One, two, three, four.
Five steps from Charlie’s front door to the street.
One hundred from there to the end of the street.
Three hundred from the end of the street to the first factory.
Only two hundred to the scanner positioned high on the wire that extended the width of the street. Its beam was broad and quick.
Dom Pavesi had tried weaving through the back of the factory out of its path, but no matter what route he took, it caught him out.
He’d last tried to evade the scanner on his way back from the running track behind the small bungalows in West Essention that once belonged to a former town called Annavale. Before it was subsumed by Essention, Annavale was the safe haven in the Northern region—an area that Praesidium controlled. Some said that Annavale protected people from the rebellion, but the rebels only came into existence when people first started to disappear in urbanos like Essention.
Dom counted more footsteps, logged different routes to get places. He was marking them as possible escape options in case their plan to infiltrate Essention and Arcis, the facility in the centre of the urbano, was ever discovered. Dom didn’t exist in the same haze as the residents in Essention. He wasn’t hoodwinked by the effects of Compliance. Only he, Max, Charlie and Sheila had been given the antidote.
Dom boarded the Monorail to East Essention, the region with his assigned accommodation. He touched his wrist just above the joint, where the doctors in Essention’s hospital had placed the chip on his arrival. The radiation poisoning that had ripped through Foxrush, where he and Sheila had lived on the outside, had hit him hard. He’d been sick for days. Then the people who built Essention had rescued him. He’d hated relinquishing control to them, but he’d had no choice. The poison had taken hold and weakened him. He couldn’t stand up. He couldn’t make decisions. When they’d brought him to the urbano, he’d been soaked in sweat and dry-heaving into a bucket.
It amazed him how fast the doctors were able to counter the effects of ionising radiation, how they knew exactly what they were dealing with. He had spent the worst days on the outside being violently ill after food or drink, so to have the nausea nullified so quickly made him monetarily grateful. And he hated himself for it. His mother had been in Essention, but there was no radiation sickness back then. Dom wondered if the hospital was a new addition in the urbano since his mother’s disappearance four months ago.
The train slowed for the next station. It was 8pm and there were just a handful of people on board. Dom got up and walked to the door. There was no curfew in Essention. It was the first thing he’d discovered after Charlie gave him the antidote. The second was that leaving the urbano would kill him; Charlie had told him the chip in his wrist was linked to his location.
He stepped off the train. Dom had been participating in Arcis’ education programme for nearly a month now, and his first rotation was coming up. Sheila had arrived in Essention a week earlier and was set to join Arcis soon. One of the boys on the ground floor, Ash, who had been passed over for rotation, had said that new recruits didn’t join until after the process. Out with the old, in with the new. Ash was someone who could be a friend or an enemy, depending on which day you caught him.
Dom descended the stairs from the Monorail platform to street level.
Exactly fifteen steps.
Seventy-eight steps from street to home.
His temporary home was in East Essention: a generically designed street with a single row of basic grey accommodation blocks. Each block had three doors to the front, set on different levels. His and Sheila’s accommodation was located on the top floor. An old man passed him in the street and grazed his fingers against his forehead in greeting. It was an odd, almost drunken way to greet someone. But it was how the people behaved under the influence of Compliance. Hazy, in a daze, forgetting why they were there. Dom reciprocated with his own equally insignificant greeting. He saw more than they did, but he had to pretend.
Fifteen steps from the street outside his apartment block to the first door.
Thirty more steps above that to his front door.
Music assaulted him as soon as he opened it. He and Sheila were supposed to be blending in.
He slammed the door closed. ‘Sheila!’
He let his backpack fall from his shoulders as he marched through the rooms. He found her in her bedroom, lying on the bed. Her eyes were closed. She smiled as her head bobbed along to the beat.
Her eyes flicked open. She flashed him a wide grin as she patted the area beside her. ‘Come on, Dom. You’re always so tense about everything. Join me.’
He stared at the music player and speaker set by the bed she had brought from Foxrush. He hit a switch on the side and the music disappeared.
‘We’re supposed to be blending in, Sheila. Not making a racket. What if Essention sends someone to check?’
Sheila sat up. ‘What happened to the impulsive little imp I knew and loved from Foxrush? The one who would take a stray dog home and feed it, then let it run wild around the house. Remember when you did that? Your mum was livid. The smell!’ She gagged. ‘Or the one who used to break into Mrs Lewis’ house when she was out so he could play her piano. Man, those were good times.’
