped for the moment, but according to the telescreens he was going to have a lot more to watch out for in the Outside world!
       He finally stopped running when he’d put three blocks between him and the train yard. There were only a few feeble street lamps, and hidden in the darkness, Simba tried to pull himself together, replaying the last forty-eight hours in the boxcar. He felt as if he’d recycled a lifetime of thoughts then, sick from worrying about the Outside the train was rolling through, imagining a million ways he could die at the hands of its violent people.
       What was once a nightmare had become reality; and during the times the had train stopped to unload or take on more cargo, he’d shrank as far as he could from the door, expecting to be shot on sight if it opened.
       He noticed the buildings around him were all ramshackle and crumbling, some scarred by what looked like bullet holes. There were even a few Victorian houses abandoned and rotting away. Their dusty windows showed only more blackness, and their roofs -- if they had any -- were either sagging tarpaper or rusted tin. Trash covered the weedy sidewalks, and the stench of rot and decay soured the air.
    Despite his fear, Simba felt a strange kind of excitement just to be standing in such a legendary place... Outside! He couldn’t help but wonder, if like the Sentry’s gun, his possible killers would look less scary than they did on screens. It didn’t seem like he’d have to wait long to find out as there came a rumbling in the distance, but what he saw gave a warmth of hope instead of another chill of terror. A battered M2 Bradley swung around a corner and clattered toward him. Could FREE have sent a rescue team? 
       He burst from the shadows into the street, waving his arms wildly like a kid trying to flag down an ice cream truck. But, as the machine lumbered closer, Simba ceased waving. Shading his eyes from the glare of the headlamps he saw there was a huge gatling gun on the turret. He’d never seen a Bradley armed with anything but a water cannon... but it would make sense for Peace Patrol to use heavy weaponry during a mission Outside.
       As the vehicle came clanking nearer, he saw that it was almost an antique, like something that should have been sitting on a pedestal in a park, a relic from the Middle-Eastern Crusades. In fact, it was still painted desert tan, and trailing a long cloud of smoke. Maybe FREE didn’t want to risk its modern machines in such dangerous territory? The comforting words, FREE YOUR MIND, were stenciled on the Bradley’s flanks, along with PEACE-KEEPER 13. A Sentry crouched on each side of the turret, plus a gunner in the turret's hatch; and the pair flanking the turret, one small and white, the other big and black, were packing old M-16 rifles.
       "There he is!" bawled the big black Sentry.
       Simba’s heart almost melted in gratitude. He pointed to his wrist. “Simba Carter! Alpha-132652!”
       The black Sentry was built like a gladiator, square-jawed and broad-chested, arms bulging with muscle and straining his shirt, his midnight face hard beneath the visor of a Tough-Love helmet... something else that Simba had only seen on telescreens.
       "That’s gotta be the spook from the railroad yard!"
       The gunner aimed the gatling, while the white Sentry aimed his rifle. Simba supposed that was standard procedure Out here. The black Sentry grabbed a microphone, and his amplified voice boomed out, "Assume The Position!”
       Despite his conditioning to obey -- his willingness, even -- Simba hesitated, staring at the Sentries’ faces, as if ignoring their weapons would make them disappear. He’d expected the black Sentry's voice to be kind and reassuring. The menacing command he’d heard instead froze him in surprise.
       Suddenly, there came a burst of fire, and a bullet nicked Simba’s sneaker! His brain kicked back into action, and he dashed down the sidewalk.
      “You pimple-faced prick! Did you hear an order to fire?” The black Sentry bellowed to the white.
       The Sentry looked doe-eyed and lost like a boy in his daddy’s clothes, with a helmet too big, and room to spare in his uniform. “Sorry, sergeant. He, uh, moved.”
       “He was assuming the position, you dumb little shit! Wait till I give an order next time!”
       The gunner’s voice came crackling through a speaker. “Well, he’s not assuming it now! Should I shoot?”
       The barrels of the gatling spun in a blur, the men jumping out of the way as the gunner swung the turret. Orange-yellow flame spat from the muzzles, and bullets meant for Simba ripped into a building, chips of brick flying like frenzied bees. Simba jumped from the curb and raced across the street, cutting in back of the Bradley. Despite his lack of weaponry knowledge, Simba remembered his father saying that an M2’s turret wouldn't do a 360; and it would take years for the clumsy machine to turn around.
       The gunfire cut off as the turret reached its traversing limit and couldn't sight him any more. Just as he'd figured, the driver floored the gas and the Bradley swung slowly around on one track, sparks flying bright yellow as steel clawed concrete. The Sentries struggled to aim their rifles while grabbing for handholds to keep from being thrown off. Simba sprang onto the opposite sidewalk and fled for the corner of the street. A button popped open on his jeans, and he yanked them up with up with one hand. FREE TV boasted that its M6 Bradleys could top forty miles-per-hour on rescue missions, but from what he remembered his dad saying, the Probability was excellent that this clanking antique would be lucky to do twenty-five without throwing a track.
       He heard the heavy-metal clatter of worn out track pads as the Bradley picked up speed to follow. He tried to run faster, but his jeans kept slipping, and his boxers were trying to follow them down his sweat-slicked thighs. He fell, bruising his knee, but scrambled up and dashed on. The gatling gun spat lead again, its bullets slicing the air overhead. Simba tried to force more speed out of his exhausted body, wishing once more that he'd listened to his dad and exercised. The roar of the pursuing machine echoed in his ears. The beast was gaining, spewing smoke in a very environmentally unfriendly way, the pounding of its engine beating his eardrums. He could feel the heat of its lights on his back through his sweat-sodden shirt. In another second the gatling would fire again, and this time it couldn't miss!
       Then, to his left, he saw the gaping black mouth of an alley. He dove into it just as the gun barrels spun and spat orange flame, blasting the bricks on the corner of a building. His landing pad of trash-covered concrete was almost welcoming as he tumbled face-down. He scrambled to his feet just in time to feel the wind of the Bradley's bullets and see them blow apart a plastic trash can right where he'd been laying. He yanked up his jeans again and stumbled up the alley, but a tall chain-link fence topped by barbed wire loomed out of the darkness. Was this what The Fence looked like from the Outside?
       He spun around as the Bradley swung into the alley entrance, and in desperation ran straight at the machine. He sure hadn't Assessed that wack-ass move, but the Sentries seemed confused by it. Simba almost Overloaded in surprise when the men dropped for cover on the beast's metal back and the gunner ducked down in his turret, but he didn't have time to wonder why. Twisting sideways, his pack scraping brick, he managed to squeeze through the narrow space between the vehicle and the wall and dashed back into the street. The Bradley's engine roared in metallic rage as the driver threw it into reverse and floored the gas. Smoke filled the alley in a choking cloud, and the Sentries couldn't see to fire their guns. The vehicle lurched backwards like a wounded dinosaur, gouging and scarring the sides of the buildings it was sandwiched between. By the time it had managed to skid itself around, Simba was running up the street.
       He hadn’t seen a night-vision scanner on the ancient Bradley, and without it he was only a visual target, and these streets were dark... and so was he! He paused long enough to tear off his pack, strip off his shirt, then re-shoulder the pack and run on. They must have thought he was a Outside thug! Hadn’t they seen his band? Surely, they wouldn’t have shot at a FREE Citizen... not even one as Thoughtless as he!
       He was almost ready to drop, stumbling, his feet dragging, knowing he couldn't keep going much longer. The Bradley was gaining again. He cut into another alley, hearing the squeal of track pads as the machine turned to follow. But again he saw that his escape was cut off by a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. The Sentries must have seen this, too, because the Bradley clanked to a halt, this time at an angle, completely blocking the narrow passage. Simba was caught in the glare of the headlights, their heat seeming to burn his bare chest. He felt like a rat about to be lasered by a Municipal Sanitation Tech. Then another chilling thought: Maybe these men weren’t really Sentries, but terrorists who’d stolen a Bradley!
       Over the clatter of the idling engine, he heard the thud of heavy boots as two men dismounted. He wondered why they just didn't use the gatling gun and get it over with. The reflective yellow letters, PEACE KEEPER, shone bright on their bullet-proof vests in the glow of the headlights and he heard them talking on their helmet Com-Links.
       The black one: "Jamar? Got a band-lock yet?"
       Band lock? thought Simba. So they did know he was an FC. ...What was going on?
       The Brad's Com-Tech from inside the machine: "Negative. ...Will you wipe that goddamn soot off the block? I can hardly see him!"
       The black Sentry took a swipe at a vision block with the back of a hand, then snapped into his microphone, "I wanna know who he is... now! He might be armed, way he come runnin' at us like that!"
       "Armed with what, Edgar?" the Com-Tech replied. "Things ain’t that out of control yet! There’s nothin’ in his hands! Either collar him or shoot him!"
       "I'm talkin' about what he might have in that pack!" Edgar retorted.
       “One-Three. Acknowledged.” The black Sentry switched to Limited-Range Local and chuckled into his microphone. "Blake’s got the watch tonight. I just don't wanna end up gettin' scraped off a wall with a spoon if we finally found us a terrorist.”
       So that’s what they thought he was, thought Simba. He opened his mouth to try to explain, but the radio crackled again.
       "He's right about Procedure," said the Com-Tech. "Those goddamn Third World ships record everything. ...Just go bust that kid, will ya? I've had all the excitement I want for one night..." Then his voice changed: "Edgar! Spooks above you! Twelve o'clock!"
       "The hell...!?!"   
       Simba stared upward, then leaped frantically aside as a swarm of small rectangular shapes came hurtling down from a rooftop... bricks! They thudded and broke on the concrete around the Bradley. The white Sentry yelped as one grazed his shoulder.
       “FIRE!” bellowed the black. He opened up with his rifle at the roof, then the gatling gunner joined in. Bullets raked the building’s parapet, scattering chunks of jagged brick. Simba dove into the shadows behind a Dumpster and heard the Com-Links crackle back on Full-Power again:
       Edgar: “Back aboard! ...Peace Control! One-three! Mocker Attack!"
