Collin Powers looked down at his watch. It was getting late. Too late. Curfew was 10:00 for all citizens. It was already 9:55 and here he was, sitting in a parked car on the side of the highway that encircled his city.
The street lights had been turned off at 9:50, to conserve power and urge citizens to get back to their homes. He was stopped just far enough away from the city lights to be shrouded in darkness. The blue glow of the dashboard was the only light in the area.
From this distance, the city looked almost beautiful. Many cities around the country had been redesigned over the decades. Some buildings had been torn down. Others had been covered by new exterior walls, giving them the appearance of something new. But this city remained largely as it was before the world had fallen apart. Though some elements had been 'revitalized' or repurposed, the buildings themselves remained the same. At night, from a distance, it was impossible to see the cracks in the walls or the poorly patched streets. You couldn't see the parts of the city that had been abandoned because even the authorities didn't deem them suitable for living. During the day, everything looked gray and oppressive; even at the sunniest of times. There was a layer of dirt that covered everything. Sometimes it looked as though it even covered the people. Where this dirt came from and why it never washed away with the rain, Collin never knew. All he did know was that the very act of breathing the air of that city made him feel as though he was slowly rotting away from the inside out.
His stomach was churning. He was starting to sweat, which he could only partially blame on the heavy, uncomfortable jacket that he was wearing. He was always nervous when he was out in the world, because he knew that people were looking for him. Ever since his eighteenth birthday, when he failed to show up for his assignment meeting, he'd been running from one person or another.
It wasn't a calculated decision. It started off with simple uneasiness, which his mother assured him everyone felt when they were assigned. She insisted that it was perfectly natural, to head out into the world as an adult, unsure of what awaited you. She told him that he would feel better as soon as he got to the assignment building and saw all the other kids lined up. They were all the same, so he had nothing to fear.
Somehow, her speech didn't comfort him. It wasn't a fear of the unknown that bothered Collin. It was the idea that he was going into a meeting where his entire life would be determined, and nobody had thought to include him in the making of those decisions.
He would lie in bed, staring at the ceiling, thinking about all the possible assignments that he could be given. Teacher. Construction worker. Doctor. He loved learning, probably more than his teachers would have liked. He asked questions that they didn't have answers for. He applied for books at the library which weren't even on his reading list. He wanted to know how the world worked, but each application was denied. Every question went unanswered.
Something in his gut told him that he wasn't going to be assigned to a life that would encourage his passion for knowledge. The academics weren't the kids who asked a lot of questions, they were the kids who aced all the tests. Half of the time, Collin didn't even finish the tests. He knew all the answers, but something about them didn't feel true to him.
When he was thirteen years old, just entering high school, Collin was eager to enter the next phase of his life. He thought that the world was opening up in front of him, and he would finally find his place in it. He expected to soak up knowledge like a sponge. He expected to play chess and debate, and maybe dabble in the arts.
If he could have seen the look on his own face when his student schedule was delivered to his inbox, he might have found it funny. Football. That was his extracurricular for the first semester. During the second, it was paintball. Rock climbing. Wrestling. Gymnastics. Fencing.
The longer his high school career went on, the more absurd it all seemed. Sure, he could excel in those areas, but they were not playing to his strengths. If anything, they were playing in direct opposition to his strengths. So much so that he had to wonder if it had been done on purpose.
He requested transfers, but those requests were denied. So, he did what he had to do to survive through high school. He applied himself to the best of his abilities and saved his personal interests for his off hours.
Collin usually found himself in parks or coffee shops after school. Even when he didn't have the credits to order anything, he would hang around until he was asked to leave. He wanted to make smalltalk. He wanted to ask people about their lives; what they did, what they knew. It was the only way he could push the limits of his knowledge, but it didn't get him very far.
People didn't like talking, and they didn't like people asking too many questions either. He was sloppy in how he went about trying to learn. He sat in places where he didn't belong and talked to anyone and everyone. In his own mind, he was just being friendly. To the rest of them, he was suspicious.
Malcolm Edgar was one of those people in the coffee shop. He was a man who sat by himself, observing Collin. For weeks, he watched the kid fumble and overstep. Collin never approached Malcolm, because Malcolm made sure that his appearance was not inviting. Then one day, after Collin had just finished a conversation with a lovely young hospital worker, Malcolm took a seat next to him and kindly told Collin to shut his damn mouth and stop talking to people, unless he wanted HAND officers knocking on his door.
