Light bled turquoise into his chambers, awakening Felix from his solid three-hour sleep. Fluctuating in opacity, the windows leaked the ever-present day onto the green shaved floor, the grass hairs swaying imperceptibly toward the morning shine.
He placed his feet to the ground, stretched his neck, and allowed the synthetic greenery to massage his soles in circular compressions, if only for a few moments.
Felix 42-113-563-02-G was awake before the Ocular Rute embedded behind his ear even began to emit the soothing sounds of his morning preferences. That was not how he had programmed the device; he had programmed it to guide him gently into consciousness from sleep, and the fact he was so often being awoken by a jolting burst of daylight was becoming a weighty frustration.
With some seconds to spare, he moved along the pleasant caress of the carpet to the curved windows to glance up at the prism-shielded sky. Watching the painful sun, which had been dancing solstice figure-eights for weeks now, he found himself aggravated before he had even stepped outside. The sleek device on the side of his head had proven to be more of a burden than he had anticipated before investing his time and body into the procedure, relenting finally after thirty-nine years of life. It had been far more painful than advertised and the recovery estimates—he felt—were skewed unfairly toward the highest common denominator of Grant Infantents. Felix had been too old to qualify for the standard Infantent procedures. All the default medical upgrade mods—be it a rest inducer, back-up memory slides, or the highly useful under current circumstances Micro-Medic Drip—remained absent from his cranium.
As luck would have it, the mods were horribly invasive and restricted to Grants whose skulls had yet to fuse and brains had yet to curdle. His wounds simply lasted longer than most Grants, let alone compared to the average Natural. He accepted it, and simply took exception to not being properly accommodated by the specialists he had visited regarding his lone accessory-grade Mod.
Felix was not good with slight adversity. Outwardly, he handled it just fine, but found that its mere presence could affect his mood in a way that he suspected was not shared by others of the society. It made him prickly, prickly as the Rute’s corner wedged between his ear and hairline. Just by turning his head, he felt it chafing again against cartilage. As one of the least modded individuals that he could think of, Felix often felt perplexed how others could handle their extensively altered existences. He at least knew the sounds in his head could be turned off.
Yet then, in the moment, looking out over his neighborhood node and the adjacent Greenhouse, a glittering emerald of plant life, extending out of the prism blanketed in rainbows, he found he was enjoying the perks of the device, with a melodic female soprano now crooning Gaelic lyrics into his head. He didn’t understand the language—it being one of the few he hadn’t beaten into himself as a child—and partially believed that to be the reason why he enjoyed waking up to it so much. Copious listening and rapid translating would occupy the rest of his day and he took great joy in simply letting a foreign language wash over him. Only once had someone approached him speaking Gaelic, he remembered, but it had merely been the boisterous showing of a conceited Natural he had known as a child.
Felix knew of a way to turn his Rute into a near-instant translator but preferred to defer from utilizing the function. He thought the English echo too disruptive while trying to hold conversation, and besides, he had only gotten the device following a youth filled with language studies; He refused to let that hard work go to waste, even though, admittedly, several of his twelve were unmastered. There was still quite a long way to go in catching up with average Natural universal language comprehension, which happened to sit around fifty-three and two thirds languages.
After a few moments of taking in the tunes and enjoying the refracted warmth upon his face, Felix heard a polite knock followed by two subtle barks at his chamber door.
“Come in,” He muttered out the window, morning phlegm climbing up his throat. He coughed and repeated, clearer, “Come in.”
Head bowed, Felix’s lifelong Companion entered the room, holding a tray containing a morning smoothie and Felix’s data scroll. Pederra was around five feet tall, a size it had grown into over the course of its servitude, which went as far back as Felix could recall.
Felix’s first clear memory, in fact, was the day he received his Companion, at the age of five when he had made his initial visit to Companion Services following matriculation. He recalled sitting in a private room on a rounded couch with a window of cascading color to his back and a wall of reflective white to his front; and he remembered the pleasant woman, cycling through images of animals while inquiring his preferences, not simply of the creatures, but also of his ideal traits in a confidante and servant. He returned a few days later to find Pederra, a squishy foot-tall purplish blob with nubby limbs, waiting to be taken home with him. The entity of organic robotics maintained certain cuteness about it, despite its original blubbery physique. Over time, as Felix had been assured, Pederra grew fur as well as vertically, transforming over the next few months into a kind of lean, upright canine, and then over the years from a pet, into his trusted friend and servent. It couldn’t speak—the doggish design of its face wouldn’t allow it—but it could listen quite well.
Felix took the blended concoction of fruit, vitamins and stimulants, and rubbed Pederra’s velvety ear in gratitude. Taking a sip as his Companion cooed pleasantly, he thought of the order to his day.
The pads of Pederra’s paws had several settings. Felix preferred the third setting, which sonically stimulated deep tissue. He had his companion apply it to his back for fifteen minutes every morning, practically without fail. It prevented a pain from developing in his neck, a familiar occurrence, and one that had followed him his whole life. It was a nerve that seemed overly susceptible to strain, perhaps due to stress, and could even leave his right arm hanging as if it were a foreign appendage, temporarily paralyzed. The numbness stretched up into an acute pain in his neck, tender to every tilt or rotation. Even the daily massages couldn’t completely eradicate the piercing recurrences; they seemed to simply decrease their frequency.
And so Felix would lie on the raised pad in his den each morning while Pederra worked, looking through a hole to a stand on which he could roll out his data scroll and multitask. Every morning he had more assignments to look over, and this morning was no exception. His students had each filed essays in his Facult-E-Cubby earlier that morning, which required review before class.
The written essays were only about half of the total assignment, also consisting of an oral report and bibliography. Their subject was on the Founders, and purely biographical. In Felix’s curriculum, no subject took up more time or felt like more of a hub of history, at least all history pertaining to the formation of the United Polar Utopia. This was Felix’s primary focus as an instructor, to instill his students with a strong foundation of applicable knowledge to their way of life. He got them at the age of ten, a dawning of complex comprehension, and then kept them until they were fit for career acclimation at the age of thirteen or fourteen. Even after acclimation, some students continued to seek his continued involvement, predominantly as a life counselor.
“A Grant’s life was not simply lollipops and rainbows,” he was prone to berate at his students. This, he knew, ran contradictory to Recruitment’s projected vision of life in the UPU and thus caused several instances of strife in his own household.
As circumstance would have it, Felix’s wife Alia happened to work for the recruitment arm of Grant services; she had been away on service for the past month and would remain away for several more. There was minimal contact during her excursions, although they had a time slotted later that morning for a proxy meet. She had been out of contact for the past seventy-two hours while her crew were dropping in and establishing their new outpost. It was the type of work restricted solely to Naturals, laborious, tirelessly cerebral, and acutely risky, which was why Felix was not permitted to go on mission, even if he had voiced the desire, which he hadn’t.
As Felix flipped through his scroll, pages peeling from the material and reintegrating again, he took notes on a page spread to the side. The reports were less erratic in approach than he was used to: ranging from twenty-one thousand words to twenty-four thousand, universally nationalistic, and swelled by quotes. He could tell they had put in their research, although he wished they had conceived of their subjects’ flaws a little more. He already knew of a few presentations he looked forward to that afternoon.
For his top grade in the engineering lab, Christophe had received the distinct honor of choosing his subject in the Founders assignment. As Christophe was of the highest minds in all of Felix’s classes, and yet curiously lacking in spontaneity, his choice was for the deepest well, Founder Dill, the final survivor. Christophe was naturally attracted to his subject’s incredibly long life, the sheer number of years for him to dig through. The boy was drawn to data like a gnat to the diamond above. Despite the vastness of light to behold, Christophe could merrily flit about delighting in it all till the day he died. He was a boy of numbers, and a prime example of what the society looked for in an exemplary Grant candidate. He embraced his Grant status, wore his selection as a badge of pride, and was content in spending his life catching up to his contemporaries. The fact that Founder Dill was also the Headmaster of Grant Services—a title merely synonymous to figurehead—only aided in making the two a natural fit.
As for the boy’s report, Felix was most heartened by Christophe’s ability to focus in on the highlights, to sift selectively through the generations that the founder had trudged through. It was no easy task, and many previous students had been overwhelmed by the sheer history that Dill had a hand or word in. The biographical report was on the long side—as it should be for a man whose life spans over half a millennia—but by no means did it feel droll or overloaded toward any one particular exploit, or time period for that matter. It was a balanced report done properly, and Felix could well predict placing Christophe in the top percentile for the class once again.
In truth, Felix could guess with frightening accuracy the placement for each student even before they turned in their work. Too much effort had been spent evaluating the children for him not to possess an almost precognitive understanding of his students. It was his duty as an associate dean, the lone Grant on the board, to be completely informed about all his students.
Resisting the urge to place Christophe in the highest percentile until he’d finished reading all the reports, Felix preserved his impression on his pad, and flipped to the next student’s assignment and a new set of notes. Pederra completed the back massage and began their stretch routine, jumping athletically onto the table and gently taking Felix’s arm and tugging away, the companion’s strength suddenly disproportionate to its size. With Pederra switching to his left arm, Felix returned to work, scrolling through the essays with his strong hand.
Beginning to sift at a tempo, perhaps a little hasty—promising himself to return for further analysis during his commute—he finished all the assignments that had been deposited. One student, however, had failed to deliver her research. She had been perhaps the lone x- factor in his curved grading scale, masking an acute brilliance behind recurrent bouts with apathy. Mikah 42-88-242-0-G was a thrill, mildly put, offering surprising insights sporadically from the back of class. She had placed in the bottom of the recent engineering lab, but Felix was certain this current assignment would play to her mental strengths. She had never taken to the sciences, particularly computer mechanics, the lab’s entire purpose, but she held her own unique gifts, chief among them a shrewd sense of character. She also wrote her assignments with a poetic luster, which drove some professors mad but which Felix actually quite enjoyed. Mikah was naturally gifted in all of the arts, not necessarily prodigal in any one, but eager in them all. She also led the class in language comprehension, having come to the society as a toddler with three nearly under her belt already.
Yet despite Felix’s own affinity towards the girl, others in Grant Services had already begun viewing her as a loss. Felix found that particular perspective rather infuriating, and his voice had risen in debate multiple times in the past. They didn’t know where to put her, couldn’t agree where her talents could be utilized. She was odd and erratic, perpetually ill at ease. He himself struggled to argue any clear avenue forward for her, although it was abundantly clear she had no patience for engineering or mathematics of any kind. Felix had tried to argue her placement in Grant Integration, but her lonesome nature and recurrent bouts of social anxiety, not to mention erratic bursts of rage, made that route inappropriate as well.
As the Arts Trust was reserved for the select virtuoso among them—which she unfortunately was not—to the farms she’d likely go, where all the ineffectual but well meaning Grants usually went. At least, that had been the route they had settled on. But now, she had failed to turn a major assignment, an assignment that played to her strengths, nonetheless. This news would raise further questions about her competence with the powers that be.
Lying on his back now, with Pederra extending an arm across his body, Felix settled on messaging her later that day, perhaps in transit.
Yes, in transit, Felix quickly decided as his arms were interchanged back across his chest and pulled taught. He had spent the last thirty minutes reading over four hundred pages of manuscript, and the thought of finishing his morning massage while handling a serious skype with a student was too repellent a task for him to bear. There would be plenty of time on the commute to work, and perhaps a chance remained that she would still submit her assignment. The thought crossed his mind that he would even be willing to spare her a deduction on her grade, to simply ignore the came-and-passed 6am deadline. He had been legitimately curious about how she’d perform, after all, and was eager to employ a level grading scale.
Yet, he also knew it wasn’t completely in his authority to forgive an infraction as such. Ultimately, someone else, one of his superiors or even a peer would bring the girl’s lateness to Felix’s attention, essentially shaming him into taking the noncompliance into account. As if he hadn’t noticed the time of her entry, her own professor of two years. The slight would undoubtedly bother him, increasingly so as he would be forced to repeatedly detail his soft logic on the manner to the countless colleagues who would bring it to his grated attention.
His exoneration, ultimately, would be overturned, and so he went against his urge and made note of the girl’s indiscretion in his scroll as he sat up from the table.
