Ruth Long’s Picture Choice: Two
Title: The Devil You Know
He didn’t look any different than the dozens of scientists I’d retrieved for the company. Maybe a little more dressed down but this was the middle of the jungle, so comfortable clothes made sense.
It was the smile that threw me off.
None of my retrievals had ever been jocular. I chalked it up to the rumors. Underground chatter had it that when your number came up, you got a generous severance package
The retrieval held out his hand. “Name’s Richardson. What’s yours?”
First the smile. Now introductions. Guy was starting to creep me out. I ignored the greeting, tossed his bags into the back of the jeep and hopped back into the driver’s seat.
Figured that the first time I was uncomfortable with a retrieval my usual transport was in the shop. Now, instead of having the plexiglas shield between us as I chauffeured him, he’d be riding shotgun with free conversational access.
He came to the open passenger’s window, put his arms on the rubber and looked at me. “I know talking is against protocol but we have a two hour ride ahead of us. Might as well enjoy it.
I started the engine. “I’ve been doing this job close to two years without a hitch. No sense messing with a good record. Now, let’s go.”
It surprised me when he got in and buckled up without further discussion.
He waited three miles before trying again. “Look, I know the drill, as much as any of us do, but how about if I do all the talking and you just listen?”
I shrugged. “What are you going to say in five minutes that will change anything?”
He thought that over a bit before answering. “Five minutes just might change everything.”
Let’s face it. My job is boring. And I know there are some shady dealings going down at company HQ. So it wasn’t really surprising that my curiosity was piqued.
I mean, hey, I have three kids at home and a husband who is sweet as a box of peaches and strong as an ox but a little short-changed in the smarts department. And I’m okay with that, but it means that it’s my duty to evaluate all our options because lord knows the whole boat is on my shoulders.
“Five minutes and then you’ll shut your yap for the rest of the ride?”
He nodded. “If those are your terms, I’ll take them.”
I fussed with the timer on my watch to let him know I intended to stick to our agreement.
“You have kids, miss?”
“My private life is just that – private. Are you really going to waste your five minutes on inane chit-chat?”
“Look, I figure I got to make a bit of a personal connection or what I say won’t matter. If it will make you feel better, soon as you drop me off, they’re gonna scrub my memory, so I won’t remember anything you tell me right now.”
I downshifted and looked over at him. “That sounds pretty science fiction, Richardson.”
“So is the weapon I just spent two years of my life designing for the company.”
“I was wrong. I think I’d like to go back to the pointless chatter.”
He sighed. “Too late for that now. Believe me, if I thought ignorance was bliss, I’d have kept my mouth shut when you pulled up. But I have a wife and two kids. Even if I don’t make it out of this alive, you can make sure they do. And your own family too, if you have one.”
I punched the dashboard. “Damn you and your five minutes.”
He closed his eyes and was quiet.
“Husband and three kids. Name’s Kylie Wilkes. We been scraping by out on Kettleman’s Canyon since the reconstruction.”
Eyes still closed, he said, “Sorry it’s under these circumstances but I’m glad to meet you, Wilkes. My family was in the Pearson Quarter last I heard. Just south of Kettleman’s.”
“And you’re telling me this why?”
“Because I need you to get to them, warn them, give them a head start. Thing is, after I get scrubbed, how do I know the company doesn’t just knock me off. Maybe they even do that instead of the scrub. That’s why I need your help. But I’m not asking a favor. I’ll trade for it. And believe me, what I got is better than gold.”
Things were playing out so fast I thought, for a moment, that maybe I was going to be sick. Course it could be that I was pregnant again and my old nemesis, morning sickness, was dropping in for a visit. Dayde would be so friggin’ pleased with himself if that were true.
“Look, Richardson. I’ll send my husband out to Pearson and see if he can locate your family. But whatever it is you’re offering as compensation, I don’t want no part of it.”
He turned, opened his eyes and stared at me. “It’s non-negotiable, lady. If you don’t take it, we are all doomed. I’m not talking the usual skirmishes or little civil wars we’ve become used to. It will be complete and total annihilation of this planet.”
I pulled the jeep into a turnout, flung open the door and puked in the dirt. Damn Dayde and his potent seed. Damn Richardson and his doomsday talk. And damn the company and their mother-loving war industry. Damn. Damn. Damn.
“Wilkes? You okay?”
“Yeah,” I said, wiping my mouth on my sleeve. “Hand me one of those water bottles, will you?”
He grabbed one, loosened the lid and passed it to me. “I don’t mean to be inconsiderate but my five minutes are almost up and there are still several salient points to discuss.”
I yanked an elastic band out of my vest pocket, stuffed my hair into a ponytail and drank down the whole bottle. “Way I see it, Richardson, if I help you, it may get me or my family killed. But if I don’t help you, we’re going to be dead anyway. That right?”
“That’s a rather fatalistic frame, but yes, that’s right. The company plans to have the weapon online in two months. When they find out I swapped out the detonation trigger specs, that will hang them up another month or so.”
“So, what you’re saying is that you’re probably not going to make it through debriefing alive?”
“Not likely. But if I can entrust the safety of my family to you, and know that I bought our families another handful of weeks to get somewhere safe, it will be worth the sacrifice.”
Dayde would have liked Richardson. He thought nothing was more important than a man’s love for his family. If he were sitting here beside me, he’d pat my thigh and with those pretty blue eyes all lit up, he’d say, ‘He’s good people, Kylie. You know he is. Trust your heart, sunshine.”
I thought about how Dayde would do whatever it took to protect me and the kids. He’d proved that to me over and over again. His back was a maze of scars from saving our firstborn from the harvesters. The nights I made it home, I’d trace those scars like they were the map to my salvation – and they were.
What if I was the last person Richardson ever talked to? What if I really was his only hope of saving his family? Could I live with myself if I shut him up and turned him down? Could Dayde live me knowing that I’d passed up an opportunity to save our family?
I pulled the jeep back onto the road. “We have the better part of two hours, Richardson, so get to talking. Tell me all of it and I’ll try to get it straight in my head as best as I can. And I give you my word that I will do everything in my power to keep your family safe.”
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