For your reading pleasure, here’s Chapter 3 of Marooned, coming September 23rd, 2011. If you haven’t read the previous two chapters, you can go to Chapter One or Chapter Two at these links. If you enjoy the book, you’ve still got time to pre-order a signed copy at two dollars off the cover price until September 10th, 2011 using the Paypal menu to the right of this entry or you can purchase your eBook copy now from Amazon.
Hope you enjoy!
It’s not me I’m worried about.
If Dad believes Joey is a threat of some kind, Joey is the one who’s in danger. It’s not my well-being Dad is concerned with. It’s the fact that I’m his daughter and he’s protective of what is his. Having something happen to his daughter would not only show he can’t control his own city, but that he can’t control his own family and I can imagine nothing would embarrass him more.
I don’t wait to be formally excused. I can’t send Joey a message as I’m sure my Dad has my interlink monitored. I’ll need to find him on my own and to do that, I’ll need help.
Don isn’t in the kitchen when I check for him so I take the auxiliary lift down to the lower level of the apartment to the Indentures’ quarters, but they’re empty. Even though I know he won’t be in the dojo in formal wear, I check there anyway.
The only chance I have is Mom.
Not good. On her best days, I love her and can count on her. On her worst . . . I just hope today is a good day. Over the last couple years she’s slipped deeper into her own world, just surfacing long enough for one of Dad’s functions or to get me to the clinic for yet another inoculation. She’s managed to keep from becoming a liability to Dad so he’s mostly ignored her and let her be but I can tell his patience is starting to wear thin. Our dinners are held in silence on the bad days, but on the good we share mocking glances whenever Dad starts in about business or politics. I still don’t understand how two women could end up so dissimilar to someone with whom they share a life. I don’t understand it, but I’m glad for it.
For years she was my best ally but that was long ago. Sometimes I think she doesn’t even realize I’m there most of the time. She’s Elevated, so it’s not a physical abnormality. She’s just losing her will.
I miss her.
I couldn’t find Don, but Mom is right where I thought she’d be. The door to the master bathroom is closed and locked. I run my hand over the slick polished sandalwood and lean in to listen. The scent of chrysanthemum drifts from beneath the crack and a hard-driving bass line thumps against my hand.
I knock. No answer. “Mom?”
Nothing. I check behind me to make sure Dad isn’t out of his office. Seeing no one, I use the edge of my hand, thumpthumpthump. “Mom!”
Murmurs, then, “Ten minutes.” It’s barely audible.
“Mom I need to talk to you now. It’s import–”
“Ten minnits! Go way!” Her voice is slurred. Not a good day. I know what’s she’s doing in there, and the bath is secondary.
Mom is a cutter.
I found the straight razor in her drawer just after my fourteenth birthday. I didn’t know what it was at first. I’d never seen anything like it. The handles were made of a porous cream-colored material which later research told me was ivory and the steel of the blade itself seemed to glow with an awful purpose. For weeks I couldn’t figure out why she even owned such a thing. Mother is Elevated. She can set her biological systems to only allow hair growth where she wants it, and even if she needed to rid herself of any, an electrolysis shower would do the job far more effectively. It was hard for me to even imagine a time when people had to scrape such a hideous instrument across their skin for a trivial task like grooming.
It wasn’t until a few weeks later I learned its purpose. Joey and I were stretching out before a Seeder practice session and I brought it up.
It’s hideous, I told him. It’s actually made from part of an animal, an elephant I think. Maybe she just wants to own a piece of something extinct.
He grunted and nodded, then looked away. He knew more than he was saying. I gave him a minute to decide if he was going to spill, but he just went on stretching. When I couldn’t take it any longer I grabbed his arm and turned him toward me. What?
His head bobbed side-to-side with indecision. Finally he sighed and said, She’s a cutter, Punk.
What’s a cutter?
She’s a sensation junkie.
I shoved him away from me. My cheeks were on fire. Take it back. It wasn’t something you said about a person’s parent. For some, the experience of life after Communion could be difficult. It’s not the easiest thing to transition from a crude biological entity into one where every cut healed within seconds, every broken bone knitted in minutes. Once your body learned its new condition, even pain could be shut off with a simple unspoken command. For most, a few months were all that were necessary to dampen the instinctive impulses which no longer served a purpose. You learned not to flinch when you saw something flying at you out of the corner of your eye. A simple trip or slip no longer brought your breath up short in a hiss between clenched teeth. You evolved.
