When the doorbell rang, he was already gone. He must have slipped out sometime during the night, for his sheets were absent of warmth when the cold metallic hands gripped the mattress, tore out the stuffing and flipped the iron frame. The expressionless black mask betrayed no hint of emotion, yet Mrs. Tuly was quaking when the drone descended the stairs and inquired, in a monotone voice, the whereabouts of her son.
"I don't know," she sobbed. "I really don't." The drone smacked her with its baton, and she sank to the floor. The Agent of Majest repeated its programmed query.
"Location requested: Tuly, Albert Richard." Mrs. Tuly crawled forward on her hands and knees, but she only got a couple of feet before the drone put a stop to her escape with its baton, and she sank into a deep sleep from which she would not wake. The drone extended an awkwardly long leg, stepped over her limp body, and made its way out into the street. It activated its dual propellers, and, with a distinct whirring sound, sped off into the morning light to continue its search.
• • •
Despite the fact that it was far before sunrise, the narrow, winding streets of the fog-shrouded city were packed to their limit. Al bowled over a street cart and pushed past a disheveled woman with three screaming babes at her breast as he made his way to the harbor. He didn't bother to apologize to the numerous citizens of San Francisco as he smashed into them, running, running as fast as he could.
He had left late last night, pausing only to snatch a pack of protein supplements and his knapsack from the dinner table. A second later, he was out the door and into the cold night air. He made his way toward the harbor, where he and Russell had stashed an old boat that they had discovered while exploring the rocky coast. In earlier times, Russell would have been considered his best friend. Nowadays, Majest was everyone's best friend, everyone's confidant… you name it; they fit the bill.
The concentric circles of Majest's logo where, of course, simultaneously beloved and despised by the populace of San Francisco. The love stemmed from the constant propaganda and advertisements that played nonstop on massive screens one hundred feet across in every public area. The vomit-stained alley behind the local bar, the little park with dead grass and the rusty swing set; everywhere they blared their message: Do Your Duty. Everyone knew what these three words implied: the original conception of a child, the raising of the offspring, and finally the release of one's child on September 11, during their fifteenth year of age, to be taken to Majest's headquarters on what used to be called Alcatraz, but was now known as Majesty. It was here that the officials conducted their sinister business.
The plasma in the blood of children conceived by survivors of the Great Downfall was imbued with certain properties that, when boiled and evaporated into a sterile tube, provided wondrous sensations when inhaled through the nose in one quick whiff. This peculiarity was only present in post-mortem blood, regrettably. No one knew the exact reason for this phenomenon, but the same chemical that had nearly caused the extinction of the human race had mutated in the offspring of those who were immune to its deadly properties. The pleasure of inhalation, however, was reserved for upper level operatives of Majest, but was still a luxury item which sold for outrageous prices on the Black Market which ran throughout San Francisco. The details of how the masked Sahina, the Black Market dealers, acquired the chemical was a mystery, but no one really looked further than their next dose of the drug.
Al had only ever seen one, standing in the dim pool of light under a streetlamp. He had been too afraid to approach it, and when it turned its faceless hood towards him, he almost wet his pants in terror as he ran as fast as he could away from it.
These thoughts were mere shadows as they raced through Al's mind. His whole consciousness focused on the next step, the following leap, and the final skid that would bring him to his destination. In a deft move, he vaulted over a low wall and leaped over a barbed wire fence, rolling as he hit the ground. He immediately ducked low to the damp wooden boards and darted behind a nearby cargo container, freshly offloaded from the towering barge which blocked out the red sun, rising over the ruined spine of the great bridge. The dilapidated backbone of the once-great structure now served as a reminder to all who would doubt Majest's perennial superiority.
