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Here's "Chapter 2: Deliveries".
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Perched on a seat at the front of the transport, B. was once again lost in his inner world. Only a week to go. What would become of him after the Thing? Was he going to be able to keep spending time with Zazee?
Those questions and more pestered his soul while the dark orange transport moved, quick and steady, on SouthEast Main Street.
Out of the windows, the night sky was a blue suede cloth sprinkled with flickering gems, as per AI’s usual. On his right B. could look at part of his near future, the Housing districts where he would be moving to in just a few days, right after the Thing, unless he was to spend the next five years at the College. What if only one of them was assigned to attend College while the other one was going to be working full-time?
The vehicle quivered for an instant, after the softest of bumps, and a puff of the soothing breeze that was caressing the first buildings of the Southern Housing district finessed its way through a narrow gap over the entrance of the slick transport bubble until it kissed B.’s face. The boy’s nose almost didn’t have the time to register the trace of rotten in the whiff of air, because a second bump made the autonomous vehicle tremble.
“Hey Transport, what’s with all the bumps?” he asked, baffled.
“My sensors didn’t register any bumps, dear boy. We are going to reach our destination in fourteen minutes as expected.”
B. didn’t appreciate the answer, but his attention was soon grabbed by a new captivating view.
On his left, he gazed for long moments at the magnificent creamy parallelepiped where he had spent his whole life so far. A present that tasted with every passing hour more and more like a distant past, the Institute was beautiful in its own peculiar way.
Apart from the many bushes of tree heather that embellished the immediate proximity of its main entrance, an extensive blanket of evergreen grass enveloped the premises, where several patches of holly oaks pierced the ground like barbed javelins on a velvet handkerchief. When the sun was high in the sky and the air warm and fragrant, the siblings used to spend hours on end under their shade. Studying, playing, or just messing around.
The building itself was five stories high, with space enough for a batch of roughly one hundred harvested children and every amenity they would have needed. In the early years of the batch, a nursery occupied the whole ground floor. Once the siblings had grown up, it was always remodeled into a mess hall.
The classrooms were on the second floor, the library on the third, and various types of laboratories and workshops were on the fourth floor. The children had their dorm rooms on the fifth floor, together with Mom’s private chambers.
On the back, hidden from the street, a sizeable gymnasium with a domed roof rested near the pond at the end of the main courtyard where the siblings used to play their epic games of Become-An-Adult.
When the bubble started to slow down for a turn into SouthWest Main Street, B.’s eyes switched their focus from the unspecified point on the floor of the transport he had been staring at for the past couple of minutes, to the overwhelming presence of the Tower. The lights on the thirteenth floor were on, not unlike the rest of the Tower in the early hours of any given night.
“You know, Transport, a week from now” B. said to the helpless converser “I’ll have done the Thing. I’ll be an adult, I’ll be studying at the College! Or I’ll be working a very important job… maybe I’ll get to see Erica if I am to be assigned to work near the Tower!”
B. reached for the center of his chest with his right arm, clenching the fist for a moment. After a few instants of pensive silence, he shook his head and asked with renewed liveliness:
“What’s the Thing, anyway? I never had an adult give me a straight answer! Transport, do you know what the Thing is?”
“To do the Thing is to become an adult, dear boy. The specifics are only known to AI and to who already did it.” the transport offered.
“Yeah, that’s the answer. Not helping, if you ask me…”
Images of moths dancing in deadly spirals around a disturbingly still flame violated his mind for a second, before the bubble took a sharp turn to the left, away from the Beacon Of Grace, the Tower of the Everloving AI, seamlessly avoiding dozens of other transports that were zipping around, each one bringing its cargo to the next step into their neatly organized near future.
A waterfall of chaotic, fluorescent light dazzled B.’s senses. The glow banded up with the hundreds of unrestrained aromas escaping from the kitchens of the dozens of restaurants that had just started opening their doors to welcome the usual hordes of famished patrons, at the narrower end of the Amenities district.
The most coveted establishments were strategically located right in the proximity of Inner Park, offering an astounding vista of the Tower – or of the night sky, if AI had made the Tower transparent – and the promise of a romantic walk under the everblooming trees of the park. Diners, cafes, and bistros saturated the air with intertwining scents of cinnamon, cumin, tomato sauce, coffee, chocolate, grilled cricket steak, and more delicious ones that B. didn’t immediately recognize.
Going deeper into the cone-shaped district, the more modest establishments marked the beginning of the entertainment and cultural area where the clubs, cinemas, music halls, etc. were.
“You are late again, dear boy. You don’t do that.”
Mr. Hollow’s Triple-P Sandwich Shop was one of those second-tier places at the frontier with the widest part of the district.
“I’m so sorry, Mr. Hollow! I lost track of the time… I was at the SouthEast Park with Zazee, and…” B. started, but he didn’t have the chance to give his apology a compelling finale.
“Anyway, here are your first deliveries for tonight, dear boy.”
