Scoreboard

Jennifer remembered when the site was first discovered. No one knew who created it or how it worked. Several top agencies from countries around the world looked for those running the page, but nothing was ever discovered. The site continued as if on its own. No one could access the algorithm it ran or figure out how it gathered the data it used to make its judgments. Many claimed the data was freely available online, but that theory quickly vanished after infants were found on the site before their birth certificates were signed.

It was a ranking system. It had every iota of information about every single person on the planet. You could find your name with a quick search. If your name was Jimmy Smith, you could narrow it down by address, phone number, parents’ names, date of birth, education, job, age, or whatever you can think of. The site had every detail.

Jennifer had been fifteen years old when it consumed the world. It permeated every aspect of life. Social media lost its appeal rather quickly when people realized they could get any information they wanted from the site aptly called http://www.verity.com. The world changed within a few years to what it was now. Jennifer was young enough to adapt quickly to the change but old enough to remember what it was like before.

She was trying to remember what her parents were like before the change when her name was called.

“Jennifer?” an older voice repeated in the waiting room.

Jennifer rose and let the little old woman guide her back to a conference room where two men and a woman, all in suits, sat at a table typing into a tablet. They stopped talking when the old voice announced her.

“Welcome, have a seat,” the woman said. Jennifer promptly obeyed and sat quietly as they finished their notes from the previous interview. Then, without warning, the first question broke the silence.

“Why do you want to work for this company, Ms. Whitley?”

“I believe this company is a place where my talents can excel and mutual growth can be expected.” She’d rehearsed several hundred answers to the basic questions.

The three interviewers never looked up from their screens except for an occasional glance. These happened periodically and only when they were either asking a question or receiving her answer. They never stopped typing. She began to wonder if she was wasting her time, but she answered every question in turn. It wasn’t until the end when they asked the question that was expected but never easy to answer.

“What is your ranking, Jennifer?”

She checked her watch and quickly answered. “Three point five point eight three two eight.” She had the Verity app installed on her phone so it displayed on her smartwatch. Just above the time, her current rank was displayed. Right now she was ranked 3,504,896,328 out of 9,742,531,082. Ranks changed at any time. No one knew why. Even after decades of research there was no apparent reason as to why ranks changed. No one knew what they were being judged for or who was judging. They just knew their rank and desired to climb higher.

“Top 35%. Not bad.” The man in the middle shrugged. He hadn’t bothered to look at her but kept his eyes glued to his tablet as he continued to type.

“Thank you,” was all she could think to answer. She was used to a follow-up such as What have to you done recently to try to increase your rank? or When was the last time your rank fell more than one hundred levels? but just asking for her number was apparently their final question. She thought it strange since she was sure they had her number pulled up on the tablets in front of them.

“You will hear from us soon.”

Jennifer rose and thanked them for the opportunity. She kept an eye on her number as she left the building to see if it would drop. She felt the interview had not gone well and expected a drop in ranking to be proof that she wouldn’t get the job, but her number remained the same as she made her way through the city park toward her apartment.

“You know, it’s not good to be tied that thing twenty-four seven.”

The comment didn’t register until she had almost passed the one who said it. She paused and looked up to see an older man, maybe mid-sixties, sitting on a bench. He was looking at her over the rim of his glasses. He had lowered the book he was reading.

She smiled and slowly placed her phone in her purse. “Thanks for the reminder. It’s just…I just had an interview and was hoping to hear something.”

“How long ago was your interview?”

“About ten minutes ago.”

“You think it went poorly?” He placed a marker in his book and closed it.

“I don’t know. My ranking hasn’t changed.”

“Ah,” the old man smiled. “You think any changes will be the result of how the interview went. That’s a little superstitious don’t you think?”

“Is it?”

“Perhaps not. No one really knows how that thing works, which is why I gave up on it long ago. Expecting a job offer only ten minutes after an interview is a little much though.”

“Yeah,” she admitted, “You stopped looking at your rank?”

“You will never find happiness comparing yourself to others.”

Jennifer glanced at her watch. Not to look at the time, but to check her rank. It was more habit than intention and she caught herself realizing how much her number influenced her decisions and even her daily routines. The old man was smiling at her when she looked back up.

He offered her a seat with an open palm. “Give yourself a break from the numbers. If only for a few minutes.”

