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╗ THREE ╚
Two Central Admin personnel stood waiting in the doorway behind Jesse, a pair of the most completely opposite people Anna had ever seen: on the left, a towering and obese man with a severely receding hairline and a cheerful smile; on the right, a short and spindly woman sporting an unruly shock of dyed-blonde hair and a frozen expression. One radiated warmth, the other cold; like an inviting campfire standing next to a glacier. In each of their right hands they carried tablet commexes and, as Anna recovered her composure, she noticed both wore sidearms strapped to their belts.
“We are not interrupting an aural-dosing session, are we?” the man remarked in a pleasantly deep voice. “I saw the headphones and I just assumed.” Anna blushed in deep embarrassment at the suggestion and stood up to greet him properly. The man stepped forward and held out his hand to her. “I am Officer Sam Holloway. Good to meet you, Miss McLean.”
Anna shook his hand vigorously, a little too vigorously whilst cringing inwardly at the awful first impression she had made. “Good to meet you, Officer Holloway,” she replied. “And just so you know, I am not an aural-head. I just do music.”
Mr. Holloway split open in laughter as he released her hand. “We know that already, your file says nothing about you being an aural-head. It was a joke, Miss McLean, a joke,” he said reassuringly. “We wouldn't hold it against you even if you did, since it's legal. Although,” he added, leaning in conspiratorially, “I've been told one should never try the heavier stuff. It has been known to induce seizures.”
Anna failed to see the implied humor in the remark. Her own cousin had endured a seizure during an aural-dosing session and had not been the same person since. However, she decided it would be best to leave the subject alone and she turned to the woman and held out her hand. The woman responded with her own hand and the two shook awkwardly.
“I am Officer Terry Garnham,” the woman said frigidly. “Please, let us sit and get to business.”
They all sat down, and the two Central Admin officers set up their tablets on the table in silence. Anna noticed Jesse fidgeting next to her in his chair and she cast him a dirty look to shut him up. He failed to get the hint, however, and Anna rolled her eyes in frustration. Thankfully Mr. Holloway was ready quickly and he leaned forward from across the table. “Shall we begin, then?” He held out his hand to Jesse. “The reports, if you please, Mr. Atkins.”
Jesse produced the e-paper sheet and Mr. Holloway took it from him with a strange solemnity, tapping it to zoom in on the text. He pulled out a pair of old-fashioned glasses and perched them on the end of his nose, but it was clear he was not really reading the paper.
“I am glad to see HomoGen's willingness to produce its own reports for the Government, even though Central Admin already had a copy,” Officer Holloway remarked matter-of-factly. “I was more interested in seeing that willingness from the two of you.”
Anna and Jesse exchanged puzzled looks. Officer Holloway smiled and continued.
“Your Version numbers are right on target, the budget is still within the proper range, and the system is secure,” he said pleasantly. “We could not have asked for a better report.”
“But that's not the reason you came,” Anna replied bluntly. “Did we miss something?”
“No.” Holloway smiled. “I came to make you an offer. Both of you in general, but you in particular Miss McLean.”
Anna's heart thumped. This was unexpected. She leaned closer to him and kept her hands flat on the table to prevent them from shaking. “An offer?”
Holloway laughed again, a deep belly laugh. “Don't act so alarmed, Miss McLean! I'm not here to take you in.” He chuckled. “I'm not sure if you are aware, but your superiors send us a weekly report of your progress and your skills, and you have duly impressed. Your programming expertise is off the charts, and your skills adapting to new digital languages is unprecedented. No, we are here to make you an offer. An offer of new and more challenging employment.”
The thumping of her heart increased and Anna blinked. “Employment? With who?”
Holloway leaned back in his huge leather chair, apparently satisfied that his announcement had produced the desired dramatic effect. “With us, Anna. Employment with us. With an arm of Central Admin.”
Anna sat stunned, with her mouth hanging open and her hands still flat on the table. Holloway looked like he had expected a similar reaction and he continued without giving her a chance to respond. “HomoGen is doing good work in the fertility field, but babysitting Versions is child's play for you. The Versions already have their training schools and teaching programs and, quite frankly, we think you need more of a challenge. You've already helped us invent the Cure. Now we need your help perfecting it.”
Anna looked over at Jesse, who looked as stunned as she felt. He held his hands up, pleading ignorance. She looked back to Officer Holloway. “Perfecting it how?” she murmured in astonishment. Holloway turned to the woman next to him and gestured with his head. She nodded and began to speak.