       The black man stared up at the roof in the following moments of silence, first in rage but then with an expression that slowly changed to disgust as he glanced to where Simba now huddled behind a Dumpster. "Nah, Captain." He switched off his Com-Link, then glanced at the skinny white Sentry, who now cowered against the Bradley’s tracks and hadn’t fired a shot. “It’s a little different when somebody fights back, ain’t it?” he said not too unkindly.
       “...Sorry, Sergeant. It won’t happen again.”
       "Chill out, kid. It’s only our friendly neighborhood Mockers again. This whole donkey show was a setup.”
        The young man rose and peered toward Simba’s hiding place. “Well, we still got a suspect...”
       Another brick came hurtling down to shatter on the Bradley’s battered body.
       “Forget him!” snapped Edgar. “Let's get out of here before they bust our lights. Took a week to get new ones last time!"
       He boosted the skinny Sentry aboard, and the Bradley lurched backward down the alley in a spray of sparks and clouds of smoke, as a new rain of bricks came hissing down. Once in the street again, it lumbered away.
       Simba rose from behind the Dumpster and stared up at the patch of black sky showing between the rooftops. He was gasping for breath and dripping sweat, his chubby body gleaming. A bulky shape loomed  over the roof's parapet, and a voice called down, "Well, come on, fool. You waitin' for a printed-out invite?"
       Simba was more confused than ever. Mockers were an Inside legend from the early days of South Central... but wasn’t he Outside? Stupid as it was, he wasn’t sure whether to trust this voice or run after the Bradley.
       Other dim shapes were silhouetted against the sky on on the roof, then the voice called again. "Feel free, brother. There's a ladder next to that garbage can."
       Simba crossed over to a rusty fire ladder, then hesitated... Outsiders. They were probably gold-grilled, tattooed, and as ready to kill him as look at him. ...But what were his Menu Options now? “Um... are you gonna cap me?"
       There came a childlike giggle. "Does you feel lucky? ...Well, does ya, punk?”
       Simba was still uncertain, but even surrendering to Outsiders didn’t seem as scary as dealing with psychotic Sentries. He tugged at his pack straps, hoisted his jeans, then mounted the ladder and struggled upward three stories to the building's roof. His jeans and boxers were almost around his knees again as he finally dragged himself over the parapet and collapsed with his back against it. All he could do was sprawl there on rough tarpaper and pant like a puppy. Four figures faced him in a half-circle, and the one who had called to him asked, "Whattup, dawg?"
       Another childish giggle: "Does we make him assume The Position, query?"
       A third voice chuckled: "How 'bout we make you assume the doggie position? Brother been through enough shit, ‘case you ain't noticed!"
       "Oh, yeah. I forgot. Memory-degrade."
       "Little more shit won't kill him!" growled a fourth voice with a hard edge to it. “Check his flex."
       "What flex?" laughed the third voice. "Ain't a muscle in his whole body!"
       "Brother's got all the flex he needs," said the first voice, the one that had invited Simba up to the roof, sounding somehow kind.
       Simba just lay there. He gave up trying to make any sense of all this and decided he might as well accept the fact that he was in a very strange Program and didn't know the Code. He was too tired to Assess anymore, and if these Outsiders were going to beat him up or worse, he hoped they would just do it now and end the suspense. But when no one did anything, he finally sat up. The others seemed around his own age, except for one who appeared to be only a kid. Then he saw that one of them was... white. This had to be Outside!
       "Um, thanks for takin' that Bradley off my back,” Simba puffed.
       The white dude shrugged. "No prob, bro." Then he laughed. "But, what else you gonna do for fun on a night like this? Thanks for bringin' us a Brad to play with." He laughed. "Couldn't been better if we'd planned it."
       The little kid pointed. "Yo! Your band green! Where’s you from? Query?”
       "Um, South Central... Los Angeles. ...So, I guess I’m Outside?”
       In the dimness, Simba could barely tell faces apart, but he saw a smile on the small boy’s lips. The expression seemed to be contagious as it tugged at the white dude’s mouth, then it spread to the two other shadowy faces, until four sets of teeth -- without grilles -- flashed. Then, three of the strangers pounced, knocking Simba back, pinning him so fast he didn’t even have time to get scared. Next thing he knew, his arms and legs were being held by two of the attackers, while a third, the small boy, sat on his chest, hands gripping Simba’s throat.
       “Say your prayers, pilgrim!” the little boy snarled.
       “I knew it!” was all Simba could think of for his last words on earth.
       “All right, chill out,” said the kind-sounding voice. “I told y’all he’s had enough.”
       The three attackers burst into laughter and let Simba go. Simba stood up and rubbed his throat. The world was spinning around him, but he noticed a faint glow in the center of the tornado. It came from the collar of a robo-dog now cradled in the arms of the small boy. The dog didn’t appear to be modeled after any specific breed, but reminded Simba of a bulldog pup. Pets were encouraged by FREE because studies had shown that having one taught kids to be kind and caring, but robo pets were a luxury that few FCs could afford. Though the thing was made of polished aluminum, it was cute in a kind of metallic way, happily wagging its stubby tail, its amber eyes twinkling, while a FREE-issue Instructional Viewer hung from its neck like an I.D. tag. A FREE-Choice Motivational Cartoon Show was playing on the tiny screen. The boy caught Simba’s glance, and gave his canine companion a tinny-sounding pat on the head. "Love is never havin’ to say you sorry.”
       “Um?” asked Simba. “Sorry for askin’, but where the hell am I?”
       “Oaktown Fence, Data-download," the boy replied.
       "...Oaktown? ...Oakland?" Simba’s eyes went wide as a second wave of shock hit him. He stuttered and stammered, then managed, "We’re Inside? ...But... how come those Sentries were shooting at me?"
       Another dude, incredibly fat, almost unbelievably fat, made a disgusted sound. "First things first, my man. ...Nate, if I hear one more goddamn Comp-Speak word tonight I'm gonna kick your ass! We’re human beings, so let’s talk like 'em!” He turned back to Simba. “Second, of course we’re Inside! ...As far as Sentries shootin' at you, better get used to it. ...An’ we call ‘em Keepers, ‘cause we’re in a zoo. So, what’s your name? ...An’ I don’t want your number.”
       Simba didn’t know what to make of that. A Fence full of murderous Sen... Keepers? It seemed impossible, but pressing the point probably wasn’t going to get him anywhere. "My name's Simba."
       “Ain’t that a Illegal name?” asked the white dude.
       “Not Illegal, just Unacceptable,” Simba replied.
       "Then I like it. Good meetin’ ya, Simba," said the fat dude. He glared at the little kid. "An’ you get it all back-asswards! Last time you talked to my toaster it didn't know whether to shit or go blind!" He turned back to Simba and offered a chubby hand. "I'm Lee."
       Simba recognized the fat boy’s voice as the kind one. Lee gave Simba the ancient brother-shake, and Simba realized his first Assessment had been correct; Lee was the fattest dude he'd ever seen in his life, his belly almost reaching his knees, his chest like a pair of soccer balls; and Simba could have lost his whole fist in the dude's black hole of a navel. Lee was as black as a Halloween cat, his triple-chinned face as round as the moon. Friendly obsidian eyes sparkled above cushions of chubby cheeks that all but engulfed his wide snubby nose. He was dressed -- or as much as he could be -- in faded old baggy Forbidden jeans that strained as tight on his immense thighs as his soot-colored T-shirt strained on his chest.
       Simba scanned the others: the kid with the robo-dog was the smallest of the four and looked even smaller in a grimy white FREE-issue T-shirt that could have belonged to the fat dude... if they made Issue shirts that big. The kid’s Issue jeans were also too large, and were cinched on his hips with an Issue tan web belt. Like the other dudes’ jeans, they hung way below an Acceptable level. He might have been twelve; sweet-faced and rosebud-lipped, with a little button nose and huge childlike eyes that stayed mostly on the metal dog as if cherishing a real puppy. Though the rest of his body seemed fragile, his belly looked like he'd swallowed a basketball, bulging so big and comically round that he had to lean backwards to balance it. His hair was a mass of dreadlocks reaching way past his shoulders, and his skin was as sooty black as the fat dude's T-shirt. His big battered high-top Per-Prop sneakers were untied, but he didn't seem to care. As if suddenly remembering the Realtime world, he pulled his eyes away from the dog and its gibbering screen long enough to say, "Hi! I'm Nate, download.” He pointed to the dog. “This Boomer. Wanna be friends, query, query?"
       Lee rolled his eyes. "I said stop that goddamn techno-babble! Let the others meet Simba. You got all the time you need to download your shit all over him, after."
       "After what, query? We gonna do somethin' Thoughtless tonight?"
       Lee sighed. "Just be quiet, man."
       The white dude grinned. He also wore Forbidden jeans and dirty old Per-Prop Nikes. He was about Simba's size and soft chubby build, but with a mane of silky silver-blond hair that flowed over his chest and shoulders. His eyes shone as blue as sapphires even in the dark, and his face had a cute elvish look. "I'm Corey, no query. S'up, bro?"
       "But... if we’re Inside... how can you be white!" blurted Simba before he considered that might not be Thoughtful. "...Sorry. Guess that was a stupid thing to say.”
       "Sure as hell was," growled the last dude, stepping forward. "An' he ain't no whiter than you, Casper!" He took Corey's arm and held it up. Corey's band caught a ray of moonlight and glowed even brighter... yellow.