Pederra rubbed a breathing gel along Felix’s spine in order to partially numb any persistent pains that might arise. An ocean hit the shore of his inner ear, pulsing waves skyward and washing over his brain. The tide was coming in off some distant rocky shore, in a time Felix suspected he had never inhabited, in a place he’d never see. And then with a finishing yelp from behind, the day’s current quickly swept him from the table and towards the spiraling corridors of his ring, and a potentially happy reunion with his dislocated spouse.
He walked the curved hall, robed in a warming cloth, knotting it as he strode along and upward. There could be children in these halls; otherwise he might’ve simply walked over in the nude. No outside clothing was permitted where he was heading and Pederra had already dropped an outfit off in the changing room locker.
The proxy unit was a good three hundred yards away from his and Alia’s suite, on a distant ring of the node, something Felix found a tad unfair. He knew plenty of households in the neighboring vicinity that had no need for long-distance interaction. Felix had petitioned to node management for closer housing to proxy, but was yet to find much sympathy. The unit also bordered the athletics facility and primary playground, as well as sat adjacent over the lawn from the channel hub that leads out to all the neighboring nodes and straight on to Central, making it moderately more convenient for proximal residences. Predictably, fuller families and senior citizens were given priority in housing, so the powers-that-be had little patience for the whining of a fatherless, fosterless adult Grant who appeared to repel his Natural spouse for months on end.
He brushed his hand along the wall, igniting a tracing graphic that tailed his touch. Absently tightening his fingers to a point, a beam tracked the wake; he then exploded his fingers outward, turning the oval hall into a canopy of waves, collapsing up towards his destination. As the moving picture melded with the washing shores pulsing from his Rute, for several moments he failed to notice the man rounding the curve ahead of him. Abruptly, he pulled his hand away, upending the waves upon an unseen cliff.
The ocean curled back as the man approached, unmoving, his own vicinity globed in a jungle canopy shade. From fifteen meters out, as Felix began to hurry the opposing track, he could make out the man’s features. The volume in his ears lowered in anticipation of conversation.
“Felix Oh Two,” the leggy man with a tight stance and cupped hands beckoned in a whisper, “Tell Alia that she’s missed back home. Please, we all miss her dearly at gatherings.”
Felix paused his stride, allowing the conveyer to pass the two men with only a brief exchange. “I will. You have my word, Yoel.”
The older man turned his head back forward before responding, “Good, good. I feel that she brings a better balance to your household, Felix Oh Two.” To this, Felix had no response apart from searching the top right corner of his eye socket as he turned back ahead. Yoel had been a familiar presence since coming to Node 113 as a child, and the man’s adoration of Alia and quiet disdain for Felix had never been hidden far below the reeds. Felix long assumed that the aged, boney broad-shouldered neighbor fancied his angelic Alia, and had waited desperately for the day she would ripen and he could pluck her as his sixth wife, placing her right on the mantel next to the five increasingly younger women of his previous marriages. They had all eventually vacated the node—or died—by now, but not the two hundred and thirty-year-old Yoel. He still roamed the halls serenely without any apparent destination, like he probably had since its formation. He’d been there since the beginning, after all, present for node 113 of flake 42’s very own coronation. The proof was inscribed in the blackened diamond memorial at the plaza, along with the signatures of all other hundred or so original tenants.
Every node has it’s own unique plaza with it’s own unique memorial, a vague contradiction Felix had noted among the prepared points for people charged with touring newly matriculated Grants, a task he himself had performed as a young resident. Their plaza had a tropical design—to match the node’s maintained mug in the air—with an infinity pool against a high-arcing dark geode, masquerading as a starry oceanic horizon. A crescent beach of snow-white sand hugged the gently lapping shore, with palms curving into the air, kissing and entwining elegantly with one another. In one section of the beach, the memorial rose, erupting blackness in the form of a hulking—imaginably carnivorous—tropical flower, with silver chicken-scratch signatures dotted about its service.
Yoel was most commonly found in nearby vicinity, playing table games and talking with ancient friends, one of whom happened to be Felix Oh One, a gentler ghoul worth three centuries of insight who had transferred into the node not ten years ago. Due to seniority, people commonly referred to the elder simply as Felix; the younger iteration was always Felix Oh Two, or even Felix Oh Two Gee, if the individual intended to be especially smarmy. Yoel’s calling to the younger Felix was split evenly between the two. Today the salacious old Yoel had wanted the favor of Felix informing his wife that he had asked after her.
He strongly doubted that he’d notify Alia of the encounter.
It seemed possible, Felix thought as he continued on his directive and saw no one else, that Yoel would have no other purpose but to address him in passing at this time of day. It was an early hour, when families tended to keep to their respective residences, and yet there was the mulching craning relic, folded and still, gliding past and fixating with wide-eyed lust directly into Felix’s chest. The moment couldn’t have passed quickly enough.
Around the continuous shimmering bend a little longer, by numerous doors but still no more people, a fork in the path angled, moving left and inward. He raised his arm to signal his intent to turn, invoking a greenish hue of conformation on his movement-facilitating path.
Inward he went, out over the coil’s massive central courtyard, the sunlight dripping down his shoulders in shifting rainbow. The facility stood ahead, a titanium stalagmite rising from the grounds, servicing the sparse residents that could now be seen coming and going from early, early morning workouts, some seventy-five meters below. He was aimed toward the topmost floor, much thinner of circumference than the recreation center it perched atop, where a form of his wife was expected to be appearing soon.
Through the gaping door, opening itself elegantly like a curtain of silk fabric before lowering and hardening back into a wall, a sickle shaped changing room awaited him. Matching the appointment time with the clock to the side of the inner door, and seeing it to be just a minute shy, Felix began to untie his robe. He stopped when he noticed the naked man toweling off after his shower, far down by the sharp tip of the room. The man straightened—his face obscured by the steam from the shower he had just departed—and stared back.
After a sustained silence, the man identified, “Felix. Pleasure to see you here. Have a good meeting with your wife,” he encouraged, before returning to his personal wipe down.
Timidly, Felix responded, “Thank you,” at last dropping his robe and hanging it onto the retracting hook on the wall, which curled back into the guts of the complex to be returned to his domicile along with his latest batch of laundry. He knew he should know the man; the man knew him, so he should know the man.
Walking into the long assembly line corridor, Felix stressed over any possible repercussions he might reap if it got out that he couldn’t place the naked man, a fellow resident of his own node. Even under the circumstances—a steam hazy face, the distance of encounter, the distraction of nudity—everybody in one’s node should be accounted for, Grant status or not. Community as family; it’s expected.
His skin had been pale, seemingly his birthday skin, his physique older but fit—all of which did little to shrink the sample Felix was attempting to build in his head. He supposed that he would need to promptly check the public record of Proxy appointments for the man’s name, just as Yoel had likely been doing on a daily basis.
“Raise your arms, please,” a kind voice from nowhere requested of him, “Place your feet on the yellow marks.” He obliged, stepping onto the pulsing targets that appeared promptly in the long hall. “Stand still now,” the voice demanded in a patient matronly tone. Slits opened on the walls, off to the sides of his nose’s tip, and out shot a chilly, smooth film, stretching taught and the color of nothing.
A mouth opened up at eye level, dangling strands catching up like scurrying worms as the cool orifice enveloped his face. The film collapsed onto his naked skin as the floor moves him through, the substance hugging with gelid touch.
Reacting to his warmth, the color shifted to a deep blue, clinging along his whole body—hair to toes—leaving only his brow, eyes and chattering mouth exposed. Felix ground his teeth to cease any persistent quiver.
“Thank you, Felix, you may lower your arms.” He did just that, bringing his hands down to cover his genitals, now wrapped snuggly in royal blue.
The hall opened into the Proxy Pavilion, an open, rounded room of natural beauty. The ceiling displayed a sky of sunshine and sparse Rorschach clouds, and the ground was covered in pillowy moss, rolling around a petite koi pond and over a centered knoll where a tree of pink leaves shaded next to a pair of chairs, facing one another. He had to approach from an angle to catch his first glimpse of the Proxy doll.
It sat, still, hunched, uninhabited by Alia, or any form of life for that matter. He sat in the empty chair across from it, a faceless, milky smooth creature. This was not the first time he had done a Proxy meet with his wife, and yet he remained tense in the presence of the doll before it’s changeling transformation.
A line of synthetic nerves extended from the seat of his chair and merged with the receptor film that covered his tailbone; an unpleasant tingle of electrical signals promptly swept over his body. Somewhere now, out in the in the world, a doll would be taking on his shape, mimicking his movements, speaking in his tones. And also, assuredly, he was only moments away from witnessing the present doll’s own metamorphosis. So, he waited patiently for just that happening.
There was always a delay, a distinct hesitation in speech, a certain wrongly attuned stare about her. The proxy Alia simply seemed mentally slower than the real Alia—physical Alia—and Felix felt assured that his own proxy doll also impressed a similar dimness upon his wife. Already harboring a mental insecurity engrained in his married life, he had always found that notion particularly bothersome during their bi-monthly encounters.
She had been late this day. Quite late. Felix had been forced to keep company with an unsettling mass of potential flesh for nearly the entirety of their scheduled appointment, having to avoid the sight by staring at the ceiling and designating form to passing faux-clouds.
When the sky eventually began to turn towards a reddened dusk – indicating their five-minute warning – and Alia’s presence still hadn’t arrived, Felix moodily resolved to leave and get a head start on the long day he still had ahead. He moved quickly, absent-mindedly, forgetting to detach the tale of nerves from his behind.
He descended the sloping moss in a huff, grumbling swears in a variety of languages as he passed the pond on his way towards the exit. But a sound made him stop near the curtaining door, an electrical hum – the sound of function in motion. She appeared before he could finish his hesitant step backwards, a hand pressing against the tree – he wondered then if there was a tree where she was as well, or if her motion was merely an exceptional display of spatial awareness for his aesthetic benefit.
“You’ve been running into a wall. The Tent here isn’t as big as the Pavilion, you know,” Proxy Alia smiled down from higher ground.
“Yes, I know. I appreciate you making an appearance. Happy to see you’re safe.”
“I’m safe,” she replied, hushed in kindness, as she was wont to do, “We set up just two days ago, and unfortunately, have had some recurring issues with the Proxy Tent. I was putting in a request for more time with you when you decided to go off and bruise your poor doll’s forehead.”
He cut her off mid-sentence, but it evidently didn’t register until she had finished her cute mockery of the circumstantial silly behavior. He did not feel quite in the mood.
“I was quite frustrated, and forgot to pull the cord before leaving…” he paused, allowing her to catch up. The doll’s convincing smile faded, “I didn’t think I’d get to see you. As well as I have a very busy day to attend to…”
As if on cue, the setting sun began swinging backwards across the ceiling, chased and passed by the speedier clouds. The clock reset on their encounter.
“If you’d like it, we’ve been approved for more time,” she said with hope in her tone, beginning a graceful descent down the mound that may not even exist where she was.
“Where are you? Where did they send you?”
“Can’t say, it’s not permitted over transmission,” she lamented.
“By proxy even? Since when?”
“Since now. This is the first time; I was informed during the briefing at Platform. They already updated the guidelines. You can check yourself when yo have the time. I’ll tell you everything when we all get back.”
“Lot of kids returning with you?” Felix inquired professionally.
“Quality over quantity,” she spun her response back to her spouse.
He hesitated in his inquisition as Proxy Alia proxy halted its feline step some three meters from him.
“You’ll need to come the rest of the way; this is where my room ends.” At this range, he was momentarily frightened by its beauty, the changeling wearing his most adored face, standing naked and coy, but for the light blue proxy skin that wrapped the body just as his did him. It was an exact duplicate, down to the color gradient of her hair from follicle to tip.
He stepped towards it anyway, and asked something he wasn’t sure if really wanted to know, “How’s your team? They send you with anyone… people you like?”
The question hung in the air for him as he tracked the proxy’s expressions. Several seconds after the fact, the creature looked down, “Yes, there’s fifteen of us, more than usual—we’re focusing on only a few select territories at the moment—but the people, they’re from several Flakes. Fascinating, brilliant people I think you’d also enjoy sharing time with them as well.”
