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Here's "Chapter 1: Chilling".
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“Ok, can we just agree that Wednesday is the worst day of the week?”
“Oh no, Zazee! It’s my favorite!” the boy replied, almost too emphatically. “Care to know why?” he added, with a smirk. The girl wasn’t impressed.
“B., don’t you dare regale me with another one of those bogus aphorisms of yours or I swear to AI…”
Too late: the boy, hands dramatically pushing against his knees, had already started getting up from his rock, and he was moments away from switching to his infamous speech stance and commencing the show.
Zazee and B. had known each other since the day they had been harvested, the former merely three hours before the latter, from their incubators seventeen years before that quiet, flawless Wednesday sunset.
The sky had been immaculate that day, like it was on most days. AI had a soft spot for sunny days with a cloudless sky and for the majestic spectacle of a billion stars pouncing and softening the dark veil of the night. As unsoiled and inspiring the Tower was on those beautiful days, as dreadful and menacing it appeared occasionally when AI wanted to restate its power: a terrible storm would then materialize over the City, and lightning would strike the tip of the Tower with a clamorous and deliberately amplified roar.
Sometimes, and not for long, a white blanket would blind the streets forcing every citizen to take shelter inside. B. would have sworn the boasting uproar that invariably accompanied the fog and that everyone was afraid of, originated from somewhere under the Inner Park, swarming then beneath the main streets towards one of the walls, only to quickly extinguish itself underneath the massive stone barricade.
But on most days AI gifted its people with warmth and beauty, so Zazee and B. would reach their favorite spot and admire with delight all Creation.
They were like brother and sister to each other and to eighty-six other kids they grew up with at the Institute. Plus Erica, for a while.
B.’s earliest memories were about him, Zazee, and later also Erica playing Become-An-Adult: a playground game in which players tossed a small object called a kid into a pattern, outlined on the ground, of numbered triangles culminating with a circle, and then hopped or jumped through them to go retrieve the kid. The number written on the triangle you had reached determined how many points you got. If you managed to reach the circle, you had to do the Thing to become an adult and secure your high score for a chance to win. The tricky part was that the rest of the players got to decide what the Thing was, and the more experienced the players were, the more daring the Thing turned up being.
B. wasn’t really cut for the game. He’d accumulate comically high scores, but then he’d seldom hit the circle, and even when he did it, it was infrequent for him to pass whatever trial his peers challenged him with. Sometimes he’d choose to bail off altogether and he’d just go by the pond to throw rocks at the water. On the occasion, Tanner, the biggest and dumbest of them all would get close, only to tease him: “Oi, Baldus! Come back to play! I have a nice Thing ready for you, coward!” to which B., unruffled, would always answer with some variation of: “Don’t call me that, Timber! My name is Bolzan.” or “Barry”, or “Burp”, “or Barmalade”, and so on and so forth until the following time.
On the other hand, Zazee was a natural. She typically would chain perfect throw after perfect throw, dancing with speed and grace through the triangles until she had scored whatever amount of points she’d deemed necessary to secure a win. And when it came to doing the Thing she was up for anything: rolling in mud? Done; transitioning her dark blue pinafore into a fuchsia bunny pajama with huge floppy ears? No problem; slapping Mom on the bum and then spending two nights and a day at the bottom of the Retaliation Pit in the cellar? Easy as pie. She was the undisputed champion of Become-An-Adult.
If B. found playing the game a challenge, their sister Erica was utterly hopeless. “The day she arrived, we played the most epic game of Become-An-Adult we’d ever had” B. used to recite before a lunch that all the siblings would dedicate every year to their beloved sister on the anniversary of her return to the Elite district where she belonged. “It was immediately clear to everyone, though, that she was dramatically ill-suited for playing our game!” – at this point, most of them would start grinning or laughing – “In the five years she was with us, we all learned to love her, and I’m sure every single one of us got back an equal if not greater amount of love from Erica! To Erica!” B.’s speech always ended with a toast, big smiles, and a proper number of emotional hugs.
Erica had left a lasting mark on their young lives, even though she had been with them for five years only. Even though nobody knew what her real name was.
On the day she had arrived, moments after she’d gotten out of the pearly white private transport – something that it had made immediately clear to everyone that she was from the Elite district, the only place where people were allowed to own private transports – she had stopped in the middle of the driveway to look at the tree heather that embellished the front of the Institute from either side. Mom had then come closer to her, straightened her blue skirt, smoothened out her white blouse, then she had crouched beside the child and offered: “They’re beautiful, dear girl, aren’t they? We call it erica.”
