Simon McDougall's Writing

March
1st

System Panic - Chapter One

by: Simon McDougall


System Panic

There, in the crowd. Something caught my eye. I strained to focus and find it again. There! In the middle of this crowded subway station was the most peculiar looking girl. The girl looked to be about my age, but maybe a year or two younger. She had bright white hair flowing down her back and aqua eyes so piercing I could see them from the fifty feet away I stood.

There could sometimes be some pretty outlandish looking individuals in this city, I’d know, I had lived here all my life. Still though. There was just something different about her. I wondered why no one else seemed to notice her.

“Transit 27 now departing,” I heard over the intercom. It took me a moment to realize that, in my distraction, I had just missed my ride. “Dammit!” I yelled under my breath. It’d be another half hour before the next one. I headed for a bench in the corner to wait.

BOOM!

Less than five minutes had passed when I heard a muffled explosion behind me. It sounded like it had come from the stairs leading back to the ticket vendors and turnstiles. Or the surface above them. When I turned to look though, nothing was out of the ordinary. No one even looked startled.

“I must be losing it,” I told myself. Probably just some construction above-ground. “It’s okay, you had a long day. Not much longer and you’ll be home with a beer in your hand and your feet up.” I sighed at my pathetic attempts to comfort myself.

“Maybe a snack will help,” I said, and thought ‘or at least help me stop talking to myself’. I got up and tried to cut my way through the crowd to the vending machine on the far wall. I got about halfway there when I felt a soft hand brush against mine.

I turned to look, and just inches away from me was the girl with the blue-green eyes. They were even more striking in person and seemed to have a neon glow to them. Our eyes met briefly. When they did, her expression grew confused, as if she wasn’t used to being noticed. In fact… no one but me seemed to acknowledge her at all.

When our short moment of eye contact was over, she continued forward, walking at a rather quick pace, to board the subway car in front of us. I turned to continue my quest for food, and that’s when things got crazy.

Up above in the stairwell, bricks hung forward from a hole in the wall. The railing on the stairs was bent and broken. The edge of the concrete stairs had even started to crumble and fall to the floor below. It looked quite literally like a bomb had gone off. And yet… everyone just walked on by the damage, as if they were completely unaware of its presence.

As I stood gawking, two men dressed like SWAT team members rushed down the stairs. One of them pointed in my direction while the other took aim with a high-powered rifle. My eyes widened as I turned toward the train. I realized just what, or rather who they were aiming at.

I lunged forward, throwing myself onto the white-haired girl and dragging her to the ground as the subway’s doors closed. Behind me, the windows exploded, raining glass down onto me. I didn’t move, I didn’t check to see if I’d been injured. I just laid there, as close to the floor as I could.

Several other shots had been fired. I could see bullet holes ahead of me in the opposite doors. Holes that would have been in the flesh of this girl had she been standing. The train finally started moving. As we passed the threshold out into the tunnel, I got up. Carefully, I tried to shake the broken glass off my clothes, only to see that there wasn’t any. I examined the subway doors. Both still had their glass, and no holes to speak of.

Nothing was out of the ordinary here, except for me. The other passengers looked at me with distaste. The white-haired girl glared at me from the floor. I reached my hand out to her nervously.

“Sorry about that. Are you okay? I caught my foot in the gap and tripped.” She took my hand and pulled herself up. The other passengers lost interest and resumed their business.

“Nice save,” she whispered in my ear. For a moment I had begun to doubt the reality of my situation, but finally somebody made me feel like I wasn’t crazy.

“Wait, you mean the tackle or the excuse?” I asked in a panic. Maybe I still was crazy.

“Both,” she answered. “But what I want to know is how you saw them!” Her tone had quickly gone cold.

“Elysia, everything alright?” a disembodied voice called.

“Yeah, I got away. Thanks to some uninvited help,” she answered the voice.

“Where’s that coming from?” I asked, confused. She didn’t have her phone out, and she wasn’t wearing a headset.

“You can hear this?” she asked.

“Yeah.”

“I can detect him too,” the deep voice replied. “It seems like somehow your perception abilities got copied onto his PPN. He’s being detected as a rogue like you.”

