Everyone sat silently, witnessing the desolation of the land through which they traveled. As far as the eye could see in any direction was dead dirt, devastated by the nuclear blasts from the final war almost a hundred years ago. They passed by a warped, green, glasslike epicenter where a bomb exploded. Orange scars spiraled outward from it like a giant whirlpool sculpted into the ground. It was beautifully eerie.
Hanu wondered what might have been there before. Maybe it was a beautiful city, or perhaps a small forest or lake. In school last year, they learned about different topographies that existed before the war. His teacher told the class that this land was one of the wealthiest and most beautiful countries in the world. Now, the metal road and the guideway were the only signs of civilization. Hanu was certain there wouldn’t be any Dissenters out in this wasteland.
“So I was in the hospital,” Hanu said, breaking the silence. “I don’t really know why we’re going into the District of Operations. Can someone fill me in?”
Sadie, who was also looking out of the window turned around in her seat. “That’s a good question, Hanu. I think we all deserve a few more details,” she said, eyeing the scout.
The rest of the passengers looked to Mr. Wolfe, both children and adults alike. Nobody really seemed one hundred percent sure, and Mr. Wolfe was clearly the leader in this operation.
“It’s not often at all that the Council requests an audience with the general public, so it’s a great honor that they have invited you into the district,” Mr. Wolfe assured them. “Most of you have never seen a member of the Council in person, let alone the inside of those great walls. The truth of the matter is, they are concerned about the effectiveness of the treatment you are receiving at the hospital. The council will be presenting this situation to the Ancients in order to find some solutions, but they will need to do some research first. That is why they have requested an audience with you.”
Then the little girl with the braids spoke up in a mousy voice. “That’s a great honor and all, but what kind of research are they going to do? Nothing….painful, right?” She was so small that Hanu had forgotten she was there.
“They’ll be working with the Ancients, as they always do in tough situations, Zazi,” Ms. Felix said. “Surely whatever they must do, they have the technology and wisdom to be fair and gentle. And besides, the Ancients chose them to be our leaders for a reason. They will be kind.”
“That ain’t cuttin’ it for me,” Sadie interjected. “Look at us, we’re the worst ones in the hospital. I think they wanna get rid of us, and it’s just easier to do us in all in one go. I know they’re taking me in for override. I’m already at the age limit, and as you can tell, I’m not changing for nobody.”
“Speak for yourself, Sadie, I’m perfectly fine,” Vanessa said. And it would’ve been halfway convincing had she not broken out into hysterical laughter just then. Mr. Ervin and Ms. Felix looked at each other with raised eyebrows. Ester continued looking out of the window, seemingly lost in her own thoughts. Her black bangs rested on her forehead, covering up her brows and most of her eyes, so Hanu couldn’t really see her expression, if she had one.
“Let’s ask the scout. Scouts can’t lie,” suggested one of the twins.
“You’re so stupid, La. Of course they can lie. They work for the Ancients and the Ancient Ones are liars. They just say that in the stupid commercials to make you trust them,” said Tui.
Hanu had seen the same commercial. The one where the scouts were walking around amongst the citizens, as they usually do. One was helping a child cross the street to get to the public park, another was holding the door for a woman walking into the Food Distribution Center and yet another was stopping a man in an apartment building and asking to scan his trade. The voiceover at the end of the commercial always reminds the viewers, ‘the scouts are here to serve and protect us. Always honest, always there.’
“Okay that’s enough boys,” Mr. Ervin said, looking at the scout nervously.
The scout sat, quietly watching and unaffected by the speculation. His handsome face-identical to the rest of the artificial humans- seemed incapable of expressing any emotion, or it was probably more precise to say that he was incapable of feeling any emotion. His countenance was of boyish innocence, as usual.
In the real world, speaking against the Ancient Ones was kind of taboo. It wasn’t a law or anything, but you could guarantee that any given person off the street would feel a sense of unease and foreboding if someone just came out and started speaking ill of them. And to do it in front of a scout was basically like doing it right to their faces.
Even Sadie knew that they had overstepped their boundaries, especially since they were probably on their way to meet one right now. Everyone went back to looking out of the windows.
For several minutes they sat, looking at the scarred land again. Every once in a while Vanessa would laugh or stand up and sit back down, and Zazi laid her head in Ms. Felix’s lap. Mr. Ervin was about to unwrap a muffin when La yelled out.
“Look, creatures!” he exclaimed.
“Yeah, I see them, too,” said Vanessa, who had stopped putting on airs miles ago. “There’s one in the corner, and some in my hair. Hell, that guy ain’t even human!” she said, jamming her thumb in the general direction toward the front of the vehicle. She chuckled to herself.
“No, you idiot. Real creatures,” said La, pointing out of his window. Hanu hadn’t noticed that the scenery had changed to lush jungle. They were moving very fast, but there was no mistaking it- they were passing by large animals.
“Those are called elephants. There are several types of animals that inhabit this holographic jungle,” the scout explained. “The Council thought it would be a nice touch to cast it around the habitable zone and fill it with the animal life that we shared the planet with not so long ago. It gives us a glimpse of the planets former beauty, and inspires a diverse future to work toward.”
