In a far-off galaxy, the purple-skinned alien, Taman Yedder, left his home colony for the motherworld Yemma. As one among billions, he was chosen to represent his home system and compete against six other chosen ones, in a grand contest called, the Anermis-report.
A welcome message that's intended to be sent to another species that they have discovered.
After meeting his sponsor, he embarks on a high-speed journey to locations of historical and cultural significance. This way he must capture the essence of his species.
Yet, at his first stop, he encounters an angry mob of protesters, seemingly trying to stop his progress. Nothing the authorities can't handle. But it's not a coincidence, and after escaping the raging protesters at nearly every location he visits, he discovers that an age-old enemy orchestrates their attacks. A secret terror organization, driven by an ancient religion. But are they truly as evil as the government says? And will Taman survive to finish the contest?
• First-person POV
• Homosexual characters
• Science-based world-building
• All characters are aliens
• The theme is truth (self-actualization and conspiracies)
I should be sleeping, but my eyes won’t stay shut. Not that I would see much, since even with them adjusted, this near-perfect darkness cuts me down to just hearing and smell. The subdued beeping of instruments monitoring my vital signs, this chemical bite of cleaning agents, and the artificial sweetness of medicine. That’s it. Maybe something’s wrong with these pills this doctor keeps feeding me. All part of the standard protocol, of course. Until now, that is.
Clearly something’s different today—I can move my arms and legs again. Heavy, clunky movements, but still. When I heave my upper body vertically, my supporting arms and spine quiver as if they are bearing double my weight under increased gravity. Which is true in part. Although they told me you can’t feel the difference, since the planets Yemma and Sa-Ult are almost equal in mass. So the
reason for my weakened state must be entirely due to the side effects of cold sleep. Can’t believe I blew all my savings on this flight.
But I would do it all over again because it’s one of the conditions to get a shot at becoming part of history. To compete in the Anermis Report. The first-ever exchange between our kind and another. The answer to the last great question. Yet despite all these exciting things on the horizon, the consequences of me leaving home are slowly catching up with me.
“Stop, don’t think of them yet,” I hear myself say, clenching my fists while the beeping of the heartbeat monitor increases. I can’t let these feelings weigh me down, so I give my head a good shake and then carefully climb out of bed, one foot after another. There will be a time for grieving, but for now, I must find that light switch.
Confident enough to stay upright, I take my wobbly first step into the void. A razor of light cast on the floor serves as my only orientation. And when I reach what feels like the door frame, I press the first button my fingers can make out. With a swoosh, the room floods with light from the cor-
ridor. I must have opened the door. With my eyes still throbbing from the glare, I should probably wait for them to adjust, but if the doctor finds me, he will shoo me right back to bed.
Still not trusting my legs, I keep one hand on the corridor wall. By the looks of it, there’s an elevator at the end. And after peering over my shoulder, I go for it as fast as my rubbery legs allow. All I need is a quick confirmation of my new surroundings. New landscapes, architecture, and constellations. If I’m lucky, I might even see a few stars; I only have to make it back before the doctor notices. He’s gonna lose it for sure.
The day before, I refused his cocktail of medicine, since every time I take it, my stomach revolts. Not that it bothered him. He just rolled his eyes and told me to stop whining, since no one else does, and also because protocol demands it. In response, I spewed the stuff all over the bed. He made a face I will probably never forget.
At the elevator, I tap the call button and step in once the cabin doors open. I set the controls for the top level, and prepare for the ascent. Although the acceleration must be
minute, my knees shiver under the extra weight. Luckily, it doesn’t last long, and moments later, the doors open again.
It’s another corridor. Far dimmer than the last one. Only a faint red bulb illuminates what must be a door to access the roof.
“Please be unlocked,” I say, wheezing from exhaustion while laboring my way there. I can’t tell if it’s from going into cold sleep, or the decades of suspension—all I know is that I’m horribly out of shape. So I have all the more reason to be out of bed.
At the end of the corridor, my vision blurs as my lungs fight for air. And I need every bit of strength for what’s next. Unlike the door to my room, this one appears to be some kind of hatch. One you would expect on a plane, orbital station, or any other pressurized vehicle. Perhaps in this case, they’ve made sure to prevent any unwanted exchange of atmosphere. And for good reason. In my fragile state, even the air could cause harm with its invisible germs and bacteria. The thought makes me hesitate at first, but given the many pills I’ve already taken, I give the lever a good heave. But no effect.
“Come on,” I grunt while putting all my weight into it. Groaning and screeching, the lever finally moves, and after an affirming hiss, the thick metal plate sways inward. Like a stream of warm water, the outside air floods in, seeping through the fabric of my patient gown and right down to my skin. It’s my first contact with this new world.