• • •
The bridge had been bombed in 2079, 34 years before Al's birth, in an effort to quarantine the southern half of the Bay. The virus had wiped out all of the surrounding countryside, but more refugees swarmed in from the North every day. Then, one foggy morning, three fighter jets had dropped a large number of bombs in quick succession over the bridge. The refugees burned alive, and the bridge had collapsed with the groan of a dying animal, its spine bending and finally snapping, then partially sinking into the icy waters. In this manner, the South had been spared, but at a terrible cost. An estimated three hundred and twenty-six lives had been lost in the bombing of the bridge. Majest acknowledged this tragedy, but only ever described it as ‘a necessary precaution to ensure the survival of our citizens'.
The terrible aftermath of the bombing marked some of the darkest times in San Francisco's history. The city was on the brink of disaster. Many had lost loved ones, and the food was limited to foul-smelling fish from the poisoned bay. The public morale was dangerously low, and that was when Majest made its move.
They came in white hovercars, erecting new housing, providing protein supplements and eliminating crime with their faceless drones. The people were so relieved that they didn't even consider the long term consequences of having a company for a government. The roof over their head, and the assurance that they weren't going to starve to death was enough.
Then came the very first Harvest Day.
Al knew that it had been three years before his birth, but not much else. His mother had shook like a leaf in the wind as she described the terror, the rage when the featureless drones burst through the windows of sleeping families' houses, and took their children with only the brief explanation ‘Majest thirsts'. There had been riots, certainly, but the drones quickly put a stop to those with their batons and rifles. Ever since, the public had harbored a deep resent for Majest, despite the constant propaganda displayed by the eternal company.
• • •
Al scurried along the edge of the water, keeping one eye out for early-morning patrols. Drones perpetually swept the dock, looking for potential suicide victims. Al had no intention of prematurely ending his life, however, and stayed well away from the slippery edge over the black, churning water.
All of a sudden, a metallic whirring noise sounded to his left. Al hunkered down behind a shipping container as a drone zipped overhead, its black facepiece brimming with malice. When its motor had faded to a barely audible hum, Al slid down the ladder to the walkway right above the water. Just a few more steps, he told himself as he walked on through the fog, which was so thick he could barely see.
After what seemed an eternity of walking, the wooden prow of his old boat protruded from the fog. Al's heart gave a leap as he clambered down onto the grimy wooden seat. He grabbed an oar from the oarlock, and began to paddle out into the bay.
• • •
They came for him just as the first rays of sunlight were starting to penetrate the blinders he had put over his windows the previous week. Mr. Tuly wasn't in his own bed; he was sleeping in an old friend's apartment after being kicked out yet again by an irate Mrs. Tuly. For this reason, he was able to remain hidden slightly longer than his unfortunate wife.
The shadow of a hulking figure slid over the sleeping form on the mattress. Mr. Tuly was yanked from his sleep and dragged down the stairs by a bulky drone, where he was swiftly shoved into a hovercar. His heart sickened at the sight of the expensive white vehicle. There was only one place he could be going, and he didn't like the prospect one bit. Then the drone's truncheon slammed into the back of his head, and everything went black.
The silent metal doors slid open at their arrival. Mr. Tuly was forced to his knees and dragged down a long white hallway, flanked by three drones. Little by little, a door appeared at the end of the hallway. Mr Tuly let out a groan of despair as they entered the room. It was vacant, save for what looked like a dentist's chair and a table with various instruments upon its polished surface. The door slammed shut, but his screams could be heard all down the hallway.
• • •
Al was blind in the dense fog. His arms ached from the constant rowing, but he dare not stop, lest he get swept back to shore. He sank into a nonstop rhythm as he rowed, and his mind drifted far away. As Al sat in an exhausted daze, the boat bumped into something metallic and faded red protruding from the murky water.
Al sat upright with a jerk, shaking himself out of his reverie. He looked around. He had drifted into a sort of cave, but the walls and ceiling were composed of twisted, ruined metal. The boat glided over the surface of the black water, further into the gullet of the empty space. Al lost track of how long he floated, but after a little while it became apparent where he had drifted to. The vast, double-pronged tower was tipped on its side, but it was no less awe-inspiring. Al's boat carried him to the side of the great tower, and he skimmed his hand across the rusted metal as he passed by.
Then he was past it, in a huge chamber which was not quite vacant. He caught sight of several dozen black-clad figures scurrying about on a raised platform before the butt of a rifle slammed into the back of his head, knocking him unconscious.
• • •
Meanwhile, Mr. Tuly was revealing his deepest secrets. After several minutes of interrogation, he snapped. "He-he has a boat," Mr. Tuly began. "It's stashed at the harbor, please don't hurt him, he's only a boy…" But the drone was already leaving. "Don't hurt him!" The drone turned back, and, almost as an afterthought, extended its pistol attachment and shot Mr. Tuly dead. His twitching body sank to the floor, and the drone left the room, already conveying its information to its superiors.
• • •
Al saw a light, swaying in the air above him. It resembled a firefly in the surrounding gloom. The orb slowly came into focus, and Al saw the sun, gleaming through a crack in the ceiling's support beams.
Suddenly, a masked figure rose in front of him, blotting out the sunlight. Al gave a choked gasp as the bruiser lifted him by the neck, and grunted through a roughspun hood. "Were you followed?" Al tried to shake his head, but found he couldn't move an inch. Instead, he let out a strained gurgle of denial. The man threw him back onto the wooden boards of the platform they were on. "Rise." Al did so, and looked around.
He was in a room quite similar to the entry chamber, except that he could see no possible exit from this one. "Who are you?" Al stammered. The figure cast him a backward glance, then grunted a reply.
"You know who we are."
• • •
The drones skimmed across the surface of the water, searching for the boat. After several fruitless minutes, the lead drone spoke into its handpiece, and relayed its findings to the Commander.
"What do you mean he's not there? He has a boat, where else could he have gone? Check the bridge, for Majest's sake!" The drone gave the order, and the tight formation swept low over the water, speeding towards the ruins in the distance.
• • •
"Greetings, Albert." The man's accent was cultured, and not quite distinguishable. Al murmured a similar greeting, but kept his eyes downcast, as warned by the gaoler who had admitted him at the gate. "Welcome to the Sahina headquarters." Al could not help but feel awed by the sheer size of the operation he had stumbled across. He had seen hundreds of the black-clad, masked figures packing crates and sealing cargo containers. "As I'm sure you are aware, we are mainly a drug-smuggling operation, but we dabble in human transport as well. From the look of you, you want to get away from this city. We can help you."
The most Al could manage was a slight nod. "Please," he murmured. "Please help me leave this place." The man placed a paternal hand on Al's shoulder.
"Don't worry," he said. "You're safe now."
Then, from above, came the sound of whirring.
The smile remained plastered on the man's face as he stared down at Al, the hand on his shoulder tightening its grip. He called out a greeting, and the drones swooped down and alighted on the platform beside him. Al tried to dive into the black water, but one of the drones caught him mid-leap and wrapped its powerful metal arm around his throat, eliminating his air supply. Al thrashed and kicked, but the drone's grip was too strong. His vision started to go black, and he felt an unbearable tightness in his chest. It was too much. Al succumbed to the darkness, and welcomed its blissful embrace.
After Al's struggling had ceased, the drone released its grip and laid him on the rough wooden slats. Its touch sensors picked up no heartbeat, so it dumped him into a black body bag and zipped it, right up to the dual circles of Majest's logo.
"We appreciate your cooperation, sir." The drone's programmed response fell heavily after the silence that had seeped into the chamber.
"My apologies for the lack of communication. I could not risk the possibility of his escape," The leader of the Sahina answered. "And, as always, it was a pleasure." The drones departed with their precious cargo, and the man watched them go, the rising sun tracing his figure through the slats in the ruined bridge. Then he turned and walked off the raft, down a side passage, where he would wait for more rebels to walk willingly into the jaws of his trap.