Kiri sat back on her sofa, sinking into the thick, luscious cushions. The debris from the party still surrounded her as she stared outside blankly. It had all happened so quickly. The others had carried on a pretence of making small talk for twenty minutes or so but nobody mentioned the unwinding. It was as if Liam had nipped downstairs to get some more beers even though it was clear he would not be coming back.
She looked around her new apartment. It all felt so fake. Everything was perfectly designed for her needs. Everything was perfectly designed for its purpose, and as it should be, but she couldn’t shake of the feeling that something was deeply wrong with her. With all of them.
Through the balcony doors she could see the tall tops of the poplars far-off in the Slioch Escarpment. The branches swayed in the breeze and she longed to be outside, to be able to live, to be somewhere wild and fresh. The escarpment was miles away, stretching on to the horizon; it seemed like another world from the city, ten storey’s down below. There was something unruly about the forest, in Kiri’s imagination at least.
She had travelled outside of Hampton, her city, of course, but never for more than a few days at a time. In middle-ager school, she had visited the forest along with all her classmates.
Every middle-ager had to attend the class trips to learn about the various zones that provided for those living in the city. Kiri had been to all the main areas - the agriculture zones, the beach zones, the prairies zones and of course the forest zone.
Before she had visited the forest for the first time Kiri had always imagined it was a magical place, somewhere raw, a place that could reveal the real world to her but she had been disappointed, she remembered, to find that it was no different from the other zones. Ordered, safe, managed by different machines but by machines nonetheless.
The forest was just another type of city, a collection of wood and bark and sap instead of granite and steel and glass. The forest did not hide the magic she had long hoped for, at least not the forest she saw on her school trip.
She pointed the remote control at the balcony window and slowly the glass dissolved into a vid screen. Vacantly she started to scroll through the menus looking for a vid clip to cheer herself up. She had been planning on studying some more of her coursework but after what had just happened she felt totally drained of energy. There was never enough time. If only she had more years to fit it all in.
Summer hung in the air and the breeze drifting in from the balcony door felt thick. It would be the longest day of the year soon and she knew that all her friends would be out partying all night. Absently she checked her phone, she had a few missed calls and messages from friends apologising that they hadn’t made it to her party. She couldn’t be bothered speaking to any of them. A voice in her head told her she should go out and socialise but what was the point of having her own place if she couldn’t enjoy being on her own even one night?
It would be dark soon. The cushions of the couch were soft against her skin and slowly she felt herself sinking into them, down, down into a gentle sleep…
It was cold, cold and dark when she woke to the sound of a shout from her kitchen. Barely knowing where she was she staggered to her feet and rushed across the polished floor of her living room to the large modern kitchen area.
The breeze from the balcony window had evidently lost all its heat the moment the sun went down and she felt a shiver in her bones. As her feet skidded across the tiles a momentary panic rose in her mind – what if it was an intruder? a murderer like in the vids?
She rounded the corner to see it was Mark, her neighbour, sprawled face down on the kitchen floor making a strange noise like a wounded animal. Frightened that he had been injured Kiri rushed forward to help him up but Mark fought her off mumbling indistinctly.
‘Mark, are you ok?’ Kiri shouted, surprising herself with the alarm in her own voice.
‘Grughg,’ he wailed, attempting to drag himself across the floor by his arms but failing pitifully.
‘What happened to you?’
‘Is just one.’
Mark slipped on the polished floor and cracked his head on the tiles letting at an almighty scream.
He was much stronger than her and even though she caught hold of his wrists he shook her off furiously. Unsure what to do with him Kiri was backing off when Mark suddenly managed to flip himself onto his back with a supreme effort and burst into laughter.
‘Is just one little drink.’
‘You’re drunk?’ Kiri tried to sound disapproving but deep down she felt relieved that there wasn’t something more serious amiss.
This only made Mark laugh even louder. Kiri approached and extended her arm to help him up but he was completely insensible.
Finally having exhausted his need to laugh Mark seemed to partially realise where he was and managed to sit up. With a dazed look he pulled himself up to lean with his back against the kitchen cabinets.
‘Where am I? How did I get in here?’ he looked like he had had a rough night.
‘I don’t know,’ Kiri shrugged. ‘I just woke up. I was on the couch.’
‘Oh I’m in your apartment then?’ Mark slurred his words but each second that passed he seemed to regain a little sobriety.
‘Yes. Do you want me to take you back to yours?’
Mark looked at her as if carefully weighing up the prospect.
‘No I never want to go back there.’
‘Never? But that’s where you live.’
‘Not for much longer.’ Mark shoulder’s slumped despondently. ‘You don’t have any beer do you?’
Kiri hesitated, the last thing Mark looked like he needed was a beer but there was no rule to stop majors from drinking as much as they wanted. She had heard stories of majors that spent their final years permanently drunk but it wasn’t something that you came across as a middle-ager.
‘Yes I’ve still got some from earlier,’ Kiri had been crouching down next to Mark but now stood up extending her hand down to help him up. ‘Why don’t we go through to the lounge?’
Mark took her hand and unsteadily lifted himself up to his feet. His hands were strong but softer than Kiri had expected. Inside his, her hand felt like a doll’s. Once he was standing, his grip lingered for a second before he stiffened and let go of her hand, stomping over to the fridge.
‘Jeez you hardly drank any earlier?’ Mark had opened the fridge door.
‘This doesn’t need to be in here,’ he said, pulling out a bottle that someone had brought as a present and Kiri had put in the fridge for safe keeping.
Kiri followed him into the lounge and they both slouched down on the couch.
‘So where did you go?’ she tried to sound interested without being to inquisitive.
‘Oh with that lot,’ Mark motioned vaguely with his hand towards the front door, ‘you know, Bella and them.’
‘Oh, was it fun?’
‘Fun?’ a scowl passed across Mark’s face. ‘I don’t remember the last time I….’
‘Why did you go then? You’ve got your own apartment across the hall.’
‘Yeah, yeah I do but it doesn’t make any difference where I am. You don’t know what its like,’ Mark lifted his head and looked Kiri directly in the eye and for a moment he looked like a trapped animal. ‘Its my birthday in two months. My eighteenth birthday. The unwinding could start any time. Jeez.. Liam...’
Kiri put her arm on his shoulder but didn’t know what to say. For a moment he had an intense, heart-breaking look in his eyes, like a lost child. Everything he said was true. She had worried about the same things herself but he was right – she didn’t know what it was like to be that close.
As a newly christened major she knew she still had time ahead of her. Most people didn’t enter it until at least a few weeks after their eighteenth. Unless she was exceptionally unlucky she had at least two years to go.
‘Its going to be ok,’ Kiri rubbed his arm sympathetically.
‘You’ll probably laugh at me. Tell me I’m drunk, but I’ve got a theory,’ Mark stared hard at her. ‘All this, the unwinding, GAAPs, majors its not natural. Its not right, biologically.’
‘Have you been watching too many vids?’ Kiri tried to crack a smile but there was something about Mark’s tone that wasn’t in the least funny, something that Kiri recognised.
‘I know you believe me,’ Mark shifted on the sofa to face Kiri more directly. ‘I remember you from school. You weren’t taking those classes because you had to fill your timetable. You don’t feel like you belong here either, you want to find out.’
Mark was right. Kiri’s had always felt she was striving to uncover something, never felt she quite fitted in, but she had always pushed herself to study precisely so she didn’t fall for these sort of conspiracy theories.
‘So what if I do? It doesn’t mean I’m totally crazy. That’s just the way the world is. We grow up we unwind. What? Do you think there’s an island where all the Adils live? Where we can live forever?’
Mark shook his head.
‘No, I don’t have answers. But what if it wasn’t always like this? What if it could be different, really different.’
‘What wasn’t like this?’ Kiri was quizzical but her head was spinning. Myriad thoughts that she had kept submerged in her mind were now bubbling to the surface.
‘My friend, Jed,’ Mark’s voice had hushed to a whisper even though there were only the two of them there. ‘Well he’s not a friend. He has a access to files down at Civic. I think everything used to be different.’
Despite his drunkness, Mark’s words chimed with things that she had kept hidden all these years. If he really did have some proof this was beyond exciting.