“That’d be nice. Sometime… anyone you’re familiar with? Worked with before?”
She responded with no delay, anticipating the question, “Yes. Johan is here as well. I did not request his presence; he was assigned.”
There was no need for her to provide any address code following the man’s surname. Johan was a sharp presence in Felix’s mind, the name having become – over the throbbing course of time – a trigger word for irrational response.
“Did he request? Didn’t you change your work preferences, that you not be teamed together? Unless you lied to me.“
“I did change my preferences,” its tone accommodating still, but shifting suddenly when his accusation of dishonesty eventually registered. He marveled at the proxy’s flaring of upper lip and baring of teeth, identical to Alia’s rare display of contempt.
“Do not accuse me of lying! It is not my dishonesty that got us into this uncomfortable situation, Felix.”
“You seem plenty comfortable with the situation,” he jabbed at her pathetically; the creature just rolled its eyes.
“Neither of us asked it to happen. There aren’t many missions going out, and when Control requested a legitimate reason why I requested that Johan and I never be paired, I had none to really give, now did I?”
In the heat of his own frustrations, Felix did indeed pull the running chord of nerves from his tailbone, and promptly regretted his rash tantrum. He could only look on, utterly helpless, as seconds passed at a day’s pace, until the sad Alia doll’s gaze ultimately dropped to the floor, aligning with the his wife’s stare, somewhere angled towards the regressing collapsed flesh that had just recently resembled her husband.
Revolted by it all, Felix turned quickly towards the exit. As he crossed the pavilion’s threshold – thus designating their encounter complete – he heard her doll buckle under it’s own weight behind him, landing with a spongy thud on the moss carpet.
He took a moment to look back into the open room, the ceiling’s illusion now suddenly stretched to infinity by a twinkling night sky. The doll’s curves strewn along the dark ground, he considered how it might resemble a sleeping woman resting in a starlit garden at the beginning of time.
Barely a few heartbeats went by, however, before the curtain dropped on his view, so as maintenance could proceed privately with resetting the room’s ambiance for the next scheduled encounter.
“Ca Va Bien?!” Squeaked the unattended Natural four-year-old girl accompanying Felix in an open elevator ride down the side of Node 44’s residential ringlet. The two were alone, and he knew her name to be Mimi, but still he ignored her, assuming correctly that she wasn’t even addressing him.
He remained quiet and contemplative as the child prattled on with another young friend she was on her way to meet. From what he could tell by the one-sided French conversation, a boy in a neighboring Node had engineered himself a new toy and wished to share it with her, and was even now giving her a preview through UnoEye’s shared perception.
She giggled at whatever she was watching in whichever eye it had been installed. The sound warbling in his ears, Felix concluded that he might be suffering from his first case of vertigo.
He felt ill. An uncomfortable tremor seemed to pulse medially from his hands through his shoulders. The prismatic light of the exposed dome rattled painfully against the innards of his brow, and his abdominal organs seemed to pack themselves up into his rib cage, as if he was descending at the pace that gravity intended rather than the lift’s actual casual crawl.
His mind ran hot as he digested the repercussions his marriage would reap for his reckless disconnection from their conjugal proxy appointment. Due to the apparent escalating covert nature of Scout Missions, he didn’t know how he could even send Alia an apology. The first thing he knew he’d need to do in transit to Central was check the ceaselessly modified Scouting Guidelines that she had referenced, that is, if wasn’t too late already.
If unscheduled correspondence was indeed prohibited, he feared that Alia’s affair with Johan 42-75-019-03 would almost assuredly resume its course.
Affairs were a hyper regularity in the UPU, a quirky little byproduct of the citizens’ indefinitely extended life spans and sustained fitness levels. Though the society had managed to gradually, over time, excise adultery as a faux pas of the public square, it had been less successful removing it as an indiscretion of the typical household. The common courtesy was to ask one’s spouse beforehand, something Alia had indeed been kind enough to do nearly fourteen months prior to that day.
The whole entanglement had roots that, in all probability, went back an additional six months, beginning with Alia’s encouragement that Felix engage in sexual liaison with a mutual friend who had voiced an attraction to him. Her earnest goading had struck him as somewhat bizarre, but due to the flattery of the matter and the admitted allure of a pixie splendor that was Cilla 42-88-249-00, he went headlong into the frigid and hillside Node 27 of neighboring Flake 43 where they met in a reserved guest suite at one of the notoriously rugged cabin structures of the ski-themed residence. It was a locale of her choosing. The tryst lasted a single fireplace-lit night, and he swiftly concluded during its course that the encounter was far more awkward than fantasy had predicated.
As far as Felix could tell, he was merely acting as specimen to the woman’s curiosity regarding mating habits of the common heterosexual Grant male. “And for how long can you maintain this rigidity?” had been a particularly memorable mood-killing inquiry.
Felix’s discomfort with the foray into open wedlock only multiplied when Alia inevitably approached the topic of her own desire, specifically the taking of a bedmate during her months away on Scout Missions. Her argument was evidently ironclad – clearly a long set trap according to some of Felix’s more paranoid fever dreams – and so he agreed, despite his palpable reservations.
Alia’s choice of lover would ultimately be Johan, the handsome lower-ranked peer of prospective scouting who specialized in genetic profiling. Felix had known Johan beforehand, and had thought little passed the younger man’s excessively cordial demeanor with him and other citizens of Grant status. Needless to say, the tendency only ballooned in apparent condescension when the peach-fuzzed Natural became his wife’s moonlight companion. The affair lasted an entire Scout Mission, a period of fifty days in which Felix required recurrent intake of anxiolytic drugs just to get through with his daily routine.
By the time she returned home, Alia had already concluded that the affair should end, much to Felix’s exaltation. She said she regretted it; Felix told her he regretted it as well. She promised to request Johan off her missions, and that was that. The whole messy situation had seemed to pan out so civilized at the time.
But as days went by, moments of perilous curiosity set in, and he found himself interrogating his wife for details. Following a question regarding her reasons for ending the affair, he discovered that the two had actually become too emotionally involved for her predilections. She believed that continuing the affair would likely jeopardize their marriage, and refused to be culprit in some premature disunion.
“Premature” was the word of choice that stuck with Felix as their form of domestic life gradually re-found its footing. It dug under his skin most especially as he descended to Node 42’s base level, an aggressive sax-jazz tune blurring in his ear, attempting to drown out the high-pitched hum of the French-speaking toddler to his right.
The girl wasn’t helping matters, but neither was the music trying to suppress her squeaky tone. A confused piece of technology, the Rute began skipping through preferred tracks, and finding none that stymied the panic rising like a choking vomit in his esophagus, simply switched off.
When the lift finally reached earth Felix remained focused on his breathing and as yet unready to move onto the grass path and towards the rest of his day. Mimi waddled out ahead of him through the lift’s opening gate.
“Good to see you Mister Felix. I’m sorry we couldn’t converse more. Please wish Miss Alia well for me.” Mimi said, alerting Felix to realty without ever looking back, addressing him in his native English of the Americas dialect. Despite it being polite custom for Naturals to address Grants in their first language, Felix still found it uncomfortable when their youngest complied with convention. He didn’t respond, and instead watched the girl continue down the path toward a concrete road where Mimi’s mother’s feline-styled Companion awaited to drive her through a tunnel to her friend’s neighboring node.
Pulling up to take the vacating child’s communal-cart parking spot – the one closest to the lift path – was the comforting sight of Pederra. Stoic stare as always affixed to his canine expression, Felix’s trusted Companion got out of the driver’s seat and wrapped around the electric cart to await him by the passenger side door.
Felix regained a grain of motivation to move, and walked down the shaved grass path, thus beginning his daily commute. He yearned for a cool, dark cave to crawl into, preferably one already containing his bed, and yet the bright day was only a small fraction complete.
He met Pederra with a thankful pet behind the ear. The faithful Companion, in turn, held out a dosing – noticeably larger than usual – of Felix’s preferred anxiolytic, exactly what he needed in the moment. By way of placebo, simply swallowing the pill helped Felix settle into a state of relative ease. He took his seat with a long sigh and grabbed his Scroll, waiting there for him on a dashboard stand.
Felix flattened the device into a rectangle notepad on his lap, as Pederra re-entered the cart on the driver’s side, intending to update his tasks on the day. Front of mind, there was the urgent domestic inquiry he needed to make, but he had not forgotten the man from the Proxy changing room. He didn’t like being caught unaware of anyone in his residential complex. It was a taxing shame that he’d prefer to remedy swiftly and not repeat. The Skype with young Mikah he had noted before class would be a third priority, and he felt confident that he could accomplish everything on his thirty-eight minute Whaler Ride to Central.
The cart zipped along its path, skirting around an artificial tortoise trotting as it went about its road cleaning duties. Felix heard the hum of the soft spinning brush of its belly, soon fading into a Doppler effected howl as Pederra left the creature in their wake.
Felix leaned back in the seat, trying to relax a tick. He rolled the scroll up in his lap, and fastened it to a strap built into the thigh of his airy lily-white slacks. He breathed through his nostrils, observing the trace summertime foliage wafting in the air, and a gentle gong went off in his Rute-imbedded ear as the device suddenly rebooted itself.
“Summer Madness; Sir Cool and his Gang,” the feminine personification of his Rute intoned.
The song selected from the musical Pantheon began to play: ancient synth smoothly laying the melody; a gentle warbling electric riff, leading into a bass line both unthreatening in it’s complexity and mesmerizing in its repetition. He had never heard the song before, but easily inferred how the Rute would respond to his thoughts and circumstances and pluck this particular selection.
To facilitate relaxation, however, was the selection’s primary focus, and initially Felix found his heart rate was indeed simmering. Even so, as their vehicle crossed the bridged creek and into the node’s raked beach plaza, an unforeseen siren began to pulse against his eardrum. The pitch turned and rose, higher, to a painful level, a discomfort suddenly amplified by the sight, as they came around a bend of palms, once again, of lone Yoel sitting among the table games, manipulating a holographic puzzle.
The relic man, sensing their approaching presence, turned from his busying and feigned a tone of delighted coincidence, “Felix, why hello again. Have you already seen our sweet Alia—”
Reaching its painful apex, the song’s siren drowned out whatever words Yoel had left to spew before fading and returning to its soothing groove. Felix gritted his teeth as opposed to any verbal response. Following a fork, the cart path rose unsupported out of the plaza towards the towering gap in the node’s casing where it met the promenade. Even as the cart climbed away from the stalking ancient, Felix felt aggrieved that another spike of formless panic had already managed to disrupt the relaxing lull of his kilometer ride between Proxy and the Central promenade.
The path began to flatten out at twenty-five meters above ground level, just in time to see the tip of a Whaler’s grinning façade approaching, floating its under-carriage towards the elevated hub where a sparse crowd waited, comprised of fellow 113 residents along with a few familiar 112ers from the cross-promenade node with whom they shared the Whaler hub.
Node 112 had a similar tropical design to Node 113, in fact they shared the same Climate A.I. The primary difference between the two nodes was that 112 is exclusively for young singles. As the Tarahumaran lifestyle was currently in vogue again with popular youth culture, most of 112’s residents were prone to commuting by their own fleet feet, and thus added little congestion to the terminal.
As the cart crossed the threshold into Flake forty-two’s Western Promenade, and the Rute persisted in its subtly erotic musical selection, Felix pondered his and Alia’s likely separation – a relative term under current circumstances – and he pondered whether friends would find him pathetic for transferring to 112. He knew the cutoff was fifty for Node 112, an age he was still eleven years shy of hitting. Of course, his body couldn’t quite match up to a fifty-year-old Natural’s, let alone someone’s of the same age. It had been proven lacking already during his own weeklong foray into Tarahumarianism a few years back, a period in which he was consistently late for morning classes, arriving in specialized nonabsorbent clothes that would drip his moisture onto the ground while he attempted to lecture.
The personal experiment, instigated by Alia chiding him after he had made light of the lifestyle one too many times, ultimately concluded with Felix limping fifteen kilometers back up the western promenade after pulling his left hamstring during his final commute home. Even with the repetitive shame of hearing “to your right” huffed at him in a dozen or so languages, he was far too stubborn to hitch a Whaler ride and give up on completing his wife’s playful challenge. At the end of his trials, as he predicted, Felix still believed that the whole concept of commute-by-marathon was rather silly.
