In and out. That was the plan. I knew if we took too long or gave anyone cause for suspicion, they would be on us within minutes. The front doors of the market weren’t an option. There would be scanners roving for our identification, and we would be exposed when they landed on Greyson.
He didn’t exist, as far as the government was concerned. At least, his existence — if acknowledged — was considered a threat to national security. Undocumented illegals were potential carriers: unwilling hosts of a deadly virus that turned men into monsters.
Greyson motioned for me to join him behind the crates waiting near the loading dock. I sprinted out from behind the dumpster, and he boosted me up the low wall into the storage room.
Skirting around the perimeter, pallets and pallets of food begged to be stolen: a bag of rice, a sack of beans, a few cans of soup. Nobody would be any the wiser.
Greyson noticed my roaming eyes and shook his head slightly, gaze narrowing. Stealing from the back was never part of the plan. There were too many workers around taking inventory and moving merchandise out to the floor. They couldn’t stock the shelves fast enough, and this was the only grocer left in the city with a steady supply — the only grocer that could afford the cost of fuel.
My breath felt tight and too high in my chest as I tried to breathe quietly behind a pallet of breakfast cereal. We were only a few yards from the door to the dairy aisle.
Greyson met my gaze for a moment — just long enough for me to signal that I was ready to move. I read the meaning in his dark eyes as clearly as though he’d spoken aloud: don’t stray from the plan.
Right, I thought. Like I was the one who needed to be told. Greyson was intense and impulsive. I was the one who always had a plan.
We would have minutes at most before the in-store identification rovers realized that one of us shouldn’t be there and sounded the alarm. Judging from the level of noise coming from the other side of the door, the place was packed with customers. That was good. A crowd would buy us slightly more time, if only a minute or two.
I felt Greyson squeeze my forearm, and I knew it was time to move. A pimply teenager scanning a pallet of green beans had turned his back to us, and without a second to catch my breath, we were sprinting for the door. Stumbling slightly, I knew I was making too much noise. Luckily, an announcement over the intercom muffled my clumsy footfalls.
I squinted at the too bright florescent lighting and knew we were safe — for now. The rover mounted on the ceiling blinked red as it focused on me, and then the light turned green. I imagined it inputting my data: Haven Allis. Female. Age: twenty. Occupation: student. Available funds: zero dollars and zero cents. Health: normal. Current location: Greenbrier Grocer, Columbia, Sector 573. Threat level: yellow.
The rover swiveled toward Greyson, and I moved in front of him. It stopped, reading my data again. I let out a long breath of relief but kept my eyes fixed on the ceiling for more rovers. I could only block Greyson for so long; the other rovers in the store would soon communicate with one another, processing spacial data until they recognized the presence of one undocumented human.
As planned, we quickly located an abandoned shopping cart and headed for the non-perishable food aisles. Nothing looked more suspicious than a couple of nervous people shopping without a cart in hoarding times, Greyson had said.
I felt a slight chill unrelated to the usual coldness of the dairy aisle. All the milk cases were completely empty; no store in Columbia had received a shipment of milk or cheese or meat in weeks. When we reached the canned food aisle, most of the vegetables and beans were already picked over.
An older woman with a cart full of canned goods eyed us suspiciously, as if we might commandeer her cart. I ignored the cans. Greyson and I both agreed they would be too hard to carry. I reached instead for a large bag of rice, stretching out my arm with the tiny square scar where my Citizen ID was inserted. It shone bright white against my fading summer tan, and the woman seemed to relax. Greyson hefted a bag of black beans into the cart, his sleeves pulled down to hide his unmarked forearm.
Next we hit the snacks aisle, grabbing several tins of nuts — good protein on the run. I kept glancing up at the rovers, moving to cover Greyson whenever they swiveled in his direction. He caught my eye, and I could tell he was satisfied with our haul. I knew we’d collected about all we could carry. Time was running out. We needed to get to the front entrance.
I tried not to look too long at the other shoppers. They were mostly middle-aged men and women who were stockpiling for the mandatory migration north or, if they were foolish, for the months ahead hiding away in their homes, hoping things would turn around. They weren’t looking at us.
We started making our way toward the front of the store. I felt a dark cloud rising in my chest, unfurling rapidly and choking my airways.
This was the part I dreaded: the escape. Greyson had kept out of trouble this long by hiding quietly in the shadows, not by making a scene and drawing attention to his illegal status. I glanced around at all the other shoppers — all anxious about feeding their families for a few weeks or months and blissfully unaware of what was about to happen.
I could see the sliding glass doors and the street beyond. Don’t abandon the cart until they’ve already seen us, Greyson had said. Don’t draw attention until we get out and the alarms sound.
The alarms. There was no going back now. Once the rovers identified me as Greyson’s accomplice, I would be labeled a defector: a documented citizen gone rogue.
