[EDITORS NOTE: NODE friend and regular David Williams just released Tales from the New World Volume 1: A Collection of Short Stories. You can check it out here.]

The air was filled with the scent of slow roasting meat and day old grease.  A thin layer of grime clung to seemingly every surface.  June sank lower into the red plastic chair she had selected.  It creaked in protest as she tried in vain to find a comfortable position in which to sit.

Resigning herself to discomfort, she observed the old menu boards above the counter.  Their plastic fronting was cracked and covered in dirt, the inserts they contained almost unreadable.  They showed faded images of people who June could never imagine eating in a place like this, eating food that she could never imagine a place like this producing.  

It was a functionary attempt at salesmanship which neither the vendor nor the potential consumer paid any attention to.  It spoke of a time that was less cynical and less jaded.  A time when hope for the future, no matter how faint, still remained.


A middle aged and thoroughly depressed looking man stood behind the counter, keeping a lackadaisical watch over browning lettuce and wilting strips of onion while an amalgamation of processed meat, which the establishment had long since stopped referring to as having once belonged to any specific animal, rotated slowly on a silver pole.

The muffled sounds of music drifted into the room through a flimsy and unmarked door to the left of the rotisserie.  The tune bore the hallmark sounds of East Asian composition, a woman warbled drawn out lyrics over rhythmic percussion and staccato strings.

The tune grew louder for a few moments as a second man in a vague approximation of chefs whites emerged from the door.  He had a brief conversation with the man at the counter in a language which June neither understood, nor recognised from its phonetics.

June fought the urge to turn around at the sound of a bell and the opening of the door behind her.  The sustained hum of the street rushed in for just a moment, reminding her of what was outside.  Both the men behind the counter looked up.  The man in the apron retreated into the back room and, after giving an almost imperceptible nod of the head, his co-worker followed suit.

A man took the seat opposite June.  The two observed each other wordlessly for a moment.  He was older than she had been expecting, at least in his mid forties.  He wore dirt stained tan trousers and a short sleeved button down shirt in blue and white check over a white vest.  He was overweight and wheezed heavily when he breathed.

“Need help choosing something from the menu?” said June.  It had been agreed as a pass phrase of sorts.  Innocuous and mundane enough that even if they were picked up on the mics of a passing surveillance drone, it wouldn’t arouse suspicion.

“This a joke?” said the newcomer.

“This is what you get.  If you don’t need my help I’ll be going…” said June, standing.

“Does this place make deliveries?” asked the man with a worried expression on his face.  June looked him over, taking an extra moment before she sat back down purely for her own satisfaction.

“I hear they deliver all over the city.” she replied.

With a conspirational glance, the man slid a battered brown air mail envelope across the scratched white surface of the table.  June looked at it for a moment.  She had been expecting something more difficult to crack open than an envelope.

“What’s in it?” she asked, knowing full well that the man across from her would not answer.  It had been previously agreed that she would not ask questions.

“That’s not your worry.” said the wheezing man.  “If you look inside, and we’ll know if you do, you only get paid half.”

“Understood.” June replied.  “Where to?”

“Immigration Zone Three.   Someone will contact you there.” replied the man.  “You have two days.”

She waited silently for him to leave.  Once she was sure he was gone, she waited an extra five minutes,  She secreted the envelope in the lining of her coat, bought and paid for a can of soda at the counter and left the store.

Outside, the night time streets were quiet.  The searching beams of police department drones passed overhead, scything through the light mist of rain.  In the far distance, June could hear the sounds of unrest where throngs of people gathered as they had done for countless nights before to protest the treatment of those in the immigration zones.

She cut down a small alley, pulling her coat about her.  She could feel the envelope against her ribs.  The man in the diner had been right, she thought.  What was in the envelope didn’t matter.  Her only concern was getting paid.

As she neared the alley entrance, a bedraggled looking young man ran past her.  He was barefoot and wearing threadbare trousers and a filthy t shirt, a thin and tired looking man with tanned skin and sunken, dull eyes.