“What do you mean, inspires a diverse future?” Tui said, bitterly. “These animals are dead. Stupid humans killed them!”
“Yes, but with genetic engineering, the Ancients have been working toward recreating these animals. In the near future, they will be releasing real animals into the wild,” explained the scout.
“What wild?” Sadie began. Hanu knew where this was going, so he quickly changed the subject.
“So we’re here already, huh? We’ve reached the habitable zone?” he asked. He was actually growing quite nervous. They may possibly be meeting with the Ancient Ones, who more than likely heard the group blaspheming against them, so that they could do some vaguely explained research.
He wondered what Ester was thinking. She sat so calmly, confidently. She hadn’t spoken a word since they left. And probably never will, since Jeremiah’s not here, he thought, chuckling to himself.
The holographic jungle gave way to very real apartment buildings in the Residential District. They all looked exactly the same- cinder block boxes, six floors high and three units across. These buildings surrounded the city, just as the jungle had, in concentric circles. Hanu thought about his home somewhere among those apartment buildings.
It was hard to tell which one was his, being as they all looked the same. And besides, he hadn’t been home for seven years, so he really didn’t even remember which general direction to look in. But he did remember the floors in his apartment. When he was younger, he would always roll around on the smooth wood. His mother hated it because she would sometimes walk into a room just to trip over him. Sometimes he targeted her feet on purpose, just for fun.
And he remembered the moss shower mat that he begged his mom to buy for his bathroom. When Kait learned to crawl he had to keep his bathroom locked because she would go in there and try to eat the moss.
Hanu wondered if his mom had gotten new couches by now. The red ones they had were so tattered from years of wear and tear. One time Hanu pretended to be an Ancient One riding around in a space ship. He’d always wanted to take a ride in one, but apparently you could only do that under special circumstances, so the best he could do was imagine what it was like. Well one day he put a sheet over one of the couches, but the sheet kept smothering him and he couldn’t see where he was steering the ship, so he stabbed a hole in the center of the couch and inserted the broom as a support column. It worked perfectly, but his mother wasn’t too impressed when she found out about it.
The Convoy slowed as they entered one of the narrow streets of the Capital City. Slowly, they wound their way toward the center, passing parks, schools, surveillance towers…
Hanu had been away for so long he forgot what life was like in the city. The people looked so strange to him now. Sometimes people wore casual clothing, like tee shirts and slacks, but at certain times of year they tend to get more festive. He watched them walk along the wide sidewalks through the windows of the Convoy like a silent movie. Each person seemed to be on a mission to out dress the last. They passed one woman wearing a golden pantsuit with a furry neckline and extremely pointy shoulders, and another wearing a spotted hat so tall that she had to stoop to get into the apartment lobby. Zazi pointed out a man wearing grey thigh high boots, spanks and body glitter.
This, in and of itself, wasn’t all that strange. The Council often encourages the public to express themselves, and Hanu was used to animal themes as fashion inspiration by now. It was when they passed each other that Hanu noticed the strange part. It made him feel deeply uneasy, though he didn’t know why. They weren’t looking at each other. They weren’t even acknowledging each other’s existence. One man became extremely interested in his fingernails just as he passed another to get into a supply store. Then a very ornate woman went out of her way to ignore an elderly man passing by on the sidewalk, and he seemed quite relieved by it. Hanu wondered if it had always been like this here. Had he ignored people as he walked by? Hanu tried to think back on what it was like to walk down the street with his mother. He couldn’t remember. But he did know one thing, when he got back home he would say hi to everyone who crossed his path, stranger or not.
As they passed into the Entertainment District Hanu saw friendlier people. Outside of a bar was a man sitting amongst a group of women in bathing suits. They sat with their feet in a wading pool, laughing and joking around.
“Looks like someone’s having a good time,” Hanu said aloud.
“More holograms. They liven up the place,” Mr. Ervin explained. He must’ve had a lot of experience in the Entertainment District, Hanu mused. Laughing to himself, he imagined skinny Mr. Ervin with swim trunks on and surrounded by girls.
The children, who had never had any reason to venture this far into the city, were quite impressed by the grandeur of the place. Beaches, body builders and artful statues abutted otherwise ordinary cinder buildings and neon signs were scattered throughout the streets. Though it was daytime, they could almost imagine how the street would come to life with color after nightfall. Vanessa squealed with delight, pulling Zazi over to her window to look at a casino. The entrance looked like a giant slot machine.
Further still they travelled, passing over into the business district. The Convoy turned to travel through a green park. The low grass on either side of the winding street gave way to trees and shrubs, here and there. They approached a courtyard with an enormous marble fountain. At the center of the fountain there was a statue of an Ancient One, standing amongst children at play. This figure, whether male or female- Hanu could never tell- was magnificent, yet terrifying. Its pale face had large round eyes and its nose and upper lip joined, sloping downward into a small beak. Its bald head had various colorful nodules protruding from it in an ornate pattern, like a majestic crown. The very tall body was humanoid, but its extremities were cloaked in white feathers. The figure wore a simple tunic.
