Moon pushed aside a branch and maintained a smooth stride. Justin did his best to keep up. It was amazing how quickly she moved; he had been thinking of her as slow and thoughtful, but Moon propelled herself forward as if she were gliding. She dodged every bramble and pushed through the tall grass and tangling weeds without a pause. Was it growing up on the commune or sheer force of will that helped her navigate?
On the map, it looked simple. A straight line to their destination. There were even hints here and there that roads once followed their path. These unused and abandoned pathways sank beneath overgrowing invasive plants did little to pave their way. The light, when it peaked through the trees, grew long and Justin began to wonder if they really would make it today. Maybe if they could both travel at Moon’s pace.
Justin did not realize how much he had depended on following others until he had to struggle to keep up. What if he lost her? He had no idea where he was. He could pull up a map, sure, but what good would it do him when there was nothing here and he did not know their precise destination. He set off from home alone, but he did not get anywhere until he started following. Herman was at least good for a free ride. Simon let him tag along too. Following Allison was the reason he was here in the first place. Here was following again, this time away from his sister and to an uncertain goal.
“Moon.” He had to raise his voice to reach her ahead, making him sound more urgent than he was. She slowed a little and turned her head. “Are you sure we’re going the right way. We don’t seem to be going anywhere.”
She sighed. “I’ve been here before. Don’t worry. We’re almost there anyway.”
“That depends on whether you would stop dragging ass back there.”
“Hey! What are you trying to say?”
“I’m saying if I didn’t have to slow down the whole time we might be there by now.”
“Slowing down? You mean…” Moon turned around and it was as if she had vanished. Justin had to jog to keep her in sight, though she seemed to be walking as casually as ever. Low hanging branches whipped his arms and scratched his cheeks. His lungs burned. Even through all the travels, he never had to run. He walked more than the rest of his life combined, but running was not something that interested Herman or Simon. They were happy to use cars and trains. Ok, maybe there were no passable road for cars here, but this running? It seemed a little gratuitous.
He gave up, or rather his body gave up, and he went back to the crawling walk he had used before. He would just have to keep up the straight line and hope he was going the right way. The land rolled in peaks and valleys. Moon called these hills, but his legs told him different. What qualified something as a mountain? Surely these “hills” had to be close. Every time he topped one he celebrated a little and let the relief wash over him. Every valley was a taunt from nature. He was nearing one of those taunts, a particularly cruel one with a creek bed at the bottom. There was just enough water to make the rocks slick. It should have been two long steps to get across, but he found himself baby stepping for fear of falling.
“Justin! What are you doing?” Her voice was behind him. How could that be? He turned and did not see her. “Over here! Where were you going, can’t you even walk a straight line?” He turned until he saw her, traversing the top of the hill he had just left. He took three quick steps back the way he came, flailing to keep his balance when his right foot slid on some moss. He walked just off parallel to the hillside, which turned out to be much easier than the straight up and down. At the top, he could see Moon’s amused expression.
“You’re worthless, you know that?” She said. Before he could protest, she pulled him close and pressed her lips to his. His indignation turned to confusion, which melted into a thoughtless sea of physical sensations. She grabbed his hand, turned around and pointed across the hill. There was a latticed, steel structure jutting over the top of a mound. “That’s their wireless tower.”
“What, they don’t use ubiquitous satellite?” Justin had never known a time without the net of radio waves broadcasted from and received by millions of satellites in synchronous orbit around the earth.
“Well, of course they could, but… Have you never met a hacker before?”
“I saw a couple in Siege, wouldn’t say I interacted with them. Their characters were pretty ridiculous, like something drawn by a 5th grader.”
“That’s probably because it was hand rendered.”
“Uhg, what a pain in the ass. Why would anyone want to hand render anything?”
“They do pretty much everything the most pain in the ass way possible. You’ll see.”
“Great. I hate to say this, but… lead the way!”
