Skye - a short story
Updated: Jun 2
“Now start running for three minutes,” the artificial voice intoned as blandly as only a dumb AI could.
Three minutes? That’s it? Skye used to run for hours at a time and the training program wanted her to run only three minutes? The moment she picked up her pace, her legs reminded her why the program was starting her slow. Her knees ached, her Achilles tendons were stiff and tight, and her feet in pain. She must be getting old; recovering from injury took much longer than it used to.
She had taken a painkiller before she set off ten minutes ago. She would probably be done before the archaic-style tablet kicked in. Hyposprays and injections worked much faster, being absorbed directly into the nervous system instead of the slow uptake the digestive system provided. However, purchasing even the most rudimentary injector or dosage tool was too trackable. Never mind diagnostic and therapeutic tools and medicines. Regenerative Technologies, the company who pioneered the tech and whose shortened moniker had become a proprietary eponym for all modern medicinal tech, made sure of that.
To stay truly off-grid, Skye was left with using traditional healers, herbal apothecaries, and her body’s ability to repair itself, turning days of recovery time with regen tech into weeks and months of natural healing.
Her feet pounded the dirt, every step sending painful bursts into her arches and heels. She adjusted her stride, landing softer, more toward the ball of the foot. She straightened her back. Lately she had to adjust her posture on a regular basis.
Shoulders back, chest out, straighten the lower back without overarching it, she reprimanded herself.
It seemed like a chore, like her body had suddenly forgotten how to stand correctly. Or maybe her latest pains and slow recovery just caused her to pay more attention.
“Now walk for two minutes,” the monotone voice sounded from her earmike.
She did as instructed. The pains subsided, though didn’t go away. She wasn’t out of breath, but her legs were happy for the slower pace.
She looked up the dirt road she was following. Dark green trees and shrubs surrounded her. The air smelled fresh with a dusty overtone. Dew still clung to the leaves; the sun had not been up long enough to burn it away. She liked this time of day. It was the best time to exercise—if she could drag herself out of bed—though she hated getting wet feet from dewy grass.
A vehicle’s engine whined in the distance. Probably just one of her neighbors, tending their homestead. She listened for the distinct undertone of wheels or tracks grinding the ground, but couldn’t find it. A floater then. Not many people in this region owned the low-flying vehicles. Law enforcement and the military did, of course, but most homesteaders out here depended on wheels or tracks.
The floater moved away. Had it come her way, would she have hidden or stood her ground? Did it matter? Yes, it did. The boy’s life depended on her continuing to fight. She couldn’t give in. Not yet. He wasn’t ready yet.
“Now run for two minutes.”
As she picked up her pace, she touched her waistband where the small photaic memorysheet was tucked into an inside pocket. Her one weakness. It was secured with a bioreader lock that would self-destruct on her command or if it ceased to sense her body’s energy field. But she should never have made it, should destroy it; yet she wouldn’t, couldn’t. It was the only thing she had kept of the boy. A few pictures stored on a pho-mem. All were outdated by at least five years; she hadn’t seen him in close to four.
She checked her wristcom. A minute left in this interval. She put her mind on the exercise again. One foot in front of the other, center touches first, then the heel, before rolling to the toes and pushing off. Shoulders back, body straight, slightly leaning forward, but not too far, she was supposed to run at no more than at fifty percent of her maximum speed. It was nice to concentrate on the here and now, with no more worries than keeping the right form and footing and the ability to just be.
The interval changed again; only a minute of walking this time. The road started up a slight rise; she knew what awaited her on top. She had just started to run again when the small pond came into view. Tall hardwood surrounded it, casting shadows over its edges. At the far end was a grove of conifers with a small clearing in its center. Bright green grass glistened with dew and small purple flowers danced in the sunlight. The conifers’ blue needles formed a protective ring as if making a last stand against the overbearing hardwood.
She had entered the clearing only once; the first time she had seen it. The grass had been soft as a plush blanket and the flowers’ scent, sweet and calming. A steady light breeze had kept the sun’s heat in check and swayed the trees as if moving to an inaudible song.
“The perfect place for a family picnic.” The memory of Sam’s voice had intruded into her mind so suddenly and clearly, she had turned around to verify he wasn’t standing behind her. Before that moment she had successfully avoided thinking of him. Now his memory welled up every time she passed this site. But she didn’t avoid it; she couldn’t. She needed to be able to control it, to ban him from her mind, lock him into her deepest memories, untouchable by others; because if she didn’t, then she couldn’t protect him, or the boys.
That’s why she had banned the boy’s name. Of course he had a name, she had given it to him when he was a toddler. Before that he was known only by a number, B6781.
“Now run for four minutes”
She was glad for the interruption. Her thoughts had started down a dark path she did not want to retrace.
The road curved to the left, away from the pond. The trees became shorter, the road fully swathed in sun, and not a stir of breeze. She tasted the salt from the sweat collecting on her lips; soon it was running down her face and her dry throat caked with dust stirred up by the non-existent breeze on this part of the road. She continued on. Her toes were asleep; another indication that something more was wrong than just aging. After all, mid-thirties was not even close to middle age. Even without regular access to the regen tech readily available to everyone else, she should not have been in this much pain.
Three intervals later, she reached the halfway point. It was time to turn around.
The way back seemed much quicker. The hot, dusty road turned into the shady curve and the pond came back into view, and with it the clearing with its conifer guardians. Yes, Sam would have considered it the perfect spot to sit with her while the boys ran through the woods or swam in the pond.
For ten years she had successfully suppressed the memories, had even been able to redirect the boy’s memories so he could grow up without the pain of before. She had lived a lie and made the boy believe it had been the only life they had ever known. It had kept them safe, untouched, unlike before.
