2052, October 14th
Collapse + 3 years
The town mall wasn’t used anymore. It was too big to bother maintaining, and too cold to use as it was. Looters had long ago taken anything useful. Everything else was strewn about the shop floors. Squatters had moved in occasionally, setting up makeshift homes in the backrooms. The town always drove them out, but not before their refuse contributed to the grime.
The Lakirans had done a quick job of cleaning out the food court. In place of tables and chairs were now four military tents. Warm light shined inside them. Using stanchions, soldiers directed townsfolk to get into orderly lines and directed them into tents as soon as they became available. It was streamlined. The soldiers were bored.
Winnie and the others had hoped they could prevent the Lakirans from coming into their lives, but they never had a chance. For the Lakirans, taking this town was rote.
As each townsfolk finished in a tent, they left out the back, where the soldiers led them to another holding area farther into the mall.
But then came a man whom they took elsewhere. Winnie hadn’t noticed until he started yelling.
“Hey,” the man said as the soldiers directed him toward the exit. “Hey, where are we going? My wife is over there.” Everyone looked. He was one of the town watch. “My wife is over there.” He jerked out of the soldiers’ grip. They swarmed him with batons. He screamed as they held him down.
Several people in the town crowd climbed over the stanchions and moved toward him.
Soldiers blocked them. “Back in line,” they barked, rifles raised.
“Where the hell are you taking him?” a town watchman yelled.
“Get back in line. Final warning.”
Behind the soldiers, the others dragged the beaten man into the cold. Everyone saw through the glass doors as they loaded him into a steel pod. It sealed. A small hovering plane hooked it and airlifted it away.
“Where is he going?” the watchman yelled.
“Get. Back. In. Line.” The soldier shoved the man toward the stanchions.
Processing continued. That man was the first of many. Nearly every person who had been on the city watch was dragged away to pods, as well some of their wives, and their children. They took some people away who weren’t connected to the watch at all. To Winnie, their choices seemed random. With each person taken, her mother’s grip tightened.
They slowly shuffled along the line. Each citizen took minutes. Between four tents and four hundred townsfolk, Winnie was in line for hours. At least it was warmer in here. Her fingers burned as feeling returned.
Finally, their time came. A soldier signaled. Cautiously, they moved forward.
“One at a time,” he droned.
“She’s my daughter.”
“One at a time.”
Her mother’s grip slowly released, though neither moved. Only when the soldier approached did her mother finally step forward. She glanced back at Winnie before disappearing into a tent. Another one freed up. They called for Winnie. One foot before the other, she approached.
The tent was heated. Four men were inside. Two soldiers guarded the entrances, and a man who looked like an accountant sat behind a propped-up tablet. Beside him was a man who wore white—an exemplar.
“Please, sit,” the accountant said. “We’re going to ask you a few questions. I’d like you to answer as simply and honestly as you can. Please,” he pointed to the seat across from him. She sat, hands clutched in her lap to keep them from shaking. The exemplar’s eyes were trained on her. His expression was blank.
“What is your name?” the accountant asked.
“Full name, please.”
“Cho Eun-Yeong.” She spelled it. “My name is also Gwyneth, but everyone calls me Winnie.”
“Are you a resident of this town?”
“Were you a resident here before the Collapse?”
“My mom and I are from farther north in Washington State. We came down here because—”
“Thank you. So you were a United States citizen?”
“What is your date of birth?”
Winnie gave it. The man continued asking routine questions. She answered. All the while the exemplar stared directly at her. In his lap was a tablet device, but it stood out to Winnie. It had a thick steel frame, and old fashion LED lights on the top indicating power—bulky and ugly, unlike the rest of the Lakiran’s sleek technology. Even Winnie’s tablet was prettier, and hers had been cobbled together by the town’s decrepit assemblers.
The exemplar was still staring intently, as though he saw something curious on her face.
The accountant finished. “Thank you. If you could just look here…” He held up his tablet and pointed to a small camera on its back. Winnie hardly glanced when it flashed. “Thank you. While I print you up an ID, he’s going to ask you a few questions.” He gestured to the exemplar, then typed away at his tablet.
“Look me in the eyes,” the exemplar said. Winnie did so.
But then the questions didn’t come. He merely stared. Was this the mind reading? Was he seeing her thoughts right now? The rifle. It was on the ground in that cellar. She was going to use it against the Lakirans. She’d vowed she would never stop fighting them. Was he going to see this? Was he listening to her train of thought? She tried to clear her mind.
The silence stretch on. The exemplar’s brow furrowed. Was that bad? Was he seeing something he didn’t like? Wasn’t he supposed to be asking questions?
The accountant glanced curiously at the exemplar. Winnie glanced at the accountant.
“Keep your eyes on me,” the exemplar said.
Winnie’s eyes snapped back. She was frozen now. Any sudden movement might spook the exemplar, and he would send her away kicking and screaming to one of those pods.
Please, she thought. She would behave. She wouldn’t fight back. She was stupid to ever think that she would. Stupid and afraid. Please don’t send her away. Please leave her and her mother alone. They just want to live.
“Are you associated with the European Democratic Alliance?” he asked suddenly.
“What? No,” said Winnie. A startling question. That was a group a world away born out of the tempered remains of the EU. She’d heard they’re at war with the Lakirans, but that’s all she’d heard.
“Are you involved in any group working against the Lakiran empire?”
“Do you have any intention of resisting or in any way subverting the Lakiran empire, either in this town or elsewhere?”
Her mind shot to that rifle. She cast the thought aside. “No. I don’t. I was… I won’t do anything.”
Her heart jumped to her throat. What kind of answer was that? Even the accountant raised an eyebrow.
The exemplar nodded slowly as he gazed at her. His eyes narrowed. Winnie’s heart beat against her chest, but she didn’t look away.
A machine at the end of the table popped out a small plastic card. The accountant took it and glanced at the exemplar. “You done?”
The exemplar didn’t respond immediately. “Yeah. I’m done.”
“You sure? You didn’t ask—”
“I’m done. Go ahead.”
The accountant handed the ID card to the soldier at the rear tent flap. The guard motioned for Winnie to rise. She did so on shaky legs. He grabbed her shoulder and led her toward the back exit.
“She clear?” the guard asked.
The exemplar swiveled to answer, but paused in thought.
“She clear, or are we packing her up?”
Everyone stared. Still nothing.
“If you have to think about it,” the soldier said, “we pack her up.”
This snapped the exemplar out of it. “What? Oh. Uh, no. She’s clear.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. She’s clear. Put her with the others.”
“All right then,” the soldier slapped the ID card into Winnie’s hand. It showed a picture of her looking startled. He led her toward the group of refugees that wasn’t dragged away. “Go with them. Don’t lose your card.” He gave her a little shove.
Winnie staggered toward her mother. Her legs barely made it before she collapsed. Her mother held her, and for the first time since the sirens sounded that day, Winnie cried.
The sun was coming up by the time the Lakirans sent them home. Tired, hungry, and cold, Winnie and her mother returned. Most Lakiran’s were gone by the time she got up. Those that remained had established themselves in the courthouse the watch used to meet in. They scoured the town for all weapons and food supplies, which they put under their own roof.
Three days later, a Lakiran shuttle arrived. To everyone’s surprise, it contained all the men and women the Lakirans had dragged away.
The Lakiran’s had questioned them all further, but then determined them not to be a threat. That’s all they said on the matter.