They call me “the Taker.”
When I found him, he was pacing through the dark alley, looking up and down. As if he was expecting to find me in the gutter or on the rooftops. I couldn’t physically turn myself invisible, but I may as well be to people like him. The toes of his expensive shoes were scuffed with the muck of the place he forgot existed. People like him didn’t realize that alleys just like this made up the home of over half the population. The perfect top knot and the perfectly cuffed sleeves he kept pulling on meant he probably thought people like me didn’t exist.
I was more shadow than person, and when he turned around and saw me staring at him, he jumped and fell onto the dirty street. His quivering lips betrayed his fear as he spoke, “Taker?”
The only answer I gave him was holding out my hand. I wasn’t known for my lengthy conversations. Givers were lucky to hear me speak at all. He reached into his sports coat and pulled out a thumb drive. He gingerly put it into my hand.
I usually found myself taking tech, and if someone had to give tech, I would find my way to them. I pocketed the drive into my pants and went to take off my cloak.
“No. I don’t need . . . that,” the man said as he realized I meant to trade. When the hood of my cloak came off, he could see my face. I was something he didn’t want to exist. Holding my cloak out to him, I smiled showing him my teeth in a sinister grin. He tried to back away, but I mirrored his every step.
“I do not take without giving in return,” I said to him as his hands grasped the drape. I walked towards him, and he frantically tried to get away from me. “Stop,” I commanded.
He held still as I touched my finger to his forehead. I closed my eyes as his thoughts washed over me. I grabbed hold of the two that concerned me.
I saw myself through his eyes. The scar on my face looked even harsher than it does in the mirror. It looks jagged and infected. The mark starts at my eye and reaches down to my collar bone in one angry stroke. That’s the first thing I make disappear. For a moment, I’m left with an image of myself without a scar. I stare at it for a few seconds before I wipe my face away. I brushed at the memory until he was confused about what I looked like. My hair turned short and blonde. My eyes turned blue instead of brown. My voice turned deep. I swiped away the memory like it was a picture on a phone. Browsing his recent memories, I found myself looking at this man in front of a computer. He was sweating as he typed frantically on the keyboard. He pulled the thumb drive out of his pocket. I could sense he was confused. He still put it in the computer. The screen flashed white, and I was forcibly pushed from his mind.
My head pounded. I have never been pushed out of someone’s mind like that. The man looked blank. He didn’t experience any pain from my intrusion or exit. He was just holding the cloak, as I backed away from him, further into the alley. “Wear it. And run.”
I folded back into the shadows, holding back a chuckle as he tripped and fell running out of the alley. My persona as The Taker is one they should fear. I have carefully crafted that image to something they could fear. Fear is the only thing that protects me. The boot instead of the ant, is the only way a girl like me can survive in this world.
I’m a master programmer. A title only given to those with the best abilities of the new tech of our world. A master programmer can program not only any piece of tech, but also could program people.
The streets of Dysnova were home to half of its citizens, including me. The city itself was a vibrant and advanced utopia filled to the brim with too many bodies, both alive and dead. The skyscrapers towered to unreached heights, so high you could touch the clouds. The lights were vivid and colorful, but the stars were still visible. The government of Accretion created the kind of city they could be proud of. The kind that brought in money. Tourists would gather in the hundreds of thousands every day to visit the “promised city.” They didn’t see the city for what it truly was: a place where those with money could lose it and those without it will die.
I refused to die in this city. I want to escape it one day, but I found a way to survive here. Probably the only way a young girl like me could. Walking home, I twirled the flash drive in my hands. Word spread to me that this was worthy of my kind of trade. This piece, like all things that touched my hands, knew secrets. I had to wring them out.
Dysnova is dark even with the endless light from the buildings. It breathes darkness— in and out it goes. Breath in— the cries of the hungry. Breathe out—the greed of the men in high-rises that tower above me. My home rests between a tech shop and a restaurant. My tent is set up right next to the dumpster, which provides shelter from the wind, but also creates a smell it took years to get used to. The tech shop has great WIFI, which is the only reason why I live here. I approach the corner of my home and stop outside the shop. Mrs. Turrentine is closing it down. A light rain falls as I watched her lock everything up.
“Someday,” I said to myself. A light rain started to fall, making me wish I still had my cloak. The cold droplets make me shiver, but I stayed to watch Mrs. Turrentine. She cares about the work she does, and I can’t help but respect her for the way she obviously esteems the tech. She regards it the same way I do: as an opportunity.
I duck out of her view before she can see me. When she met me, she liked me. Before I changed her memory, but along with everyone in the world, she would try and make me leave. My eyes glance over the “No Soliciting” sign before I crawl into my tent.