       This last dude seemed built like a wedge-shaped brick or a chiseled honey-brown statue of some African god; and from the look of his stance and moves he knew it. He was shirtless in loose black jeans -- Forbidden, of course -- and riding so Unacceptably low that four inches of snowy white boxers showed. His chest plates jutted out like bricks, and his belly had stony ripples. His biceps bulged like baseballs even when relaxed. A thin gold chain encircled his neck. He sported a clean fade haircut, and his heavy-jawed face reminded Simba of a pit-bull’s. Simba filed him as a Mass Entertainment Player, probably B-ball. The dude eyed Simba with what might have been suspicion, but gave him two fingers of peace. "I'm Roland.”
       The fat boy faced Simba, his vast belly wallowing against his huge thighs when he moved; and Simba wondered how he even managed to walk. "Well, now we’re all aquatinted, how about we ask what you doin' here? ...You for real didn’t know this is Inside The Fence?"
       Simba squinted in the dimness, noting the whole crew wore bands that shone as brightly yellow as his glowed green. "Um... well... this place looks like the Outside.”
       “An’ where did you ever see the Outside?”
       “On the telescreens, where else?”
       Corey chuckled. “He still believes the screens!”
       Lee raised a hand for silence. “Let him finish. Go on, Simba.”
       “Um... well, I’m from South Central, an' my dad got Reassigned.”
       “Reassigned?” said Corey. But Lee gave him a look.
       Simba continued. “So, I was MalFunked about him being gone...”
       Corey again: “I would be too if my dad got Reassigned! ...If I had one.”
       “Chill, man!” Lee snapped.
       Simba sighed. “The other night I ended up doin’ some Thoughtless shit. ...Cut through a train yard, an' a Sentry started chasin’ me. Ended up gettin’ locked in a boxcar... an’ here I am. Thought I was Outside for sure."
       “You said that already,” said Lee. “But now you know you’re not. ...'Least not anymore."
        Nate and Corey looked interested, but Roland only snorted. "Now can we make him assume The Position an' tell us what he really about?”
       Lee frowned. "Be quiet."
       Roland shrugged and sat down on a ventilator housing, then gave Simba a scoping that now held a bit of curiosity. "How’s the livin’ down south? ...If that’s on the real. Good as the telescreens say?"
       Simba wondered what Roland meant. Was this a test to see if he was telling the truth? "Well... the buildings are all really nice... everybody got their CA’s to focus on... Sentries are cool..."
       "Hmm," said Lee. "Then that much is true. The ‘model Fence’.”
       “Huh?” asked Simba.
       “The Oaktown Fence ain't finished yet. An’ nobody’s workin’ hard to finish it... ‘least not since I was born. According to the screen, South Central is the model... what every Fence is supposed to be like. It’s what FREE shows to the world an’ promises us we gonna get.”
       The white dude added, “We don’t have your Privileges. Including ‘cool Sentries’... 'case you didn't notice. Lotta people ain’t happy about that.”
       Simba fidgeted with his band, unsure what to do with all this new Data. If things were this bad Inside this Fence, the Outside had to be hell for sure!
       "They got Bradleys down there?" asked the muscular dude.
       Simba nodded. "Yeah. But not like yours with guns.”
       "Mmm," said Lee. "We seen those things on the screen. The toothless version. Just like your Keepers.”
       Simba frowned. “Why doesn’t FREE make your Fence like South Central?”
       Lee only laughed. “Man, you got a lot to learn!”
       Simba gazed around. The rooftop commanded a good overlook of a harbor, and several ships were anchored offshore in a huge bay. He also noted a beat-up old sofa nearby, placed as if to take advantage of the view. Scattered all over the roof were empty Kool Kat bottles and Per-Prop fast-food wrappers... McDonald’s had the Frence franchise. Eyes focused on the distant water, Simba drifted back to a place of uncertainty, a thousand things he wanted to ask, but what finally came out wasn’t high on the list: "This where you brothers hang?"
       Roland's eyes narrowed. "Why you axin'?"
       Simba pointed to the ragged old couch. "Observed Data. Free your mind, brother."
       Roland softened a little at this bit of Conflict Resolution. "Ain't nothin' caged in my mind, man. It yours what need freein'."
       Lee shrugged. "We like to watch the ships come an' go. Kinda makes us feel free. ...C’mon over to the couch.”
       Simba stumbled to the couch, dropped his pack and flopped down. A rusty spring poked his butt, but he didn't care. Lee sat beside him and the couch creaked loudly. Corey sat on one of the arms, while Roland remained standing.
       Lee turned to the little boy. "Pass the malt, Nate."
       Hugging Boomer to his chest with one arm, Nate picked up a half-full forty ouncer of Kool Kat and gave it to Lee, but Lee passed it to Simba. "Swig up, bro. Sorry we can't Politeness Proceed an’ offer you firsts, but it’s a little late in that Program."
       Simba scanned the bottle. Like in South Central, the label showed a picture of a massively-muscled and happy-looking panther -- sort of an anthropomorphic EML -- but... "Hey! This is glass!"
       Roland frowned. "What else it be?"
       "Bottles are plastic in South Central. Glass ain’t been used Inside The Fence since I was a little kid. For our protection."
       Corey snickered. "For the Keepers' protection!"
       Lee only sighed.
       Simba tilted the bottle up in both hands and took long thirsty gulps. Finally he burped, passed the bottle back to Lee and looked around. So this was Oakland, a town his father had talked a lot about, having been attracted to the place because of its history. As the birthplace of the Black Panthers -- according to his dad -- it had been like a cradle for black revolution in the past. ...So maybe it wasn’t so strange that Oakland’s FCs hadn’t adjusted to their Fence?
       On the other hand, maybe it was their Thoughtlessness that had created these shocking conditions? After all, how could they expect FREE to help them if -- like his father -- they weren’t willing to cooperate? He glanced around at Lee and his posse, remembering how his father had said that things were different up North -- the saying seemed like a black tradition -- but never in a million years would he have expected to find a banded white boy!
       A familiar sound approached, something thrashing the sky, and a Peace Patrol 'copter flew overhead. It was nearly identical to the ones in South Central, though maybe an older model; but Simba saw there was a gatling mounted on its belly. He wondered if it had come in response to the attack on the Bradley; but Lee’s crew didn't seem concerned, and it continued on.
       "What you thinkin' 'bout, bro?"
       Simba turned to Corey, who had just finished taking a few gulps of malt. "Sorry about the white thing, Corey. ...But, why you Inside with us?"
       Corey smiled his cute elvish smile. "'Cause FREE says I'm black."
       Simba was about ask if he was joking, but Lee stretched and yawned. "How about we go chill at my spot? I got some Per-Prop food in the fridge."
       Simba wasn’t sure if he should go anywhere with these massively Thoughtless dudes, but he was starving... and what other options were there? He wouldn’t survive very long in this place without friends of some kind... and FREE didn't seem to want to help. "Sounds cool."
       Lee waited for Nate to drink, then took the bottle and killed it before tossing it off the roof. After a moment there came a crash of glass that was somehow satisfying. "So, mount up, posse."
       As if it was an understood thing, Corey and Roland helped Lee to his feet by putting their shoulders under his arms and straining to lift his huge rolly mass. Then Corey did the same for Simba, whose knees were still shaky. "I’ll carry your pack," said Corey,
       "Hey, Lee, query?" asked Nate. "Your mom still workin' the night shift at ‘Dee’s?"
       Lee had waddled to the edge of the roof, which popped and creaked beneath his weight, and was carefully easing his bulk over the parapet. He steadied one leg on the trembling ladder. "Download duh! An’ I told you that three times already."
       "Oh. Forgot. Memory-degrade."
       "An’ turn off that goddamn screen when you climbin' down the ladder, fool! Wanna fall off and Wipe yourself?”
       Lee started down, and the others wisely waited until he made it to the ground before getting onto the ladder. Simba was next to last, followed by Roland, who seemed watchful.

                                      Chapter Five

       A few minutes later, the group was headed down a sidewalk toward what appeared to be new FREE-Housing, though the sidewalk was ancient, dirty and cracked, and the street lined with mostly derelict buildings like the streets the old Bradley had chased Simba through. Still, Simba thought, it was only a street and maybe things here weren’t as bad as they seemed. The night air was warm and pleasant, though strangely scented -- to Simba -- with salt, and a soft breeze dried the sweat on his body. He was a little uneasy about cameras, mostly because of his band but also because these dudes wore their jeans so Thoughtlessly low, but none of them seemed concerned about that, and after a while he stopped tugging at his own and let them slip to comfortable sag. The clatter of Bradley tracks sounded in the distance, and Simba glanced over his shoulder. "Um, figure those Sentries comin' back?"
       “Keepers, man,” corrected Corey. “You walked the walk, now learn the talk.”
       Lee chuckled. "I think they had enough FREE-Choice bricks in Sector Six to keep ‘em Thoughtfully out of the mix."
       Simba shook his head. "We would never do nothin' like that in South Central! My dad said things got crazy with the old-time riots, but the Fences are supposed to stop violence from ever happening again.”
       Lee gave Simba an unreadable look. "That’s a cryin’ shame, dawg. We could use a revolution.”
       Simba felt butterflies in his stomach. A shame? The only thing shameful was that Lee could say revolution make it sound like something good! Simba would never be part of one! 
       But, he Filed those thoughts away, realizing that, once again, they’d taken him back to the last argument he’d had with his father. He didn’t want to remember that, and focused on the scenery instead. The area was full of the brick and concrete remains of warehouses and factories, and vacant lots where foundations lay, their jumbled outlines the only reminders that functioning buildings had once stood here and people had worked at productive tasks. He gazed at these things as if wandering through the ruins of an ancient civilization. Then, as they got closer to the FREE Housing projects, he saw computerized billboards just like back home. There was even a surveillance blimp floating over some of the buildings that bordered the rubble, its familiar message of FREE YOUR MIND reflecting off mirrored window glass. At least some progress had been made here.