She hesitated but accepted and sat down next to him. She glanced at her watch again but quickly covered it with her other hand.

“So you never look at your number?”

“Never,” he said.

“How? Aren’t you the least bit curious?”

“The curiosity fades the longer you go without. The numbers don’t really matter because they don’t do anything productive. They just allow everyone to believe themselves better or inferior than others. We all formed our own opinions about that before that website came along. The numbers just made it seem like there is validity to our place in the world. We don’t have to make our own judgments anymore. They are made for us and we can just accept our place. A little sad, don’t you think?”

“What’s your name?”

He looked at her over the rim of his glasses again. “So you can look up my number?” He took off his glasses and set them down with his book. She smiled ruefully.

“Tell you what. I’ll give you my name if you promise not to tell me what my number is.”

“Deal.”

“…and you have to go twenty minutes without looking at any screens. You’ll sit here and have a conversation with me.”

“Deal,” she said, amused.

“My name is David Wilburrough. Age sixty-four. I think I’m still the only Wilburrough this old,” he chuckled.

She pulled out her phone, popped open the app, and quickly found one sixty-four-year-old David Willburrough. His rank was 533,267. She stared at him wide-eyed. The phone remained in her hand.

“No,” he caught her before she could say anything. “A promise is a promise. Now put that away and tell me about your interview.”

She put her phone away and, to keep her word, put her smartwatch in her purse as well. “You aren’t the least bit curious?”

He smiled. “If I gave into any curiosity now, I’d be caught back up in the game in no time. I’m fine how I am. Now, about that interview.”

“They didn’t seem much interested to be honest.”

“No one seems interested in anything when their eyes are glued to the screens in front of them.”

“How’d you know they were using tablets?”

“I didn’t. I just assumed. It seems everyone uses them nowadays. If I were you, I’d just wait for the decision to be made before torturing yourself with the possibilities of what they think. You can’t read minds, and worry won’t change a thing.”

“Easier said than done.”

“Usually is. I find reading helps.” He lifted the book as he said it. “Helps keep your mind away from the worry without adding to it. Do you read?”

She had to seriously think about the last time she read a book. “I used to,” she finally answered.

“Never too late to pick it back up.”

“I wouldn’t know where to begin.”

“You can begin with this.” He offered her his book.

“I couldn’t.”

“You can. I’ve read it several times already, and I have another copy at home. It’s one of my favorites. Take it. You might find something useful in it.”

She reluctantly took the well-worn book and offered her thanks.

“I know it’s only been about ten minutes, but I actually need to be on my way. My granddaughter’s birthday party is this afternoon and I can’t be late. How about you start that book to keep yourself from checking your phone for the rest of your promised time?”

She smiled. “A promise is a promise. It was nice meeting you Michael.”

“The pleasure was mine…um…” he smiled in a poor attempt to hide his embarrassment.

“Jennifer,” she offered, “Jennifer Whitley.”

He nodded to her and tried again. “It was a pleasure to meet you Ms. Whitley. Enjoy the book.” With those words he scampered off.

“Have fun at the birthday party,” she called after him.

She was alone again and had to resist from checking her phone. She opened the book and flipped through the pages until she found Chapter 1.

She read for a long time before she was interrupted by a ringing from her purse. She pulled her phone out to see it was her sister calling. Jennifer assumed she would ask about the interview and didn’t want to talk about it just yet, so she silenced the ringer and returned to the book. She found couldn’t focus on the pages anymore and quickly gave up. She put the book in her purse.

She checked her phone again. Her own number hadn’t changed, but she was more curious about the rank of sixty-four-year-old Michael Willburrough. She quickly found him again and noticed his rank had shot up by over two thousand. She wanted to go find him and tell him the good news. Then she remembered he didn’t know his rank and didn’t want to. He would never know that he was in the top one-thousandth percent in the entire world. She was sad for him but also inspired. He lived his life exactly as he wanted to. He probably never believed himself to be better than anyone. Perhaps that was what made him better than everyone.

Jennifer rose from the park bench and started her walk back to her apartment. She called her sister on the way to fill her in on the interview. She never checked her watch as she spoke with her sister. She didn’t check her rank after she got home and made dinner or even afterwards when she started reading instead of watching TV. All the while, her rank slowly increased as time ticked by.

Confined Freedom

“Reynolds, Ethan,” a guard called through a speaker.

