THE TWO TRAVELERS

EPISODE 2

THE PACIFISTS' WAR

 

CHAPTER 1

THE LIVING ART PIECE

 

             Rain poured heavily down either side of the tall triangular black building built along W Marion St south of the 101 Freeway in what was once known as Aberdeen, Washington. It was a building devoted to art which was, according to the people of the Greenlands, merely a diversion into the depiction of the wilder, edgier moments of humanity. It was not considered harmless and was in fact considered so intense that older and more sensitive people weren’t likely to be able to handle it.
            After all, art was, along with dancing, provocative clothing, face paints that were sometimes called makeup, video games and the savage emotions were not, under any normal circumstances, ever to be tolerated. They led to the evil of violence and according to the teachings of the Teal there was no doubt to be had: it was the simple truth. The edicts of dignity, honor and respect, the facets of the Way of the Teal, were to be maintained at all times.
            Yet for some odd and unknown reason art had slipped through the cracks of the Teal to survive. Many frowned upon it and almost as many regularly campaigned against it yet somehow it always remained, always solid and stable, and as much a part of their society as the Cathedral up in Seattle.
            Matthew Michener stepped through the front doors out of the rain and pulled back his dark green hood. He was a nineteen with smooth pale skin, short silky brown hair that hung down forward and sideways just across the tops of his eyebrows, with round chocolate brown eyes that looked perpetually curious. He was slender and soft and did very little physical activity but that was not abnormal since he could not afford exercise pills and there were no sports because, or so he had been told, they created violence and were just one negative quality of the evil of games.
            He was wearing dark green gloves, several layers of different shades of green, the first layer being thick robes, the middle a jacket with a hood, and the final one heavier rain slicker that reached to his ankles. He wore the bright white sneakers of which only the fronts could be seen which he always thought looked weird and out of place with the robe but somehow or another they had come to be considered formal dress wear.
            Buckled onto Matthew’s left arm over his robe was a dark gray arm computer stretching from his wrist to his elbow. On the top of the forearm was a small computer monitor just below the wrist covered in a simple square cap with a QWERTY keyboard and with several small round extra buttons all bright green. On the bottom was a very complicated joystick he could flip out into his left hand, or could if it wasn’t broken and all of that served only one purpose:
            To control the robot known as a mimic that walked beside him and every other citizen of the Greenlands.
            Everyone from the lowest citizen to the greatest politician was required by law to have a mimic and a DNA keyed arm computer to turn it on although wealth did contribute a great deal to the robot’s quality and condition. Both Matthew’s robot and arm computer were hand-me-downs from his grandfather. The computer he had upgraded several times to a level of general decency minus the joystick but the robot, which was considerably more expensive to upgrade, was so old and nearly broken that it seemed a miracle it was even able to walk let alone mimic his actions or fight.
            At some point its veneer plates had been removed or broken off making it look like a robotic skeleton with one glowing green eye, its other having been lost in his grandfather’s time and were so unbelievably expensive he could not dream of replacing it, and several fingers were also missing on the left hand. Something was also badly wrong with its left leg too causing a limp and inside several parts clicked and clanked in ways that made Matthew nervous sometime. Despite all that, he found he had grown a deep love for his robot, and he even gave him the name Muddy due to the brownish color that the robot appeared to have after all the green paint came off.
            Most of the people who sat in the black floored lobby drinking the strong non-caffeinated tea with caffeine secretly placed within turned and smiled mockingly at him even though none of them had the slightest clue who he was and could not have cared less if they had. Some were high officials, even to the point of wearing robes of gold, the color of official, and powerful, political positions but most just wore green just like him but with gold medals on gold sashes denoting small positions like officers in the police sector or just born members of the elite class with easy position granted to them for nothing by their connections and birth. All their robots were top of the line, gold and green to match their robes, built with heavy plates to look like the muscles of warrior men of ancient times that nobody looked like anymore with two glowing green or yellow eyes.
            They all smiled mockingly at him because they knew the instant they saw him they pegged him exactly for who he was and that was some nobody that anyone could smirk at or even harm without consequences.
            Matthew would have given a great deal of anything to avoid coming in on a day when the elites of Aberdeen were not having a party but unfortunately he was required by his job’s deadline to begin immediately and there was choice. He would unfortunately have to muscle his way through the onslaught of any political figure looking to bully a helpless nobody such as himself. He had a moment where he thought he would be just fine, saw that nobody recognized him and didn’t care much, but then he heard a door shut and knew it wasn’t going to happen.
            Matthew took a deep breath and turned to the left.