Pederra halted at a curb several strides from the platform, and barked to signal safety for Felix to exit. He did, and then walked tentatively towards the collection of citizens also awaiting the Whaler, now slowing to a crawl and feathering down onto the platform’s landing zone. The fixed airship bellowed its song to alert the passengers-in-wait.
Felix held up for his companion, who in the moment was also acting as a security blanket – Felix's beacon of comfort – a purpose Pederra had filled ably and sporadically throughout their life together, and assuredly it wasn’t solely because Pederra happened to be such an attentive pharmacist. Upon parking the cart beside the dispenser that ran all the way down to the base floor, Pederra exited and hurried to Felix’s side. The two continued towards the crowd, now forming a line in the shadow of the grinning humpback-styled airship, while the communal cart collapsed into a thick sheet and slid into the dispenser.
The crowd filed into the double-seated stalls – four seats if one includes Companion in the tally – that hung from carbon fibers along the belly of the fifty-yard beast. Many greeted him though few seemed to truly welcome him as Felix joined the people in line. He found his stall near the back where he could be alone, and stepped up onto the lightly rocking carriage. Peddera hopped into the Companion booster seat behind him and immediately began brewing up some tea for the commute. Felix took his scroll and opened it along the wired stand as the Whaler began to rise into Promenade jet stream several dozen meters above.
A new crowd began assembling at the Hub in their wake, to be serviced in a prudent five minutes by some other Whaler craft. Perhaps they’d get to ride a Great Blue, Felix’s personal favorite design, or even a Moby-Dick, the rarest of commuter ships. It wasn’t until Felix was in his teens that he even got an opportunity to ride one; and yet, despite the novelty, Felix found the seats to be oddly uncomfortable. He couldn’t be sure if this was due to a certain design error or if it was meant as some other allegory related to its literary source material.
They sped up, accelerating to fifty-five km/h with the current high above the Promenade gardens. Felix signed into his faculty account and began scrolling through Scouting Guidelines for any updates on communication methods. The song by Sir Cool began approaching its evident climax when the sirens from the beginning made their re-appearance.
However, Felix believed he now understood the aesthetic purpose of the particular discomfort the sound inflicted. Perhaps it was due to the anxiolytic just now taking effect, but Felix found the sirens, this time around, rather tranquil.
A grand final wave of drug-facilitated relief swept over Felix as he deduced the proper method to transmit an apology to his wife abroad. He kept it brief as to expedite the complex coding process, My dearest Alia, I was a fool. Please forgive me.
He pressed send on his scroll and let out a sigh that evolved into a yawn. He was comforted in knowing message should get to Alia within the hour if Grant Command didn’t lollygag in certifying its legitimacy. Felix took a sip from his caffeinated tea and heard his companion yelp with upward inflection as he downed the last from his cup. Felix raised the cup shoulder-height and felt it the weight of an additional pour.
As it was for most days, Felix felt most contented during his ride to Central. He took a moment to look out over the gardens, drenched in colors from the diamond ceiling as well as their own intrinsic spectrum. Gentle critters of varying charm hopped and nibbled beneath the elevated path where the avid Tarahumarians sprinted their way towards appointments that personal schedules dictated. Intermittently, a comfortable closed pen of more ferocious creatures would approach and pass in the whaler’s wake. The approximate halfway point of Felix’s daily journey was a glassed-off shelter of polar bears. The monstrous beasts had a means to come-and-go as they pleased, back into the arctic tundra beyond the prismatic walls, a unique right for the naturalized animal life that UPU nurtured. Rarely, however, did they seem to utilize their permit to vacate into the wilds that sat outside the Flake, opting instead for meals of consistent intervals and optimally regulated temperatures. Comfort had domesticated the organic beasts, and they now appeared fat and docile enough to lie among, although that was strictly prohibited.
The marker of the bear pen brought with them a reminder of the tasks that Felix had scheduled to address. He returned his attention to his scroll, dragging out a new page and requesting node 113’s proxy schedule to see whether the mysterious man from the changing room had scheduled an appointment adjacent to his own. To his dismay, however, nobody had scheduled proxy within several hours of his meeting with Alia. The closest appointment was for a woman he knew whose husband was currently stationed as an engineer on Cloud Platform Nine near the north pole.
Aggravated again by his own ignorance, Felix started into the security records to find some angled shot of the man that he could isolate and match to citizen records. It was a far more tedious task then simply checking appointments and after several minutes of scrubbing through visual data, he groaned loudly with annoyance.
“Is everything alright over there, Felix?” inquired a feminine voice from a neighboring stall. Looking towards the source, he saw the curious grin of Vessa, a 112er he’d conversed with on regular occasions at the hub. He didn’t remember everyone from the neighboring nodes that he had ever talked to but Vessa was certainly a beauty worth remembering.
He smiled back blushingly and responded in her core dialect of Portuguese of the Americas, “Fine, thank you for checking. It’s been a strenuous morning.”
“Of course,” she responded politely in her parents’ native tongue, brushing her silky dark hair behind an ear. Vessa was descendant of Grant parents and one of the most alluring women he had the privilege to interact with on a daily basis. It was uncommon for her to notice him before he had already keyed in on her at the Whaler hub, a testament to his level of distraction in the moment. He nodded his thanks again and returned to his dogged pursuit of the man’s identity.
It just didn’t make sense that he would be in the proxy changing room without having an appointment himself. Sex once again on the mind, it dawned on Felix that the man might’ve been engaging in a long-range affair, and perhaps having security access to the appointment logs, had been able to scrub his proxy encounter from the record. He could even be an official with Proxy services himself. This was certainly plausible, and could feasibly assist Felix in narrowing potential suspects.
He took a moment to ponder the implications of this man’s potential secretive affair. Felix knew proxy intercourse was a rarely acknowledged commonplace for long-distance relationships – the dolls were anatomically correct for a reason – but the practice had always been particularly revolting to him. There were just too many uncomfortable details for him to simply ignore. How often were the dolls interchanged? How thoroughly were they cleaned between encounters? And by the heavens, how could anyone establish a semblance of rhythm during such an unnatural sexual encounter? The delay had been his stated deterrent when Alia had proposed it as a solution to their urges throughout her missions abroad. She flippantly responded by accusing him of possessing a “woman’s prudishness”, an insult he took with a shrug, knowing full-well that their traditional gender roles had long been flipped.
The mysterious man in the room, had he carried a tone of post-coital exaltation during their conversation or was it just Felix’s stampeding imagination affecting his memory? Perhaps if he had indulged Alia in their own affair-by-proxy, she would never have grown so fond of bedding some smug young buck while away on mission. A mounting sense of inadequacy deflated him further.
The promenade ceiling began to steadily rise, dragging the jet stream and whaler higher into the sky. The mouth of the Central node was coming into clear view now, only several minutes away. Felix resolved to move on past his obsessive and rather pointless identity search to the final task he’d scheduled before class.
He checked his faculty cubby one more time to ensure that Mikah still had yet to submit her biographical assignment. She had not, and so Felix brought up a skype tab on his scroll and punched in her address. While it rang, he prepared his thoughts with a certain degree of contempt for having to bother nagging a student before class was even in session. Of course, his sourness didn’t derive solely from this particular inconvenience, but as an authority in the situation, he subconsciously saw here an outlet for his pent up aggression.
After a few dings, the girl’s image appeared on the screen, heavily bagged eyes betraying an all-nighter. She was wrapped in a towel up to her armpits, her hair yet to be wet, apparently on route to the shower. The sight made him uncomfortable as he’d prefer to avoid seeing any of his students in a state of undress, and Mikah happened to be one of the first in class to hit puberty and remained ahead of the curve developmentally. He looked away momentarily to avoid any previous risqué stream of thought from infiltrating this professional matter.
Following a feigned cough, he returned to his intended stern demeanor, and addressed the girl in her root language, Swedish of Scandinavia, “Mikah, do you know why I’m calling?”
“I haven’t turned in my report.”
“Correct. Are you planning on turning one in before class? Either way, you will be penalized, but nevertheless I do hope you have at least something for me to grade.”
“I do. Professor, I have an excuse –”
“Where is it?” He interjected shortly.
“The excuse?” She began to play with her ratted hair, unnerved by the scolding.
“The report; it’s still not in my cubby. But go ahead, indulge me with your excuse.”
“Well, I’m giving it one last proofread. I decided, a few days ago, you see…” She paused, “I decided to change my subject.”
“You did?” He brought up his assignment records to the side to remind himself, “You had chosen to do your report on Founder Kukiko, is that correct?”
“Yes, but she was one of the last available. I didn’t—“
He cut her off again, “Mikah, you had plenty of options. Kukiko was a fine choice, an integral figure in our societal make-up.”
“She died ten years after formation,” the girl fired off her own frustrating research, “She wasn’t even alive for the first expansion, any effect she had on societal make-up came from her pre-Apok texts and theories. How can you expect me to craft a compelling narrative with that type of subject?!”
“Calm yourself, please. I’ve seen plenty of Kukiko reports that have excelled,” he fibbed. Other students had indeed attempted to profile the lone female of UPU’s Founding Civic Engineer Corps, a woman whose theories on a self-sustaining society remained principally at the core of their society, and yet his students always struggled to get past her brief lifespan and limited hands-on influence, uniformly producing rather bland reports. He had hoped that Mikah – through her unique creative guile – would conjure some tragic homage to a woman who never got to see the true fruits of her labor, her life extinguishing during a time of such unimaginable chaos and promise, from a simple bout with pneumonia in the eleventh arctic winter. Evidently, he had set his hopes too high for the girl’s performance on the topic.
“I am very disappointed with this news, Mikah, I think you should know that.”
“I know, professor. You won’t be this afternoon. I promise.”
On cue, the whaler ship bellowed its song, announcing their approach towards Central’s western hub. The prism ceiling stretched higher into the sky above Central, its apex peaking among clouds several kilometers above the ground. The superstructure dwarfed their loft now. A swirl of salted temperate air met them as they crossed over the environ threshold, a funny choice, Felix had always believed, for a Flake located hundreds of kilometers from the sea.
“We’ll see about that. I’m arriving at Central now so I’ll have to bid you goodbye for the moment,” his voice hardened, lowering into a serious plea, “I’ve had a stressful enough day already, Mikah… I do hope you’re not leading me on here.” Given the girl’s attire, he immediately regretted his phrasing; nevertheless, he truly did yearn to see the girl flourish in this assignment, intensely even. If her evident confidence could be trusted, perhaps it might go as far to turn his mood on the day, a troubling trend of despair as of late.
“I’m not,” she responded mutedly.
He nodded slightly with a soft, well-calibrated smile and shut off their link before rolling up his scroll up and hooking it back to his pant strap.
A triangle of coastal birds swept portside along the ship, rising as they sank, migrating towards the promenade gardens. The whaler slowed its descent, while a long-armed Companion attendant outstretched its self to guide them in for landing. His tasks now settled, the Rute switched back on with a gong and began to serenade with some conga drum music he always seemed to welcome in his ear. The selection had been created rather recently by a renowned circle from the Arts Trust of Flake 17, and was currently deemed the most relaxing rhythm ever created.
It dawned on him, as he tapped finger on thigh to the beat, that he remained ignorant of the girl’s biographical subject. The music in his head did its part to soothe his concerns on the matter as they floated to the ground.
In terms of design, his place of work could not differ more from his place of sleep. Where his neighborhood complex resembled a conscious spring, twisting and shifting slowly to some innate creative will, the Grant Services building of Flake 42 stuck out from the lively buildings of the Central Node like a pile of dormant bricks, stacked in decreasing size upon a wheel. Felix had been told in his youth that the lead architect for the forty-year-old building had meant it to be a statement of sorts, although he remained coy on exactly what type of statement it was that he intended.
I found myself thinking of duty and struggle, the Grant life, and trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, had been the most he had divulged on the matter.
The man’s root language had been Farsi, and his name Ebi, but that was about all Felix could recall. He held no interest in learning anything further about him.
He looked upon the structure with familiar disdain as the long sloping escalator carried them down from the western Central hub. The remaining piece to his commute did not require a communal cart request, it being a shorter distance then the merry little ride he had taken earlier through his residential node.