       Absorbed in the scene, he didn’t notice the aroma right away, but then wrinkled his nose and turned to watch Roland take a long puff on a tightly rolled joint. Simba was amazed that anyone could be so casual about committing a crime, even behind a less than perfect Fence. FREE knew that a few FCs smoked weed, mostly home-grown, but though it was officially Illegal it was usually treated as Unacceptable as long as it didn’t affect your Assignment. Still, people weren’t blatant about their drug use. Simba glanced from Roland to Lee, and back to Roland, blurting, "You gonna just do that out in the open?”
       Roland exhaled like a chimney and shrugged. "Why not?"

       Lee turned to Simba. "I don’t like him doin’ that anywhere, but  'least it ain’t Charms.”
       “What are those?”
       “Shoulda guessed you’d never heard of 'em... probably ain’t needed in South Central. Charms are dope without the smoke. Officially Illegal, but FREE unofficially makes ‘em. They make you passive, easy to control. You’re not as Productive, but at least you don’t cause any trouble. Nate used to be on ‘em. That’s why he’s a MalFunk today."
       Simba spread his palms. “But, why would people need to be controlled? Don’t you like your CA’s?”
       “Brother’s got a lot to learn!” said Corey.
       "Download duh!" said Roland.
       Lee shrugged. "FREE claims to have Wiped all drugs in the inner
cities. ‘Course, except for gettin’ rid of crack an' heroin... ‘cause it made people unproductive an’ hard to control... an’ replacing it with Charms, ain’t much really changed.” He glanced at Roland. “People with addictive personalities, or...” He ruffled Nate’s dreads “...unhappy lives, usually get hooked on somethin’. ...Put that shit out, Roland! Smells like you’re breathing through your asshole!"
       "Or fartin' through your mouth," added Corey.
       Roland only flipped the finger and took another hit.
       The group rounded a corner, this block fairly well lit by gold-colored energy-efficient lamps, and Simba saw that the street  dead-ended at a continuation of what must have been The Fence; the same Fence he thought he’d been looking at from the Outside. He wondered what kind of Safety Zone they had here. The ocean -- or bay, he supposed --would make a natural barrier.
        They came to a FREE-housing building, and Simba felt a twinge of home-sickness. The building was five stories of metal and glass, and at first impression could have been a twin to his own. But when he looked closer, the thing appeared to be neglected, and not as well built as the South Central structures.
       Lee dug an old-fashioned key card out of his pocket and thrust it into the door lock slot. After a few seconds of wiggling the card and cursing, the mechanism finally accepted it and opened the door. From a speaker in the entry ceiling, a scratchy voice sputtered, "GOOD AFTERNOON, 510!"
       "It’s night, fool!" Lee muttered. "Mornin’, if you wanna get technical."
       "Who’s forcing ya?" Lee stuck a middle finger into the scanner's aperture. "Insert this!"
       Simba gave Lee an uneasy glance, but the voice spoke again: "THANK YOU FOR BEING THOUGHTFUL. HAVE A NICE AFTERNOON."
       Lee looked at Simba. “Like you can see, it doesn’t work right. But not much around here does.”
       Simba almost replied that might be because this Fence wasn’t finished, but even this new building looked worn out already, or at least as if the workers who'd built it hadn’t cared about doing a good job.
       Lee led the way to an elevator. Simba just managed to squeeze inside with Lee and the others, and the door barely closed. "Five," Lee commanded.
       "UNACCEPTABLE OVERLOAD," a speaker replied.
       "Um," said Simba, his body mashed into Lee's rolly softness as if he was trying to morph. "How much you weigh, man?"
       "Enough." Lee looked up at the speaker grille. "Emergency override. Code 5-7-80."
       "THANK YOU." There was a groan of straining cable, and the stuffy, oily-smelling box creaked slowly upward in a series of unnerving jerks. Arriving at the top floor, they walked down a dimlit hall, then stopped at a door with plastic numbers that read, 510. Beside the door was an old-fashioned keypad. Lee punched in his code, the door squeaked open and lights came on as the group entered. Simba saw that it was a Standard Efficiency Apartment. Half the front room was a kitchen, divided by a counter, and the living room area had a telescreen built into the wall. Against the counter was a wine-colored Per-Prop couch that looked old and comfy. The rest of the furniture was the usual FREE-issue aluminum, but was battered and scarred, missing rivets in places. He also noticed it was plastered with warning stickers -- CARE FOR THIS THOUGHTFULLY -- as if caring for your things was a new concept here.
       Scattered on top of a coffee table were books that Simba decided belonged to Lee. They were dog-eared paperbacks, mostly science-fiction, ghost stories, and antique comics, though Simba saw a few ancient John Steinbeck and Walter Mosley novels. From the looks of things Lee read a lot, except those weren't the Acceptable books that FREE recommended. Nothing Lee had was actually Forbidden, but Simba wondered if he hid them for FREE's monthly Habitat Inspection.
       "Sit your asses down," Lee said after commanding the door to shut, which it squeakily did in its own sweet time. Simba sat between Roland and Nate on the couch. Nate had his eyes glued to Boomer’s screen again. Corey went into the kitchen section with Lee and they returned with a stack of FREE-issue Ecologically-Conscious paper plates and a big serving-platter of Per-Prop chocolate cake. The duo made another trip, and Simba watched Lee take a half-dozen McDonalds Half-Pounder cheeseburgers out of the fridge and stuff them into a microwave.
       "HOW ABOUT SOME TOAST?" queried a toaster beside the microwave.
       "Don't like toast," said Lee. "Never did, an’ I don’t think that’s gonna change."
       "MY REASON FOR EXISTENCE IS TO MAKE TOAST," said the toaster.
       "That's your problem," said Lee.
       "Um," called Nate. "Did you ever think about doin' somethin' else?"
       "Shut up, Nate," said Lee. "You gonna make it have a fit again."
       "I've noticed," said Lee.
       A minute later, Lee and Corey brought in the burgers and dumped them on the table before flopping down on the couch. Everyone helped themselves to the meal.
       The sight of food loosened Simba up enough to chuckle. “Well, we might have nice Sen... Keepers down south, but there aren’t many talking toasters. I saw one of those at the mall, but it was expensive as hell.”
       "All Per-Prop stuff is," said Lee, then gave Simba another thoughtful glance. “Got it for my mom... at a real good price.”
       “Sometimes for breakfast,” said Simba.
       Corey laughed. "That's from talkin' to Nate."

       Simba watched as Nate set Boomer down on the counter top, the dog trotting to the toaster and sniffing it with its sensors. Neither Lee, his posse, or this apartment looked prosperous; and even though no FREE Citizen was allowed to be poor -- except for a few Organically  Thoughtless who couldn’t be made Productive but committed no crimes -- it seemed a bit strange that Lee and Nate should have such luxury items.
       “YIP!” replied Boomer. The metal dog crouched with his nose to the toaster and his butt in the air. The toaster produced a slice of golden-brown bread, which the dog leaped up and grabbed in its jaws before racing back to Nate’s side.
       “THANK YOU,” said the toaster, and Boomer woofed.
       “‘Least the dog likes toast,” Corey said.
       "Maybe he'll shit biscuits," said Lee.
       "Firsts on the malt," called Roland.
       "Manners." said Lee, offering the bottle to Simba. "Didn't they teach you anything in Welcome School?"
       "Mmmm! This good cake, Lee. Priority Politeness," said Nate with his mouth full. "You make it, query?"
       Lee took a big bite of burger. "Query yourself. Did Rodney King get whacked on the head? You know I like to cook."
       Simba smiled at Lee around a mouthful of cheeseburger. "Guess your CA is FPT?”
       "Nah, DPT.” Lee scanned Simba. “Like you. Or are you just a DPO?"
       "DPT," answered Simba with pride. "'Course, FREE needs ten times more Operators than Techs."
       "Ain't that the truth," said Corey. "I'm a DPT, too. ...Now. But they don't want too many of us gettin' behind their screens."
       "That's 'cause we ain't supposed to know what’s behind their screens," said Lee. "Trouble is, they haven’t figured a way to teach us how to fix somethin' without understandin' how it works." He glanced at Simba. "Or why... if we wanna figure that out."
       Simba was puzzled, but kept quiet.
       Corey grinned, looking like a chubby elf. "Lee's so fly at fixin' shit they gave him his very own shop room.”
       “Um, I thought you might have been a Theatrical Arts Performer, Corey,” said Simba. “...'Cause of your looks, not your color.” It seemed funny that Simba had Interacted all his life with white Sentries and Supervisors but found it hard to treat Corey as an equal.
       “Nah, not coordinated enough for a TAP."
       Simba studied the blond boy. "Um... what about Personal Environment Tech?"
       Corey’s cute face hardened. "They tried that on me, but I got too much hostility for a PET."
       Nate giggled, shoveling cake into his mouth. "I a MMT-slash-U!" he stated proudly. “Data Download!”
       Lee gave Simba a grin. "We sweated all the Charms out him before they ran his Medical. Probably saved some of his circuits, but he only operates on sleep mode most of the time."
       Roland snorted. "That for sure! Dumb ass went an' drew a holo picture on his Ap Test instead of fillin' in the boxes. Main-frame got confused an' Re-Classed him as a Municipal Maintenance Tech! All the time he spends in the sewers explain why he stinks... ‘case you were wonderin’.”
       “Then why’s he speak Comp?”
       “The Junior Programmer Show,” said Lee. "Watched it all the time on Charms."
        Corey nudged Roland. "So, what’s your excuse, muscle-boy? You smell worse most of the time, an’ you’re a Personal Grooming Tech.”
       Roland scowled. "’Cause I sweat doin’ somethin’, stead of sittin’ on my ass all day like you! ...An’ I ain't gonna spend my whole life givin’ haircuts! I’ll get Reassigned as a MEP, B-ball! See if I don't!"
       Lee laughed. “It’s cool, Rolly. We still love you, smell or not. Matter of fact, where’s your clips? My ‘burns are gettin’ kinda scruffy.”