            James Jock, the curator, had stepped out of the office door directly left of the entrance and was grinning at him. He was an older man, in his mid-fifties or so, with light blue eyes and straight white hair cut in the buzz style of the Robotics Military which was stupid considering that Jock had never actually been in or even a part of it or any military branch down even at a ditch digger’s level. Despite that his connections afforded him so many gold medals on his robes over the gold sash he must well have been the greatest general of the age. There were so many extra models over his robes as well it was almost hard to tell if there was any green on his robes at all.
            Despite Jock’s age he reminded Matthew uncannily of a young and immature child.
            “Come to see the art again, Michener?” Jock asked as he and his robot maneuvered in front of Muddy.
            Matthew felt his rage come boiling up but he forced calm upon himself and looked up slowly at the taller man who very much wasn’t supposed to be there that day. “Yes,” he said evenly. “That is exactly why I came to this art museum.” What did he think? That he came here for the coffee? He genuinely couldn’t afford coffee and wasn’t legally allowed to drink caffeine and what else was there. “I’ve paid the entrance fee, Mr. Jock. May I please pass?”
            “I don’t think I like your tone.”
            Matthew’s eyes lifted up in narrow angry slits but what he really felt was worry and to the point where it made him feel sick. “Please don’t hurt my mimic again,” he said unhappily. It had taken all of his savings, fifty gold coins, just to get him back in working condition and he could not afford more.” He looked over at Jock’s very intimidating robot worriedly.
            Every single year James Jock got a new robot, probably for free or at a very high discount, from his brother in Greenlands Robotics. It looked like some kind of dark green death machine standing taller than either of them with two large, round glowing green lenses for eyes, a horizontal vent for a mouth set on a skull-like head that connected to a stout highly muscular-like body with heavy green plates. There was custom work here and there many of them utilizing parts from Jim Manner, the great robotics man of the age, giving it that trademark graceful quality that made it more efficient than any of the top of the line non-customized green colored civilian robots of the Greenlands.
            “Only fifty gold, Michener?” He said, knowing somehow. His eyes locked onto Matthew’s for a moment. Matthew saw his smug smile and heard Jock’s controller flip from his arm controller into his hand.
            “Wait!” Matthew cried as he moved his joystick. “Wait, wait, wait—”
            “Too slow!” Jock jerked his robot forward and it punched Matthew’s in the face at full power before Matthew could pull his joystick up. The robot’s neck broke, it fell to the ground, and everyone began to laugh. “Nice presidenting robot, Michener!” someone cried out.
            “What did you do that for?” Matthew cried as he picked up his robot tenderly. He would never have brought Muddy out in such a defenseless condition but he had literally no choice. It was illegal to do otherwise and he could be fined badly, even jailed, for breaking that old and oddly sacred law but after Jock’s cruelty he wasn’t sure it wouldn’t have been worth it. The fine was steep but those new damages were worse and going to eat away the rest of his savings like acid on top of plastic. In fact, if he didn’t get a fantastic deal on his repairs he might very well end up in debt and that nobody escaped from.
            “You got what you deserved!” snarled Jock in guttural, almost drooling way and then he pointed at his medals. “You see this? You see? Seeeee?” He sneered at Matthew. “You have a lot of goddamn nerve talking to me the way you did!” Matthew could not have possibly committed any sense of vocal impropriety but the others agreed anyway and when Jock acted as if he had just calmed himself from a great anger that he felt justified by they all agreed with that too all nodding their heads and air shaking their hands at Jock. “I hope you learned your lesson well, Michener!” He pointed at his medals again. “Don’t you ever offend your superiors again!”
            “Okay,” said Matthew softly, his head lowered, his eyes narrowing as rage was starting to overwhelm him. When he turned and pulled his robot up carefully to its feet he was relieved to find Muddy could still walk although its head was still dangling around on a string. He let out a sigh of relief and was about to take his robot out of there when one of Jock’s friends’ robots threw itself forward, grabbed his robot’s arm and yanked violently. The strength in that pristine modern robot nearly tore it off leaving it hanging by an even smaller shred than the head. “What was that for, Gurne?” cried Matthew. He had not so much as looked at the man and could not believe that had just happened.
            Not that it mattered to anyone. The quacking elites all nodded and agreed with whatever he said and pointed their fingers and laughed hard. Jock didn’t laugh but nodded soberly as if to say, “It was a dirty job but it was well in need of doing,” and Matthew heard statements of “good reason” and “understood” and the like while Reggy Gurne went back to handshake again in the Greenlands open palm never touching method acting to all like that of a man with “a job well done.”
            Matthew grabbed his robot and carried him out through the lobby under his left arm before anything else happened, the laughter of the others filling up his ears behind him. Someone said, “Oh ta-ta, little Matthew,” in a high pitched feminine voice as he disappeared around the hallway.
