Is reality real?
Of course... she answered
You should know better than that...
Too tall to see beyond and impossible to breach, the iconic wall encompassing California-Annex is nothing more than a forgettable reality for generation PW1.6. The population has boomed, cities stretch further into the sky, and the Green Initiative ensures vegetation covers virtually every surface. The Annex is now an emerald dystopia being pushed by the authoritative Governance and pulled by an unseen organization called The Agency. Over the years, the two opposing forces have wrapped themselves into a codependent relationship—but that relationship is starting to disintegrate.
On the surface, Fiona Tronick looks like a grungy pusher selling shine in back alleys, but underneath her bad jokes and bad attitude, she’s a street operative known as a controller—and she's always been loyal to The Agency. When a milky-eyed stranger hands her a briefcase of evidence pointing toward her employer’s cover-up of an influencer’s disappearance, she begins to wonder what else they're hiding. But when asked to execute that same milky-eyed messenger, she begins to wonder what else they're hiding from her.
As she rubs shoulders with political leaders in coastal mansions, confronts religious zealots in flooded San Diego, reconnects with her outlaw brother, and taps into the gritty underworld of the Trenches, she begins to see the lies go deeper and wider than she could have ever imagined.
Everything is connected. Connected to her …
01: Happy Violet
Epiphanies aren’t big bangs sparking revolutions in the mind; they’re an accumulation of reluctant realizations and small steps that can leave anyone on a cliff’s edge, staring down into a sea of electric blue saying, “How the fuck did we get here?”
The first small step sounded like a high-pitched squeal of rubber on road before a figure smacked against the grill of a taxi, reducing California-Annex’s population by one. Like a skeletal ragdoll, the body crumpled against the force of the vehicle, bent in half with a crunch, and then jutted backward. Eyes on either side of the street followed the fluttering coat and dangling limbs until the body hit and skidded across the street like a dried-up autumn leaf being bullied by the Santa Ana winds.
The city didn’t slow.
Only a single pedestrian standing parallel to the hit-and-run scene remained unnaturally still. Until her trembling fingers slowly lifted up to touch her face, her chest began to heave, and her nostrils flared as her breathing ramped up into a quickened rhythm. Whimpers pushed out in low tones as if her screams were trapped in the back of her mouth.
No, the city didn’t slow, and neither did Fiona Tronick. But Tronick was a brash counterpoint to the populace passing by or uploading the scene for digital validation.
Like a leaf floating downriver, she bumped her shoulder into the panic-stricken woman, changed trajectory with a heel pivot, and walked backward a few paces. “Don’t worry, lady, he didn’t see it coming,” she called out while laughing at her own joke. “Try club soda for the blood,” she added when she saw the woman was covered in a spray of red.
In the age of genetically engineered people, there was a sea of beautifully sculpted features, but Tronick’s features weren’t hand-selected by doting parents. She wasn’t genetically planned or planned in any sense. Just an old-fashioned mistake born to a hard life, and a type of beautiful most people didn’t want to be kind to. Perhaps because her big, golden eyes seemed to give off the impression she was perpetually rolling them at the stupidity of the world.
As a teenager, she asked a friend why boys never seemed interested. Mid-chew of his sandwich, he froze before teetering with raucous laughter. Rolling the partially masticated bite around each syllable, he said, “You got a sign across your forehead that says fuck off.”
She never could scrub that sign off, so she embraced it like she did tequila. Two parts alcoholic, one part misanthrope, shake it all up with knowing a little too much about the reality of things, and top it with the cherry of being an empath in a narcissistic world. It was a bad combination she tried to rectify with every life decision.
“Xiè xiè, Fang,” Tronick called out in a happy tone as she waved a hand clutching a stack of bamboo napkins. The cook exposed a mouth of gold teeth and slurred out her name in an accent muddled by botched dental surgery.