But for some–mostly those without the resources or the good sense to hire a reconditioning specialist–the transition was more difficult. Temporary bouts of mania and hyperactivity could develop in the mild cases but full blown psychosis could develop in the more extreme ones. Everyone experiments after taking Communion. It’s inevitable. You can do things you never considered before. Most kids even developed a flesh list outlining all the things they wanted to do once they Elevated, things like jumping down an entire flight of stairs or getting into a fight with the person who bullied them most pre-Elevation. But most quickly bored of it.
Sensation junkies, on the other hand, found a way around the boredom. They’d turn off their repair systems long enough to feel the skin shrivel and harden as they stuck their hand in an open fire. They’d command the nerve center cluster to allow all sensation as they beat themselves in the face with a hammer.
And some would cut themselves. Over and over again. Deeper. More cuts in one session. They were always looking for the bigger thrill, the more dangerous rush. They flaunted their immortality in a world where only the privileged were given hundreds or even thousands of years of life without aging, without pain, without suffering. They were not often discussed, and certainly not in polite conversation. Sensation junkies were the trolls that lived under the bridge of rational society, abominations of immortality living amongst the pure. And there I stood, listening to my best friend tell me my mother was one of them.
Joey held up his hands, palms facing me. You asked.
By the time the practice session was over, half-contact sparring turned to full. I’m pretty certain Joey let me beat the crap out of him. I needed it and he knew I needed it. To his credit, he never brought it up again. I deal with things in my own way and only get more stubborn if someone tries to help. Joey knows this about me, and it’s one of the reasons we’re such good friends. I ignored him for a few weeks but eventually realized he was right. Mom changed; slowly, but the woman who protected and laughed with me and told me about the “little people” they put inside you during Communion no longer existed. Every so often I’d get glimpses of the person who’d been my best friend, but the woman who raised me became a ghost haunting the hallways of my home.
I don’t know why I expect her to help me now. Ten minutes will turn into thirty or forty and there is nothing I can do about it so I let my hand fall from off the door, turn and leave her to her demons.
I round the corner out of the master bedroom and then from over my shoulder I hear the bathroom door lock click open. Maybe today is a good day after all.
But it isn’t Mom that exits.
It’s Don. His bow-tie is crooked and his face flushed.
I jump back behind the door frame so he won’t see me. What was Don doing in my mother’s bathroom? And with my Dad at home? There’s no way . . .
But what else?
I’m blushing and I have to relax my jaw as I realize I’m grinding my teeth. Just as I’m about ready to storm in and confront him, I hear his footsteps coming my way and all my bravado abandons me. I half-run, half-tiptoe into the next room before he sees me, then turn and walk his direction while doing my best to act natural.
He sees me coming and like I always do, I open my mouth before I even know what I’m going to say. “Have you seen Mom?”
Dumb. Now he’s going to know I saw him.
“She’s readying herself for tonight,” he says. His flat expression doesn’t change. If he knows I saw him, he’s not letting on to the fact.
It feels strange asking, but I don’t really have a choice. “I need to talk to you,” I say. “Can we go to the dojo for a few minutes?”
He shakes his head gently. “We’ll talk about it later,” he says. Wrinkles crest on his forehead, creating waves across his tattoo. “Don’t worry. I’m already working on it.”
I know he’s talking about Joey. After so many years, I know Don and every gesture speaks volumes. He trains Joey as well when we can sneak him in, so I know he cares. Then again, after what I just witnessed how sure can I be? “But–”
“If you’ve ever trusted me, now is a good time to remember why.” He rubs my shoulder and then leaves.
For Joey’s sake, I hope I can. I want to blow off Dad’s dinner party and run over to Joey’s place to warn him but there’s no use. If he’s smart he’ll be long gone, and Joey isn’t stupid. If he got caught by surprise, which is more likely, he’s already in custody. I just can’t figure out what Joey might be into that would cause my Dad to come to this conclusion. Joey’s always been a bit . . . detached is the best way to put it, I guess. Politics don’t interest him, or if they do I’d never seen evidence of the fact. He’s like a mirror in some ways. He just says what he sees without commenting on it. It’s one of things I like about him. After Mom started to slip, I needed a rock to hold onto every once in a while.
I suddenly realize that I don’t know what I’d do without him and my hands start to quiver. I’ve never even thought about it before. Joey isn’t someone who suddenly vanishes. He’s as constant as my own chewed off fingernails. He’s not a threat to anyone.
Damn you, Dad. How could you do this to him? He’s Elevated. He’s one of your precious upper strata of society. Why would you–?
It’s not about Joey. It’s about me. He’s using this for leverage, but leverage for what? Even if I’m wrong there’s nothing I can do to help Joey right this minute and if there’s one thing I can’t stand is having to sit still.
