Surveillance was useless over Tonto. 4.2 million acres of forest, and we had seeded the sky with drone cameras and millimetre wave sensors but they found nothing from above. Sarah had gone down alongside Dr Theresa Safford and Paula Escovedo from Reproductive Services and were setting up a station at the edge of the forest. Safford was a blonde scalpel, beautiful and sharp whilst Escovedo was quiet and intense, corded with muscle as she hefted the equipment into the station.
Sarah came to RepServ from Homeland Security, and before that, six years as a marshall in the Male Crimes Unit. She enjoyed her work because men fascinated her and thought they’d had a rough deal in recent history. Her mother had quoted from a banned philosopher named Ken Wilber about ‘wicked problems needing wicked solutions’ when she visited them in Florida. Her empathy made her an effective agent even though a lot of her experience with men had been professional.
They got bad for a long time but things came back. Not all of them but enough plus the automated services which took care of most things. Which was why RepServ got more funding and resources than Homeland Security. There were problems with artificial sperm alongside a lack of genetic diversity to prevent inbreeding or mutations. What men were around were infertile and soft, kept as status symbols like teacup dogs unless they found themselves in some of the rougher or more desolate parts of the world. They provided tissue samples to extrapolate, but we looked into a downward spiral until a couple from Wales, holidaying in Tonto took video footage of a tall, bearded figure in the forest and a souvenir from her activist days pinged an alarm. The wristband alarm bleeped at the pheromonal signature of a man but he slipped into the trees without making a sound. RepServ got the GPS and they were on our way.
She wore a set of contact lens connected to a liquid computer, loaded with tracking and tactical software. The rifle, loaded with adhesive balls of foam, which expanded on contact, encasing the target in material which hardened to concrete. It disintegrated with a spray she had in a harness on her wrist. The lightweight chameleon suit projected images onto the surface creating a perfect blending with her environment. She chewed on the piece of gum, swallowing a blend of nutrients and stimulants to keep her alert and engaged.
The software scanned the world ahead, paired with the data from the drones and satellite footage to provide her with streaming real time information about her environment. The trees were too thick for heat signatures but it allowed Sarah perfect awareness of her environment. Her vitals spoke to a genuine excitement about her work as she walked into the forest.
Three miles in, a drone picked up movement. There were bears out here although the foam rifle would stop anyone. Sarah knew the horrible things about bears were how fast they moved, despite their size. Still, it excited her to be out here.
She shouldered the rifle as an overhead view of the location guided her whilst millimeter scans sent instructions to the boots on her feet, the soles a series of rubberized nodules which inflated and deflated depending on the terrain and information available. She was a silent ballerina dancing through the woods, lethal in intention if not in execution.
She saw the leaves shudder in a copse of bushes and she brought the rifle up in a smooth arc, letting the software run the millions of calculations required to deliver the payload. She squeezed the trigger and waited for the rounds to hit their target. They missed and splattered against a tree four feet behind him. He had ducked the shot, and she blinked, running a diagnostic as she swept the rifle across the line.
‘Go back home, miss.’
His voice was deep and rough, like a saw across damp wood. Satellites gave him up like a prison snitch. The calm, playful burr of his voice surprised her. Most men’s voices around her were soft, pitched to the point of women and the noise shocked her into inaction.
‘You need to come out with your hands up.’
He chuckled and Sarah’s blood crept up into her cheeks as she adjusted her sights aiming to have the next rounds activate over him.
‘I’ve not broken any laws. You have no authority here.’ he said.
Sarah brought up the relevant legislation to quote from.
‘I am prosecuting the detainment of a gender negative individual. Please come out and I will detain you without further use of force.’
She kept her voice bright, but he had gone, according to the data.
A branch snapped behind her and she had time to turn around.
The soft crush of his bicep against her throat gave her enough time to gasp before she felt darkness wash over everything.
She awoke with her eyes stinging and thoughts left alone for the first time in years. Her head rung like a bell and when she felt the chill press of the tin cup against her cheek, it sent a jolt of discomfort through her like a knife.
A rough voice told her to drink and she did. The water was cold, and her throat opened to receive it with blind gratitude. Rough fingers cupped her chin and she shivered with a quiet burst of emotion. She gasped as she licked her lips.
‘They will send people out after me. You’re not thinking, sir.’ she said.
He grinned through the thick scrub of beard, dusted with silver and nodded.
‘No, thinking got us into this mess, didn’t it?’
He got her to her feet and extended his right hand, flexed his fingers and closed his eyes.
The air shimmered before her.
It appeared before her in slices, lengths of cabling lashed to plastic framing, pulsing with liquid information and pouring into squat ceramic barrels. The filters would direct the data to keep the system running. Smart technology several steps beyond the standards of the communal housing they all lived in.
The shimmering solar panels sucking in the light and delivering clean, consistent power.
Young, determined eyes staring at her.
Women looked at her with dismay. Men with envy. Broad faces. The fat burned away despite the comfort. A hardness of character she found thrilling. She sniffed the air, and tasted the tang of cooked meat, and beneath it the animal musk of men she caught only in moments through work.
