phemeral rectangles of light drifted across the ceiling in a silent ballet. The sporadic whine of passing hovercars drowned the faint whisper of Nina’s breath. Along the north wall, floor-to-ceiling glass allowed the glow of the city in. The intruding light imparted a spectral radiance to her white bedclothes and left the far reaches of the room darker by contrast, detail lost in a mass of indistinct shadows. Tiny, flickering spots winked from various unseen devices.
Time drew to an agonizing stall. No distraction she tried to force into her mind kept her from worrying about her meeting with Lieutenant Oliver in a few short hours. Nothing good ever came of Division 0, and she could not understand why they wanted to meet. Nix, the old stuffed pink rabbit on her pillow, had more psionic ability than she did. They could not intend to recruit her, which left only one possibility―someone wanted them to go rooting around in her mind. Her growing anxiety kept sleep at bay.
She teased at the smooth fabric of her pajamas while the Comforgel pad beneath her cycled through subdued blues and violets. To her right, two silver bars atop the nightstand detected her gaze upon them and came to life. The smaller one made a faint noise as a panel of holographic light opened like a window shade above it. The sound lurked just beyond the reach of the human ear, a presence one could not claim to hear as much as feel. Flecks of dust glinted through the image of Nina’s parents. Her weary smile came as a reflex, but fell flat as the other bar shimmered with green light.
Floating numbers taunted her with 03:03.
Desperate to find sleep, Nina tried to convince herself that the interview was an opportunity. It might be the first step of her transfer to Division 2. It had been more than two years since she graduated University and joined the force. Everyone knew she disliked Division 1. She hated street patrol.
With a growl of frustration, she threw the covers off and sat on the edge of the bed. The Comforgel shifted to a soft red as it tried to compensate for lost warmth. For several minutes, she teased a clump of carpet lint with her toe before trudging over to the windows. Her reflection focused a restless gaze back from under jet-black hair that hung to her shoulders. It had been down to her waist in school; just another in a long list of things she had given up for the job she wanted. Her pajamas draped loose on her frame, as though she had raided an older sister’s wardrobe.
Nina stared through her ghost at the city beyond, watching hovercars dart around each other three floors below like a swarm of mice in a maze. Watching the city often helped her relax. Millions of people, all with their own problems, made hers seem trivial by comparison. The never-quite-dark of West City offered no solace tonight; the world was rendered a meaningless blur by her sleepless haze.
She gave up on the window and flopped across the bed. Within seconds, the pad adjusted to her shape and she snuggled into the bedding with a half-contented moan. Her father’s voice whispered in the back of her mind, chiding her for throwing away her status for a ‘job.’ His plan would have been less stressful; the Duchenne family wealth could keep her comfortable, but oh so bored. A call to Vincent would cheer her up, though she did not want to wake him. With each agonizing minute, her regret at passing on his offer to spend the night increased.
Solitude felt like a bad idea in retrospect. It left her with nothing but her thoughts and the squares of light that slid across the grey above her.
A pale waif wrapped in rose-pink cloth, she sprawled on the bed like a rag doll. Her hair fanned out across the silk as her gaze chased random lights across the ceiling. Not since finals week had so much anxiety shared her bed. She pictured Vincent’s tan skin, and the wry smile he always made, as if privy to humor no one else knew about.
Unlike the rest of her unit, he did not make a habit of teasing her about her size or desire to be a tech. She had been the victim of several pranks during her first weeks, some silly and some cruel. He volunteered as her partner after Officer Alvin locked her in a trash processing unit and went on patrol alone.
She got his message―he would rather have no partner at all than ride with her.
Vincent treated her well, if not overprotectively, and he always seemed to showboat to impress her. Whatever it was that he did, it worked. Nina had been paired with him for a month shy of two years, and their relationship had gone far beyond a working one. She had not yet been able to break the news to her father that she wanted to marry someone ‘below her station,’ as he would say. That could wait until after Vincent popped the question. Nina almost looked forward to the argument. Her eyes closed as she rolled into the sheets, thinking about Vincent.
A digitized cacophony jogged her awake as her NetMini announced an incoming call. Nina’s mind floated, absent any sense of the passage of time. One eye popped open, staring at the palm-sized slab of technology on her nightstand. Vibration accompanied the ringer, causing the NetMini to creep toward the edge. Heaviness permeated her limbs, making movement arduous. She rolled away from the pestering electronic device and curled into a ball. A fleeting moment of comfort passed before the beeping turned to banging and pulled her brain back from the precipice of sleep yet again. After a futile attempt to ignore it, she realized the banging was not in her head, but at her door. Anger shoved her into a seated position; she glared through a curtain of hair, already composing what she would scream at whoever dared bother her.
Sunlight flooded the apartment. Morning had snuck in during her fleeting nap. She lifted her arm to block the sun and cast a pleading look to her nightstand. The holographic clock again mocked her: 06:45. Now wide-awake, she ran to the door. It slid to the side with a faint squeak as she slapped the panel. Vincent waved. After planting a hasty kiss on the faceplate of his helmet, she ran to the rear of the apartment without a word.
“Good”―He blinked as she ran right out of her pajamas and disappeared down the hall ―“morning.”
The garments had not even floated to the carpet when a distant door slammed. Vincent removed his helmet and set it on the table, stretching his arms as he wandered about. Scratches and scuffs across the otherwise shiny blue armor gave away the five-year tenure of his assignment. He often told Nina he liked patrol division because it kept him close to the people he wanted to help. The sound of the shower unit starting up rumbled through the wall, and he paced. His boots thunked as he moved, despite the indigo carpet and his attempt to be considerate to the downstairs neighbor.