I’ll trust Don, but back up plans never hurt.
I wipe my eyes and take a few deep breaths to steady myself, and then I’m heading downstairs to the building atrium, riding our private elevator to the sixtieth floor and then navigating the cavernous hallways to the resident’s lift. As I wait for the car I realize I’m twitching my fingers to the beat of the song I heard coming from Mom’s bathroom and that I’m biting my lip. I force myself to stop both but then my foot starts tapping the beat instead.
I need to calm down and I need to do it now. Residents above the fiftieth floor don’t get nervous. Showing my agitation would be the best possible way to attract attention and that’s the last thing I need. The lift opens and thankfully it’s empty and then I remember, there’s a Seeder match scheduled tonight and it’s a sword bout. Not many people would miss watching but I’m one of them. There’s something perverse about the weapons matches. I understand when the wounds heal almost instantly and pain doesn’t come into play the match can stretch out much longer than a lower tier event, but weapons seem unnecessary. Seeders have limbs cut off that are replaced with artificial extremities and before long the match might as well be between robots. There’s no art in it.
But most fans aren’t looking for art. They’re looking for blood. Seeders compete for the knowledge their skill is being tested against the best that exist. Fans show up for the mutilations. And according to my Dad, before long I’ll be the one doing the mutilating.
Not if I can help it, I won’t. I just don’t know if I can help it.
I step into the lift and hit the button for the fiftieth floor and within a minute I’m there.
When the door opens, the smell is the first thing that hits me. The rest of the building is aroma enhanced. Every floor’s hallway is set to emanate roses or lilacs or sandalwood; whatever the residents of each floor prefer. Each apartment can be individually customized for the occasion with fresh pine or roasted fowl. And within every apartment, the rooms themselves can project their own aroma, be it lemon as my father prefers for his office, or chrysanthemum as Mom often chooses for her bedroom. But here, in the atrium, no conditioning is allowed. Only the dank scent of cultured soil mixed with rain exist in this place. Every form of shop you can imagine runs along the outside of the floor. The majority are closed for the evening but a few remain open, mostly those selling clothing or replica uniforms of the more popular professional Seeders. A few residents are still shopping, but they stay to the red brick promenade area along the storefronts and they don’t pay any attention to me. I’m not here to shop, though.
In the center of the floor is the park and I head toward it while trying to appear uninterested, bored even, but there’s no way I could ever grow bored of this place.
Once inside the paved perimeter, grass grows in cultured, symmetrical blades. Square decameters of flowers break up the circle of deep green with rows of tulips in every imaginable shade. In the center of the park lies the Earth Tree, an ancient redwood which stretches fifteen floors high into the empty space above. The apartment levels above the fiftieth floor form a pyramid to allow the limbs to stretch out and grasp at the walls as if they might one day be able to grab hold and tear away the layers of steel which imprison them from the absent sky. It’s a conceit, of course. The groundskeeper would never allow even a single branch to encroach in the slightest way upon the resident’s areas but I’ve always held out hope anyway.
It’s the groundskeeper I’m here to see. Barnabas is a joint Indenture for the building nearing the end of his term of service. His replacement has been a source of constant discussion for the last three years and time is growing short for him to train a successor. Within a few months Barnabas will take Communion, like me, and he’ll no longer owe us anything. An apartment has already been reserved for him on the fifty-third floor where he can watch over the sliver of natural life he’s lovingly tended for so many years, for once enjoying its beauty instead of slaving to protect its existence.
The only thing which could make him happier is ensuring his son receives Communion as well, but for a retired Indenture, that kind of money simply isn’t obtainable without help.
That’s where I come in.
Most of the residents don’t even notice the park between their shopping visits. I hope I never become jaded to its beauty like them, but their indifference does leave me privacy to speak with Barnabas without interruption.
I find him sitting on the row of benches next to the base of the tree. Even the chocolate brown of his coveralls can’t hide the dirt stains on his knees. His skin is wrinkled around the corners of his eyes and the shadows remind me of the thick creases between the slabs of bark on the tree. Across the dark skin on his forehead there’s a white dusting of what appears to be pollen. Five years ago he wouldn’t have allowed himself this moment of rest, but now that he’s so close to completing his Indenture nobody minds, and even if they do they don’t say anything. He doesn’t look at me when I sit beside him.
“I won,” I say. “There’s a little left over but I didn’t have a chance to transfer it to your account. Constables.”