       “Maybe later,” Roland mumbled, fishing out a baggie of weed and some papers from his jeans pocket. Boomer nosed the baggie and growled. Roland shoved the dog away.
       Simba scanned the hard-muscled dude, surprised. There was no Rule that said PGT's couldn't be ripped like Roland, but he'd never seen one so buffed. EMLs had a lot more muscles, but they were dieted and exercised to be as big as bulldozers. Physical Fitness was suggested in all CA's as part of being Thoughtful, but, like himself, FREE only wanted him Functionally-Fit for his CA for the duration of his Useful Lifespan.
       Lee patted Nate's big round tummy. "Bein’ on Charms, you don't care about food, but like you can see, he’s packin’ away Input now."
       Simba scanned the boy: his belly bulged like a kid who'd gained a lot of weight fast and it hadn't had time to turn into blubber like Lee's. "Um, don’t take this wrong, Lee, but is that what happened to you?"
       Lee slapped his huge belly, making it wobble in waves. "Nah. With me it comes stock. Maybe I got throwback genes to a time when my ancestors went hungry a lot. 'Course, mom bein' an FPT helped."
       Simba faced Nate again. “So you’re an MMT? But what’s the slash-U? We don’t have slashes in South Central.”
       “Underground, Data Download.”
       “Sewers, remember?” said Lee. He gave Simba a look that might have been speculation, then added, “It’s a pretty important Assignment.”
       “It’s Essential,” agreed Simba.
       “Very.” Lee turned to the telescreen. "Telescreen on."
       The screen came to life with the same default Video as in South Central, the opening scene of two enraged apes. Simba felt a little closer to Lee and posse. Differences aside, they were all brothers of a similar experience, even if the System depicted in The Video was still in its infant stages here. Simba smiled, suddenly happy for these brothers, knowing the life of order, cleanliness and safety that waited in their future.
        Roland snagged one of Lee's paperbacks and flung it at the screen. "Lose that shit, man!"
       “Yeah!” piped Nate. “Get your hands off me, you damn dirty ape!”
       "Channel fifteen," Lee ordered.
       "Fuck you an' change to channel fifteen!" Lee bawled. He gave Simba a glance. "FREE doesn’t have the capacity to monitor viewing time. They just want us to think they do.”
       “But, don’t you kinda like watching it?"
       Lee cocked his head... as much as he could, having no neck. “Why? It’s just promises an’ lies.”
       Simba frowned. “You gotta have patience, man! And faith. They’ll finish your Fence pretty soon.”
       “That’s what we’re afraid of,” said Corey.
       “Look, Simba,” said Corey. “We like to talk about other things besides what FREE wants for us. You can dress up a cage an’ make it comfy, but you’re still locked in.”
       “You got it wrong, man,” said Simba. “We’re not locked in, the Outside’s locked out.”
       Corey rolled his elvish eyes. “A lot to learn.”
       Simba was tempted to argue, but Nate spoke up: ”Um, that was kinda interestin', Data-input."
       "That’s why you got your doggie-viewer,” said Corey. “Watch that.”
       "Oh yeah. Forgot, Memory-degrade."
       "Channel fifteen, dammit!" roared Lee.
       The screen finally switched to a black-and-white werewolf chasing a black-and-white white lady through a misty maze of gray tombstones.
       "What’s this?" Simba asked.
       "Acceptable Movies Till Dawn," said Lee.
       "I seen that show before,” said Nate.
       "That’s 'cause we always watch it, doofus," muttered Corey.
       "...Oh. Forgot, Memor..."
       "Terminate Audio, Nate," said Lee.
       An Infomercial came on, announcing Kool Kat in new, for-your-protection plastic forty-ounce bottles. "For those Thoughtful times when your work is all done. Coming soon to FREE-Choice liquor stores and Refreshment Dispensers."
       Simba smiled. "See what I mean! The Privileges of a finished Fence are gonna start rolling in."
       Roland snorted, "You probably don’t even know why they got plastic in South Central."
       Lee finished his second burger and gave Simba the same slyly thoughtful glance as when Simba had asked about the toaster and Nate’s CA. "There used to be groups called Mockers who would go around bein’ Thoughtless. Like, throwin' Molotov Cocktails at Bradleys. Can’t do that with plastic bottles. Petro-chemicals melt ‘em.”
       Simba frowned. "Mockers? That’s what the Sentries called you guys after the brick attack.”
       "Keepers, man, Keepers,” reminded Corey.
       "Sorry. ...Are you Mockers?"
       "The Keeper said that,” said Corey. “We didn’t. Ain’t they got Mockers in South Central?"
       “Mockers are terrorists!” Simba snapped.
       “You’re either with us or against us!” Nate chirped.
       Lee, Corey, and Roland exchanged glances.
       Simba shook his head. “You have to give respect to get respect.  You can’t blame FREE for everything you aren't happy about.”
       Roland made a disgusted sound.
       Simba was about to go on defending FREE, but then recalled his father’s behavior and began to see how perfectly it fit the Mocker profile. "I guess my dad was kinda like a Mocker,” he murmured as if making an admission. “Wasn't havin' none of the System. Dissed it every chance he got."
       "That was pretty Thoughtless," said Corey.
       "I told him that all the time.”
       “Maybe he was tryin’ to school you to the real,” said Lee.
       “I didn’t see it like that.”
       “Try openin’ your eyes.”
       "HOW ABOUT SOME TOAST?" asked the toaster.
       There came a dense fog of dope smoke from Roland’s side of the room, and Boomer growled again. Lee rolled his eyes, calling, “E-vac on!” A fan squealed to life somewhere above, and the smoke was sucked through a vent.
       Roland exhaled toward the ceiling. "I’m gonna bail. So far past Curfew the Keepers be sleepin'. I’ll give you a trim tomorrow."
       Lee nodded. “Aight. But, shouldn’t you chill with that shit? How you gonna be an MEP an' smoke?”
       “It don’t affect my game.”
       "Denial is the first warnin’," said Corey. “Guess I oughta be mountin' up, too."
       "You takin’ Nate?" asked Lee.
       Corey stood up and ruffled the small boy's dreds. "Somebody gotta care for our little MMT-slash-U."
       Lee turned to Simba. "You crib here tonight. We’ll figure out how to care for you tomorrow."
       "Thanks, man," said Simba, feeling infinitely grateful.
       Roland ordered the door to open and checked up and down the hall. "Clear.”
       “Of what?” asked Simba.
       “Keepers, what else?”
       Corey tugged at Nate's sleeve. "C'mon, little bro."
       "Oh yeah. Downtime." The boy got to his feet and called his pup, Boomer leaping into his arms.
       Roland studied Simba from the doorway. "Guess I’ll file you  Acceptable for now... Conditional."
       "Thanks, man." Simba said as the three dudes stepped into the hall and the door squeaked leisurely shut.
       For a while he and Lee sat in silence on the sofa, watching the wolfman snarl on the screen. There were a few sounds from outside, Bradley treads clattering past, and a Peace Patrol 'copter flying overhead, its rotors slicing the wind. Simba felt his eyelids droop.
       Lee's voice carried gently above the howls of the horror movie. "You look pretty burned, man."
       Simba yawned. "It’s been a stressed-out couple of days, an' I just ain't built for physical shit."
       "I got an old sleepin’ bag in my closet.” Lee got ponderously to his feet.
       "No offense, man," said Simba. "But, did you ever think you might be a little too fat?"
       "For what? Patchin’ up FREE’S MalFunk junk? You oughta see..." Lee didn't finish, but laughed instead. "When I can't make it to the fridge any more, then I'll start to worry." He pointed down the hall. "Feel free to use the bathroom.”
       Simba picked up his pack and walked to the bathroom without having to guess where it was. The apartment’s layout was a clone to those of his single-parent friends in South Central.
       "Light on," he said. A sickly pink fluorescent flickered to life on the ceiling and revealed a small room with a blue tiled floor and a stainless-steel FREE Standard sink and toilet. There was also a tiny shower that matched the Sanitary Units; and he wondered how Lee could possibly fit into it. The place smelled strongly of Issue Disinfectant. Simba pushed the button for water, surprised when it kept running after he took his finger off. He pushed it again and it stopped. An Unacceptable Modification, or just a MalFunk? He pushed it once more and washed two days of dust and dirt from his face and body, then pulled his toothbrush and paste from his pack. He brushed his teeth, replacing the taste of cheeseburger and malt with FREE-issue Mint, then said "light off."
       Lee's bedroom had Standard tan carpeting and beige walls, though the walls were adorned with a lot of pictures -- lions and other African animals-- that probably hadn’t been Approved. Against one wall was an Issue aluminum chest-of-drawers that served as a stand for a Per-Prop Mini-Disk player. There was also an aluminum Study Desk with an Issue Home Study PC atop it, both items that Lee must have saved from his childhood because most FCs didn't have home computers unless they were Necessary for their CAs... Internet access Forbidden because of terrorist propaganda, except for the filtered Data processed by DPOs. Simba noted that the basic computer had been modified with a multitude of auxiliary units.
       "Ain’t much,” said Lee, noting Simba’s inspection. “But it's better than cribbin' behind a Dumpster with the Organically Thoughtless."
       Simba smiled, turning to see the huge dude sitting on a small bed that was bent way down in the middle. Lee looked free somehow, in nothing but Per-Prop boxers -- they had to be Per-Prop to fit him -- that could hardly be seen under all his black blubber and looked more like a PET’s G-string. “You have a lot of them here?”
       Lee raised an eyebrow. “Don’t you have a lot of them in your Fence?”
       “A few, but they’re rare as rats.”
       “Rats ain’t rare here either,” said Lee. He gave Simba another thoughtful look. “Like you might find out. But, did you ever think some people don’t want CAs?”
       “That’s why they’re Organically Thoughtless.”