Nearly there, nearly there. I dreaded the screech of the alarm sounding that there were unidentified shoppers in the area — code for undocumented illegals. We’d reached the nearly barren produce section. Too many people with cartfuls of groceries were milling about for us to attract attention. In fact, we looked so comically ordinary I felt like laughing.
Then, a sharp tone sounded over the intercom. My blood ran cold. I had missed a rover. It was happening too soon. An announcement blared out in a robotic feminine tone.
“Attention. Attention. Unidentified shopper in the produce atrium. Unidentified shopper —”
It took me several seconds to realize that the unidentified shopper was Greyson. Then the panic hit me. This was the moment I had been playing over and over in my mind for days, but I stood frozen. They had identified Greyson too early, and it was my fault.
Greyson pulled my arm, fear in his dark eyes. While I had been stubbornly avoiding an ill-conceived food heist that would bring the PMC down upon us, Greyson had talked about it endlessly. Rebellion excited him. Now, caught off guard, reality had hit, and he was finally showing the terror I’d felt for months.
We were still yards away from the doors. I fumbled to grab the bag of rice, but there was no time! It wasn’t supposed to happen while we were still in here! This wasn’t the plan. We hadn’t planned for this.
“Haven! Haven!” Greyson was yelling at me to follow, but my legs were heavy as though I was wading through water. I stumbled after him, and we ran for the glass doors.
We’d abandoned the cart — not part of the plan — but Greyson had managed to grab the beans and some rice. We reached the doors, and a deafening screech of an alarm pierced the inside of my skull. The rover over the sliding doorway settled on me, and I watched the light turn red: suspected illegal.
I followed his back, not watching where we were headed. Not thinking about the dozen or so PMC officers patrolling the semi-abandoned shopping center in hopes of apprehending a group of illegals doing exactly what we were attempting.
Before we’d cleared the street, I could see a squad of officers dressed in their stark-white uniforms with three growling Doberman pinschers straining at their leashes. They heard the alarm, and they were bearing down on us, taking chase.
We sprinted down a side street, past the loading docks and down an alley. We were ahead, but not by much. We were more fit, it was true, but this had to be their beat, and they knew the streets better.
All I could think to do was follow Greyson. Every few feet, he’d glance over his shoulder to see that I was still behind him, and I saw the fear in his face, the uncertainty knotting his usually steadfast brow. Greyson always knew what to do. How was this happening?
I could hear heavy footfalls and the flapping jowls of hungry dogs behind us. They were starting to catch up. We should drop the food, I thought. The weight was slowing us considerably. We were mice in a maze, and they knew where we were going before we did.
The dogs’ growls sounded closer as we approached a “T” in the street. Half running, half turning, Greyson slowed enough to grab my wrist.
“Go left, Haven,” he gasped.
“No. We have to stay together!”
He shook his head once, stumbling a little as he pulled me along. “We won’t both make it.”
“We will,” I sputtered, still resolved. “Meet at the usual spot.” My lungs were burning with the effort of running and pleading with him.
His eyes flitted to mine and away quickly. Something was off about that look. I’d known Greyson my whole life — long enough to know when he was lying.
“Okay,” he said. “Meet there at dark.”
We’d reached the split in the road.
“No.” My voice was too high. I was losing control. “Promise me.” I pulled at his arm. “You have to get away.”
His jaw twitched. “I’ll try. If one of us doesn’t, the other leaves by morning. Stick to the plan.”
I shook my head, tears starting to pool in my eyes. The dogs were so close I could hear their claws scraping the pavement. “We’ll go together. Like always.”
For the first time since his dad died, I saw tears in the corners of his eyes. His voice sounded too thick. “You have to get away, Haven.”
I tried to speak, but he’d already pushed me away from him, down the alley to the right.
“Run,” he said.
I ran. From the sound of his cadence, he was running too, but I knew it wasn’t his fastest. He beat me in every track and field race since we were kids, but now he was making himself the easier chase. Hot tears stung my eyes, but I didn’t stop.
The officers didn’t sound any closer, but a moment later, I heard the sound of a scuffle and a low growl.
I stopped and turned. They were on Greyson — two officers and a hound. He struggled, but only to give me more time to escape. From the look on his face, I knew he wanted me to keep running, but I couldn’t look away.
The bag of beans fell from under his arm, and the dog ripped it open with its teeth, beans spilling like marbles onto the pavement. Greyson swung out his arm and caught one of the officers on the jaw, but a second later, the officer wrenched and twisted the arm around his back. The other caught him a hard blow to the face with his nightstick. He cried out.
“Go!” he yelled at me.
In the distance, I could hear more officers approaching. We were outnumbered. With nothing else to do, I ran.
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