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art by Billy Sagulo

Highest Possible Setting

Keep me safe, keep me safe, keep me safe, you say over and over and over again. It races through your mind on a single track, like a runaway train of fear, gathering momentum while careening on an ever-downward slope. It is not as if you want to be here, thrust into the controlled chaos of the Big Bad City with its noisy cars and mobs of temporary people. Dislikes aside, you need to eat, need to work, need to survive all on your meager single girl budget. This is a far cry from Grover's Corners indeed, where heliotrope perfumes the air and not the dried urine of bums.
Even your Sentinel is an expense you scrimp to afford. And the clean-shaven salesman with the borrowed suit was so earnest about the tragic tales of a friend of a friend who, parroting the recycled stories that never lead back to anyone real. He recommended the Sentinel and you pretended to consider the option. Fantasy or otherwise, the singular threat lives and breathes, skulking around corners and lurking just out of reach of the feeble light from the mocking streetlamps.
Truly though, buying the software was not a hard decision. The most difficult part was sitting very still as its biometric installation intricately webbed its way through your brain with an eerie crawling sensation. The pain would be worth it, you thought, biting your lip in silent anguish.
The unforgiving media was saturated with feeds and reenactment vids about those girls that are either too trusting or too cheap. The ones without bioware protection; slashed or dirtied, who will never again be quite right. They are found, bloodied and stammering, in a part of town they didn't know existed. The kind of place where stagnant crowds of no ones witness absolutely nothing, and help is a bad word. Where dozens of windows close in spite of the suffocating heat, if only to dampen futile screams currently interrupting their reality shows. Head bowed in submission, the not so pretty anymore girls attempt to hide under a rumpled coat, failing to conceal their anguished faces.
Those are the lucky ones, found too late but found all the same. You remind yourself of their beaten eyes, imagine turning down the wrong street or meeting the chance stranger out to ruin, out to hurt. That is why, unlike most Sentinel users, your heuristics are turned to the highest possible setting, simply to avoid that troubled fate.
Each day a new travel plan is configured. Routes are never to be repeated twice during any single month, just in case you are being hunted by the type that adores the girls similar to you. One with a deadly devotion. Today your Sentinel had you ready for work two hours in advance. You are careful and dress in drab colors and straight lines that camouflage your curves. You forgo jewelry since it might be too tempting for the desperate types. Natural make-up and sturdy sensible shoes in case you need to run. Your nondescript purse contains mace, lipstick Taser, a little cash so as not to leave any identifying paper trail and an omnicard for travel.
One day you'll wear the sexy dresses that age in your closet. Material so tight that your breath comes in short gasps bringing an alluring flush to your cheeks. The very ones you model for your unappreciative rescued tabby reclining on the rounded back of the sofa. Uninterested, he looks past you with sleepy amber eyes before succumbing to a nap.
The morning is bright and beautiful but you are not fooled. What gives the sun the right to shine so sweetly when there is so much wrong to be aware of? You shudder at the knowledge while putting a glare on your face. There it will stay until you return home in the evening.
Work, if you weren't being so guarded, is only a fifteen-minute walk but it is always better to err on the fuzzy safe side. The recognition algorithm works overtime as you step briskly towards the underground, shoulders back and head high to reaffirm that you are not a victim. On a silent infinite loop, your bioware scans and catalogues faces in a one-mile radius for the low, low cost of two hundred credits debited from your account monthly. For that you have access to satellites with eagle zoom, steadfastly looking for anyone who might want to do you harm.
As an added bonus the emotion feedback application is included, where micro expressions and biological readouts, only within visual range of course, are deciphered with a three-blink password. The application has come in handy more than once with its ability to track anger, deception, guilt and a myriad of other universal feelings. It was how you knew Marla didn't really believe that pinstriped jacket looked as fantastic as she proclaimed. Marla's heart rate tripled and her adrenal medulla became active, releasing a surge of catecholamines that flew off the graph reaching high into the sky. It was also how you figured out the Mr. Jenkins next door really did see your package and probably knew where it went.