       “Oh, of course,” said Lee, and slapped his forehead. “Silly me!”
       Simba frowned. “I’m sure when your Fence gets finished, the System will find Productive things for them to do.”
       Lee rolled his eyes. “I’m sure it will.”
       Simba wanted to Process the subject further, but sensed Lee  wanted to Wipe it, so he switched tracks. "I never saw a PC with so many auxiliaries."
       "That was the purpose of DPT School... to teach, wasn't it? Sometimes they taught more than they thought they did. I got free run of the service shop, an’ a lot of old garbage comes in. Even Peace Control stuff." Lee got up and waddled over to the desk, whomping down in the chair and flipping the power switch on the computer. The screen lit up, and the voice asked, "WHATTUP?"
       Simba stared. "I never heard a computer talk like that before!"
       Lee shrugged. "It's a personal computer." He tapped keys, then asked, "Query: Peace Patrol Activity. Sector Six. Recent."
       "HOW RECENT, FOOL?"
       "'Bout an hour ago, dumb-ass."
       Lee smiled as Data scrolled on the screen. "That's you, Simba. They couldn’t scan your band, so they just reported it defective.”
       “Shit!" said Simba. "You hacked into Peace Control!" He noted that the report, signed by Sergeant Edgar Washington, also contained requests for a night-vision scanner and an engine overhaul for Peace Keeper 13.
       Lee studied Simba again. "Just local. But I’m trying to hack an Internet connection."
       “Outside! Why?”
       “To compare propaganda.”
       “You shouldn’t joke about shit like that.”
       “Yeah, it ain't very funny.” Lee switched off the machine and returned to his bed. "Time for nods, bro."
       Simba took off his jeans and sneaks and slipped into the sleeping bag that Lee had spread on the floor, grateful for the pillow Lee had also provided. Lee got under his own covers, cautiously because the bed was an Issue Child's and groaned ominously. A yellow sticker on the bed's sagging frame warned that it wasn't secure for over 100 pounds. "Light out," he muttered.
       Nothing happened.
       The light went off and the room was swallowed by darkness, except for the city-glow seeping in past the curtains.
       "Hey, Lee?”
       "What’s up with Corey? I thought the only white people behind Fences were Sentries and Administrators.”
       "You mean Keepers an’ Wardens. But don't call Corey white. He’s a brother like you an' me, black by law. When the Resettlements started, FREE was supposed to clear all the non-black people out of any area that was gonna be Fenced. But Oakland was always kinda unique 'cause people mixed a lot, an’ people don't like to be separated from friends. Corey’s mom wouldn’t leave, an’ some friends hid her out in a secret room... kinda like Anne Frank, but I guess you never read that?”
       “No, but I think my dad did.”
       “Anyway, Corey was born Inside an’ the law says anyone born Inside belongs Inside, so FREE Filed him as black, stuck him in Welcome School... where I met him... then trained him to be a PET."

       “What about his mom?”
       “Nobody knows. Some word says FREE paid her ten-million dollars, an’ other word says she just disappeared.”
       “FREE wouldn’t make a white person disappear!”
       “Guess you afford a lotta kids with ten-million dollars."     

       “But Corey's a DPT now.”
       “Some Reassignments are real.”
       “...Then... there could be hope my dad’s alive?”
       “There’s always hope unless you stop hopin’.”
       “That’s like somethin’ dad would say.”
       “So how’d you get past The Fence on a train?" asked Lee.
       "The railroad goes through that part of South Central. Guess it’s kind of a gray area, like not really Inside or Outside.”
       “What about Security?”
       “There’s warning signs.”
       “Of course. An’ everybody down there is soooo Thoughtful.”
       Simba shivered. “I was shittin’ my draws all the way up here, thinking I was gonna end up Outside."
       "Ever think maybe the Outside wasn’t as scary as it looks on the screens? ...Ever wonder if FREE was tellin’ the truth?”
       Simba lay on his back, gazing up at the shadowy ceiling. "My dad didn’t think so. He used to tell me about when he was growin' up back in the old gangstuh days. An' the System was trying out all kinds of experiments like building new prisons faster than schools.” Simba considered. "Dad was kinda stubborn... a lot more than kinda. Always said the telescreens were just propaganda to control the masses... Inside an' Out. He used to laugh when I’d tell him to look at all the good FREE had done.”
        Simba wiped tears from his eyes, then asked, “So, how did Nate get Municipal Maintenance? I know at first it was Accidental, him confusing a main-frame, but you gotta have a Level Three Security Class for Essential Services. An’ that’s reviewed every year.”
       “Yeah. So?”
       “Well, wouldn’t his... mental problems, be on his band?”
       Lee chuckled. "Anything Filed can be Deleted. ...’Course, you already know that, but you’ve been taught to forget it. Like you were taught not to ask questions." He seemed to consider. "We’ll talk some more about that tomorrow."
       "Guess I’m still Conditional with you guys?"
       "Can you blame us?"
       "'No. It’s just all new to me.  ...Thanks for everything you done, Lee."
       "That’s what real brothers are for. ‘Night, Simba."
       “’Night, Lee.”
       Simba nestled deeper into the sleeping bag. There was a lot to be thankful for. He’d survived his introduction to guns and Keepers with only a few bruises. He’d also found some good company, even if they were uneducated to the System’s ways. What bothered Simba most was that Lee could sound so much like his dad. In fact, the Oakland Fence itself seemed to be right out of one of his father’s stories. If that was true, then this Fence had a lot of shit to overcome before its citizens could really be free.

                                      Chapter Six

       The morning greeted Simba in a blur of silver and at first he thought of a scan station. Propping up on his elbows and blinking, he found Boomer inspecting him with a cold rubber nose. He gave the dog a pat on the aluminum head, then unzipped the sleeping bag. He noticed Lee’s bed was empty and hoped he hadn’t already left for his CA. Then he heard voices in the living room.
       “What’s with you today?” Lee’s voice demanded. “I don’t have any goddamn eggs! Have some goddamn toast!”
        “GOOD CHOICE!”   
       “Aw, shit,” came Roland’s reply. “Forget it, man! Lemme finish this.”
       Simba got fresh boxers and jeans from his pack, put them on, then padded barefoot down the hall with Boomer prancing beside him.
       Lee was overflowing an uncertain stool at the far end of the living room, a towel draped over his massive shoulders. Roland stood behind him, looking annoyed while holding buzzing clippers. 
       “Sorry,” said Simba. “I interrupting something?”
       “Nah,” said Lee. “Just a little quarrel ‘tween brothers. ...Ain’t that right, Rolly?”
       Roland gave a snort, then steadied Lee’s head and ran the clippers over it.
       “Were we talkin’ too loud?” Lee asked.
       “Nah. Boomer woke me up.”
       “Feel special, man. He only does that to people he likes. Give him a few more days an’ he’ll be bringin’ you breakfast in bed.”
       “An’ probably eggs!” growled Roland.
       “Don’t you always?” The voice was Corey’s. Simba turned to see the blond dude sitting on the sofa in jeans and mesh tee, reading a book, while Nate beside him was zoned on the telescreen, which was playing Acceptable cartoons... To entertain and educate but never over-stimulate. Boomer curled up at the small boy’s feet as Simba sat down between Corey and Nate.
       “What time is it? Did I oversleep?”
       “Only about oh-eight-thirty,” Lee said as Roland worked on his hair. “Corey an’ me are off Sundays, an’ Roland got approved by his Supervisor to come over an' cut. ...A little FREE Enterprise.” He paused thoughtfully. “Nate’s got an Assignment later.”
       “Query?” said Nate.
       Simba glanced at the little kid again, this time noting that he wore a yellow nylon vest instead of a shirt, the letters MMT/U stenciled across the back. Simba also noticed a yellow hard-hat on the coffee table, and a bulky tool belt with pry bars and wrenches on the floor. The hat was equipped with a light on the front.
         Lee brushed tiny spirals of hair from his cheeks as Roland finished. “Where’s your manners, Rolly? You gonna say good morning to Simba?”
       Roland turned off his clippers and grunted.
       Lee sighed. “You gotta excuse Roland, man. He’s cranky ‘cause there’s no eggs in the fridge.”
       “No, goddammit!” Roland muttered, striding to the coffee table and popping open a black vinyl case. It was full of barber equipment. He snagged a soft-bristled brush, then returned to Lee and whisked it over the fat boy’s head.
       “You want next, Simba?” Lee asked as he slid off the stool, then checked himself in the toaster’s side.
       “I’m cool, thanks.” Simba could have used a touch-up, but watching Roland slam the case shut then retreat into a solitary corner, it was clear he’d closed his shop. Grumbling under his breath, Roland made a joint appear between his finger and thumb like a magic trick.
       “Aw shit!” said Corey.
       “E-vac on.” Lee commanded, plopping down on the arm of the couch.
       Simba studied Roland. The muscular dude sat Indian style, his face presenting a guarded expression as he puffed away. Roland had seemed shrouded in fog since Simba met him last night. Of course, the whole crew was still a hazy mystery, but Roland’s cloud felt different. Maybe some people just went through life with a chip on their shoulders? Simba recalled that Darryl had often stomped around the terminal room with the same unfocused angry look. It was like those two had been born on the wrong side of The Fence, living frustrated lives because FREE had eliminated the need for toughness in its Citizens. ...Then again, how could he judge? He hadn’t been around Roland a full day yet.
       Roland met Simba’s eyes, and Simba tried to reflect the hard gaze, but finally gave up and Submitted.
       The cartoon show ended, and Lee commanded, “Channel four.” Simba watched an episode of Behind The Badge begin. Captain Sterling, six-foot-three with the chiseled features of a Nordic god, had taken cover behind the open door of his Peace Patrol HumVee. He was locked in a gun battle with a murderous gang of Outsiders, ripping off shots from his Glock as enemy bullets zipped over his head, or twanged off his vehicle’s up-armored body. The show was a weekly one-hour drama about a fictional group of Peace Patrol Sentries who’d been Assigned Outside on a patriotic mission to take back the streets, allowing FREE to expand its Fences and Re-educate all of America. Episodes followed the relationships of the six main characters as they warred with Outsiders and foreign terrorists, while dealing with turmoil in their personal lives.