Ethan approached the counter to receive his personal items taken at the time of his incarceration.

“Sign here.”

He signed the hologram that emitted before him and a container lowered onto the counter. It was a high-security prison. He couldn’t even see who was on the other side of the dark-tinted everglass. If there was anyone. He wouldn’t be surprised if it were run remotely or if this whole interaction was automated. All he knew was it was an actual person. No droids allowed in this prison except the semi-sentient variety that were deemed just sentient enough not to be destroyed. He opened the container and reviewed the items inside: a handful of silver coins, a holosphere he quickly pocketed, and a small comm unit he took and inserted into his ear.

It felt weird after not wearing it for the past decade, but he knew he would get used to it by the end of the day. The cold faded from the unit as it siphoned his body heat and a voice chimed in his ear. Unable to retrieve messages at this time.

“Figures,” he said. He gathered the coins and dropped them in his jacket pocket. The container closed and shot back up the wall after he grabbed the last item. A handle popped out from the wall in front of him.

“Grip the handle, please.” The voice called through the speaker.

“Definitely automated,” Ethan sighed and gripped the handle. As soon as he did, two mechanical arms popped out from each side of the handle and fastened a bracelet on his wrist. The handle quickly retreated.

“Thank you for you stay Mr. Reynolds. You are free to go,” the voice said before a door behind him slid open.

“Hey,” Ethan called, “What is this?”

His words died against he walls and the only response given was the repetition that he was free to go. He left through the door and found himself in a small room with only a chair to furnish it. He sat down and strapped in. The door closed and a green light flickered. Inertia forced him further into his seat and one minute later the door opened again to the view of the prison he’d just left.

It was built inside the center of a large asteroid. Ethan stepped out of the pod that had transported him to one of the small asteroids connected to the prison by a zero-gravity, single unit elevator. Sixteen such elevators webbed from the central asteroid and each one connected to a smaller asteroid making the entire complex look like a model of a mutated virus ready to infect the universe. The elevators were the only way in or out of the prison. They were designed to be easily broken, shooting any contents into the void of space should anyone somehow gain access without permission.

Ethan stared as the entire facility slowly rotated through the dense field of rock that shielded and contained it. He was free and there was only one place he wanted to go. If it still existed.

“Mr. Reynolds,” a voice called.

Ethan turned to see a thin, well-groomed man in an outdated business suit not meant for travel. This was a man who was overconfident he would never be in danger, which made him even more out of place than he already seemed.

“Mr. Reynolds,” the man continued after he had Ethan’s attention, “I am here on behalf of Mr. Dwyer to present you with an opportunity to settle your debt.”

“Debt?”

“Please. Follow me.” The outdated suit spun on one heel and briskly entered a personal transport larger than most public shuttles.

Ethan surveyed the small landing pad. It was vacant with the exception of the personal transport and a station to summon a public transport. He didn’t like the feeling that began to settle into the pit of his stomach. The man had mentioned a debt. He’d settled his debt only hours earlier and it had cost him a decade of his life. He looked at station, the transport, and the band on his wrist.

The inside of the private transport was elaborately decorated. What normally would have held six dozen passengers was a common room surrounded by five suites. The suit was seated on a lounger patiently waiting for him. Ethan sat opposite him feeling like a dung beetle on the newly fabricated cushions.

“Six years ago they decided time served was enough to recondition the criminals of this sector, but the citizens didn’t believe they should pay for this reconditioning. Therefore, each inmate is given the bracelet you now wear as a symbol of the debt you owe.”

Ethan rubbed at the band on his wrist as if to understand the concept as much as to suppress the anger building up inside that the freedom he thought he’d just redeemed was still at risk.

“You currently owe eight million gead. Mr. Dwyer is offering you an opportunity to settle this debt now instead of working the next many years in whatever job you can find to repay the money so you can finally leave this sector behind you.”

“You’re saying I’m restricted to this sector until this debt, which I owe because of my forced incarceration, is repaid?”

“Correct.”

“And you think this bracelet can prevent me from simply disappearing?”

“Many have tried, Mr. Reynolds, and they all end up right back in their cell. Losing more time while adding to their debt. Mr. Dwyer knows very well how skilled you are at disappearing, which is why he is offering you this opportunity to wipe away your debt with one job.”

