Chapter 7 ‑ The Investigation
“Do you mind if I call you Jorge?”
The old man gazed into the enforcer’s brown eyes. His attention returned to the sequencing monitor. “I’d just assume you call me Professor.”
“You’re still standing next to me. I take that you want something.”
“Can we speak privately?”
The old man looked around. “Everyone’s at breakfast.”
“Can we go somewhere where we won’t be interrupted?”
“Say what you want, and perhaps you’ll finish before someone comes in.”
The enforcer sighed. “It’s about one of your engineers. Engineer Six‑twenty‑one.”
“I’m afraid I’m on a single‑digit basis with my colleagues.”
“I never greet colleagues by number,” the professor reiterated.
“Camryn. Her name’s Camryn.”
“Ah yes. One of our less gifted members to be sure.”
“Competent. Can’t say much beyond that. Performs her assigned duties, but never innovates. So tell me. What did our poor Camryn do to bring the authorities upon us?”
“She placed an order for some very unusual DNA. It hasn’t been requested in years, and appears to be some ancient line. We’re hoping you can tell us why it would be needed.”
“Is it plant DNA or animal?”
“We don’t know. Since you have access to the same information as Engineer Six‑twenty‑one, I thought you might tell us.”
“I can assure you Enforcer, that if this atypical item was ordered by Camryn, there’s no need for alarm.”
“What is it she’s working on?”
“I have no idea.”
“But you direct the lab.”
“In name. My colleague Dobie does the real work. My years—they’re running out. I’m beginning to wonder,” he growled, “”if I’ll survive to read these samples.”
“But you must have some idea what your engineers are working on.”
The professor sighed. “In a truly creative environment, no one rules another. We share ideas. It’s an exchange. Occasionally we collaborate. I have a thought! Why don’t you just ask Camryn?”
“Professor Nine‑eighty‑three if you don’t mind.”
“I’ll be sure to note your lack of cooperation in my report.”
“And who exactly receives your report?”
“Who in particular in the corporation?”
“I give the report to my superior, who then forwards it to the appropriate department.”
“And you’re sure your superior forwards it?”
“It’s his duty.”
“And if he does forward it, how do you know the appropriate person in the appropriate department will not simply click ‘File: Store’?”
“I carry out my duties and trust others to do the same. Those who are not loyal to the corporation are dealt with by the authorities.”
“And who files their reports again?”
“There are others in the creative compound with access to this same information.”
“True, but if you can’t verify the information they supply is correct, then how do you know they’re not misleading you?”
“Because they’re more loyal to the corporation than Professor Nine‑eighty‑three!”
“Indeed. I must agree with you there. Were it up to me, the sphere would be punctured by now and we’d be swimming for our lives—or drowning in the attempt.”
Chapter 8 ‑ The Interrogation
The room wasn’t as scary as Dobie had imagined. It was, however, a lot pinker. The chairs were pink, and even the carpet had a rosy tinge. The walls were fuchsia, taking on orange and violet hues as ever‑changing ceiling colors drifted overhead.
He wondered if this is what detainment might be like. Perhaps he’d been imprisoned already, things being so different. The walls in the lab were gray after all, as were the counters, cabinets, and stool coverings. “At least here,” he considered, “there’s some color.”
He watched the door and wondered how long he’d been waiting. Gradually, his eyes returned to the ceiling. He wondered what type of trade—okay, bribe—might make a spectrolight ceiling available to the lab. He considered whether the violets might make the professor’s white hair look purple.
The door slid open and Dobie jerked to attention. His heart pounded but, left ankle on right knee, he slumped into his armchair.
The enforcer took a seat on a small sofa across from him. “Unusual,” Dobie thought, “for an enforcer to have brown hair and dark eyes.” He wondered if the sequencing was some of his own.
The enforcer shifted a bit and squared his shoulders. Dobie considered how comical he looked, this large man in black sitting so uncomfortably upright on a tiny pink couch.
“I hope I didn’t interrupt your work too much,” said the enforcer.
“Any diversion is a welcome one.”
“Would you like anything to eat?”
“Is the food pink too?” Dobie asked.
“Same as your own, I’m afraid.”
“I thought,” said the enforcer, “that it might be easier to bring you here, rather than speak with you in the lab.”
“Exactly where is ‘here’?”
“You’re in the inquiry lounge.”
The inquiry lounge. The words reminded him of a scene in a contraband detective novel. Dobie chewed on the tip of his tongue to keep from laughing.
A band of red on the ceiling passed slowly overhead, giving the enforcer’s cheeks a crimson glow.
“You’re smiling,” said the enforcer.
“The color here— It’s dizzying.”
The crimson band crept down the enforcer’s face to form a pink mustache. Dobie began to snicker.
The enforcer raised an eyebrow. He cast his eyes downward, and fingered a hole in his shirt.
Dobie laughed. “I’m sorry,” he choked. Bits of moisture sprayed from his mouth as he attempted an apology. “I’m truly sorry.”