Pederra and Felix took a path that grazed the Central park, a vast stretch of rolling fauna, clustered trees, farmland, swimming holes and recreational fields. Flake Centrals were uniformly designed with this inner space, a departure from centralized structures that adorn all surrounding nodes. Every node had its specific function, so naturally Centrals were purposed for the congregation of its citizens. Only Flakes 00 through 02 sported giant towers at their central points that stretched to their respective domes, relics meant merely to add some phantom fortification in the early years of doming. While some people, generally from much older generations, looked upon the behemoths in a comforting and nostalgic light, Felix shared the majority view that they were eyesores that served little, if any, purpose. For this reason – among many but chiefly, he believed – the three earliest Flake’s populations remained skewed sharply up in mean age.
Clumps of children became more recurrent as they approached the building, some gathered for Grant studies while others were there to accompany friends and foster siblings before heading to their more relaxed Natural study programs. Some Natural children would even be heading off to apprenticeships, being as they generally reached that point several years earlier in life.
A herd of the toddler personal Companions waddled across their path before collapsing into a playful tussle besides a seated grouping of what could only be their respective masters. The youths clapped and goaded along the innocent battle royale that would ultimately conclude in giggles and hugs for all those involved.
He couldn’t recall Pederra ever engaging in such horseplay, having only ever known his Companion’s nature to be uncommonly dour. While Grant companions were notoriously more serious, oriented towards supplementing their master’s intelligence and encouraging studious behavior, Felix had long held the sinking suspicion that his own personal Companion was perhaps the smartest and least playful p.C. in the entire Flake. He noticed even now how the canine, with its widespread bulbous eyes, gazed down at the younger counterparts, devaluing their efforts inside that foreign mind of his, with a familiar stoic, unblinking stare.
Pederra snorted contemptuously through his squat, chilled black nose before pushing ahead, increasing pace towards Grant Services. As had been the case through most of their life together, Felix stepped up his own speed to remain level, only glancing back at the sound of the young Companions leading their kids in applause of their silly martial efforts. The squishy little creatures promptly hugged one another to instill a lesson in sportsmanship.
Leaving the lawn of young children in their wake, the two wrapped around the ornate fountain where the elder students tended to loiter. Water sprung from the stone fingers of a robed professorial figure, its arms stretched towards the sky, before splattering onto the heads of sculpted children, seated in the standard Socratic circle for lessons. It had stood there far longer than the current incarnation of the Grant Services building, even preceding the previous building’s design, and had been the butt of every juvenile joke that the languages of earth had to offer.
Through the massive crystalline revolving door they walked, into the Grant atrium, a lush, rounded common area for students and faculty, complete with it’s own Companion-run cafeteria. Along the edges of the space were classrooms and labs servicing all variations of a learning environment. Felix had always preferred the building on the inside.
He nodded to a number of colleagues that greeted him warmly as he strode through the premises. One young professor, a newly minted associate Dean specializing in ages five through seven, inquired if he would be attending the Dean Meet later that the evening. Of course, Felix had not forgotten the bi-weekly “casual dinner” between the Deans and their Associates, but he masked his contempt towards the inquiry with some smiling charm from a fading reservoir.
“I wouldn’t forget. Pederra will be making some of his vegetable cous cous for our contribution.”
“Lovely,” she responded, “I’ll be baking up some biscuits.”
“Mmm,” he could only respond. If he ever had time to bake on his own, it surely would be more imaginative than biscuits, he reasoned. He left the Natural woman behind as he boarded a lift with Pederra. Felix elevated out of the atrium, jettisoned with a conjured air of self-importance in regards to the freshman Associate and her dinner contribution.
The lift settled at his appropriated faculty level, third brick from the top, opening up into spacious room with high ceilings and rimmed by a 2nd floor of catwalks and personal office spaces. At the room’s central point stood a decadent tree, flowering an assortment of disparate leaves, and each branch drooping from the weight of its own novel type of fruit. Stepladders adorned the base for all those looking to pluck fresh produce for a snack. On one ladder, standing upon his toes and extending an arm for the choicest banana bunch, was the familiar presence of Felix’s childhood mentor, Co-Dean of Grant Education Martin 42-117-408-06. Sofi, his rabbit-headed feminine Companion, held the ladder steady on the grass carpet below. Snatching the bananas from the multi-fruit tree, Martin turned a warm smile towards his protégé.
“Felix, my boy, share a banana with me for a word in your office,” Martin inclined with Americanized English. Despite his root dialect being the easily discernable English of the British Isles, Martin had always instinctively dropped into the accent while addressing Felix. After years of pleas to abstain from this tendency were met by an abashed apology, and then a swift regression to the norm, Felix had eventually given up, presuming that the Natural urge was hardwired through the brain and challenging to overcome.
Martin descended the stepladder and met Felix by the escalator, a wide-stepped and oblong Ferris wheel, handing him the banana and patting him on the back as they rode up to the office catwalk while their Companions stayed below to begin their daily maintenance duties. Strolling into Felix’s private office, Martin closed the door behind them and began unpeeling his banana. Felix took a seat behind his desk and the windowpanes fogged themselves accordingly.
“So, how did your conversation with young Mikah go this morning? Is everything all right?” Martin intoned.
“As far as I can tell, the girl didn’t like her original Founder, switched her subject in midst of research and has been playing catch-up. She assured me that the assignment would be deposited before class.”
“Another student failing to crack the narrative code of poor Aika Kukiko. I can’t say I’m surprised. I suppose we can consider it virtuous that the girl understood her dilemma and refused to turn in lackluster work. Which Founder did she switch to?”
A stab of shame caused Felix to shrug pathetically, “I didn’t ask. I just told her to get it to me before her oral.”
Martin furrowed his brow and bit down into the yellowy soft flesh as he thought a moment, “I do hope she does. I think you should know: Vilhos has already voiced to me a concern for potential expulsion.”
“Of course he has,” Felix spat, overcome with defensive rage, “Vilhos has been sour on Mikah since she came to us.”
“That is not true and you know it, Felix. We all understood the girl’s potential, but sometimes that isn’t enough here. What can be done if a Grant simply refuses to self-cultivate? It can’t be forced upon them. Vilhos never wishes to see a failed candidate, especially one under his own supervision.”
Felix remained silent. He had never been fond of Co-Dean Vilhos, particularly his excessively chilly handling of the appointed post, but he was careful not to voice any disapproval for fear of a potential conflict mediation meeting, a rather tedious exercise that the two had already taken part in years past during Felix’s apprenticeship in Grant Services. He had made the mistake of disparaging Vilhos once before and it had cost him several hours of priceless leisure. Felix bit his tongue now and rolled his fingertips several times upon the desk.
Martin’s voice softened maternally, “How are you doing? How was your Proxy with Alia?”
Surmising the question to be loaded, Felix responded concisely, “Brief.”
“I saw that she was late, but did she not request more time?”
“I didn’t have the time to give, Martin. Surely you can understand that today is a busy day.”
Martin took another bite before speaking, “Of course. But I beg of you, don’t isolate yourself from your loved ones. Alia cares a great deal about you—“
He continued, “Ever since you came to us, going all the way back to your early foster years within her household. Unconditional love, Felix. Unconditional. Whatever troubles you two may have, it pales in the light of that enduring connection.”
“Yes. I love her unconditionally as well. My only wish is to see her safely back home with me.”
“Wish for her safety, and wish for her happiness, no matter where she finds her home. Unconditional exists beyond her relation to you, Felix.”
Although Felix had long found it easier to tolerate Martin’s extensive grasp of his life, as opposed to others, the intimate turn Martin had taken their conversation troubled him down to the very core. He took a deep breath to muster up some due patience.
“Thank you, Martin. I will take your advice to heart.”
Perhaps comprehending an overstepping of boundaries, Martin chuckled lightly, “Don’t forget, I also know what it’s like to see my love shipped away for months on end. It can be disheartening, but you must have patience. We all stride for the communal good.”
Felix smiled at the reminder, “Yes, I’m very much looking forward to seeing your better half returned to us next week.”
“As am I. He’s been away too long, off in the cold, dark reaches of space. But, it’s like Alec always has to remind me, ‘those asteroids aren’t going to mine themselves.’
“No. There is work to be done by us all.”
“Indeed there is,” Martin stood up then, accepting the polite hint, “I’ll leave you to prepare for classes. Please keep me informed on dear young Mikah.”
“I will,” Felix watched as Martin exited the office before leaning back in his chair and pulling out his scroll. He rolled it out onto the stand upon his desk and swiped impatiently to check if Alia had replied to his apology yet. It was disheartening to see she had not, despite knowing that not enough time had passed to account for the coding process. He stared at his apology, and the emptiness of space that followed it, momentarily unsure of what to do next.
His stasis was stirred by a knock at his office door, pulling him alert again. The window defogged, revealing his dedicated young apprentice Melody 42-008-318-03-G awaiting permission to enter. He motioned her inside.
“I read through all the reports. I thought we could compare notes before classes.”
Felix smiled and gestured to the opposite seat. The young Grant woman, a curious mix of western and eastern races, bright and eager, took her seat opposite of him. A scroll stand rose to her presence; she promptly rolled her device out, and they quickly got to work.
The oral presentations for the day came in two three-hour blocks with twelve students per block. Each presentation was officially limited to fifteen minutes, although among the professors there was an understanding that they could extend to eighteen minutes and fifteen seconds. Beyond that span, the student shall be cut off, with their grade ultimately docked for failing to conclude their presentation appropriately. The schedule would repeat the following day as well for the remaining students left to present.
Felix sat through the initial block of students with a merry glaze upon his face, a façade of encouraging nods and canned questioning.
“What surprised you about your subject?... How do you feel you relate to the person?... What trait do you most admire most about them?” and so on and so forth. Felix had already seen reports on every single Founder at some point in the past, and could personally derive little to no novel information from each presentation. He paid notice to the students’ methods of illustrating each biography, the visual aids they used to bolster their talking points, but otherwise his attention remained trained on his inner contemplations.
He interrupted only once: to question the purpose of Mia 42-054-210-00-G’s elaborate portrait painting of her subject Founder Vlad, suited for space travel and staring towards the stars atop an Antarctic plateau. Caught off guard by the abrupt inquiry, the girl defended herself by stating that Vlad was integral to UPU’s early space program. Felix was aware of these facts, but also that Vlad himself never went to space, nor voiced an interest in space fairing, and had been mostly a technocrat focused on establishing an early satellite network for the burgeoning society. He briefly explained the girl’s artistic discrepancy from reality before letting her continue. She struggled to regain a confident flow, stuttering through her remaining talking points, but Felix felt zero sympathy. The girl evidently had ulterior motives, hoping to impress and earn a rare recommendation into the exclusive Arts Trust. Skillful as she was, this was not the assignment to push her case. Felix felt an unsettling bit of contemptuous glee in knowing the often obnoxiously eager girl had likely taken a step back from her dreams and desires.
For the majority of the block, he stared down at his scroll from a seat to the side, pretending to take notes as the students delivered their reports from the instructor podium. In truth, he was refreshing his inbox at a minute-by-minute clip, hoping to receive some form of a heartening response from Alia. As the number of remaining presentations dwindled, he began to wish for any response at all, any word at all would conceivably sate his looping thoughts. The chemical levy within his brain was beginning to erode again, manifesting as tingling in his lower legs and a buzzing in his digits.
The block’s final presentation concluded at just under fourteen minutes, sympathetically brief albeit lacking in thoroughness; Felix felt assured he would grade it impartially. He stepped quickly to the podium, crossing pass the diminutive boy – physically underdeveloped as he was –and instructed the class in their grading assignment that was due in two days. Professors rarely took the peer evaluations to heart in their final grading, but the students were subjected to the process as a means to hone their critical thinking. Over his years of experience, Felix had come to find that children graded one another in an arbitrary and often mean-spirited fashion.
