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Here's "Chapter 3: Up".

B. and Zazee take a ride on the slowest elevator ever.

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3. Up

`First floor`

The following six days accounted for a pretty unremarkable week, considering it would have been the last one of B.’s youth. They flew by in an instant, between business as usual at the Institute by day and acrobatic deliveries by night.

The only event of any significance had occurred the day before, on Tuesday: at the first light of dawn, Tanner Montixi had said his goodbyes and he had left the Institue to go doing the Thing. He was the oldest of the batch, hence the first of the siblings to become an adult.

Nobody had seen him since, but his three hyenas were adamant he must have already become a General of the Security Brigade.

Zazee and B. were the next ones, followed by Jorge and Little Mike on Thursday, and so on. By the end of the next month, each one of the eighty-eight would have done the Thing. After that, a new batch was going to be harvested, and the cycle would restart.

Under the self-hypnosis that every human appears to be wired for when it comes to spending a few minutes on an elevator ride, B. was reminiscing about what they had just experienced.

On the way to the Bureau, the organism responsible for the whole process of doing the Thing and getting assigned to a job or the College, which had its headquarters on the thirteenth floor of the Tower and spanned for the next ten floors, B. and Zazee had met Tanner. They had just gotten off the public transport, and they were about to enter Inner Park to reach the Tower at its center, when Zazee, who had been talking and fidgeting and hopping incessantly since they had left the Institute – to cope with the excitement, or with the anxiety, B. wasn’t entirely sure about which one, but probably both – had crashed into a huge electric blue suit, interrupted by a shiny black shirt, thus making his owner stop in his tracks.

“Oof!” the man had said.

“Zazee!” B. had said.

“Ouch, my nose! I’m so sorry, sir, I wasn’t…” Zazee had started saying, only to stop in the middle of the apology, her eyes the eyes of a child looking at an ice cream truck for the first time in their budding life.

After a couple of seconds of doubtful silence, B. had broken the spell and patted the formerly young, now adult, ox on the shoulder greeting him with the most cheerful: “Timber? What happened to you? I mean, I know what happened to you, but… what happened to you?”

“My name is Tanner, dear boy. You don’t call me that.” the man had replied.

Ignoring the wee icy spike that had immediately made a remote corner of his mind start screaming, and missing altogether Zazee’s body language, who had taken three steps back and was now staring at the man who had been her brother only a day before, like a child frowning at broccoli after the first taste, B. continued.

“Ha! I beg your pardon, Mr. Montixi!” the boy had gone on, winking “And how was your first day at the SB? Already made any friends? Enemies?”.

“I wasn’t assigned to the Brigade, dear boy. I am the new Chief Operative Officer for the Logistics district. Oh, and about that: I have a meeting in twenty, so… it was a pleasure to meet you, children. Have a nice day, and congratulations on your Thing!” And just like that Tanner had left them.

‘Second floor’

They had kept walking through Inner Park, quiet, neither of them able to untangle the clew of their emotions, the sticky feeling of incoming loss, the surging panic of being on the wrong side of a frozen lake, looking up at the glassy ceiling and seeing the adults go on with their lives, focused, callous, fulfilled. The need to breathe, but at what price?

When they had reached the main entrance of the Tower, B. had grabbed Zazee’s hand with desperate resolve, his head down, his eyes closed.

“Zazee, I don’t… I’m not…” he had tried to articulate.

“Woo, that was weird!” Zazee was back from her brooding break. “Let’s get inside! I can’t wait to see if they’ll finally manage to help me get rid of you, dumb!” she had giggled.

The obscure icicle at the center of B.’s chest had then immediately started to melt away. Zazee always had that mending effect on his overdramatic moments. They had entered the Tower, for the first time in their lives, holding each other’s hand.

‘Third floor’

Once inside, their field of vision had briefly overflowed with an intense shade of red, and they had been complaining aloud, disoriented. An instance of the holo receptionist had then promptly popped up right in front of them, explaining about the full-body scanner: “An automatic, completely harmless – and superfluous, if you ask me – security measure to ensure that the Ferals stay away from the Tower. In case of emergency. If they, you know, break in. That’s like saying never. No Feral could possibly enter the City, let alone the Tower.” then, with an uncanny change of disposition, she had added: “Is there anything else I can help you with, dear children?”.

B. knew well enough the holo receptionist didn’t have any real opinions. What they had just witnessed was nothing more than a pre-recorded message. A show whose essential meaning never changed, and whose specific demeanor was continuously tweaked in real-time by one of AI’s subroutines depending on the perceived mood of the audience.

“Yes, thank you, we are here to do the Thing.” B. had answered.

“Oh, sure! In that case, you must be B.” the holo receptionist had pretended she didn’t know exactly who the two of them were, why were they at the Tower that morning, and that she knew all there was to know about them, thanks to the scanner at the entrance “And you must be Organza!”

“Don’t call me that, I’m… you know what? Never mind. Where do we go, dear holo receptionist?” Zazee had interjected, still somewhat tense from before.

The zealous hologram had pointed an ethereal finger toward the far end of the hall, where a battery of twelve pearly white elevators phagocytized and regurgitated a seemingly endless stream of adults. Adults in suits, for the most part, but also adults wearing more casual outfits – some of them transitioning into brightly colored lab coats as soon as they hopped in – and janitors in dark brown overalls.

The hall itself was a vast circular arena with no reception desk and nowhere to take a seat. Instead, a battalion of holo receptionists popped up in front of whoever might be in need of assistance. The curved, sea-green walls, were embellished with murals, painted in bright glassy colors, depicting AI taking various forms and succeeding in several quests: as a little blonde girl with her forefinger stuck in a hole in a wall, thus saving the City by keeping the Walls from collapsing against a gigantic wave; as a titanic and muscular old man draped in white cloth, riding a horse with universes in its eyes, holding the whole City on his shoulders; as a beautiful butterfly, with purple and golden wings, flying over to the forehead of a young man and kissing him into adulthood; as a fierce, voluptuous huntress, alone in front of the City, keeping horrendous biped beasts at bay with her exquisite ebony bow and blue glass arrows; and more.

A thirteenth elevator, colored in bright red, rested, unused, at the center of the other ones with six white elevators on either side. On a polished brass plaque mounted above the doors, an inscription warned the visitor about its intended usage.

“Reserved, until floor twelve, to the dear children who come visit the Bureau to do the Thing” Zazee had read aloud “Come on, dumb, let’s hop on the weird one. The Bureau is on the thirteenth floor!”

And here they were, going up to meet their fabled destiny, to do the mysterious Thing, to become adults. On the third floor now, riding up on ‘the slowest elevator ever installed in the history of the City’ B. concluded.

“Why is this elevator so slow?” the boy asked.

“That wasn’t him.” Zazee wasn’t ok, after all.

“Huh?” B. was still mad at the elevator, an escapist’s trick to evade the darker intrusive thoughts banging at the doors of his mind like Ferals in most bedtime stories.

“That man, dumb! That man couldn’t possibly be Tanner! There’s just no way!” Zazee was now inches away from losing it.

“Listen to me…” the boy offered.

“No, you listen to me!” Zazee blurted out “That was… that was like someone else in Tanner’s body!”

“Someone with his memory of us?” B. tried again, projecting more confidence than what he had actually managed to gather “Someone who knew that we were going to do the Thing?”

“Now you’re making it sound like it’s impossible…” Zazee conceded.

“Because it is!” B. continued, doing his best to infuse the tone of his voice with tenderness and fraternal love. “Because we were wrong about him, we always have been!

We saw him grow strong and impulsive, and we thought he was going to be a fighter. We witnessed him take decisions – however good they ended up being – in a split second, and we thought he was going to be a shooter. But we were wrong: being strong doesn’t define our brother. Self-confidence and effectiveness, his qualities, made AI see a top-level manager where we saw a member of the SB.

I admit that I wasn’t expecting the Thing to amplify those qualities up to the point of starting his new career straight from the top, but clearly, that’s what the Thing does: it takes your greatest qualities and boosts them to the max! It’s so cool!”

“So cool…” Zazee repeated, then added: “B., promise me everything will be alright! Promise me we’ll always have each other, no matter how boosted we are going to be…”

“I promise you” the boy looked down at his sister and friend, then surprised her with a bear hug “that we will always have each other, no matter how boosted up my dumbness is going to be!”

‘Fifth floor’

Zazee sighed.

B. sighed.

“You know, for a moment I was convinced we’d meet her today.” the boy confessed.

“Who… oh, Erica. Do you…” Zazee started, looking at him, but then turning to face the display of the elevator “Do you remember the incident with Mom’s ass?”

“With Mom’s… of course I remember the incident with Mom’s ass!” B.’s face lightened up with the excitement that only reminiscing about some dramatically dumb decision as a kid could conjure.

“We were playing a legendary game of Become-An-Adult…” B. started.

“Pfft. It was barely above the average if you ask me.” Zazee interjected, doing her best impression of the holo receptionist.

“Le-gen-da-ry.” the boy went on “Anyway, it was my turn to face the final challenge and secure my high score, and Tanner had insisted I’d sneak behind Mom and smack her in the ass!”

Zazee nodded, giggling.

“Erica was there, and she was trying to convince me to refuse the challenge and do something else like running ten times around the Institute or something like that.” B. continued “You were in front of me. I was debating with Tanner about how many bonus points it would’ve earned me if I’d made my ass-smacking hit also hilariously loud, when he ran away like The Lightning, and you started frantically doing that thing with your hand.” the boy said, mimicking Zazees peculiar danger signal: pinky and thumb repeatedly joined at the tips. The more frequent the move, the higher the danger.

“So I’m standing there, Tanner is gone, you are doing your thing, and I see Death herself in Erica’s eyes!” B. was now chortling “And then I understand: Mom is right behind me. And”

“And Erica takes a step forward and says she asked you to do it, with the bonus points and all.” Zazee concluded “She spent three days and two nights in the Pit. Even I only ever spent a maximum of two days and one night down there. She was… she was something else.”

“She is.” B. corrected her.

‘Eighth floor’

‘I can’t believe we survived eighteen years at the Institute’

“I’m going to miss life at the Institute” B. began, after three more dauntingly slow floors of silence.

‘And I had it easy, overall. Zazee went down in the Pit dozens of times.’

“And I’m going to miss Mom”

‘Mom hates Zazee. She could be so cruel to her.’

“I’m going to miss our evenings on the rooftop.”

‘Away from everything, dreaming of being birds and flying away, over the wasteland, over the Ferals.’

“And all the games we played with our siblings.”

‘Away from the need to learn how to become invisible, to avoid reprimands or worse.’

“And all the laughing.”

‘To cover the desperation as we grew older and understood more.”

“And all the stories we came up with.”

‘To cope with the dullness of our present condition.’

“I’m really going to miss Mom.”

‘Apart from when she’d get angry.’

“And all the flowers.”

‘Definitely not when she’d get angry.’

“And the trees.”

‘Loved the trees. Mom couldn’t climb the trees.’

“And everyone else, even Tanner’s hyenas!”

‘Not. A. Chance.’

“What I’m not going to miss, tho, are our evenings at the park. Because I swear right now, right here in this AIdamned slow elevator, that those won’t end any time soon. Maybe they’ll become classy chess matches while sipping cocktails on the terrace at some club or whatever. But they won’t end!”

‘If we both come out of this with our essence intact.’


“The day Erica left me” B. started, as if some part of his soul had been gnawing at a crusty dam until it had finally given up and the waters had broke “… left us, something happened.”

Zazee switched her focus from the tips of her pearly purple-and-fuchsia moon boots to her brother’s eyes.

“It was quick, you were at the door like the rest of our siblings, with Mom, and she had already said her goodbyes and I…” the boy was struggling to maintain his usual composure “I saw something in her eyes. She wanted to tell me something. So I said I was going to help her with the luggage and I got closer.”

“I remember.” Zazee interjected, puzzled “And I remember she hugged you. AI! She used to hug you so much! Why did she have to hug you so much? I mean” she started, rolling her eyes.

“But wait, there’s more to it.” B. said, getting back control over the conversation “When she hugged me, she gave me something, and she whispered with a voice so sad that it scared me: ‘Promise you won’t forget me, Billie.’. And of course, I had to reply ‘Don’t call me that, my name is Barf’.

And then she left.

And when I finally whispered ‘I promise’, she was already gone. And I felt empty.”

“You never told me that… and what was it, the thing that she gave to you?” Zazee asked.

“This.” B. reached under his collarless red shirt, and got out a medallion “I kept it stashed behind a brick near my bed for a while. Then I started wearing it because it felt like the right thing to do.”

The medallion looked ancient and consisted of a shimmering golden disc equipped with a sturdy evoleather string. Probably a relatively recent addition, for wearing it comfortably around the neck. The centerpiece of the disc was a beautifully crafted high relief of a peaceful sleeping child's head, which was delicately sculpted to capture the serene expression of the figure. An exquisite incision in an exotic and mysterious language was etched around the child’s head, spanning the whole circumference of the jewel.

“SECURUS DORMIES” Zazee’s face was so close to the medallion as she read the inscription, that for an instant B. worried she was going to nibble at it like a cookie “What does it mean?”

“I have no idea.” B. replied, shrugging, just as the elevator came to a stop at the twelfth floor. The doors slid open and a small group of people walked in.

Three of them looked like inconsequential salarymen, with their light grey suits and white collared shirts, brown bags at their side, and dark bags under their eyes. The fourth one was something else: he wore a fluo pink lab coat over light red jeans and a pair of dark green slippers. His hairstyle defied gravity and common sense alike. And he kept staring at B.’s medallion. So much so that the boy, feeling uneasy, hid it back under his shirt.

After that, the weird man changed countenance and began feigning disinterest. B. was unsure if what he was peeking at on the man’s face was an ill-concealed smirk or just the discomfort of being on the slowest elevator ever with three jacket-shirt-men and a couple of kids.

‘Thirteenth floor.’

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William Ghelfi

I'm writing the Consequo trilogy: a sci-fi series of novels where AI and what's left of Humanity face the consequences of their sins. Subscribe to get free chapters from Book 1, "The Boy Who Didn't", as I write and edit them.

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