The 23rd Hero

Rebecca Anne Nguyen

The 23rd Hero
Synopsis

Rapid climate change has left the world on the brink of an environmental apocalypse. A time travel agency—the Program—sends carefully selected “Heroes” back in time on Missions to prevent environmental damage before it happens. SLOANE BURROWS is the last person anyone would expect to be a Hero. Insecure and self-conscious, she’s always trying to hide her superpower memory, which only gets her in trouble. Sloane secretly longs to apply to the Program, but that’s her father’s dream, and he already resents her enough—because of her “freak” memory and because Sloane’s mother died giving birth to her. Sloane escapes by replaying the recurring dream she’s been having for the past ten years. In the dream, a beautiful, naked man says her name, and she feels deeply loved in a way she never has in real life—as if she’s finally come home.

But then, the man from her dream walks into the coffee shop where she works—he’s an intern from the Program. Because of her superpower memory, the Program has chosen Sloane as the 23rd Hero.

Chapter 1

Sloane Burrows was racing down the train station steps, holding her bicycle by the handlebars, trying to keep a birthday cake from flying out of the basket as the doors began to close on the northbound line to Downtown Vancouver. “Hold the doors!” she called as she reached the bottom of the steps. Of the ten or so passengers she could see through the glass, a few looked up, but nobody budged.

Sloane recognized three people from previous rides on the train. In less than a second, the memories of every past encounter she’d had with each of them bombarded her. She remembered the Black businessman in the purple-striped tie. Last Wednesday, he’d been wearing a red polka-dot tie, and last Election Day, he’d worn no tie at all. She remembered the Vietnamese woman in the white button-down blouse. Last August, she’d been wearing a blue maternity dress over her egg-shaped belly, which was now decidedly flat. (Thank god she had survived childbirth—not all mothers did.) She remembered the white teacher with the new wristband, the seventeen-digit barcode of the old wristband, and the ingredients on the label of the to-go tube of organic oatmeal the teacher had been eating at 5:56 p.m. on October 1st of last year. She remembered exactly what the teacher had said to a friend, via her wristband, about the guy she’d been dating at the time. I thought he loved me. . .but he applied to the Program. . .but we’d been talking about bunking underground together if things got that bad…no, he doesn’t…no, because if he applied to the Program, it means he’s willing to leave me forever.

As Sloane raced to wedge her arm between the doors, these memories swirled in her consciousness as vividly as if they were happening again right now, all the past realities converging on the present moment like too many holograms projected onto the same spot. With practiced precision, she tucked the memories into the back of her mind where they belonged, flung herself toward the train car, and inserted her arm between the doors at the last second. She winced in pain as the doors squished her arm before reversing, then slipped gratefully inside the car, rolling over the foot of a roguish, muscular passenger who, like the others, had ignored her plea to hold the doors.

“Watch it,” he said testily. Sloane mumbled an apology, glancing back at him, and when their eyes met, his glare quickly softened. “That’s okay,” he said. “Nice bike.”

She wrinkled her brow. “It’s the same bike everyone else has,” she said. But he couldn’t hear her over the sudden roar of the purification machines, which drew pollutants from the train’s filtration system and spat them into the air outside the station. Above the train seats, a sad, holographic cloud transformed from sickly green to puffy white in tandem with the purification machine’s efforts. When the cloud smiled and disappeared, a pleasant, artificial voice announced, “Purification complete. Please enjoy your ride on Vancouver’s Skytrain, the most efficient solar-powered transit system in North America.”

The two-year-old commuter train, which had been converted from electric to solar when the 19th Hero went back in time, had just left the station when Sloane felt the car begin to stall. The passengers groaned as the “efficient” train, delayed again, ground to a halt.