Sarah looked at her captor.
‘We did things when you decided your ideas meant more than the reality of being human.’
She sneered and pulled away from him.
‘The world is safer now, for all genders.’
He snorted and shook his head.
‘Nothing is safe.’
She walked through the settlement. People stared at her with a frankness she found thrilling. Some of the men looked at her in a way which she could have them charged but with her hands tied, all she could do was endure it.
Accept it, she thought with a swift hunger which was disconcerting.
He led her into a dome through a door which opened before him.
Once they were inside the room, she looked around. Thick blankets hung from the walls, woven in dark, earth tones and two chairs sat around the information fountain in the centre of the room. A bowl sat above it, filled with glowing liquid. Her contact lenses floated in the centre, fizzing with activity.
He stood behind her and took the rope from her wrists.
‘Hold still.’ he said.
He stepped away and Sarah rubbed feeling back into her wrists as she looked around.
‘You’re committing treason, you understand?’ she said.
Her voice sounded sharp, panicked and she willed it back under her control.
He chuckled and waved her off, walked over to a small maker in the corner and asked for a glass of water.
‘No, because I don’t recognise your authority and I won’t have you milk me like cattle.’ he said.
She glared at him with appalled frankness.
‘You’re being asked to submit genetic materials to ensure viable reproduction to take place, we exist because you make an issue of it.’ she said.
He shook his head.
‘People used to do it because they wanted it to. Or shit, an accident you turned into an opportunity’ he said.
Sarah grimaced and looked away.
‘I will not listen to your propaganda. I’m surprised you’ve shown me this and kept me alive.’ she said.
He smiled and shook his head.
‘Your implants shut down when you came through the barrier and we’re sucking out all the information from your computer. You might kill a bunch of us, maybe get away but you won’t come back and find us here.’ he said.
He sighed and sat down, took a sip of the water and smiled at her.
‘Sit down and have a drink, then I’ll send you on your way.’ he said.
She stared at the chair then him, eyes narrowed with suspicion. He looked relaxed and confident. She knew six moves which would hurt him, three to paralyse and two she could kill him. His eyes sparkled with interest and he gestured to the empty chair opposite him.
Sarah sat down and he passed her another glass of water.
‘We want nothing but to be left alone.’ he said.
‘Tell me your name?’ she said.
‘Adam.’ he said.
‘What are your -‘ he shook his head and smiled.
‘No, I will not use your terms. The language is part of the problem, and it’s part of why your society must hunt for top shelf come and figure out how to keep everything from falling over.’ Adam said.
Sarah blanched and shook her head.
‘Are you gloating? You live in a fucking forest.’
Her voice was a snarl. Such frankness at home would have been flagged for problematic content, led to automated messages from the house intelligence system. The liberating act was terrifying in its power.
He laughed and clapped his hands.
‘Lieutenant, we are self sustaining and live in comfort. We are free to do so, and we don’t police how other people speak or think. It’s rough at times, because we have had to live apart from the rest of you.’ he said.
She ran her tongue over her lips and looked at him. He was alien, compelling in the way a child finds the monster under her bed compelling. They were always male.
But were they?
‘You can’t do that.’ she said.
He chuckled and shook his head.
‘We have. It’s just not sinking into your collective heads.’ he said.
She had been prepared for gendered slurs, sexual innuendoes, even aggressive threat. Beyond her pacification, she was unharmed and being listened to.
Sarah wondered why she was enjoying it.
‘Talk, Adam?’ she said
He smiled and gestured outside.
‘I’ll show you.’ he said.
Sarah blinked through the lenses, they were irritating her and she was grateful to see the station where she could take them off. Safford flung the door open and glared at her.
Sarah grimaced and shook her head, mumbled something about countermeasures and being held captive. They took her gun, but didn’t hurt her.
Adam had rehearsed these details with her. They had moved from water to scotch, and then she had moved to a good facsimile of red wine, as they debated.
The three days she spent there was a revelation. Uncomfortable and challenging, but beneath her skull, she was humming with new ideas. They were old ones, questions which demanded debate over denial and factors kept hidden from collective discussion. She agreed to help them get access, but nothing more. Violence was too constant in her world, and Adam explained how preparedness was not the same thing as aggression.
He had given her choice. The gaps in the data would reveal how to find them and the people there represented vectors of infection and valuable genetic material for biological diversity.
People who had fed and met with her.
She slipped the lenses from her eyes and passed them to Safford who rushed them inside. The data would be valuable.
Just not for RepServ.
She wanted sleep over a shower. A shower would have forced certain materials from her skin. She had never seen an uncut man before, and when he invited her to bed, she had gone to him a virgin in this way. Sarah ached with a deep warmth which nestled in her hips and thighs as she stepped into the dormitory attached to the station.
She laid on the cot and closed her eyes. Her hands cupped to her mouth and nose, breathing him in as she waited for the change to come out of the forest.