September 15th, 1986
3:08 PM CST
Shelly Go laughed triumphantly at Hector's cry. She and her brothers always roughhoused - it was all part of a game they liked to play, "Team Go." One of the three older children, selected through the highly scientific process of rock-paper-scissors, became the evil "Supreme One" while the other two became members of the heroic "Team Go." Their two toddler siblings, Wess and Webb, were too little to be of much help, and usually became valiant American hostages, secret Soviet technology, or sacks of precious jewels.
For this particular game, Shelly was the Supreme One, a title she particularly liked. They'd begun in the yard, and Shelly eventually made a tactical withdrawal to the treehouse with her "hostages." Hector and Meirion followed her – though the attempt was made more difficult by the pelting of water balloons their sister gave them – and the game ended, as it always did, with a climactic battle on the treehouse floor. Usually, Hector Go won.
This time, though, Shelly had pinned her brother, four years her senior, in an unexpected, painful juji-gatame arm lock, and he couldn't break it. At Hector's whine of capitulance, Shelly released her submission hold. The siblings sat up, dusting themselves off. Hector flapped his arm, wincing a little.
"I gotta hand it to ya', Sis – you're really gettin' good!"
"…Yeah..." Meirion Go drawled from the corner, watching the tumble while leaning back in a chair, tipping it insolently back onto two legs. His arms had been "vaporized" early in the battle by Shelly's ray gun – really a super soaker – and he was required to recover in the "dungeon." For his part, Meirion was more than happy to watch indolently from the sidelines. "...Must'a been my superior training."
"Nooooo, I believe it's due to my better conditioning techniques... Meir," retorted Hector.
"Hey! Don't call me that!" Meirion shouted, bristling and tipping forward, all four of the chair's feet hitting the wooden decking with a loud bang.
"Meir, Meir, Meir, Meir... You aren't a Communist, are you?" Hector taunted.
"I'm not! I'm not! And stop calling me Meir!" The second-eldest sibling had been stuck with the nickname ever since the Soviet station Mir launched earlier that year to great fanfare. Shelly had been the first to notice the pronunciation similarities and began taunting her flouty older brother mercilessly, since association with anything Russian was instant anathema on the playground. Hector eagerly picked up the standard once she'd tired of the nickname, and the brand stuck. Even Athena and Thomas, their parents, had begun using it, to their own chagrin; they'd never been able to come up with a proper nickname for "Meirion," and it was a relief not to have to tangle over so many syllables.
Shelly rolled her eyes and turned away, smacking her forehead in disgust. There was no reason to get in the middle of Hector and Meirion's arguments; the slightest provocation sent the two brothers spiraling into shouting matches. "Can't you two, like, just get along for about, like, five seconds?" she groused.
"I'm getting along. He's not," said Meirion, thumbing at Hector. The thin, gangly boy was only twelve, but already he had the surly attitude of a teenager.
"What? You're not the one listening to Team Go's leader!"
"Leader? Since when?"
"Since I'm the oldest!"
"Ugh, for the love of-" Shelly threw up her hands. "Look, I learned that move on my own from Joey at school! His dad, like, teaches martial arts! You two had nothing to do with –!" Too late. Hector and his younger brother were already deep in an outburst over who was a better trainer. "...You idiots! Why do I even bother?" she growled, hunching her shoulders.
She turned to look back at the wall facing the main house. "…How much longer is Grandmama gonna taaaaake?" she whined aloud to no one in particular. Plopping her elbows onto a windowsill, she blocked out the fight behind her and gazed at the main house, separated from their treed abode by about two hundred feet of putting-green flat, meticulously-trimmed lawn. She settled her chin onto her upwardly-turned palms, the sharp, slightly aggressive features of her ten-year-old face framed by leafy green branches shifting gently in the mild September breeze.
Below her on the lawn rested detritus of their earlier games – sand dumped from the sandbox; a baseball glove lying forgotten on the ground; chunky, loud-colored Big Wheels tipped onto their sides. The massive oak holding up their fort was one of the few "legacy" trees left after the suburb boom in the 1950's, and the relative lack of other tall vegetation gave the treehouse a sweeping panoramic view of the neighborhood. This fact made it a prime outpost for games of capture-the-flag and kick-the-can, and mini-Stalingrads often raged about the spreading roots to decide who would control it for the next game. A tall wooden privacy fence separated their large plot of backyard from their neighbor's. Identical fences rimmed the perimeters of all the other house lots, dividing the neighborhood into a tidy checkerboard.