       “Hey,” said Simba. “I watched this all the time back home. It always kept it real.”
       Corey chuckled. “As real as anything else FREE shows us.”
       “He’ll learn,” said Lee.
       “Maybe,” growled Roland.
       “Well, one thing’s real,” said Corey. “Officer Brooks is fine as hell. I wonder if her an’ Captain Sterling can keep their off-duty relationship secret much longer.”
       Lee laughed. “Ain’t you more sprung on Sterling than Brooks?”
       “Ain’t my type.”
       “Maybe he'd pay you in Thoughtful Points,” Roland muttered.
       Lee turned to Roland. “I never knew breakfast was such a big deal.”
       Corey smirked. “You know how those MEPs are. Gotta keep the calories comin’ because they burn ‘em so quick.” He poked Lee’s belly, making it ripple. “Wish you had that problem?”
       “I just earn ‘em, don’t wanna burn ‘em.”
       Roland snapped, “What’s wrong with wantin’ a goddamn egg once in a while?”       
       Lee frowned. “If you don’t like what’s on the menu here, go eat at the Greek’s down the street.” 
       “Shut up, bread-head!” snapped Roland. “That’s what I’m talkin’ about, Lee. You always got the last word. I can have toast ‘cause that’s what Lee says. We goin’ here or there ‘cause that’s where Lee says. We doin’ this ‘cause Lee says so. The rest of this crew never gets a say in anything. ‘Course Nate ain’t got a brain in his head, an’ Corey might as well be your PET ‘cause he’d do anything Boomer would do an’ probably a lot more.”
       Corey’s eyes flashed like blue flames. “Fuck you, man!”
       “Bet you’d like to.”
       “Those are your fantasies, not mine.”
       Roland bolted to his feet, poised with his jaw set and fists clenched. “You an’ Nate would smile an’ Submit if Lee told you to go kiss a Keeper! Just like today...” His voice trailed off and he glanced at Simba before facing Lee. “Ain’t had an egg in so long, I wish I could fuckin’ hatch one! Just a nice, fresh, sunny-side up egg with its yoke starin’ at me is all I’m askin’ for. That so fuckin’ much?”
       Lee sighed. “You’re blowin’ this up awful big, ain’t you?”
       Roland took a toke on the joint, then huffed smoke. “All I’m tryin’ to say is sometimes you take too many chances an’ put everybody at risk.”
       Lee shrugged. “You got a better idea, let’s hear it.”
       “If you ain’t gonna budge on the egg issue, you damn sure ain’t gonna listen to reason about nothin’ else.”
       “Such as...?”
       “Bad eggs.”
        Lee shrugged again. “Damage control.”
       Roland paced in an agitated circle, gesturing with his hands as if trying to pluck the perfect words out of the air. “I’d cook eggs for the whole crew, even if I hated eggs, ‘cause I value the crew.” He shot Simba another glance. “So I’d check all the eggs for rotten ones.”
       “I would, too,” said Lee. “But gettin’ high don’t help the crew neither.”
       “Even cookin’ eggs,” added Corey.
       Simba was wondering if eggs were a Privilege item Inside this Fence, but Roland lifted a foot and crushed out the joint on the sole of his sneak. “Aight. But we do this, an’ somethin’ goes wrong, don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
       Lee nodded. “Okay, I won’t.” Then he smiled. “All this talk about food is makin’ me hungry. How ‘bout we get goin’? Give Simba a chance to see the sights, then grab lunch. ...Maybe a egg-a-muffin.”
       “What about my band?” Simba asked.
        Corey peeled the yellow warning sticker off the coffee table. “Wrap this over it, bro. Hand-held scanners can only read one band at a time, an’ the Bradley scanners can’t read your South Central Data unless they’re calibrated, so you’re basically radar invisible.”
        Lee added, “Stay close to me, an’ my fat will serve as a coax shield.”
       “Just carefully, crew,” said Roland.
       Corey smiled. “You can be damage control if you want. Maybe get a chance to prove how bad you think you are.”

       "You're better at it than me."

       Corey looked sad for a moment. "I hope you're wrong in this case."

       A few minutes later the group was walking up the block, their pace set to Lee's slow steps. The fat boy led with Corey on one side, Roland on the other, while Simba took their backs. Last came little Nate, often stumbling because he was holding Boomer and trying to watch the tiny screen, but also stopping to stare in seeming wonder at his surroundings before Lee noticed and told him to hurry up. Corey was toting a pack, while Simba and Nate were the only ones in Issue threads. Nate, his big round tummy bobbing like a beachball, had almost as much trouble keeping his jeans on as Lee, especially with his clanking, gear-laden tool belt. His MMT/U outfit looked more like a costume for Trick-Or-Treat -- Acceptable Activity -- the yellow vest glaringly bright, and the hard-hat so large he kept having to bump it up higher on his forehead or else it dropped over his eyes. The robo dog only added to his childlike look as he clumped along in big rubber boots.
       Simba noticed that many of the new FREE buildings were actually constructed from fragments of old materials; squares of shiny stainless-steel jarringly joined to rectangles of rusty tin or concrete panels, even plywood, to form patchwork buildings. They looked more like mix-and-match sculptures than true FREE structures.
       Then, as the newer apartments faded behind, they neared the edge of an even less-developed area, steel and glass losing out to dirt and rubble, as if forces of semi-new and ancient were warring to stake claim of the neighborhood in a battle of second-hand. High above on a rusted water tower, the digitized face of a billboard woman flashing a blindingly white smile, commanded everyone to, “Laser away tooth decay because oral hygiene is Thoughtful”
       Nearby were a pair of new single story buildings. Inside the first was a counter with a register, and rows of empty clothing racks. A weathered poster on its window read, THE LATEST IN PER-PROP FASHION COMING SOON! Though the place was seemingly deserted, its yellow neon sign spelling, THE FREE SHACK, beckoned to future customers.
       The second building was just a metal frame. Leaning in its doorway were large glass rectangles. Scattered around them were Skilled Trade Tech tool boxes, but there were no workers in sight.
       Simba found himself alongside Nate, trailing the rest of the crew while absorbing the dreary scenery. Lee called for Simba to hurry up almost as often as he did Nate. Retracing his steps of last night, Simba thought the weedy lots with their crumbling foundations resembled cemeteries. Clumps of concrete jutted from the earth like tombstones, and dandelions sprouted around them like flowers for the dead.
       “Is it your time of the month or somethin'?"
       Simba came alert at the sound of Lee’s voice, but it was directed at Roland again. They were just far enough ahead so Simba couldn’t hear what Roland was ranting about, but it probably wouldn’t have made sense anyhow. All that Conflict couldn’t have been about eggs, so Simba assumed the dudes were speaking in code like little kids about something he wasn’t supposed to hear. Simba had noticed how Roland flared whenever his name was brought up, but if all Roland’s anger was aimed at him, what had he done to deserve it? When the dude had left Lee’s crib last night, he’d filed Simba Conditional. But something must have changed since then. A Reassessment? As the group continued along the blocks, Roland kept glaring back at him in between bickering with Lee.
       They approached the alley where Simba had been rescued... Simba sure it was the one because the Bradley tracks scarring the pavement were fresh, and chunks had been gouged from the sides of the buildings. Simba experienced a flashback, hearing the Keeper’s rifles, the roaring gatling gun, and the black sergeant’s bellowed commands.
       Lee came to a halt, mopped his face with the tail of his shirt, and followed Simba’s gaze before giving Simba another one of his thoughtful scans. “We’re not goin’ up to the clubhouse today. Got somethin’ else on the menu.”
       Simba smiled. “No eggs?”
       Roland’s eyes narrowed.   
       “But first,” Lee went on. “Nate has to check a sewer tunnel, so things could get a little nasty. ...You up for that?”       
       Simba glanced at Roland, whose frown had deepened.
       “Yeah, that’s cool. How nasty can it be?”
       Lee nodded. “Aight.”   
       The group turned down a side street, nearing what appeared to be the business center of this Fence. The sidewalks were still old and broken, but mostly free of litter and trash -- probably because of the yellow Tidy-cans spaced along the curbs. Of course, Tidy-cans were everywhere in South Central, but Simba hadn’t seen any with signs that warned: A CONVICTION FOR LITTERING COUNTS AS A STRIKE!
       “Citizens in South Central don’t hardly even remember Strike Crimes,” said Simba. “They’ve been obsolete for years.”
       “Figures,” muttered Roland.
       The night before, Simba had noticed only a scatter of surveillance cams in Lee’s Sector, but now he was conscious of many scanning eyes, every other lamp post fitted with a camera. The knowledge he was being watched almost put him at ease... until he remembered that now he had something to hide. If littering was a Strike Crime here, than what he had done would probably be cause for Reassignment!
       Then he heard another voice: “Aw, c’mon, man. You gotta believe me! I’m a good Citizen!”
       The commotion came from across the street, where a battered old Bradley sat smoking at idle while its squad members questioned a man in late teens or early twenties. The sight of the vehicle almost made Simba Panic, but the faded stenciling on its flank read PEACE KEEPER 3, not 13. A chunky white Keeper wearing pilot style shades, his oval face as pink as the eyes of a lab rat, had an FC pinned with his chest to the wall of a building.
       The man being questioned was frail in physique, looking as though the weight of authority would crush him. At the same time, he was a wild burst of energy. He fidgeted in place, whipping his head back and forth, his mouth moving so fast that he spoke whole phrases in silence, the words trailing seconds behind like delayed audio in a vid. “Please, please! I’m a good Citizen for real! I was just standin’ here. That’s all!”