Now he looks at me and smiles. “You really don’t have to do this, you know.” It’s an old argument, but it makes him feel better so I let him continue. “We can figure out something.”
“I know you can,” I say. “But since I enjoy it anyway, what’s the harm of speeding it along?”
He grimaces. “You do not enjoy it. But thank you for the lie.”
I shrug. “How’s Yosef? Haven’t seen him in a while.”
He looks back toward the tree and I think his shoulders slump. “He took a job with your family’s company. Wanted to try and contribute and, you know, why not? Been there a couple months now.”
I do my best to keep my anger from getting the best of me. It’s not a dumb idea. It’s entirely possible I could lose the event and come up short. Yosef is doing the prudent thing by trying to ensure he has a chance to take Communion before his sixteenth birthday, but still, my pride can’t help but be a little wounded. “I don’t think it’s necessary, but I understand,” I say. “Why my father’s company, though?”
“Only ones who would hire him. He wasn’t even going to get that job until your father called the foreman and told him to give Yosef the position.”
“My Dad? Are you sure we’re talking about the same person?”
Barnabas chuckled. “He’s not as bad as you think, Punk. You should give him a chance.”
I leaned forward, considering it for a moment. No. I shake my head and say, “You’re right, he’s worse than I think. He has a reason. We’ll probably never know what it is, but I’m sure there is one.”
His eyebrows arch. “Be careful. You might turn into him sooner than you think with logic like that.”
“What does that mean?” I ask, crossing my arms.
Barnabas sighs and says, “When you start questioning everyone’s motives, it’s not long before you need to start questioning your own.”
“I’m fine,” I say, standing. “But I know him, Barnabas. Be careful. He usually doesn’t give something without expecting much more in return.”
He nods. “Okay, Punk. Will do. Hopefully soon we won’t have to worry about it anymore.”
I nod. “You won’t. I promise.”
“I won’t hold you to it, but again, thank you for saying it.”
I have one more thing to ask him, but after this conversation it makes me sick to do so. “I have a favor to ask,” I say. “If it were for me, I wouldn’t but it’s not.”
He looks at me through narrowed eyelids and there’s a slight smile at the corner of his lips. “A favor? Sure, Punk. What is it?”
“Can you keep an ear to the ground for any information about Joey Lancaster? I think he may be in trouble.”
To his credit, Barnabas doesn’t ask why. “If I hear anything I’ll let you know.”
I sigh with relief. People tend to speak more freely while walking through the atrium level and even more so through the park itself. He’s in a great position to overhear conversations but what I’m asking him isn’t without risk. He’s managed to learn much over the years without passing it on and in doing so kept himself relatively unnoticed. I’m asking him to violate his reserve with only a few weeks left on his Indenture.
Thing is, I knew he wouldn’t say no.
When you start questioning everyone’s motives, it’s not long before you need to start questioning your own.
Damn. “Thank you, Barnabas. I really appreciate it.”
“I know you do,” he says, standing. “I should get back to work.”
“Yeah. Sorry. Talk soon, okay?”
He smiles, nods and walks away.
Maybe I am turning into my Dad after all. Not a pleasant thought.
I stop at a public terminal on my way back to the lift to transfer the money into Barnabas’ account. The promenade has cleared out and only a few residents remain, chatting over drinks while sitting at tables strategically positioned to enjoy the view of the park, so they don’t pay attention to me. I finish the transfer and make my way back home. I’ve only an hour or so before dinner and being late is not an option.
The Indentured level is empty when I arrive. They must all be preparing for the party. I’d hoped to run into Don but it looks like I’m going to have to just sit still until later tonight when the guests leave.
Not my greatest strength.
I take the lift to the residence. The conditioning unit has been set to patchouli, meant to evoke an atmosphere of the outdoors. I can taste the dank soil undertones from the air on my tongue.
When I arrive at my room, I find my dress for the evening laid out on my bed. It’s sky blue with a layer of black lace over the fabric. I hold it up and realize it will only fall to mid-thigh. A pair of black flats sits on my bed next to a white wrap, meant to cover my shoulders. Good. Maybe it will cover up the massive bruise from the Seeder match.
I shower and step into the conditioning unit. The settings are already in place so my tossed red hair is slicked back against my scalp. Dad always complains about how short I keep my hair but there’s no way I’m giving my opponents an extra weapon to use against me. One grab of the hair and you gain control of the head and where the head goes, the body follows. The conditioning unit applies a slight coat of foundation, just enough to cover the blemishes but puts on no other make-up. Guess I’m not supposed to look too pretty tonight. It’s not the role I’m supposed to play. Can’t have his daughter looking like a tramp after all. I change into the chosen outfit and look at myself in the full length mirror which rises from the floor next to my dressing table.
