Chapter One

They were doing a shit job of leading her down the stairs to wherever they were taking her. The black hood over her head didn’t afford Neema any way of seeing where her feet were landing, so she tripped over them a few times before they reached the end of their descent. She focused on the sound of her boots as they hit the wet ground below them. Each step seemed louder than the first, maybe it was just her nervousness after being pulled off the street on her way to the L train. She could tell they were The Collective by the tattoo on the neck of the smallest one. She wasn’t about to resist, she wanted them to take her even though she had no idea what would happen once she got to where they were going. She had a feeling what she had done to the congressman would get their attention. There were rumors in the neighborhood that Congressman Dalton was a Collective target because of his corruption. He was a target for her because what he had helped do to her father.

Neema wanted retribution and she used her hacking skills to do it. Her hacking had been small time before Dalton. The most she had ever done before was hack websites that had been banned by the government, media that had been driven underground for telling the truth. People paid her to get them access to things like that and to make sure that they weren’t caught. She didn’t need the money; most times she didn’t take it unless they insisted and she always donated what she took. Six months of preparation got her ready for Dalton.

She created a new code to hide the money she took from him, pretended to be a maid to get to the briefcase that he carried with him all the time. He was so confident that he was untouchable, he left it in his hotel room unguarded. Every single cent to his name was hers now, everything he had in that briefcase was scanned to a hard drive.  She exposed some of the information to Dalton supporters by hacking the most popular propaganda sites and the media they all paid attention to. They only got back control of their sites and channels when she was ready for them too. She left a little present for them in their servers that took them weeks to fix. Many of the supporters turned on Dalton immediately.

The congressman was found a few days after being exposed, floating and barely recognizable. The only way anyone knew what happened was from the underground media reports. Neema didn’t bat an eyelash when the reports got back to her. As far as she was concerned, Dalton got off easy.

Neema focused on what had gotten her on The Collective radar during her ride in the back of the van they put her in. The ride there with the black hood on had made her a little sick, but she played it off. She was determined to look as calm as she possibly could despite her heart beating a mile a minute. She had tried to memorize the stops and turns from the moment they grabbed her, but it seemed that they were purposely confusing her by driving in circles. When they got to their destination, the hood was removed and she came face to face with a mountainous, hard faced man who must have been the head of security. The others had checked for weapons and taken her gun before they put her in the van, but he decided to check again. When he was satisfied that she had nothing on her, he motioned for her to follow.

She knew that she had gone down some steps, she hadn’t heard a door open but this looked similar to the warehouse she lived in with her mother and her mother’s best friend Adanna.  When the president’s men took her father, Neema and her mother made their way to Adanna’s warehouse and had been there ever since. Living with Adanna, her daughter Reya, and their uncle James had kept Neema sane. It had been a year since the night they dragged him out of their home after beating him. She could still hear the sound of the blows as they hit his body, she could still hear them demanding to know where his family was while she and her mother were in the room hidden behind her bed. Her father endured the beating, refusing to give them his family. He knew what they were capable of doing to a woman and girl. That was the night Dalton had made an enemy out of her.

She could still remember his laugh, one that she had heard many times on television. He was calm as he spoke to her father in between blows. His gravelly voice was etched in her memory as he ordered the president’s men to take her father away.

Neema pushed the thoughts of that night from her mind for now, they would have their time as they always did in her dreams later that night. The Collective guard escorting her stopped in front of a set of metal doors and turned around to face her.

“This is it. Just walk through the doors and go right.”

He walked back in the direction that they had just come from and left her looking at the doors in front of her. There was no turning back now. The moment she walked through the doors, she would either become Collective or she would be dead. They had thrown a hood over her head to hide the location, but she figured if she wasn’t here for recruitment she would be a liability they wouldn’t let live.

The doors were heavy as she pushed them open. She walked through and immediately saw that this area was completely different from what she’s just walked through. Banners hung on the red, brick walls with different slogans on them like THERE IS NO DECORUM IN REBELLION, or THE BEGINNING OF THEIR END. She liked the first one, it fit how she felt these days. She turned right like the guard said and found herself in a room filled with books lining the walls. It had the feel of an old library, wooden tables were in each corner of the room filled with maps and blueprints, but no one was there. She walked further into the room, looking around at the books. Adanna’s was about twice the size of this place, but the layout was the same.  She was starting to get a little anxious and wished she had her gun just in case.  She wasn’t a fan of guns, but her friend Rome had insisted she keep one on her at all times. She felt naked without it now.

She could feel someone standing behind her despite not hearing anyone walk in. She turned around to see Adanna looking at her with a man standing in the doorway. He didn’t look happy to see Neema, or maybe it was just an act to intimidate her. He was tall, at least 6’5”. He looked like he had been carved out of marble. His white t-shirt stood out against his obsidian skin and seemed too small for his muscular frame. The boots he wore looked like military issue, the same as the president’s thugs. She stared at him, keeping eye contact so that he knew she wasn’t afraid.

“Welcome, Neema,” Adanna said as she waked towards Neema with her arms open, “I am so glad to finally have you here with me.”

Neema was confused and relieved now. How could she have not known that Adanna was a collective member?

“Hi…Auntie. What are you doing here?

“I’m the one who called you here.” Adanna replied.

“I was told the leader of The Collective wanted to…“

“Yes, I do.”

It took a moment for Neema to realize what Adanna was saying. How could she have not known this? She lived with her, saw her every day. When did she have the time to run a rebellion?

“What was with the hood, the pat down, and taking my gun? It seems a bit much when it’s just me.”

“The hood was for security reasons, everything else was not supposed to happen. I’m sorry about that.” Adanna turned and glared at the man standing in the doorway; he shifted nervously and looked at his feet.

