Lexi waited with Basil nervously. They stood under a tree near the street intersection by Cedric Hall. Little terrestrial traffic went by, and Lexi realized Dr. Chamberlain had not indicated whether the van would be in the air or not.
A moment later that unspoken question was answered when a white ground van stopped. The driver looked over at them and waved, making a beckoning motion.
Lexi looked at Basil and realized they were the only ones around. Not only that, they were wearing the ridiculous helmets with visors covering their faces.
Together, the two students walked toward the van. The rear doors opened and an older woman beckoned them inside. As soon as they climbed in, the doors shut and the van took off.
In a low voice the woman said, “Don’t say anything.”
She motioned for them to remove their helmets, then pointed at a gurney in the middle of the van, indicating Lexi should lie down.
Lexi did so, casting a questioning glance at Basil. He shrugged, then watched the woman nervously.
The lady looked to be in her mid-40s, and had dirty blond hair pulled back in a short ponytail. She wore a black sleeveless blouse and leather pants, with heavy heeled boots.
When Lexi positioned herself on the gurney and made herself comfortable, which was a little hard to do as the van stopped at the intersection then started moving again, the lady passed a handheld scanner of some kind over Lexi’s entire body.
She nodded, satisfied, and put the scanner up. Then she took out a medical kit and rubbed a gel under Lexi’s right ear, on top of her implant. Lexi realized the gel must be an anesthetic, because her skin grew numb.
“We’ve already disabled—”
The lady moved a finger over Lexi’s lips, putting her other finger on her own. She gave Lexi a very stern look.
Lexi relaxed. There would be no point in arguing this. She did not even flinch when the lady picked up a scalpel.
She made one quick incision in Lexi’s skin and pulled out the neural implant. She held it between her thumb and forefinger for Lexi to see. It was about the size and shape of a sesame seed.
The lady dropped it into a small black box, closed the lid and touched a red button on top. Lexi heard nothing, but she recognized the box as an instant incinerator. It was used to dispose of things by atomizing them. Nothing would be left of her implant.
The lady sopped up the blood on Lexi’s neck, sealed the incision and put a bandage over the cut. Then she gestured for Lexi to get up and for Basil to take her place. She repeated the procedure on Basil, extracting his implant and incinerating it.
Lexi had no idea where they were going. The van had no windows in the back, and the streetlights in the front offered no clue. They kept going for a long time. At last they evidently came to a highway because the van picked up speed. After an hour or so, the streetlights faded away. Then they came to a lesser highway, and it was very dark outside.
Eventually Lexi fell asleep, her head lolling onto Basil’s shoulder. The pain under her ear seemed to give her strange dreams. She could not remember a time when she did not have a neural implant, and she felt practically naked without it.
When she woke up, Basil remained sleeping. The lady was driving the van, having traded places with the man who now sat slouched in the front passenger seat. Sunlight streamed in through the windshield.
The lady looked back at her and said, “Good, you’re awake. Stay back there, we’ll be safe in a few minutes.”
Lexi peered through the front and noticed they were in the mountains. The air felt thinner, too.
She said, “Why couldn’t we talk back there? In the city?”
The lady smiled again, keeping her eyes on the road. She said, “Some of the sensors are very sensitive. They can pick up words and identify voiceprints several meters away. It was important StarCen does not realize you were in this van. Talking would have given the fact away.”
It made sense, Lexi thought. She had just never considered how sensitive the AI’s sensors were. They were everywhere, they always had been her entire life. She simply did not think much about them.
But of course they would be listening. She had heard news accounts of thieves picked up by the police after bragging about their crimes. That information, from eavesdropping, had come from StarCen’s sensors.
Lexi had just never thought about it before. She had been happily engaged in her own life, in her own world, and had not worried about the fact she was constantly spied upon. Until now.
“And . . . there are no sensors out here?”
“Not as many,” the lady nodded. “They still have them here and there. They won’t know where we’re going, and they almost certainly can’t hear us at the moment.”
Her tone grew clipped, and Lexi decided she probably did not want to talk anymore. So Lexi sat back and let the conversation drop. She moved to bring up a movie in her mind’s eye and then remembered she no longer had access to the neural network.
She sighed, boredom sinking in.
She thought, What have I gotten myself into?
Half an hour later the van turned off the highway into a private entrance blocked by a gate. It opened, letting them in. The two students watched as they crested a hill and came to a collection of buildings. The van drove to a large metal structure reminding Lexi of a hangar. A door opened and they drove inside.
Lexi looked, trying to get a feel for the interior when the floor suddenly dropped. Basil let out a yelp. The two older people in front smiled.
Lexi was unsure how far down they had gone, but she knew it was quite a ways. It seemed like the van was on a giant elevator of some kind.
Finally, their progress down stopped. The two up front opened the doors.
The lady said, “Time to get out.”
Basil opened the back doors and he and Lexi stepped out. Looking around, she could see they were in a vast underground vault. Several ground vehicles were parked here, as well as some for air travel. One even looked like the transport vessel for a spaceship. The ceiling was ten meters up, and the room stretched out for acres upon acres, several football fields in length and width.
“Where are we?” Basil said, his voice edged with awe.
The woman said, “My name is Ellen Knox, by the way. Pleased to meet you. Call me El. To answer your question, we are in a secret subterranean research facility belonging to Thespar Industries. You can never leave.”
El grinned at the shocked look on their faces. Then she shrugged.
“Well, ‘never’ is too strong a word. Let’s just say, it would be best if you stayed here at least until the war is over. And even then, we’ll have to see what the government looks like at that time, to see if it’s safe for you to leave.”
She walked off a bit, following the other driver headed for a doorway in a distant wall. She stopped and turned back toward the two young people who were still standing in place, looking around in shock.
El said, “Come on. Let’s get you settled in.”