Seeing the enforcer’s confused expression, Dobie now guffawed. Tears puddled in his eyes and zigzagged down his face.
“Are you all right?”
He wheezed and sputtered, trying to catch his breath.
The enforcer was at Dobie’s side. “Do you need something? Are you on medication?”
Now Dobie howled. He hanged himself over the chair arm. His face was red and drooling.
The enforcer turned his head; spoke into his lapel. “Get a doctor here now!”
Dobie’s laughter slowly subsided.
“Why don’t you lie on the floor,” said the enforcer.
Dobie waved an open palm at him. “I’m all right.”
“Hold that order,” said the enforcer, again into his lapel. “I think he’s coming around.”
Dobie wiped his nose on the edge of his shirtsleeve. Disgust crossed the enforcer’s face, nearly setting him off again. Slowly, he righted himself. Unable to speak, he pointed toward the agent’s neck.
“Oh. The microphone? It’s for emergencies.”
“Am I being recorded?”
“We document all inquiries.”
Dobie rubbed his face with his hands, trying to smooth out the smile and regain his composure. “I’m not on medication.”
“Should I give you a few minutes?”
“No. I’m okay. I’m here for a reason. Better find out what it is.”
The enforcer stiffly repositioned himself on the pink sofa. “Jorge—your supervisor—told me you’re an exceptional engineer. He seems to hold you in very high regard.”
“Are you two friends?” said Dobie.
“You talk together a lot?”
“Just in passing.”
“How many times have you passed? I haven’t seen you in the lab.”
“Not important,” sighed the enforcer. “Some of the people in the lab say that you’re very close to a particular coworker.”
“I’d like to think I’m friendly with everyone.”
“We’re only concerned with one. Her name’s Camryn.”
Dobie shifted involuntarily and hesitated before replying. “Is she the redhead perhaps? I thought her name was Penny, but I guess I wasn’t paying attention.”
“According to our records, you’ve been with the same people for several years. Surely you know their names and who’s who
“Not as well as you do apparently.”
“Your colleague Harmon says you talk with her a lot.”
“Who? The redhead?”
“Camryn. A blonde. He says you’ve been spending a lot of time with her lately.”
“Oh, her? We decided to call a truce,” said Dobie. “Until recently we didn’t speak. Highly unproductive.”
“You didn’t get along?”
“We didn’t get along, or not get along. She barely knew I was alive.”
“But you wanted her to?”
“I wanted us to be on speaking terms. We’re in the same lab after all.”
“Does she confide in you?”
“Who? Camryn? I only just got to know her.”
“But you’re already close.”
“Not really. I think she’s kind of cute, so I try to chat with her when I can. You think she’s cute, don’t you?”
The enforcer opened his mouth, and then closed it abruptly.
“Because I don’t see that many women. She might be plain ugly for all I know. We only see the girls in our compound, and mostly the ones in our own lab.”
“Have you kissed her?” asked the enforcer.
“Thought about it.” His eyes sparkled. “Do you think she’d let me?”
“I wouldn’t know about that.”
“I know, but if you had to guess—”
The enforcer frowned. “I understand you took a box of DNA samples to her.”
“When was this? I don’t remember it.”
“A messenger dropped them off?”
“Oh, those? I thought they were mine, but when I checked the label they weren’t.”
“Do you know what she’s using the DNA for?”
“We’re geneticists, so we use DNA all of the time. Maybe if you tell me what she’s working on—”
“We don’t know what she’s working on. We’re hoping you can tell us.”
He shrugged. “We mostly work on our own projects, and with DNA somewhat frequently.”
“But not from Corridor Thirteen.”
Dobie coughed. “Is that something special?”
“I thought you might know,” said the enforcer. “Have you ordered anything from Corridor Thirteen?”
“I don’t think so.”
“If we provide the sample number, will you look it up for us? Tell us exactly what she ordered?”
“Why don’t you just ask this Camryn girl?”
“Because she’s the one under investigation. It might tip her off, don’t you think?”
“Why don’t you ask the librarian who filled the order?”
“Corridor Thirteen is restricted. For security purposes, the librarians retrieve samples by number. They don’t know what individual vials contain.”
“I’m afraid I can’t help you,” said Dobie. “It’s against the engineer’s creed.”
“The engineer’s creed?”
“The rules the creative compound lives by—so that everyone can get along. Surely there are certain unwritten rules among your colleagues.”
“So this ‘creed’ isn’t really a set of rules.”
“More like a set of expectations. According to the creed—let me see how to explain it. Now how does it go again? Oh yes. No engineer will usurp the work of another.”
“I don’t see how looking an item up on the computer usurps anyone’s work.”
“It might give me some idea as to what her project is, and she might want to keep that to herself.”
“If you’re so concerned about staying out of her work, then why did you just ask me what she was working on?”
“A slip. Can’t help but be curious sometimes. Won’t happen again.”
“Professor Nine‑eighty‑three didn’t mention this ‘creed.'”