And now, the sight of a small clearing was able to undo it all, to unravel her. She couldn’t allow that. She would relearn to ban him from her mind, bury his memory so deep no one would be able to retrieve it. Because they would, they had tried. But she hadn’t let them. Had won, again and again. Had taken the beatings; the torture; the mental invasions. Each time she had been able to prevail until she had escaped. This last time had left her in the worst shape ever.
“Now walk for one minute.”
The interruption pulled her back from the dark abyss. She had stopped running; stood facing the clearing. It beckoned her to enter its warm embrace and the memories it stirred. Her heart ached to do just that, but she couldn’t allow it. Usually the grove and clearing reminded her of happier times; of love, warmth, and laughs; of home. Not this dark path her mind seemed set on going down. She shook her head and started to run again.
Sooner or later, the boy would regain his memories, she was sure of it. If not, Sam would find him, bring him home. Or was that just another lie she told herself?
The interval changed again. She continued to run.
The pain was still there, a stark reminder of her body slowly giving out, but she pushed through it. She was not done; not yet.
Her little cabin came into view.
Just a few more months.
“His class graduated today.”
Skye smiled and closed her eyes. “So, it is complete.”
“He graduated at the top of his class, as you said he would.” The girl beamed with pride. It was amazing how her adoration for him hadn’t dimmed over the years. The crush of the eight-year-old girl still showed clearly seven years after she last saw him in person.
“Of course he did.”
“He never had to change teams. They have been holding the top place since they started together three years ago. But you knew that too, didn’t you? How? You’re not a seer.”
“I know my boy.”
“What are you going to do now?”
“I’m going to let him live his life unburdened by me.”
“He would never consider you a burden.”
“Of course not, that is why I cannot allow myself to become a threat to his freedom and choices.”
“You could stay away from him or hide.”
“Hide? I have been hiding most of my life. I am tired. It is time for me to go.”
The girl nodded, tears welling up in her eyes.
When she looked up again, Skye nodded. “Make sure Mamita gets my message.”
The girl nodded. Skye signed off and initiated the ‘D’ protocol. The terminal screen went blank.
She looked up. Blue eyes, framed by long blond hair met her gaze.
“You don't have to go, you know.”
“Oh, but I do, If I don’t, then he will never be completely free.”
The woman across from her nodded slowly. She accepted Skye’s decision, even if she didn’t agree with it. That was the only reason Skye had allowed her to re-initiate contact—and because it was good to have a friend to talk to. But, is she truly my friend, or is this just another mission for her? No, that wasn’t fair. The woman had proven herself again and again. Back when the two had been the only females among the protective team the old man had built around Skye and the boy, and again now. But that had been her purpose. Hadn’t it, old man? To give Skye someone to trust and confide in. Someone, who seemed like her. But in truth, she had been Skye’s handler. And she clearly still was, even with the old man dead for over ten years, now.
“I cannot change your mind?”
“You know you cannot.” Skye walked to her bedside table and pulled out the small satchel she had prepared for this day. “He needs to be able to live his life without the burden of me hanging over him.”
“And you don’t think your actions here will burden him?”
“He knew he would never see me again.”
“He told you that?”
“I saw it in his face when he boarded the Academy shuttle.” Skye checked the satchel’s contents, then turned toward the door.
“It will still break his heart.”
“But he will know that it was my choice. He will accept my decision.”
The woman watched in silence as Skye verified the ‘D’ protocol had killed the few electronics in the cabin before heading for the door. Skye was turning the door knob when she tried one last time. “Sam would be happy to have you back.”
Skye smiled ruefully as she pulled the door open. “He’s probably moved on by now.”
“He hasn’t. He’s still looking for you.”
Skye looked at her sharply. “You still track them?”
“Of course.” The woman smiled. “But no, we’re not interfering with any of his activities like we did in the beginning. That stopped even before Sutton died.”
“That’s because Sam stopped fighting the old man.”
“True. But after the attack, he intensified his search again. And, while his efforts have lost intensity over the years, he never stopped looking.” She paused. “John has initiated his own searches since he graduated the Academy three years ago.”
Skye looked at her in surprise. “I thought you put evidence in place to show that we died, too.”
“We did. But Keel broke protocol and informed Sam that you two were fine.”
“He didn’t tell me.”
“Of course not. While Keel didn’t agree with Sutton to cut Sam completely out, he did agree that you couldn’t live with them. Not while Sam was still on active duty with Intergal.”
“Yet, I never received an explanation why that is.”
“Right.” Skye mocked. “Yet, you didn’t stop the boy from joining Intergal.”
The woman still stood by the desk, her gaze the only thing that had followed Skye as she had readied to leave. Even now that Skye was about to step through the door, she gave no indication that she would attempt to physically stop Skye.
She shrugged. “As I said. It’s complicated.”
“And here we are.” Skye smiled mirthlessly.“Are you going to stop me?”
“No.” The woman shook her head. “Just do me one last favor. Say his name.”
Skye frowned at her.
“You’ve been calling him ‘boy.’ I know it’s a protective measure. To safeguard him and ease your own pain. But it’s over now. So, please, give him the honor of a name. He deserves that much. Even if he is just a boy to you.”
Skye stared at her for a long moment, her hand on her waistband and the well-worn pho-mem hidden within. She pulled it out and studied the fifteen-year-old boy it showed. Twenty now, he probably was taller and more muscular. The pho-mem went out of focus as tears welled up in her eyes. For once, she allowed them to fall.
“He is not a boy. He is my son, and I love him dearly. Using his name is not going to change that, nor does it define him. I know who he is and so does he. No matter the name."
"He wouldn't want you to go out like this."
"True." Skye nodded. She turned back toward the door and stepped out into the waning sunlight. “But life rarely gives us what we want.”