Ethan stood and wandered to the view port. He looked at the prison that filled it then pulled the holosphere from his pocket and pinched it between his fingers. An image filled the air before him. A woman holding a baby. They were both smiling as the woman strolled through the verdant landscape of their homeworld. His homeworld. A planet Ethan hadn’t seen in nearly fifteen years.

He pocketed the sphere and turned his back on the prison beyond the view port. “What’s this job?”

Lemniscate

“Are you sure?” Remiel asked.

The old woman before him nodded.

“Place your hand here,” he continued. She followed his order and placed her hand on the smooth tablet he held before her. Then he ushered her to the door behind him. The door closed with a thud that echoed through the great room. It was all white. Even the lone table and two chairs. There were no windows or lights. The whiteness of the walls, floor, and ceiling seemed to reflect each other in a way that illuminated every inch of every surface. No shadows existed anywhere.

He sat down to find another dossier had replaced the last. He rested the tablet on the table then picked up the file and flicked through its contents reviewing the information inside. The information that would allow him to pass judgement on his next guest.

When he was satisfied he had seen enough to make an accurate decision, he dropped the dossier onto the table and rose. The human named Francis Nguyen arrived through the door in front of him. A hint of confusion was visible on the small man’s face as he strode across the large room. Each footfall echoed within the chamber and Remiel made an adjustment that softened the noise. Then, as he approached Mr. Nguyen, he reduced his own size to be identical to his guests by shrinking a few inches and thinning himself.

“Mr. Nguyen,” Remiel greeted his guest and showed him to the lone table. Mr. Nguyen bowed graciously before taking his seat. Remiel took his own seat before formally beginning the conversation. Mr. Nguyen had been composed so far, which was an excellent sign.

“Do you know where you are Francis?”

“I do,” Mr. Nguyen said, briefly taking in more of the modest room. “It is good to see you again, Mr. Remiel, though I do not seem to recall the last or first time we met.”

Remiel smiled. “That is to be expected. I am familiar because we have met on multiple occasions.” Remiel himself did not know this until a moment ago when he reviewed the dossier and regained his memories of the previous Francis Nguyen, who had been called Lindsay Williamson. She had been eighty-two years old, whereas Francis was thirty-eight.

“Can you remind me why I am here?” Mr. Nguyen asked.

“Your time has ended, for now, in the land of the living.”

“Ah, I see, and I am here for my final judgement.”

“Not yet, Mr. Nguyen. You have lived just over two hundred years across five lives. You have a few more to experience before the final judgement is given.”

“I will go back then?”

“Not as you are currently.”

Mr. Nguyen’s eyes narrowed and he turned his head ever so slightly.

“What do you remember of your previous lives?” Remiel asked.

“Nothing.”

“That is because you cannot take your memories with you. You must start again. A clean slate. No prior experiences and under new circumstances. You have done this several times already. Only when you have lived your three hundred and thirty-three years will you be ready to receive your final judgment.”

Mr. Nguyen nodded. “Yes, I’m beginning to remember, but please forgive me. Why so many years?”

“One life is too short to accurately pass judgement on a soul. Multiple lives are required to collect the necessary information to make a proper assessment.”

“Then I have no choice but to accept?”

“There is always a choice.” Remiel picked up the tablet and rose from his chair. Mr. Nguyen stood as well. They walked a few paces before Remiel turned to face Mr. Nguyen and present the tablet.

“When you place your hand on this, it will absorb all of your memories. Then you will pass through the door behind me to begin your next life. The choice you have in this moment is where you will be born and how long your life will last. You cannot choose who your parents will be or how you will be born or any aspect of how your life beyond where it will begin and how long you will live. You will have no control over how your life will end and no memory of the length you had chosen. You will be born into the world you just left. Nothing will have changed. You currently have 129 years to live before we meet for the last time. Knowing this, make your choice.”

Then, as if from a particle of dust in the spotless room, a miniature earth grew into existence above the tablet until its surface could be seen in detail. Mr. Nguyen examined the moon slowly circling the planet and was tempted to pluck it out of orbit and look at it closer, but he quickly returned his gaze to the world before him. He remembered everything he could about what the world was like. After a few moments he made his decision. Niue. A small island in the Pacific Ocean. He loved the water and hoped to have a simple, yet enjoyable life there.

“Seventy-two years.”