I scale a narrow flight of stairs, part of a recess that leads to the roof. At the top, my gown ripples under a stiff breeze while a perfect night sky welcomes me. And apart from a few radio antennas lining the rim of this roof, I stand exposed on a flat plain, almost like a landing platform. Now it’s just me and the stars, which are glistening in their full glory. However, this moment of wonder quickly turns to worry as I recognize a familiar constellation. It’s just a coincidence—must be. Yet on a closer look, it’s not the only one—more and more familiar constellations pop from the sea of silver dots.
But how can it be that even after traveling such a vast distance, the stars never changed? This either means our window to the universe is smaller than I thought, or I never left home at all. Air rustles past the lump building in my
throat. What if there was a mistake, and I really am still on Sa-Ult? Perhaps some glitch in the system, some random mix-up that put me into arrivals instead of departures, right after they put me to sleep. An unlikely error, and incredibly stupid too, but still possible. My pulse starts pounding in my ears. Even my vision narrows to a black vignette, crawling in from all sides, shrinking my sight to a tunnel. The shock leaves me gasping so much that I find myself on my knees the next moment.
However, while my body struggles to keep up, my mind kicks into overdrive. Darting my head around, I try to make out any familiar landmarks, but it’s far too dark. The roof itself also blots out most of what lies beneath, so I crawl closer to one of these antennas bordering the abyss.
Not without a struggle, though, as these powerful gusts seem to negate my every forward motion. It’s the kind of breeze you would expect near the sea. I just hope I’m wrong, since most cities at home were built near it. With my skin pouring with sweat, and lungs aching, I reach the rim of the roof. Once I peer over the horizon, I not only catch the distinct whoosh but also the undulating refractions of
“Please no,” I say, gripping my chest. My first instinct is to rush back inside and interrogate this doctor about it. Only when another breeze almost sends me flying like a flag, I notice that something is off.
“Uh. That smell!” I gasp, pinching my nose. Along with the usual saltiness, whiffs of sweetish putridity permeate the air. My stomach might revolt, but I can’t help but smile a little, since this could be a clue. Because, where I grew up, the sea does not smell like garbage. Curious about the source of the odor, I hoist myself up on the antenna and peer into the night.
That’s when the glaring stream of a road jumps at me from the dark. It’s one of those major lifelines connecting cities. And this busy trail of concrete leads straight for one: a far-off cluster of bright dots that ignites the air above into an incandescent dome. Probably a transit city that connects to offshore launch loops. Giant freestanding bridges that reach up into low orbit. Though, from this far away, I can only make out the flash of the launch pods boosting up the loop.
Unfortunately, from this distance, the odors are unlikely to be coming from the city. Nor the broad stream of traffic curving into the land, tapering out into a golden line, thin as a hair, before the darkness swallows the rest of its light. And for some reason, there are no more cities. But when I search the sky above the street, I notice another oddity. Among the rugged ridge of mountains blackening out the midnight blue, stars seem to flicker right through them. And if that weren’t curious enough, I see the distinct shapes of mouths, noses, and eyes in the mountains.
“That—that’s a face,” I whisper to myself. It could all just be a trick of the light—or the mind, for that matter. But the longer I stare, the more they seem to stare back from the nighttime mountain range. Hundreds of faces seem to line those ridges. Faces carved from the rock itself, and the lights among them might be settlements.
But only one thing is sure: it confirms that I am exactly where I want to be, since my home has no such monuments. So this must be it. Yemma, the mother world. The cradle of our kind.
After one big fill of my lungs, I breathe out my worries
and direct my attention to this perfect night again. Turns out that my field of view didn’t change after all. And how could it? Compared to the size of our galaxy, I must have barely moved at all. If you could see me right now, I think, reaching out my hand. It might only be in my head, but it’s as if I could just reunite with my loved ones.
Growing up, my dad used to teach me where to locate the different systems among the constellations. Unfortunately, neither of us would have ever imagined that I would make it to Yemma one day. So I have no clue where to find Sa-Ult, but it doesn’t keep me from imagining this tiny world somewhere among this vast field of stars. After a while, however, something does stand out, as one of the silver dots flares up. So much that I have to throw an arm over my eyes for protection. Perhaps it’s a shooting star or space junk burning up in the stratosphere. That would explain the intense brightness, but not the noise.
“What is that?” I raise my voice against what sounds like turbine engines. It’s some kind of craft, no doubt, and judging by the increasing noise, it’s coming toward me. Perhaps it’s an emergency, so I try and hurry back inside.
However, it travels much faster than me, and soon I end up swaying under its deafening jets. Dazed and disoriented by the searchlights, I stare up, and fling my arms at it, trying to make it stop.
No reaction. Instead, it just keeps on slowly roasting me under its engines.
“What now?” I scream, making angry gestures. But it just keeps hovering above me. Obviously someone on board wants to land, yet I have no way of explaining that they keep blinding me. And so they leave me no choice but to carry on toward the door. The hatch should be right in front of me, so I should be fine. Trouble is, the craft seems to follow my every step.
