Ari knows that after this shift he has a mission to complete. He shuffles along to find a trolley, eventually finds one, and puts a tote on it. As his toted trolley moves down each dendrite to connect each meaningless synapse, instead of blurting out his usual chant for the item’s level, shelf and location, he keeps reciting her koan, her unanswerable riddle:
‘The key to the lock is underplate.’
‘The key to the lock is underplate.’
What the what? She obviously thought it out beforehand. They should have also talked about this possible situation-- if one of them gets nabbed. He wonders how she is doing with her little riddle that he gave her. Lots of time to ponder it in jail he thinks, and then deletes that thought.
’Underplate.’ Isn’t that what you used to do to a car when you buy it? Yes, to protect the bottom from all the debris that flies up from Prepurg roads. He thinks about this word while seeking for a few items and then drops this stream of thought. What would a car have to do with it? She doesn’t have one or know anyone with one for that matter. But ‘lock’ that is most probably machine L. The key must be… it must be the housing for the motherboard. The motherboard is definitely the key to L…
‘She kissed me…’ he exclaims out loud to the bookshelves, the eerie fluorescence, and the hanging closed circuit cameras watching his every twist for a mistake or a clue. ‘…on the ear.’
He continues to COR-walk, dazed from both his thoughts and feelings, until midnight. He thinks about phoning her but remembers they have her sphere. He needs to find out where she is.
Once out of the maze of security at lunch, he gets his sphere, and google2s the closest COR police station. A map comes up that shows one station is not far from her housing unit. She must be there. He still has twenty minutes. Is there anything else he should do? Think Ari.
He google2s ‘underplate’. On wik it says:
Underplate (plural underplates)
An armoured plate that forms part of a mortice lock
(geology) A tectonic plate that forms or moves under another
There is mortice lock in the definition… what is mortice?… but also a plate that moves or forms under another. What does she mean? Does she mean the hiding spot in the foundation?
There are six and a half long hours from lunch to think about what should happen next but within the first hour he has come up with a plan. It can’t be that complicated. An knows him. She knows him too well, so she would have made it simple. ‘Underplate’ has the words ‘under’ and ‘plate’ so that is where it has to be. There is one part he is not sure about-- the ‘key’; does it have to do with machine L or the key to get An out of jail? Once he finds ‘the key’ he will know what to do with it. First things first.
At 7:00 AM, Ari is the first associate out the doors. He finds An’s cybcycle and rides as fast as he can to the single female housing units. By the time he gets there, he is panting and out of breath. The door is slightly open. Did they release her for some reason? He pushes it slowly in case there is someone inside. It is a mess, ransacked. Someone did a real number on it. Maybe it was Azzam himself. The micro-sofa is now a tent in the small living room with the slice-out bed holding one end up; its origami paper bottom has been cut and searched.
He looks at the hiding spot in the concrete floor. ‘No!’ It has been opened and the heavy lid has been tossed aside. ‘I hope she didn’t…’ He searches with his hand but there is nothing.
‘Underplate,’ He says out loud to focus on his task, steps to the mini kitchen, and opens a cabinet door. ‘Where would she keep her plates?’ Nearly all the doors have to be opened before he finds them. ‘Alright, under the plates. There you are.’ He lifts a stack of three but sees nothing. So he takes them all out and sets them on the counter. As he does, he sees the flat, ovoid housing at the back of the shelf. Thankfully, the goons probably missed that because the colors of the cabinet come right through it.
He tucks the clear plastic sheath into the right side of his pants and stops. That wasn’t exactly ‘under’ the plates was it? More behind them if anything, and she is so literal at times. He feels the bottom of the shelf where the plates were. Nothing. Then under the hanging cupboard. Nothing but cheap housing unit material. Then he steps back and looks at the plate cabinet and looks at the next cabinet. ‘Wait a minute. Is there a difference?’ He pinches the bottom board of the plate cabinet and pinches the one holding the cups. It is thicker. So he reaches behind the cupboard and there is an opening. ‘Here it is. Gotcha.’ He reaches in and pulls the corner of a bitbill through an elastic band. ‘Some key that is,’ he says out loud, sits on the counter, and bends his head under the hanging cabinet to get in a better position to search the cavity. No good. He opens a drawer and takes out a flexible whisk. It bends around the back and into the entire hiding spot. Two, then three, then four neatly stacked and wrapped bundles of bitbills fall on the counter. ‘An, I had no idea.’ He finds a plastic grocery bag and scoops the bills over the edge of the counter. Throwing the bag over his shoulder he is out the door.
After An reads the note in the back of the squad car, she squeezes it into a ball and eats it. The taste of ink and paper is bitter and pasty. She won’t have to refer back to it anyway because she already knows it by heart. It is a loose interpretation of a haiku-- a poetic form. It should have 5-7-5 syllables but who’s counting. Ezra Pound gets cut some slack because he made up for the break in tradition with haunting, sublime phrasing and meaning. Ari must have google2ed ‘short poem’ and then put in some search words. But what were those words? Where is L?
At the COR police station the new guards immediately take a trace recognition, retina and 3D body scan. A female officer escorts her to a room where An is sat down on a hard, plastic bench. The officer doesn’t make eye contact; she is looking at An’s pockets.
‘OK,’ An says and she does. There is no point in resisting now.
‘You have to remove your garments. Place them in this bag. These pants and top are now issued to you. No socks, shoes or belt because you are a tier 4-- too dangerous—both to us and to yourself. Your temporary number now is 4324, until we complete your processing.’
‘Do I at least get a trial?’
‘No, the only way you can get one is if someone bails you out and then you can get a COR lawyer to start legal proceedings. Do you know any?’ She asks deadpan.
‘Of course not. How much is bail?’
’What is your associate position? I mean, what was it?’
‘Right. Let’s see. We don’t process many of you, other than when a batch is let go to Prepurg. Let me look it up… I know they keep the bail amount pretty low, out of a sense of decency— ’
‘A false sense you mean.’
‘It’s not as if you can afford it anyway on what you make. Here it is,’ she holds her standard issued CORsphere and is thumbing down a list. ‘Three thousand bitbills. Do you have that?’
‘I can get it… from a friend.’
’Fair enough. We’ll wait until ‘your friend’ comes with the money and fills out the paperwork. Until that time though, honey, you are going to become well acquainted with one of our finest six by tens. Follow me when you’re finished. I’ll be outside. You should also know that the walls are all lined with immobilizers so if you try anything, I just press a button and you get a bit of a sting.’
‘Good to know,’ An says as she starts to undress.
She starts thinking about the haiku again. He left out the title: In a Station of the Metro. Is that where it is? I wouldn’t know where the nearest HPTT station is, if one is even still running. He wouldn’t know either if I don’t know. Scratch that off the list. Hopefully Ari will figure out what I said to him and just come and pay the piper.
When she looks up from her concentrated deductions, she sees a brick wall with names scraped into the institution-lime colored paint: ‘Amis’, ‘AliG’bra’, ‘Artemis’, ‘Arturo-bandero.’ She wonders what their crimes against COR were. Were they all just as false? Then she thinks back to the riddle. She thinks of breaking it down grammatically. It has to be a noun because a noun is a place and machine L has to be at a place. The nouns are ‘apparition’ (misspelled), faces, crowd, petals, and bough. The hiding place of L has to be one of these nouns. Think. One of these words is where Ari hid it. You can’t hide something in faces or a crowd. Petals or a bough though, that is possible. It could be in a flower bush or a plant. Black bough—there are some black trees on the steep hill near her unit, in fact I’m sure it’s called Black Mountain. That must be what he meant… but why intentionally misspell ‘apparition’? Is the place somehow related to a ghost? The creepiest place I know is the futurehouse---
Her train of thought goes on and on like this through the remaining nine hours of Ari’s shift. An’s thoughts and theories untwine, circle and then reknot as she drifts off to sleep…
The whip-poor-will clasps a strand from a broom. She is building a nest to attract her mate. The bird brought the twine from the girl in the Rembrandt painting: The Night Watch. In the painting she has a twine belt holding the chicken feet of the drained, upside-down bird. An tries to climb up to settle in the bird’s nest but falls. She breaks her neck when she hits the elevator engine, down three levels. L3, L2, L1. The whip-poor-will snatches her soul as she dies. It flies through security with An’s soul in its beak out the door, up and up into the night sky. She wakes up to the sound of her own voice. But can’t remember what she was saying. In the cold cell, she pulls herself up on her elbows. The door is open. She gets up and sees a figure at the end of the hall. Gaining speed she runs into Ari’s arms as if she was trying to run through him. Their feet leave the ground. From separation there is reunion.
The twine which once wrapped the notebook, now attaches them. As they embrace and circle they build a sculpture. The twine wraps around the construction rising up from the killing floor. The structure is a tower. It is a prison tower and it is both of them. The twine falls from their arms to surveillance cameras, which dangle and balance. The hanging twine encases wires connected to the cameras. Around their circular tower, prisoners are caged reaching for the fragments at their feet. They see the camera eyes but cannot reach them. They do not know that An and Ari are the tower. Entwined, the couple watches every worker but the associates cannot see them. The associates sweat from the paranoia of not knowing whether the central tower is watching.
An puts on her VR goggles. Through the goggles she can control them—the cameras, the guards, the workers. She flashes scenes to them all to make them submit. That one with the letters CORrections in red across his chest is not working. It is Ananke. She flashes a subliminal image of his child. He moves. He moves to feed his daughter, Anonymity. He moves out of the love for her and then runs, stuffing his tote and trolley with computers and wires from the random shelves.
Another CORrections worker moves out of pain, but it motivates her just the same. An flashes her an image of her recently dead grandmother. She is writing a letter to her granddaughter, the last of hundreds. It is enough to speed up her process path.
Now a clone of Ari is there among the others, pushing a toted trolley. He is shown, just for a brief moment, the arid landscape of the Prepurg. It is enough to instantly quicken his pace, too.
Then a blip of An’s mother appears. An sees her old feeble mom again. She is also working very slowly at a packing station in her cell. What would motivate Mom to work harder? An inputs the question into the algorithmic circuits. It flashes an image of herself, An, to her mother and her mother speeds up. An carefully watches her mother’s efforts. Her disbelief turns to acceptance. Then what is her fear? A subliminal burst shows her father and then is gone. Her mother is alone again without his image. Her face grows old with loss. Associates run around their circles, watched by the central tower, the fulcrum of time. She reaches out to her mother’s face with understanding. Time stops, repeats in the untime, and ends.
An wakes fevered on the cold cement floor of the prison cell. She is only in jail.
She sees the Night Watch girl in her cell that has the dead chicken in her belt. The twine from An’s notebook is the girl’s belt. They are in the interminable present. There is distance without a horizon. There is a fissure, a disconnection, an incoherence. This moment outlasts time.
Around the circular cells a Purg is pushing a trolley with shoes in his tote.
Ari quickly pushes his trolley beside him and asks, ‘Why do you have only old shoes and no products in your tote?’
The Purg meets Ari’s gaze with empty eye sockets. ‘I have worn them out while chasing you down every aisle…I am Death and I would like to read you something.’
Ari laughs at Death and decides to go along with it, ’Go ahead Death, read me something morbid then.’
‘I think you’ll like it. It’s by my favorite author,’ It says.
‘And who could that possibly be? Delillo?’ Ari snickers.
‘No, it’s Atwood. Now listen,’ He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a singular sheaf of paper yellowed with age.
Now she imagines him dreaming. She imagines him dreaming of her, as she is dreaming of him. Through a sky the colour of wet slate they fly towards each other on dark invisible wings, searching, searching, doubling back, drawn by hope and longing, baffled by fear. In their dreams they touch, they intertwine, it’s more like a collision, and that is the end of the flying. They fall to earth… (random26)
‘Now fly,’ Death pushes him towards the edge of the third level of cells. The tethered cable catches his knees. The whip-poor-will dives beside him as he falls. An screams like a wounded animal then stops. His tendons snap as they meet the concrete and his head smashes against the engine of the elevator. The whip-poor-will quickly snatches his soul as it leaves his body.