“Are you sure?” Remiel asked.

Mr. Nguyen nodded.

“Place your hand here,” Remiel continued.

Mr. Nguyen followed the instructions and placed his hand on the tablet. Every memory withing him transferred to the tablet. As did Remiel’s memories, through his own hand placed on the underside of the tablet, until both of their collective memories had been extracted.

When Mr. Nguyen removed his hand. Remiel looked up at him and smiled. Then he guided his guest to the door behind him and ushered him through. The door closed and Remiel returned to the table and placed the tablet on its surface. All memories of his previous guest were gone. A new dossier was sitting on the table. He sat down and flicked through the pages absorbing the memories of his next guest. Remembering each time they met and the lives this one had lived. Once he felt prepared, he placed the information back on table and rose to greet his new visitor as she walked through the door.

Prototype

Mathias followed his detector over the ridge of scrap to find the target, but it was not what he expected. Before him wasn’t a Viper II or a Leo IV, it was a small shell rummaging through the junk pile. It was one he didn’t recognize, which put him on edge instantly, but there was something about the machine that he couldn’t quite place. It was the strangest sight he had seen in a long time. Perhaps that is why he didn’t kill it right away. Instead, he chose to observe it. Gathering intel on new series was vital in any scenario. The little machine hadn’t noticed him and his detector hadn’t picked up anything else in the area.

Byron caught up to him and quietly readied his rifle putting the small machine in his sights. Mathias placed a hand on the gun and shook his head. Byron gave him a quizzical look and Mathias pulled a comm unit from his pack and typed a message.

‘Never seen this model before. Observe.’

Byron took the unit and typed a message back: ‘Copy. New series?’

Mathias shrugged. Whatever it was, he was sure it wasn’t good. They watched it for an hour before Byron messaged Mathias he was going to rest for a bit and to wake him should anything happen. He retreated down the scrap heap a few steps and found a comfortable piece to rest on. With his dirt stained jacket and boots, he blended into the rusted landscape. Mathias could feel the grime coating his own clothes and knew he was also invisible to the human eye as long as he remained still. He even thought he might be invisible to the scanning eyes of the machines as well. He smirked at the thought, knowing that such thinking would surely get him killed. He checked his detector again to make sure no other machines were nearby.

He observed the little machine for another hour. The entire time the little machine was simply digging through the scraps. Mathias began to wonder what it could be looking for, or if it even knew what it was doing. Perhaps it had malfunctioned. It stood at roughly three feet, had a spherical head, bulky rectangular body with large square feet underneath, and thin, hydraulic arms that were so disproportionate that it almost suggested it wasn’t constructed to hunt humans. This thought scared Mathias into shouldering his rifle. He intended to observe the machine a little longer before making it a permanent addition to the scrap piles. But, he thought, if it is malfunctioning, perhaps we could capture it for analysis.

Linda would go crazy for an operational unit to plug into. She was always asking for one. Complaining that they could never bring her anything intact. Stating she could learn more from a live unit than one thousand fried ones. Maybe today was her lucky day.

The little unit stopped rummaging and held a thin piece of metal in its similarly thin fingers. Then it brought the piece in front of its lenses and scrutinized it. Then the machine let out a laugh that made Mathias freeze. Adrenaline rushed through his body but he remained frozen. He had never in his twenty-four years scavenging heard a machine make such a noise. Mathias kept his eyes glued to the unit below as it giggled again. Then it held the piece of metal aloft and swung it through the air.

The arm moved in a swift, flicking pattern and the box-shaped unit stepped forward. “Fight me you coward.” The word emitted from the spherical head. Mathias almost open fired when he heard the words but soon realized the words were not directed at him. They didn’t seem to be directed at anything. The little unit giggled again, then swung the metal shard through the air. “You cannot beat me,” it echoed. Mathias dropped his rifle and stared at the machine.

Byron was beside him once again. The noise had surely stirred him from his nap. They were used to only the wind when scavenging on the surface. Anything else usually meant a tracker hunting them down, which meant a fight.

‘What is it doing?’ Byron typed into the comm unit.

‘It seems to be’ Mathias paused, thinking for the right word, then typed, ‘playing.’

Byron gave him the confused look he was expecting. A look that could not hide the tinge of fear.