Adanna walked over to the desk behind Neema and picked up a stack of papers. Her long, curly hair was pulled back in a ponytail, which was unusual for her. She was dressed in her usual black jeans, fitted shirt, and leather jacket. She unstrapped the gun holster from her leg and placed it on the desk as she sat on its edge. She motioned for Neema to take a seat in the red chair facing her.

“What you did to Congressman Dalton really put a dent in our plans for him. We had hoped to keep him alive a little longer, but your exposing him put him right in the hands of some very pissed off people. We wanted to turn him, use him to get closer to the president. His former supporters beating him to death kind of makes that impossible now.”

Neema didn’t say a word at first. She wasn’t worried about anything happening to her now, but wanted to be careful not to say what she was thinking exactly how she was thinking it. The fact was that she didn’t care that she had messed up their plans, she didn’t care that the congressman was dead. The only thing that mattered to her was that she had gotten her revenge.

“It wasn’t my intention to spoil your plans, I just wasn’t interested in waiting for someone to do something. It’s been a year since they took my father and I don’t know if he’s alive or in some mass grave somewhere. While my father rots in one way or another, Dalton was still free to live his life and I couldn’t accept that anymore. I have his money, I have every single file, password, and contact he had on his phone and his computers. There’s six months of intel at home and you can have it all if you want with one condition. I have to be a part of The Collective with you.”

Adanna smiled, never taking her eyes off of Neema.

“Why do you think I called you here? I’ve always wanted you here with me and Reya. I just didn’t know if you were ready until that hack.”

Reya? She was Collective too. Neema felt a little betrayed that her friend kept the secret from her and a little impressed too because usually Reya couldn’t keep anything to herself.

“I needed to know that you were willing to take the risk and I needed to know you could handle it, Neema.” Adanna said as she pulled Neema’s Ruger from the holster on the desk and handed it back to her. “Your mother…she…it’s been my job and my privilege to take care of you. The plan was for her to bring you into The Collective. We started this together, but after your father she wasn’t the same.”

Neema hung her head a little, her dreads falling over her face as she teared up thinking about her mother’s breakdown. The moment they were safely through Adanna’s doors her mother had fallen apart. She barely spoke now; she was a shell of herself. It almost seemed unbelievable to Neema that she had been a founder of The Collective.

“Neema, this is big. We are risking our lives here in order to change things. People know of us, but they don’t know who we are. Anonymity for now is important for this to continue to work.  I need to know that you understand that you can’t go off on your own missions from now on. Can you do that?”

Neema wasn’t done, the congressman had been the first step but with The Collective behind her she could be much more effective. She trusted her aunt Adanna, she knew that they wanted the same thing.

“I can do that.” Neema said, adjusting in the chair.

“Good.  I’m going to need the information you took from Dalton.”

“I can give you some of it now if you give me access to a tablet.”

Neema had hidden most of the information somewhere safe that she could access from anywhere. Adanna nodded at the man still standing in the doorway and he disappeared down the hallway, returning briefly with a tablet in hand. He walked over and handed it to Neema, his face still holding the same expression he’d had earlier. Neema took the table, unfolded the screen and immediately went to work. Two minutes and she had full access to Dalton’s stolen information. She handed the tablet to Adanna, pleased with what she had just done and curious about what was about to be done with it.

Adanna studied the information, sliding her index finger across the screen to one page after another. She was pleased with what she was seeing. She finally got to a page that made her do something Neema rarely heard her do…laugh.

“You’re amazing, Neema. We may not have Dalton, but you’ve got something here that can still help us. We’re going to really need you for this one. Our hackers are good, but you…you are on another level. You have your work cut out for you with our people.”

“Another condition.” Neema said,

“What?”

“I’ll work with your team, but I need someone else working with me. Rome.”

Adanna hesitated before she agreed.

“What’s the mission that needed Dalton?”

“We needed to gain access to his accounts. There are some we could compromise right now, but the bulk of the money he’s stolen from citizens is hidden in accounts we can’t find without a key. He also keeps files on his enemies that we could use to make them our allies. With nothing being held over their head, they wouldn’t have him controlling them anymore.”

“Once we get the key, what happens to him?” Neema asked.

“Citizen’s trial.”

Neema had heard about the trials. The name was deceiving considering there was no court, no testimony, no formal sentencing. If you were put on citizen’s trial, you had already been found guilty. She heard it was mental and physical torture that many didn’t survive. The ones who managed to make it through were locked in some Collective prison. It was hard for her to imagine that Adanna was capable of doing any of this, but she believed it was the least they deserved for their crimes.

Adanna handed the tablet to Neema so she could see what she had found, pointing to a name at the bottom of a list.  Victor O’Leary. He was the president’s right hand and would be the one person other than the president who knew what or where the key was. The problem with O’leary was that he would be hard to get to. He was a paranoid, methodical man who took precautions for his precautions. There had been attempts by others to get to him and they had all failed. Neema hoped Adanna had a good plan.

“Victor O’leary is the target, but we need to get through everyone else on this list before we get to him. They’re all connected and taking them out one by one weakens the president. O’leary gets us to the endgame. I want everything the people on this list have, every cent to their name, every secret. I also want them alive, so no more exposing them to the public.”

Neema nodded and looked down at the list one more time. She could compromise if she needed to as long as at the end of this she got the retribution her family deserved. She folded the tablet and handed it back to Adanna. She didn’t need the list anymore, she had memorized the names and numbers underneath. There was a benefit to having a memory like hers. She stood up and looked around the room once more. She was a part of The Collective now; she had gotten to where she wanted to be. She took a deep breath and turned to face Adanna again.

“When do we start?”

 

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