When she dragged her teeth down and across the top of a dumpling stacked on a skewer, a soft exclamation pushed out as a trail of miso sauce ran down her hand. She licked the forming droplet of sticky glaze before it could drip onto the ground illuminated by the deep-crimson light of a nearby tattletale tower. The food trucks, night market, and bustling bodies alike seemed to soak in that hue of Governance red, while it bled from a puddle Tronick splashed through to make way for a pair of Governors patrolling the streets.
Tronick knew she was being watched. Everyone was being watched. Yet that truth, like the tattletales themselves, was met with widespread apathy and a general shrugging feeling of so what? She knew the reality of the system, but at some point her mind switched off. It was as if she collected the details and diligently cataloged them, only to hit select all then archive.
“Small hot tea. Cheapest you got,” Tronick projected up to the green-haired barista nestled in a truck cafe. The girl blinked off the ocular insert glowing green around the curvature of her right eye as she poured the hot liquid. But as soon as Tronick opened her mouth to say thank you, she saw the barista’s eye reilluminate with Sensorium BioTech’s proprietary color. With that, the girl’s vision glazed over with distraction.
Ultimately, Tronick reduced it down to a thought the Governance would approve—as long as people followed the rules, it was fine. And she followed the rules. Usually.
She took a swig of the tea and grimaced. A few paces away, she uncapped the cup and poured the contents into a planter box.
When her mind spun out, she liked to walk in unprocessed air.
Inhale, two, three, four.
Chucking the empty bamboo skewer into the nearest compost receptacle while keeping the empty cup, she began a tour of filthy neighborhood streets.
Hold, two, three, four.
Businesses and residences stacked up narrow and hundreds of feet into a night sky tinted with pollution. Every twenty stories or so, walkway bridges wrapped around skyscrapers then split and stretched outward to neighboring buildings in a weblike pattern.
Exhale, two, three, four.
Riding a glass elevator up forty levels seemed to open the dimension of the city. Her boots slightly bounced across a metal-netted domicile bridge, before she stopped in the middle and peered down.
A holographic projection splayed an image of an enhanced woman licking her teeth and smiling before a blown-glass bottle labeled Wild Revival filled the available space. A scent of manufactured lilacs and pine permeated the air while the holographic perfume bottle remained colored in the scented mist.
Tronick scanned over product images and brand names shining on the shaggy vertical gardens covering every available surface and listened to fragmented n-subs sing out like a demonic choir: “Do you want to be beautiful? Do you want someone to love you? Buy, buy, buy.”
Like the sinister voices of sirens calling out to desperate sailors, the mechanical hums of neural-dynamic subliminal messaging, or n-subs, called out to a populace desperate for reasons to keep living. N-subs spun melodies about the failings of humanity, amplified all possible insecurities, and then promised the solution came in a package available with a finger tap on a smart screen.
However, while the populace was blissfully unaware of n-subs, Tronick was different. Ever since her accident, the inside of her brain rattled with what sounded like radio transmitter interference; raspy buzzing, pops, and whines with distorted voices poking through the noise pollution. She could hear the n-subs’ intensity but didn’t absorb them into brainwaves like everyone else. Instead, she heard propaganda and marketing tactics broken down at a mechanical level and pinging across air particles. It was like tinnitus gone sentient then blurred into abstraction, with only fragments of messages coming through in words understood but unspoken.
It had taken years for her to parse the messaging from her own thoughts. Now she could detect the mechanical whines of the n-subs pushing through her damaged ears and rewired brain, but there was always a maddening crackle and buzz she tried to cover up with music from her old-tech earbuds.
“Tron,” an androgynous voice cooed from neon purple-tinted shadows. With a mix of masculine features, feminine contouring, and dramatic cat-eye makeup, Sabine stepped forward in shiny pleather boots that shot up to the crotch area housing both sets of parts.
“What happened to your face, boo?” Sabine gestured toward Tronick’s eye. “You’ve always had a problem with authority, huh?”
The irony made Tronick smile mischievously before she replied, “Always.”
Cueing the procedure, Sabine held out a downturned hand and made sure any CCTV or nearby tattletales couldn't see what she was holding. With a weak shake and a cheek kiss, Tronick handed her the recapped cup that was no longer empty.