The little unit kept swishing the thin piece of metal through the air and talking to itself randomly. Then they heard the rattle of a tracker through the rubble. It had a distinct sound. Metal on metal as it raced over and through the scrapyard. They both instantly shouldered their rifles. Mathias peeked at the detector. His eyes fixated on the screen as the noise rumbled in his ears. Finally, a green dot appeared from the north. A tag appeared next to the dot. Leo IV. Mathias nudged Byron and showed him the screen. Byron nodded and they both readied their rifles to the north. A Leo was too quick to outrun. They would have to destroy it.

Mathias glanced down at the little unit then had to look again. It was looking toward the north also, but had placed its thing arms atop its head and was rapidly moving from side to side, as if it were quivering.

He looked back toward the approaching Leo. He could see the landscape shifting, bulging as the hunting machine made its way through the pile of metal. It was nearly upon them. Mathias felt lucky the Leo had to exit the scrap in front of them and into the small valley where the unit was playing. Lucky that they had high ground.

The raging machine burst forth from the pile of rubble and was aimed directly at the small, quivering unit below. To Mathias, the next few seconds seemed to extend themselves allowing him to see and assess everything. What he saw was the Leo unit emerging from the scrap pile in front of the small unit. It was already swinging one of its large paw-like limbs. Mathias knew too well the force behind such a swing. He’d once seen a man get caught by one and it had cut through the man’s waist as if it were simply air. The swing would have cut right through a human’s chest, but was too high and missed the little unit. The Leo soared past the unit. As it skid across the dirt and readied itself to leap again and destroy the little unit, Mathias open fired. Byron quickly followed suit and they were able to destroy it before it was able to fully change its momentum. It fell to the ground and became another fixture among the scrap.

He turned his attention to the little unit, which was now looking at them.

“Quickly,” Mathias risked a whisper, “gather what you can from the Leo.”

Byron looked at him and nodded toward the little unit.

Mathias nodded and gestured Byron toward the still smoking Leo. They both descended the ridge of metal and parted ways at the bottom. Byron toward his objective, and Mathias toward the little unit.

He slowed as he neared the boxy figure. The lenses in the sphere followed his movements. He noticed the unit was still quivering slightly.

“What are you?” Mathias whispered. He looked around them to make sure nothing else moved nearby. “Answer quietly,” he added.

The little unit stopped quivering. “Are you a scavenger?” it said.

“Quiet,” Mathias whispered sternly, then answered, “yes, we are scavengers. You know about us?” He couldn’t help but shake a feeling of dread welling in his gut.

“Father used to speak of your kind,” it said at a slightly lower volume. It wasn’t low enough for Mathias’s liking, but he let it continue. “You are fighting against the progress.”

Mathias pointed at the Leo, where Byron was picking through the remains, and said, “That is not progress.”

“That is what protects us,” the unit said.

“What do you mean ‘us’.”

“The real humans. The ones still working.”

“What?” Mathias caught himself from raising his voice. “How can you count yourself among those beyond the wall?”

“You mean within the wall? Of course.”

“But,” Mathias couldn’t understand, “How? You aren’t even human?”

“Of course I am. I was part of the proty type test that father was in charge of. He said I would become the next type of human. The first one, and everyone else would follow me.”

Mathias felt his head spinning. The rumors were true. “How did you get out here?” he asked.

“I don’t remember,” the little unit said, “I was talking to Father when they poked me. Then everything went dark. I woke up outside the wall in a pile of machines. I’ve been wandering for a few days now. I’m terribly hungry sir. Do you have any food?”

Mathias stared at the little unit. Byron had finished scavenging parts from the Leo and now stood beside him. No doubt he had heard their entire conversation. “What is it?” he whispered into Mathias’s ear.

“I don’t know, but we need to get it to Linda. It was an experiment beyond the wall.”

Byron nodded and Mathias turned back to the little unit. It stared at him with its mechanical lenses. They were void of emotion yet he couldn’t help but feel the fear and hope hiding behind them.

“Come with us,” Mathias whispered, “We have food back at our camp.”

He offered his hand to the little machine. One of its thin, metal arms reached out, hesitated, then finally took his hand. They turned and headed back up the scrap-heap. As he helped the small machine navigate the metal landscape, Mathias couldn’t help but remember his son.

“What’s your name?” he asked.

“Andrew.” The machine said.