            He was in a state of being stunned merged with rage at what happened. What savings he had were certainly going to be gone and he would have nothing left for any future incident. He might not be able to fix the arm and he would have bring his case before the mayor who was not likely to grant Matthew the right to walk around with one armed robot when his nephew or cousin or whoever Gurne was to him caused the damage. If he stayed clear of damage for another couple months he might bounce back but he couldn’t help but imagine how much he would have saved if Jock had not demolished his robot so many times while those thieving outsiders hadn’t simultaneously caused the taxes to be raised sky high. He would have easily been able to give Muddy and his arm computer a full overall, maybe a new eye, and still have money saved besides had neither happened.
            “I’m sorry, Muddy,” Matthew told his robot as he placed him back on his feet and looked at his robot. It had belonged to his family longer than he had and was top of the line custom-made during its day. Looking at its sad, accepting, face made Matthew feel a strong sense of mournfulness that only increased when he watched it limp along beside him.
            He wondered if he could get a meeting with Jim Manner. After all, he was employed by Jim’s sister Martha who loved his artwork enough to hire him to draw pictures for the Aberdeen Chronicle and enough so that he got constant work. When he thought about it she was one of the few people who truly liked him as a person. He had no close relatives to speak of, no siblings, no cousins, no close friends and even his parents had passed away years before in an earlier outsider raid.
            Matthew put that out of his mind and tried to focus on business. He had been through the Aberdeen Museum of Art countless times and he knew every exhibit so well that he could locate any of them by memory although, in truth, it was not because he was not particularly impressed with any of them nor had he ever been so, not even the very first time he had been there as a young child. He was actually more impressed by the neatness of the black floors and ceilings and forest green walls than any particular exhibit placed upon them and that made the museum a sad place somehow.
            There were digital photographs, mostly of fruit, clothing and household items in absolute perfect light so as to not have any aggressive shadows, a few exhibits that were just ordinary harmless items somehow deemed artistic and were mostly brushes, toilets and lamps, but mostly there were paintings. Sadly, a majority of them were just very boring things such as bare walls, empty rooms, treeless and flat fields and, in one risqué case, an ugly brown lamp that the artist seemed to have taken great pains to lower its quality of interest downward into incredible dullness. There was a twenty five years or older adult section which consisted of silhouettes of dangerous tools like scissors or kitchen knives and more vague silhouettes of actual people who were apparently in the act of savage emotional states which could be taken for anger or misery but they didn’t particularly look like any such things to Matthew. He had been allowed in that area despite his younger age because he worked for a magazine and he was still reeling from his disappointment.
            The true raciest exhibits were not technically part of the museum. A small additional area had been built on the side of the building for the Greenland Elite and rumors among the art community persisted that in that section there pictures of real weapons, guns and swords and such, and possibly even functional displays of forbidden and evil “games” which were the terrifying predecessors of the government controlled and censored “yames.” That seemed like the biggest issue of all but Matthew didn’t understand why. Almost everyone, including Matthew, played the illegal yame, or maybe it was an actual game although it didn’t seem that violent, called Wow on the top of the hill from time to time.
            On the highest floor with exhibits Matthew crossed one of the two parallel bridges passing over five floors of empty space above the lobby and passed the one of a kind and sole exception to inferior quality the exhibit known as Resting Beauty set inside of the wall the bridge was built across. It was by far Matthew’s favorite and he attributed it solely to the fact that nobody in the Greenlands could have possible invented it: a blond girl in gray, frozen in glass with bright green eyes that were both hypnotizing and wondrous. When Matthew looked into those eyes he thought of love, something he often dreamt about, and he once spent hours in front her drawing a picture he would use as a definitive work of personal art not too long ago.
            It was around two in the afternoon in the Teal measurement of time when Matthew sat down in the room just passed the bridge. The room was one of his absolute least favorites with its really stupid looking fake silver toilet, several different kinds of brooms and a vacuum all probably found in some abandoned village somewhere and brought in as an art in that room exhibit by some lazy elitist would-be artist and accepted it because he was an elite. The only thing anyone cared about and considered close to art was the painting known as Plain Meadow which was just awful.
            It was well named as it was a picture of a plain empty meadow with no trees, grass, animals, clouds, hills or rivers or anything but dirt.  Martha disliked it, found it so without substance that it couldn’t even be called a desert, and hired Matthew to repaint it with all the things missing and in vibrant color. He reached into his satchel, took out the sketchpad that he carried everywhere, and began to map the preliminary work, his robot mimicking his movements from his seat beside him.
            Luckily, nobody was there to bother him and he soon lost himself in his work.
            By the time he was ready to eat his lunch everything had been outlined to his satisfaction and he was fully ready to return to his apartment and create a meadow filled with trees, flowers, rabbits, rivers and a pond with frogs on lily pads which was his specialty. That early sketch also showed birds flying into a sky followed with huge billowy clouds and tall, pointed hills in the background covered in trees and topped with snow. It was all preliminary work but he felt it was a very good start and he knew it was just what Martha wanted.
            He took out his sack lunch which was just a small salad with weak dressing, the strong being far above his price range, a plain green apple and bottled water. He began eating them mindlessly as he considered potential improvements and was only distracted from such thoughts when he felt something oddly cold and looked down to see a bit of icy mist that had suddenly appeared around his feet.
            Matthew swallowed a bite of his apple, tilted his head as he stared and felt a stupefying confusion come over him.

*          *          *

            For one instant Laura saw the doctor leering down at her with that cold nurse of his and then in another she saw a golden colored bar.  She stared at it blankly for a moment before realizing she was pressed up against the clear door somehow, and suddenly noticed the dark space beyond. She had a sudden vivid vision of flying through a glass ceiling before spinning helplessly upward into the sky to die in outer space when she heard the clack sounds of the pod door opening.
            She stumbled out of the pod, her sense of gravity so haywire that she had absolutely no sense of herself, and hit the golden bar hard enough just below her ribs to make her grunt. She leaned over in pain, had a quick moment to see people and tables five floors below, and then felt some kind of liquid project itself out of her mouth almost as if it was a living creature trying to escape. She tried to block it on instinct but it was intense and spilled all over her right hand like a faucet and she distinctively heard a lot of people from three floors below cry out in surprise and revulsion.
            A burst of powerful nausea filled her and she stumbled backward onto the walkway, almost falling from a stunning level of dizziness that followed, and then rushed toward the first open doorway she saw. A silver colored toilet within caught her attention almost immediately and she quickly sprint-stumbled for it.

*          *          *

            Matthew froze with his hand holding his half-eaten apple inches from his mouth and an expression of deep confusion on his face.
            A beautiful blond girl in gray stumbled into the room, stumbled behind the boring ugly painting on its pillar and fell to her knees before the silver toilet. He sensed what was going to happen and cried out, “Oh that’s not—” the girl vomited into the toilet and he laughed nervously the way he always did around pretty girls “—I’m sorry.” Then what his eyes saw reached his brain.
            His apple fell to the ground with a soft thud and he stood up, his mimic following after him, and he quickly went to the doorway back to the bridge and looked out at the exhibit there. He could only stare for several minutes, the sound of vomiting behind him the only sound that could be heard, and his heart both sank and soared in perfect unison.
            The door to Resting Beauty was wide open and the girl within was gone.
            Matthew and his mimic turned their heads over their shoulder and looked over at the girl who seemed to have sensed him looking. She looked back and gave him a strange smile. “What’s up, Gandalf?” she asked.
            “What?”
            She half-grinned half-laughed and said, “It’s a joke. You know, with the book or the movie—” she shrugged “—it’s banned. I guess you never saw it.”
            Matthew could only gape. The girl from that weird silver coffin was alive and right in front of him. How could that be possible? “I—” she looked at him pleasantly he felt disarmed “—I was genuinely worried that—” he swallowed “—that today would be really boring.”

*          *          *

            Laura thought that might be funny but she found her humor, along with much of her thinking, dulled.
            “This isn’t a real toilet,” were the only words that she could think to say to the boy and only after the several minutes it took to expel the liquid from her insides. She looked at it, laughed, and then crumpled down onto the floor and shut her eyes for a moment. Her sense of gravity was still off and she felt like she was caught in some kind of gravitational field where any direction could be up. When that gradually passed she reached up, tried to flush the toilet, and sighed. “No, definitely not,” she said.
            The boy came up to her in a very timid cute kind of way. “Are you alright?” he asked.
            Laura looked up at him and felt nothing but confusion. Just exactly what was he wearing? It looked like a forest green wizard’s robe and that gave her the sudden insane idea that she had somehow woken up in Narnia or something. “I—” she shook her head “—no. No, I am not okay.” She could taste the gel-like water in her mouth and felt an incredible depression trying to bubble up inside of her. She rubbed the bridge of her nose with her clean left hand and asked, “Where’s the CO? “The commanding officer?”
            “The what?”
            “The UCLD officer in charge of me.  This is a Faction command post of some sort, yes?”
            “What is a Faction command post?”
            Laura’s hand dropped from her face. “You’re not serious, are you?” she asked but even as she spoke she realized he was. His outfit was absurd and nowhere near what would pass as a Faction uniform.
            “I am,” he replied softly and he looked so kind and confused that it made Laura smile which made him smile back in that nervous way boys often did. He was attractive, prettier than handsome boy but a bit too skinny for her taste. Thinking about that brought forth an image of a very handsome different boy with black hair in her mind and that killed her smile. “Are you alright?” he asked again.
            “I don’t know,” she replied and she held out her clean hand. He looked at it in a deeply confused way for several seconds and only when she started to get up without his help did he understand enough to take her hand. “Don’t touch people a lot?” she asked as he helped her up to her feet.
            The boy’s hand felt the skin on hers for a moment. “Touching is—inappropriate and, uh, illegal on some level.” He let go and looked nervously at her.
            “That is the one of the single stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” Laura told him and then felt some kind of alarm go off in her mind that didn’t quite reach anything. “Who doesn’t want to be touched?” She looked around at the room and understood exactly where she was instantaneously. “Why the hell am I in a museum?” Other questions began spreading out through her mind but they didn’t quite connect to anything either. “Where are the Faction soldiers? Where is the UCLD? Where is Justin?” The last one made her heart start to beat a little faster and she looked at the boy. “Where are they?” she said.
            “Who’s Justin?” he asked.
            “A wonderful, wonderful boy who is going to marry me and all that stuff.” She smiled for a second and then turned her whole body to face him. “Where is the UCLD? The Faction?” He just stared at her blankly. “You do know what the United Countries Law Division is, don’t you?”
            “I don’t but it sounds vaguely familiar.”
            Laura laughed, threw her arms around his neck and hugged him tightly. He was so surprised by that, so much so he seemed incapable of moving for several dumbfounded minutes, and then he realized he was supposed to hug her back. When she was done she leaned back and saw a weird arm bracer computer the likes of which she had never seen before and a robot that looked incredibly old and in very bad condition.
            “What happened to that poor robot?” she asked.
            “Oh, uh—” he swallowed and looked nervously at her for a moment “—James Jock nearly knocked his head off and Reggie Gurne nearly pulled his arm off.”
            “They sound like a couple of assholes,” Laura replied with a laugh and she stepped back, untied her hair with her clean hand, and shook it, still moist and hanging around in heavy locks. “I feel so damn lightheaded. I can’t exactly think or—not talk out loud.” She couldn’t even control her thoughts even. Her mind spun around and she seemed to be able to sense all the important things needing to be done or say but none were remotely graspable.
            “You were asleep in there,” said the boy.
            Laura moved one long, platinum lock of hair out from over her left eye and faced him. “That—” her mind went blank for several seconds “—is what a cryopod is for?” She felt stupid for saying that but couldn’t quite grasp why. She held out her clean hand and said, “Laura Adler.” He looked further confused and then she was confused when he pushed out his palm with his fingers first almost as if reaching and then made small waves with his hand. “That’s not how you’re supposed to shake hands.”
            Laura took his hand in hers and she felt his hands shaking nervously. “My name is Matthew Michener,” he said nervously and then thought about it for a moment. “The United something something—something else are—they’re ancient history, I think. You didn’t know them, did you?”
            “I’m afraid I did,” Laura replied and kissed him in the cheek. “Thank you, Matt.”
            Matthew smiled, turned bright red and nodded nervously.
            Laura smiled pleasantly, shook out her dirty hand and she looked around. Soreness was coming over her but that didn’t surprise her. She would have been pretty surprised if cryogenic freezing didn’t make her at least a little stiff. “What now?” she asked out loud. She still couldn’t think and the fact that it wasn’t going away quickly was starting to really worry her although she couldn’t think well enough figure out why. “I should do something but what?” Her eyes caught onto a really bad picture and she turned to face it.
            Matthew looked at her back and then jumped away so suddenly he nearly went flying over the bench he had been sitting on. “What in the name of Teal is that?” he shrieked.
            “Oh that,” said Laura as she felt the bio blocker on the back of her neck carefully with the tips of her fingers. “I forgot about that.”
            “How in the Name of the President did you forget about that?” he cried.
            “It’s been on for a while,” she replied and turned to him. “Do you have a bathroom?”
            “You need a bath?”’
            An actual bath with real water sounded wondrous to Laura after all the months she spent in that facility. “Yes but for now I just need a lavatory. Preferably one with real toilets.”
            Matthew grinned at her and she realized he wasn’t as weak as she initially took him for. “Alright,” he told her. “Follow me.” He quickly grabbed his things, which consisted only of a sketch pad and utensils, dumped them into a satchel, and then tossed a mostly eaten apple out in a black waste basket as near the doorway he led her out of. Laura watched him walking ahead of her and giving her cryochamber a long, steady stare that seemed half mystified, half worried and then continued onward.
