Story – The Orange Marble (Part 3/6: The Journey)

Synopsis: Michael and Zoe discuss whether their mission is realistic.

Michael glares at Zoe, her words “assassinate the president” ringing in his ears.
Michael: assassinate the president, are you insane?
Zoe: well what other options do we have? We can't stop Brexit and, while we can't stop the presidential elections either, we can stop the president.
Michael: I mean, even ignoring the barbaric implications of what you're saying, assassinating a Presidential candidate is near impossible.
Zoe: look, I know someone who can train you. He's the leader of a settlement a few hours from here who has fended off hundreds who have threatened to destroy his land. I have no doubt he can train you to pull off something like this. Not to mention 2066 technology is more advanced than 2016 technology; we have sniper rifles here that don't register in weapon detectors before 2032, for example.
Michael stands up.
Michael: I'm… I'm sorry, but what you're asking is… well…
Zoe: it's what?
Michael: it's… it's horrible.
Zoe: so what, you're just gonna go back to 2016, knowing you could have saved billions of people's futures… including, eventually, your own?
Michael: hey, don't blackmail me into this. I want to help, but no person in their right mind would even attempt to pull off anything like this. I'm sorry, but I can't.
Zoe: for fuck sake, you're the weakest piece of shit I've ever known, yet I still have faith that you can pull this off. Does that not account for something?
Michael gets a sudden surge of anger.
Michael: and that's another thing… you've treated me like nothing but shit this entire time, what reason do I have to help you?
Zoe is taken aback. After a moment of silence, Michael leaves the library and heads back to the alley. Zoe stands in place, the silence sizzling in her ears. 

A few minutes later, Michael prepares to teleport back to 2016. He raises his arm to configure the device, seeing his reflection in the screen. His face drops. He looks back at the library. His hands are shaking. He closes his eyes and takes a few deep breaths. After thinking for a second, he steps forward and walks back towards the library. He enters through the back again, heading back to and reaching the now vacant computer; he sits down and turns it back on.
Michael: how bad can a future after his election be, huh?
Michael puts his fingers to the keyboard, typing “Wendy Drake” into the search engine. After tuning some specific details, a profile of his grandmother appears on screen; across a picture of her is the word “deceased” in all caps. Michael takes a few breaths. He clicks on the search function and types in “Marie Drake”, doing the same settings alteration until he finds his mum; “deceased” is also declared over a photo of her. Michael rubs his forehead and sits back. He leans forward a minute or so later, entering Sanjid's name into the search bar. He's also deceased, but the circumstances behind his death shock Michael. Sanjid died in 2026. He was murdered. Michael notices a related video on the side of the profile dated August 27th, 2026. Michael clicks on the video, bringing up a shot of Sanjid’s store. The shop is now a pile of rubble. Beneath the camera's line of sight, flames waft in the wind. Outside of the shop a riot is occurring, with around 30 people holding flaming torches and chanting as a silhouette is assaulted by the other members of the mob. The assaulted man is picked up as racist chants develop. The man is lifted onto a pedestal. Michael squints at the screen, his eyes widening when he realises who it is. Sanjid. A 73 year old Sanjid, crying, bloodied and in the final moments of his life. Michael starts breathing heavily, his head becoming light and a sick feeling suddenly striking his body. Back in the video, the bruised and battered Sanjid is held in place as a rope is put around his neck, the racist chants intensifying as a few rioters spit over his clothes. Finally, the pedestal Sanjid is standing on is kicked over, Sanjid’s full weight dropping and being suspended only by the rough rope wrapped around his throat. The crowd cheers as Sanjid’s legs flail beside the flames, his vision, and then his life, fading away in a cesspit of violence and hate. Before his last breath can be witnessed Michael turns the video off, vomit finally leaving his system and hitting the cold, dirty floor. Michael wheezes and coughs, sweat pouring down his face as he struggles for breath. This is his friend's fate. This is the world he'll live in if the president isn't stopped. Michael recuperates for a few minutes. He drinks a bottle of water from his bag, but it doesn't help much.
Michael: I… have… to do something.
As Michael stands to leave, he glances back at the computer. He sits down again. He types in Zoe’s name, adding every detail he knows about her to narrow down the search results to find her. He ultimately discovers her profile, “Zoe Piper” displaying above the 19 year old’s photo. He looks over the profile, ultimately finding the “family” tab. Profiles for her mother and father pop up. Both have passed away. Both because of murder.
Michael: fuck. 
Both were killed in 2053 when Zoe was just six, meaning she's had to fend for herself the past thirteen years. Michael turns the computer off, exits the library and ventures to Zoe’s home. 