He followed the children out of the seminar space and into the grand common area of Grant Services. Melody hedged close to his side as he made his way towards the cafeteria, but he found a way to separate himself by claiming a need to visit the restroom; he assured the attentive young woman that they’d reconvene to discuss the first grouping of presentations over lunch. After she vanished around a corner, he slipped the men’s room and approached to the back entrance of the kitchen kiosk. Peeking inside, he gazed through the variety Companions at disparate stages in development, busying in their food preparation. He spotted Christophe’s Companion among the crowd, easily discernable by its uncommon insectoid features, flipping an Art-Beef patty on a grill. The boy was likely sitting in the cafeteria now, awaiting his routine pre-class lunch, a particularly gluttonous concoction of oil-fried starch and cultivated steer meat grown in the farm labs. The boy’s disappointing diet had gradually done its part in establishing Nutritional Education as his singular below-the-curve class study.
On several occasions, Nutritional Professor Sunnunu had been known to crack a smile when examining Christophe’s nutritional intake before laughingly chiding the boy in front of his peers, “Boy, by your digestive intake, one might think there’s a correlation between calories and IQ. As we can all tell, not all that fuel goes to his head.” It wouldn’t’ matter how frequently Sunnunu teased the children, he would forever remain everyone’s favorite thanks to his friendly delivery, and the fact that they all worshipped him as a superhero merely because of his elite basketball skills. Indeed he was the only Faculty of Grant Services to make Flake 42’s Select team, but Felix had always felt aggrieved that it gave him leeway to make fun of their students. There were plenty of instances where Felix would have liked to just that, and yet he had consistently refrained, understanding that the guidelines clearly stated that teasing was hardly a proper motivational tactic. Needless to say, Sunnunu was one of the few peers whose company Felix found he particularly enjoyed. He even intended on joining several of the children in attendance at Sunnunu’s nodal exhibition game that evening, once his dragging workday was finally complete.
Felix pictured Christophe standing next to his hideous centipede of a Companion in the kitchen, drooling as it prepared his stacked meal of fried-up cholesterol, and wondered if he would dare hurl a profane and inappropriate insult at the young man. In this moment, he believed he might.
Just then Felix felt a soft-fingered tap on his shoulder, accompanied by a quick progression of subtle barks. He turned to find Pederra, waiting with a prepared food tray containing a rice bowl steaming with beef and vegetables, and affixed next to tall glass of cran-apple juice. Upon handing Felix the tray, Pederra crushed two anxiolytic pills between his claws and mixed the powder into a cup of teriyaki sauce, a recipe the Companion had personally perfected. Felix extended the tray toward Pederra to allow for the pour. The two understood it would just be that type of day.
He sat through the meal with Melody, allowing her to dominate conversation, and prove her own worth to him as an evaluator. Felix’s thoughts remained focused on Alia and various improbable situations involving her. One such theory posited that the faceless man from Proxy had actually been Alia’s long-distance lover, there to visit her for a tryst before her maidenly exchange with him. It might certainly explain her tardiness. Felix marveled at the potential gall of this mysterious man to greet him in such a warm manner mere minutes after proxy-penetrating his wife. After a while, as Melody continued to speak, the drugs melted his paranoid fury into the gentle ache of ennui. By this point, there were only a few lunchtime minutes remaining before their final block of the day.
The next class packed quickly into the lecture hall as Felix retook his seat, bent on resuming his perpetual refresh, his wife’s empty reply-line continuing to taunt him. He allowed Melody to handle the arduous task of choosing each student to take the podium and present his or her report. Each one seemed bleed into the next for Felix, numbed as he was by his latest upped dose of synthesized apathy. It wasn’t until the waning minutes of Christophe’s presentation did Felix felt drawn back into the present context.
As anticipated, Christophe’s presentation on Founder Dill was thorough to the point of blandness, his nasally pre-pubescent voice enunciating Dill’s life accomplishments in his root dialect, French of the Swiss Alps. He was aided an eclectic mix of visual aids: still photographs, ancient video, various graphic charts, and eventually a brief holographic snippet from one of Dill’s most revered – albeit controversial within a continually shrinking minority – public proclamations. Being that this was also Dill’s final appearance before his self-seclusion, Felix felt confident the report was coming to a close.
Amidst the air above the holographic projector paced the enigmatic Founder Dill, holding a small and plastic egg-like device from the pre-Apok years. Despite approaching his fourth century of life, and evidently deep in the throes of the Decay phenomenon that affected all those who survived into a third century of existence, the man’s infamous charm was nevertheless on full display. Dill seemed to glide throughout the space, speaking in measured confidence, a haughty coo. His grotesque Bulbon, the healing tumor of a Mod common for ancients dealing with their own accelerating degeneration, remained shrouded underneath a large cowl. Nevertheless, the device tended to bob noticeably as he moved, impossible to ignore, like singular large breast without a bra affixed to the back of his skull.
This was not, however, what primarily drew Felix’s attention back to the present. It was at this point in Christophe’s presentation that Mikah entered the room, clutching her scroll to her chest and hurrying up towards her usual seat in the back. She halted quickly as her Companion waddled in her wake. The cushy, spherical creature with nubby limbs, known as Shoo, was notably dim-witted and seemed to always forget that Companions were prohibited from the classroom. Mikah shooed Shoo while Christophe glared at her and paused the hologram to wait as she found her seat.
Felix felt a sting of guilt for having been oblivious to the girl’s absence, especially after Martin had instructed to keep his eye on her. Of course, his mind had been predominantly centered on Martin’s words regarding Alia and “unconditional love”. He couldn’t desist in pondering the purpose of his mentor’s words.
He quickly scrolled to his faculty cubby to see if she had submitted her assignment. It appeared suddenly after a few moments, subsequently after she took her seat. Felix was perplexed to discover that he was unfamiliar with the name of the man she had ultimately decided to profile. Founder Goran Fedoruk? It rang no bells.
Confounded, Felix glanced back at Mikah, and she returned his gaze with subtle, sly smile. Before Felix could get a chance to dive into reading her report, Christophe resumed the hologram. What did he care though; he had heard it all before. During his initial apprenticeship within Grant Services, Felix had been forced to view the entire holographic series from the AI restriction hearings, quite the important and unprecedented philosophical debate as it was.
Dill continued his argument, unhurried to state his point, “I hold in my hand an ancient piece of tech, hardly a benchmark in the history of artificial intelligence. I doubt if anyone here could even recall its purpose. It was, after all, merely a fleeting childhood craze of its time; a toy from the isles of Japan named a ‘tamagotchi’, the electronic pet. As you might guess, its function is to crudely mirror the life of an animal pet. Children are expected to feed the digital creature, clean up after it, and are rewarded by watching it mature. Unbeknownst to the youth, they are also rewarded with important lessons in responsibility. So, how might this archaic gadget relate to these spectacular feats of artificial intelligence represented here with us today?”
The hologram remained trained on Dill as he gestured to the right, his targets only becoming apparent as he gradually slid towards them. Odd-looking Companions were all that they appeared to be, at least to the uninformed eye; in truth, they were proxies for the most advanced intelligences – of any kind – ever to inhabit earth. They were known as the Sooth, and they were not permitted to speak during this hearing, even though its entire purpose was to conclude whether the artificial beings should be replicated, as well if they should be allowed to exist at all. Five in all, animalistic proxies resembling no known creatures to have ever walked the earth, sat patiently and serenely next to their evidently amused creator Dominick 12-34-416-02-G, the renowned genius Grant, and primary innovator behind organic robotics, discovered as a child near the southern tip of Africa. As the story goes, Dominick had been such an impressive prospect that the scouts invited his entire small village into the society just to convince him to join. Of course, the spigot of immigration had tightened quite a bit since his arrival those many generations ago. They were no longer in the practice of such blanket Grant inductions.
“The reason I wish to show you this device is that I consider it to display the purest form of what artificial intelligence should mean to humankind.”
Following a pronounced snicker Dominick interjected, “I just assumed you meant to belittle our creations.” A female voice from nowhere instructed Dominick to refrain from interrupting. His patience running thin, Dominick could only laugh as he leaned back in his chair.
Dill continued with an almost knowing smile, “Dear friend, ‘creation’ is exactly what is at stake here. No one doubts the brilliant capacity of these artificial beings, and I understand the irony of my stance on this particular dispute given that one of your creation’s creations enables me to be with you today.” He admitted, referring of course to the Bulbon hidden beneath his cowl.
The Bulbon mod was merely the tip of the iceberg, however, as UPU’s patent logs showed. Dominick’s lab was responsible for an overwhelming number of technological advancements during the almost half-century that his Sooth were functioning. In many ways it was the golden age of the society, when they first moved out of their insulated arctic tunnels into the glorious domed complexes of comfort that they continued to inhabit.
“I stand here, nevertheless, as one of the few surviving Founders, with the conviction that we can not abandon our place in the world, we can not completely relinquish control to our own inventions. Clearly, judging by their choice of proxy, they already consider themselves as some sort of Gods.”
“Was that not the propaganda being hurled our way long before this trial – and don’t deny this is a trial, because it most certainly is!?” Dominick erupted. He continued through the faceless demands that he desist, “Since they were prohibited from speaking today, I instructed them to make a statement in their appearance, and I happen to consider their form as a selection of ancient Egyptian deities to be quite apt and rather hilarious!”
Felix was reminded in the moment of a certain text he had read as student titled “The A.I. Sense of Humor”. Citing this very incident as an example, the study had concluded that if left to evolve naturally, an artificial intelligence’s wit would be undoubtedly dry.
Christophe pressed a pad on his scroll and accelerated the holographic scene. Dominick continued his rant at hyper speed before subsequently being led out rather forcefully from the three dimensional frame by a pair of moderators. Christophe resumed the normal projection speed as the scene regained calm and Dill returned his attention towards the front.
“We shouldn’t hold Dominick’s passion against him; he has every right to feel pride in what his genius has wrought. That being said, we have reached the inevitable point where we must consider the purpose of our own sentient creations. Artificial Intelligence indeed has a place in the society. Its place is by our side, to support us, to bolster us, as our companions.”
Christophe cut the feed here, the holographic particles dissipating in the air and returning to the cone projector. Hopefully, the boy would swiftly conclude the presentation, as it was in its final allotted minute, and Felix was anxious to break away from this bland cyclical pattern of reports to whatever novel revelations Mikah intended to offer.
The boy cleared his throat before resuming in his nasally French of the Swiss Alps dialect, “And thus the term ‘Companion’ was coined. Ever the diplomat, Founder Dill helped strike the compromise with Dominick and his supporters in which the existing Sooth A.I. were granted continued existence in exchange for their assistance in establishing the A.I. restriction guidelines that continue to govern the limitations of our own Companions today. And with their duties fulfilled, the five Sooth. were jettisoned into space, with the agreed upon intention to establish human life on the nearest habitable planets within our galactic neighborhood.”
“Having pre-empted the conflicts that were bound to arise between mankind and our own creations,” Christophe spouted the unsubstantiated – albeit popular – claim while Felix kept an eye trained the ticking timer, “Founder Dill had indeed earned his rest and has since secluded himself to observe the society’s maturation in peace. If you are to take anything from my report, I compel you to remember Dill’s words, uttered nearly five hundred of years ago and now etched forever on Flake double-zero’s Central memorial, ‘Let this land be our blank canvas.’ It is that notion, that spirit of creativity and aesthetic appreciation he has so long imbued, that will live on long—“
“I’m sorry Christophe, that is your time,” Felix cut in, showing no mercy to what ostensibly would’ve been the boy’s final sentence. Christophe, for his part, merely stared back at his professor for a moment before nodding his understanding. “There will be no questions; we have quite a few more presentations and limited… time.”
Christophe rolled up his scroll and hunkered over to his seat in the front row. Melody half rose from her chair, confused by Felix’s sudden classroom verve, and prepared her throat to announce the next student. He pre-empted her by addressing Mikah to the entire class.
“Mikah. I do not appreciate your tardiness and I urge you not to make it a habit. You will be expected to watch the vids of all the reports you missed today and grade them just like the rest of us. Now, I for one am very curious to hear what’s so special about your subject that you needed nearly eleven additional hours to submit your written report?”
The teacher and student exchanged sincere smiles, although on the front his could be interpreted as simple self-amusement and hers as sheepish embarrassment. He recognized the earnest glint of her teeth, even if no one else could.