            Behind him that funny little robot mimicked Matthew awkwardly. It was a definite curiosity but Laura couldn’t puzzle any part of it out and instead followed Matthew blindly. She turned from him and his robot and raised her eyes upward as they were leaving the walkway and saw levels of wall connected horizontal walkways above them in the dark space.
            “There’s nothing up there,” Matthew told her absently. “It was for additional art no one ever created.” There was a kind of bitterness in his voice but Laura didn’t pursue it. She simply stared around her as she was led through more of the museum where every exhibit she saw filled her with an increasing level of disappointment.
            It was the single worst museum she had ever been into and she had been in a lot. The art that could maybe could be considered art was subpar the very best, utterly uninteresting, and reminiscent of what her father used to call “successful junk art” but without any of the passion. Everything was also way, way too green and she was certain that her confusion with that had nothing to do with her mind being foggy. The walls were green, the frames were green, and in anywhere there was carpet, the carpet was green, and the black ceiling and tiles seemed to make that green even more green somehow.
            Matthew led her to a pair of doors near a staircase one of which had the male symbol, the circle with the diagonal arrow, and the female symbol, the circle with a cross underneath it, both on black doors set white over shining green plates. The female symbol made Laura think of Andrea Finch who was incredibly sexist but no one said so because anytime she complained she claimed minority status as a gay woman and hid behind the symbol that still made women think of Susan B. Anthony and Gloria Steinman’s sorts of women even though that sort had been long gone.
            Laura had been genuinely offended by Finch the one time she heard her speak and she remembered thinking that if she had a white, heterosexual male disliking women in a like manner as she did men she would have been reviled as a racist, sexist pig and be hated the world over for it.
            Laura pushed open the female door and groaned at the sight of an even greener bathroom. The stalls were light green, the floor was dark green, the ceiling was pale green, the walls the a lighter pale green, and the counters were a dark green that was almost black, with knobs of fake emerald-like design with matching color, and when Laura pressed the light green soap dispenser button the soap that came out was leprechaun green.
            She washed her hands and face and waited for several minutes to realize they weren’t actual nanoprobes but actual, wonderful, real soap. She smiled, used the ugly fake-emerald knobs and enjoyed the feeling of warm water as it poured down onto her hands. She grinned, took her time cleaning off her face and hands, wiped them dry with a yellow-green towel, and turned to find a woman standing at the entrance staring at her.
            She was clearly a woman of wealth and privilege, possibly a trophy wife, wearing a robe that marginally more resembled a dress without losing its robe-like quality in the same multiple layer like Matthews had. It tightened around the stomach too with a white belt, had something like a white scarf at the neck, and spread out wide below the waist. There was a matching fancy hat with a white band, a fanciful green feather sticking out of it, matching dark green gloves with various rings containing only emeralds set within and a golden sash with a series of gold medals on them resting across her body like a beauty pageant winner. Somewhere in all that green Laura spotted a pretty face with dark hair tied behind her head in an elegant conservative manner and two narrow, blue eyes locked onto hers with eyeliner that made them pop out on her face like two sapphires in a field of green.
            Laura tried to slip around her but the woman sideways stepped in front of her. “Excuse me,” Laura told her and when she tried to step around her again the woman again sidestepped in front of her. “Is there a problem, lady?” asked Laura as she looked into her eyes.
            She felt a sense of shock somewhere in her foggy mind. The woman was in her thirties but she was acting very much like a high school girl or maybe even younger.
            If she was afraid she did not show it. “Some people,” the woman said as she looked her over, “Don’t have the class to dress properly.”
            “If you say so,” Laura replied. She wasn’t the first woman to snootily dislike her style of clothing but something about the way she spoke, something about her look, was cause for thought but, of course, no thought connected to it in her brain. Laura thought, as much as thought could be achieved, that it had something to do with her age. “Look, lady, I’ve been wearing these clothes for at least three months straight—”
            “Where is your robot?” she asked in a guttural hiss. “I saw no mimic outside so where is yours.”
            “I don’t have a robot,” she replied. “I do have an AIC but she’s in my body right now. What do you care?”
            “It is illegal not to have a robot as you well know and I can’t use my robot to punish your rudeness without one, stupid.”
            “Are you for real?” Laura felt sort of stupefied by the woman’s aggressiveness. The woman was not afraid of her and dead set on bullying her but why? A thirty-something year old woman trying to bully her in a bathroom like they were in junior high made no sense. Laura couldn’t think but she felt certain no answer would have come to her even if she could have. “Whatever.” Laura pushed her aside, ignoring the gasp of shock it created, and stepped outside where Matthew was waiting for her.