Some might think taking the passenger-stuffed subway to travel seventy blocks south in the wrong direction is excessive. You stand in the crowded train close to the door, never sit, avoiding all eye contact and leaving enough personal space to prevent any physical touch. Your tight face returns your stare, a ghost of a reflection in the transparent glass. Everyone seems too close and you wish desperately for the new electric field augmentation to release soon, hopefully with an optional payment plan. You transfer to a jerky bus slowly crawling west afterwards, just to return north once again by underground and east by electric streetcar, depositing you merely one station away from where your journey began. Sentinel allows a dopamine serotonin cocktail reward for not veering from the course. At times even you believe these circuitous routes are tedious, and the most common complaint from other users who dialed down their software. Unlike most, you trust your Sentinel implicitly, knowing there are no short cuts to safety.
Exiting to the sidewalk, a plasma violet dynamic street overlay fits neatly in your vision, leading you along the safest way possible. Routine is the enemy but pastries are your weakness. Sentinel interrupts your equilibrium making you feel nauseous each time you enter the quaint coffee shoppe with the cheery brick front. It is a couple doors down from your workplace. You have tried countless other suggested bakeries all over the city but nowhere comes close. Fearful of becoming a known regular who orders the remembered usual, Sentinel varies your selections. Through Wi-Fi, your program requests a delicious baked treat. Be it donut, muffin, bagel or croissant, it is ready and waiting by the cashier. You pay and grab the waxy bag with the mystery pastry inside. On good days, it is even something you like. No words exchanged, no connections made, no attention. Danger averted.
In the bag is a frosted bear claw, one of your favorites. Mouthwatering in anticipation, you are about to enjoy the first sticky bite when Sentinel pulses the silent alarm in your skull. You are being followed. It brings up a picture to your retinal display. It is a young man just about your age, not too unattractive with teasing eyes and a lopsided grin. First there is a headshot, then a profile as the word "warning" flashes above and below. Panic grips you and a measured flow of adrenaline is being pumped into your veins. Navigation alters your destination to the nearest police station instantaneously. The urgent red sidewalk shows you the way.
Crisis is imminent. He approaches then stands in front of you, seemingly blocking your escape, the boy from the picture. His biological readout shows elevated heart rate, increased breathing, dilated pupils, muscle tension, and sweaty palms. All signs of acute stress and or sexual arousal. His name is Adam Eckman, an art student at a nearby institute. His statistics scroll by as you read; age, credit score, medical history--but it is the employment that catches your eye. Adam works at the coffee shoppe that has suddenly become no longer quaint.
"You never wait for your change. I owe you enough to qualify for something. An ice cream cone or better yet, dinner?"
He shuffles in place, waiting for you to reply. When you don't, he hands over a charcoal drawing of a more refined version of you with his information scrawled at the bottom before walking down the street.
Sentinel records that he has looked back a total of six times, then prohibits you from doing the same, giving you a warning buzz that jolts your head back forward as the software works to blur him from your view. Your display is filled with files of past cases that probably started with similarly innocent meetings. One can never be too sure where encounters like these will lead. That's the trouble with bad guys. They appear just like everyone else. Fooling you with enchanting teasing eyes and charming lopsided grins instead of being dressed in black twirling waxy handlebar mustaches and cackling wildly signaling their terrible intentions. Perhaps Sentinel is right. You continue on your way. Keep me safe, keep me safe, keep me safe....
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, December 24th, 2013

Author Comments

This will be my first published work. I am a recent survivor of Orson Scott Card's Literary Boot Camp and belong to the Codex writers. This story came about after walking through the streets of New York City and thinking how nice it would be to have personal protection wherever you go. Of course, after writing this I doubt the Sentinel would be my first choice.

- Em Dupre
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