Several miles behind her back, to the north, rose the iconic skyline of Go City. A hazy blue aura behind the gray skyscrapers marked the presence of Lake Michigan.
Shelly slowly scanned the flat slab that formed the back of the main house, searching for an opening door that heralded their grandmother bringing out the ritual after-school cookies and milk. There were many doors to check; the solid two-story core had been grown many wings and additions over the years of its long existence. Her parents said her great-grandfather himself had designed the house.
Great-Grandpa Go, her parents had told her, sailed beneath the Statue of Liberty in the 1890's from the area now known as modern-day Yugoslavia. Others clarified it as Montenegro, others Serbia, and still others Bosnia – the area had fragmented so often, no one actually knew for sure. At any rate, after landing in New York, Great-Grandpa migrated West on the promise of free land provided by the Homestead Act, but was caught and drawn like a moth to flame by the power and energy of Go City's meatpacking industry. A metalworker by trade and a dilettante inventor, he made a fortune on an improved door latch for the hundreds of thousands of cattle and refrigerator railcars that slithered through the city like metal snakes.
Once wealthy, he married and had three children, two boys and a girl. His daughter died young of tuberculosis, prompting the family to flee to the suburbs, out of the pollution and disease of the city proper. He designed the original house, where his sons grew up and eventually Thomas and his siblings were born. The family had remained rich (though most of the wealth wisely remained out-of-sight in banks), sustained by his railcar patent, resting in strata above the high middle class but far below the Swifts and Armours.
Following both urban and old-world convention, the extended family eventually filled up most of the block, concentrating the entire Go lineage within a five-house radius. The arrangement made for no-hassle family reunions and virtually guaranteed a steady supply of sitters.
Over the years, the sustainability of the Go fortune eroded as meatpacking decentralized and trucks took over, but Old Man Go beat into his sons a strong blue-collar ethic and would've certainly disowned them had they been content to simply coast on their riches. The lineage's opulence slowly lost momentum along with the city and took a severe drubbing when the economy tanked in the 1970's, but hard work on the part of Shelly's grandparents and parents managed to fight the entropy and maintain stability in the upper middle class.
Shelly sighed, oblivious to most of this history, as her stomach rumbled.
At least Grandmama gives us cookies, she thought, her lofty position providing a view of the roof of one of her aunt's houses located diagonally across the street. That particular aunt was, unfortunately, the most common go-to for last-minute babysitting jobs, and she had a decidedly old-school concept of child discipline.
"'Ey-!" said Webb, the first of Shelly's two-year-old twin brothers.
Shelly turned around as something, like a sound wave with no noise, made her neck prickle. "Huh?"
The toddlers had gotten to their feet and were clinging unsteadily to the sill of the treehouse's west window, their eyes just able to clear the plywood lip. Webb's twin, Wess, pointed up. "Whass thah...?"
Shelly staggered, the invisible pressure splitting along her neck. The world, it seemed, had dropped into a silent fishbowl, and Hector and Meir's arguing voices boomed sacrilegiously loud. She strode quickly to the opposite window, dodging around a small table set in the middle of the room. Her unease gained momentum as the uncomfortable pressure edged down into her chest. Ducking down to the twins' eye-level, she stuck her head through the opening – and gasped. "Hector! Meir!"
"Well, I'm – huh?" Meir and Hector broke off their debate and looked quizzically at their sibling.
"Look!" Shelly pointed out the treehouse window.
Two-thirds above the cloudless blue horizon, a bright point of light shone in the sky, sparkling like a second sun. Far too intense to be the reflection off an airliner, it did not appear to move – only grow. The dot twinkled like a star, but it was too big... much too big.
As they gazed at it, a rumble invaded their senses, setting the air humming as infrasound transitioned to audible sound waves.
"Get the binoculars!" Hector shouted. Meirion skidded across the tabletop and scrabbled for the lenses in the toy chest. A second later, they were in his hand and he flung them to his brother. Hector jammed them to his eyes and tilted them upward. "Wow…" he murmured, gazing at the object. "That's a weird thingy..." He twisted a dial on the binoculars, bringing the dot into sharper focus. "No, wait! It's... glowing! It looks like it's got a... a bunch of different colors on it! It's...!"