Not today, she thought, looking up at the ceiling with a sigh. She tore off the end of a baguette she’d bought for her dad’s birthday party and kneaded it in her palm like a stress ball. She was already running late because her boss had asked her to fix his device right as she was walking out of the office. As the only tech person at the headquarters of the National Anti-Program Program—or “A-ProPros,” as her boss called it—she was the most technically savvy and the most mechanically inclined on the team. Not only had she fixed his device—she’d ended up completing a laundry list of repair tasks he’d “completely forgotten about” until quitting time Friday night. The filter in his Program-issued wearable water tank kept detaching from its insert tube, making the water taste like it had come from Coal Harbor—and not Gore-era Coal Harbor. Post-Winfrey Coal Harbor. A time when, after the American government had taken its most aggressive strides ever to address climate change, there’d been a backlash from the industries that stood to lose the most from Green policies. Energy, transportation, and fashion banded together, sidestepping the new laws and causing an explosive increase in carbon emissions into the atmosphere. In just three years, the environmental threats that had always seemed so far away—or, if not so far away, at least far enough away that it was the next generation’s problem—were suddenly here. The planet had warmed significantly, glaciers had melted, sea levels had risen, and they were all living in the world that presidents Gore, Obama, Warren, and Winfrey had worked so hard to prevent.

Her boss had also asked Sloane to fix the vending machine, which was spitting out wireless wearables whenever he tried to buy vegan chocolate. And could she recode the bathroom bot to clean the toilets twice over the weekend while she was at it? She could, and she did. But now she had to make up lost time because tardiness was one of her father’s biggest pet peeves, and if she was late to his party, the talk she was planning on having with him would be even more uncomfortable than she anticipated.

For the better part of a decade, she’d been working up the nerve to confront Harry, apologize to him, and ask for his forgiveness—all in the hopes that he’d say the words he’d never said before: that despite what had happened when she was born, he did, in fact, love her. If she was late, he’d not only be more irritated with her than usual; he’d be surrounded by undergraduate students, his latest girlfriend, and other groupies who followed her famous professor father around like he was a Hollywood celebrity. She wished she could’ve taken a half-day at work and gotten to the party before anyone else to soften him up. But she used all her paid time off to go to therapy on Tuesdays, and she couldn’t afford to take more time without getting behind on her student loan payments.

After several moments in the stalled train car without an explanation from the AI, the passengers began to grumble to each other, speculating about the cause of the delay.

“You’d think after two years they would have figured out the whole solar-powered thing,” said the man with the purple-striped tie.

Actually, it hadn’t been two years. It had been one year and three-hundred and fifty-five days since the 18th Hero had passed through the time travel portal and altered the past, the results of his actions rippling across the ages and changing the present within minutes of his departure. He’d gone back in time at 10:01 a.m. Pacific on a Thursday in November. By 10:03 a.m., all commuter trains across Vancouver’s fifty-three stations had been converted from electric to solar-powered without anyone in the present lifting a finger.

But don’t say that out loud because normal people don’t remember details like that.

“It’s because there’s not enough sun in the fall,” said the teacher. “This always happens when it’s been cloudy for weeks, and they run out of their solar reserves.”

Actually, they weren’t solar reserves. People called them solar reserves because that’s how the media referred to them, but during the Program announcement made at 8:01 p.m. on May 23rd of last year, the president said they used solar servers to store energy captured from the sun.

But don’t say that out loud because normal people don’t remember details like that. “They should just make the trains electric, again,” said purple tie. “The cars are all electric now. Why can’t the trains be, too?”

Actually, not all the cars were electric. Only the legal ones. Three Mondays ago, at 9:53 a.m., Sloane had been fixing a colleague’s device at work, swiping away a news article to get to the Settings. The article was about the underground automobile market, and in the second it had taken her to glance at the text and swipe it away, she had retained every word. She recalled it now, the screen in her memory as sharp as if she were holding the device in her hands. The article said that while the underground meat market was shrinking, the underground market for gasoline automobiles was growing. Even though the 8th Hero had gone back in time and successfully convinced Henry Ford to invent an electric Model-T, converting the majority of the world’s automobiles from gasoline to electric in mere minutes, underground manufacturing of gasoline-powered automobiles was still taking place. In North America alone, there were an estimated 57.2 million illegal cars on the roads.

But don’t say that out loud because normal people don’t remember details like that.

The impatient passengers fidgeted and sighed, but the train’s pleasant, artificial voice remained mute. The roguish muscle man whose foot Sloane had run over sighed.

“It better not be another Program announcement,” he complained. “There’s been, like, ten in the past three weeks.”

“Actually, there’s been seven in the past three weeks,” she said softly, squeezing the baguette in her palm. “And a hundred and sixty-seven announcements since the last Hero went back in time.” But don’t say that out loud because normal people don’t remember details like that.