            “Did something happen in there?” he asked and looked nervously at the door before he started walking.
            “There was some bitch in there but whatever,” she replied and looked back at the unopened door and the sleek, fancy feminine green robot with a white horizontal stripe through its center and arms standing beside it. “She was going to have her robot—” she blinked “—do something.” She looked at him. “What could she have her robot do exactly?”
            Matthew looked back once more himself, the woman still not out, and then turned a corner. “When we get angry at each other we have our robots fight.”
            “How will that solve anything?” asked Laura. “The person with the best robot would always win and the game would always be rigged in their favor.” There was something deeply wrong with that which was why she said it but it was yet again, and unsurprisingly, still unreachable. It had something to do with bullying and something to do with her concept of righteousness. She was sure of at least that much.
            “Yes,” Matthew agreed. “The people with the most money can afford the best robots and therefore they win every confrontation.”
            “That’s stupid,” Laura said and then followed Matthew down a flight of zigzagging stairs. She rubbed her temples, trying to grasp the significance of everything but it wasn’t coming. Why can’t I think? There is something wrong and I can’t figure it out! Laura hated being unable to control her thoughts so much she wanted to scream.
            “What is that thing on your neck?”
            “It’s a bio blocker,” she replied. “It keeps my bio armor inside of me.”
            “It’s—some kind of insect, then?”
            “Not at all,” she replied as they stepped out from the bottom stairwell into a room with a door on the left that lead downward into a basement, presumably, and an open hallway ahead of them leading into a lobby’s right side. To Laura’s direct right was a large window that from where she stood she could see out through heavy rain across a well maintained law to a city street where green hover cars, all looking like large blocks, were hovering along with engines she instantly knew made them incapable of racing. People with robes also walked the street carrying umbrellas, robots mimicking them from behind pretending to hold an umbrella up above themselves as opposed to actually holding it above their owners.
            “Matthew,” said Laura softly as she walked up to window and listened to the sound of rain. “Where the hell am I?”
            “You’re in the Greenlands,” he told her. “This is the city of Aberdeen.”
            Laura knew little of Greenland except that it was supposed to be incredibly cold. The Faction took them over but she had never been assigned there nor cared ever to visit it. Still, she sensed something was off in what Matthew was saying, the “s” she decided without thinking, and felt hopeful that her mind was starting to get back into a healthy condition. “Where is America from her?”
            “I don’t know what America is.”
            Laura turned her head without moving her body. “You’re fucking with me.” He blinked in shock. “You don’t know what America is…” Her voice was a whisper and, no matter how foggy her head was, she could not miss how incredibly odd that statement was. Who didn’t know what America was? Everyone knew what America, England and most of the major countries were.
            “We need to go,” he told her.
            “How can you not know what America is?” she asked him and looked back at the strange street. Alarms were going off in her head but nothing was getting in, nothing at all, and she wanted to scream all over again.
            “We’re told from our youngest age that the world is impure and uncivilized and we’re better off not thinking or knowing anything about it.” He sounded bitter when he spoke and while he clearly did not believe any of that Laura knew the woman in the bathroom did. It meant something but Laura couldn’t figure out what it was.
            Laura turned around, and touched his arm gently to get his full attention. “You haven’t seen any other pods around here, have you? Specifically, one that contained a beautiful boy about my age with black hair and blue eyes. He’s—beautiful and wonderful and perfect and, uh, kind of a geek.”
            He sighed and moved up to the window beside her, his robot following after. “No, I’m sorry,” he said sadly.
            Laura nodded somberly. She knew full well the chances of the two of them waking up next to each other would have been incredibly unlikely and if Jackson had his way Justin would be dead or worse. She needed her confident, Dylan, and the thought of her AIC made her reach under her hair and touch the bio blocker with the tips of her fingers again. “You don’t happen to know a good doctor, do you?”
            “Yes, I actually do,” he said with a sudden smile. “I can lead you right to him.”
            “Thanks. I appreciate it.”
            Matthew nodded and then led her down into the lobby. He looked back at her in a strange, sad way that firmly reminded her to stop being so flirty. She liked him, he was sweet and even kind of cute, but she was engaged to another and to flirt was to mislead. She found she could not, for God only knew what reason, stop herself. It would go no farther, she wasn’t that out of control, but she was giving him the wrong impression for which she knew was going to end badly.
            She found herself remembering the men she loved in her past. Her father, of course, the first and the most purely, her cousin Bradley, the second who had instilled the love of racing, the third her best friend’s boyfriend Tom Bennett in concept, if not in actuality, the most beautiful man she had ever known until she found Justin at the end, and Justin himself who was special because, unlike Tom, she loved him more than the idea of him and he loved her back. Just thinking about them in that depressing museum made her feel the loss of them all the more intensely, her father most of all.
