|From Jon’s pant leg came a muffled voice,
See? What did I tell you? Easy.
Jon grimaced as he picked up his pace and held his hand over the lump on his thigh where the TV rod was hiding. He wanted to get far out of earshot of the ALTO building before acknowledging his stowaway.
The sky bridge wasn’t long and it only took Jon ten more paces to reach the double doors on the far side. These were dark wood, perhaps mahogany, and swung inward when Jon leaned into them. On the other side was a majestic bank-like interior with marble slab floors and a chandelier high in the ceiling, but Jon kept his head down, avoiding eye contact with any potential ALTO lookouts as he headed for the stairs in the center of the building.
Though Jon couldn’t see any other humans, or any other Mars, he didn’t doubt they were there. Knowing so little about this world was not comforting. He was on edge, though he wasn’t quite sure why. Besides the locked door, the Mars had been nothing but nice to him. However, they had lied about him reuniting with Valerie. There was no way Jon would have sat passively by and allowed them to muck around with his emotions until he broke down. He was going to find Valerie, and the number on the slip of paper in his pocket was the first, and only, place to start. He just needed to get out of this building and plenty far away from the ALTO building before he dared call it.
Finally at the bottom of the steps, and still seeing no other people, Jon followed the signs indicating the door to “Exit to Ground” and burst out into the afternoon glare of an alien world.
“Holy crap …” Jon trailed off as he craned his neck up to look at the soaring skyscrapers. It was phenomenal how massive they seemed from the ground. It was certainly impossible to see the top, even if there had been a clear view. But as it was, there were so many sky bridges connecting the buildings that getting a straight view from the ground to the top of the skyscrapers was near impossible. The bridges from the ground resembled a net of cobwebs or a tangle of string wound tightly around the skyscraper fingers. The undersurfaces of the bridges were not clear, but instead flashed ads for an infinite number of items on massive screens pointed downward. On one, Jon watched the words, “Relive your fantasy with ALTO Corp!” scroll past followed by the smiling face of a young woman. Jon quickly looked away.
The ground level of the city was just as colorful as looking upwards. The street was just as violet-blue as it had appeared from his waking-room window, but as he studied it closer, it seemed to breathe with a slow, faint pulse, almost the tempo of a heartbeat. The trees lining the sidewalks were vibrant green, and the walls of the buildings themselves glowed turquoise in the afternoon sun.
“Damn, this is insane.”
Would you remove me from your pants, please?
Hearing her muffled voice again was jarring. Like a vestige of the past still clinging to him. “Not yet. Tell me how to get someplace quiet.”
Right and right again. Straight on to the wall. Any of the buildings on the perimeter would be a good choice for a quiet spot to rest.
“Perfect.” Jon glanced once more at the electronic billboards flashing under the sky bridges and found again the one advertising for ALTO. “Live the memory with ALTO! Take an Experience Trip today!” He turned away and hurried around the corner of the building.
Ahead of him, Jon was surprised to already see the wall of the city. The city couldn’t be very big if it was this easy to reach the wall. Jon supposed there was plenty of living space in the vertical height of the city, just as Val has said in her letter. But still, Jon came from suburbia where megamalls were the size of ten football fields with connecting parking lots sprawling nearly as large. Such a compact and vertical city was an odd thing to wrap his mind around.
It took not even two minutes for Jon to reach the wall. It was easily 20 feet high and constructed of solid concrete blocks. The line of trees stopped at least 15 feet back from the wall, Jon assumed to prevent escape. “Strange...” Jon said aloud to himself.
Not very. Pick a building. Let’s go to the roof.
“You sure are forward, aren’t you? Is that your programming?”
No, but you’re forward, so I’m modeling you. That’s my programming.
“Huh, you don’t say…” Jon commented absently, not even listening to himself. He was studying the buildings along the perimeter of the city. They were shorter than the ones in the middle of the city, and a less obnoxious green color. They looked more like slum apartment buildings than anything else. Lazy block design with nothing distinguishing about them.