“Professor Nine—? Oh, the professor! Did he retrieve the information for you?”
The enforcer regarded him contemptuously.
“I guess not,” said Dobie, “because if he had, I wouldn’t be here then. Would I?”
“If you won’t help me, I’m sure someone else will.”
“Maybe you could ask someone in a different lab.”
“We thought of that, but yours is the only one with access to older samples.”
Dobie pulled his shoulders to his ears.
“But you’re right,” said the enforcer. “Someone else will help us. I hope you won’t mind, but we’ll have you stay the night. You understand that we can’t have you talking to anyone else in the lab—not until we’ve completed our investigation.”
“And don’t worry. The cell you’ll be taken to won’t be quite so pink.”
Chapter 9 ‑ The Messenger
The cell was less pleasant than the inquiry lounge. Here the only bit of color was a large, brown stain on the cot’s mattress. Dobie wondered whether it might be blood or excrement.
He played with the gray glob on his plate. Reconstruction was apparently the same in every compound. He took another spoonful.
Dobie thought one night had gone by, and that he might be approaching a second. It was hard to tell, with no activity or lighting change to mark the passing hours.
He laid the plate on the floor. Stretching out on twisted sheets, he forced his eyes closed. He worried that the authorities might lie. That they might tell Camryn he’d betrayed her. Maybe she’d panic and tell them about the book—or about Sheila.
The doors hissed open and Camryn entered the cell with the enforcer. Dobie smiled at her, but she ignored him, focusing instead on his captor.
“This the one who gave you the book?” said the enforcer.
“He’s the one. I don’t have it any more though. He slipped it to someone at the commissary.”
“Do you know who?”
Dobie tried to remember if he’d confided in her.
“It was the redhead.”
“From the cloning compound?”
“The redhead’s Penny!” thought Dobie. “She’s in our compound.”
“And he gave Penny the book? To get her to clone a snake?”
“Um huh. A snake for a bear to eat.”
That wasn’t right! Dobie tried to talk, but his lips wouldn’t open. He watched Camryn’s face, but she continued to smile up at the enforcer.
The enforcer turned to go and Camryn followed.
Dobie shadowed them, hoping to squeeze through the door. The hydraulic door hissed; gripped his hand. He pulled and then yanked. It wouldn’t come loose. He awoke.
The twisted sheet was looped tightly around his wrist. The plate on the floor clattered against his foot as he bolted upright, struggling against the tangle.
Through bleary eyes, Dobie saw a man standing at the door.
“Come with me,” said the messenger.
Dobie fingered the sheets to reassure himself he was awake. He pulled himself up from the cot. “Am I okay to go?”
“Not today. Enforcer Nine‑eighty‑six asked that I read the following statement to you.” The messenger pulled a small data pad from his pocket. “This is to notify you that you are under investigation, and will be detained until such investigation has been completed.”
“They’re not investigating me!” argued Dobie.
The messenger motioned for him to follow.
“I was just brought here for questioning.”
“I just read the statements. I don’t validate them. Let’s go.”
“Where? The lab?”
“Where’s that? I mean, why? I haven’t done anything.”
“If you would just follow me.”
“I want to know where I’m going.”
The messenger started down the corridor. “Look,” he called back. “I hear the detainment compound isn’t that bad.”
Dobie trotted up to him. “Compared to what?”
“The cell you were just in for one thing.”
“A latrine would be better than that.”
“And detainment’s better a latrine, so things are looking up.”
“My lab’s going to worry.”
“I’m sure your superior will be notified.”
“Could you pass along a message?” said Dobie. “Could you just tell my boss I’m being held? See, there’s this technical line I was working on. It needs to be sent out for cloning. It’s important.”
The messenger checked a map on his data pad. “This way please.”
“We’ve been working on it for months,” said Dobie.
He appeared not to listen.
Dobie walked a few steps behind, and then stopped altogether in protest. “So this compound— Where is it?”
“It’ll take several hours to get there. It’s far away from everything else of course.”
“I guess that makes sense,” said Dobie, coming up beside him. “I’m really not that frightening though, am I? That I need to be locked up?”
“I don’t know what you did.”
“That makes two of us.”
“This way now.”
“What are the others there for? The ones in detainment? Did they murder someone? Steal?” Dobie felt his heart pulsing in his neck. “Are they nuts?”
“My job is to drop you off. As long as you don’t cause me trouble, I won’t cause you trouble.”
“But you’ve met them, haven’t you?”
“Actually, you’re the first one I’ve taken to detainment.”
“Well how many are there? In the compound?”
“Guess not many if you’re the first one I’ve taken. Most people are good citizens.”
“I’m a good citizen.”
“Obviously you did something.”
“I’m just being held for questioning. They’re investigating someone else.”
The messenger shrugged.
“Really,” said Dobie. “Yesterday, or at least I think it was yesterday— I know I acted kind of goofy but—”
“Oh, so you’re the one they’re talking about!”