“Erica… May I be called Erica, Miss?” she had looked slightly up to meet Mom’s gaze with widened, hopeful eyes.
“You may, Erica. But you will address me as Mom.” and from that moment she had become Erica.
B. was now standing, and facing the walled vastness of the City sprawling before them in all its evenly distributed, symmetric glory.
They were chillin’ near some rocks that emerged from the top of a hill, right in the center of Outer Park At The SouthEast Corner. From there, the whole City was on display for them to admire and assess.
It was an immaculate square of pink granite walls that enclosed an area of roughly forty square miles. The walls themselves, aptly named North Wall, East Wall, South Wall, and West Wall, were seven hundred feet tall monstrosities, wide enough at the top to allow for three military trucks to move side by side, and even thicker at the base. Several turrets of various caliber and dimensions were mounted at the top of each wall, to promptly dispatch of the Ferals had they ever showed up at range. They never had, as far as anyone alive remembered.
In the City, one million inhabitants lived their orderly lives in peace under the benevolent rule of AI, a computer program that resided right at the center of the City and from the pinnacle of its two thousand seven hundred feet tall Tower of one hundred sixty floors plus an undisclosed number of underground levels, tirelessly determined and directed, microsecond after microsecond, the fate of everyone and everything. No one of its denizens had ever complained, public transport was always on time, and the streets were spotless and safe: by every metric, AI was the perfect governor.
The Tower was covered in smart mirror panels that self-regulated their tilt to ensure a proper amount of sunlight all over the City. At night, an orchestra of cameras and displays made the Tower effectively become transparent so that every citizen could wonder at the magnificence of the Universe for the glory of AI.
Like an Ace in a deck of playing cards, the City had a public park near each one of the four corners of the walls, plus Inner Park, the bigger one that surrounded the base of the Tower for a total of two square miles. The parks were always well-kept and teeming with plants, trees, bushes, flowers, critters, bugs: life.
The kids loved to spend time in the green sanctuaries, playing, talking to each other, or just chillin’ for hours on end. Adults not so much: the only ones that showed up, for a couple of hours in the morning, and a couple more in the afternoon, were the gardeners and custodians.
Stemming from Inner Park, a spoke of eight main streets split the square City into eight districts of equal dimensions. A ninth main street ran at the base of the walls and it was connected to each of the other ones.
Each one of the districts was conceived, organized, and maintained for a single purpose. The Logistics district was the backbone of the City as much as the Tower was its central nervous system: public transportation, the postal service, janitorial assistance, and the distribution and delivery of goods all had their headquarters there, together with the aqueduct that harnessed a subterranean river, the power plant that generated energy for the whole City – except for the Tower, which had its own underground plant –, and the worker drones that fetched minerals, wood, and other resources from outside the walls. A different breed of drones controlled the microclimate over the City.
Second in importance, the Food district was filled with enough greenhouses, hydroponic facilities, and bug farms to feed the entire population. Everything in the City was primarily automated, but the Production district didn’t employ a single human worker: the robots controlled by AI produced anything you would ever need, from shapeshifting clothes to tech gadgets, furniture, medical supplies, and more.
Whatever would come out from the Food and Production districts, primarily ended up being used or consumed in the Amenities district, where restaurants offered the best recipes by AI, cinemas, concert halls, and clubs reproduced the best movies and music by AI, and libraries supplied the bibliophiles with the best selection of masterpieces authored by AI in different styles and genres.
B. and Zazee, like every other child, had spent their whole life in the Education district. Little babies were brought to the Institute a few weeks after the harvest, and every batch grew up together as a family for eighteen years. Under the loving guidance of Mom, their caretaker and guardian, they learned about AI and their world, preparing to do the Thing and become adults and active participants in their community. Some would go on and earn a degree at the College, some would directly start contributing their work. Any doubt about the future would vanish instantly after the Thing. It happened to everyone like it always had. AI invariably took great care to help its people make the best choice.
The Elite district was equally divided into twelve vast properties, each assigned to one of the Elite families. They were the only people allowed at the presence of the Main Terminal, and rarely left their district apart from the periodic visits to the Tower.
Everyone else apart from the Security Brigade, also known as the SB, who were rumored to have their quarters somewhere in the underground levels of the Tower, lived in the two Housing districts, which included a wide range of accommodations: from highrise apartment complexes to detached houses and bungalows.
As an unmistakable sign that AI treasured freedom and individual agency as much as it cared for the safety and well-being of its beloved people, each wall had exactly one door, not dissimilar from the door of an apartment building in size but strong enough to keep the Ferals out for a few hours in the unlikely case they were to elude the turrets above. The doors were designed so that anyone who felt the need of opening them from the inside and go for a stroll in the wilderness outside, could just approach the doorway, grab the handle, push it down, and leave.