“Idiots,” I grumble, and I prepare to just leap through the barrage of exhaust streams when the jets suddenly scream down at me. It’s as if they fired an afterburner, or simply ramped up the thrust to gain altitude. Just a small push for them, yet for me, it’s an indescribable force that leaves me skidding over the roof. Screaming in panic, I flail around with my arms and legs, desperate to hold on to something. But even with my fingers scraping the roof, those powerful
exhausts push me farther until the ground slips out from under my belly. And after a short sensation of weightlessness, darkness takes me.
. . .
There is the beeping again, also a biting smell. And when I squint at the white walls, my head pounds with bouts of pain. Reflexively, my hands flinch to try and nurse it, but another constricting pain bites my wrists. I’m back in my room, tied to the bed, and at the foot of it stands the doctor. He’s crossing his arms while deep lines contort his face. I’ve never seen such a grimace, not where I come from. Also, his deep-violet pigmentation adds to his livid appearance. It’s much darker than my pale-amethyst complexion. Yet his skin color is not uncommon among our kind, since we all share the same evolution. But perhaps it’s more widespread among Yemmarians, or he just spends a lot of time in the sun. Apart from that, his eyes have the same lurid chromophoric freckles and oblong pupils. The same swirled nostrils, quartered lips covering his four interlocking tooth
plates, and the jet-black hair.
“How are we today, Mr. Yedder?” says the doctor in an unpleasantly loud tone, making my head hurt even more.
“Can’t complain, apart from these,” I say, smirking past my aches, trying to pull free from the restraints.
“Just a precaution.”
“Thanks. I’m safe now, so would you please take them off? ”
He gives a dry chortle. “Evident by your nighttime accident, you lack both the sense of orientation and the physical strength required to take care of yourself. So, only at the end of your quarantine period will you be fit for release.”
“What is this, some sort of prison?” I snap. “Besides, if it weren’t for that stupid pilot, you wouldn’t even know I went out.”
The doctor just gives a confused scowl. “Pilot?”
“The one that almost pushed me off the roof, with his craft,” I recount, rolling my eyes.
“Mr. Yedder, I found you unconscious below the roof access. There was no craft. So, it’s far more likely you simply
hallucinated and collapsed from exhaustion.” He huffs, shaking his head while he jots down notes.
He’s got to be joking. How can he not know about the craft? Not that it matters, it’s probably fruitless to keep arguing. I know what I saw, even if he doesn’t believe me. Only, why did they approach the roof if they didn’t intend on landing?
“Anyway, I did not pay for this, so let me go,” I say, rising from the bed as much as the restraints allow until a wave of pain forces me back in my place.
“To the contrary. It clearly says so in your contract,” he says, almost gleefully holding out a datasheet, and after clearing his throat, he starts to read. A long list of things. Flight details, medical and technical things, something about replacing bodily fluids like blood with artificial liquids. Stuff that makes you enter cold sleep, one of the downsides of traveling interstellar. But apparently most crucial, since it slows your metabolism to a crawl. Otherwise you would wake up as an old man, or worse, die, depending on the distance you’ve traveled. Unfortunately, time will carry on normally for the people you leave behind.
The doctor is still busy reading, grinding through paragraph after paragraph. All those rules and regulations that hardly anyone understands the first time they read them. At least it distracts him, so I try to wrest free from my restraints. Soon, one strap starts to loosen up. So much that I can almost squeeze my hand through, but I decide to wait until he’s not there to continue.
“And there you have it,” he says, lowering the sheet. “Under interstellar quarantine law, you are required to receive treatment for the next three weeks.”
“Three weeks?” I blurt out. “So what’s your plan? Keep me chained to this bed for that long? In case you didn’t know, I am a contestant,” I say, my chest swelling.
“So?” He shrugs. “I couldn’t let you go even if you were Gwafa Izemrasen himself.”
My mouth drops at his last comment. That name. How could he know it? Maybe he logged into my personal files. Wait, not maybe—he must have! The only file that contains that name is my application for the Anermis Report. “How do you know my sponsor?” I say, scrutinizing him.
He just frowns again. “Sponsor? You mean Gwafa Izemrasen
is your sponsor for the contest?” he says, seemingly pondering if he should believe me or not.
“Of course he is, what about him?” I say, still suspicious.
“What about him…?” He gasps, sounding appalled. “Gwafa is the current successor of the Izemrasen lineage. Head of the most powerful family, and our leadership. His dynasty brought an end to war and famine ever since the great extinction.” He pauses for a breath. “They single-handedly funded the great expansion, and the creation of every single daughter world. That also includes your home. In case you didn’t know that either.”
“Well, now that you know how important I am, would you please return my belongings!” I answer, smirking snidely.
He just chuckles, shakes his head, and writes down some more notes. “I’m very sorry, Mr. Yedder. Now that I know of your…importance, I couldn’t possibly release you early. Just imagine what Gwafa would say if something were to happen to you,” he says, then turns his back on me and heads for the door.