“Something struck me funny. I started laughing. I’m not crazy.”
“It’s not my job to pass judgment. If it makes you feel any better, you seem sane enough to me. But then, I spend all of my time walking people and messages through corridors and tunnels. How sane is that?”
“How old are you?” said Dobie.
“I engineered your line!”
“Now I know who to blame for my boring life.”
“I’m just the engineer,” said Dobie. “The corporation decides where the line’s placed—what it does.”
“I guess there are worse jobs. I could be in Reconstruction, making food.”
“So now you can thank me.”
“Who are you anyway, to create me in the first place? To say what traits I should and shouldn’t have? What traits anyone should or shouldn’t have?” He looked at Dobie scornfully. “You don’t seem all that fabulous yourself!”
“I don’t decide anything,” said Dobie. “The corporation sends me guidelines. I follow them more or less.”
“Looks like your line needs the work. You’re the one going to detainment.”
They walked for a time, the messenger exuding hostile silence.
“You must have some life beyond this,” said Dobie. “You must think about other things; hopefully more pleasant things than what traits you’ve been denied.”
“What’s the point? My life is set. As long as the corporation is productive, what else matters, right?”
“Do I detect a bit of cynicism?”
“What good does thinking do if you do the same job the same way each and every day?”
“But you meet all kinds of people in your job. That must be fascinating. You’ve probably met every line that’s ever been made.”
“I meet people briefly. Most are quick to point out that their lines are considered superior to mine. I could argue the point, but figure their egotism is predetermined—preprogrammed if you will.”
“I can guarantee you that it’s primarily acquired.”
“Anyway, why argue with them? Even if I was the smartest person in the entire sphere, I’d have to perform the same role.”
“Maybe you are the smartest!”
The messenger smirked.
“I designed your line. I can tell you that it’s superior to most.”
“Why would you make a messenger line superior?”
“Because your line links to so many others.”
A smile flickered across the messenger’s face.
“Look,” said Dobie. “Those in the creative compound have the most variation—the most ability to think for themselves. The most imagination.”
The smile faded.
“No!” said Dobie. “I don’t mean it that way! I was just about to say that our lives are dull beyond imagination. We’re pressured to be productive like everyone else, but we’re dying to think about anything other than work. There’ve been times when I’ve wondered if the corporation might be better off with a little less productivity and a little more play. Sometimes I wish everyone would just break out into utter, unproductive chaos!”
“With words like that, I can see why you’re going to detainment.”
Dobie sobered. “I was just talking. I know the corporation is important. The corporation provides all.”
“Don’t worry,” said the messenger. “If I reported everything someone confessed—or everything I’d overheard—well it would definitely interfere with productivity.”
“And we wouldn’t want that.”
“Of course not,” said the messenger.
Dobie sighed. “I would like to get back to my cubicle, though.”
“If you’re as bored as you say you are, you might like detainment better.”
“What do you mean?”
The messenger shrugged. “One man went there. They asked him to come back, but he never did. Never even replied to their requests. He’s been there for years now. Must have liked something about it.”
“How many years?”
“Fifteen. Sixteen. Maybe longer. Sometime before I started.”
“But that’s the exception, right? What’s the average?”
“Most are there a while I suppose.”
There was no answer.
There was still no answer.
“More than a month?”
“I don’t know. Forever?”
Dobie mouthed the word.
“But what do I know? I mean, you’re the only one I’ve ever taken. And remember, I’ve only been working five years. And they asked that one man to come back, but he didn’t. And it was entirely his decision.”
Dobie wasn’t responding, and the messenger’s voice grew shaky. “I mean, they used to send him messages. ‘You’re free! Meet the messenger at the door to return to your compound and assigned duties.’ But nothing.”
Dobie stammered. “But you would know, wouldn’t you? If he died?”
“Because he might have had an accident. I assume somebody checked.”
“No one but detainees is allowed in. But he was a young man when he left. He’s probably still alive.”
“What’s his name? Maybe I can find out—tell you when I’m back at the lab.”
The messenger raised his eyebrows.
“I do plan to get out,” said Dobie.
“I’d love to see everyone’s expression if I suddenly showed up with him,” said the messenger. “He’s a legend!”
“Do you know his name? I’ll keep a lookout.”
The messenger wore a preoccupied smile.
“Never mind,” Dobie sighed. “You probably don’t even know it.”
“It’s pretty easy,” said the messenger. “It’s Freeman. Free man. Think you can remember that?”
“Yes,” Dobie chuckled, “I do. When I get out I’ll let you know.”
“Yeah. When you get out.”
Chapter 10 ‑ Detainment
The door hissed and the messenger vanished. Dobie wanted to believe the door would reopen—that the messenger would be standing there. “I’m so, so sorry. I’ve made a terrible mistake. You’re not going to report me, are you?”
Dobie touched the doors and then pushed on them, hoping they were pressure sensitive. They weren’t.