Mikah took the unfurled scroll in one hand from her desk and brought it with her down through the rows, the edge of the intricate device nearly dragging along the steps on several occasions. Confidently, she stepped up to the podium and flopped the scroll down upon it. As she collected her thoughts, and while her report preferences synced to the classroom, Mikah quickly tied her long brown hair back into a sport’s tail. She seemed to be preparing herself for some rigorous mental exercise.
“Tragedy,” In her root Romanian dialect – one of three as it were – she burst the word upon the class with vigor and allowed it to sink in, glancing about the room slowly to make certain it translated for her peers. The girl had always grappled with dramatic pacing, but in this moment, Felix had to resist the urge to twirl his forefinger and goad her along.
At last she continued, “Tragedy is what attracted me to my original subject, Founder Kukiku. Tragedy, yes, as well as the well-documented knowledge that the Founder had yet to receive her own exemplary biographical report. I admit the challenge enticed me. Unfortunately for the Founder, she will have to continue waiting for such a report, as she is no longer my subject. I can only hope her spirit’s rest isn’t reliant on a stellar assignment from a thirteen-year-old Grant girl.”
The dark joke caught the class off guard, enticing nervous titters throughout the room. Only Felix and ever-sober Christophe withstood emitting any reaction.
“It was during my research of Kukiko that I stumbled across a thread of UPU history so curious that I couldn’t resist in tugging at it until all the fascinating, troubling and ultimately tragic details came to bear. I invite you to join me down this rabbit hole.”
She pressed a button on her scroll, dimming the lights and projecting a familiar image upon the white wall to her left: the Founders, all one hundred and thirty-seven of them, youthful and bright-eyed, bundled in archaic thermal wears and standing in front of one the original Antarctic complexes, the greenhouse if Felix’s memory served.
“You should all be familiar with this photograph. It was taken during the inaugural year of Founding. This exact image can be found alongside nearly all the texts regarding UPU’s early years, before they even had a name for the society they were creating.” She then circled a few heads upon her scroll, her marks also projecting upon the wall, and named them for the class, “Here is Kukiku, caught unawares that she will be dead within a few years. Founder Jestafa Zamani, doctor of the medical corps, and his wife Founder Layla Zamani, acclaimed Botanist whose report I am ashamed to say I missed today. Of course, I will be watching the vid later this evening. And here is Founder Dill off to the side of the crowd.”
After circling Dill, she slowly circled a blank space next to Dill near the frame’s edge. Allowing for another dramatic pause, the girl continued, “In actuality, there were quite a few pictures taken during these early days that featured all the Founders, most of which are shockingly difficult to come by. Why this particular photo? What sets it apart from the rest? Perhaps it is because Dill’s imaginary friend is so difficult to spot.”
The girl then commenced a slideshow, displaying several group photos of the Founders that even Felix was unfamiliar with. For all of them, she took a moment to circle Dill as well as a human-sized separation in the crowd that often accompanied him, although there were times where it existed elsewhere. Unspeaking, she lingered a bit longer on a photo of all Founders within the cafeteria, and Founder Dill with his arm around nothing but air.
Mikah then clicked swiftly through several more photos with dates ascribed near the top. By this point, she didn’t bother circling anything; the invisible person had begun to stick out like a sore thumb. She eventually reached a photo from the year 12 A.A., absent one person of note.
“Founder Kukiku had recently perished before this particular group shot.” For emphasis, she once again circled the blank space within the visibly somber crowd. She then tapped methodically through three more years of annual group photos before settling on one where the members stood tightly packed with nary a sign of man-sized air between them.
“For anyone still confused, this is the first undoctored photograph I’ve shown you thus far, taken fifteen years after UPU’s founding. What changed, you may be wondering? Well, the man who had been removed from all prior pictures was no longer present. He was, for the time being, no longer alive.”
The room had grown tense with a current of bewilderment. The girl had indeed seized her class’s attention, and Felix couldn’t recall his own curiosity having ever been quite so piqued. Learning had so long been a chore.
“I’m afraid I am unsure of exactly how this faceless Founder died, but I can tell you who I believe he was, as well as why he has since been stripped of his title and expunged from the founding history. It is rather fitting to be following Christophe’s thorough presentation on Founder Dill, as he provides the essential bread crumbs to this secret.”
She pressed on to the next slide, which depicted Dill as a young man in his twenties, laughing with some friends on a green lawn during some light affair, “Here you see Dill at University, nearly a decade before the Apok and the formation of the Society. Ultimately, in the years leading up to the Apok, Dill would lose contact with most of these people, with the exception of this man, Goran Fedoruk.” She circled a boyish man, caught profile in a joyous moment, mouth agape in laughter.
“From Dill’s own journal, ‘There are days when Goran is on my mind and the world appears more bleak than already is. Today is one such day. I miss his optimism and the light he brings to any room. He was truly my best friend. I can only pray that I will see him again one day.’ This entry came in the 16th year of the original Antarctic colony,” She clicked back to that one undoctored photo, “just a few months after this was taken. I find it curious that Dill is just now mentioning sadness for the loss of a close friend, unless of course the loss was relatively recent. Goran, Goran, where might you be dearest Goran?” The girl lamented playfully before switching the screen to the citizenry record of every person ever named ‘Goran’.
“While the name is not common within the Society, it does appear in the citizenry on a few of occasions,” off the understatement, she scrolled down through the list to one in particular, already highlighted, “‘Goran 00-14-214-00’, born the fourth month of 291 A.A., and died the seventh month of 291 A.A. Oddly, this terminally ill infant also inhabited this residence all by his lonesome. As Christophe is surely aware, this particular Goran’s neighbor at the time was none other than Founder Dill himself.” The screen changed to display a screenshot of Dill’s residence profile for the year 291 A.A., his address code at the time being 00-14-210-00.
She continued, a sudden gravity appearing in her speech pattern, “Also living in the fourteenth node of Flake double-zero were these two Grant children,” two pictures, side by side, of children no older than eight appeared on the screen. Mikah took a long look at them before continuing, “Rodrigo and Ming, both in Foster residence at 00-14-308. I urge you not to forget their faces or their names. We will return to them shortly.”
Her tone elevated again as she moved on, the slide switching suddenly to an old satellite shot of Flake double zero, sparkling in all the spectrums of the rainbow, “As we know, the year 291 occurs during an era of incredible technological advancement, a period that many have termed the golden age. There were quite a few new and exciting studies occurring this particular year. One such study was taking place in the famed Dominick Lab that somehow proclaimed success as well as an ultimate failure that continues to reverberate in the guidelines governing the Society’s medical practices. I am referring to ‘reanimation’, also known as the act of bringing a deceased being back to life.”
“I am not very familiar with the intricacies of reanimation, so I will defer to an explanation I discovered within the logs of a medical scientist named Sandra who worked on the study alongside Sooth Unit-2, ‘Despite having been able to successfully revive the subject by creating a synthetic analogue of its brain, we were unprepared for its long-term inability to cope with its new physical circumstances or subdue and temper its organic urges. The subject has since been extinguished and the governing council has urged the lab to erase all the Sooth’s data on the matter. I am eager to move past this research and take little comfort in knowing that no such abomination will ever be replicated.”
Felix’s gut churned on her emphasis of the word ‘abomination’. Mikah switched the screen back to the two children from before. This time, however, their photos were accompanied by an invitation to their joint memorial service.
“Rodrigo and Ming, two Grant children declared dead at the respective ages of seven and nine. The only given explanation: a tragic construction accident that occurred within the greenhouse for Node fourteen of Flake double-zero. The seventh month of year 291 was a particularly tough time for residential Node fourteen, as you’ll recall there were three child deaths. Of course, there is no explanation for the disappearance of poor unattended infant Goran,” her voice dripped with scornful sarcasm.
It was beginning to occur to Felix that he should consider interrupting and concluding the girl’s presentation. After all, the case he knew her to be building towards was based purely in some rather shaky circumstantial evidence. And judging by the squirming of discomfort he heard behind him and saw in the corner of his right eye, it was becoming quite evident that Mikah had every intention to cause a negligible stir within her classmates.
He knew that in eventual hindsight he would regret not halting this report as it now strayed quite far from its intended purpose. Felix restrained his intellect, however, overcome as he was by an eagerness to see the girl finally make her haunting accusation. Regardless of the facts of the matter, he appreciated the girl’s ability to create dramatic tension far too much to cut her off.
Mikah puffed out her chest for her inevitable declaration, “What I propose to you is that Goran was not some infant that lived to die three months later, all alone, but none other than our long lost Founder of our Society, Goran Fedouruk, a corpse brought back to life at the behest of his closest living friend, Dillon Renault! And why not then, in the rush of such a long-awaited reunion, would Dill-the-personable, Dill-the-charming, Dill-the-fox, as he has been called, not have been able to convince those involved that an untested life-form could move right in with the general population, just a few doors away from his oldest friend!? One can only imagine the collective shame when the revived Founder would struggle so plainly to grasp his uniquely opaque boundaries between life and death, right and wrong, urge and restraint, so plainly that he would kidnap, murder, and do God-only-knows to two young children brought to the Society under the promise of prosperity! Perhaps such a shame would be enough to hide that this man had ever existed within the Society?” She returned the screen once again to the striking group photo of the Founders, and Dill with his arm around air.
She then took pause and looked around the class, absorbing the frightened expressions she had just elicited from her classmates. Felix struggled to maintain his trained look of dubious skepticism when she eventually lingered her brow-heightened gaze on him. Mikah cleared her throat and switched the slide to an unfamiliar character, a drawing that might’ve been humorous under different circumstances: a large greenish man with a tall head and bolts in his neck seemingly lumbered – arms outstretched – away from a burning, inefficiently designed, windmill.
“There is an ancient tome, fictitious although it was, that warned of such an event—“
“Mikah!” a stern voice broke the air within the room, startling several students so that they nearly jumped out of their seats. Felix turned to find Co-Dean Vilhos standing at the entrance, his icy eyes trained judgmentally on the young girl.
Felix noticed Martin behind him as well, carrying his well-worn gaze of maternal worry. Mikah’s unsanctioned biographical report had evidently gone on long enough.
Mikah had been led to a guest chair within the two Deans’ shared office, her hunched posture contrasting severely from the self-assured young woman that had just terrified her entire class nearly an hour earlier. Her head hung over her lap, seemingly weighted by the shadow of Vilhos, interrogating and towering several feet away while leaning one hand upon his desk. Martin was seated across from her, his hands clasped patiently in his lap. Felix had found his place against a wall near the door. Apart from directing an early conclusion to the class block, and reminding everyone of the festive distraction of professor Sunnunu’s basketball exhibition occurring that evening, Felix had maintained a contrite silence since his interceding superiors had arrived. He allowed the Deans, with their calculated contrasting styles, to handle the situation at hand.
“Did you believe this was an appropriate situation to construct paranoid notion for your classmates? This is not an assignment meant for the machinations of your overactive imagination. Circumstantial conspiracy theories have absolutely no place in the Founder biographies!” Vilhos disciplined in the same manner Felix recalled receiving on occasion as a student, with that familiar sneer of contempt.
Martin cut in with a coo, “You have an remarkable mind, Mikah, and we are all aware of the incredible effort you put into your report. But you’ve missed the point of this assignment.”
“What was the point?” She spoke up from beneath the comfort of her hanging bangs.
“The point was to gather facts on one particular Founder, one historical figure, and deliver them in an instructive and entertaining manner. It’s an important test of your ability to study and evaluate personal contribution.”
“That’s exactly what I did, Dean Martin! I happen to believe that evil in this particular case was a considerable contribution.”
Approaching a level of fury, Vilhos slapped his hand onto his desk’s key-gel. The large screen on the wall between the two Deans’ desks suddenly lit up and flipped swiftly through curriculum files before settling on the exact assignment text given for the Founder report; the Germanic tongue – Vilhos’s root language – transitioned in a blur to Mikah’s Romanian.
“You received this text and read it, correct?” Vilhos inquired indignantly.
“Yes, I read it all—”
He scrolled quickly through to a list of one hundred and thirty-seven names near the end of the assignment breakdown.
“We provided here the names of all the Founders. You were instructed to pick one and report. You didn’t complete the given assignment – or rather you ignored it completely – and will now be expected to write and deliver a report on Founder Kukiku, just like you’d originally declared you would to professor Felix.”