Patting his stocky left hand on the twenty-seven – three rows, five per row, two on top, the boy had quickly measured – skillfully packed, fuming-hot, Triple-P Sandwiches waiting on the counter, the bulky owner of the best worst sandwich shop in the middle of the Amenities district also raised his right arm to point at the door.
For a moment, B. was mesmerized by the sheer amount of willpower his white apron must have needed for being able to withstand, once more, the opposing force of Mr. Hollow’s belly and avoiding a tragic, if amusing, explosion. It was worn and soiled, but undefeated.
Slowly scanning the bewitching shape of the man’s stomach, going up to his suitably wide chest, B. ended up meeting a dissatisfied stare.
“You go now, dear boy!”
“I’ll go now, Mr. Hollow!” the boy broke the spell and quickly stuffed the sandwiches in the big squared trunk latched at the back of the light exoskeleton he, like every other raider, used to wear to help with the exhausting delivery runs. He then went out the door, crouched a bit to activate the motors, then sprinted away toward the Housing districts.
The skit, as interns on delivery duty used to call their exoskeletons, was a marvelous piece of equipment. It covered B. from chest to legs like he was in weird titanium and carbon-fiber overalls. The boy kept Mr. Hollow’s one colored in dark purple with fluo green inserts, but he was always ready to transition it back to the default yellow livery when someone from the Tower came to inspect the humble establishment.
Using a skit felt like gaining superpowers. In the early days of his internship, B.’s mind would often start wandering while he was sprinting over streets and walls alike, and he would imagine being The Lightning, one of the hundreds of superheroes AI had invented and whose adventures it narrated in comics and holovision.
‘Why can’t the Demigods come free us from the Ferals?’ he had asked himself more than once, while dribbling transport bubbles in the rush hour traffic, or leaping over low obstacles doing a cartwheel or some other trick, on the way to deliver the next sandwich. The answer was always the same: ‘Superheroes don’t exist, you dumb. But AI keeps us safe. The turrets on the Walls are enough to deter them, to keep them away. We’re safe. AI makes sure we are.’
On his way to the middle of the Southern Housing district for the last deliveries of the night, at one point B. got quite close to the place on SouthEast Main Street where he had felt those faint bumps earlier while he was cruising on the public transport toward the sandwich shop. He tried to change course and approach the exact point in the road where it had happened, to look for the cause, but once the skit was programmed with a route to follow, it seldom allowed for detours. And only if a change in traffic conditions had made an alternative one more advisable.
He felt a gentle vibration on his right leg, instead: the skit was signaling a course correction to move in the direction of the next address on the list. As always, B. gave in and let the skit bring him to the designated location.
“Who’s there?” A delicate voice, warm and kind, asked from behind the door.
“It’s B with your sandwiches!” The boy replied.
“Who’s there?” The voice asked, again.
“It’s B., Mr. Carlsen!” The boy replied, this time speaking aloud to make sure the elderly man could hear.
After a festival of locks unlocking and bars shifting, Fredrick Carlsen opened the wooden door and made his appearance. He was barely over five feet tall, more eighty than seventy years old, and legally deaf.
“Good evening, dear boy. Why didn’t you answer the first time? You don’t do that.”
B. was well prepared for the pantomime: it happened every single time, with minor variations if any at all.
“You should let the Clinic fix your ears, Mr. Carlsen. Or at the very least you should keep your hearing aid on!” he suggested while scanning the room behind the short man. He was looking for the tiny silvery pod the man seemed to have sworn he’d never wear for two hours in a row, but he couldn’t find it. He noticed something else, though.
“Where Mrs. Carlsen? You always wait for the sandwiches together, in front of the holovision.”
A cheery voice, coming from somewhere below the wooden floor, chirped the answer to his question: “I’m down here in the basement, dear boy. I’m pouring my special jam into the jars!”
‘Ooh, special jam! Interesting!’ he thought.
“Ooh, special jam! Interesting!” he said.
“I’ll keep one jar just for you! When it’s ready, dear boy!” Mrs. Carlsen promised.
Mr. Carlsen smiled and took the Triple-P sandwiches from B.’s hands.
“Are you sure these are Triple-P’s?” he asked as if he didn’t know.
“Of course they are! Pulled pork, pineapple, and peanut butter!” the boy started “And the pork comes no less than from the best bug farm in the Food district! Mr. Hollow buys only pork made from the highest quality crickets and cockroaches!”
“Good, good. You have yourself a nice rest of your evening, dear boy. I’ll see you next week, yes?” the man replied.
B. looked down at his feet for a moment.
“I… will be an adult next week, Mr. Carlsen. I don’t know where I will be, or what will I be doing.”
The old man kept smiling. “Good, good. You have yourself a nice rest of your evening, dear boy.” he repeated waving the dear boy goodbye.
‘Good old Mr. Carlsen…’ After three years, B. was accustomed to the cute elderly couple’s endearing quirkiness.
He had just another delivery left, and after a quick skit-run to a recently renovated apartment complex three neighborhoods north of there to take care of it, he went straight back to the sandwich shop.
He found himself again near the spot of the little incident with the public transport, but by then he had already made up his mind about it: it had undoubtedly been some mechanical hiccup with the transport.