His footsteps echoed, and he realized he must be walking. At any moment, someone would step out of some unseen corridor or door to rebuke him. “You shouldn’t be here! Come this way.” No one did.
At the end of the corridor was another set of doors. Dobie looked behind him, reassuring himself there’d been no mistake and that he hadn’t missed any options. He pushed a button on the wall and the doors hissed apart. He passed through and they closed behind him with a reverberating thud.
Dobie pressed, pushed, and rammed the doors. They wouldn’t reopen. He kicked at them and cursed. He pressed his back to them, and then slid to the floor.
Before him was another empty corridor. He listened again for a friendly voice or reprimand. Except for the slight hum of the ceiling lights, there was silence. He sat for what seemed a long time, wondering whether someone might hear him if he yelled. He didn’t, afraid someone might.
“What if I’m the only one here? What if there’s nothing to eat? How many more corridors are there?”
He stood up and began to walk, pausing intermittently to look behind him. He came at last to a bend in the hallway. Before him was an open room, and around the bend another corridor with yet another hydraulic door.
He stood at the entrance to the room. “Hello?”
There was no answer.
“Is anyone here? What am I supposed to do now?”
The flicker of a dim computer screen beckoned him forward. Slowly, cautiously, he approached. With the edge of his forearm, he wiped a thick film of dust from the monitor. He pressed the space bar on a keyboard and the screen flashed. A list appeared.
Message for Freeman, Technician 83205, 03/02/2095, Please reply
Message for Freeman, Technician 83205, 02/05/2095, Please reply
Message for Freeman, Technician 83205, 01/05/2095, Please reply
Message for Freeman, Technician 83205, 12/08/2094, Please reply . . .
He settled into a cobwebbed office chair and scrolled down the list, hoping to see “Message for Dobie, Engineer 797” Nothing. He tapped the ‘Menu’ key.
- Send message
- Personal detainment record
He selected number 4.
Enter personal ID number.
Dobie, Engineer 797, Creative Compound
Period of Detainment: Indeterminate
Reason for Detainment: Suspect unauthorized cloning. Suspected sabotage of cloned lines.
Returning to the menu, he chose “Send Message.” Two choices appeared.
- Send to Enforcement Messenger
- Send to Other
“Let’s try ‘Other.'”
To his surprise, he accessed the mail screen he was familiar with. He typed.
To: Jorge, Engineer 983, Creative Compound
Copy to: Camryn, Engineer 621, Creative Compound
Was being interrogated. Am suddenly in detainment (I think). Don’t see anyone but me. Don’t know if I’m coming back. The messenger who brought me didn’t think so. Please take care of Sheila.
He pressed “Send.” As an afterthought, he typed a similar message to Brian. A window flashed onto the screen.
MESSAGE NOT DELIVERED.
Dobie quickly typed a second message to the professor. “Let me know if you get this.” The computer flashed another notice.
MESSAGE NOT DELIVERED.
He tried a note to the messenger. “Test Test Test.” This time no window popped up.
“It must have gone through.”
He typed again. “Messenger. No one here. Where do I go now? What do I do? HELP. HELP. HELP. HELP.”
He waited for some time, but there was no reply.
He returned to the original list of messages. The last message to Freeman was dated… “Twenty years ago!”
Dobie left the room in a stupor. He continued down the corridor and through the hydraulic doors. He winced when they hissed behind him. Turning around, he touched them. To his surprise, they reopened.
He felt suddenly giddy and pleased with himself. He stepped back and forth several times, making the door open and close. The corridor continued ahead, but he walked briskly now, a light from the end of the hallway enticing him forward.
He passed a large glass door, which leaned against the wall. Grains of dirt crunched beneath his slippers. On the cracking linoleum tile were scattered, foot‑shaped tread marks.
As he progressed, the light became more intense. His eyes began to water. He held an arm across them to block it.
With the brightness came a pleasant warmth. It seared through his skin and gently caressed his bones. He wanted to bathe in it, but his eyes ached and throbbed, forcing him back.
Dobie retreated until the pain began to ease. He tried again, and once more was stopped.
Dobie sat on the floor, his back turned toward the light. He listened. Somewhere in the distance broken melodies chirped and whistled. Folding arms on knees and resting head on arms, he tried to think of what to do now.
Suddenly his head jerked up. It took him a moment to remember where he was and how he’d gotten there. The light in the corridor was dimmer now; the air in his nostrils heavy and damp. Dobie stood and walked slowly forward.
He held an arm before his eyes, and then found he could lower it. He passed a hanging glass door and stepped into darkness. As he kept walking, the corridor fell away around him. He stopped.
Behind him it stood intact, the last ceiling light flickering uncertainly. Ahead of him lay a field of cement blanketed by shadow. There was a large globular light in the ceiling, which went higher than any he’d seen. He stared upward, trying to determine where walls and ceiling met.
There were smaller lights in addition to the large one. “Not very useful,” he thought, and then considered that they might be brighter at different times of the day. Perhaps together they’d produced the intense light encountered earlier.
