“You need to come with us?”
That’s what Neema heard behind her as she headed to the train station to go across town. She turned to see three men in dark clothes standing in front of a gray van. The one in the middle was the tallest; all 6’5” of him looked like he was hoping she would resist. The two smaller block heads stood still, staring at her and trying to look as intimidating as possible. Neema was trying to decide if she should run or go along peacefully when she noticed the tattoo on the arm of the one on the left. It was the symbol for The Collective. It was dark outside, but him standing underneath the station lights had let her see it. Idiot. Who would broadcast that they are a part of a rebel group?
Neema decided to go along since she had been waiting for some contact from The Collective for a couple of weeks now. She raised her hands and walked slowly toward them, still watching and ready to fight if she had to. Her aunt Adanna had taught her well in the art of hand to hand combat if she ever needed to use it.
“Okay. I’ll go with you, I don’t want any problems, man. Be easy.”
The tall one approached her first, patting her down for weapons and taking the gun and holster she had attached to her leg and hidden under her long coat. The other two grabbed her by each arm and led her to the back of the van. Once inside, she was handed a black hood with it being understood exactly what she was supposed to do with it. This was the part she didn’t expect; this was the part she hated because it took her back to a memory she didn’t want to have at the present moment. Neema glared at the one with the tattoo who smirked at her obvious discomfort. She took a deep breath and slid the hood on.
They started to move slowly at first, continuing in the same direction down Jackson Blvd that she was had been going before their rude interruption, but then the van sped up. A sharp turn made her fall onto one of the men who grabbed her before she righted herself. They were trying to confuse her by driving erratically and making frequent turns. She was good at direction, but now she wasn’t exactly sure where she was going. The van stopped after what seemed to be twenty minutes. Moments passed before she heard the doors open and she was pulled out into the cold again. She could only guess that it was smaller two who grabbed her by each arm and led her down a long flight of stairs.
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 or maybe it was just her nervousness after being pulled off the street on her way to the L train.
Neema knew there was possibility that The Collective would come for her after what she had done, but she didn’t care. This was either a recruitment or it would be a threat to stay out of their way…or worse. Her hacking had gotten her a taste of what she wanted…information and retribution. Congressman Dalton had been there the night her father was taken while she and her mother hid in the room hidden behind her bedroom wall. He and the president’s thugs heat him mercilessly, but he refused to give up his family to them. Her father knew what they were capable of doing to women and girls. She could still hear the sound of the blows against her father’s body and Dalton’s hissing laugh as he took pleasure in her father’s pain. The hood over her head reminded her of the dark room she hid in, wanting to go to her father but hindered by her mother who held her. The tight grips on her arms as she was being led down the stairs reminded her of her mother’s arms wrapped around her like chains.
They stayed hidden for a while, even after her father was dragged away and they could hear the sound of the trucks leave. Her mother said they had to be sure. That night they slipped away like thieves from their own home, taking to the tunnels underneath the house that led to the safety of her aunt Adanna’s converted warehouse. They had been living with Adanna, her daughter Reya, and Adanna’s uncle James ever since. The moment the doors opened, Neema’s mother had fallen apart. The sound that came out of her still haunted Neema. She didn’t speak for a while, and Adanna became her caretaker and Neema’s second mother. Her father’s outspokenness had cost him either his freedom or his life, but no one was sure which just yet. He and many others like him had become a thorn in the president’s side and that had led to imprisonment for some and public executions for others. The mistake that Dalton and his president made was thinking that dragging David James out of his home, never to be heard from again would render his supporters silent. What they had done was make a mortal enemy out of his 16-year-old daughter.
Neema didn’t fall apart like her mother, she planned her revenge. It took one year of surveillance and testing her hacking skills on small projects before she executed her plan. Dalton was the first step of many, but she needed to deal with him first. She had plenty of time to focus on him since there was no more school for her. She was taught at home with Reya by James. It would have been suicide for her to show up at school after her father was taken. She was glad she didn’t have to go back; it had been torture sitting in class pretending that she wasn’t ahead of everyone there including the teacher. Homeschool had given her the time she needed to put everything in place and Dalton’s arrogance had made it even easier.
Dalton was so comfortable with the idea that his money meant he was untouchable that he only had one bodyguard. He spent a great deal of time in hotels making shady deals and buying a night with a woman or two. He was predictable and this is what Neema counted on the night she took him down. His love of a good drink and an audience had led him to rent a river view room at the Lam Hotel on Wabash Ave and eventually to the bar downstairs. Neema needed to get to Dalton’s briefcase and computer that he left in his room.
A friend who worked at the hotel on the weekends snuck her in and dressed her as a room service attendant. Her 5’10” height, umber skin, and long dreads made her stand out most times, but no one seemed to question that she was the help that night. Slipping into his room with a food cart was easy, taking the information she needed before the guard and Dalton returned was going to be the hard part. She managed to smuggle her equipment in and went to work hacking, downloading, and scanning. Her friend kept an eye on Dalton and the guard at the bar while informing Neema through the earpiece she had given him. Finishing just before they decided to make their way back to the room, Neema slipped out and down the emergency staircase. 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 news stations they all paid attention to. They only got back control of their sites and channels when she was ready for them to. 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 smiled under the hood despite not knowing exactly what was about to happen to her now that she was in the hands of The Collective.
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 them to follow him.
The Collective guard escorting her stopped in front of a set of metal doors and turned round 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 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 a man and women standing in the shadows, just at the entrance of the door. She hadn’t noticed how dark it was there when she walked in a few minutes before. They stood there silent for a moment before the women started to walk towards her still shrouded in the darkness of the room. Neema stood still, refusing to let any fear show now that she was face to face with who she assumed was Collective command. The woman stepped into the light and Neema’s eyes widened because she knew her face. It had been a face she had known all her life, one that had fed and clothed her. She breathed a sigh of relief despite the shock and relaxed a little. She didn’t speak as the woman pulled her into a tight hug and then placed her hands on each side of her face. She smiled at Neema and laughed a little at what Neema assumes was the look she still had on her face.
“Well, aren’t you going to say anything?” The woman asked, still smiling.
Neema struggled to find the words, her mind was racing now. She was confused by who was standing in front of her. She finally managed to utter three words.