Alyssa stares back at me, not Punk. Not me. The girl in the mirror is refined, delicate and every father’s dream of a perfect daughter.
In other words, I look hideous.
“You do not look hideous.”
I glance over my shoulder and see Mom standing in the doorway. I must have been talking out loud as I didn’t hear her come in. “Please tell me you didn’t pick this out,” I say.
She walks up behind me and stares over my shoulder into the mirror. “Of course I didn’t. It was chosen based upon the preference profile of the Chief-of-Staff.” Her right finger pushes back a strand of hair over my ear and her fingernail scratches my skin, but not badly; just enough to let me know she’s not paying attention and has probably had a couple drinks already.
“The Chief-of-Staff? You mean like the President’s Chief-of-Staff?”
She presses her lips tight and nods. “Yes indeed and we’re all mighty impressed, aren’t we?”
I can’t help but grin at her sarcasm but it doesn’t last long. Less than an hour ago she was slurring her words and slicing herself up for kicks. Right now she’s the Mom I remember. Who knows who she’ll be an hour from now? I can’t help but wonder for the thousandth time if this is what I have waiting for me after my Communion ceremony; an eternity spent cutting myself for kicks and pretending to be impressed by my future husband’s accomplishments doesn’t exactly sound like my idea of heaven. There’s no evidence Communion based emotional breaks are hereditary, but there’s no proof they aren’t, either. Don tells me not to worry about it. Everyone has a hard time adjusting but in the end they find their own path.
He’s sincere, but when you live every day not knowing if your mother will remember tomorrow anything you told her today, well, it’s less than convincing.
“You okay, Mom?” I ask.
She spins me by the shoulders to face her–causing a fresh wave of pain–and pouts. “I’m fine. Don’t I look fine?”
She does, of course. She always does. Her wool pleated skirt and long-sleeved white silk blouse are the model of domestic perfection and her hair is in an up-do. Even the string of pearls around her neck is without blemish or flaw. I decide to risk it. “You look great. I was just worried. Earlier you didn’t seem like you were feeling too good.”
Mom tilts her head with an expression of puzzlement. “Earlier when, sweetie?”
I can tell by her reaction she not only doesn’t want to discuss it, but she’s pointedly not going to.
“Never mind,” I say. Right now she’s doing good. I know it won’t last but I’m afraid pushing her will ruin what little time I have to spend with her, and even though I know it’s selfish, I’d rather enjoy her company now, while I can.
Mom laughs and shakes her head. “You’re such a strange child.”
I turn away from her and take one last look at the elegant girl in the mirror. “Tell me about it,” I say with a sigh. Mom slides her arm around my shoulder and leads me to the door.
“Come on. Let’s get this over with,” she says. Maybe if she manages to stay this way, the night won’t be as terrible as I’d feared. Small comfort, but it’s something.
We’re met by Don before we can leave the room. “Dinner’s been postponed. There’s been an incident.”
“An incident?” I ask.
Don nods and closes his hands. “The food depot in the Northern outskirts was just bombed. It looks like a heretic attack. The depot was emptied of workers before the explosion, but the employees were shackled and left inside. They’re all dead.”
I glance at Mom’s expressionless face and watch as she slips away right before my eyes.
She and Don share but a single glance, and then his attention returns to me.
“But it doesn’t make any sense,” I say. “Why would they blow up their own food?” The government runs these depots and the food sold there is ridiculously cheap, much less than we pay for it in the city.
Don shrugs, but I can tell he’s got more to say about it than he’s willing to at the moment. “So dinner’s off?” I ask.
“No, just postponed. Your father and the Chief-of-staff will be delayed. I’m to come get you when they’re ready.”
“So we just sit here and wait for them? No way. I’m getting out of this thing.”
I turn but Don stops me with a hand on my shoulder. “I wouldn’t do that.”
I spin on him. I’m not going to be treated like a dog and come when beckoned and I realize I’m even more pissed off my evening with my mother–even if under less than ideal circumstances–has been ruined. “Why not?” I ask.
Don eases toward me and leans his mouth in near my ear. “Because I overheard your father talking. He thinks Joey might know something about it.”
I pull away and look into Don’s eyes. There’s something there I’m not used to seeing: He’s afraid.
I glance back to Mom. She’s staring at herself in my mirror, pressing down non-existent wrinkles on her skirt with the palms of her hands. I think she’s humming.
Don shakes his head and leaves, shutting the door behind him.
Now we sit.