“The human egg harvesting and human development part of the equation is close to perfect,” she said, “thanks to your excellent work. Along with HomoGen, our own facilities are producing Versions at or very near population replacement levels.” She tapped her tablet commex's screen several times, then turned it to face Anna. Anna twisted her head to look and saw a dynamic graph plot lazily updating across the display. She instantly recognized it as a population graph line, but also noticed another line beneath the first one.
“What is the plot below it?” The line she referred to was black and was angled much lower than the population graph drawn above it.
“That,” Holloway answered with a sigh, “is our problem.”
“Yes,” Officer Garnham continued, “That is our indoctrination and skill set input protocol.”
“English please?” Jesse cut in curtly.
Holloway chuckled yet again, and Anna realized that the sound irritated her. He turned to Jesse. “It's the rate at which we are educating the Versions that we've already produced,” he explained. “We are having an enormous problem keeping up with it.”
“Boosting the growth rate of Versions is proving helpful to the population side of things, but not the education side,” Officer Garnham said, casting Jesse a miffed look. “The host families are getting their Versions 'half-baked,' so to speak.”
“Precisely,” Holloway concurred.
It was Jesse's turn to chuckle now. He put his hands behind his head and leaned back in his chair. “So I marketed the growth rate boost to you people so well that it's now a problem?” he asked with affected incredulity. Officer Garnham cast him a dark look.
Holloway was more forgiving. “Correct, Mr. Atkins,” he said. “And this is where your colleague comes into the story.” He saw Anna's attention perk up at that and he turned back to her. “We have a brand new program that needs your particular expertise. Have you heard of the Dexworks Corporation?”
“I have not,” she replied.
“They hold all the patents for reactive computer technology,” Holloway explained with a flourish of drama, “and they are currently developing a way to educate the Versions directly.”
Anna's heart leaped. The Holy Grail of computing had landed with a roar right in her lap. She recalled with a vivid flash the news report from several years ago (back when the news channels still reported interesting news) about reactive computing: a direct mimic of the structure of the human brain so faithful that it enabled programmable thought. The only problem was finding a fool-proof way to transfer the data from the computer to an actual human brain. So far such a feat had eluded even the smartest neuroscientist. If it could be done, however, the possibilities were staggering. Entire blocks of knowledge could be programmed directly into a person's brain; whole skill sets downloaded and set in motion deep within the neural tissues. Languages learned overnight, doctorate degrees' worth of research acquired instantly. Giddiness spread over her as she mused in awe.
Holloway regarded her with satisfied amusement. “I see you already know what is at stake here,” he said. “It would eliminate our education costs virtually overnight.”
“Yes it would,” Anna said dreamily. “A perfection for the ultimate Cure.” She attempted to focus again. “Has Dexworks found a way to transfer from computer to brain?”
“They have, and they need you to design the transfer protocol for doing so,” Officer Garnham said. “If you say yes you can start next week.”
The female officer's bluntness only accentuated the explosive effect her news had on its subject. Anna blinked several times, then looked back over to Jesse. His face reflected her surprise. He bent close to her and whispered, “I think this is the part where you say 'yes.'”
She held her hand out to Holloway in a daze and managed to stammer out a whispered “yes.” Holloway took her hand and shook it with another of his laughs but Anna had forgotten that she ever thought it was obnoxious. The room had become a cloud underneath her, and the air seemed similarly rarified. She grasped Holloway's hand hard to keep from floating off into the joy of her own mind.
“So that's settled then?” Officer Holloway asked, a rhetorical question at best since Anna had begun jumping and laughing after he had managed to release himself from her grasp. He looked to Jesse. “And Jesse, you will be taking over Anna's administrative responsibilities here as soon as she leaves. We've already spoken to your superiors and they've pre-okayed any change.” He smiled. “I was confident you would say yes.” He suddenly checked his commex tablet again. “And Miss McLean, I see that your semi-annual fertility appointment is due tomorrow. I'd try not to forget that.”
Anna's stomach dropped a little and the emotional high she had been riding froze. She had forgotten all about it. Now that she thought about it she hadn't even put the appointment into her schedule. She nodded wordlessly at Holloway in answer and he seemed satisfied.
Officer Garnham handed Anna an envelope. “This has all of your transfer paperwork on it, as well as your training schedule and new security ID badge. I am your orientation officer for the foreseeable future. Contact me on Monday at the time on your schedule and we will start.”