But no one ever had.
His arm raised, his forefinger pointing at the sun going down to the west, from the top of the unnamed hill where he and his best friend Organza Zazee Fratti fancied to go spending the hour before their shifts began, B. indeed regaled Zazee with another one of those bogus aphorisms of his:
“See, Wednesdays are like the color purple. Look at the sky right now, up there past the Tower: it’s purple, it’s made of blue and red, and it knows it is. But it’s not too cold like blue, nor is it too hot like red.
Wednesdays are not depressing like the start of the week usually is, but they’re not overexciting like the weekend tends to be. On Wednesdays, I feel real.”
Zazee let her mouth gape briefly while attempting to conjure some witty rebuttal, but as much as she hated to admit it to herself this time her tall, slender, dreamer of a friend had managed to leave her speechless. She faked a yawn instead, covering her mouth with her right hand and simultaneously stretching her left arm, her strong one, toward the boy.
“Alright B., recess is over. Let’s head down there and go to work. All those pulled pork, pineapple, peanut butter sandwiches ain’t going to deliver themselves!”
B. helped Zazee get back on her feet, then he started gently patting the dirt from her fluo green sweatpants, at the calves, just as the girl’s outfit transitioned flawlessly from the vibrant tones she wore during the day to the pitch-black hoodie and blue camo pants she favored at night during her shift at work.
Emerging from a few short moments of endearing dullness Zazee gleefully danced away, tip-toeing for a couple of yards. Then she stopped, looked over her shoulder, and called for her friend, grinning: “Come on! Chop-chop!”
With a faint groan, smelling the moist soil and the juniper for a last time, the boy followed her down the path, out of their quiet bubble, into real life.
“So… next week, huh?” Zazee offered when B. was finally at her side, struggling to keep pace even though he was one foot and a half taller than her.
B.’s reply came out of his mouth a heartbeat too late: “Yeah… next Wednesday we’re going to do the Thing and we’ll be adults. At last! I… guess?”. His red t-shirt had just completed its transition into a dusky violet crewneck sweatshirt with AI’s logo embroidered in black letters front and center, and the dark grey cargo shorts were now starting to morph into a stonewashed, regular-fit pair of blue jeans.
A couple of minutes later, they were walking through the little maze of myrtle bushes whose short walls adorned for a few yards the entrance of Outer Park At The SouthEast Corner. B. was still dragging his feet, caught in a torrent of thoughts, hurling back and forth from Erica to doing the Thing, and back again.
Zazee must have noticed the boy was struggling because she came to a grinding halt and said:
“I never told you every time we pass through all this myrtle I think of Erica, have I?”
“What…” B. looked like the girl had just woken him up from a nightmare. “They’re not even the same plant!” a reticent smile dawning on his brooding face.
“Huh?” Zazee continued “They all look the same to me. I don’t get what’s special about one or another. They’re all… green?”
At this point, B. had to make things straight. He shifted his weight and took a deep breath, in anticipation of a long tirade about what makes each plant special, the same being true for each individual, but Zazee knew best and she didn’t give him the time.
“I wonder what she looks like now.” she started, “She wasn’t cute, like, at all. I don’t think she’s cute now. What’s she doing for her pre-Thing three-year internship? Do they even do that in the Elite district? Probably not. I mean, they don’t even do the Thing, do they?” Zazee was blurting out thoughts and questions in an attempt to shock her brother back into his senses.
“I… I think she is just like we remember her: shy, quiet, dreamy eyes, sweet voice… only all grown up.” B. hesitated, and for an instant, he seemed to be on the verge of falling back into darker worlds. “But whatever she may look like, I’m sure she’s happy and safe, and with her family.” A bright smile had finally taken over his mug.
“Yeah, she was happy when she left!” Zazee continued, careful not to quell the rekindled spirit of her frail dear giant of a friend. “So happy to finally go back to staying with her real family!”
They had since started walking again, and they had now reached the entrance of the park.
“We were…” B. offered, but Zazee hugged him tight, her face pushing against his chest, eyes closed, smiling, feeling. After a long moment, she put on a defiant mask, and maintaining eye contact she fake-punched him in the stomach. B. took two steps back, and started moving in the direction of Mr. Hollow’s, the sandwich shop where he was doing his internship.
“Alright, I’ll see you tomorrow, Organza.” the boy said, with a smirk on his face.
“Don't call me that! My name is Zazee.”