She was sure that if she checked, she would find an immigration tattoo on the underside of his left wrist.  A string of numbers to make it easier for the authorities to keep track of him in their data bases and statistics printouts.

“Warning! 12646, you are outside your designated habitation zone.” came the all together too pleasant sounding recording issued by a police drone in pursuit of the man.  

”Stop immediately.  Use of force is authorised.” it continued.

June watched the man, panic written all over his sallow face as he glanced behind him.  The sight of the drone seemed to exasperate his already desperate expression.  He growled in defiance as he pumped his arms and legs in an attempt to outrun his pursuer.

With a loud crack, the police drone let loose its stun gun.  The needled end of the weapon lodged itself in the man’s back and a series of loud clicks filled the air as the wire was charged with electricity.  The man dropped to the floor, convulsing and eventually going limp.  The drone came to a stop over his motionless body.

“Move along, citizen!”  issued the drone, turning to catch her in its search beam.  Recovering herself, she pulled her coat about her once more and continued down the alley, fighting the urge to run.

Exiting the alley, she waited nervously at a crossing signal as a car slid past quickly and silently.  At the sound of the signal, she crossed the street and, without stopping, climbed the short stone steps to the front door of her apartment building and went inside.

June was nervous in spite of herself.  She had done jobs like this dozens of times and yet, it never got easier.  She squeezed her elbow against her side to reassure herself that the package was still there.  The crowd of ever present protestors called loudly from behind the barricades as she pushed her way through them to the front.

She was stopped by a drone.  It lowered itself in front of her, once again dazing her with its search beam.  It was bulkier than the standard police drones, painted a deep, reserved green and carried a decidedly lethal looking automatic rifle in place of the police drones tazer.

“Please present your identification papers.” it said in someone else’s voice.

June flipped open a large, bi-fold laminate with her picture, name, date of birth and address printed on it.  The drone scanned the document for several moments.  The ID was a fake, of course.  One of many she had made for these occasions.  This one presented her as a volunteer health care professional.  After this, it would not be usable again.

“Identification confirmed.” said the drone.  “Please be aware that you enter the immigration zones at your own risk.  Move along, citizen.”

Inside the immigration zone, June passed by row upon row of beaten tents.  As she passed by, she saw families, young and old cramped together around tiny stoves for heat, their thin faces lit by paraffin lamps.

Other people wandered the streets forlorn, their features etched in desperation.  Millions had come here fleeing the threat of death and persecution.  They had hoped to find freedom, instead they had been readily accepted as a source of cheap labour.  Few people cared about them and they had few options.

June was surprised to feel something touch her hand.  She looked down into the eyes of a small boy, no more than ten years of age.  He was covered in dirt and bare footed but still bore the exuberance of his age.  He smiled brightly and spoke in perfect English.

“A man over there wants to see you.”  He said, indicating a small alleyway between the end of a row of tents and what June thought had once been a public toilet.  In the time it took her to look to the alley and back, the boy was gone.

Glancing about and checking once more that the package was still in her possession, June crossed to the mouth of the small alleyway.  There was a man there, partially occluded by shadow.  A surveillance drone swept overhead.

“You have something for me.” said the man.

“Come out where I can see you first.” replied June.

“You are careful.” said the man, emerging fully from the shadows.  “That is good.””

He was a tall, thin, middle aged man with a thick, short beard which was beginning to turn grey.  He wore wire frame glasses across a hooked nose which, June could tell, had been broken more than once.  He spoke perfect English with a pronounced middle eastern accent.

June handed him the envelope.  He took it from her calmly, reaching inside and removing its contents.  The envelope fell to the ground as the man held up his prize in the moonlight, a small USB device which he regarded with reverence.

“You have earned your fee.” said the man.

“Just one question.” said June.  “What is it?”

“Freedom.” said the man with a smile