“He’s gone! That girl took him somewhere.” Allison was shaking Marcus, who looked at her through a haze of drowsiness. “I talked to those kids who they have been meeting with. They sent him away on some sort of, I don’t know, mission or something.” Marcus rolled over reaching for his glass of water. He took a sip and looked at her with an expectant expression. “Why are you looking at me like that?”
“Just waiting for you to tell me what you want us to do about it.”
“What is wrong with you? We have to go get him. He can’t mess around in these situations, he’ll get picked up so fast. And who knows what will happen.”
“Ok. Where did he go?”
“Another commune, Hexadecimal Hll.”
“What was that? I’m not awake yet, I must have miss heard you.”
“It’s a hacker collective.”
“Oh shit, those guys. They’re so…”
“Annoying, I know, but that’s not the point. I couldn’t get much out of those kids, except where Justin and Moon were going. I only got that because that Astrid girl slipped.”
“Probably didn’t slip. She has it out against Justin for some reason. Probably wants you to go drag him out of there.”
“Either way, we need to go get him before Links does.” Marcus rolled out of bed. As he dressed, Allison shoved a cup of coffee in his face. She sipped her own cup as she filled a backpack.
“What’s that for?”
“For what? How far is this place?”
“It’s a day’s walk, but we don’t know how long we’ll be gone.” Marcus grunted and dug around a drawer for a few minutes before throwing a tight roll into the pack. “What’s this?”
“Hard cash, all I have left.” Allison made a sad smile and zipped the bag closed.
“Alight let’s go!” She said and walked out the door.
“Wait you forgot the back pack!” Marcus called. “Oh, you didn’t forget it,” he said to himself and picked it up. He nearly dislocated his shoulder; he had not braced for the weight of the thing. What did she think they were getting into?
They stopped a couple of people to ask directions. There was some confusion about why they would want to go to Hexadecimal Hill. The residents came by Open Acres from time to time to repair equipment and pedal their strange electronic inventions. Everyone tolerated the hackers for practical reasons, but no one particularly enjoyed their company. Hackers seemed incapable of speaking without condescension. Everything a non-hacker did with technology was simply bewildering and childish. The Open Acres denizens actively avoided conversation with hackers when they were on the commune. Fortunately, the average hacker was socially obtuse and never noticed the shunning.
There were two ways to get to Hexadecimal Hill. Driving would take two or three days of winding through old, forgotten roads. Walking would only take a day, but it was a formidable hike. Allison and Marcus agreed that walking was preferable for speed and staying under the radar. Justin was probably already raising eyebrows at Links Corp, they did not need to be conspicuous by putting an unexpected car on the road. Marcus tried a few times to convince Allison to leave some of the supplies behind; his shoulders were already aching. She did not acknowledge the requests and just walked ahead, towards a dirt path leading into the woods.
To whom it may concern on Hexadecimal Acres:
I have tolerated your persistent subversive activities on my network. Your use of unauthorized devices, manipulation of security protocols, and viewing of private information is the least of your offences. You are allowed to access to the holonet because, frankly, it is not worth my time to block you. You may think your use of alternative infrastructure makes you untraceable and unblockable, but consider that a few well-placed firecrackers is all it would take to send you back to the 20th century you hold so dear.
That said, I am writing you directly regarding a matter of some interest to me. As I am sure you are aware, a faction on your compound has teamed with a neighboring group of eco-terrorists. Based on the communications I have intercepted, it seems that not everyone loves the Nesson development. That’s fine, continue living in the backwoods of history, I don’t care. However, I take direct threats to the private property of my citizens quite seriously.
Seeing as you are in a foreign nation, I cannot take legal action, but do not doubt that there will be action. As a small token of my sincerity, all of your monitors will display this message and your workstations will be inactive until all visitors from Open Acres and all conspirators from your own group are brought to the following coordinates: 36.218904, -121.764549. You will find a dock and ship. Load all the conspirators on the ship; once it has sailed over the horizon, you are free to return to your 32-bit existence.
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