“Hey, come back, you! You better give my stuff or…or…
Gwafa will hear of this,” I shout after him, gritting my tooth plates from both pain and anger.
He strides on regardless, ignoring my cries, his head aloft. Only as he stands in the open doorway, he decides to turn. “You will have what is yours. You can even move about the common areas once I see fit. But you will not leave this facility. Contestant or not, rules are rules,” he states flatly, and walks out.
A deep, guttural growl vibrates my lips and throat. People told me that Yemmarians are stuck up compared to us Ultians. Mainly because they are motherworld natives. Something that I used to brush off as stereotyping, but this guy seems to prove them all right. Who does he think he is? I might have broken some rules by going up on that roof, but that doesn’t give him the right to incarcerate me like this.
Just you wait, once I have my things back, I’m off, I think. Even if it means knocking this guy unconscious and tying him up. But I hope that a word from my sponsor will be enough. If he is only half as powerful as the doctor claims, I should be out in no time. All I have to do is ring
him up, and then the doctor will have no choice but to let me go.
To do that, however, I’ve got to free myself from these restraints. Surprisingly, after a short squeeze, my hand slips from these shackles without causing too much pain. So with one hand free, I unbuckle the rest in a flash. For some reason, he tied them only lightly. Perhaps to make sure my circulation wouldn’t suffer, or he underestimated my strength.
Whatever the case, I better get to the common areas before… The moment I climb out of the bed, my heart jolts, zapping my head with waves of pain, and the door opens. Expecting the doctor, I dive behind the bed to gain some strategical distance between me and him, in case he tries to sedate me or something. Luckily, it’s not the doctor. It’s not even a person.
Instead, the metal body of an automated unit rolls in. Just a cabinet on wheels with a tray on top, and a telescopic arm to manipulate its surroundings. Such an odd sight. Normally, they employ members of the worker niche for such jobs. Otherwise, automation is scarce—outlawed, even
—since it takes away precious opportunities for employment. So this either means they are out of workers, or this entire place belongs to this sub-niche. In that case, I have another reason to complain.
But first, I have to get dressed, and as soon as the unit halts next to my bed, I clutch plastic bags carrying my name and flight number.
“My suit,” I whisper. The transparent skin crackles between my fingers as I tear the package open. I carefully remove its contents and place the precious fabric onto the bed. Another bag holds my shoes, and the last one, my most important possession. A black circlet framed in silver bezels that fits on my wrist. This tiny computer holds not only my identification, reputation history, and endless amounts of digital memory triggers, but also my application for the Anermis Report.
I strip away the plastic, and try to power it up. Nothing.
Which doesn’t surprise me at all, since no charge would last on a flight this long. They could have at least put one charge port in these rooms. Never mind, I will find another way to contact my sponsor. Maybe down in the common
areas I will have better options, perhaps even services I can use. All the antennas up on the roof must be there for a reason.
Ignoring the pain, I hastily strip off my gown. And when I slide into my suit, its cozy, familiar feel eases some of my aches. After clipping my ID around my wrist, I head out the door and straight for the elevator. My head still throbs from the accident, especially once the cabin thuds to a halt at ground level.
How abandoned this place is. When I enter this vast atrium, empty chairs stare back at me, touched only by a warm sliver of sunlight from above. On a closer look, I notice the shoddy quality; in fact, everything in this place seems to scream Anmahal, the worker niche. How could they have misplaced me? It seems there was a glitch in the system after all. Anyway, this doctor better has an answer for it.
Marching past the echelons of chairs and tables, the smell of food still lingers in the air, hiding in fabrics and the nooks and crannies of the architecture itself. This must be some kind of canteen that’s been out of service for a very long
time. And now, there is nothing but dust on the menu.
“Where is everyone?” I say under my breath while entering what must be part of an old queueing system. Back then, it must have held thousands of people at once. Imagining the ordeal of waiting in line during its peak, I feel almost relieved to be alone. However, when I reach the end, an all-too-familiar scowl awaits me from a desk that’s labeled “Immigrations.”
“How did you…? I ordered you to stay in bed until I said otherwise.” The doctor’s voice cracks over my head like a whip.
Despite his fury, I keep marching toward him. Right now, only he stands between me and the gates leading outside, to freedom.
For some reason, he’s changed into some kind of hazard suit that crackles loudly with every step, like a giant plastic bag.
Maybe he’s about to leave the place himself. But why the suit? Whatever he is up to, now he has to deal with me first.
“Go back to your room, now!” he commands.
“Not so fast, I have a complaint to make,” I smirk at him.
“Complaint? If anyone has the right to complain, it’s—”
“You put me in the wrong place! I am not Anmahal.”
Eyes rolling, he reaches into his suit for the data sheet and gives an annoyed sigh as he starts reading. “Your pod was designated to arrive in this place, Mr. Yedder. This usually means that the other arrival centers are full.”
“As if.” I chuckle. “You better tell me what’s going on. And where are you going in that…thing?”