Money for shine in an elegant exchange.
“You have to show me how you do your makeup one of these days, Sabine. You’re more of a woman than me.”
Tronick was always a little sexually confused by the elected-herma hooker. She was born a man, identified as a woman every other weekday, and had all possible parts, but Tronick felt her straightness twirl into bi-curiousness regardless of the set of cock and balls below her vinyl teddy.
Sabine’s giggle filtered through a voice box enhancement filter, making it more feminine, but it was thumped out of her when a hairy outstretched arm pushed her back.
“Heya, Tron,” Sabine’s oversized male pimp said with a slow tip of his bald head. He spread his muscular chest like a silverback gorilla showing dominance.
“Ronny,” Tronick responded with an eye roll and a habitual finger snap to point. In a fluid pivot, she excused herself from the pair.
She moved down neon-lit escalators zigzagging down the side of stacked-up architecture, then a right, left, right into crowded streets. The swarms of people filled up all available spaces while throwing off enough nonverbal energy to make Tronick twitch.
Sidestepping a tall figure hocking a wad of mucus into the streets, she inhaled the pungent, earthy molecules of soy-glazed squids being sold from a nearby food truck. The contrasting smell of hot cinnamon from the sugared peanuts being scooped into paper cones made her olfactory cortex summersault happily.
A digital ping came from her pocket, but she already knew who it was and what he was asking before she looked at her cell. She needed a caffeine boost, and somehow he knew. He always knew what she thought before she bothered to think about it.
Tronick entered a cramped diner filled with the night crowd craving coffee, a commodity that came and went, depending on relations with places like Colombia and Africa. Although the populace knew there were other countries, it was like they were brands instead of places beyond. And even then, the docks would occasionally get automated shipping containers marked Italy or China, while all products had stickers reading Made in Viet-Bodia or Hecho en Mexico Unido, causing the merchants and black market operators alike a moment of conflict on how to proceed with the marketing.
She caught sight of him a few tables down by the window. His lux pinstriped suit looked jarring against the red vinyl-wrapped booth, yet he seemed at home as he sipped his orange juice.
“Tron,” he called out after he caught sight of her and pocketed a mouthful of food in his left cheek.
“What the fuck? You ordered already?” She slammed into the seat across from him while tossing around an overly manufactured look of betrayal. Her big, almond-shaped eyes flitted around the space and the people. She liked seeing if she could embarrass him.
Unfazed, his square shoulders shrugged before he raised a hand to the waitress’ eye line. Commanding without being demanding, that was Warrick. Truly powerful people never needed to push manufactured weight around.
“Figured you’d only want coffee anyway,” he replied evenly.
Everyone knew Warrick and respected the X’zenin family’s authority. But that two-punch combo of respect and authority was nullified once Tronick sat down, split her pouty lips into a crooked smile, and bit into a freshly stolen slice of avocado from his plate.
A voluptuous waitress came over and poured coffee into Tronick’s cup. “There you go, honey. Let me know if you need anything else,” she cooed from puffed lips painted in a glossy pink.
Due to a botched genestic operation, a type of genetically-focused plastic surgery, the waitress’ lips resembled two freshly fluffed pillows smashed together. The bottom flap pouted out even more because of her underbite, and her rounded chin ended her face too soon, giving it an unfinished feeling.
“Thanks, Shawna,” Tronick replied as she ripped a raw-sugar packet open.
Shawna always called her honey, and it caused a twinge of mixed emotions. Maternal figures calling her endearing names seemed to push something positive into her mind’s internal crater of damage. It didn’t sound disingenuous, but how could it be anything else? She found herself gripping onto the false sense of comfort and love for as long as she could, but it always passed.
As she spun the bamboo stirrer clockwise, feeling the sugar crystals break down and dissolve, she thought how odd it was that women always ended up being peripheral figures in her life. Like a waitress, client, tapper, or mother. They never became important or substantial to her.