Death taunts again, ‘Ari is dead. Long live Aristotle.’ His laugh echoes through the hollows of the futurehouse, rattling the roof.
The whip-poor-will shrieks, ‘the replication of the world encircles me by the means that is within me.’
Death opens his mouth as the bird flies back into its nest of bones. It stands over the railing and says to the tower and surrounding cells, ‘These distant dreams to live in a Golden Age help you live in the present-- the good place before the Change. You are half dead with fatigue. The only freedom you have is the binary choice to obey or disobey. You live a passive uncertainty, but liberty is in the depths of your prison. You must expand the floor of your cages. Time is in your mouths, your hands, your eyes. Time is all you own.’
A gleam of liquid in the corner of An’s eye searches for the exit from the darkness. She reaches blindly for a loose bar—something solid to hold onto.
Three beeps blare from the door. ‘Stay clear,’ a female guard says.
An doesn’t move from her position laid flat against the cold, cement floor.
‘Here,’ the guard tosses An’s bag of clothes. ‘Someone has posted bail for you. Follow me when you’re done,’ she says.
‘That didn’t take long,’ An shivers as she quickly puts on her red jumpsuit and collects her thoughts. ‘I was starting to enjoy the peace and quiet,’ she says, feeling more herself as she accepts the bail conditions. Looking through the final set of doors she sees Ari pacing. As she reaches him, they embrace without a word.
The officer also says nothing and seems not to notice when they eventually leave.
As soon as they are out of ear-shot, An clears her eyes and asks, ‘It’s not in the futurehouse is it?’
‘Really? That’s all you got out of my well-crafted note?’
’You spelled ‘apparition’ wrong. It’s double p.’
‘I did. Oops.’
’OK. I thought that was the hint, but if not then it has to be in a tree ‘bough’ then.’
‘Well done An,’ he says as they walk to the cybcycle rack and pull out the front from between the grates.
‘I’m guessing Black Mountain.’
‘Shh… You’re too good at this. Hop on the handlebars. I’ll double you.’
She does and they are off. She leans back into his right shoulder, balancing by raising her legs above the front spinning hoverwheel. Her mouth is again beside his ear. Her warm breath warms and tingles. They pass the stacked rows of cement bunkers protecting the night shift who by now are probably dozing asleep in their beds. The single unit housing and then the family housing rise into the hill. The cycle slows as it powers them both up the steeper terrain. They climb gradually until they are at a standstill.
‘Let’s ditch the cycle here,’ he says.
They dismount and she props it against a tree. Ari finds three branches to camouflage it. His back is turned to her as he finishes stowing it.
‘I come up here when I’m not gaming, when the system’s down. That’s how I found the spot, the tree’ Ari says.
As they step up the incline, the surroundings ground them. The boughs are black, an unnatural black. There are needles from the long, dry winter that crack open as they walk on them. Some fresh green awakes from the cover of fallen leaves. The hum of industry is dimmed by the trunks and branches.
Then wings suddenly rouse, breaking the air with snapped feathers. Talons clasp a dark branch and stop. The whip-poor-will’s head tilts away to look at the clothed visitors in its garden. It shrieks a greeting, ‘Whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will.’
An is stopped in her tracks.
‘It’s just up here,’ Ari says as they near the summit of Black Mountain.
An is lost in thought for a moment and then agrees, ‘OK taskmaster.’ She watches him stride confidently through the brush. He blends in with the woods as though it is his home habitat.