“Aw hell, really?” She shook her head. “Guess you’re coming with me.”

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“It’s like that movie,” the deep voice answered, “Go with her if you want to live.”

“Don’t mind him,” she sighed. “Guess I’m bringing you to the safe house.”

“Safe house?” I asked, a little too loudly. People were starting to stare.

“Shh! I’ll explain everything later,” she whispered. “This isn’t exactly the best place for it.”

I guess I’d have to agree. The cold stares on the subway were bad enough when you weren’t running from snipers. “How far is this safe house anyway?” I asked quietly.

“It’s near 26th and Benevolent Dreams.”

“But that’s in the north east corner of the city! The subway doesn’t go that far.”

“No shit. That wasn’t my original destination,” she cast a cold glare at me. “We’ll need a new ride. But first, a change of clothes.”

“A w-what?” I stammered.

“Calm down. This will only take a second.” She reached her arms out to the sides and stretched out her fingers. Two neon keypads appeared in mid-air, floating underneath her fingers. She tapped away on them for about 10 seconds, each keystroke accompanied by an almost inaudible chirp.

The keypad under her left had disappeared. The girl reached out and put that hand on my shoulder. She typed out another few keystrokes and pressed what I’d assume to be the equivalent of an ‘enter’ key.

“Don’t look alarmed,” she instructed. Within a few moments, my shabby work clothes turned into what appeared to be full-leather biker gear. Helmet and all. I looked up at her and she two had changed, however her outfit was a lot more stylized than mine.

Where she had previously been wearing sandals, denim shorts, an oversized cream colored sweater, she was now also dressed head to toe in leather. The gear she wore was much tighter fitting than mine, though not skin-tight. It was pale white with aqua-colored accents, a perfect match for her features.

The girl also seemed to have grown a few inches due to the wedge boots now on her feet. She had a helmet as well, but it had a distinct sci-fi flare to it. Her long hair had shortened under the helmet, and only about two inches stuck out the bottom. After the change, she resumed typing with the rhythmic chirping of her keypads.

I looked around. No one seemed to notice our sudden change in appearance. Theme of the day I guess. “Hey, why don’t they notice things? And what did you do anyway?”

“I injected a modified packet into the appearance output of your PPN. The system picks up on the inconsistency and error corrects for it. Your modified clothing becomes real.”

“My what? The system?”

“Shut up already. I need to concentrate,” she yelled, closing her eyes while she continued to tap. “Be ready,” she added, “we’re getting off at 48th street.”

“Okay.” I thought about it for a second and realized, “But wait, the Transit doesn’t stop at 48th Street.”

“Nope. It doesn’t.”

I thought over her words carefully. The Transit system actually runs above ground between 52nd and 48th Street. It comes out the side of a hill adjacent to 52nd, then turns west onto 48th. A few blocks later, it goes back underground. If she knows there’s no stop there, then that means…

As soon as I drew my conclusion, I looked up to see the girl finish her typing. She straddled her legs and with another firm strike on her ‘enter’ key, made some sort of motorcycle appear.

The vehicle itself featured the same hi-tech flare that matched her style. It had a sleek design overall, with several glowing accents. The most striking thing about it though, was the fact that it lacked wheels! The machine itself bore a somewhat resemblance to a snowmobile, but with glowing parts where you would expect to find the skis and tread. It hovered slightly off the ground in its idle state, seemingly without any effort.

A bright light shined into the cabin as we emerged from underground. “Four blocks to go. What are you waiting for? Get on!” the girl yelled.

“What happened to being inconspicuous?” I asked, awkwardly swinging my leg behind her and mounting the vehicle.

“Its time ran out. As ours is going to if we don’t get moving again.” With two blocks to go, she pointed at the door and typed out one last sequence on her floating keypad.

The door vanished. She leaned into the bike, turning the handles like a motorcycle throttle. The vehicle rose a few inches higher. I placed my now dangling feet onto the footrests on either side of the bike. “You’re gonna want to hang on,” she said. Reluctantly, and with no where else to hold, I wrapped my arms her midsection.