His lips curl. “Listen, I only know so much. I work here as an auxiliary supervisor for post-cryo care. My main occupation is, well, confidential.”
“Auxiliary?” I echo. “I wonder what Gwafa would say about that. And the fact that his contestant nearly fell from the roof during your care,” I say, gloating somewhat.
His gloves screech and crackle as he clenches his fists.
“Now, if you don’t mind, I would like to make a call,” I say.
He must be boiling in his suit from anger, and only with great reluctance does he walk me over to a series of booths on the back wall. Some kind of public comm cells. None of them look operational; in fact, they appear more like run-
down museum pieces. Smudgy screens, flaking paint, buttons missing or rubbed smooth from thousands of fingers passing over them. Yet despite the broken appearance, the thing comes alive as I sit down in front of it, and it promptly demands payment.
“You know how this works, right?” the doctor asks, peering over my shoulder.
“Of course, but the thing is…I can’t pay,” I say, swallowing.
“You can’t afford a call?” he bellows down at me. “How exactly did you get a ticket for an interstellar flight, then?” He breaks into gleeful laughter. “Don’t get me wrong, but I think you really do belong here.”
I crane my head around, scowling, and his mischievous grin goes away in a flash. He even backs off a little while sliding one hand into the pocket of his plastic suit.
“You know, I might forget my complaints about you in front of Gwafa, in turn for a little compensation,” I say, moving aside for him to access the cell.
He flashes his tooth plates, and with great reluctance, he makes the payment. But before I can access the menu, a
scrawl of advertisements blot out the screen. With colors flashing and slogans jingling, they compete for my attention. Quick-food brands present their latest products and flavors. Apparently the proteins taste like real meat. But then again, nobody really knows what meat tastes like, not even the food companies themselves, since all food has been entirely artificial ever since the great extinction. Not that it bothers me—at least it’s a lie that doesn’t hurt anyone. Unlike those commercials offering reorientation therapy. They target those poor men and women who suffer from sexual disorientation. Same-sex attraction. It’s the kind of shady business that only the most desperate people fall for. But even if one of the treatments were effective, once the word got out that you needed it in the first place, your life would slowly break apart. Work, family, friends, and lastly yourself. And unfortunately, my friend was outed just before I left.
While the screen flickers on, only one ad stands out to me in a positive way. Something I used to take myself. Pills that enhance your work performance. Zero-Gs, they call them, because they make you feel like floating in zero
gravity while you work around the clock, without the need to sleep, or even eat or drink. Good old times. I loved working that way; however, their price made them quite the luxury.
Once the screen clears off all the ads, I can access the menu to make the call. Good thing I memorized the number. While waiting to get through, I hurriedly correct my hair, straighten my jacket, and sit upright.
The line opens. Only, instead of Gwafa’s image, an ornate emblem with what must be a family tree fills the screen. Also, instead of a male voice, a woman chimes over the speakers.
“Izem Tower of Ilem-Tamurt, how can I help?”
“Yes, it’s me, Taman Yedder… I mean, I am a contestant for the Anermis Report,” I say, biting my lip not to curse myself for botching my first impression. At least it’s just a secretary, not the man himself.
Static crackles from the speakers before she speaks again. “Let’s see if I can work with that.” I hear her sniggering on the other end. “So you are a contestant?”
“Correct, and Gwafa Izemrasen is my sponsor,” I say,
giving an affirming nod, even if she can’t see it.
“Is that so…” she says, with undeniable mockery in her voice.
“It is. Now would you please put me through to him. I need to—”
“I don’t think so,” she trills. “Firstly, even if you are the man you claim to be, you had an appointment three months ago. And secondly, I doubt there will be any new contestants at this point,” she adds, giggling childishly.
My face burns with rage. Compared to her, the doctor seems like the nicest guy I’ve ever met. I must stay calm, though; otherwise, she will just cut me off. So I uncurl my fists, take a deep breath, and move closer so she gets my every word.
“Gwafa is my sponsor, and you will let me talk to—”
The speakers crackle from her shrieking laughter. “Even if he had time for it, I doubt he would want to waste it on scammers like you. Besides, the contest is over, and the winner will be announced three weeks from now.”
In a flash, my face turns from fire to ice. It could be a bluff, or maybe she’s just taunting me again. However, if
what she claims is true, my chances of winning are doomed. How can I be three months over schedule, if I just took my first step the night before? Skipping me as a contestant would make no sense, since they knew I was coming. So this either means the doctor kept me asleep for that long, or the flight itself was delayed. Whatever the truth is, I have to get moving, right now. Leave this place, and meet Gwafa in person. It’s my only chance of staying in this competition. So with my body shivering from the stress, I lean close to the receiver, calm my breath from shuddering, and concentrate solely on my voice.
“Tell Gwafa I am on my way.”