At the top, there is a clearing where there are moss covered stones. A brook trickles between and disappears under the green only to reappear, gather and fall over a rocky ledge. One solitary tree stands at the edge of this opening. Beyond the tree is the busy valley. They see the COR futurehouse, the boulevard of the center and the HPTT line getting smaller and smaller off into the haze of the dusty desert far into Prepurg. The line faintly splinters off and moves at a right angle along the horizon. They follow it as far as they can and see another green patch glimmering like an oasis. They look at each other. It could be another center, a competitor to COR or a subsidiary. There are peaks dotting the distance. They also hide Centers in their shadows. They are so far away it is hard to focus on the wavering greens and yellows for too long.
A line splits the horizon and comes forward to the futurehouse. Moving closer and closer, the faint line becomes larger and its shadow along the red and yellow sands follows it— then two lines like train tracks travel into their workplace. They are the morning drones delivering more product to be stocked. They will stay recharging in their ports until the day shift starts and then depart to deliver the packages to customers. From their viewpoint the drones look like insects returning to their hive. The work never stops.
The busy movement transfixes the two until they turn to look at the oddly-shaped tree in front of them.
‘There it is. Told you it was safe,’ Ari says.
On the tree there are tiny rolled leaves about to open that spread evenly throughout the ancient, gnarled wood. The leaves are verdant green from the warm wind climbing up the edge of the rocky cliff. The wind has shaped and twisted the solid, living mass into a twisting staircase, a single helix.
‘It’s beautiful,’ she says.
‘Come on,’ he tests a ridge of bark and offers a helping hand. An is pulled up to a large ‘Y’ in the tree’s mass and they lean back against an adjacent trunk and branch. The two of them are directly above the edge of the cliff, on the cusp of the uplifting breeze as though about to take flight.
An is taking it all in, the valley, the height, and the peaks far in the distance. ‘What’s that way over there?’ She is looking at the opposite side of the horizon. There are triangular blades turning in the wind.
‘Turbines,’ Ari says.
Following them down, An sees that there are small rectangles, a cityscape.
Ari looks closer and says, ‘I think they are skyscrapers. It must be a city… or a factory.’
‘I’d like to go there with you one day.’
‘We will but for now look down,’ Ari says and points his hand at the split in the tree between their feet. There is a burrowed hole, perhaps once the home of some small rodent or bird. An steadies herself as she reaches down into the unknown. Emerging from the dark, she sees the two tungsten half-rings and the narrow motherboard wrapped together with her father’s leather belt. She pulls it by the buckle out of the burrow. Ari slips out the casing from his own belt and wipes the perspiration off on his shirt. The morning sun refracts through the translucent plastic.
‘Are they charged do you think? Should we try it?’
‘They should be,’ Ari smiles as An carefully unwraps the three pieces she is holding. She hands the motherboard to him and he fits it into its sheath. Then she hands him a visor. He connects and snaps on his side of the interface. Then she repeats the same. L is complete and looks like this:
‘Let’s do it.’
‘Do it to it,’ An remembers a song her grandmother sang. She is more upbeat than he has ever seen her, playfully and childlike with their new toy, as they both raise their index fingers toward the power sensor.
’Wait, what if it is something. What if it is too powerful and we both fall off these limbs?’
‘You know in Nicaragua what they do if there is a hurricane?’
‘They fasten themselves to a tree with the belts.’
‘How would you know that?’ asks An.
’Nicaragua was home for a short time. I experienced it, not just in a book. Imagine that…how about this belt?’ he holds out her father’s long belt that was wrapped around the parts for L. ‘It is only long enough to wrap around once. It might not hold you but will at least break your fall, and maybe stop you from rolling down the cliff.’
‘You came well prepared,’ she says.
‘Well we came well improvised anyway.’ She wraps the belt around the trunk and fastens the buckle. He pulls out his old military belt from his belt loops, wrapping it around the branch and through the two plastic bars of the buckle. ‘These should hold us,’ he says.
‘Alright,’ They raise their fingers again.
‘Wait,’ Ari says but this time the visors have both started and they can’t stop. ’What does L stand for anyway?’
The visors’ shades and earplugs drop into place.
An yells, but he cannot hear.
A bright red light scans their retinas. Then they wait in darkness as the system loads.
A bright flash.
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