With a garbled thank you Anna took the envelope, and the group made its goodbyes. With a final smile, Holloway turned to Anna and pointed at her playfully. “You are going to do great, Miss McLean. A great service to society.” Without waiting for a response he and his compatriot exited, leaving Anna and Jesse alone in the conference room.
A stunned silence held the room captive for several moments. Finally Jesse shook himself. “I haven't seen you smile like that in days,” he remarked as he gathered his things. “It's sexy.”
Anna, despite her joy, managed a scowl at him. “That's because you haven't given me that much to smile about in a long time.” With a sudden thought she poked him in the shoulder. “I can't work the rest of today with this kind of news hanging over my head. I'm going home now.” She turned to go but Jesse grabbed her arm.
“Wait, how about we grab drinks tonight to celebrate? Someplace special?”
Anna recoiled inside. “I don't know. I'm not speaking to you. And I drink better at home alone...”
“Oh, come now Anna! You just got the promotion of your life and you don't want to get even slightly drunk in public?” Jesse pleaded. Anna bestowed a wry look on him.
“Tempting, yes, when you put it that way,” she ragged.
“I'm paying,” Jesse suggested desperately. “The best vodka, rum, or whatever the hell works for you these days. I'll pay it.”
Anna sighed. Her resistance levels to bad personal choices must have fallen shockingly low. Good news must do that to me, she thought ruefully as she made up her mind. “All right, fine, pick me up at seven-thirty. And cut back on the cologne this time, maybe?”
“If I remember,” Jesse replied with a laugh. Anna glowered at him and stalked out, to the elevator again, down to the parking garage level, and out to her car.
She frowned as she climbed into her vehicle and pressed the start button, listening moodily to the soft gurgle and whirr of fuel cell plumbing coming to life. After tapping “Home” on her nav system the autodrive took over, gently guiding the car out of the underground garage and into the filtered morning sunlight. She barely noticed the fluttering fall leaves and fiery colors as the car sped ever closer to the Potomac; her mind was fixated elsewhere. Just as well; the beautiful trees belied the adult shoppes located behind them, Jesse's obsession and an ever-encroaching force on Anna's dignity. She used to not mind them, now she hated them with a passion. They didn't even have the decency to keep their wares indoors where she didn't have to see them. Products and provocatively-dressed dummies spilled out onto the sidewalks with signs announcing various deals. She refused to notice them and let herself wander.
It was not to be for long. The car suddenly slowed and finally ground to a halt behind a wall of traffic that snaked in an unbroken line into the distance. Anna swore colorfully; she was almost surprised that her good mood could have left her so quickly, but traffic exerted a soul-draining effect on her from which she had never found a proper escape. She sighed, flipped the radio on and settled back into her seat with her eyes closed, letting the news and talk channel funnel into her brain as the autodrive did all the work.
“Good morning to you citizens across the nation! I am Josef Goodman with the latest breaking news this morning! Today's top stories...”
The broadcast played on and on in the background, an occasional item piquing her interest to the small degree that it ever did. She only ever half-listened to the stories these days. They had of late assumed the repetitive character of an outside world gone mad: war, violence, threats, political instability. All stories from abroad too, not a great many local tales; an active avoidance of most things local. At first the rush of foreign bad news had made her vaguely fearful. Fear quickly turned to petulance, and now in its place all that was left behind was just a strange numbness.
A commercial now blared from the radio. In earnest tones a sensuous woman's voice narrated the script: “Be a part of the Cure, and leave the work to us! Our newest Versions are the best ever created: smart, well-behaved, tailored to you. Enjoy sexual activity free from fear; build your family with our help. Join the HomoGen Initiative.” Even Anna had to cringe at the overbearing sales pitch.
The commercial ended. “In other news today,” Mr. Goodman continued in his faux interested tone, “the Vatican has, yet again, released a statement condemning the Reunited States for its stance on reproductive issues.” After a pause he continued: “The text of the condemnation singled out the HomoGen Initiative for specific criticism, calling it 'immoral and destructive.' This is the fifth such condemnation the Vatican has directed towards HomoGen in half as many years, ever since the project unveiled the extent of its human egg-harvesting processes and showed the first Versions to the public.”