“Nice to meet you Andrew,” he replied, “I’m Mathias.” He stared as the little machine struggled along with its box figure and wide, metal feet. His heart sank. He didn’t need to wait for Linda’s examination to confirm what he already knew. This little metal box contained the mind of boy. A boy who had once been human. Now trapped inside a rusting piece of metal. Used and discarded like every other piece of trash that littered the surface.

Against the Current

Garreth picked up the metal pipe that had fallen from his overloaded leather bag and kept going. He was late with his meeting before the Thinkers. He hoped that he would be able to join their ranks should they accept his invention. It had been a dream of his since he was a boy. To be a Thinker meant he would be given access to all resources to improve the city. He could travel to nearby cities as well and be given the same treatment.

He stumbled through the door to the massive Citadel in the center of the city. It was the largest building ever made, and it consisted of an amalgam of precious metals, solid stones, mixtures that dried harder than even marble, and other mysterious substances that held the structure together in certain areas. Many of which had been lost to time. Garreth believed some of the formulas still lay within the vaults of the structure. Locked up where only a Thinker could gain access.

His mind wandered at the thought of all the knowledge stored beneath his feet. His absent stride echoed through empty halls. A figure burst forth from a room further down corridor and his attention returned to the present. He eyed the figure as he approached and realized it was woman. She had stopped in the middle of walkway with her head held low as the door slowly closed behind her. Before he was close enough to ask her a question, she huffed and threw the object in her hands against the stone wall and stormed off. Garreth remained silent as she raged by. She gave him no mind at all while he observed how her black hair fluttered about her face as she took forceful steps. He even caught the soft green scattered within her otherwise brown iris.

He watched her exit. A sudden sadness came over him. One that made him wish he had spoken to her, but the thought was fleeting. He had come to join the Thinkers and that decision was soon to be made. He approached the door she had left behind. He reached for the handle and was stopped by the sight before him. The object she had thrown. It looked like fabric stretched taught between wooden rods. He found he could only guess as to the purpose of it.

Muffled voices penetrated the large wooden door. Garreth had cracked it open without noticing. Through the slit he heard the Thinkers arguing about the woman.

“The device could be useful,” a high-pitch voice said.

“It doesn’t matter how useful it is,” a deep voice boomed, “no woman will ever be a Thinker. It’s unheard of. No text has ever hinted at such a thing being the case and there must be a reason for it. We must maintain the integrity of our forebears.”

The murmuring of small conversation ensued until a composed voice rose above it. “Perhaps we should investigate the nature of Howell’s argument. If research should show even one idea within the archives was founded by a woman, we will admit Cassandra within our ranks.”

“But even then…” the deep voice sounded, then trailed away.

“You may come in now,” the composed voice called out.

Garreth knew he was the recipient of the command and entered the hall. It was a large atrium filled only with a tall, semi-circle dais and a small platform of stone one foot from the ground. Garreth came forward and stepped onto the platform. He looked up at the Thinkers, all wearing the robes of their rank, and they looked down upon him.

“You wish to become a Thinker?” The composed voice said. It came from the man seated directly in front of him. He was older and wore the signature medallion on his left breast signifying him as the Primary. The head of all Thinkers.

“I do,” Garreth managed.

“Come, show us what you have there,” the Primary requested.

Garreth pulled the pipes from his bag and began assembling them. He began his presentation as he fitted the first few together.

“This model will show you how I believe it is possible to harness the river north to provide water throughout the city.”

“Harness the river? How?” The deep voice called. Garreth noted the man immediately. He was toward his right. A larger man with a mustache which still contains remnants of the man’s breakfast.

“Here,” Garreth said, pointing to the open pipe at the top of his contraption, “is where it begins. We build this structure at the beginning of the waterfall north of the city. The water flows into the pipe where is can be diverted to various spots around the city.” He pointed to several points along his matrix. “Where the water can be stored in containers for regular use.”

“The river would be fully diverted? This would prevent water from reaching the irrigation channels further south.” It was the higher pitched voice. Garreth registered the man. Young, thin frame with large eyes. A genial look on his face that Garreth believed to be both an eagerness to learn despite a deep well of knowledge.

“The water,” he lifted a jug and poured it slowly into the open pipe at the top of his contraption, “would be diverted through the city, past the collection points, and guided back to the riverbed before it reaches the channels, therefore it would not disrupt the food supplies.” The water exited the web of pipes into the collection pan he had set at the base.