“Is that a hologram, too, then?” Hanu asked.
“No, that one’s real. It’s actually a historic landmark,” the Scout explained.
Hanu was thoroughly interested. “So what’s historic about it?” he asked.
Addressing the group now, the scout pointed at the statue with an open hand. He looked more like a tour guide than anything else.
“The Fountain of Hope was erected in 2042 as a dedication to the pact that was forged between Humanity and the Ancient Ones. Humanity had nearly wiped itself out through war by 2040, when the Ancient Ones were forced to intervene. But of course, humanity had to agree to receive the help, so they ceased war while they debated the nature of their relationship with the Ancient Ones. After two years of deliberation, humanity finally agreed on the terms for accepting the help. On that day they erected six identical Fountains of Hope- each on a different continent in the world.”
Hanu wondered if the scouts were programmed to just know everything about everything. He was amazed at how much the scout knew, but even still he tried to continue to dislike him.
“There is an inscription at the base of the fountain,” he went on, good-naturedly. “It says, may we walk the path of Ancient wisdom and knowledge, forever as one.”
The passengers craned their necks to see it, but they were already driving away from it. Then Ester spoke for the first time.
“When I’m free, that beautiful fountain is the first place I’ll visit,” she said.
Everyone turned to look at Ester, double checking that it was, in fact, she who had spoken. Ester looked around, her chestnut eyes peeking from behind her curtain of bangs. Then she continued looking out of the window.
“Uh, that sounds like a good plan,” Ms. Felix said, conversationally. “And it’s right along the route to the District. Maybe you can stop here on your way back.”
“Not possible,” said the scout. “Once this group enters the District of Operations you will not be permitted to leave. Well, perhaps as an Easement Request- it is a historic landmark, after all-”
“Easement Request?” Vanessa asked soberly.
An Easement Request was given to people who went for override of their own accord- typically the very old or the very sick. At the Flush, they would try to bribe the patients they took in with an Easement Request so that they would behave on the journey into the District. This boon, whatever wish the person requests, is granted as a final honor.
“You’ve been more than helpful,” Mr. Wolfe said to the scout. But it was already too late. Tui jumped to his feet and rounded on the scout. The adults erected themselves in their seats, ready to pounce.
“So we are being overridden,” he said to the scout, searching his face for confirmation.
The agent blinked several times, as if his artificial eyes needed to be moistened.
“Well, there could be several cases in which the Council grants Easement,” he said.
“That’s a lie,” Tui retorted, somehow looking much older now.
It was if Hanu could feel every individual cell in his body vibrating violently. So they were going to die.
Zazi started shaking her head in denial and Vanessa was yelling profanities. Sadie’s nostrils flared. She looked at each of the escorts, jaws clenched, as if deciding who she’d be violent with first. Ester sat calmly, as if she didn’t notice what had just transpired.
La was standing up now, too.
“No,” he bellowed at Mr. Wolfe, as though that would settle the matter. But somehow Hanu felt like it actually could. For some reason, Hanu stood up, too.
Vanessa stopped screaming just as Mr. Trattonere tackled her. Mr. Wolfe used that distraction to grab La’s arms and the scout grabbed Tui. Ms. Felix grabbed for Sadie, and since everyone was grabbing everyone else, Mr. Ervin went for Hanu.
Not altogether unexpectedly, their stomachs dropped. The Convoy was no longer levitating. It propelled forward with a lurch, grinding against the metal street and they sped right into a surveillance tower, exploding into the air. The contents of the Convoy, both people and furniture, tumbled around as it flipped.
The Convoy finally stopped upside down on a sidewalk. Mr. Ervin lost his grip on Hanu, who was in shock. He lay there on the floor, or ceiling, maybe, watching everything as if it were a dream. Sadie pushed the now unconscious Ms. Felix off of her. Blood glued her hair to her face. She limped over to the door and pried it open. Without so much as a word, the twins made a break for it and disappeared into the sunlit street. Sadie pulled Zazi from underneath a table and pushed her through the door, too. Mr. Ervin, moaning under the weight of Mr. Helm, clutched fruitlessly at Vanessa’s ankles as she dragged herself through the door next.
Mr. Trattonere was bleeding from his chest, but he was more concerned with programming an alert. He placed the scouts left palm over his own trade interface, pulling up a map on his own screen. After Mr. Trattonere pinpointed their location he sent the alert and the scout opened his mouth, emitting a shrill frequency.
Sadie pulled Hanu to his feet, and was trying to drag him to the door next. “Where’s Ester?” He wiped someone’s blood from his face and looked for her in the rubble. She was crouched over the control panel.
“We can’t leave without Ester!” Hanu yelled over the siren.
“She can handle herself,” was all Sadie said as she forced him through the door and ran off down an alleyway. Hanu turned to go back in for Ester, but she was already jumping out of the door behind him. Ester grabbed him by the arm and pulled him away from the Convoy. Then she said one last thing: