Keith Lucas sipped his coffee and looked over at his wife over breakfast. “I finally made it. I’m going to be inducted today.”
“I don’t want to hear about it again. Leaving your day-job is a terrible idea.” Diana said bitterly.
“I’ll still work part-time. Do you want me to keep programming punch cards for textile machineries for the rest of my life?”
Keith leaned in closer and lowered his voice. “This time I could use my expertise to make a difference and being formally accepted to this organization can make that happen.”
Keith stood up from the table and walked into the living room.
“Even as a temporary member I helped them tap into government databases, street camera feeds and internal communication.” Keith stopped and looked at the far side of the room. “Leaking all this information can expose what our government is doing and throw them over eventually. You’ll see that this team will be the saviour of us, citizens.”
“So your plan is to become a criminal.” Diana said.
“No, you don’t understand Dee!” He felt irritable now.
“Everything in the papers make it look like people are living in peace and freedom. Yet everything from magazines to the MultiNet is censored and all negative news is filtered. We are fed with nationalistic propaganda to make us feel better but it doesn’t work.”
Keith paced up and down the room and continued. “We want to know the truth about everything. People openly criticising the government keep disappearing. Where did they go? Do you want to live in a world like this?”
“You don’t need to raise your voice, Keith.”
He took a deep breath and continued. “I’m not raising my voice. I just want you to understand that this group can reveal the truth.”
Diana looked confused. “I don’t know what you’re up to I just want us to be safe.”
“Look, it’s going to be alright and I’ll tell you everything later, okay? The group needs me and this is my chance to do something worthwhile for our future. For everyone’s future.”
Keith was right. The government had stripped away citizens’ rights bit by bit. All media outlets were closely monitored and heavily edited. Phone calls and MultiNet traffic were being tracked by government officials. People raising concerns were silenced until a group of programmers formed ShadowGroup. Their operation was the first significant step against the government’s tactics. The team was working endlessly to hack into their networks to destroy them from the inside. Their aim was to uncover sensitive information to overthrow the government before the elections. However, the group needed more members desperately, yet they had to be cautious in recruiting people without exposing the organisation. Keith went through numerous background checks and programming tests before he was chosen to be a temporary ShadowGroup member. The induction which awaited him was a ceremony where he would be granted full access to the surveillance base and a layered MultiNet outlet which renders his work to be untraceable.
Keith put his mug down and walked back to the kitchen. He had a mix of enthusiasm and fear building up in him.
“All I want to do is make my work count.” Keith kissed his wife, put on his tweed jacket, and left the house.
Walking to the bus stop he was considering his options to avoid suspicion after the induction. I will work part-time in the textile factory and spend the rest of my time on ShadowGroup tasks, he thought.
A spotless silver Galaxy 3000 ground car sparkled in the morning sun as it approached. With its pointy fenders and bubble dome, it seemed like a gentle beetle, ready to whoosh into the distance any moment. The autonomous system tracked Keith’s position and came to a stop next to him.
“Get in Lucas, now.”
Keith immediately recognized the deep voice of Roberts through the lifting roof, he was his referee for ShadowGroup. Keith opened the door and got in the back seat. Facing him on the opposite side sat his acquaintance and a stranger.
“I didn’t expect this urgent meeting today and I hope you understand that I need to show up at work today to avoid suspicion.” said Keith as the vehicle closed its doors and took off. “Is there anything I can help with?”
“Something’s happened.” Roberts said. “Your network scraper is on hold as the heat is on from the government. We know they are getting suspicious about something and we should be more cautious.”
“They won’t get us. We are three steps ahead of them as my software gets more and more refined. Once we have enough data collected off their internal feed, we can publish it on numerous MultiNet sites. By the time they block one we’ll have four duplicates across the network. People will see the information, the lies, the political prisoners, the missing people. They will rise up and the government will be done forever.” Keith said with confidence.
“You have any more ideas?” The stranger interrupted. “You seem to be knowledgeable.”
“The gentleman here is Mr. Johnson.” Roberts said while reaching for his pocket. Keith nodded while Mr. Johnson kept studying him from behind his thick rimmed glasses.
“Are you a programmer too?” Keith said.
“No, I’m not, but I have a good understanding of your progress so far.” Johnson said.
Keith gazed out the window and grew uneasy as the car was riding in the outskirts of town, leaving the city skyscrapers behind.
“You see Mr Lucas, I’m a ShadowGroup founder. Roberts, myself and a few other gentlemen started the whole thing.” said Johnson.
“Does this urgent meeting means we have to go through something before the induction?” Keith said.
“Mr. Lucas, the reason I’m here today is we know you have leaked information of our organization to the government.”
“Me? What are you talking about?” Keith looked puzzled.
“Roberts, grab him!” Johnson shouted in panic.
Roberts pulled out his thermal pistol, slid beside Keith and buried the gun in Keith’s side.
“What is happening?” Keith clenched his fist.
“Don’t you dare move.” Roberts said with a voice full of aggression.
“Should we get rid of him right now? There’s nothing to wait for!” he said nervously to Johnson.
Keith’s heart was pounding as he sat rigidly and looked at Roberts who dialed a number on the car phone. “Wait. We got him, yes.” Johnson glanced at Keith. “No, everything went to plan. We should be at the base in thirty.”
Keith looked out. The vehicle was on an abandoned road surrounded by wilderness. The engines were whirring as the car approached top speed. Keith’s heart was pounding so hard he thought it could burst any minute. He was shaking with fear. He wanted to call Diana to ask for help or at least to say goodbye. But there was nothing to be done, he was cornered.
“I’ll tell you what’s going to happen.” Roberts said. “We’re approaching the ShadowGroup HQ where you will have a mind scan for our records, then get a complete erase of your memories. We cannot let spies jeopardize ShadowGroup.
Keith attempted to break out of the numbness. “What do you mean spies?”
“You know very well Lucas.” Johnson raised his voice. “A report from one of our sources saw you yesterday talking to government officers. You have passed on information about ShadowGroup. You are a government spy.”
Keith grew ill as he tried to comprehend the absurd accusations he was hearing.
“I am Keith Lucas. A programmer, a hacker. I put my life on the line to take down the government. I belong to ShadowGroup.” he said with conviction.
“You may have received a quick memory wipe. But we know what you are.” said Roberts. ”A traitor.”
Keith struggled to say anything out of anxiety. “No, it’s not right. I never met anyone from the government, let alone said anything. I’m against the government. We’re in the same boat!” Keith looked at Johnson who watched him without saying a word. “Let me prove it somehow. Run another background check Roberts! It will show you the truth.”
Roberts tilted his chin up and his lean posture tightened as he spoke slowly and with purpose.
“You wouldn’t remember what had happened because of your short term memory wipe. Our colleague from interior security however, has provided us with accurate information.
You’re a threat to our organization and your contributions are not desired anymore. Who knows what data you’ve been drip feeding in the background. You are going to the base where your memory and brain functions will be reset.”
“No, this is wrong!” Keith’s face went white.
Outside he could see mountains with lush vegetation. The base was close now. He knew what was coming to him. They would make sure he would stay quiet for the rest of his life.
Roberts held his gun and Johnson was ready to use force should Keith resist, he had no chance.
“Here we go.” Roberts said as the car came to a stop. It was in the middle of a forest where an opening between the pine trees hid a tiny cabin. Keith suspected that a massive structure underneath awaited him. Two armed guards approached the vehicle.
“Wait Roberts,” Keith said desperately. “I’m going to prove I’m innocent. Give me some time! Roberts if you wipe out my existence you’re no better what we are fighting against.” He said with damp eyes.
The guards waited outside the car. Maybe Keith wasn’t rushed to his fate if they lived in another time. The government’s methods made everyone suspicious, and as for ShadowGroup, one single infiltrator could bring down everything.
He was going to be neutralized because they did not want to look for evidence and the group was desperate and acting in haste.
Keith clenched his jaw as he looked from the corner of his eye at Roberts. He tried to accept the fact that the fellow who recruited him many months ago is going to destroy his life based on suspicion and without any evidence.
There was no point condemning Roberts but Keith needed to prove his innocence.
Keith’s mind raced and he needed to act. How could he escape? In a second he would be in the underground building locked in a cell, waiting for a brain reset.
Johnson opened the door and climbed out, and gestured towards the guards with his hand to signal that Keith was successfully in custody.
Keith took a deep breath. The moment came. He jerked his head violently to the side breaking Roberts’ nose in the process. In the confusion Keith grabbed Robert’s thermal gun and held it to Robert’s temple.
“Let me go or I’ll kill him!” Keith’s voice echoed through the clearing. Johnson and the guards looked dumbfounded.
“Go, go!” Keith yelled as the autopilot closed the door and the car took off.
Roberts threw up his arms. “Lucas, don’t shoot! Just let me go!”
Keith looked back and caught a glimpse of three figures running into the cabin.
“Take us to the the surveillance base.” He pushed the gun hard against his head. “Do it, now!”
Roberts instructed the autopilot and articulated the coordinates clearly.
Keith slid across the opposite seat and held the pistol at Roberts. With his other hand he used the car phone to call Diana.
“Dee, are you there?”
“Keith, where are you? Is everything okay?”
Keith let out a huge breath as he heard Diana’s voice.
“Listen, I don’t have much time. I’ve been framed and they may be after you right now.”
“What is this–”
“Please, listen to me, go somewhere safe, anywhere, just leave the house now!” Keith bit his lips. “Did anyone call you?”
“No, but I still don’t–”
“Good, don’t talk to anyone, just leave the house!” He hung up the phone and then the two examined each other silently.
The autopilot announced that they will arrive to the destination shortly. Keith watched the endless grey fields through the window. Ash and piles of debris everywhere. The desolate ruins were thriving factories and residential buildings decades ago. Somewhere in the ruins stood ShadowGroup’s surveillance base where Keith hoped he could find something. If he could give them irrefutable proof–
The car came to a sudden halt at an abandoned hangar.
“Come on, move!” Keith pushed the gun against Roberts’s neck. Roberts climbed out first followed by Keith. Their footsteps sent a cloud of ash into the air. In the corner of the building stood a concrete structure. Stepping in Roberts entered a code on the wall keypad and a heavy, steel door opened, revealing a staircase to an underground area. “What have you got in mind Keith?” Roberts shook his head. ”Johnson and everybody from the HQ is already in our trail you fool!”
They walked down the stairs and entered an enormous hall where dozens of people worked on computers. On the screens were street camera feeds and tables of data. In the back rose an endless row of server machines and the constant buzz of fans.
The floor was covered with thick dust and piles of computer packaging.
Roberts walked towards the desks, Keith followed close behind him. The technicians were dazed seeing a stranger pointing a gun at Roberts.
“Do as he says and don’t ask questions!” Roberts said nervously.
“Shut up, Roberts!” Keith hissed through his teeth.
Keith stepped up to an operator while keeping his aim on Roberts. “I need you to bring up the full camera feed from yesterday in Colebrook street and track my activity.”
The operator looked at Roberts, perspiration rolling down on his forehead. Roberts nodded.
“The footage will be ready in a minute.”
Keith tapped his feet rapidly as the technician searched for the storage tape.
A nearby monitor flickered and a live feed from above ground showed Johnson and two guards outside the hangar. They were on the way down. As soon as Keith saw them entering the hall he put down his gun. “Before you do anything Johnson, look at the evidence here. The camera history. Look!” Keith waved frantically with his hands.
Johnson aimed his gun at Keith. “Stop or I’ll shoot you!”
“It’s here, just please give me a chance!” Keith’s voice choked. “You can follow my every move in the archive.”
Johnson narrowed his eyes and lowered his weapon as the operator put up the footage on the large screens in the center. They were staring at them as the footage was fast forwarded showing multiple locations including Keith’s house.
On one monitor Keith left home early morning. Another one showed him in a coffee shop and then him walking in the park in the afternoon. Other operators combed through data from nearby locations which was running on the smaller screens. Audio transcripts, still photos and names darted on the displays.
“Nothing of interest.” Robert sighed and looked around.
Keith smiled with relief. “So?”
“You were right all along.” Roberts said.
“I never talked to them. Your source just wanted to get me in trouble.” Keith said.
The screens continued to follow Keith’s day as he was going through his weekend routine. From his walk he was heading home.
“Keith, we made a mistake.” Roberts said. “Sorry that we put you through this. I can’t even think of what would have happened to you –”
“I don’t know what to say.” Keith let out a huge sigh of relief.
“Wait!” The operator pointed at the screen. Plaza Street. 17:14 PM. Sunday. Keith walked on the footpath when a black van stopped next to him and two officers pushed him in violently. The van disappeared.
Robert’s turned his head away. “You betrayed us.” he muttered. “You told them everything and betrayed us.”
Keith widened his eyes. He was shaking. “No, this can’t be true. I don’t remember this. I don’t understand. This must have been manipulated. ” Everything was spinning around, he was going to faint. “Was I wrong?”
“But if I talked to them, then –”
A rumble interrupted them. It grew into a loud roar. The security screens turned automatically to the above ground feed.
Roberts looked at the screen. “They were tracking you all along.” He stared blankly as an army of police vehicles were rushing towards the bunker.