"–A glowing thingy that's headed right for us!" Shelly shrieked. Indeed – the light had not shifted sideways at all, and was unnervingly filling their vision like an approaching train headlamp – and it was doing it amazingly quickly. The rumble deepened to a roar, reminding Shelly of liftoffs of the new Space Shuttle. But – something was wrong. Instead of lessening in intensity like an upward-speeding rocket should, the sound only grew, vibrating the ribs in her chest.
Hector lowered the binoculars as he gazed at the object, mouth slowly dropping into an O. Then, as if given an electric shock, he broke the trance holding them all. "Hey! Take one of the twins! I'll get the other one! Team Go, let's get out of here! Move...! Move! Move!"
Meirion bolted, scrambling for the ladder.
Shelly nodded, snatching up one of the twins and vaulting across the treehouse porch. She looked up as she frantically clawed her way down the rickety wooden ladder; Hector was nearly on top of her, clutching Wess, or Webb – she didn't know. The roar consumed them, rattling her skull and her guts; light became blinding; heat, scorching. Hysterical, she wondered if the Shuttle was landing on them. She glanced back down – Meir was steadying the ladder and accepted one of the twins with open arms as Shelly handed it to him. She jumped off the ladder to clear the landing zone for her eldest brother, performing a 180-degree spin in midair and landing three-point on the grass, facing the main house. As she looked up, she saw her parents opening the door, Grandmama Go with them, clutching a tray of cookies.
"MOMMY! DADDDY! GRANDMAMA!" she screamed. "RUN! RUN! RUN! RU-"
She launched toward them. The world froze in mid-leap, fixed onto film under the glare of a massive white flashbulb, tearing open and melting away like celluloid over flame.
The last thing she saw was her parents and grandmother, staring dumbfoundedly upward at something they would never comprehend.
As the image burned into her eyeballs, a blinding green light enveloped her, and her world dissolved in a swirling kaleidoscopic howl of color, noise, and pain.
Shego doubled over and slammed upright, the flash seared on the inside of her retinas.
Her yell hovered, disembodied and echoing, around her ears for a few seconds before fading away into drained quiet. Gasping, muscles abruptly paralyzed, she stared unfocusedly at the lump of her feet in the sleeping bag. The silence hummed, pulsing with the beat of blood in her ears.
As she fully regained consciousness, she leveraged her mouth shut and slowly uncoiled onto her back. Massaging her forehead with her thumb and index finger, she closed her eyes and took several deep, shaky breaths as the burned-in image of her nightmare, her flashback, her memory, trickled away like water. The ghostly reverb of her yell tape-looped inside her head.
Recovering, Shego glanced over at the bed from her low position on the floor. Her outburst hadn't awakened Sheldon – or whoever he is, she mentally interjected – and he continued to snore lightly, flat on his back amongst a churned bedspread.
Trembling, the woman realized she was drenched in sweat and her sleeping bag had become slick and clammy. Wriggling awkwardly out of its clingy embrace, she staggered up, her bare skin suddenly chilly as the open night air sucked at it. Damp with hot sweat, the black sports bra and matching boyshorts she had slept in quickly turned cold. Vivid green eyes adjusting to the gloom, she stumbled to the window seat and leaned against the wall of the bay niche, leg stretched across the cushion, toes brushing the opposite wall. Watery moonlight from a thinly overcast night diffused through the glass, lightening the room slightly. In the silver gleam, the contrast between Shego's nightwear and skin was striking. At the boundary of hem and arm, her skin formed a white halo around the strap.
Shivering as her body cooled, Shego hugged herself tightly around the shoulders and let her head drop toward her chest, eyes closing again.
Damn... she swore silently, spitting a slice of air through her teeth, Damn... Haven't had that one in years... Years... Thought I'd gotten rid of it... Tipping sideways, she rested the side of her head against the cool window, black hair crushed flat against the glass. Maybe it's just shock... I've had a busy day... The tip of her mouth twitched with a malicious smile. Did a lotta new stuff... Gotta sort it out... Gotta figure out what to do ne–
"What?" she yelped in surprise, whipping around, hands sliding off her shoulders as she spun, right palm igniting.