Flipping a mental coin, Jon chose the one on his right. The door opened easily, and Jon expected to enter a lobby area, but instead found himself in a small atrium with another glass door on the far side. On his left was a single person elevator and when Jon pressed the button, the door opened immediately as if it had been waiting for him.
I think we’re out of earshot now, and I’m getting claustrophobic in here.
Jon laughed at the irony of a machine getting claustrophobic, but pulled the TV stick out of his pants anyway. “So, where to?”
Jon pushed the button labeled “roof” and jumped in surprise as the elevator shot upward.
It’s powered by magnets. No friction.
“Super.” Jon poked his finger in his ear instinctively, but realized after he did so that they didn’t hurt like they used to in his old life. When he was little, he had had an ear infection that required ear tubes and had permanently screwed with his ears, most notably aggravated by changes in elevation like on a plane or in an elevator. But he wasn’t in that old body. This new one had not had an ear infection, had not needed ear tubes, and did not have ear pain from going up in an elevator. They didn’t even pop as the speedy elevator ride came to a gentle halt and the doors dinged open.
Again, Jon was surprised and fascinated with the foreignness of the world he found himself in. Outside the elevator was a lush rooftop garden park! Covering the entirety of the skyscraper’s roof was what appeared, for all intents and purposes, to be a city park. There were paths weaving in and out through patches of manicured lawn and numerous fruit trees drooping with bounty scattered across the open space. Under nearly every tree, a lone park bench sat as if begging for an occupant. Despite the gorgeous day and fading light, there was no one else on the roof, but Jon didn’t think too much about this as he made his way toward a tree and bench paired in the corner of the roof.
On his way, he gazed out over the wall below and into the distance. In stark contrast to the glorious color of the city, the land surrounding it just outside the walls was as bare as a desert. The land was brownish-red, with not a single plant or shrub or living thing in sight as far as the eye could see. Jon wondered on the purpose of the wall if there was nothing of value beyond it. What was it meant to keep out?
As he reached the bench, he found that the tree shading it was an orange tree, his favorite. Valerie preferred grapefruits in the citrus family, but Jon found them too sour. Thinking of her now made the urge to call her that much stronger. Jon sat down, pulling the note printed from the Mar’s computer from his pocket.
“Can you call a phone number?”
Of course. What is the number? And would you like to initiate a video call?
“Um, sure.” Jon suddenly felt even more out of place in this world and in his body. Val wouldn’t recognize him! And he wouldn’t recognize her. What if she didn’t like his new body? Pushing those nagging thoughts aside, Jon held either end of the TV rod in his hands and directed it toward the grass at his feet.
Why was he so nervous? The projection from the TV illuminated a small patch of grass with what Jon supposed was a loading screen. She’ll be older, but who cares? I was older when we met and she liked me just fine then. The TV emitted a faint buzzing sound as it worked to connect the call. What if she doesn’t remember me? Has she forgotten about our old life together? A few more rings emanated from the rod in Jon’s hands. Around and around the spinning waiting sign went, an endless cartwheel of anticipation and withheld emotion. Finally, an abrupt beep ended the endless spinning of the loading screen and the projection went away.
I’m sorry, I’m afraid the number is no longer connected.
“What the hell does that mean?” Of all the possibilities, Jon hadn’t even considered that perhaps the number was from so long ago it wouldn’t even connect properly.
It means the number was changed or removed from the system since your wife gave it to ALTO. I cannot reach her.
“You’ve got to be shitting me…”
I am incapable of such bodily functions. But the Mar did indicate the number was linked to the Union Building. Shall we proceed there?
“You’re not funny, you know…” Jon wanted to jump up and head to this mysterious Union Building immediately, but realized with dread that he had nothing to his name. No clothes besides the ones on his back, no food, water, money, or any place to spend the night. He knew no one in the city besides his unfunny mechanical companion, and he wasn’t even entirely sure he could trust her. If he wanted to be in better form to find Val, he would have to find a place to recoup and gather his senses. And that place certainly wasn’t going to be this rooftop.