When she looked up, she saw that muscle man, along with several other people in the train car, was staring at her in surprise. Crap. She’d been thinking out loud again. When would she learn to keep her stupid mouth shut? How many times would she mess up a perfectly normal commute, or team meeting, or trivia night by slipping up and remembering some random detail that no one else could possibly remember, making it look like she was a robot instead of a person, and making herself sick because of it? She closed her eyes, praying she could breathe the nausea away before it surged, but no—there it was. Her body’s Pavlovian response to being exposed for the freak she was. The ball of baguette had turned mealy in her hand, but she stuffed it in her mouth and began to chew to quell the sickness; Sloane knew from experience that vomiting in a train car was the most mortifying place a person could vomit, except maybe an airplane. But hardly anyone was flying on those anymore.

She opened her eyes to find muscle man peering at her with a slight grin. “How do you know how many announcements there have been?” he asked. “You work for the Program or something?”

“Of course not,” she replied, her cheek stuffed with baguette. She stared hard at her bike basket, embarrassment turning her neck mauve. He was mocking her, she told herself quickly, rejecting the possibility that he might be flirting with her before the thought could fully materialize in her mind. This reflex of hers flared whenever the way she saw herself conflicted with the way others saw her, which was often. Consequently, whenever someone asked for her phone number or went so far as to compliment her shoes, Sloane would instantly pivot to something outside herself; comment on that day’s particle pollution levels, ask them how they’d spend the money if they were chosen as a candidate for the Program, tell them her boss needed her to fix something.

And so, it was easy for her to write off the way the muscle man was staring at her lips. He probably hadn’t understood what she’d said, what with the baguette stuffed in her cheek. Or maybe he was actually staring at someone behind her. Or maybe he was staring at her hair, wondering why she had a head full of black waves and spirals when the texture should have been stick-straight. She tugged her beanie lower on her head, hoping to flatten the squiggles that had only grown more unruly as she’d reached her late twenties. They’d always reminded Sloane of a brain; it was as if her head couldn’t contain all the memories she was carrying around, and they’d spilled out of her scalp as hair. With the angular shape of her jawline, her broad, flat nose, deep-set eyes, and pronounced cheekbones, she should have been born with stick-straight hair like her twin brother, Simon. Spiral hair looked weird with her features, and it just didn’t go with her skin, especially in summer. Because of the dreary cloud cover of autumn in Vancouver, her skin was a tawny beige color now. If the next Hero’s Mission didn’t change the climate, she might enjoy another six months without someone asking her where she was from. But in summer, her skin deepened to a terra-cotta brown, and she was the spitting image of her mother in the photographs her father still kept hung in the dining room of her childhood home. Except for her hair, of course. And her weight. Her mother had been beautifully buxom, with the fleshy breasts and round hips Sloane had always longed for. But between cycling to and from her full- and part-time jobs, and the nausea that was her almost-constant companion, it was difficult to keep her weight above fifty kilos. She hid her slight frame in hoodies and jeans, which paired nicely with her white, Chuck Taylor sneakers, the only kind of shoes she wore, as if to assure everyone that, despite the anomalies of her hair and her memory, she, like her shoes, was nothing special.

Before muscle man could ask her another embarrassing question, a life-sized hologram of Reshma Saujani, the President of North America, materialized in the train car. Sloane wasn’t the only passenger who groaned at the sight of her. Did they experience heart palpitations and intermittent sweating during these announcements like she did? As the sound system crackled to life inside the car, a pair of skinny teenage boys with matching reverse mohawks walked back and forth through the president’s hologram, making crude jokes about being “inside” her, until an elderly man hissed at them and they stopped. In a stunning blue skirt suit and towering heels, President Saujani, the Queen of Green, addressed the nation, her likeness projected into every home, business, public toilet, and train car.

“My fellow North Americans,” she said, the technology rendering her so clearly, Sloane could make out the tiny granules of makeup on her cheeks. “It’s been 337 days since the 22nd Hero traveled to 19th century England to prevent the invention of coal-burning steam engines. I know we are all unspeakably grateful to the Program, its world-class crew, and its anonymous founder for using this incredible time-travel technology to protect the human race in the face of innumerable climate crises. Ten years ago, these crises seemed unconquerable. If it weren’t for the Program, none of us would still be here—at least not living above ground.