In the flickering green light of her glow, she saw Sheldon sitting lopsidedly up in bed, tousled hair going in six different directions, squinting hard and mousy-eyed without his glasses. His eyes shone blank and glassy as they caught the bright aura engulfing her fingers.
Shego noticed the reflective sheen of his eyes expand as he stared, rapt, at a point in space just to the left of her neck, before he checked himself and glanced embarrassedly away, his whole head shying.
She glanced to her left. One shoulder strap of her bra had slipped off her shoulder as she spun out of her self-hug, and it now looped conspicuously above her upper arm like a solar flare.
Rolling her eyes, she casually swung the strap back into the dip of her collarbone; she'd lived around her brothers long enough to become indifferent to their wide-eyed stares at the strange habits of girls' clothing.
"…Sorry," she said coolly, extinguishing the flame, "Startled me… Thought I was the only one up."
Sheldon waited until he heard the elastic slap back in place before meeting her gaze again. "I... heard something… Thought it was part of my dream...."
"I'm a rough sleeper… bonked my head on the wardrobe," she lied, not wanting to reveal to this near-stranger she'd had a nightmare. Folding her arms, she leaned against the niche, lower back resting against the window-seat ledge. "What time is it?"
Twisting around, Sheldon lifted his wristwatch off the nightstand and held it close to his eyes. "Uh… 3:46."
"Ugh… Sorry to wake you up."
"Don'… Don'…" Sheldon yawned widely. "No problem…" He dropped his watch back on the table with a clunk. He paused, looking down as he twisted the covers on his lap. Looking up, he gazed shyly at her. "…And… um… thanks… for today…" he said, so quietly she almost didn't catch it. "Thanks… for… for… everything."
"Whatever..." Her face set. "Why were those goons after you…? 'Cause if what I did puts me on some kind of hit-list, bud, you're getting dropped on the side of the road."
Sheldon looked down quickly, fidgeting frantically with the covers.
"You're going to put a hole in those. I'm waiting."
Lifting his head, he met her eyes and took a deep breath. "A... few years ago... I… I think it was '93, there was this... guy...."
He broke off, frowning. "Stop smiling, it wasn't like that. I can't tell you much, but it wasn't like that. I was this… this… stringy white-collar burnt-out loser of a computer programmer from Seattle-"
"Looks like things haven't changed much, hmm?"
"Shut up. I – why are you smiling now?"
"You just told a girl who's got flaming crap coming out of her hands to shut up." She cocked her head to one side, grinning. "I think I'm beginning to like you."
"Thanks… are you always this sarcastic?"
"Sarcasm and masturbation are what keep me sane. Now where were you in this story of yours…?"
"I… I…" He gaped at her, taken aback. "I… programmer… yeah, burnt-out programmer, and his guy – he…" Sheldon's voice dropped to a reverent whisper, "He had dreams…He had these… visions of a better world… He was looking for a bunch of smart burnt-out fucks like me to help him… I mean… I mean, I'm sitting in some windowless mainframe nook day after day after day under these god-damn lights, and they hum and they hum and they hum… and it rains all the time outside, I'm just maintaining the gears inside… And he was asking us to help him do something that mattered…"
Frozen in her lean against the window seat, the inside of Shego's head had gone very quiet. His voice was pleading, justifying, but the emotion in his words and his abrupt swearing impressed her. "I… don't suppose you… had any… any… siblings… did you?"
"No. Only kid… So… Me and him and a bunch of other nerds went out into the middle of Montana somewhere in this beat-up old school bus… He'd bought up an old missile silo from the Cold War – I think it was Atlas F – and he had us clear it out, along with a bunch of these nutty militia guys he'd hired…"
"Ouch… Bet that was messy."
Sheldon flinched. "Yeah… Four inches of rat shit is... not fun. The militia guys built floors into the missile tube – they were able to fit ten stories into that thing, can you believe it? After we got the place up all cleaned out and wired up with electricity and telecom – Internet, too; this guy was way ahead of his time… He… put in all this weird equipment...."
He trailed off.
"And... and then he… he… burned the bus…" In the moonlight, Sheldon's already white face turned monochrome. "I… thought that was kinda freaky… But I thought it'd still be OK. You... you don't know how this guy could… he'd speak, and… we'd all just want to follow him. No mind control, but… God, that man could speak."