He walked the barely lit field. Scattered here and there were metal poles. They towered upward and ended in a half arc.
Dobie stopped and looked behind him. In the distance, the detainment compound was a colossal, dome silhouette against a nearly black backdrop.
Across the field, Dobie made out a hulking figure bent close to the ground. A white stripe shimmered down its back. Otherwise it was blacker than the darkness. Dobie watched it waddle, trying to determine where its legs and arms started. The figure swaggered into blackness, leaving behind a pungent, musky odor.
Dobie walked the field perimeter, and then halted abruptly. Something still and towering stood just off the pavement’s edge. He froze; turned and ran. His lungs burned from the unaccustomed effort. Gripping at the pain in his chest and gasping for air, he turned to face it. The figure waited.
“It knows I can’t get away,” he thought. Squeezing at a stab in his side, he doubled over. The great figure stood calmly poised.
“Where am I?” Dobie called out.
It didn’t answer.
Dobie squinted, trying to make it out. “Is this the detainment compound? Where do I go now?”
The figure was stoic.
Dobie stepped warily toward it. Its hair tossed beneath the air ducts, creating tiny, silvery shimmers.
Reaching out an arm, Dobie touched it. There was no flesh. No encasing fabric. There was a warmth to it, but nothing moved or pulsed beneath his hand. Dobie looked up and made out the rounded mass of hair shimmering above him. “A tree?” He laughed out loud. “A tree?”
He gazed back at the dome silhouette. The huge room that had surrounded him fell from his mind. “I’m out!” His knees buckled beneath him and he collapsed to the ground. “I’m out of the megasphere! I was sent to detainment, but instead I’ve escaped!”
He spread himself out on the ground, and then sprang up and ran in circles on the pavement, stumbling now and then when his toe met a crack or a stone. He ran in ever‑widening circles. Laughing, screaming, shouting, he gripped at the pain in his side.
He ran back to the sphere and staggered down the corridor. He passed through the hydraulic door and flopped into the computer room’s chair. He typed.
If you get this, gather your things.
His stomach growled.
Bring food! Freedom awaits! No water surrounds the sphere. There is only openness. I’m not mad. Not crazy. Only delirious with possibilities. Take a chance! Bring others!
Chapter 11 ‑ A Free Man
Dobie plodded along the tree‑lined corridor. The blacktop he walked on radiated heat into his pant legs; against his torso and chin. Perspiration poured from his hairline and trickled into his eyes. His eyes burned and watered. His vision blurred. Pulling up the hem of his shirt, he blotted at his face. He turned and staggered backward.
He imagined himself sitting at the computer. “Messenger. Don’t come! No food or water. Very hot. Skin is turning red. Very painful. Light here is too bright.” He worried over the enthusiastic message he’d typed earlier.
Dobie sat on the ground and arched his body forward, resting elbows on knees. He lowered his head and thought about the lighted globe above him. Did it float in mid‑air or was it set in a ceiling? He still wasn’t sure. A few hours ago it barely washed his surroundings with light. Now it blazed. He thought of the sphere—how it had glimmered white as the globe climbed higher. Shimmering letters spelled out “American Alternative Research Corporation.”
“What’s American?” He understood alternative. Understood research. Corporation was the collective whole; the good of the people—the society.
His stomach gnawed from within. His tongue was unaccustomedly dry. It clung to the roof of his mouth. Maybe the chief enforcement officers knew best after all. The sphere had its limitations, but was decidedly safer than this. Dobie wondered if deconstruction might have been better.
He looked down the corridor. “Maybe I should have gone that way,” he thought. He saw no end to the path in either direction. Only a long black strip walled with trees—the trees he’d delighted in seeing a few hours earlier.
“You don’t look so good.”
Dobie jerked himself upright. Part of him worried he’d imagined it—another that he hadn’t.
“I’m over here,” said the voice.
Off the road, under a collection of drooping tree limbs, stood a man. His face and clothes were dirt‑smudged. Hair blanketed his head and shoulders. It trailed above and along his lips, and down the sides of his face. It was matted, with streaks where fingers had clawed through it.
Dobie stood and stared.
The man gripped a tree‑branch club. “I can defend myself.”
Dobie nodded. “I just got out of the sphere.”
The man pursed his lips. “Guess you’re hungry then.”
At the promise of food, Dobie’s eyes grew large.
“Follow me,” said the man. He turned abruptly when Dobie’s foot snapped a twig. “Mind you keep your distance now.”
Dobie stepped back, mindful of the club.
“So,” said the man as he walked, “why’d they kick ya out?”
“Is this the detainment compound?” Dobie asked.
“I’ll ask the questions,” growled the man. “You answer ’em.” When there was no rebuttal, he continued. “So, why’d they throw ya out?”
“I was cloning things. They hadn’t been authorized.”
“So you must be a creative.” He said the word with a note of disdain.
He didn’t acknowledge the answer.
“That’s right,” Dobie called more loudly.
“What’d you clone?”