Because of my profession, I can afford a few things that make me more comfortable. My sleeping bag is my most prized possession. This dusky city was more often cold than anything else. The city started to get a mind of its own becoming a hell for those not in their weather-controlled buildings. To walk on the streets was to be miserably cold or hot. One day it was like walking in the desert versus walking in the Artic the previous day. A dying race on a dying planet.
I slipped my body into the bag. It was already warm because of the radiation tech I had installed. Even things like cloth now could hold data. My next most prized possession was the make-shift laptop I created. It was rinky and slow, but I could upload and download data. When I got the “call” about this drive, I was told that it had a code no one could crack. I had a buyer lined up, but I had to crack the code first before it was useful. My buyer is offering a crazy amount of money for this drive. Enough that I could live in a tenement house in Dysnova . . . for a month. With the influx of tourists to our “starry city,” the government passed a bill dissolving rent control. Now, the greedy assholes who created this cesspool of misery of the poor get to control the market.
The tenements made up every street corner in Dysnova. The middle class could afford to live there, but only if families shared two rooms. I didn’t have any family, and after almost being killed in a tenement house, I can’t bring myself to go back. My fingers reached up to touch my face as the memory threatened to overwhelm me. I blinked, and I could see the anger in his face. I opened my eyes to make him disappear.
I rubbed my hands together as the laptop booted up. The traffic noise blurred around me until it was a dull roar that I could tune out with a little focus. I stuck the drive into my laptop, and as soon as I hit “run” my computer flashed white just like it did in the Giver’s memory. I braced myself for the pain I felt before, but none came. The screen remained white. Cautiously, I touched my fingers to the screen, and my mind was pulled in. I let out a raspy breath as I hurtled into the tech. Incoherent streams of numbers and letters were all I could see. I knew tech, and this was a hacker, but not an ordinary hacker that hacked computers.
This one hacked master programmers.
A disembodied voice echoed in my head. “Laika,” it said over and over again. My head felt like it was being split open. I opened my mouth to scream but no sound came out.
I was set up. This hacker was coming after programmers. They somehow figured out that the Taker was a master, which was scary enough, but the person who wanted to play with me knew my identity. I haven’t told anyone my given name in years. I haven’t been “Laika” since I was ten years old. That girl was buried in the ashes of her home. From that moment on I became The Taker. My mind was trying to program my way out of the hack, but instead of taking me out of it, it was pulling me in farther. I started to lose the sense of my body. I couldn’t tell what my earthly body was doing anymore. My mind was creating a program body. I could see the form shape until it had fingers that I used to find the rest of the avatar. The program absorbed the pain from my real head. I tried to make myself grounded in the pain. The program screamed until all at once, the pain disappeared as did the codes.
My avatar was surrounded by blackness. I looked around trying to figure out how to get out. I let my mind go into the trance of master programming. Almost at once, I found a thread that leads to the way out, but as soon as I was about to grasp it, my avatar started falling. The blackness didn’t change, so it was like I was falling in a void. My breath became quick. The emptiness was choking me. I closed my eyes and hit the ground.
Warmth tickled my face. I had never experienced heat like this before, it was comfortable rather than painful. My eyes opened into brightness.
I blinked until the brightness faded from view. Out of the disarray came a woman. Her face spoke of money. Everything about her was perfect, the way you only could be with money. Behind her, I saw two suns. This was no longer Dysnova. There was no artificial brightness here. It was natural and beautiful. I was lying in the hills, but I could see skyscrapers in the distance.
I looked back to the woman, “Where am I?”
She smiled. “I guess that is the most important question, isn’t it?” I looked away from her face and noticed she was wearing all white. She looked perfect—artificial.
“You still didn’t answer my question.”
“This is the City of Light, Laika. A place free from taking.”
I pushed myself to stand, so I was level with her. She was telling me enough. My mind started programming.
Her face, which has been serene, turned furious. I felt a hand push until I was back in my mind—forced to stop programming.
“There is no programming here, Laika.”
“Stop using that name,” I spit out through clenched teeth.
“That’s your name, Laika. Your name isn’t ‘The Taker.’ That’s a lie.”
“It’s not a lie. It’s who I am now.” My mind begins to program again and almost immediately I’m pushed out again.
“STOP IT,” she screamed. Her hand touched my forehead, and the pain came with it. She held on for only a few seconds, but if I was in my human body, I would have fainted.
“I’m the only master programmer her, Laika. You’ve been given an oasis in the City of Light. Take it.”
“This isn’t real. You’re a hacker who trapped me inside code. I have a body in the real world. I won’t stop programming until I get back to it.”
The woman chuckles, “Laika . . . We can take too. We took your body. This is the only existence left for you.”
She holds out her hand and there’s a flash of light. I blink the light away, and I can see a mirror left in her hand. She holds it out to me, and I catch a glimpse of my face.
“We can take too.”
I gaze upon a face. One without a scar.