With social movements and new waves of feminism, the mental framing and overall packaging might have changed, but it had always stayed a man’s world, leaving Tronick to skate between being underestimated or hit on. Despite that reality, all major players in her life were men. Men were just easier to understand and handle.
Tronick gulped down the sugared hot brew before she pushed her long, mahogany-colored hair back. After a compulsory sneer, she removed one earbud like a fastidious child picking out peas from her dinner. Her eyes and lips twisted in discomfort when the n-subs’ buzzing and crackling came smashing into her awareness. It was as if she were frozen into the receiving end of the Doppler effect—the soundwaves crunching into the highest frequencies. So she reduced her awareness down smaller and smaller. From the world to the diner to Warrick.
Like a machine being powered down for the night, she watched Warrick break eye contact and lower his head. She appreciated the gesture. Now, she simplified his presence and broke him down into movements. As she watched his hands work a serrated knife across a thick cut of toast, thousands of tiny crackles accumulated and crescendoed until he cut through and it all snapped to a stop.
Inhale, two, three, four.
The music gave her something to focus on. Having a thumping rhythm wind through her core lessened her anxiety. If she took out both earbuds, the world would pirouette without a spot and eventually whirl out of control. So, with one earbud unfailingly pressed in and the other in and out depending on the situation, she drowned out some of the world. With the help of tequila, she could usually drown out the rest.
Hold, two, three, four.
Regulatory brain implants would have reprogrammed her neural pathways to cope, but she despised the idea of more technology embedded in her more than she despised the buzzing of the n-subs.
Exhale, two, three, four.
As she continued to watch Warrick’s movements, she felt the oxygen being sucked in, pushed down, filling and expanding her lungs, before being expelled in a controlled exhale.
“I have two questions.” A high-pitched voice seemed to climb up and over the back of the booth and smack Tronick out of her grounding exercise. Then the female’s voice asked something about the eggs with a thick Calexico accent.
“Yes to both.” Tronick could hear Shawna respond back. “They are sourced from a nearby rooftop farm.”
Inhale, two, three, four.
Tronick brought her focus back to Warrick. Almost playfully, he pierced the domed surface of a poached egg, and she watched as it split open and spilled out a deep yellow color.
Hold, two, three, four.
“Jesus, what a dumb question, Joelle.” Now a male voice clawed into Tronick’s awareness. “Please excuse my wife, honey. She doesn’t think before she speaks. You can come back for our order in a few minutes.”
Exhale, two, three, four.
“More coffee?” Shawna came by again with a half-drained coffeepot. “I feel morally obligated to tell you our chickens are not truly free rage,” she whispered behind a raised hand, as she topped off Tronick’s cup.
“Nothing in the Annex is,” Warrick said with a quiet laugh, but Tronick was too busy looking down into her cupped hand, watching how the single earbud and two audio wires slowly transitioned from navy to a murky purple. Slightly mesmerized, she watched the surface of her kitsch technology wallow in a mix of colors that looked like a healing bruise before the brightness level ticked up a few shades into a happy violet.
“Jesus, Joelle. Everything’s in a cage in one way or another.” The man’s voice sounded like a father explaining how the pet goldfish was going to a better place right before he flushed it. “Look at us,” he added.
Tronick laughed lightly at this comment and repeated in a whisper, “Yeah, look at us.”
Warrick looked up and seemed to soak in her features before giving a nod. It was as if to say, good, you’re back.
“I guess you think it’s cute to be a twenty-eight-year-old woman who miraculously sustains herself on coffee and junk food, huh?” Warrick said between bites. He was the master of cycling between chewing, pocketing food, and talking.
She positioned her nose over the cup and inhaled the scent like an overperforming theater actor. Joy sparked between the synapses of her brain.
“Why was that a stupid question? If they put a fence around the roof, they’re not really free range, are they?” The couple behind her continued to argue.
“Junk food was banned, War,” Tronick responded in a serious tone falsified through a smile. “It’s nothing but tofu, nut milk, organic this or that. Which,” she paused, “still annoys me.” She picked up a stainless steel knife and moved it in concert with her lecturing cadence. “Organic? Of course, it’s organic. Didn’t anyone pass secondary school science? Plus, I’m not about to pay health taxes on red meats or unsanctioned food groups,” she concluded.
