He entered the enclosed concrete cylinder; then a few steps brought him to the metal grille. He switched on the torch and oriented himself by the light of its control panel. When he put on the goggles he was blind, but then he squeezed the trigger of the torch, and the arc lit up the tunnel around him.
Each bar took just seconds to cut, but there were a lot of them. In the confined space the heat was oppressive; his T-shirt was soon soaked with sweat. Still, he had fresh clothes in his pack, and he could wash in the ditch once he was through. If he was still not respectable enough to get a ride, he’d walk to Atlanta.
“Young man, get out of there immediately.”
Lincoln shut off the arc. The voice, and those words, could only belong to his grandmother. For a few pounding heartbeats, he wondered if he’d imagined it, but then in the same unmistakable tone, ratcheted up a notch, she added, “Don’t play games with me–I don’t have the patience for it.”
Lincoln slumped in the darkness, disbelieving. He’d dreamed his way through every detail, past every obstacle. How could she appear out of nowhere and ruin everything?
There wasn’t room to turn around, so he crawled backward to the mouth of the tunnel. His grandmother was standing on the bank of the ditch.
“What exactly do you think you’re doing?” she demanded.
He said, “I need to get to Atlanta.”
“Atlanta? All by yourself, in the middle of the night? What happened? You got a craving for some special kind of food we’re not providing here?”
Lincoln scowled at her sarcasm but knew better than to answer back. “I’ve been dreaming about it,” he said, as if that explained everything. “Night after night. Working out the best way to do it.”
His grandmother said nothing for a while, and when Lincoln realized that he’d shocked her into silence he felt a pang of fear himself.
She said, “You have no earthly reason to run away. Is someone beating you? Is someone treating you badly?”
“So why exactly is it that you need to go?”
Lincoln felt his face grow hot with shame. How could he have missed it? How could he have fooled himself into believing that the obsession was his own? But even as he berated himself for his stupidity, his longing for the journey remained.
“You’ve got the fever, haven’t you? You know where those kind of dreams come from: nanospam throwing a party in your brain. Ten billion idiot robots playing a game called Steve at Home.”
She reached down and helped him out of the ditch. The thought crossed Lincoln’s mind that he could probably overpower her, but then he recoiled from the idea in disgust. He sat down on the grass and put his head in his hands.
“Are you going to lock me up?” he asked.
“Nobody’s turning anybody into a prisoner. Let’s go talk to your parents. They’re going to be thrilled.”
The four of them sat in the kitchen. Lincoln kept quiet and let the others argue, too ashamed to offer any opinions of his own. How could he have let himself sleepwalk like that? Plotting and scheming for weeks, growing ever prouder of his own ingenuity, but doing it all at the bidding of the world’s stupidest, most despised dead man.
He still yearned to go to Atlanta. He itched to bolt from the room, scale the fence, and jog all the way to the highway. He could see the whole sequence in his mind’s eye; he was already thinking through the flaws in the plan and hunting for ways to correct them.
He banged his head against the table. “Make it stop! Get them out of me!”
His mother put an arm around his shoulders. “You know we can’t wave a magic wand and get rid of them. You’ve got the latest counterware. All we can do is send a sample to be analyzed, do our bit to speed the process along.”
The cure could be months away, or years. Lincoln moaned pitifully. “Then lock me up! Put me in the basement!”
His father wiped a glistening streak of sweat from his forehead. “That’s not going to happen. If I have to be beside you everywhere you go, we’re still going to treat you like a human being.” His voice was strained, caught somewhere between fear and defiance.
Silence descended. Lincoln closed his eyes. Then his grandmother spoke.
“Maybe the best way to deal with this is to let him scratch his damned itch.”
“What?” His father was incredulous.
“He wants to go to Atlanta. I can go with him.”
“The Stevelets want him in Atlanta,” his father replied.
“They’re not going to harm him–they just want to borrow him. And like it or not, they’ve already done that. Maybe the quickest way to get them to move on is to satisfy them.”
Lincoln’s father said, “You know they can’t be satisfied.”