Dom stared down at her.
‘What happened to him, Dom? You’re like Mr Control in here. It’s like you’ve become my parent all of a sudden.’
‘Have you forgotten why we’re here, Sheila? Or are you more interested in acting like a stupid kid?’
She pulled Dom down onto the bed and sat cross-legged, facing him. ‘I remember, Dom. But I’ve been in Essention for a week now and I have literally nothing to do. I’m so bored. If I was on Compliance, then maybe I wouldn’t care as much. There’s not even a drop of alcohol in this... this freaking prison.’
Earlier, Dom might have scolded Sheila for speaking so freely, but he’d had a full three weeks before her arrival to comb the place for bugs and cameras. Max believed the houses weren’t being monitored because of Compliance.
‘I know it’s been boring here while I go off to work, but the least I expect from my only child is that she looks after herself and doesn’t get into any trouble.’ He scrubbed her scalp with his knuckles.
Sheila jerked her head away. ‘There’s the teasing sonovabitch I became friends with.’ She leaned forward and hugged him. ‘Welcome home, loser.’
Dom smiled. He picked her up off the bed and set her on her feet. ‘I missed not having you around. It’s been pretty shit around here. Lonely and shit.’
‘Well, what can we do about it?’ Her finger grazed the side of her music player. She lifted a brow at him.
Dom rolled his eyes and sighed. ‘Okay, but quieter. We don’t need anyone checking on us.’
‘Yes, boss.’ She turned on the music and lowered the volume.
He liked the music. It gave a sense of normality to the place.
‘You hungry?’ he said, walking from the room.
Sheila snagged his wrist and turned him back to face her. ‘Hungry for you, lover.’
She pulled him to her chest and he couldn’t help but grin at her. ‘You want something, Sheila?’
She traced her finger down the side of his face. ‘How about you show me some of your moves?’
Dom’s lips twitched. ‘You sure?’
‘Yeah, give it to me.’
He pushed her away and twirled her once before gathering her to his chest. He dipped her low, drawing a little whoop, then brought her back up. They moved a little slower. ‘Like that?’
‘Yeah. Just like old times. You know that drove Mia wild when you did it with me.’
Mia was a girl they both knew from Foxrush. Dom had enjoyed a brief fling with her before coming to Essention.
‘I don’t really notice what others are doing when I’m dancing with my girl.’
Sheila pouted. ‘Dom, you say the sweetest things.’
He jerked away. ‘Now I know you’re definitely on Compliance. You’re being too nice.’
‘I’m just remembering one night, one close night between you and Mia. That’s all.’ She paused, her finger on her lips. ‘Wait... Wasn’t there another girl? Kaylie?’
‘You make it sound like I was hopping around everyone.’ Dom tugged the band out of his hair and let his dreadlocks spill around his olive-skinned face.
‘All the girls wished you were. They told me.’
He cocked a brow.
‘Okay, maybe not to my face. But I know girls better than you do. Trust me when I say this, Dom Juan. You weren’t short of a few admirers in Foxrush.’
Dom didn’t like where this conversation was headed. He turned to leave. ‘Come on. I’ll make you something to eat.’
Sheila followed. ‘You miss your girls at home?’
‘I’m sure they’re doing fine without me.’
Mia and Kaylie had joined the rebels and were working out of a compound hidden in a mountain range. It was a safe haven, unknown to Praesidium. Truth was, he hadn’t thought much about either of them, not since his mother disappeared. ‘Besides, I’ve got my hands full with you.’
‘Yeah, I guess you do.’ She looked around. ‘Although I’m sure they’d scratch my eyes out if they learned what we get up to all alone in this house.’
Sheila leaned against the door jamb. ‘Among other things, lover.’ She winked.
Dom shook his head. Sheila loved to flirt, to be dramatic. She was also funny, sharp-tongued and one of the bravest girls he had ever known. But it would never be like that between them and Sheila understood why.
‘I think it’s time you got out of this place,’ said Dom. ‘Looking forward to starting in Arcis tomorrow?’
Sheila shook her head and laughed. ‘Hell, no. It sounds terribly boring. But it beats waiting here for my man to come home to me every night.’