“Lie to me all you want. I know your dealer.”
“Of course you do. You introduced me,” Tronick said with a wink. When she grinned at him, the depth of her smile lines became obvious.
“Such a flirt,” he said as he leaned back against the booth and returned the smile.
Warrick had sharp brows, a strong nose, square jaw, and perfectly styled black hair slicked back with streaks of dark blue; making him look like something Roy Lichtenstein would have created. A stark contrast to Warrick's slick suit, tie, cufflinks, and smartwatch that cost as much as Tronick’s motorcycle, Tronick always seemed slightly dusty from the road with her ripped jeans, worn-out boots, and weathered leather jacket. She was a cross between a grunge artist and a journalist six months into reporting on the devastation of war in the Mojave Desert.
Sitting reclined with an arm casually draped over the top of her messenger bag, she stretched her legs out and tried to take up as much space as her personality did. She had a casual arrogance about her, and her mannerisms were defiant and argumentative without even saying a word.
“How’s work?” she asked as her eyes methodically scanned the people in the diner.
Although the X'zenin family had always been involved with the Defense Department, weapons, combat software, etc., Warrick created a virtual reality gaming company. He was a visionary, a businessman who could outsmart criminals and Mensa members alike with a charismatic quip. He was the full package. But there was a meticulous callousness there as well, which he expertly smoothed over with practiced charm and affluence. If he wasn’t the pretty boy with money and power, people might actually see glimmers of his obsessive-compulsive personality and the same darkness that connected Tronick to him.
“Fine. What happened to your face?” His question synced with the stabbing motion of his dirtied fork pointing toward her.
Warrick and a handful of wandering eyes had clocked her busted lip, cut occipital bone, and discoloration around her right eye when she first walked in. She could see Warrick running diagnostics and weighing the risks of asking since she sat down, and was surprised he waited this long before confronting her.
“This?” she asked as she pointed to her face. “I’m in a more hands-on work environment than you, War. I should really ask for hazard pay, huh?” She joked, but she could see him stiffen.
Warrick always seemed caught between being protective and playing it cool. When she was just a kid, he stepped up to a plate no one else even saw and took her under his Armani-draped arm. That role and responsibility seemed hard for him to shake, yet he managed to never make her feel as if she owed him. Everyone else seemed to want something. Even her own mother begged for cash, credits, or drugs, especially as she got older and the income from running tricks declined.
Mid-slurp, Tronick sank a hand into her leather messenger bag and fingered past a couple of books before producing a stack of glossy pages bound in a vintage magazine. Only a finite amount of books and magazines had survived the compulsory digitizing of the generations before, but the sentimental interest seemed limited to a scant few. Tronick was among those same few who adored the relics. She had always been an old soul.
“Hey, Warrick. Picture a wall,” Tronick said excitedly as she started flipping through pages.
“What?” His chiseled features shot up from his food and formed a genuinely nonplussed expression.
“Just do it,” she said as she waved her hand at him impatiently. “It’s a psychological exercise.”
Warrick’s expression seemed to teeter between resignation and mild curiosity now.
“Picture a wall,” she read aloud now. “Hold the image before you and define it. See the details blossom and form.” She threw her hand out, splaying fingers for impact. “Describe the angles, curves, colors, and textures. It can be as tall as you want, as wide, or as thick. Pause for thought.” She laughed lightly. “Is it translucent or solid? Wood, metal, brick, steel, glass? Can you walk around it or scale it? Is it impenetrably solid or crystal-clear glass glistening in the sun?”
Tronick looked up. “What do you see?” she asked with another easy grin carved into her face. Purple bruising brimmed her right eye while a brushstroke of neon light from the Open sign caught old scar tissue beneath her left.
Warrick looked out the window, but his eyes weren’t staring at anything tangible. Instead, he seemed tangled in a thought, like a boat anchored into place while violent winds pushed in from the east.
