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Robert sat in front of his laptop quickly scanning the ads on Craig’s List. He had made sure the computer’s MAC address was already spoofed and he added further layers to any search that was being conducted to rout him out by using a proxy system to hide that he was still in the area.
Computers were regularly pinged by their host providers whenever they were connected to the internet, sending back signals that tracked someone’s every move. If someone logged on at home, the host knew they were there and if they went over to Starbucks and logged back on, they could tell how long the user was sipping a latte and updating their Facebook status.
However, it was possible to spoof both an IP and a MAC address, which would still allow a third party to know someone was on the net, just not who was typing the keys. But if there was a long enough trail of an unidentified user it could pop up and alert anyone who was trying to ferret out a lost Circle member. However, doubling up with a proxy made it nearly impossible to know where the unidentified computer sat, masking that someone was actually trying to hide.
None of it though was going to stop the Management from scouring Richmond for what was left of Robert’s family. He knew an alert had been sent out and they would keep up the search.
He was squatting with his sons in a newly renovated apartment on Lady Street in the Randolph neighborhood just on the edge of Oregon Hill, which was an old blue collar neighborhood. Both areas were being absorbed by the nearby urban college.
Virginia Commonwealth University had been slowly taking over the area for years pushing out some of the black residents of Randolph and tearing down old boarded up houses for new places to put up the growing student population. Other developers had followed behind them and were back-filling with renovated houses and three flats on the side streets in an attempt to take part in the gentrification. No one would notice with any interest for at least the first few days a man coming and going out of an apartment building. They’d assume it was finally being rented out. Robert’s two boys would have to stay hidden till they were ready to move again.
They hadn’t said much since the rush from the soccer field.
Robert pulled up the jobs wanted ads and looked for the internships under each category searching for the key phrases. He had to memorize hundreds of new short phrases each year that were taken from the Constitution. They came in the iPhone transmissions and were never to be written down or spoken out loud. Each phrase could be easily reworded to sound more natural and then placed in an ad to help a Circle operative come in from the cold. Somewhere in there would be the regular posting for the new safe house address in the Richmond area. The postings changed daily and the addresses were moved almost as frequently.
He would have to hope that the address wasn’t too far across town. He had left his car in the soccer complex’s parking lot and the Richmond area wasn’t built for walkers. The city and its’ suburbs lacked any real public transportation, long stretches of sidewalks or even many taxis. A man with two kids on a bus would be easy to spot.
There, under Human Resources he saw a senior internship stating that there was no pay but ‘all receipts from purchases made at appointments would be reimbursed.’ The beginning words of Article VI. Robert felt himself relax just a little. It was still possible salvation from this murderous hell was near at hand.
He took down the number and carefully shut down the computer making sure that all the software masking his time online was the last thing to switch off.
His two boys were asleep on the floor curled up in the sleeping bags they had hastily grabbed that afternoon.
He had seen the man slowly fall on the sidelines at the soccer field and the crowd start to gather with everyone’s attention turned toward him. Robert knew to immediately look for the telltale signs that it was all a diversion.
Everyone was looking in one direction except for a man or woman here and there who were carefully scanning the crowd. He knew at once they were probably looking for him and even more importantly, his two children. It was too risky to wait around and see if he was wrong. He had to act fast and move out of the Watchers’ lines of sight if they were going to have a chance to keep on living.
Mark had yelled to him to get his children as he turned to look directly at his own children. There was no time for Robert to tell him he wasn’t circling back and would have to reconnect somehow at a later time.
He grabbed the older twin, Trey hard near the elbow and kept walking till he reached Will and grabbed on, making a sharp turn and weaving his way through the edge of the crowd. He wanted to blend in as much as possible and make his way toward the closest exit as a piece of a small stream of people rather than one man pulling along two boys in soccer uniforms.
They had walked up the rolling hill to the main road where Robert had seen another parent, a woman from the same team trying to make a hasty exit ahead of the crowds. He explained to her that his car wasn’t working and he needed a ride home. They didn’t live too far from the fields. He knew that his nerves would be written off as frustration over a stalled engine.
It was a calculated move to head home first. There was a chance that Management was already at the house and waiting for him but he had to take the risk and gather what he could before they hit the road.
The other mother quickly offered to take them all home, asking her own son to get in the back and move all of the books and sports gear out of the way. Small town Southern manners could still be counted on in a pinch.
“Don’t get any of that mud on my seats, boys,” she had cheerfully sung out, trying to ease the mood for Robert. Trey and Will sat quietly in the back trying not to make eye contact with anyone. Robert had followed protocol as the boys got older and started teaching them about some of the other lessons in life that were a unique necessity for them.
He just hadn’t expected to be putting the lessons into action so early or without Carol.
Robert had met Carol in college and at the time was blessedly unaware of any real conspiracies beyond some small controversy over the grading curve in advanced calculus and an old history lesson on Watergate. Carol had introduced him slowly to the idea of larger groups grabbing power with a much more organized and global system that was handed down through family lines by taking him to a few small, open Circle meetings.