“I didn’t do the actual cloning.”
“Why ya here then?”
“I arranged for the cloning.”
“Same thing ain’t it? Suppose ya thought someone else would get the blame!”
Dobie was worrying over the likelihood when the man spoke again. “So what’d ya have cloned?”
Dobie cleared his parched throat. “A mouse. Well, also a bird. Lizards. Frogs. Mostly small stuff that I could hide easily.”
The man snorted. “If ya want the company of birds ‘n frogs, ya’ve found the right place. If ya were gonna get tossed out, ya might as well have cloned somethin’ worthwhile.”
Dobie frowned. “I’ve cloned people too.”
The man shrugged. “Lots of people been cloned.”
“My dad and me, we cloned a girl once.”
“Lots of girls been cloned.”
“This one was supposed to be my wife. Our genes were highly compatible. We made sure she was viable too. Dad wants a grandson you see. Not that I don’t, but he insists on one not made to order.”
“So you viable too?”
Dobie began to feel uncomfortable with the direction of the conversation. “I’m a throwback, I guess.”
“So ya have a wife then.”
“It didn’t work out.”
“Didn’t work out? If your genes were so compatible and all—”
“We failed to consider one important variable.”
“That she might find someone else more attractive.”
A sideward grin crossed the man’s face. “That can happen when it’s nature makin’ the decisions. ‘Specially when it’s human nature.” He snuffled at his own joke. “Met a man from Reconstruction once—”
“From the megasphere? How many others are there?”
The man turned and frowned. “I wasn’t done with my story.”
Dobie surveyed what he could see of the man’s face. “Sorry.”
“Anyways, like I was sayin’. This man and, I guess his wife, must‑a‑bin throwbacks too. They had a kid. Born; not cloned.” He lowered a brow at Dobie. “Guess you creatives don’t know what you’re doin’.”
“Maybe,” said Dobie, “But don’t you think it’s good that the corporation doesn’t control everything?”
The man snickered. “The corporation doesn’t control shit!” He held up his arms. One drooped a bit from the weight of the club. “Don’t control all this!”
Dobie surveyed the man and his surroundings. “The CEOs didn’t—”
The man turned and tossed the tree limb to Dobie. “You think they could make this?”
Dobie fell back as he caught it. He looked at the flaking of the bark; felt the uneven distribution of weight. “No,” he said. “Random genetics made this.”
“Random genetics. Now don’t that sound high ‘n mighty? Judgin’ from all the accidental births been occurin’—least when I was inside—I’d say your random genetics are gettin’ the upper hand.”
“I’m hoping they take over,” said Dobie, tossing the tree limb back to him. “Some of us have been giving it a hand.”
The man’s mouth formed a red pit in his matted beard. “You mean you’re goofin’ up on purpose?”
“I like to think we’re making improvements.”
“How does the corporation feel ’bout that?”
“Until recently,” said Dobie, “they seemed pretty oblivious.”
“So how long you been makin’ ‘improvements’?”
“Here and there for about twenty years, give or take a couple years. My dad’s been adding random elements a lot longer than that. The creative compound is pretty well staffed. I can’t believe we’re the only ones who’ve thought of it.”
The old man shook his head and laughed. He tossed aside the tree limb and waved Dobie forward. “Come on. We gotta get ya somethin’ to eat.”
“And drink,” said Dobie, rubbing his throat.
“And drink. You look awful!”
Chapter 12 ‑ The Campsite
“There’s a bucket of water over there,” said the man. “Help yerself.”
Dobie looked at the rusty container, and then back at his host.
“Go ahead. It’s clean. Just drew it up this mornin’. Thirst’ll kill ya before the rust does.”
Dobie cupped his hands and slurped from them.
The man winced. “Don’t get my water all dirty! Here. Use this.” He tossed Dobie a mug with a mostly missing handle. Dobie dipped it into the bucket, and then gulped eagerly.
After several mugfuls, he sat down on the grass and rolled the empty cup in his palms. The initials A.A.R.C. ran around the mug’s body. Below the letters, in a smaller font, ran “American Alternative Research Corporation.”
“That’s what’s printed on the sphere,” said Dobie.
“What’s American mean?”
“Means someone who lives inAmerica.”
“It’s where ya are now. What the U.S.was, before it became the N.A.U.—the North American Union.” He tossed some twigs onto a blacked area on the ground. “Once we joined up with Canada, the Norties said calling the old U.S.America gave people the wrong idea. Implied they wasn’t as American as we are. People try their damndest not to use the word any more, but don’t offend me none. Watch it when you’re talkin’ to others though.”
The man went to a large, weathered desk and rooted through the drawers. “Here we go.” He pulled out a box of matches and a small plastic container that read decaf on the side. “Don’t usually make coffee, but this is a special occasion.”
“You live here?” said Dobie.
“Sure I live here. Why not? Have everything I need. There’s a town a few kilometers out. Go there once a week. Dig around. Find all the necessities.”