“However,” she continued, her tone darkening, “since the Program’s inception, we’ve never gone so long without sending a Hero back in time. Every day that goes by without a Hero leaves our country and our planet vulnerable to climate reversal. We cannot lose all the good progress we’ve made over the past decade.

“If we don’t find the 23rd Hero in the next six weeks, I will be forced, along with the Nations, to transition our climate strategy away from a Program-based approach to a technology-based approach, empowering our experts in Hidden Valley, Idaho, to take the lead on saving the planet. We must be prepared to initiate Operation Underground on a temporary basis, readying all high-risk zones to evacuate and populate the underground bunkers we’ve prepared for the day we hoped would never come. Florida will receive priority access to the bunkers in the southeast. If you live in a high-risk zone outside Florida, you will be notified by your local officials as to evacuation protocols for your area if and when Operation Underground commences. But it is my fervent hope, even now, that we will not have to initiate Operation Underground and that the 23rd Hero will be found.”

Sloane’s heart pounded faster. Unlike candidate reveals and Hero ceremonies, when she could hide in her apartment with the wireless turned off, these announcements were practically impossible to avoid. It wasn’t the thought of going underground that scared her so much as the tug she’d felt inside every time anyone mentioned the Program. She hated the tug. She’d felt it ever since they’d chosen the 1st Hero to go back in time. The tug was really a call she could never answer. So she’d buried it deep and covered it up with mountains of memories. And if it weren’t for her stupid heart pounding as if she’d just finished a triathlon, she could have almost convinced herself she didn’t feel it anymore.

“I believe in my heart that the 23rd Hero is out there, somewhere,” said the president. “To find them, the Program will cover the cost of life insurance for every applicant, effective immediately. If you already applied to the Program in the last cycle and you paid for insurance, visit the nearest application booth for a full refund. If you haven’t applied this cycle, the Program will cover the cost of your insurance. Whether you apply to the Program every cycle, or you’ve never applied before, I beg you—for the survival of our beautiful Planet Earth and for the survival of our species—to volunteer. The world needs you to be a Hero.”

The Queen of Green flickered and dissolved. In her place appeared the Program’s logo—a glowing, blue sphere that calmly spun on its axis as if the world wasn’t about to end. Beneath it, the Program’s slogan promised to repay “Service for a lifetime” with “The adventure of a lifetime.” The slogan was literal—time travel was a one-way ticket to the past, and when Heroes went through the portal, they never came back.

The train began to move, the air in the compartment noticeably thick with tension. The Program had never offered refunds before. It had always been free to apply, but applicants were required to pay for life insurance on the slim chance they were selected to go back in time. For the chosen few—twenty-two Heroes over the past ten years—insurance covered the cost of their memorial service after they disappeared through the portal. It also paid off any outstanding debts and gave $5 million to the Hero’s beneficiary. Sloane mentally calculated the potential cost of buying insurance policies for the entire planet. They must be desperate, which meant that Operation Underground had become more than just a possibility—it was now an imminent threat.

At the next station stop—not normally a popular stop on that commute—everyone except her pushed their way through the parting doors and onto the platform. They headed for the already long queues for the Program-sponsored application booths, where people submitted their blood and hair samples for a chance to compete to be the next Hero. But Sloane didn’t have to queue to get her refund because she hadn’t purchased any insurance. In fact, she was the only person she knew who had never applied to become a Hero. Not once. Not even when the tug was really, really strong. If she did, Harry would be furious—it’d just be one more thing he couldn’t forgive her for.

Sloane rode the train to Waterfront Station, where she struggled up the stairs to the street as best she could while hauling her bike and dodging the crowds of people descending upon the application booths. Her government-issued wristband vibrated to notify her of her increased blood pressure and an incoming message from her brother. Simon’s message began, like most of Simon’s messages, mid-thought. He was evaluating Harry’s irritation level on a scale of one to ten. Simon said he was at a level seven, mostly because of Sloane’s lateness but partly because his underground meat market deal had fallen through at the last minute, and his amok trey just didn’t taste as authentically Khmer with faux fish sauce. So, Simon reasoned, since she was already late, Harry was already pissed off, and they were already doomed to live underground forever, so couldn’t they just skip the birthday party and go out dancing instead?

She had just passed through the station turnstiles and was about to call Simon back when the Exit attendant shouted at her. Sloane spun around and, off the attendant’s glare, impatiently rolled her bike back the way she’d come.

“Mask,” said the attendant.

“What?” Sloane sputtered. “Since when? We haven’t needed them in months.” The attendant pointed to the board above her podium, which flickered with the day’s fluctuating pollutant levels: particle pollution, ground-level ozone, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide. The ground-level ozone icon was blinking in red. Sloane grimaced.

“I don’t have my mask on me,” she protested, “and I’m beyond late. Do you think you could let it slide, just this one time? I can wrap my hoodie around my—”

The attendant pointed to the mask vending machine located back inside the station, on the other side of the turnstiles. Sloane swallowed an exasperated sigh and nodded. She asked if the attendant would open the gate to let her back through. The attendant shook her head.

“But I don’t have an unlimited pass,” she argued.

The attendant responded by wrapping her lips around the platinum silicone straw attached to her water tank and taking a long, slurping pull. Sloane narrowed her eyes, spun on her heel, and headed back to the turnstiles. She scanned her wristband to buy another fare to get back inside the station, cringing as the beeping sound withdrew $13.50 from her currency account. At the vending machine, she cringed again when the mask plopped to the bottom; she didn’t get paid until next week, and with the pointless purchase of another fare and the mask’s $28 price tag, she was now down to $197 in her checking account.

With the wilting cake and half-eaten baguette in her bike basket and her filtration mask secured, she pedaled against the flow of mostly pedestrian traffic along a two-lane thoroughfare, heading toward the Ironworkers Memorial Bridge. Though the street was clogged with bicycles, a handful of electric cars, and the odd self-driving trolley, she preferred this route because she didn’t have to bike through Stanley Park—or what used to be Stanley Park—and see the stark rise of the Lions Gate Bridge, its sweeping green arch painfully visible when the view used to be blocked by towering pines.

When Sloane was a child, her grandmother, Grandma Kimsea, would take her and Simon for picnics in the park, which had not been a park so much as an urban forest; a peninsula dense with foliage at its center, its edges lined with white sand beaches and steep, wet rockface. They would walk the paths that cut through the deepest part of the forest on their way to the beach. There, in the center of the park, downtown traffic and the churn of the sea were almost entirely muted by the trees. If Grandma Kimsea was having a good day—there’d been minimal smacking of backsides and yelling in Khmer—the three of them would stand still inside the forest, the minutes ticking by as if they might become trees themselves. She told the twins that the trees saw everything and remembered everything. When she said that, the trees became kindred spirits to Sloane. She began to ascribe the superpower memory she shared with the trees to everything in the natural world—trees remembered, rocks remembered, sand remembered, water remembered. Like her, the earth remembered everything.

They’d emerge from the forest onto the beach as if stepping into the day from a darkened theater. Sloane would watch the fat, gray gulls flying in circles over the silvery water, their cries as comforting to her as her grandmother’s hand around hers. The shadowy bodies of islands scattered across the bay would call to her—just to see them made her ache to jump in the water and swim there. She remembered how the sand felt between her toes and how she’d build little rock towers along the water at First Beach, stacking the smaller stones on top of the large, flat rocks. Grown-ups would stop to watch her work, smiling as she frowned in concentration, her tongue between her teeth. At the time, she didn’t understand why they were watching her instead of watching the sea, or the gulls, or the mountains across the bay. But later, she understood; she’d been the connective tissue between them and the natural world, the dark sky and flat water and tall trees converging within her as if she were a hub for all the elements of the earth, and by watching her, they were somehow communing with all of nature. She’d felt that too—her blood like rushing water, her growing limbs like tree branches, the sweat on her skin like the salt of the sea, her soul as infinite as the sky, her heart soaring like a gull. They must have been drawn to her belief, her absolute certitude, that she could fly just like those gulls; back then, she was not afraid of heights.

It had been years since she had felt that sense of connection with the natural world, a world made up of elements that remembered everything just like her. But the yearning for connection had never left her, and even now, when she caught a glimpse of the polluted sea through the corridors of high-rise office buildings and condominium towers, she longed to find it again.

