Four years ago today I published Empowered: Agent, the first novel in the Empowered series. In honor of that, I’ve written a flash fiction story which takes place when Mathilda Brandt is still in Special Corrections, nearly three years after the event of “Nullified.”
The World Outside
Copyright 2021 Dale Ivan Smith
Rain popped and sizzled on the force dome above my garden in the Yard. My tomato plants withered in the heat, but the sudden rain outside Special Corrections would do them no good. San Diego got doused but it was still a desert inside Special Corrections, thanks to the damn force dome.
I frowned. My watering can was nearly empty. Even with the null cuffs on, I could still hear the faint moaning of the plants, craving water.
Another female inmate appeared from behind my tomato plants. My jaw tightened. She must have been waiting for me. She was a redhead, slender, maybe five ten, so four inches shorter than me, wearing the same white coveralls we all wore inside, and the same nullification cuffs that blocked our powers.
I didn’t see either of the armored Corrections Officers that were on duty here in the Yard. My garden was near the forty-foot-high wall dividing our section of Special Corrections from the men’s section, which meant it was in shadow in the afternoon, since the men’s section was on the west side.
The woman held a watering can in her hand. “You’re Mathilda, right?”
I narrowed my eyes. “And you are?”
Concern flashed across her face. I didn’t know why. I didn’t get in fights, or bully anyone. But she must have been new, so she didn’t know that.
“I’m Lexie,” she said, blurting out her name. “I just got here a couple of days ago. I’d heard that you were having trouble with your garden.” She lifted the can. “I have more water for you.”
“You do know that helping another inmate in a proscribed activity is considered a Class Three infraction,” I pointed out. Warden Fulbright regularly drilled the rules into us during assemblies in the cafeteria.
Lexie’s gaze darted around and then back to looking at me. Her eyes were green. “No one’s watching. I’m sorry, I just wanted to help you.” She held out the can.
It looked identical to mine, right down to the dent in the side and the rust stains. That was weird. “Where’d you get the duplicate?” I asked her.
She glanced down at her feet. “Sorry, I can’t tell you.” She glanced off to the south. “CO Reiner will be headed this way any moment.” She took a step toward me. The water in the can sloshed over the top as she moved closer, droplets splashing on the bare earth just beyond a tomato vine. The plant keened in my mind. For an instant, I actually tried to reach out with my power.
I sucked in a deep breath of air. I couldn’t use my power, even if I weren’t wearing the null cuffs.
“No,” I said.
Lexie’s voice changed, becoming insistent. “Come on, you feel it, don’t you? Take it. No one will know. I’ll take your can and you can finish watering your plants with mine. The COs won’t have a clue.” She thrust the can at me, sending more water sloshing over the edge and spattering on the ground.
The tomato plants all began keening in my mind. I raised my fist. “Damn you, leave me alone!”
Her face hardened. The uncertain newbie was gone; instead, I recognized the menacing look I’d seen dozens of times in the nearly five years I’d been inside.
Her lips curved up into a vicious grin. “You don’t know me at all. I can make things very rough for you.” She held the can like a weapon.
I laughed. “Give me a break. Make things rougher for me? Maybe, but so what? I know what I’m going to do.”
“What’s that?” She asked. Her voice had turned dangerous.
“Get back to my work.” I turned my back on her and walked down the line, sprinkling drops where I could. I didn’t try to wall my mind off from the plants’ cries. Instead, I heard them, felt the echo in my body, and didn’t try to fight the tears filling my eyes.
The water was gone. I reached the end of the garden.
Clapping sounded behind me. I turned. Lexie had disappeared. Instead, a short, gray-haired woman in a black suit, white shirt, and black tie, stood there.
A Support agent, one of the normals who worked for the sanctioned Empowered in the Hero Council. I’d seen them here a few times, but it had been a while.
I put down my can and crossed my arms. “What happened to Lexie?”
The woman looked to be in her fifties. She wore her gray hair short. Her hazel eyes looked me over. “She left.”
“Just like that?”
The Support agent smiled. “Just like that. She’d served her purpose.”
So, this had been another test. There had been so many of them since I’d arrived. Usually, Warden Fulbright set them up. But there had never been a Support agent in one of her little tests before. Fulbright used other inmates, like Tricksie, who had tried to get me to break out when I turned eighteen. The first test she’d set for me. Her tests were really snares to get you to become one of her stooges.
My fingers dug into my arms.
The agent watched me, not saying anything. Weighing me with her eyes, waiting to see what I’d do next.
I’d be twenty-one in a couple of weeks. Eligible for parole, since I’d been convicted of being a rogue Empowered when I was sixteen. I didn’t want to be Empowered. I just wanted to be released and take care of my grandmother and my twin sisters, who were going on seventeen. God only knew what trouble they had gotten into since I’d been inside.
Eligible for parole didn’t mean I’d be paroled. I could still end up a lifer here. So, I had to stay out of trouble, especially not fight or mouth off to the COs.
I shrugged. “What’s next?” I asked the agent.
Her gaze bored into me. “The biggest test of all,” she said.
I tensed, then uncrossed my arms and rolled my shoulders. “Okay. I’m ready,” I said.
“No, you’re not,” she replied.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because the test will be the world outside.”
Those words clanged together in my brain. The world outside.
That was how I learned I was being paroled. They were giving me a chance for a new life.
I was grabbing that chance and not looking back.
It wasn’t until I’d been released that I realized what the Support agent had meant. I’d dreamed that I once I was out, it would be easy to walk on the straight and narrow and keep my head down.
But I hadn’t reckoned with the world outside and what it wanted.