He creeps in and looks around.
Michael: Z-Zoe? It's me, Michael. I wanna talk about the assassination, ok? I think it's revolting and, and sick, but… considering what it leads to, I, well…
He sighs.
Michael: Zoe, please, can we just talk?
He keeps searching but can't find her anywhere.
Michael: hmm…
After lapping the downstairs, Michael heads up to see if she's there. He inspects a few rooms to zero success.
Michael: where is she?
He reaches the final room at the end of the hallway, opening it and walking in.
Michael: Zoe? Zoe are you…
Zoe is standing in the middle of the room. As their eyes meet, Zoe puts a laser gun to her head. 
Michael: ZOE, NO!
Michael dives at her. The gun shoots. The laser collides with the wall. The two land on the ground, unscathed, with Michael holding her arms.
Zoe: fuck, get off me!
Michael: wait, calm down, what the hell are you doing!?
Zoe: just let go of me!
Michael: just tell me what you were doing!
Zoe: I was gonna kill myself, was that not obvious!?
Michael: yeah but…
Zoe boots him away and launches to her feet. She grabs the gun and raises it to her chin again.
Zoe: step any closer and I'll do it.
Michael: I want to help.
She pauses for a moment.
Zoe: what?
Michael: I'm in. I want to help assassinate the president.
Zoe stares for a moment. She lowers the gun.
Zoe: you… you mean it? You really wanna help?
Michael: yes… if you tell me why you were doing what you were just then.
She points the gun at him.
Michael: right, you're not the talkative type.
The gun lowers.
Michael: so, where's this settlement and guy who's gonna train me?
Zoe points out of a huge hole in the wall, at a sprawling stretch of wasteland at the brink of the horizon.
Zoe: Across that. It'll take a few days, though.
Michael: well I've got food and drink in my bag from home, so what are we waiting for?
Zoe looks at Michael.
Zoe: you know, under that flimsy, pathetic front is someone with potential. If we can realise that, I think you could do this.

Their odyssey begins. As the sun starts retreating and the sky morphs from red to orange, Michael and Zoe leave the town and begin journeying across the barren wasteland. The creator of the watch implemented a feature where trying to activate it outside of the town gives an "out of range" message, presumably so it's less likely to fall into the wrong hands. Consequently, there's no turning back.
Michael: before we go too far, remind me again why I specifically have to do this instead of, for example, someone who's already trained in this? I'm totally down to help, but I just don't wanna waste anyone's time.
Zoe: Well if the inventor of time travel decides to give it to you of all people, he clearly knows or sees something in you that no one el… that, that isn't immediately apparent right now.
Michael: I hope so. 
He decides to change the subject.
Michael: anyway, uh, what is this “settlements” idea you've alluded to?
Zoe: basically; in 2066, the world's divided due to conflict, violence and an hierarchy of dominance rather than unity. As a result people have split off into separate groups, who live in their own (fortress like) locations, or settlements. Every settlement is against the other and they all fight over the sustenance not yet killed by the toxic skies.
Michael: delightful. But what about people like you, who live on their own?
Zoe: we're called outliers. Some outliers, like myself, have ties to settlements, but we don't tend to live there; this could be because we choose not to, because the settlement is overpopulated, because there's not enough nutrition for everyone, or numerous other reasons.
Michael goes to ask which is the reason why Zoe is an outlier, but he stops himself.
Zoe: there's a lot of settlements out there, but most don't last long. Most of the larger settlements usually raid them, take all their food, drink and supplies and kill anyone who tries to stop it. The main settlements in this area are; The Survivalists, this is the one I'm affiliated with. The Edgelords, a group of lonely guys who think they're cool by shitposting on online forums; their flag is just a combination of the Reddit and 4Chan logos. The Capitalists, a group of assholes who think the way to happiness is by shitting on everyone else. The Socialists, a group of pussies who think everyone should be nice to everyone, despite that not being how the world works, like, at all. And, uh…
She pauses for a moment.
Zoe: and The Antipeace… they're the worst of them all. Let's just hope our settlement is still safe from them.
Michael: wow, are they really that bad? You're usually not shook by anything but…
Zoe: I'm not shook. Just… cautious.
Michael nods.
Zoe: their leader is Jacob Axiom. The guy is one of the best fighters out there… it's too bad he uses that to slaughter other settlements rather than unify society again.