HAND: Homeland Authority and National Defense.
They were the military within our borders. The soldiers who kept order. Highly trained. Highly skilled. Nobody wanted a HAND officer knocking on their door.
Malcolm didn't offer much more to Collin that day, except for an old, small, plastic card that he slipped into Collin's pocket as he walked away from the table. It was an antique library card, which was of absolutely no use to Collin. His own library card was linked into his Civilian ID, and data stripe cards hadn't been in use for decades. The card that Malcolm gave him was a relic.
The card baffled Collin at first. He kept it hidden, because it seemed like a message of some sort, but he didn't know what it meant. He didn't know what significance an old library card could possibly hold. Not at first anyway.
It wasn't unusual for people his age to get nervous about the assignment meeting. It was common for kids to blow them off after getting wasted at their birthday parties. The meeting could be rescheduled up to three times before a warrant for arrest was issued. But after missing that first meeting, case workers were sent to investigate. They wanted to know why the meeting was missed. They wanted to assess the living conditions of the person who missed the meeting. They wanted to interview the family, to make sure that there were no signs of abuse or criminal activity.
Collin's mother was perfectly normal. His little sister was as loyal to the system as anyone could possibly be. She spoke of assignment meetings as though they were fairytale endings to every childhood. There was no good reason for Collin to have missed that meeting, except that he was nervous. The thought of attending made him nauseous.
As a case worker was poking around Collin's room, undoubtedly looking for any sign of drugs, she came across the library card. She wanted to know what he was doing with it. She wanted to know where he got it. She wanted to know how long he'd had it.
Collin wanted to know why it mattered so much. Unfortunately, the case worker was not there to answer his questions. She was there to ask her own.
After slipping the library card into her pocket, the case worker left the room to make a call. Collin's mother looked at him as though he'd done something horrible, but neither she nor Collin knew what he could have done.
Then his mother told him to get out—to go through his bedroom window. She told him to leave and to never come back. The words were cold, but the intention was not. She was telling him to run before the HAND officers showed up. If he was there when they arrived, they would want to question him. Since he didn't have any answers for them, blood would undoubtedly be spilled. Collin could be sent to Corrections.
Though he didn't even know why, Collin found himself on the run that day. He never returned home. He never knew whether or not his mother was punished for letting him leave. He never said goodbye to his sister.
Surviving on the streets was nearly impossible. A person couldn't even get food without a Civilian ID. Cameras would surely capture his image before too long. Collin had no idea how he was going to explain himself to the authorities when he was eventually found.
Two days into his life on the lamb, Malcolm Edgar found Collin sitting between boxes in an alley, starving. Collin didn't recognize him right away. He saw Malcolm's weathered features, large build and ominously dark eyes, and his first reaction was fear. He thought the HAND officers had tracked him down and he would soon be brought into Corrections, where he would be reeducated, reprocessed and shipped off to a new city, to start an entirely new life.
Instead, Malcolm gave Collin an apple, helped him to his feet, and led him to shelter. He met people who enjoyed sharing ideas as much as he did. He was told stories about the past, and listened to lectures about rights and freedoms. Some were a little over the top for his taste, but the general idea burrowed into his soul. For the first time, Collin felt like the answers made sense.
Since then, he had made a career out of running information between bases. He was a part of a movement called Freedom. It was a name that members of their group didn't think the government could twist into something ugly in the press. It was a correct enough prediction, but the authorities were crafty. In the press, they weren't known as Freedom. They were known as Hate. They were called terrorists. Extremists. Hateful, destructive members of society.
At home, they were called husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, sons, daughters. They just wanted to live freely. Without assignment meetings or HAND officers. One artist spoke of their cause in words that his grandfather once used: 'Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.'
It seemed so sensible. How could anyone disagree? But the price on Collin's head seemed to suggest that disagreement was possible.
He'd been a part of Freedom for three years, and each year that passed increased the price on his head by a hundred credits. In a world where people couldn't afford the luxury of extra toilet paper, a hundred credits would go a long way.
Looking at his own reflection in the rear-view mirror, Collin studied his tired eyes and messy brown hair. The blue glow of the console made him look like a corpse. He couldn't believe that he was worth the reward that was being offered for him.