“You ok?” he yelled.
“Crap, what time is it?”
“If anyone else was driving, you’d be late.” He laughed and grabbed his helmet. “I’ll be out front.”
Despite living here his entire life, Vincent still found the expanse of West City an impressive sight to behold from a high-up perch within a glass bubble elevator. Hurtling without sound along a magnetic track on the outside of the building, it carried him down into the rising grasp of the city. Shimmering towers of steel and glass devoured the horizon, until the sounds of the street-level flooded the compartment, mixing with the life-sucking noise that tried to pass itself off as music. By the time he reached the street, the sky had vanished behind nearby buildings, floating advert bots, and a steady stream of pedestrian traffic. Even unoccupied, Vincent’s patrol craft seemed to scare civilians into giving it a wide berth.
Dark blue and white, the vehicle was half again the length and width of an average car. Armor shrouded its four ground wheels and numerous pods bulged from here and there with sensor and communication equipment. The gull-wing door opened upwards with a pneumatic hiss as it sensed Vincent’s transponder approaching. He dropped into the driver’s position but left the door up and one leg hanging out, watching people go by.
Nina stood in the clear tube of the shower unit, tapping her finger on the plastic shield in an impatient beat as a mixture of cleaning agent and warm water sprayed from the orbiting jets. She held her arms over her head and turned to allow the machine to clean her. When the water stopped, she grabbed the handrail. Someone had mistuned the dry cycle, and she did not fancy being blown off her feet again as the dry cycle was stuck on a setting too powerful for someone her size. Cringing, she struggled to keep her toes in contact with the floor through the gale. Her weight settled back onto her feet as the fans died down, and she sprinted from the bathroom.
She ignored the frigid air and slapped the button to open the cabinet. In less than a minute, she was dressed and armored. Nina checked her UCF MP21 on the elevator down, flipping the switch to the ready position. Blue LEDs lit up above the trigger in sequence before it chirped and clicked as a caseless round moved into the firing chamber. Every morning she hoped she would make it through another day without needing it. After flicking the safety on, she slipped the gun into its holster and tapped her foot until the door let her sprint out across the courtyard.
He started driving before the door closed. Nina sagged in the seat and stared at Vincent’s smirk with the accusatory glare of someone left out of a joke. He pulled back on the control sticks and the road fell out of view below the hood. Nina was thankful at having overslept and not eaten anything yet―the maneuver would have left her breakfast all over her boots. Vincent drove recklessly enough when he wasn’t rushing. The car pivoted up at a sharp angle, and the acceleration crushed her into the seat with enough force to make breathing difficult for several seconds.
She stared at his stupid grin. “What?”
“I’m just happy to see you.”
They edged past three hundred miles per hour, and the civilian traffic below them changed from individual objects into a stream of color.
She narrowed her eyes, smiling, finding it difficult to sound menacing with a two-handed grip on the “oh shit” handle. He allowed the patrol craft to settle in at a beyond-casual 275 mph and flipped the bar lights on, but left the siren off.
“You’ll get pissed.”
“It’ll piss me off more if I have to find out on my own.” She cringed through a hard sweeping left turn.
“It was the way you came running down the steps with your helmet in your hands.” He winked. “You looked like a kid dressed up as a cop for Halloween.”
Even after two years, short jokes still got a rise out of her.
The remaining “could you” changed into an unladylike combination of noises as a sudden loss of altitude and speed caused her stomach to upend itself.
“You really should keep your mouth closed for those kinds of maneuvers, hon.”
As soon as she felt safe enough to let go, she punched him twice in the shoulder. He laughed harder, and she hit him a third time before pouting out the window. Every so often, a line of static appeared in the “glass.” The car had seen its share of rough and tumble, and the system that turned inch-thick armor plates into windows had the occasional glitch. From him, she took it as the friendly poke it was meant to be, but no one else took her seriously as a police officer.
Even Nina did not take Nina seriously as a cop.
The past two years had been an uneventful drudgery of patrols in quiet sectors. Everyone knew the captain gave them a cushy route; she was only here because she had to be. Vincent knew it, too, and she loved him more for not complaining about the easy ride.
Her hand hit the “oh shit” handle hard enough to go numb. “Vince! Vince! Vince!”
The parking deck of the police complex came in fast―too fast. She would have pointed if she could have let go.
He rolled the car upside down and slammed on the lateral thrusters, sending it into a sliding sideways arc through the parking garage. They careened along the ceiling before a spiral roll around a column dropped them into an open parking space amid a sea of ionized fog and coolant fumes.
He leaned over and kissed her sweaty forehead. “Two minutes to spare.”
Embedded in the seat, she had stopped breathing, and her lips curled into a creepy grin. Her darkening eyes tried to burn the side of his head.
For a minute, the car remained silent, save the sound of her gasping breath.
“Was it going from 250 to stop in four seconds or the sideways spinning across the ceiling that bothered you?” He sounded as calm as if he were discussing which wrapping paper to use. “If you don’t get moving you’ll be late for your meeting.”
The bubbling mixture of fear and anger exploded into panic as the dread of Division 0 wiped away the thought of their almost-crash. She kicked the door open and tore off through the parking garage. Vincent put his feet up and laced his fingers behind his head, grinning as the echoing footfalls of her boots grew faint.