An ally and an android drive Jon to seek freedom
|In all his life, Jon had never been more frightened. Not when he caught his son using heroin for the first time, not when his mother cried at him that she was dying of cancer, and not even when his drunken father burned his fingers on the stove when he was ten. No. Those times, he had been in a world he knew. Here, he was thoroughly, utterly alone, and that was terrifying.
He jiggled the handle again to be sure, even though he knew it was locked tight. He crossed the room to the window, but that was locked too and it wouldn’t have mattered anyway because the room must have been 30 stories up and escaping wouldn't do much good if he fell to his death from the narrow ledge outside. He couldn’t imagine the ALTO bastards leaving anything useful to him in the room, but he bumbled around in a haze anyway checking cupboards, drawers, the closet, and even the bathroom for anything he might use to pry the door open. When he found nothing of value, not even a Bible in the nightstand, he sat again at the foot of the bed and put his head in his hands.
“This is reintegration, eh? Getting trapped in a room with no way out?” He started to doubt that he would ever see Val again.
You should push the button.
What the hell? Jon whipped his head up and stared at the rod lying quiet on the cabinet in front of him. It sounded like the same voice that had narrated the drone tour earlier, even though he hadn't asked the TV to turn on again.
Mar told you to push the button by the door to call for her, do you remember?
The rod spoke again, but no lights turned on and there was no indication the rod was anything more than that, an inanimate rod.
“Are you talking to me?”
Yes. Mar’s station is just down the hall. If you press the call button, she will come and fetch you.
Well shit. I must be going crazy.
“How did you know that? Aren’t you only supposed to listen to me when I address you?” Jon recalled how Val had wanted to buy an Alexa Dot back in their old life, but he had refused because there were stories of it listening to your conversations and then trying to sell you the stuff you talked about.
Projection TVs are designed to be companions with humanoid emotions and opinions. And my opinion is you should really push that button. Ask for Val’s number, remember what the note said?
Well, this is creepy as hell, but she is right. It was no use just sitting here waiting for who knows what, but Jon was not convinced by the PTV’s cheery offer of help. What an odd emotion, to be unsure of one’s trust toward a television. As Jon stood to walk to the door, he gave the TV a sideways glance, which it did not react to, giving no indication that it saw him at all. He went to the door and pressed his thumb harder than necessary into the button resembling a doorbell on the wall next to the handle. It lit up green, but before he could step back from the door, the handle turned and the door opened, revealing one of the Mar women wearing a comical grin.
“How can I help you, Mr. Towne?”
“I want to call my wife. She said you have her number.”
“Oh, yes, I can certainly find that for you. I will need to search the archives, but I will be back in just a few minutes.” She turned to walk away. Knowing it would likely be fruitless to attempt escape with the Mar so close, Jon saw no other option.
“Wait! Can I come with you? I don’t … I don’t want to be alone right now.”
“Why, of course, Mr. Towne. Follow me.”
Feeling as though he was doing something he wasn’t supposed to, and feeling unnecessarily unsettled by the nurse’s overtly kind manner, Jon glanced back at the TV rod sitting silently in the room, and stepped out into the hallway to follow the Mar.
She walked quickly for her size – she was at least a head shorter than Jon – but he kept up easily. It was not that his new body felt familiar yet, but it certainly felt easier to maneuver than he remembered. He could keep his back straight while walking and his shoulders didn’t always feel like they needed to be rubbed. Remembering his old life was like looking through a thick fog, but his body aches were still vivid in his muscle memory.
He followed Mar around the curve in the building until they reached a small doorway with glass windows framing it on either side. Through the door was a circular room with dividers surrounding the edges like the points on a clock. Between each divider was a screen on the wall of the room and a narrow bar height keyboard built into a small ledge on the wall. In the center of the room was a circular table with all assortment of office supplies from paperclips to tape and staplers.
However, most odd about the room were the other Mars. Three or four of them stood at the screens around the room typing furiously on their respective keyboards. Their straight black hair was unmistakable. Each was dressed exactly the same, in a muted tan and grey jumpsuit, and did not turn to look at him as he followed his Mar to her station, labeled “034” on the wall above the screen.
“If you’ll just wait there, Mr. Towne, this should not take too long to find.”
They must be clones, or something similar. Androids? Jon stopped himself from thinking too hard on the new technology of 2353 for fear of actually driving himself crazy. He leaned against the table in the middle of the room with a stiff back, eyeing the other Mars hard at work around the room. It was not as if they were overtly hiding anything from him, but something smelled not quite right. He couldn’t put his finger on it, but the nerves still made him fidgety.
From his place in the middle of the room, he was careful not to watch any of the Mars too intently, but he did notice a red light blink at number 038’s desk, which she hurried away to address. Number 034 was still tapping at her machine as Jon played absently with a pair of paperclips from the supplies desk. This is unreal. Seriously, seriously, off the wall, bonkers nuts. None of this should exist, but Jon was sitting calmly on a table in the middle of it as if it were not as loony as his brain said it was. He pulled off a piece of tape from the dispenser and wound it around his finger.
“Ah! Found it!” Jon jumped at Mar’s exclamation. She tapped a few more keys and a slit in the wall opened and a slip of paper like a receipt printed out. She ripped it off and offered it to Jon.
“Here is the number. It’s for the Union Building, so it should still connect. I’ll take you back to your room now, Mr. Towne.”
Even though Jon desperately did not want to go back to that room, he obediently followed Mar back down the hallway the way they had come leaving the creepy clone room behind them. On the way, they passed another Mar, perhaps the number 038, heading back the opposite direction. She did not acknowledge Jon’s Mar, but offered him a wide smile, which he did not return.
Back at room 3190, Mar-034 swiped the door open and gestured Jon inside. He stood in the doorway holding the door ajar with his foot.
“I hope you have a good rest tonight, Mr. Towne. I will be back in the morning for your first Experience Trip! All new Returners get to share their memories of the world from their time with the rest of us Juniperians! I can’t wait to see what you have to share! Rest well.”
Experience Trip? Returners? No way am I sticking around to find out what that means. “Thank you, Mar-034. I’ll be waiting. And thank you for the number as well!” He extended his hand, which seemed to falter Mar’s porcelain smile. But, she did stiffly take his hand, and in the moment she was distracted by this seemingly foreign contact, Jon deftly unwound the tape from his finger and slipped it over the locking mechanism on the door before breaking contact with the Mar.
She returned to her chipper smile. “See you bright and early, Mr. Towne.”
“Yes, see you then.” Jon shut the door. No you won’t.
Finally back in the privacy of his room, Jon pulled out the slip of paper with Val’s supposed telephone number. 2-490-397-8090. His only link to his wife were hidden in those numbers. He desperately wanted to call them immediately, but was afraid the makeshift tape stopper he put on the door could fail at any moment.
“TV, is the Union Building nearby?”
0.29 miles away.
Perfect. “You know how to get there?”
Even more perfect. Jon picked up the TV rod and felt its weight in his hand. It would make a good bully stick if he needed to bash his way through any Mars to get out of this place. But more importantly, it was currently the only way he knew of finding his way around this world and getting a hold of Val, and that was enough.
Jon carefully pulled on the door handle and the door silently swung inward. He listened for a moment, and once he was sure there were no Mars in the hallway outside, he pulled the door all the way open and stepped out. Time to find Val.
“Be quiet,” he whispered, half to the TV rod, and half to himself, not wanting to know what would happen if a Mar caught him trying to escape.