Tronick nodded with understanding.
“You’ve just described your conceptualization of the afterlife,” she continued reading. “The other side that holds answers you’ve searched for throughout life. Your heaven or your hell.” Her excitement diminished with each syllable.
A numbed-out sensation of sadness filled her up when she realized Warrick could only picture the wall. The oppressive structure encasing the Annex now. Too tall to see beyond, with the length expanding into the ocean. Dismal gray cinder block lined with curls of barbed wire and dotted with automated turrets.
Impenetrable. Oppressive. Absolute.
The psychological exercise saw the wall as insight into a person’s approach to life and death, and through that, insight into their souls, but it couldn’t be in this world. Forget the wall. Actual speculation about what was on the other side was insight enough.
“You’re always trying to find patterns and hidden meanings in everything, aren't you?” Warrick asked distractedly as another waiter topped off his cup. “I think you’d get bored otherwise,” he added, but Tronick wasn’t interested in this line of conversation.
“What do you think’s on the other side?” she asked in a low voice while chasing errant sugar granules across the tabletop with the tip of her index finger.
“Whatever you think is on the other side,” Warrick said.
Steam from his freshly poured coffee traced up into the cooled air in soft curves. When he tipped it to his lips, it tumbled and climbed up his structured face like rising fog.
Fuzzy edges of possibilities began to form in her mind until her mental training took over and replaced those thoughts with a practiced sense of detachment; a side effect of knowing her place. She could hear a meditative messaging play out: Allow each thought to come into your mind, acknowledge them, thank them, and then let them go.
Like any political progress, the Annex formed over time and was assisted by hyped-up marketing wrapped in an environmentally green ribbon. Then it was finalized with a general lack of interest.
Those who rushed to change their state residence had to weigh the uncertainty of nuclear unrest against being confined to the beautiful California-Annex. After an appointed window, laws passed and locked people into their designated Californian addresses. Traveling rights beyond the border were stripped and half-enforced by border patrol. Eventually, HCs ensured no one tried anymore.
The surrounding world didn’t interfere after a certain point; like a passive third party seeing a battered wife and saying, it’s none of my business.
And while the volunteer generations may have birthed rebels, once the wall was erected, marches and protests evaporated, and outcrops of resistance were consistently flattened.
With the passage of years, children’s questions went from being shushed to not being asked at all. The old generation faded away and was replaced with the complacent and easily manipulated. As each subsequent PW Generation was born into the new world, the wall became a geographic feature of little interest. Even Tronick seemed to accept the world’s new dimensions because she never knew anything else.
Like an umbilical cord pumping prescribed thoughts into conditioned brains, the PW1.6 Generation now happily sustained themselves on technology. But Tronick didn’t feel sated. The divide she felt between her and her peers was profound and continued to grow. She didn’t want to be like them; she wanted to be better. She wanted to know enough to be above the general understanding. Because with knowledge came control, and with control came power. So eventually, she dared to ask what they couldn’t even think: What’s on the other side?
Warrick finished his orange juice with a slurp and dabbed the corners of his mouth. Neither spoke, but it was a frequent ritual to sit across from each other in an all-embracing silence that summed up their contentment. To outsiders, it looked like mutual disinterest as the X’zenin tycoon worked on his breakfast while a diametric character sat across from him sipping something caffeinated.
Warrick stood tall and smoothed his suit, before paying with a swipe of his cell and examining Tronick for a second. “You know, Father always wanted you to come back to the business.”
Tronick scoffed. “That’s a lie. He always knew I loved it in the field. You just want me to quit,” she said as she gestured to her black eye.
“Fine. I want you to quit, but he really did hope you would come back to our side one day,” he said in an almost mournful pitch.
“There are sides?” Tronick asked with a smirk.
A handful of servers called out, “Good night,” and doled out paid smiles as the two of them made their way to the exit.
“How are you holding up, by the way?” she asked Warrick as she bumped him lightly.
“Good days and bad, you know,” he answered distractedly.
“Yeah, I miss him too.”