* * *

When she reached Downtown Eastside, Sloane considered riding right past her homeless friend outside the Sunrise Market. Surely a friendly wave would suffice when she was running this late? But she saw him in his wheelchair in the little alleyway next to the store, the memories of all their past conversations flooding her mind, and within seconds, she was stopped in front of him.

“Hey!” she said breathlessly. “You get access to your currency account yet?”

“Sloane Burrows,” he grinned, the smile sad beneath his shaggy beard, which was longer than the last time she’d seen him. He never wore a mask, even on days when it was required, and sometimes he’d get hassled by the police, who’d fingerprint and fine him, creating a bigger deficit in his already negative currency account. His stained, white T-shirt had a tear in the bottom that hadn’t been there before, but he had on a pair of new to him, upcycled-white sneakers, probably donated to the halfway house where he stayed. Not that her clothes were much newer or nicer—upcycled-clothing was the only kind of clothing available ever since the 14th Hero eliminated apparel industry supply chains.

“No currency yet,” he said. “That screen thing don’t recognize my fingerprint. Tried that shit at the market. Tried that shit at the bar, ha! That lady at the house is gonna help me fix it, though. She’s good at technology, like you.”

“I sent you twenty dollars, so it’s in there whenever you can get it,” Sloane said. “Sorry it’s not more.”

“God bless you, ma chérie.”

“You eat today?”

“Naw, man.”

“Take this,” she said, handing over the baguette. He took it, cursing that he didn’t want bread—he wanted some goddamn meat. “Everyone does,” she said gently.

“What else you got in there?”

“Oh! Um, a birthday cake, actually. It’s my dad’s sixtieth.”

“Birthday cake!” he said. “Now, I ain’t had a birthday cake since before the goddamn Program started. How long’s that, now?”

“Ten years,” she said.

“That’s right. Because it was twelve years ago we were in Iraq on burn-pit duty. Did I ever tell you about that, Sloane Burrows?”

He had told her about that. He had told her about that twice, in fact; the first time on January 27th of last year at 6:37 p.m. on a Friday; the second time on September 17th of this year at 7:45 a.m. on a Saturday. The images of him—the old nylon windbreaker he’d been wearing on both occasions, the hole in the black cargo trousers that had grown in size between one retelling and the next—materialized in her mind’s eye, as crisp as the vision of him sitting in front of her now. Likewise, the memory of his voice was as sharp and clear as a recording. If she repeated what he’d said about blowing up landfills in Iraq, the nature of her memory would be exposed, and the sick feeling would surge. But it was worth it if it meant her friend would feel listened to and really heard.

“You went to Iraq when the Nations first formed to solve the earth’s ‘garbage problem,’” she said. “The people who served on that tour of duty came back with black lungs. You were exposed to toxins that destroyed your body’s basic functions. That’s why you have to…”—here she edited his word—"…to defecate into a colostomy bag. And that’s why you don’t bother wearing a mask—because no matter how polluted the air is, your lungs are already fucked.”

He threw his head back and laughed, pounding the arm of his wheelchair with delight, and she smiled.

“You remember every goddamn thing,” he said, eyes gleaming. “That’s freaky shit. But you’re right. And that deployment was the last damn birthday cake I had. I don’t even know how old I am since I ain’t had no birthday cake, ha!”

“When’s you’re birthday?” she asked, pushing off on her bike.

“New Year’s Eve, baby!” he said. “December 31st!”

“I’ll bake you a cake!” she called over her shoulder.

* * *

Sloane raced along the water toward the Iron Workers Memorial bridge in the dark, her nausea quickly replaced by anxiety, which collected around her neck like a yolk. The only thing that scared her more than being called out for her memory or displeasing her father was her fear of heights. So it was ironic that in order to see her father, she had to bike over a three-hundred-meters-long bridge. At its center, it stretched so high above the second narrows of the Burrard Inlet that when several spans of the bridge collapsed in 1958, nineteen men fell to their deaths. It didn’t help to know that all the fish were dead and that if she fell off the bridge, she’d be floating in a fish graveyard. The City did their best to scoop out the fish corpses, which could be converted into zero-carbon fuel, but they kept coming to the surface, just like her memories of all the times she’d ruined things with Harry, bubbling up one after another, in an incessant fountain of disappointment.

She escaped the rising panic of crossing the bridge the same way she escaped the tug of the Program and all her unwanted memories—by daydreaming about the man in her life.  Specifically, his eyes. They were stunning—gray charcoal and slate sea—but it wasn’t the eyes themselves so much as the way he looked at her as if there was no one else in the world he’d rather see. As if he understood her completely and was hopelessly in love with all that he understood. As if she could tell him her deepest, most despicable thoughts, relaying a lifetime of missteps and mistakes, and his look of love, longing, and bafflingly superhuman acceptance would remain. One look from him ignited a bottomless feeling of warmth inside her, and she felt connected to him in a way she never did to others in real life. That was the thing about him, after all—technically, they’d never met. Most nights, she dreamt of him. Most days, she’d replay the memory of the dream, to the point where it felt he was always with her—when she was sleeping, when she was awake and therefore lonely, and when she was petrified of drowning in fish-infested waters. He was there. This nameless man she had never met. This figment of her subconscious. This man in the dream.

It was that look in his eyes she was picturing when she skidded on her bike, practically crashing into a group of masked cyclists and joggers who were waiting at the pedestrian entrance to the bridge. To avoid her, two men leaped off their road bikes, which crashed to the ground just as she slammed into the base of a statue at the entrance.

“Sorry!” Sloane sputtered, the apology muffled through her mask. “So, so, sorry!” The crowd reformed into a line, dusting themselves off and glaring at her as she walked her crunched bike to the back of the queue with her head down, cheeks purple with embarrassment. The spokes of the front tire were bent, the handlebars angled to the left, so if she tried to ride straight, she’d just go in circles. She could easily fix it if she had her tools, but she only had a small screwdriver and the Swiss Army knife on her keychain. She needed her wrench and pliers from the coffee shop where she worked part-time to fix it properly. She’d have to walk the bike across the bridge now. No, she’d have to carry the bike across the bridge now.

Sloane was next in line to cross when a loud siren began to wail, its accompanying hologram projected from the bridge attendant’s station. Electric cars continued to speed onto the bridge, but the security arm over the pedestrian entrance slammed down as if it wished to decapitate her.

“Come on!” she cried. “You can’t let one more person across?”

The attendant poked his head out of the little booth and told her that the swells were back. “There haven’t been sea swells under this bridge since March 16th of last year.”

The attendant gave her an odd look—who the hell remembers something like that?—and her stomach turned. “Well, they’re back now,” he said, tugging his gray-streaked beard. “Water level’s too high, just passed the threshold a minute ago. They’re closing the Lions Gate and Granville, too. Don’t wanna get swept out to sea, do ya?”

She cursed in frustration, and the attendant ducked back inside his booth. She’d been the last person in line and the only person who hadn’t been allowed to cross. It started to rain. She told her armband to call Simon, but Harry must have made everyone put their devices and wearables in his “tech basket” so no one would be distracted from the stories he told over dinner, and it was her father who answered Simon’s voice line on the fourth tone. She heard laughter and clinking glasses in the background.

“Sloanie,” he said curtly.

So sorry, Dad,” said Sloane. “I’m on my way, but they just closed the bridge.”

“No worries,” he said. “We’ll see you next time.”

“Oh,” she sputtered, her chest tightening. “No, I mean, I’m still on my way. I can get there in time for dessert if someone can come pick me up. Can Simon come?”

“How do I feel about disruptions in the middle of dinner?” he said, the question already containing its answer. He shouted something she couldn’t make out to someone across the room, laughing heartily.

“But the cake,” she protested.

“What cake?”

“I baked you a birthday cake. I brought it with me to work so I wouldn’t have to stop at home before—”

“No-no, no cake,” Harry said. “Chastity has me on a diet. We’ll just see you next time, Sloanie. It’s just your old man’s sixtieth birthday, no big deal.”

It felt like he’d dropped a bowling ball onto her chest, and she pulled the mask down, sucking air. She’d blown it. He was only that passive-aggressive when she’d gone and ruined things, just like she always did, no matter how hard she tried to fix them.

“Who’s Chastity?” she asked.

“What?” he shouted, unable to hear over the noise.

“Can I talk to Simon?” she shouted, but her father had already hung up.

Damn it. She couldn’t have the talk with him after missing his birthday dinner. But she couldn’t wait, either—the Program only had six weeks left to find the next Hero, or the Nations would shut it down and place the fate of the planet in the hands of Hidden Valley. The Nations had never given the Program an ultimatum like this before because the Program had never gone so long without choosing a Hero before. Big news like this meant Professor Harry Burrows could be back on the talk circuit tomorrow.

Whenever a Hero went back in time or the Program made an important announcement like this, Harry’s speaking agent would book him on the stages of political think tanks and college campuses, where he’d give talks on the Khmer Rouge—the regime responsible for the genocide of the Cambodian people in the 1970s, and the regime on which Harry was the world’s top historical expert. When the 5th Hero slashed air pollution levels over India by 87%, Harry toured Asia giving a talk entitled How the Khmer Rouge Polluted the Spirit of Cambodia. When the 11th Hero restored huge swaths of the Amazon rainforest by eradicating the cattle ranching industry in Brazil, Harry toured South America, giving a talk entitled, Rounding Up the Herds: The Cambodian People Put Out to Pasture in the Killing Fields.

What if he was still out of town and the Nations put Operation Underground in motion? They could be underground for years. Forever, even, and it’s not like Harry would sign up to bunk with her and Simon when he could bunk with Chastity. Tonight could be the last time she ever saw him. Her last chance to tell him how sorry she was. Her last chance to get his forgiveness.

As long as she purchased nothing else—at all—until she got paid, Sloane could take a self-driving trolley over the bridge—she just needed one with a bike rack. She pulled up the trolley schedule from memory, swiping past timetables and intersections in her mind, and realized that the soonest one could get there was forty-five minutes from now. She sighed, resigned to withstanding the waves of passive-aggression that rolled off Harry like heat off a sidewalk when he was upset with her. But seeing her father angry was better than never seeing him again.

The rain spattered her face and shoulders with cold, stinging pricks. Across from the bridge was an application booth with no one in line. Sloane approached it tentatively, jumping back, startled when the door to the booth slid open automatically. From the odd passing glance, she knew that each booth contained a small, cushioned bench, a digital touchscreen, and little slots where applicants placed their blood and hair samples. But she’d never been inside an application booth herself. They reminded her of old-fashioned phone booths, except they were made of bright blue, eco-friendly platinum silicone and could be found on just about every block throughout Vancouver. The door to the booth hovered open as if waiting for her to step inside.

She inserted her bike to a nearby docking station, removed the cake from her basket, and entered the booth, her hair and sweatshirt soaked. She sat down on the little cushioned bench inside to watch the trolley’s impossibly slow progress from across the city toward her location via the viewing screen on her wristband.

When the booth’s touchscreen glowed to life and asked for her name, her body tensed, her heart pounding faster in her chest. Sloane eyed the blood- and hair-sample slots, twisting a wet lock of hair around her finger. She’d always thought that if she ever applied to the Program, which of course she never would, she’d definitely give them a hair sample because she hated needles. But Harry had been right when he’d said applying to the Program would be dishonoring her mother’s memory. And she’d already dishonored her mother enough. She told the bot that ran the touchscreen to shut it down, and the screen immediately went dark. Then, she unwrapped the banana leaf wrapping around the birthday cake, broke off a piece with her fingers, and started to chew. The cake was dry.

The only way she might be able to get back into Harry’s good graces was if she got to the party in time for his beloved trivia game. If he got drunk enough to invite her to play with him and his students, she’d say yes. She’d gotten much better lately at pretending she didn’t remember the answers and letting him win. On the best nights, he’d pretend he didn’t know she was pretending not to know, and they’d both act like Sloane was perfectly normal.

About the Author

Rebecca Anne Nguyen

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Rebecca Anne Nguyen is the author (with Tom Voss) of Where War Ends: A Combat Veteran’s 2,700-Mile Journey to Heal (New World Library, 2019), a 2019 Foreword Indies Book of the Year Silver Award winner for Autobiography & Memoir. As a former travel writer who’s lived in Asia, Los Angeles, and just about everywhere in between, Rebecca now calls Milwaukee, Wisconsin, home, where she works as a content strategist and copywriter. A graduate of the University of Miami’s theatre conservatory, she is currently working on her first novel. Her writing can be found in Mamamia Magazine, the Military Times, and L’Ecran Fantastique.