The two continue walking, the orange sky becoming darker the more footsteps they take. Nightfall ultimately hits, their journey still far from complete. As the moonlight bounces off the skulls scattered across the desert-turned-battlefield-graveyard, Michael and Zoe realise they won't make it today and start settling down beside a tree atop a cliff. They roll out the two sleeping bags Michael has brought from home and get inside them, turning over to get some rest before they continue their walk. An hour or so into Michael's sleep, he jerks awake; he can hear crying in the near distance.
Michael: what the…
He sits up, looking around to try and work out where the crying is coming from.
Michael: hey Zoe, do you hear that?
He looks over the campfire between their sleeping bags, seeing that Zoe’s sleeping bag is empty.
Michael: Zoe?
Michael stands up and looks around; as he looks in the direction of the cliff edge, he sees a silhouette spectating the stars beside the tree. He creeps towards them, realising they're the source of the crying. As his eyes adjust to the darkness and the distance between them closes, he recognises the silhouette’s identity.
Michael: Z-Zoe?
Her head swivels around with a gasp. Tears are clinging to the skin beneath her eyes.
Zoe: what?
Michael: are… are you crying?
She tries wiping the tears away.
Zoe: no, I'm just… it's nothing, we should get back to sleep.
Michael: no really, what's wrong?
Zoe: what do you care?
Michael: what do you mean “what do I care?" Of course I care.
She doesn't say anything. As the silence hangs over them, Michael extends his arm. He rests his hand on her shoulder as gently as possible.
Michael: what's wrong?
Zoe looks back at Michael. She inspects his face, seeing the genuine concern in his eyes. She's uncertain how to respond to this previously unseen sight.
Zoe: I…
Eye contact is made. Zoe breaks it immediately and turns back around - Michael's hand is shrugged away in the process.
Zoe: what reason do I have to trust you?
He looks down.
Michael: you don't. But sometimes that's what life is about; you just need to have faith in others from time to time. Yeah that can fuck you over a lot, believe me Zoe I know… but how can you find the truly trustworthy people in life without giving anyone a chance?
Zoe doesn't move, however his words ring in her head.
Michael: look I, uh, I know the past few years haven't been easy for you. I…
He stops for a moment, taking a breath.
Michael: I looked up your profile on that library computer, and I know what happened to your parents…
She yanks the laser gun out of her pocket and presses it against his forehead. Her hand is shaking. Michael tries to suppress his fear.
Michael: Z-Zoe… I know what it's like to be alone. I know what it's like to, to feel like there's no point going on because you have no one or no reason to do so… but, through this, I've learned that you can't always rely on others and that, all of the time, you've gotta keep pushing through for you. You do that and, one day, you'll have people looking up to you, who are proud of you, and you'll know your perseverance in that hard part of your life was so damn worth it.
Zoe’s eyebrows straighten.
Michael: I've also learned that, in life, your family is who loves you for you, not necessarily those you're blood related to. I mean my blood related family love me and I love them, and I'm thankful for that, but I also have friends who I consider family because, well, they treat me that exact same way.
Zoe’s grip on her gun loosens.
Michael: I know you don't have many people there for you right now, but… I can be, if you let me.
Michael closes his eyes, waiting for Zoe’s inevitable pull of the trigger. But, after a few seconds, the only sound he hears is the clink of the gun hitting the floor. Michael opens his eyes, peeking at Zoe. Their eyes meet, Michael's innocent, blue circles just being visible behind the tears shrouding Zoe’s misty, green marbles.
Zoe: really?
Michael nods with an affirming smile. Zoe dwells on everything Michael has said, a whirlwind of conflict spiraling in her conscious. After a few more seconds of silence, Michael extends his arm again. Then, the other one. He awaits her response. She glances at both of his arms, and then back at his face. She thinks for a few more seconds. Ultimately, she makes a decision. She shakes her head and breaks away.
Zoe: we need to get some rest, we have another long day ahead of us tomorrow.
She walks past him, hastily climbing into her sleeping bag, turning onto her side (facing the campfire) and closing her eyes. Michael lowers his arms with a sigh. After taking one gaze at the view under the night sky, Michael steps away from the cliff edge and clambers back into his sleeping bag. The other side of the campfire, Zoe opens her eyes and takes a quick peek at Michael through the flames. For the first time in years, a smile erects on her face.