“Impressive,” the high-pitch voice said.

“What would this structure consist of?” the mustachioed man asked.

“Marble.”

“Why?” the Primary followed.

“To prevent contamination. The water would be river water, but if the materials were metal or a baser stone, then we would risk particles being released into the water that could be harmful even when boiled.”

“You’ve tested materials?”

“Yes. Marble proves the best suited for this project.”

“It would take years to complete such an undertaking.” This came from the fat mustache.

“Perhaps too long,” the Primary said.

“No longer than it took to build the bath houses,” Garreth said. He meant it as fact only but could see from the look of the bigger man that offense was taken.

“You know the intricacies of masonry?” the deep voice boomed.

“Not all.”

“Then do not falsely claim to know deeply of things you have only seen in passing.”

“I made no such claim.”

The bigger man rose from his seat on the dais to grow a few feet more above Garreth.

“You dare to-”

“Calm yourself Baron,” the Primary called, “You do not act your station at the moment.”

The mustache rumbled as Baron let out a huff at the Primary’s words and returned to his seat.

“Garreth, is it?” The Primary asked.

“Yes sir.”

“You have brought an interesting proposal before us. We thank you for this. We shall deliberate upon it and make our decision momentarily. We ask that you wait outside the Citadel for our response.”

Garreth thanked each of them and gathered his contraption. He wandered outside before stopping to properly dismantle the remainder of his model. He slipped a pipe into the bag. The clink of metal on metal was followed by a woman’s voice.

“You want to become one of those idiots?”

Garreth turned to see the girl from earlier. Her cheeks slightly flushed from recent tears. The name he overheard flashed across his mind. Cassandra.

“To become a Thinker is great honor. There is much to learn in the Citadel.” He looked up at the large doors he had just left. Cassandra followed his gaze.

“You are right. Too bad it’s all a farce.”

“How do you mean?” He asked it despite knowing she was telling a truth she did not fully understand.

“They are all old men. Too tied up in traditions to live up to the reputations created by those before them. I’d say the Citadel lost its ingenuity a few centuries ago.” She sighed.

“What was it?” Garreth asked impulsively.

“What was what?”

“The thing you left behind.”

“Ha,” she huffed, “It was a device that would let us harness the wind. Turn it into a mechanical force.”

“Really?” He stepped closer to her eager to hear more about it.

“Doesn’t matter now,” she said, “It’s impossible to build anything new without the Thinkers money. It wasn’t even hard to build.”

“Could you show me?”

She stared at him. Slowly the suspicion faded from her eyes as she realized he still held the spark of curiosity. She picked up a piece of straw from the street and began drawing in a patch of dirt at the base of the Citadel wall. She explained the intricacies simply and Garreth found himself inspired. He couldn’t fathom how she hadn’t been granted the robes of a Thinker. Then he remembered the discussion he overheard before his own presentation.

“This is fascinating.” He meant it, and she must have accepted his words honestly because she smiled. “As you said, this wouldn’t be hard to construct. Have you considered building it yourself?”

“Even if I had the money, only Thinkers get permits in the city.”

“What if you built it outside the city?”

She looked at him as if he had asked her to build it beyond the stars. The doors opened behind them and a courier presented Garreth with scroll. The Thinkers seal was pressed into the wax. Inside would be their decision. He held in his hand the answer to his future.

“Have fun being a Thinker,” Cassandra said as she got up. She smiled at him and walked away.

He watched her walking away, then turned his attention to the scroll, then down to the drawing in the dirt. He shoved the scroll into his pack without breaking the seal and ran after her.

“Wait,” he called as he caught up to her.

“What? You want to gloat?”

“I know of a town about a day to the east that could really benefit from your idea.”

A dubious look filled her features.

“I’m serious. You could really improve their lives out there. Isn’t that why you wanted to be a Thinker? To help others?”

“Don’t you have business in the Citadel?”

He shrugged. “It can wait. I’d hate to see your idea lost. It’s a Thinker’s responsibility to preserve ideas. To help those with the spark flourish.”

“You think I have the spark?” she asked with an incredulous tone.

“I know you do, and I know this world can’t afford to lose it.” He smiled in an attempt to convince her.

A moment passed before her own smile spread across her cheeks. “Where is this town?”