Back at Mr. Hollow’s, B. got out of the skit, put it away inside his locker, and he was quickly out of the door again.
He stopped after a couple of steps into the pathway and spun back to face the bulky middle-aged man who was looking at him, hands on his hips.
“Good night, Mr. Hollow. Sorry again for coming in late, won’t happen again!” the boy said, waving goodbye.
“It’s ok, dear boy, Billie, no worries.” B.’s boss replied, raising a heavy hand up to his shoulder.
“Don’t call me that, Mr. Hollow, my name is Bobbie!”
B. had a thing for good exits.
He was still giggling at the lifelong running joke when he reached a round gray platform at the edge of the sidewalk two streets from the shop. He stood there for a few seconds until he heard a faint bell ringing from under his feet. Somewhere in a five miles radius, the nearest free transport started moving to come fetching its new passenger.
It was late at night, nobody else was around. B. took a deep breath, taking in the fresh air, feeling at peace, stretching a bit.
Looking aimlessly at the opposite side of the street, mid-stretch he noticed a familiar silhouette emerge from an alley.
“Hey, Timber!” the boy shouted, cheerfully.
Tanner Montixi, whose exotic surname had an X that you were supposed to pronounce “like the J in bonjour! That’s French! Whatever French is!”, as Tanner himself liked to point out, was as big as a young ox – according to the measurements in AI’s Book Of The Animals – and as smart as a rusty iron gate. Always had been, since he was just a little calf with the wits of a drawer.
“Fuck you, Bart! My name is Tanner!” The big boy was closing in.
Everyone, all the siblings and Mom, even, was convinced that once an adult, Tanner would have been destined to join the ranks of the Security Brigade. Ever the gifted athlete, he was fairly tall and he had grown up to be strong and muscular. Not the brightest crayon in the box, but with a natural disposition to following orders and getting results.
It was like he had been willed into existence by reciting some SB-summoning spell. Tanner was going to do the Thing on Tuesday, six days from then, a day before Zazee and B.
“Don’t call me that. My name is Bernard!”, B. couldn’t help it.
“Is it now, Bernie?”, a familiar voice asked, hiding behind Tanner’s generous back.
“Should we call him Bitch, Chris?”, another one.
“I don’t know.”, and another “Looks more like a Ball to me. Let’s kick him in the guts ‘till we find out.”
The four bullies had now surrounded B. and they were closing in.
‘Oh, this is bad.’ B. thought.
‘Really, really bad. Timber’s got minions now.’
Growing up, he had always been able to avoid Tanner’s attacks, or at least he would find a way to defuse him with some hilarious comeback. This was new to him. This Tanner was. He sounded seriously menacing, and his best friends looked like they had leveled up from annoying ducklings to full-fledged hyenas.
They were dangerously close to their prey now, even though the boy could still look down at them from the top of his unusual height. Only Tanner couldn’t have been more than a few inches shorter than the victim he had picked for the day.
B. could feel their heavy breathing. They were out there looking for trouble.
Chris was behind his back, Little Mike on his left side, Jorge on the right, and Tanner right in front of him, grinning.
“Hey, what’s cracking guys?”
“Shut up, Ball. We’re gonna kick you a new face!” Chris replied, from the back.
‘You already said that’
“Yeah, you already said that”
Tanner’s jaw tightened, and his eyes narrowed slightly as he was carefully determining where to land the first punch.
“I’ll tell you what’s wrong with your attack strategy and formation”, B. blurted out as he folded his arms. To project self-confidence, but also to protect his lungs, stomach, and kidneys.
“The fuck…” Little Mike began.
“Ok, so, Chris you should really close your legs back there. I know that’s your favorite bully pose but, I mean, I could plant my heel in your balls and we’d have ourselves a brand new Christina to ask out on a date!”
“Jorge, everybody knows you want to lose Tanner and be the jefe of your own crew, but what good would a broken jaw be if I decide to raise my elbow and drop you like a damp rag?”
“Little Mike, it’s good you just took a step back: my elbow is not going to reach your chin from that distance so I might as well sucker punch you and call it a day, what do you think?”
“Timber.” B. went on, as the biggest threat shifted his weight, his fists clenched, his breath labored “I’m sorry.” B. heard himself say.
“Growing up I had nothing but admiration for you. I respect you. I always felt like I could never become strong and straight-headed like you are. I tried to find a path to reach you in the only way I knew: with my wit. But I never wanted to hurt you. I only ever wanted to be friends, Tanner.”
“You got balls, Bosko!” Tanner shouted, an inch from B.’s nose “But don’t call me that.”, he added, suddenly relaxed “For you, my name is Timber!” and then he exploded in a boastful laughter, walking away. After a few steps, he turned slowly and deliberately and beckoned toward his crew. The three hyenas, still not sure about what had just happened, reluctantly joined their boss and vanished into the night.
Alone once more, B. frowned for an instant, then shook his head looking down, with a smirk, and finally raised his head again as the public transport arrived to bring him back to the Institute.
When he got in, he was smiling.