Again, static idles over the speaker before the transmission cuts off. For a while, I keep fogging up the screen with my breath, trying to make sense of everything. Only when I catch the reflection of a large plastic body lurking directly behind me, my breathing stops. The doctor has come uncomfortably close—to grab me, perhaps. However, when I turn my head, my heart kicks against my ribs as I stare directly into the nozzle of some kind of dispenser. His finger curls, and I just manage to dive out of the trajectory of the
With no time to ponder what might happen if the stuff touches me, the dispenser swings right back at me. But this time, instead of evading the spray, I tackle the arm holding it. Grunting, I wrestle the doctor until we both come crashing to the floor. Pinging and clanking, the dispenser bounces across the tiles. While the doctor still lies on the ground groaning, I go after the thing.
Back on his feet, he comes dashing after me, despite the heavy suit. And just before he can knock the dispenser from my hand, a white cloud hisses into his face. Immediately, he spits and coughs, trying to wipe the sedative from his skin. But he’s too late—his speech and movements already begin to slur.
“Running is useless… The police…will bring you right back…” He trails off, before his eyes roll up and he slumps to the ground.
Still shaking under the rush of adrenaline, I move toward his limp body. No doubt he must have locked the gate, in case I try to escape. But since he was about to leave, he must have some keys on him somewhere.
Yet before I search him, I hit him with another dose, just to be sure he’s not pretending. He must have been on his way to a lab somewhere, since most of his pockets are full of medical equipment. The kind they use to collect samples from people. Only, why put the suit on now? Maybe it’s part of a field test or something. However, the pendant on his neck tells a very different story.
It’s a transparent triangle with two circles of different sizes, one enclosing the other, pierced with a rhombus that tapers into an upward spire. It’s the symbol of Thussna. Which means he’s not only a doctor and scientist but also a speaker. One of those learned men who communicate the latest revelations of science and reaffirms the old from the Book of Thilawdt. So this means that he could have been on his way to an assembly. But again, why the suit?
Whatever the reason is, I have no time to be solving mysteries now, and every moment counts. Fortunately, I quickly find a bundle of key cards at his waist. Without further hesitation, I rush toward the gate behind the desk. Again, there’s some kind of hatch, only huge, designed to release large groups of people at once. As expected,
it demands a key, so I sift through the bundle, and once I find the right one, the inner gate slides up. For a short moment, it closes behind me like a trap, but then warm air floods in as the outer gate rises, and I finally set foot in this new world.
Enclosing the entire perimeter stands a tidal wave of concrete the same height as the building I just escaped from. It’s a relic of the war, erected to deflect blast waves. Only pre-strike buildings have them, unlike the newer structures that recede into the earth in case of an attack, which never really happened past the first impact. Let alone on my world. In fact, the only safety these walls really bring is financial, both for the firm that designed them and the studios they hire to do the commercials. In other words, my old employer. How I loved going out there, not only to catch some fresh air but to get inspired by new places. It’s always exciting to be on location. And despite the oppressive walls, like that of a prison yard, this place looks promising.
Just how do I get out of here? There’s not even a gate, only a big empty parking lot, judging from the markings. So that means there must be some kind of underpass nearby.
But apart from a few fresh tire marks in the dust, I find nothing. Well, not entirely. Instead of leading me to the exit, I end up before a small vehicle parked in the shade of the blast wall. It’s the standard chariot design. Two big wheels fused to the side of the passenger cabin. It must belong to the doctor, since he’s the only one working in this place. Rustling the bundle of keys in my hand, I quickly quiet my thoughts of stealing the thing. Also, once I recognize the brand, my mind floods with memories.
“Aksil,” I whisper against the shiny metal hull. Right, it’s the exact same model he and I made a commercial for. Our last project before I won the lottery. I still don’t know if he’s truly forgiven me for not telling him about it. On the other hand, he wasn’t completely innocent himself. Ever since we met, we seemed to be on the same page about things—we cut school and drove the teachers mad. And, of course, our parents worried we would never make it in life, or worse, that we’d be demoted to the Anmahal niche. But despite the odds, we both ended up in the same studio. Always on the same page. And concerning the Anermis report, it was no different. Ever since the great discovery, this constant buzz
about it was more of an annoyance to us.
Morning, Tam, have you entered your name yet? Aksil used to greet me, with obvious sarcastic undertones.
Our other co-workers just threw him looks, causing me to hide my sheepish grin. It always felt that we were the only people on the planet who had different opinions about this whole Anermis Report affair.
After you, Mr. Perfect, I said, in a far more personal way. After all, with your sprawling family, you stand a much better chance. How are they, by the way?
Oh, they’re fine, Aksil said, lowering his voice to my level. Anyway, I can’t wait for tonight. He moves in closer, and excitement beamed from his face. I’ve got to tell you something, it’s a game-changer.
My oblong pupils dilated to almost perfect disks. Don’t tell me you’ve found a sponsor, I gasped.
No, no it’s something more personal, he blushes.
Not here, Aksil whispered. I’ll tell you tonight.
About that. I sighed. My parents, they want me home for the celebrations.
He could barely hide his disappointment. I see, guess it’ll be the same for me.
But you could tell me now, I said through a smile.
But he shook his head immediately. As I said, Tam, it has to be us alone.
It must have been years since I’d seen him that seriously. And whatever he needed to tell me was clearly extremely personal. Something he couldn’t tell me in passing.
Perhaps, something he wouldn’t even share with his family.
I wish I could call this off, but you know how parents are, I grumbled. But I swear, we’ll catch up about this as soon as—
The boss is coming, he interrupted. But, don’t you worry, Aksil said with a wink before he returned to his station. And while he worked on diligently as usual, I found myself constantly trailing off. What game-changing secret did he want to share with me, and only me? I was burning to know, but at the end of the day, we headed for the platforms of the company-sponsored commute. We barely managed to say our goodbyes among the stream of workers. It was the same every season. Everybody left work at once, and I
just managed to get a seat on the first transport. Every other day of the year, I would spend these tranquil hours of travel half asleep. But that day, I was wide awake, as if I were on Zero-Gs again. And so were most of the other people on board. Unlike me, however, they were just looking forward to celebrating with their families the next day. Launch day. We inherited this old tradition from our motherworld. It was always a family thing, yet ever since Aksil and I started working at the studio, we’d sort of made it our own tradition. In fact, that year would have been the third one in a row together. He said that his parents never complained, and strangely, mine seemed not to be bothered either. Until that year, at least.
Looking back, I should have anticipated something like this. My mother had sounded somewhat apprehensive lately. Perhaps she was worried she’d be alone again. Dad always used to work more than others, yet despite his age, he started doing more and more hours. If you want to be respected, then you must honor your niche duties. It’s what he used to preach. I knew he just wanted to teach me how to prove my value as an employee. But maybe because of this,
I always wanted my life to be different. More opportunity, more purpose. Not that I would ever tell him, or anyone. Except for Aksil. Otherwise, niche transitions were a big taboo. Only the system decided what niche you belong to. And despite my adolescent missteps, I managed to keep the same niche as my parents. Apart from that, only one student in my class stood out as exceptionally gifted. So much so that he would transition to a Sinnig school. The ruling niche. But he wouldn’t leave without some bruises. Our teacher accidentally let his IQ slip once, so Aksil and I started calling him names. It was just a number, but once the entire class started teasing him, it wasn’t long before we never saw him again.
Despite all that, he was the lucky one. Unlike me. After he left, punishment swiftly followed; I’ll never forget the day when they took Aksil away. Not to another class but an entirely different school. It was only fair, I guess. And probably for the better; otherwise, one of us might have ended up demoted to the worker niche. I couldn’t imagine living out my life in one of those factory dormitories or community homes. Those skyrises backed up against the
blast walls surrounding the city. Our transport barely passed the core district, home to all the great firms and factories. Considering the time of year, the traffic was denser than ever, but at least steady, and soon we entered the estate district of the middle niche. Like the Anmahal skyrises, these family homes were all alike. Perfect copy-paste architecture. A complete maze to any outsider, but to me, and the many other people on board, this sight couldn’t have been more welcoming.
And after a short upsurge of voices, trampling of feet, and rumbling of engines, I left all this hustling far behind. Strolling down these familiar streets must have been one of the best parts of the day. Especially with all the decorations inside windows and doors. I could even catch the occasional whiff of a feast being prepared. Artificial foods were produced with ease but still demanded a great amount of skill to prepare. Skills that not only my mother but all women were expected to master once they were expecting. My mother once told me that, the moment I was born, her employer changed her working status to something called “home management.” They even provided us with a new
home. All families got them. But to keep it, she had to be successful in managing the place. The company even sent a surveyor once a month to check on the quality of her work. It took her a while to adjust, but the fact we still lived there spoke for itself. Only a few more turns now. Luckily, I had it easy finding our place, since it stood right next to my old school and the adjacent assembly building, which now also serves as a lottery booth for the Anermis Report. The bright lettering above its entrance outshone even the lamps on our side of the street.
Once the door closed behind me, however, and this mouthwatering smell streamed up my nostrils, it was all forgotten.
Sit down, Taman. I’ll be right with you, I heard mother call from upstairs.
She must have been picking a dress, like every year.
You do know, the assembly is tomorrow morning, not tonight, I said.
But instead of an answer, she came clattering down the stairs, calculating every step, holding on to the railing, while trying to still look graceful. It’s your dad’s favorite,
she said before flinging her arms around me.
And it’s the same as every year, I remarked, somewhat snidely.
She just smacked my shoulder, grinning.
So, where is he? I asked through a heavy breath, perhaps already knowing the answer.
She just tilted her head a little, and put on her apologetic smile. You know what he would say.
Yeah, yeah. Honor your niche duties, I grumbled. He sounds more and more like Grandad.
That made her giggle, and break into laughter, the kind you couldn’t possibly avoid catching, even if you wanted to.