He looked at his watch once again. 9:58. In two minutes, he would be in violation of curfew. If the police or a HAND officer stopped him, they would find a trunk full of contraband. He no longer faced the threat of Corrections. Now, he'd be sent to prison. Instead of reeducation, he would probably be tortured until he gave up his co-conspirators. Then he would face a trial—possibly on national television—and would be sentenced to death.
By 10:00 the following night, he could very well be a corpse, all because his contact didn't know how to tell time. It was beginning to piss him off.
Collin looked at the console on the dashboard and pressed a button that said 'Traffic Overlay'.
The console displayed an image of the car from above, and pulled back to show him the surrounding area. If the authorities were watching, they would see the GPS signal of a surgeon from the city's HAND hospital. That was who the car had been leased to. The highway was on her way home. Maybe they'd assume that she had suffered car trouble. Maybe they'd send someone.
He couldn't see another car for a mile around his own location. So far, so good. Now, if only his contact would pick up the pace and get his trunk unpacked so that he could get off the street, everything would be fine and dandy.
As he waited, Collin slid his finger across the display, looking farther up and down the highway. Still no sign of any cars to the south. To the north, there was one patrol vehicle, about two and a half miles from his location.
“Crap,” he muttered under his breath.
The patrol car was stopped, but still too close for comfort. Collin decided to give his contact five more minutes before putting the car in gear and taking off. He couldn't sit around all night.
He looked around him. Through the windshield, he could see the highway stretching out in front of him, fading into darkness not far from his car. The city lights shined just a few miles away. Most people were at home. Only those who were required to work at night were out at this hour, and even they were supposed to remain indoors.
To the right of his car, there was a guardrail, beyond which was a steep hill. His contact was supposed to come from that direction, grab the delivery and disappear. It was supposed to be simple. Collin was supposed to be slipping down one of the exits already, parking the car, and taking shelter in one of the Freedom safe houses until morning.
Something was wrong. Something didn't feel right.
He was about to put the car into gear when he heard a tap on his back window. His contact had finally arrived.
Getting out of his car, Collin couldn't contain his anger as much as he would have liked. He said, “It's about time. Where were you? Sipping lattes? Eating snack cakes?”
Neither of those things were very likely for members of Freedom. Making such comments was usually meant as an insult, implying that someone was helping the enemy in one way or another.
“Dude, just shut up,” his contact replied. She was not much older than he was, sweating and dirty. “I'm not having a very good night either, okay?”
“Whatever. Just take this stuff and go.”
He opened the trunk, revealing two large duffel bags full of notebooks. Hand-written literature, created by Freedom members, trying to rebuild what was taken from them. Since most literature had been lost over time—due to paper reclamation programs or data wipes—the books contained retellings of stories that had been passed down through the generations. What they had now were poor imitations, but it was the best they could do.
The woman hefted the bags over her shoulders, muttering, “Oh joy. I get to haul books down the hill now.”
“If you'd rather do without...”
“Whatever, man,” she replied, reaching into her pocket and pulling out an envelope. She handed it to Collin and gave him a quick wave as she turned to hop back over the guardrail. Collin put the envelope in his pocket.
Out of the corner of his eye, Collin saw a light moving in the distance. He turned and saw the patrol car making its way up the highway. It was past curfew. Surely, he would be stopped.
“I can't stay here,” he told the woman.
“Well, you're not following me. No cross pollination, remember?”
It was a rule among the different factions of Freedom. Meetings could be arranged and safe houses could be shared, but the locations of different bases could not be known to lower-ranking members of the cause. If one of them was captured and tortured, the damage would be contained.
It was not a particularly heartwarming philosophy, but it was sensible. This meant that using the same escape route as his female friend was out of the question.
On the far side of the highway, there was a fence that would prevent him from escaping. His only options were to go forward or back.
As he stared at the approaching headlights, Collin wanted to ask the woman to stay and help him. If he had to fight, he would rather not do it alone. Then again, having members of two bases get captured and tortured at the same time could double the losses.
“Go,” he said as he turned, feeling the pride of their joint cause—and perhaps just a little bit heroic—as he offered to face the officers by himself.
The woman was already gone. Apparently, she'd never thought twice about leaving him. Logically, it made sense. There was no reason why she should be expected to fight by his side when it wasn't necessary, but she could have at least offered.