‘What, what has he shown you?’
‘Who?’ Mark rubbed his temples an agonised look on his face.
‘Who?? Jed! The proof. Your theory!’
‘Oh yeah, the theory,’ Mark looked like he was struggling to maintain concentration, ‘its complicated. There are a lot of factors, a lot of files.’
Mark stood up suddenly.
‘This beer isn’t going down too well you know. I should get back to mine, have a painkiller and sleep.’
‘What? No you can’t go now,’ Kiri couldn’t believe he was leaving.
‘I’m useless to anyone right now. Look I’m not trying to run away – like I say these files are complicated. Let’s look talk tomorrow.’
Kiri made a disappointed sound of agreement and Mark put his hands on her shoulders, bending his knees slightly to look her in the eye.
‘I promise I’ll show you tomorrow.’
After Mark had left, Kiri surveyed her apartment a feeling of excitement rising up the back of her neck. Who knew what information Mark had found but butterflies already fluttered in her stomach. And to think that he had trusted her of all people. This was more than she had expected from her first day as a major, much more. Tomorrow suddenly looked a brighter day.
Kiri hardly slept all night, a thousand and one thoughts had kept turning over in her mind. She had crawled beneath the covers planning to wake up fresh the next day but she couldn’t get Mark’s words out of her head.
There were so many questions she wanted to ask. Everyone knew the stages of life. Birth, nursery, earlyschool, middleage, major, unwinding. That was how the world existed and how it had always existed. It was the permanent order of nature and never changed but she had secretly fantasized about other ways of life.
She clearly remembered asking, when she was only in earlyschool, about what was ‘before’ all this. The teaching algorithms had provided numerous vid materials that showed that the cities had always existed and would always exist. The systems that ran the city, the inhabitants, the number of births, the number of unindings were all perfectly balanced.
She had read and listened to it all and then asked the same question again.
She was told it made no sense to ask about ‘before’ any more than it did to ask what was north of the north pole. Life was a cycle that continued over and over forever. New people were born and unwound but the backdrop never changed, it could not change.
She had struggled to accept this stasis but could find no convincing argument against it. After all everything worked. If anything broke there was a machine to repair it. If a machine broke then another machine was made to fix the first machine. Why would the city not carry on forever? Why could it not have always worked?
She studied and trained, read all manner of scientific papers but always she felt there was something missing. Like everyone else she had full access to all the learning libraries. Any scientific paper or course material could be downloaded in a second but however much she searched Kiri never could find what she was looking for. She never had enough time to absorb all the information. She could live to forty and still not get deeper than the surface.
She paced about her apartment, checking her messages, scrolling through news and updates from friends. Rachel asked if she wanted to catch up for lunch the following day. Lucian had invited her for a game of fistball. Sandie apologised for missing the party and hoped it had gone well.
Kiri threw her phone on the sofa. The breakfast machine in the kitchen beeped - sensing she was hungry it had prepared some food. She ignored it and carried on walking. The floors were a hard, polished sort of plastic equipped with under-floor heating. The apartment’s systems automatically monitored her body temperature and matched the heating perfectly. As she walked around she left momentary clammy footprints on the shiny surface. A fleeting reminder that she had been there.
Although in the apartment she had more space than she had ever had before she felt somehow pinned down. Restless, she put on some shoes and crossed the corridor to knock on Mark’s door but there was no answer.
‘He must still be asleep,’ she thought, although a second later a half formed idea appeared in her head that he might have slipped out in the night and met some other girl. She dismissed it crossly.
‘What difference does it make if he did?’ she thought.
She had to get out of there, walk about, breath fresh air. The elevator travelled the ten floors quickly as she tucked her rumpled blouse into her jeans, trying to look presentable. As she walked, she slowly picked up pace, her mind racing with thoughts. She felt invisible to the boys and girls she passed, all holding hands or kissing.
If only there was more time, time to take things slower, get to know herself better, get to know other people better. In her childish dreams, she would meet someone and spend year after year with that same person, slowly getting to know them better, slowly building something between them. It was impossible of course, nobody had that sort of time.