       The Keeper, backed by several others, all wearing Tough Love helmets, kicked the man’s legs farther apart, then began a rough body search, slapping in places that should have been patted.
       “I was just standin’ here!”
       The Keeper growled. “That’s the Unacceptable problem, boy. Back before the Fences, somebody would’ve thought you were a thug the way you’ve been leaning here holding your crotch, all slouched over. It’s gangster posture. Thoughtless.”
       The suspect squirmed. “I got rights, man! Rights!”
       “Yeah? Well, you can always file a complaint at FREE-Control.”
       “I got rights to know what I’m bein’ questioned for is what I’m sayin’! It's in the FREE Constitution! They told us in Welcome School! I know that, man!”
       The Keeper grinned. “That so?” He glanced at one of his partners, a lanky Latino with a flawless goatee. “Hey, Garcia, this one wants to know why he’s being questioned.”
       Garcia stroked his triangular beard. “Ask ‘em if he’s ever heard the story about the man who knew too much.”
       The first Keeper’s grin widened. “Hear that, boy? So, what do you think happened to the man who knew too much?”
       “I got rights as a FREE Citizen!”
       The Keeper shook his head. “Okay, buddy. That’s enough Thoughtlessness.” He grabbed the man by the back of the neck, cuffed him, then marched him to the Bradley.
       Simba’s initial reaction to what he’d just witnessed was a flare of anger. But the emotion cooled as he couldn’t decide who he was angry at: the Keeper for his bullying, or the suspect for being Thoughtless and giving the Keeper a reason to be so nasty. Simba felt frustrated at not being able to make the situation right in his mind. He tried to scan Lee and the crew's reaction, but they weren’t much help. Roland was muttering to himself; Nate was involved with Boomer’s screen, and Corey’s expression was completely unreadable. Only Lee looked a little angry, shaking his head before moving on.
       A blimp soared into view overhead, displaying the message, FREE YOUR MIND, as if it was a personal plea to Simba. He glanced back at the ancient Bradley as its squad mounted up: he wouldn’t turn himself in to that crew, but there had to be somebody with a little compassion at FREE-Control headquarters here... didn't there?
       The streets in this Sector were busy with Citizens whose attire ranged from Food Prep smocks to Skilled Labor coveralls or EML tank tops -- yellow, of course instead of green -- but no matter what Assignment they were dressed for, nobody looked happy. They walked at a sluggish pace, sometimes having to be prodded along by a patrolling Keeper; and instead of moving together, they broke into small groups to mutter and waste time before being ordered or pushed onward again. There were no Scan-Stations; Keepers just lurked in doorways or slunk around corners, ambushing people with random band checks. Simba watched one Keeper surprise a few FCs loitering near a fire hydrant, the man giving them a hands-on-hips, Power Posture glare of disapproval. When that didn’t work, he pulled out his Tough Love club and banged it against the hydrant, the FCs scattering. Just ahead, another Keeper was stopping a fight, while his partner busted up a nearby dice game.
       All this Unacceptable Activity left Simba disoriented, the telescreens, protected by steel mesh, only adding to his confusion. He tried to lose himself in their familiar imagery and muster some confidence, but The Video didn’t seem to help with everything else going wrong all around.
       Other than most of the Keepers, Corey was the only white person in sight -- even if he wasn’t white -- but he seemed to wear his band with oxymoronic pride, taking pleasure in the curious looks he got. Simba saw a Keeper jab his scanner at Corey and appear puzzled by the read-out. Then the man glared around at the others. "Pull up those goddamn pants!" Then he stabbed a finger at Simba, who almost pissed his pants, thinking his band had been discovered. "And why aren't you all in Issue like him?"
       Simba let out a sigh of relief, but Roland stepped to the Keeper. "These are our clothes an' we bought 'em at your shitty old Per-Prop shop!"
       The Keeper flushed. “Watch that mouth of yours, boy! Your Politeness Procedure sucks!"
       Lee gave Roland a warning glance when Roland looked about to tell the Keeper to suck something, but the Keeper just waved them off with disgust, and the group continued on past a computer terminal building. Simba felt a jolt of something very close to guilt: today would be the third day he’d missed work. He imagined rumors of Reassignment spreading among the other DPTs, but what bothered him most was thinking of all the repairs that probably hadn’t been done right. He experienced an urge to get busy, to do something Productive for the System. Was that good... or just stupid?
       Across from the terminal was a scrapyard where huge cranes were crushing piles of metal in their jaws. EMLs worked there, most of them built like Roland, but with a lot more mass, almost too much, looking awkward trying to keep out of the way of the cranes.
       "Yo, Simba! Is you comin' or what, query?"
       "Huh?" Simba turned to find Nate nudging him.
       "Hey, Simba, I'm the one always forgettin' my brain. C'mon. The others waitin'."
       Simba smiled at the boy. "Oh. Sorry, man."
       Nate kicked his toe on the concrete, looking shy. "You don't gotta Politeness Proceed to me. But, thanks anyways." He pointed to the cranes. “Hey, y’know them machines are computer-controlled? They got no way of tellin’ the difference between a piece of junk or a person who get too close. Corey ‘splain that to me. He say a little Thoughtless boy got trapped in that yard once, an' a crane snatched him up an' crushed him with the scrap! Data-download.”
       The story made Simba shiver, and he quickly changed tracks. "Um, so Boomer’s screen must show some good stuff, the way you watch it all the time.”
       "It ed-u-kay-tional.”
       Boomer yipped in agreement.
       "Oh," said Simba. "Well, Data-Input, Advisory, man: better take a second to pull up those pants, you don’t want anybody thinkin’ you’re Thoughtless."
       "Oh yeah. Forgot. Memory-degrade.”
       Lee stood waiting as Simba came jogging to join the others, Nate close behind. Roland looked just as angry as ever, and even Corey seemed seriously thoughtful.
       "We’re comin’ up on Nate’s Assignment.” Lee led the way down another side street, nearly all the buildings boarded up, many with ancient thug graffiti still sprayed on their fronts. They passed a vacant lot being cleared by EMLs, Simba watching a bulldozer plow rubble, thankful it was being driven by a human. In the distance he viewed a gleaming new structure, the closest thing he’d seen to what they had in South Central. “Nate, what’s that?”
       “Query? Oh. FREE-Control headquarters. Data-download.”
       “Figures, huh?” said Corey. “They always build the warden’s house first.”
       Lee was motioning them into an alley. Set in the asphalt down at the end was a storm drain grating. Lee and Corey crouched beside it, while Nate just watched Boomer’s screen.
       "Nate!” ordered Lee. “Get your little ass over here!"
       "Sorry. I forgot." Nate came over. "Um, what does you want, query?"
       “For you to do your job, duh.”
       “...Oh yeah.” Nate drew a long titanium pry bar from his belt, which looked more like sword on the little dude, while Lee rummaged through Corey’s pack, yanking out a roll of plastic food-wrap and handing it to Simba. “Cover your legs and feet with this. No time to be neat, just hurry up.”
       Simba did as told, supposing it was logical for a trip through a sewer, cocooning himself in plastic from his sneaks to his knees. “How’s this?”
       Lee smiled. “Acceptable. Pass it on.”
       Simba gave the roll to Corey who, after wrapping himself, did the same for Lee, who had problems reaching his feet. Then Corey passed it to Roland. In the meantime, Nate had levered open the grating and shoved it aside.
       “Don’t I gets plastic?”
       “You got your boots, brainless!” growled Roland.
       “Oh yeah. ...Um, so now what, query?”
       "First thing, lose this!" Lee snatched Boomer from Nate's arms, despite the dog’s protests, and stuffed it into Corey’s pack. “Sleep mode!”
       “Too bad it ain’t permanent!” Roland muttered.
       Lee heaved a sigh. "You’re still pissed?”
       “Ya think?”
       “Get over it. You’re supposed to be on point."
       "Why I always gotta be point-man?"
       "You need quick reflexes to be an MEP, don't you? So, this is good practice."
       "...Never thought of that."
       “Why you’re supposed to trust my judgment.”
       Roland went to the alley mouth.
       “Um, why do you need a lookout?” Simba asked.
       Lee struggled out of his T-shirt. “We ain’t cleared to be down there with Nate.”
       “Oh, yeah. ...But why are we going anyway?”
       “Just chill with the Program, dawg.”
       Nate slipped the bar back into his belt, switched on his helmet lamp, then lowered himself into the small opening. Next, Lee eased his bulk into the hole, getting as far as his middle before looking like a huge rubber plug in a massive bathtub drain. "Shit!" he muttered, squirming. "I can't of gained that much in two weeks!"
       "Well, the hole didn't shrink," said Corey. "An' you barely got in last time. ...C'mon, Simba, help me!"
       The duo pushed and poked at Lee's blubber, stuffing him down through the hole inch by inch. Roland glared from the alley entrance. "Hurry up, fools! Clanker comin’!”
       Simba tensed, hearing the clatter of Bradley tracks, but Lee finally squeezed through the opening. "Next time I’ll bring some baby oil," he called from below, his voice echoing hollowly.
       "Go for it, man," said Corey, gesturing to Simba.
       Simba hesitated. They were breaking another law by going underground, but what could he do? Besides, he was already up to his neck in shit.
       Corey was giving him a knowing look. That was the trouble with being taught how to think in a Standard Way; people could almost read your mind and predict how you'd act in any situation. Then Simba thought he heard his father’s voice: Time for some random action, boy!
       Simba took heed, slipping down the hole before he could Reassess. He gripped an iron ladder and was soon fifteen feet underground, looking up at the sunlit circle overhead. Corey peered in, then turned and gave a whistle. Roland came running and slid down the ladder. Corey followed fast, pausing just long enough to drag the cover back into place.


                                               End of excerpt. This book is available on Kindle.