He paused shakily. Shego sat on the window seat, hands moving to her knees as she leaned forward.
"I thought it wouldn't be bad… and it wasn't, really. Not for me. I was in data processing in the former launch control center. I had air-conditioning, electricity, Internet modem access, good meals… And after about a year, I realized this was Seattle II. Nothing'd changed. I was still a… a… fuckin' computer nanny… Once I came to that realization, I started actually looking at the data and files I was processing… And…. And… I realized… I realized…" He broke off and shuddered violently.
"Sheldon, what were you doing?"
The former programmer squeaked and shook his head vehemently.
"Sheldon, what were you doing?"
He shook his head vigorously again. "I… may-maybe later… C-can't tell you now. Not yet. Don't… don't know you enough."
"Alright… Forget it. How'd you get from there to some godforsaken diner in Arkansas?"
"I'd finally had enough, figured out enough… And I… got out."
"I. got. out...'kay?" The tightness of his voice indicated it wasn't a topic he wanted to discuss. "Don't know how I got to the surface, but… I did. Boosted a truck, drove it until daybreak, parked it over some railroad tracks, walked to a Greyhound station. I got wind of the derailment a few days later... I knew they'd notice that the truck and I were missing, but I hoped they'd think I committed suicide. It wasn't until yesterday I realized they'd actually been following me, but I kept zigzagging around and switching buses to throw off followers… I guess that's why I got here, instead of winding up dead on the Nebraska border." He smiled weakly, clearly terrified.
Shego leaned back, fingertips pressed together, chin resting in the V between her middle and index fingers. "So… where are… or were… you headed?"
Sheldon raised and lowered on shoulder. "I haven't really gotten anything in mind… South. New Orleans. Miami. Cuba."
The woman shook her head. "Bad idea. You've got more and more small towns as you go south… More chances to get spotted. New Orleans isn't too particularly big… And, really, Cuba? This isn't the 1950's."
"Any suggestions, then?"
"Well, I think I'm headed for LA…" She waved a hand. "How big is your boss's outfit?"
"About a hundred people total, living in the silo and in a few Quonset huts outside."
"And heavies like Thing One and Thing Two?"
"Eight, I… think. Twelve max."
"Shit…" Shego sighed and rubbed her forehead. "I should've broken their heads open... Still, twelve would be manageable, if they've got the same IQ levels as your boyfriends yesterday."
"Wait... You mean you're going to –"
"Heeey, nothing like a bit of danger to make you feel alive, eh? One day out and I was worried I was gonna start get fuckin' bored. Can't have that now, can we…?" She grinned sardonically. "I'm already in trouble with your lot, if those goons have called back in, and until we get to a big enough city to let you disappear entirely, it'll be helpful to have another set of eyes."
"R-really? You've going to help me? You're going to protect m-"
"Like hell, sport. I'm not your damn bodyguard. You are an FNG. You don't know how the bad guys think, you don't know when you're being tracked, you don't know how to survive."
"And how would you know how to any bett–" He broke off as Shego stood up and stalked over to the bedside, expression disdainful. A dark shadow spilled across the sheets as her head blocked out the moonlight.
"I've seen it firsthand for the past six years, and for the past twenty-four hours, I've been living it." Sheldon scuttled into the headboard as she began jabbing him in the chest. "You will follow orders from me. When I tell you to do something, you will do it. When I tell you to floor it, you will floor it. When I tell you to run, you will run. And when I tell you to get lost, you will clear out like there's a cruise missile looking for your ass. Got that?"
His head bobbled. "Y-yes ma'am."
"Good. What time is it?"
Sheldon scrabbled for his watch. "4:02."
Shego stretched, hands arching above her head, and moved toward her sleeping bag. "Right, we'll get an hour and a half more sleep, then get on the highway before there's too many people out. We're heading west. We'll discuss options on the road."
"Oh. But why wes–"
"Because I said so," Shego growled as she knelt and opened the bag's zipper.
"Oh." Silence fell as Shego zipped herself and thudded heavily onto her shoulder. Then, "…Shego?"
"Is your head feeling better?"
"You'd hit it on the wardrobe."
"Oh... Yeah. It is. Thanks."
As Shego drifted into sleep, her mind crackled with plans for their drive and escape, pushing any thoughts of home, or her family, deep back into the ether, where she hoped they belonged.
To be continued…