Different popes, same old tired pronouncements, she thought dismissively. Distracted, she glanced back out the window and was surprised not only to have moved quite a bit since she last looked, but also to be staring almost directly into a police cruiser's flashing lights. She blinked at the bright blue strobes and her stomach sank. So this was the reason for the delay. She cut off the autodrive and resumed her station at the steering wheel, only to remember that she ought to have her license and papers in order to show the officer when it was her turn. Grumbling, she snatched her purse from the passenger side seat and rummaged through it.
The police officer finished with the vehicle ahead of her and came striding towards her car. Before coming to her window, he pulled a scanner gun from his belt and pointed it at her license tag. A beep and a check of the screen on the device and he appeared satisfied. He continued to her window. “License and registration and security paperwork, please.” His tone was both urgent and tired.
Anna complied, and after a quick check the officer was again satisfied and even a little surprised. “Thank you, Miss McLean. Good to see a sensible Party member out here at this time.” He turned to leave when Anna decided she couldn't contain her curiosity any longer.
“Officer?” she asked tentatively. “What's the reason for the stop? This can't just be routine traffic stops.”
The officer stopped, turned, and hesitated. “It's classified, Miss McLean.”
Anna's shoulders fell. The authorities felt it their duty to be tight-lipped. All the damn time. She tried again. “Is it a missing person case?”
The officer's face contorted and his tone darkened. “I'm sorry, Miss McLean, I can't satisfy you there. All I can say is that we are running an operation for Central Admin and that it is classified. Have a good day.” He turned and walked to the car behind Anna's and continued his work.
It must be a missing person case, Anna thought. He as much as admitted it. She shrugged and, putting her arm out the window into the cool air, proceeded to pick up speed as traffic began to move again over the Potomac. However, she had been cut off from her exit and had to take the next available off ramp to her neighborhood. Finding herself on relatively unfamiliar roads, she reset her autodrive and let it take over.
It was not long before the car suddenly bumped violently and recovered, and Anna shook from her reverie long enough to glance around for the cause of the bang. She realized the road had turned from smooth suburban pavement to the much older and badly maintained asphalt surfacing, and the road was now riddled indiscriminately with potholes. She switched off autodrive and took the wheel again, deftly navigating a path through the broken pavement.
Her eyes were immediately drawn to the homes lining the street. They were all older homes from the early twenty-first century, a sad parade of huge homogenous dwellings now fallen into a serious state of disrepair. Vinyl siding hung loose from the exterior walls, cracks spread spidery fingers across masonry, holes pierced the glass in the windows. No cars sat idly in driveways, no sprinklers sprayed and no children played. The yards exploded in messes of overgrown weeds and unkempt grass, the mailbox doors hung loose from their hinges. A dead neighborhood.
Honest regret twinged in Anna's heart as she watched the crumbling edifices pass her by through her closed window. A shame that her work many times led to this sort of scene. A shame that the world had become so grossly overpopulated. But then, it had been the human urge for centuries to populate willy-nilly and hers was the generation to wield the responsibility to curb that. To clean up the mess, to tidy the world away. For the sake of humanity's future, of course. And the children.
Her breath sucked in and the regret suddenly dried away as she drove by the last house before her neighborhood. It rotted in an even more dilapidated condition than the rest, but that was not the reason for the surge of anger that welled up in her heart. Rather, it was the graffiti painted across the sagging front door in garish lettering: LET THERE BE LIFE.
She cursed the police for taking her out of her normal route but it was too late to switch directions. She attempted to calm her anger until she saw the words again, painted on the concrete pillars of an approaching overpass: LET THERE BE LIFE. Mocking her, leering at her. Challenging her. As if her work didn't bring about life. She knew it was Verité's graffiti, and her hatred of them boiled up in her breast. She switched her music on and let it begin its mind-numbing pounding.
Finally the car left the derelict homes and troubling paintings behind, and far more upscale homes came into view. Mostly Party members' homes and those of their associated lawyers and attendants. And then there was hers, a wide brick affair cloaked in beautiful thick green ivy. Her parent's old home, her home, the only home she had ever known.
The car slowed to pull into the driveway and Anna groaned as she saw a man wave to her from the next yard over. He was an older man, early sixties, with close-cropped gray hair and the slightest stoop. He began making his way towards her as she parked and gathered her things. She hurried her pace to get out of the car and inside the house as quickly as possible, but he was quick for an old man. It wasn't that she hated him; on the contrary, he could be sweet when he wanted to be. But he was strange.
“Mornin', Annalise!” he called out to her in a good-humored voice. He always called her by her full first name, she never knew why. Even when she had told him long ago that her nickname was Anna, he had smiled and said, “I'll remember that, Annalise.”