48th Street. I pulled myself in close to her as our vehicle shot forward, plummeting toward the street below. As we approached our impact, the bike, or maybe its driver, slowed our decent until we landed with soft bounce against the pavement. Well, maybe not ‘landed’ per se, as we still hovered about a foot off the ground.

We cruised downhill on a street called Yard-long Climb. The adjacent streets became a blur. It felt like we were going at least 60 to 65 miles per hour when the speed limit was only 25! I watched the adjoining street numbers drop. 45th Street, 42nd Street, 38th Street.

Coming up behind us was the sound of sirens all too familiar in this city. I looked backward and saw flashing lights rise up over the hill.

“We’re coming in hot. You got the door open Zeke?”

“Wide open and waiting. How close do you think it’s gonna be?” asked the disembodied voice, returning from its long silence.

“No contest,” the girl replied as we accelerated ahead. “I’m not about to let them catch up.”

“Alright, come on home,” the voice welcomed us.

“Wait a minute, I thought you said you were on the corner of Benevolent Dreams and 26th?” I asked as we came up on 26th Street.

“We are,” the girl replied. I swear I could feel her smirking through the back of her head. “Hold on tight.”

A hard right, a burst of acceleration, and a jerk on the handlebars. Suddenly we were no longer on the ground, but instead riding up the side of a building! We got about eight feet up the building before descending back down onto 26th Street.

Just a few blocks ahead, we reached an abandoned fire station. Well, not quite abandoned by the fire department, but certainly underutilized. As the building drew closer, I became more and more sure of my situation. My escort was aiming our bike into the broad side of the brick building!

Closer and closer. The bricks were getting bigger. Just as we were about to hit them, we somehow passed through the wall unharmed. Immediately after we were through, the girl in front of me slammed on the brakes with a slide sideways. We came to an abrupt stop right before we would have crashed into the far wall of the room.

“We’re in,” she said to her invisible partner. As she spoke those words, the ‘doorway’ on the wall we came though closed itself. Before it closed, I could see though to the outside world with just a faint brick pattern overlaid across it. Once it was closed, the wall was completely opaque leaving no sign of the doorway.

“So I guess this isn’t a fire station after all,” I said, not sure how to break the ice now that we had reached safety.

“Oh, it still is,” the girl replied, getting off of the hoverbike. “I guess you could say we ‘share the space’ with them.”

As I got off of the bike, it began to deconstruct itself before me. Layer by layer, its construction faded away into the nothing it had started as.

“So what? You guys work with them?” I asked, confused.

“Nope,” she replied, removing her helmet. “They don’t even know we’re here.” With one hand, she tapped a few of her keys. Our modified clothes returned to their original appearance. Her helmet, which she now held under her arm, disappeared as well.

The girl’s shortened hair grew out as strands of translucent aqua. The strands continued to grow until they reached their original length. They then solidified, becoming as blindingly white as they were when I first saw her.

“They don’t know you’re here?” I asked.

“This place exists in corrupt location data,” the disembodied voice chimed in. “In layman’s terms, it overlaps with the fire station. Don’t worry, we’ll explain everything soon.”

I scratched my head at this bizarre terminology. It wasn’t over my head, in fact, I considered myself rather good with computers. What all these tech words had to do with real life was the part that baffled me. As I stood there processing everything, the white-haired girl began to walk away.

“Hey, wait. Um, thanks for the lift!” I scrambled for the right words and didn’t quite find them. “My name’s Jackson. He said your name was Elysia, right?” She stopped and turned toward me.

“Yeah. If you’re sticking around, you can call me just call me ‘Lys’ though.”

“Okay, Lys. So, can you tell me what’s going on?”

“Nope,” she answered abruptly. “Not my problem. I’ll drop you off with Zeke though. He’s the voice that’s been in your head all day. He’ll be able to answer your questions.”

“Um…” ‘Some gratitude’ I thought to myself. “Okay, lead the way.”

As I followed her, my mind raced with questions. I guess they’d be answered soon enough. And from the sounds of it, I’d be meeting the face behind that disembodied voice as well.