Collin wasn't normally one to pick a fight. He didn't imagine himself on the front lines of any war. He dealt in literature and art. He smuggled lesson planners and sheet music.
In his mind, he was searching the car for anything that might be illegal. He tried to remember if there could be any scraps of paper with Freedom slogans or artwork on them. Even a doodle could be costly.
There was nothing that he could remember. The car had been appropriated by two of the other Freedom members. It came from a parking garage four miles away from their base. It should be clean.
He walked back to the driver's side door and waited. To attempt an escape by car would have been a mistake. He would be forced to stick to the roads, in plain sight. His car could be tagged and followed. No, an escape by foot was his only option. He just needed to think of someplace to go once he made that escape.
He was doing everything he could think of to make things go smoothly, but Collin's body was making him aware of just how nervous he was in that moment. His palms were sweating. He felt as though his heart had migrated into his skull, which was pounding with every beat. The only sound he could hear was his own breathing, which was strained.
No matter how nervous he was, Collin couldn't afford to let his body to rule that moment. He needed to think clearly. He needed to be smart.
He stood by his car as the patrol car approached. The situation was a little bit better than he'd imagined. The approaching car was a police patrol car, not a HAND vehicle. That made him feel at least a little bit of relief.
Local police forces had been strictly regulated, to the point where they had become little more than security guards. They had little training or lethal weaponry. They were often out of shape and lacked the resources of HAND. What remained of those police forces would probably be phased out of existence entirely within the next several years.
Taking a deep, calming breath, he waited for the patrol car to reach him.
The car stopped right behind Collin's. He could see the police officer behind the wheel talking into his radio, calling in the situation. Any other police cars in the area could have been making their way toward Collin's location at that very moment.
Another deep breath.
The officer on the passenger side stepped out of his car, keeping the door open and his hand on his taser as he walked toward Collin. He was a heavy man, with a receding hairline and a mustache. He looked completely out of place in a position of authority, and fit Collin's expectations of a police officer perfectly.
Collin looked at the officer's name tag: Perkins.
The driver of the police car stepped out, keeping his hand on his taser as well. This officer was taller and appeared to be in good shape. Unlike his partner, this officer projected an air of authority. Collin had to wonder why he'd been assigned to the police department, rather than HAND. There must have been a weakness, but Collin didn't see it.
According to his name tag, this second officer's name was Randall.
“Car trouble?” Perkins asked.
“I was on my way home and the thing just died on me. Weirdest thing,” Collin smiled.
He was trying to sound natural while assessing the likelihood of his dying on that highway. He was hoping that the officers couldn't hear his heart pounding as he spoke.
“Walk to back of the car and put your hands on the trunk please,” Perkins asked, in a rather pleasant tone.
Collin did as he was told. He kept his eyes down on the car, while his mind was trying to remember the layout of the street around him. Which way did he want to run? Where was the nearest exit? Which way was the city?
Randall kept his eyes on Collin as Perkins reached into the car and started the engine. Of course, it started without any trouble.
Collin smiled and shook his head. He wanted to say something clever. He wanted to make it seem like one of those funny things that happened all the time in life, but he couldn't think of anything to say that wouldn't make him sound even more suspicious. He shouldn't have been out there. He should have been eating a hot meal by now. He had no backup. No plan.
“I'm going to need to see your Civvie,” Perkins told him, referring to the Civilian ID.
Still trying his best to look normal, Collin reached into his pocket and pulled out a small tag, which had his picture printed on it. He held it out for the officer to take, willing his hand to remain steady as he did it.
Perkins holstered his taser and stepped closer to Collin. He took the Civvie and compared the picture to Collin's face. The picture was a match, of course—The only piece of information on the thing that was true.
As Perkins pulled his scanner from his pocket and ran the Civvie over it, he asked Collin, “Where do you work?”
“I'm an orderly, down at the hospital,” Collin lied, trying to remember the fake identity that was linked to the Civvie.
“Pelomen,” Collin replied. This was the hospital listed on his fake Civvie, but not the same hospital that his car had been stolen from. He doubted that it would matter. If they got far enough to figure out where the car came from, they would know that it was stolen.
The officer was tapping his finger on the scanner, which was covered in scratches and duct tape. It was old, and it was taking longer than the officer would have liked to get Collin's information.
“Damn thing,” Perkins muttered under his breath. “I'll be glad to move to the new system.”