That was his first introduction to following protocol.
At first he thought they were one more campus group trying to push an agenda of good will or spirituality or some other vague plan designed to believe in the goodness of everyone. But over time he began to understand they didn’t have a specific agenda as much as one clear idea.
“We are part of a circle,” Carol had called it, “that is trying to keep the ability to choose in the hands of as many people as possible. We’re not trying to tell them what to choose.”
“You mean like the democracy we’re already a part of?” he had said, with more than a little sarcasm.
“Yes and no,” she answered. “It’s an ideal that a lot of people believe in but even the existence of the idea is under a constant threat.”
Her whole being came alive, Robert had thought, when she talked about being a part of something that gave so much to so many people all over the world.
“People who disagree with each other,” she said, “or have no education or they have a list of degrees or piles of money or are struggling to pay the mortgage. They all deserve a chance to believe in being fiscally conservative or welfare for the masses or stem cell research or whatever else it is and argue and compromise and argue again. We all have the right to try and fail and try again. No one should be able to take that away from us. Otherwise, it’s all just fate and then no one is safe.”
“Does choice or fate really need to be in any of this?” he asked, testing out being a college student and his newfound sense of independence from everything.
“No, but it’s all a little too much to stomach without the idea that somehow, something bigger is involved.”
Robert was worried more about how this was going to affect his chances of getting Carol into bed than he was interested in any big theories on government, conspiracies or democracy. It all seemed like a lot of posturing by some over-educated college students.
“How did you get involved with any of this?” he asked, and was surprised when she cut him off and said all of that would have to be explained later.
It took time but eventually he began to see all of the little connections that created a kind of road map of each member of either side as they went from childhood to college to career. He used the little pins of stars or flags that were everywhere as a starting point to meet someone and under the guise of getting to know them he began to form a pattern out of their lives. He had even tried to buy a flag pin at a local jewelry store without telling Carol just to see what would happen and was surprised when two guys he barely knew from a fraternity started trying to recruit him. They said they had heard about his interest in getting ahead and were interested in helping him out. Some of the people he had been getting to know from the young Management team had already earmarked him as a potential asset. He had tried to ignore the slur they used about Carol being Jewish.
Carol had been so angry with him that she stopped speaking to him for a week.
“Do you not understand that it isn’t a game? There’s no out, do you get that?” she yelled. He saw her face turning red just before she slammed the door and left him standing there by himself. He was sure they were over till she showed up at his dorm late one night, weeks later and said she was sorry for all of it. She had made an enormous mistake involving someone else and she had no right to do it.
He had missed her so much by then he’d have signed on to anything to have her back. It took some convincing that he was in for the long haul but eventually she had given in and agreed to marry him at last.
He had looked back at that beginning more than once and wondered if he even cared about the Circle at all in those days.
Carol had explained that there was a little more to staying with her than just a ring and a walk down an aisle. It was rare for outsiders to be brought in as spouses but exceptions were made, particularly for anyone from the original twenty. They put him through a few years of training and helped shape the rest of his college courses and then his career. He had asked Carol more than once how this was so different from what the other side did and finally she had sat him down and said, “One side constantly grows this enormous army invisible to even those working or playing next to them so they can control the message and in some twisted way keep themselves safe from ever having to think or act. They don’t want to risk losing a life that has fewer questions and nicer stuff and they see it all as an estimation of numbers. Only so many will end up with this easier life and the others who don’t were unfortunate and on the wrong side of the statistic. The other side, the Circle, is trying to grow an army just as large and just as invisible so they can preserve the right to let everyone else live a life full of possibilities and choices and interruptions and failures and unexpected surprises. We give in to the idea that some will get more than others and I can’t tell you exactly who that will be or what they will look like but it’s possible that we’ll all be okay. Now, you choose which one you want to see survive. Frankly, choice only exists in the places where we aren’t trying to control all of the questions.”
He had loved her so much in that moment.
Now she was dead. Robert had stopped talking about dreams or options after they found Carol. He still hoped there were a few choice left that were his but it was too painful to think about what choices might have led to her drowning.
He turned and looked at his sons curled up, peacefully sleeping. Tears were mixing with the snot from his nose.
He wiped his face on his sleeve, trying to hold back the waves of grief that would come over him at inopportune times and threaten to stop him dead in his tracks. Carol is gone, he thought to himself, and there’s nothing I can do about that right now. I have to protect my boys.
That’s what matters most, despite what Carol had made him promise, almost on a daily basis, every year they were married.
Somewhere out there in the small Southern city was Carol’s thumb drive with the names of her sons on it. He had to get it back before the wrong people had confirmation of just what was happening and who was involved.
“All of those people I grew up with at that orphanage, my home, would be in danger. Their entire families would be at risk. Don’t let that happen,” she’d insist. “Protect them like they were your family because to me, they are my brothers and sisters and I owe them all my life.” Her words kept echoing back to him in the cold, empty apartment.