Mikah took a look behind at Felix. His mouth fell open dumbly as he considered his precarious place in the situation, producing nary more than a vowel for several seconds.
“I think you owe us all a report on Founder Kukiku. I understand it lacks the intrigue your imagination was able to achieve here, and that she is indeed a difficult subject to tackle, but I’d like to see you challenge yourself on this count.”
“That’s what you want?... Shall I apologize to the class as well?”
“I think they’d all appreciate that, yes.” Martin inclined. Felix was left unsure by his tone, whether the Dean had heard the girl’s sarcasm or rather chose to just ignore it.
“And if I don’t… What? Expulsion? Will you send me home?”
“Home, child?” Vilhos’s layered his voice suddenly into gentle wisps as he squatted down in front of her. His highest level of intimidation had always dwelt in his lowest register, “We can’t even confirm if your biological parents are alive. You were found out in the northeast of Asia, Mikah, right in the midst of the Siberian Wanderings – I know you’ve discussed it in class – the barbaric warlord culture, the random nuclear detonations still occurring to this day... We have lost more prospective scouts in that region alone than all the other regions combined. The Dean of Scouting in Flake Fifteen once told me, ‘the Wanderings are nothing more than an ongoing game of musical chairs played with mushroom clouds.’ Yet still, we’ve risked our own peoples’ lives, people like professor Felix’s own dear wife Alia, to uncover the truly gifted children that reside within.”
The old man’s gaze pierced through the girl’s bangs, securing her attention, “Is that the home you prefer to return to? We’d rather not, but we can oblige your request. For security reasons, you will not be able to bring any of your belongings, including your Companion. You will be left alone out there…”
Martin placed his palm upon Vilhos’s shoulder, indicating his desire for a gentler handle. Vilhos obliged by standing and returning to his place by the desk.
“Although your grade will be docked, we are granting you a whole month to make up your Kukiku report. That should give you appropriate time while you maintain your other studies,” Martin smiled sympathetically as he granted her twice as much time to finish her make-up report than she received for the original assignment.
She whispered appreciation, “Thank you,” and stood to leave. She waited for a nod from Martin followed by one from Vilhos, his expression as soft as can be. Mikah then walked towards the door, stopping as she reached her professor.
“Did you at least enjoy the report?” Mikah inquired, her eyes on trained on the exit.
Felix glanced to his observing superiors before answering, “I did. It was the most entertaining of the group, I must admit. I’m considering giving you my recommendation to the Arts Trust. I’d say – if nothing else – you’ve earned that honor today. I’d like to see you at Sunnunu’s exhibition tonight. Will you come with the rest of class?”
Mikah raised her head, nodded and smiled up at him before walking out the door. Her lips were tight and her eyes glossy, but Felix chose to ignore that, focused as he was on the prospect of having elevated her mood. Professors were granted only a handful of Arts Trust recommendations over each decade, but he intended to use one on her nonetheless. Vilhos’s voice drew him back to the room and closed the door on Felix’s sight of Mikah.
“We understand that you are dealing with issues in your household, but you should have stopped that report before it had even begun.”
“Yes, I’m aware. She worked very hard. It was curious. Or I was… Did that baby Goran live alone?”
The two Dean’s exchanged a gaze of disappointment. Martin responded for both of them, “A family had requested an additional residential unit following the birth of their third child, which they named Goran. The residence was under the infant’s name even although their eldest child was living in the solo unit. That lasted until the whole family moved into a larger residence in a node in the newly christened Flake 33. Now… Will you be accompanying us to the Dean Meet? We are running late.”
“I’ll meet you up there, I need to attend to something quickly in my office.”
“Fine,” Martin responded with a smile. Felix nodded goodbye and walked out of the room.
He descended from the Dean’s offices in the second brick from the top to the professorial offices of the third. It was nearly empty at this point. Pederra was waiting there, of course, holding his prepared offering of cous cous for the dinner. Felix rubbed the companions ear and took it upstairs to his office. Pederra stood patiently outside the door while Felix took his seat behind the desk.
Once again, Felix rolled out his scroll and checked his messages, and once again, he was disheartened to learn Alia had still not written him back. Deflated, he sat in his chair for an additional ten minutes before pulling himself up by grasping onto the notion that the day was nearly complete.
The Dean Meet went smoother than anticipated. Felix had rightfully surmised that his colleagues would all know that he had allowed a fictitious Founder’s report to be performed for the class, but was grateful when just a few teased him, and then, only joking that he had allowed it to happen out of desperate boredom. Felix chuckled self-consciously and nibbled at the biscuits offering. They were indeed quite good, but he stuck to them mostly because they were the easiest to pick at and gentlest on his torrent stomach.
By the time he exited the Grant Services building, the sun was hanging at its lowest point and casting a rosy light upon the Central node. Pederra was once again waiting for him in the driver’s seat of a communal cart. The sports’ coliseum was nearly four kilometers away, and Felix was eager to attend the only event he had eagerly anticipated on the day. He hoped to see his friend Sunnunu following the friendly exhibition for a hardy congratulations and perhaps a shared alcoholic drink.
The coliseum rose above the land as a metallic iris that would open and close depending on the activity and spectrum of sunlight above. This evening it was closed for the basketball match. Pederra drove the cart over a wide, arcing bridge that climbed above the Central node’s own shimmering memorial sculpture to the coliseum entrance, dropping him off with a bark of goodbye. The Companion intended to return to their residence to perform some chores before Felix returned.
Entering the hulking building, Felix found a seat within the student section just as the players began their warm-up routines. The men sprinted along the large court – which had grown over generations to accommodate the citizenry’s advancing athleticism – and rehearsed their leaping skills. Some of the men required teammate assistance to reach the five-meter high rim, and were routinely tossed about strategically to block or intercept the ball.
The sinewy Sunnunu, standing over two meters tall, was quite adept at tossing his teammates towards the rim, but usually abstained, opting instead to showcase his own ability of reaching the towering hoop. Showboating before the game even began, the nutritionist professor took a pass in mid-air and rolled the ball elegantly over the rim. His students ate it up with vigor. Felix noticed Christophe, seated only a few rows in front, as the boy squealed his own unique response.
Like a pig in the midst of orgasm, Felix thought snidely to himself. He took a moment then to seek out the faces of his students. Although he saw that majority of them were present, he was unable to locate Mikah before the lights dimmed around the parquet.
The game commenced as a ball was jettisoned into the air. A two-and-a-half meter goliath of a man – an environmental AI technician by day – gathered the ball for Sunnunu’s squad. They were off and running, faster than Felix could ever imagine himself moving, tossing the sphere about with such a preternatural ease that Felix couldn’t even relate to tying his own shoelaces.
After only a few minutes of frenetic display, however, all of a sudden, the blurring action suddenly ceased upon the court. The roaring crowds went quiet as well, except for some select patches, one of which Felix happened to be seated in. Those quickly died out as well, the Grant citizen now struck dumb by the game’s sudden halt.
This display made Felix angrier than he remembered feeling all day. He wanted to know why they had all stopped, desperately and helplessly he felt the question. He knew the Fountain of knowledge had fed directly into their Natural minds something of importance, something of alarm. Wasn’t it enough that the Fountain fed them desired information in constant waves until their minds fully grasped any subject? They now appeared to know something of particular horror before he did, and he hated them all for keeping him once again in the dark. He saw people across the court placing their hands over their mouths in saddened shock, and wanted to yell at them to communicate with him. He felt a shameful craving for teir hoarded knowledge like a pathetic drooling mutt.
The anger shifted quickly to panic, however, when he met Sunnunu’s gaze and saw how his friend had sought him out in the crowd, and wasn’t intending to look away. With his chest heaving from physical exertion, Sunnunu stared at Felix, his expression relaying sorrowful compassion.
The first dreaded place Felix’s mind went was for the health of his dearest Alia. No matter their troubles, he didn’t know if he could handle learning of her death right in this moment. But yet, before he could ask, a Natural woman Felix believed he knew and yet couldn’t recall put her hand upon his shoulder.
“Professor, you should collect your students and lead them out the back entrance. There is something out front they shouldn’t see.”
The students had been led away, back towards their node homes, by a convenient smattering of apprentice Professors by the time Felix had made it to the scene, an hour or so later. The still reddened prismatic light from above did little to camouflage the gore that stuck to the diamond memorial below the coliseum bridge. Mikah had swan dived from above in a successful attempt to end her own life.
The medical staff on hand for the event had had no viable opportunity to revive the girl, her brilliant mind now strung about the massive green diamond that had been sculpted into a tree.
One medical attendant took the liberty to inform Felix that his student had been quite deliberate in her aim, likely knowing that if she had landed in the soft grass surrounding the structure, she would’ve certainly survived the fall. Diamond, as opposed to synthetic grass, is extremely hard and unforgiving, the callous man meant to imply.
Mikah’s doughy and dimwitted Companion Shoo, had been less successful in its leap. Following her over the edge, Shoo had landed softly on ground with only a broken arm limb to show for it. The creature rolled about on its back, making whistling noises like a teethed balloon. Felix wondered if this was the thing’s version of crying, and felt a tinge of envy knowing he had yet to shed a tear. It was all too colorful and surreal to feel real, he supposed.
Felix offered to take Shoo and deliver it back to Companion Services to be erased and recycled. There was no place in the Society for a personal Companion if its master was dead. He held its hand and walked the waddling creature slowly to a communal cart dispenser.
He chauffeured the Companion – a very novel sight to behold – all the way to the other side of Central where he met a tall, dark woman named Cora, waiting for him outside the curvaceous and intricate building. She consoled Felix with a gentle rub on his upper arm and a soft smile and, in turn, he handed over the pointless creature. With a solemn goodbye, she took Shoo inside to be destroyed and its flesh repurposed.
Alone, Felix now drove to the Western Promenade whaler hub and awaited the next airship. As it was off peak hours, he was forced to wait ten minutes. En route, his Rute played music, but nothing registered apart from an encore of Summer Madness and the pleasant distraction of its piercing sirens. The song selection would likely now be imbedded in his preferences.
He arrived home to find Pederra vacuuming the den and plugged into its feeder of bi-daily nutrients. His Companion turned off the battling noises and looked to its master, its ears folding over to convey something akin to empathy.
Felix’s wasn’t at all tired, so he left Pederra to finish its work and intake, while he went out for a long overdo run around Node 113. He didn’t count the laps and returned only when he saw that the sun was beginning to ratchet higher into the sky once again.
Back in his residence, Pederra was prepared for his arrival with some soothing hot milk and honey, a chocolate chip cookie, and also some sleep inducing medication.
When he finally found sleep, he dreamt lucidly about his wife, about walking back up the halls of his node, striding confidently back through the curtaining courtyard doors, even bigger in his mind, having to bend back his neck eighty degrees just to see the top. He dreamt about floating through that long doorway, naked, absent that chilled elastic shawl, and touching down at the edge of the twilight pond, and seeing Alia waiting by the pink-leaved maple.
Or perhaps it was the proxy Alia without that distinct delay; she wore the same light blue skin, so he couldn’t be sure. He could feel her gaze this time, of that much he was certain.
She laid herself slowly onto the pillowy green moss as he walked towards her, a sudden brush of wind impossibly penetrating the domed room and running through his hair and across his nude body. He joined her on their natural bed by the pond and they kissed, her form feeling so natural under his caress, and so completely welcome. His inhibitions abandoned him as he entered the creature in his arms, his wife or the present representation for her, of which he still couldn’t be sure. But she touched his face, and looked into his eyes, causing his breath to rush from excitement. Before long he lay down next to her, and without a word, she leaned up onto an elbow and kissed the top of his head.
His eyes fluttered – pleasantly cognizant – as he felt his lovely creature unhinging her jaw and spreading her wet, salivating lips down and slowly around his head, before promptly chomping down on his outstretched neck and severing his mind from his body.
There’s was moment there, when he just sits on her tongue, content in his disembodiment and the welcoming breath on his cheek. A low growl from the abyss preceded the jaw’s collapse, and the ripping through skull, thunderous down to his core.
But again he awakened, to the silent, distressing light, and another day.