Collin wasn't paying attention to the officer's frustration. He was staring at the machine, waiting for the information to come through. He half-expected sirens to start sounding and spotlights to lock onto him from above, but there was none of that. So far, it was working.
His Civvie would undoubtedly be useless to him after that night. He would have to get back in line for a new one, which wasn't going to happen quickly. Acquiring the blank Civvies was hard enough, but programming them was next to impossible. There was only one Civvie encoder in his base, and it was barely functional. The federal network was constantly upgrading their security measures, making it that much harder to upload a false identity.
Collin took another deep breath. He figured that this would probably be the last chance for him to breathe fresh air for a while.
“Looks like this checks out,” Perkins said, handing the Civvie back to Collin. “Your shift ended an hour ago.”
“I've been waiting for a tow, but it's past curfew.”
“I'll need to write you up. Your hearing date will be printed on the slip. You'll be assigned community service then.”
“Thanks,” Collin replied, trying to look bummed about the situation, though he would never appear at that hearing.
Nearby, Randall put a hand to his ear, listening to someone on the other end of his earpiece talking to him. Collin knew that this would not be good news for him. He stuffed his Civvie back into his pocket and held out a hand to take the citation. As Perkins handed him the slip, Collin allowed it to fall to the ground, pretending that it was a mistake.
He couldn't hear his pulse anymore. There was no time to figure out whether that was a good thing or a bad thing.
At that moment, Collin suspected that Randall was being told about the stolen car. Since his Civvie checked out, with no priors listed, they would probably run a facial recognition search on the image from the Civvie. That would come back with information on Collin's real name and real status.
Collin moved to the side of the car and bent down, reaching for the slip of paper on the ground. He was closer to Perkins now, and the officer was pulling his taser out of his holster, keeping it aimed at Collin.
Collin took a moment to steady himself. Then he began to stand back up. The taser was closer to him than it should have been. There was no way that Perkins could miss him from this range. There was no way to turn and run. Collin's only option was to let the situation play out and do his best to come out the other side of it in one piece.
As he stood up, Collin grabbed Perkins' arm. The taser went off, and its two darts shot into Collin's chest. He could hear the tick-tick-tick of the taser as Perkins held down the trigger, but the charge never reached Collin.
The darts were stuck in the specially made jacket that Collin—and most book runners—wore when they went to perform their job. It was lined and insulated to keep them safe from tasers; uncomfortable, but effective.
Perkins had no idea what was happening. He expected Collin to fall to the ground, unable to function. Instead, Collin rushed toward him.
There was very little thought or feeling behind Collin's actions at this point. He was functioning on instinct, and the training that had been drilled into his head back in high school, tackling Perkins and driving him backward.
Perkins hit the ground hard, with Collin on top of him. Without looking, Collin knew that Randall would be coming toward him. If the officer had any brains at all, he would know that another taser shot would be useless. He would attack some other way.
As he tried to get back to his feet, Collin saw a nightstick in Perkins' belt and grabbed it. He heard Randall letting out a roar as he prepared to attack, Collin knew that he didn't have time to get on his feet. Instead, he stumbled backward, falling onto the street. He scrambled to put as much space between himself and the police officers as he could.
He saw Randall now, coming toward him with his nightstick raised in the air, just waiting to come down on Collin's head. It was in this moment that Collin saw the weakness that would have kept Randall out of a HAND uniform. His right leg was stiff and dragged ever so slightly on the pavement as he tried to get to Collin.
Perkins was pulling himself off of the ground. In a matter of seconds, both of the officers would be rushing toward Collin. But neither of them had a gun. No police officers had guns. If he could put enough space between himself and those officers, he might be able to get away—at least until backup showed up and drones started tracking him from the air.
He couldn't fight. To try would be foolish. But he could run.
With the flick of a wrist, he extended the nightstick that he had stolen from Perkins. With little grace, he threw the thing at Randall's head. The officer had no choice but to slow his attack as he swatted the thing down. This gave Collin enough time to get to his feet and take off.
Despite knowing that police officers didn't carry guns, Collin felt like he had a target painted on his back as he ran. He expected more. If police officers had been better armed or properly trained, he would be in handcuffs already. Their weakness was his strength.