The following morning, Michael wakes up and turns onto his back. Zoe is sitting next to the campfire cooking something on a stick.
Michael: groan… yawn… morning…
Zoe: oh, hey.
Michael: what's that you're cooking?
She takes the items she's cooking off the stick.
Zoe: we were getting low on food supplies so I caught and cooked some animals.
Michael: oh neat, thanks. What'd you get?
She shows the three burned desert rats sitting in her palm.
Michael: ah…
After struggling through the desert rats, the duo pack everything back into the bags.
Michael: so how far from the settlement are we, exactly? Because you're right - we don't have much food left.
Zoe: honestly, I'm not sure. It's been awhile since I came out here.
Michael: well we better get going.
Zoe nods in agreement. After everything is packed, Michael and Zoe continue their trek to the Survivalists settlement. The two walk for hours, pushing through an amalgamation of hard rock and thick sand floors as they continue their attempt to close the gap between them and the seemingly infinite horizon. As a sand storm commences, the two start to feel weary. They look in their bags, seeing only one bottle of water is remaining. They perch beside a huge sand dune (that's masking their view of anything beyond it) and exchange sips.
Zoe: you better now?
Michael doesn't respond.
Zoe: Michael?
His eyelids drop. Then, his whole body does the same.
Zoe: Michael!
Michael’s body hits the sand. Zoe drops to her knees and shakes his body in an attempt to wake him up. Flashes of her parent's death appear in her mind.
Zoe: argh damn it Michael, come on.
She puts her ear to his chest, confirming his heart is still beating.
Zoe: ok ok, he's still alive.
Her head darts around for some form of remedy. The sand storm becomes increasingly violent. The air becomes more and more difficult to breathe in. She staggers to her feet and looks at the sand dune beside them.
Zoe: w-wait a minute…
She dives at the sand dune, sinking her hands in it and hauling herself up. She pushes through the sand with her feet. Ultimately, she makes it to the dune's peak. However, her vision is beginning to blur. In the distance, between the blurred lines, she sees a recognisable outline. She squints to try and make more out, but struggles due to the haze in her head. Her body is overwhelmed. She collapses. Her body ragdolls down the sand dune, ultimately rolling into place a few feet from Michael's.

Voice: hello?
Michael hears a loud droning noise.
Voice: hello?
Michael opens his eyes. He sees a man staring at his. Michael sits up and looks around, seeing he's on a bed in a room.
Michael: where am I? Did I die?
A group of people launch from nearby chairs with guns in their hands. They point them at Michael.
Woman: who are you?
Man: what were you doing in the wasteland?
The door opens. Zoe walks in.
Michael: Zoe!
A smile creeps up on her. She suppresses it.
Zoe: ah, you're awake.
Woman: you know this man?
Zoe: yeah, he's alright guys.
They lower their guns. Another man walks through the door.
Man who walked in: what's going on here?
He sees Zoe.
Man who walked in: Zoe? Zoe Piper?
The man is Ben McGraw, a 23 year old who is the leader of the Survivalists. He knows Zoe from her previous tenure at the Survivalists settlement. Michael, Zoe and Ben head downstairs while Zoe and Ben get reacquainted. They walk through the main hallway of the settlement. The hallway is one large, open space. The walls and floors are covered with soot, dirt and grime. Most of the objects are thrown together by salvaged items found either in the wasteland, in the nearby mines or from the battles won against opposing settlements. A dining area is to the side of the main walkway. Elongated tables, filled with the settlement's inhabitants eating food they've found or stolen, are lined up in rows. A battle training area is in the back, showers are outside just around from the back area and every room in the upstairs of the fort-like infrastructure is a bedroom. Everyone is wearing custom-made rags besides Michael and Zoe, who are still in their sand covered 2016 clothing.
Ben: so, what brings you back here?
Zoe: I just missed the foul stench and sharing single beds with three people, I guess.
Ben is unamused.
Ben: You're still sarcastic as fuck, then.
Zoe: I'm also here because I need your help. My friend here needs training for a very important mission.
Ben looks Michael up and down.
Ben: yeah, no, we have more important priorities right now.
Zoe: what?
Ben: you seriously just expected to waltz in here and have us train some random guy?
Ben starts walking away.
Zoe: he's not “some random guy”.
Ben: your friend, boyfriend, whatever he is, I don't care.
Zoe: he's Michael Drake.
Ben stops in his tracks. He turns around and inspects them.
Ben: Michael… Drake? The one talked about in those rumours?
Zoe: yeah, that Michael Drake. All of it's true, and I come asking for your help to save our world.
Michael shows the time travel watch. Ben gazes at it for a moment before looking back at Michael.
Ben: i… impossible…
Zoe steps forward.
We need you to train Michael to assassinate the 2016 US President.
Ben remains silent.
Zoe: so… can you do it?
Ben examines the watch again. He realises they're telling the truth.
Ben: so, when can you begin?
A smirk rises on Zoe’s face.

End of episode three.

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