“Good morning Mr. Vickers,” she replied as agreeably as she could. Her generous mood had recovered to a degree; promotions did that for a body. She even added to her standard greeting with a “What are you up to?”
He smiled a pleasant crooked smile at her and shrugged. “Enjoying the birds, the trees, the air, the autumn. The only time all year that this entire street turns orange and red. Feels like you're looking down a hallway with fire springing up from both sides and arching over your head.”
Just strange, Anna thought. She nodded and was about to turn to go inside when Mr. Vickers cocked his head and gave her a puzzled look.
“You're home mighty early,” he remarked. “I don't usually see you arrive home 'til at least five-thirty.”
Anna hesitated, but realized that none of what she and the Central Admin officers had spoken of earlier had been deemed confidential so she relaxed again. “I got a promotion,” she said simply.
“A promotion, eh?” he replied, scratching his chin. “And what sort of promotion might that be? Higher up? Higher out? Deeper down? What does that mean with your company?”
Scratch that. I do hate him. Anna gritted her teeth and inwardly willed the old man to shut up. He was the only one who ever gave her grief for her work, and now just from his tone she could feel his gentle criticism coming. The images of the paint on the doors flowed back into her brain and upset her equilibrium again. “I am transferring out of HomoGen completely,” she offered ambiguously, hoping he would accept it and let her go.
“Oh, is that so?” Mr. Vickers said in some astonishment. He added almost cheerfully, “Giving up the devil's work or simply transferring to another post to do it more efficiently?”
“You don't know what you're talking about,” Anna said in irritation and turned away. Her goodwill from the morning was now officially spent. She started up her sidewalk but still heard his voice behind her, following her.
“Versions are people, Anna. Real people. How can you devote your life to a company that desecrates people so?” His voice was mild, but insistently pleading. Like it had been every other time she had to listen to his drivel. Before, he had only brought it up every once in a while. Now it seemed like every day.
She stopped, turned on her heel and strode back to the driveway, coming face-to-face with the elderly man. Her breath pulsed rapidly in her anger and her words tumbled out sharply one on top of the other. “Maybe they are truly human, and then again, maybe they're not. But consider this: I actually give a damn what happens to this species of ours, so much so that I get up every morning and go to work just to make sure that we continue. Is that not good enough, even for you? How is that the devil's work, if there even is such a person as the devil?”
“The day HomoGen turned to manufacturing women's children outside of them; that was the day they started doing the devil's work.” He looked at her sternly.
Anna glared back at him, blood surging to her cheeks. “Every Version we make,” she pronounced slowly, irascibly, “has a place. Every one of them has someone to go to, to take them in and to care for them. Every Version is wanted.”
“So if it happened that they were not wanted, then what?” the man asked.
“There has never been a Version that someone didn't want,” Anna answered quickly, reflexively.
Mr. Vickers stared her straight in the eye, and his voice became very soft. “Do you have a father and a mother, Annalise?”
Anna blinked and frowned in confusion. “Yes...no. You know I don't.”
“But you did?”
“Of course I did!”
Mr. Vickers smiled faintly. “And, while they were still around, did you ever ask them why they were your father and mother?”
Anna's anger faltered amidst her discombobulation. She had no clue what he was driving at. “Why would I ask them that?” she wondered aloud. “There was no specific reason. They just were, I suppose.”
“I can guarantee you that was not the answer they would have given,” Mr. Vickers said in his soft tone.
“And what answer would they have given?” Anna asked, her irritation suddenly returning. “That I was useful to have, I suppose? That another girl in the world was a benefit to society in some way? You knew them before they died, you tell me what they would have said!” Her voice rose in unison with her frustration with the old man, and again she turned and attempted to walk away. Again that soft voice behind her.
She stopped, back still turned to him but waiting for what he had to say. No other word came though and she was forced to turn around just to see if he was still standing there. He was, and his face carried a look that she thought might have been compassion.
“Annalise, are you happy?” he asked quietly.
Anna stood motionless for several seconds, a dozen possible answers darting through her head. Her brain refused to process the question, though, and in a resolutely flat voice she replied: “Yes.” Then she turned for the final time, marched up her sidewalk, opened her front door and slammed herself shut inside. Away from old men asking awkward questions, away from her job, away from the autumn day, maybe even away from herself. She needed to be drunk.
Am I happy? Of course I am happy. Why wouldn't I be?
Read Chapter 4 here!