Normally, Collin wouldn't have gone in the same direction as the person he had been meeting with that night. But with a tall fence lining the other side of the highway and more police or HAND units potentially coming from either direction, he had no choice but to hop the guardrail and hope that the woman had been given enough of a head start to get away.
As for his own safety, Collin wasn't sure what he would do from one second to the next. All he could do was run toward the sleeping city and hope to find shelter.
“The Constitution of the United States of America,” Ms. Bloom said, standing at the chalkboard at the front of the classroom. She might have written the words on the board if they hadn't run out of chalk a week earlier. “Can anyone tell me what it is?”
Silence. Nobody wanted to answer. Most probably didn't even know the answer, and none of them cared. History was one of those subjects that everyone was forced to learn, but most people would never think about again once they left the classroom.
Libby Jacobs was sitting in the middle of the room, surrounded by dozens of other kids. She kept her head down and her eyes on the tablet in front of her, though it had stopped working long before the chalk ran out.
She was an average girl. Average height. Average weight. Dark hair. Light eyes. Maybe she could have been beautiful and popular if she'd put in the effort, but she preferred to be average. She wanted to go unnoticed as much as possible.
Every time the teacher asked a question, Libby tried her best to become invisible. Unfortunately, it didn't always work.
“Libby?” Ms. Bloom asked.
Libby's eyes went to the teacher at the front of the room. Ms. Bloom had her hands on her hips and a look on her face, as though she expected Libby to answer the question.
They stared at each other for two or three seconds before Libby shrugged, shook her head and gave Ms. Bloom a “how should I know?” expression.
Ms. Bloom sighed and moved to her desk, where she took a seat. She said, “Anyone? Anyone at all?”
“Sometimes I don't know why I bother,” Ms. Bloom sighed.
She took a deep breath and told the class, “The Constitution of the United States of America is one of the most important documents in our history. The first version of the Constitution was one of our nation's founding documents. It was the foundation upon which our entire society was built, establishing the rights of every citizen. It was designed to establish the nation and keep it afloat, allowing us to learn, to grow and expand our reach.”
Ms. Bloom picked up a tablet from her desk and skimmed whatever document she was teaching from. She then looked back to the class and said, “The Constitution was an imperfect creation to be sure. It appealed to the individual desire to escape the oppression of the crown. To create a life that was never considered a possibility before. It focused on the rights that had been denied up to that point, but it failed to create equality in terms of race and gender. It set rules for a culture that became dated as time went on. It was the foundation of our nation, but it was never designed to remain at the center of American freedom.
“As our nation evolved, we began to see the limitations of that original document in the modern world.”
She put the tablet down and said, “Simply put, we grew up and realized that powdered wigs went out of style centuries ago. The modern world requires modern government in order to meet the needs of people today. We can't keep focusing on the 'me' side of things. Now that we are a nation of our own and a part of a global community, we have to think in terms of that community. 'Me' has got to evolve into 'we', or else we risk losing the comforts and liberties that we have grown accustomed to.
“Nobody wants to see one man feast while another one starves. Or a woman suffer with some horrible disease because she can't afford the type of care that another woman wouldn't have to think twice about. These are basic human rights. Food. Medicine. Education. Shelter. Denying any person any one of these rights would be nothing less than oppression. Ensuring equality for all is the truest liberation.”
As Ms. Bloom went on about the structure of government and the pride of the nation, Libby stared at her own reflection in her nonfunctional tablet's screen. She couldn't focus on school. She had more pressing matters to take care of at home. She would have rather been there, but her schedule would not allow it.
The bell rang. Class was dismissed.
As Libby walked into the hall and tried to avoid being run down by the river of students making their way to their next class, she felt a hand on her shoulder.
“Libby?” came a somewhat familiar voice.
She turned and found Justin Becker standing behind her. Even though he'd known Libby for as long as they had been in school, he seemed uncomfortable speaking to her.
Justin was best friends with Libby's cousin, Uly. As kids, she had been a part of their club, but somewhere along the way things changed. Now they might as well have been strangers.
When she knew Justin, he was as loud and outgoing as any of the kids were. Now he was always quiet. Back then, he was a little chubby, but that had changed as well. Now, he was tall and lean. He played a lot of sports, which probably helped.
This older version of Justin spoke with a soft voice, which didn't sound nervous or weak. He just seemed a little unsure of himself.
“You forgot this,” he told her, holding up a paper notebook that she had been using since her tablet broke.