But he will be free tomorrow, won’t he? I asked, wiping my face straight.
She also stopped laughing, and after a moment’s pause, she tried to cover her doubts with a smile, and nodded.
Typical, I said under my breath. At least Aksil’s kids will see their dad this year.
And I will at least see my son, she responded.
I know you two are having a great time together, and I
couldn’t be happier that you’re not lonely, she said.
And I’m not planning for it to go the other way, I returned with a smile. In fact, I’m thinking of making my life even better.
Her eyes narrowed from both suspicion and curiosity.
Aksil and I talked about it a lot, and I think it’s time you know as well, I said, taking a seat. We’re planning to set up our own studio, and—
Her soothing but worried sigh stopped me. Taman… She sunk down into the chair next to me. You know the rules, only the Sinnig can do these things.
I know, I know. But it just might work, we just have to pitch it the right way. Get one of them involved, like a sponsor. And under his guidance, we could—
Again, her sympathetic sigh interrupts me.
Taman, you know I only want the best for you and your life. But I don’t think that this is the right path for you.
It took me a moment to breathe off my agitation. Then what is?
Your father and I talked about this a while ago. And we hoped that your friend Aksil would set a good example for—
For my family situation? I grumbled.
Perhaps in an attempt to calm me down, she placed her hand on mine.
I know you want to do things on your own terms, but…
I’m sorry, but you’re not getting younger, so we asked around. We found a wonderful girl, living not far from…Taman!
I shot out of my chair so fast that it went skidding across the floor. See you tomorrow, I said through gritted tooth plates, and stomped off to my room. There were plenty of humiliating moments in my life, but that one was off the scale. How could they have betrayed me this way, my own mother?
To my relief, she left me alone for the night, but my smoldering anger kept me wide awake. Also, the light from the Anermis lottery booth kept aggressively piercing through the cracks of the blinds. Unable to find rest, I snuck out of the house and began walking around the block. It must have been seven rounds before I felt calm enough to head back inside. But when I stood between my home and the entrance to the assembly hall, the relentless beam of the lettering.
drew me closer instead. They seem to leave it open all day and night. Hopefully nobody’s in there, I thought, because in the back of my mind, I still opposed the whole Anermis thing. And I didn’t want anyone to think I was considering it. But after throwing quick looks over my shoulders, I slipped inside. I breathed with ease once I found the hall barren, just like the lottery machines lined up on each side. It felt strange to wander past these empty seats and toward the abandoned podium on the stage. There were hundreds of these machines, but I picked the one in the darkest corner, next to the stage, just in case someone else did drop by. Once seated, the thing demanded an ID scan.
Guess I’m doing this now, I whispered to myself while connecting my device. And after the screen flashed through my data, automatically filling in the application, I thought that this was it. Until it suddenly stopped. So far, my reputation seemed spotless, except for one thing. My family status.
Even they want the perfect man. I huffed, and agreed to what it demanded next. A sort of test, something about my
hormonal responses. Somewhat annoyed, I placed my hand on the scanner, which promoted a series of images to flash across the screen. Mostly parts of the body, and faces of both men and women.
Ridiculous, I breathed. But once the results were displayed, my eyes nearly fell from my skull, and I even covered up the screen in embarrassment.
Must be a glitch! I said, and hit the restart button. But again, this test came up with the same confusing conclusion.
Trash. I grunted, knocking the metal frame before trying my luck on another machine. Yet to my horror, it also flashed the same humiliating result. According to the test, I was sexually disoriented. In other words, not attracted to women but men. How dare you, broken thing! What do you know about me. I don’t need this, I thought, and with my face steaming from anger, I stormed toward the exit. At that moment, it was as if the whole world was conspiring against me. First my mother, now these machines. Ridiculous.
However, the closer I came to the gates, cold streaks of
fear began crawling down my face and back. What if there was something to it? Could it explain my lack of interest in finding a partner? It would not only destroy my reputation but also my parents’. I couldn’t even begin to imagine what Mother would say, let alone Dad. And also Aksil. It would certainly cripple our friendship, if not end it. So if all these things would have suddenly fallen away, winning this lottery might be my only hope. The only chance for a better future. But who out there would possibly sponsor me with such test results? If only I could fake it, but without any knowledge of how to code or otherwise hack these kinds of things, that plan was out of the question.
I must have stood before those gates for hours until I finally sat down in front of a machine again, finished the test, and this time hit the apply button.
Back in the present, the abrupt sound of alarms makes me beat my hands over my ears. This doctor must have some kind of proximity alarm in his car. I frantically sift through my stolen keys, but none of them seem to belong to this vehicle. Unable to tolerate the blaring noise, I resume my search for the underpass. Following the faded track in
the dust, I end up on a large rectangular panel on the ground. It’s large enough to fit a cargo container or public transport. Judging by the lack of controls, it could be automated, and after a moment of inspecting, my suspicions are confirmed when I lose my footing for a moment as the panel sinks into the ground.