“Town?” Dobie tried to recall the word from books he’d read. “A place where people assemble?”
“That’s right.” The man poured some water into a little pot. “It’ll be instant. Hope that’s okay.”
To Dobie, anything instantaneous sounded that much better.
“You live here by yourself?”
“Pretty much,” said the man.
Dobie looked around him. “Where do you sleep?”
“Wherever I happen to be when I’m sleepy. If it rains, I just hunker down under the desk. If ya’d rather sleep indoors, you can have it tonight.”
“Dictionary,” thought Dobie. “Define rain. Define hunker.”
“Or,” said the man, “ya can sleep in there.” He pointed to a large, leather‑covered storage trunk beneath a tree. “Gets a little stuffy, but it’s more waterproof. I broke the latch off, so ya don’t have to worry about accident’ly lockin’ yerself in. I use it when it gets cold.”
“I don’t think that’s a concern,” said Dobie, wiping his face on his shirtsleeve.
“T’ain’t even summer yet! You’re just used to air conditionin’. Anyway,” said the man, “you’re in luck as far as food goes. I just got back from town yesterday. Which do ya want? Got this dog chow here. Can you believe someone threw out the whole bag? Prob’ly just ’cause of the expiration date, too. Or I got some cereal.” He shook the box. “Better save that for mornin’. Or I got some fruit.”
“Dictionary. Define fruit.”
“It’s a little bruised and stinky, but it don’t taste bad. Had some last night.”
Dobie wondered how much longer it would be before the man handed him something. “I’ll try some chow.”
The man pouted his bottom lip. “Dog chow it is. Good fer ya anyway. This here’s premium.”
The man wiped out a bowl with his shirttail, and then dropped a handful of kibble into it.
Dobie fingered a piece and sniffed. “Smells like reconstruction,” he thought, popping it into his mouth. He bit down on the little ball, pressing his teeth hard against it. His jaw pinched but the ball didn’t crumble. He rolled it in his mouth and tried again. Finally he spit it into his hand.
The man laughed. “Ya might need to soak it a bit. Let it soften up.”
Dobie added some water to the bowl. “So how many desks make a town?” he asked.
The man looked at him quizzically, and then laughed. “Well,” he said, “I ‘magine there’s a fair number in most towns. Most are in houses or apartments though.”
Dobie looked at him blankly.
“I just like my freedom,” said the man. “Like bein’ a free man. In fact, that’s my name.” He held out a large, calloused palm. “Freeman.”
“Pleased to meet ya, Dobie. Hold on. I think the water’s ready.” The man pulled the pot off a large stone, using a rag to grasp the handle.
“So why’d they kick you out?” Dobie asked.
“What do ya mean by that?”
“You’re from the sphere. The messenger said they’d tried to reach you. Said you could come back.”
“Oh he did!” roared the man. “I bet they want me back! Well let ’em want. I ain’t ever goin’!”
Dobie watched Freeman stomp about, grunting curses and scanning the ground for additional twigs. He tossed what he found into the fire. When his demeanor calmed, Dobie broached the subject again. “So why didn’t you go back?”
“I’ll tell ya why! ‘Freeman’, they says. ‘We need someone to go out ‘n shut down that computer—the one in the detainment compound. Messengers keep gettin’ strange mail from detainees—trying to talk ’em into sabotagin’ the corporation.’
“‘We need someone to go out and destroy it,’ they says. But I says to myself, ‘Freeman, they ain’t’ gonna let ya back in. No one comes back from detainment. No one. I don’t care what they been sent there for.’
“So just to be sure I’d be invited, I rigged some of the computers in the enforcement area—a lot of ’em—so they wouldn’t work right without my askin’ ’em. Only thing is, once I get out here I like it a whole lot better. I don’t wanna go back. They’re just gonna have to do without their computers—least til someone else figures out what I did.”
Dobie pushed some of the soaking slurry into his mouth. It squished through his teeth and down his throat. “A little spicier than reconstruction,” he thought. “Do you have any family?” he asked.
“Just a wife,” said Freeman, “and I didn’t pick her. Well, I did, but there weren’t much selection. I can tell ya that. If there had been, I’d of done a lot better.”
“Nah. The corporation wasn’t replacin’ our kind at the time, so wasn’t any bein’ passed out.”
“You speak very strangely for someone from the sphere. I mean A‑A‑R‑C.”
“It’s pronounced AARC—like it’s a word; not letters. And I used to speak more eloquently, but out here people speak all kinds a dif’rent ways. If you’re gonna blend in, ya’d be ‘vised to do the same.” He smirked at Dobie’s distressed expression. “Don’t worry,” he said. “It’ll come nat’rally as ya get out talkin’ to people. How ya speak will depend on who ya ‘sociate with.”
Dobie felt more and more confused. Words and ideas swam through his head. With belly satiated by bloating dog chow, his eyes now grew heavy. He lay down next to the mug of untasted coffee and closed his eyes. His rapidly changing world faded into blackness.