            Bernard Adler had always been a serious museum lover who had instilled his great love of art in his daughter before he had died. In those wonderful, olden days the two of them had gone all over Washington looking over the unique art and eating at unique restaurants enjoying the state. One of their favorites had always been the Marievelle Museum of Art in their home city of Olympia and a regular tradition of visiting that particular museum and eating at Franklin Bar and Grill afterward on the Saturday on the first week of every month. They had a kind of rotating art exhibit from other local museums and he had been so popular there that he had known all the employees on the first name basis and they had liked him back so much that most of them had come to his funeral. Laura distinctively remembered the teenage girl who sold the entry tickets had been crying.
            She remembered he always made sure to take her somewhere she wanted to go too. It was never only about him, not even when she was too young to know what she wanted. He was like that with everyone and everyone loved him for it. Even her mother who did not seem to love anyway.
            The upper level lobby, which she had vomited down into, had a series of tables for people to sit down at all which had all been vacated probably because of her. Beyond it, in the direction to Laura’s right, a flight of small stairs extended down to a lower level lobby near the entrance where a large group of people in green with gold sashes were huddled together whispering and staring.
            When Laura met their eyes their noses turned upward, identical in their egotism in almost every way the woman in the bathroom had been, and they turned from her gaze as if she was utterly unworthy of their glances.
            Like spoiled children, her mind thought. She couldn’t quite mentally grasp why that particular description came to her so strongly but it felt right and even pure. They did not seem to dislike her in the snobby way adults did or even the way mature children did and it was offsetting at the very least. That woman in the bathroom was clearly not unique in her odd immaturity and something about its obviousness was bad in of itself as well but the why was very elusive. It made no sense to Laura.
            “Good,” Matthew told her. “The politicians are gone.” A young man their age suddenly appeared from around a corner before she replied wearing a huge smile on what Laura instinctively thought of as a very stupid, very bratty face.
            “What do you think you’re doing?” asked the boy with an overly strong emphasis on the word “you’re.”
            “Nothing, Reggie.” Reggie’s pristine green robot backed up and Laura could see that he was controlling it with that bracer shaped computer, his eyes narrowing in spiteful focus she knew all too well. “Please don’t do that, Reggie.” Matthew moved himself in front of his robot with a worried expression. “Reggie—”
            Laura walked over and pushed Reggie’s robot over with her right hand. It tilted over, fell to the ground and landed with a loud clunk that made everyone in the room jump except for her. Reggie stared at it with huge, wide eyes filled with an absurd level of dumbstruck shock. “You—” he could not seem to believe what was happening and his head shook with the surprise of it “—y-y-you touched my mimic!” He almost wailed that last part he was so unnerved by it.
            “I really don’t the time or energy for this kind of bullshit, rich boy,” Laura told him. “I’ve had a really bad few months and no fucking patience left. Get out of our goddamn way before I beat your ass into the ground.”
            “I will not!” Laura gave him a hard look into the eyes, fully and perfectly ready to slap him across the face, and he sensed it enough to step back away from her. “You’ll be sorry you did that! I will tell my father!”
            “Oh you will, will you?” She laughed. “What are you, five?” Laura shook her head in disgust and continued walking without another word and Matthew followed a moment after with a stunned look of surprise. His robot came last, awkwardly mimicking its master’s nervous gait.
            “How did you do that?” asked Matthew when they were away from him, the entire crowd of green people scooting across the room all the way to the wall as she went walking by even though she was passing nowhere near them. “He was scared of y—”
            An older stepped in front of the double exit doors in exactly the same way with the exact same expression as Reggie had just as they reached it. He was in his mid to late forties or maybe early fifties with dark brown hair turning gray at the sides wearing three gold sashes covered in an insane amount of medals that covered almost every inch of his robes. He looked to Laura as both ridiculous and overcompensating. His robot did little to change that being far more foreboding than the others, inches taller and wider in that sense of over compensation, and it looked stupid standing in the exact same stupid posturing position he was.
            There was not even a hint of the maturity that should have been possessed by a man in his years.
            “This is Jock,” said Matthew as he stepped nervously in front of his robot again.
            “Is his last name, Strap?” Laura let out a laugh but no one got it so she stopped. “Okay, what are you doing?” she asked when she saw Matthew was quickly moving a joystick thing manually into his palm from his computer’s bottom forearm area.
            “I need to be ready in case he wants to hurt my mimic,” said Matthew.
            “Oh so you doooo want to fight, do you?” asked Jock with a bright spoiled boy smile and pressed a button on his arm computer that sent his joystick automatically and smoothly into his hand. He was grinning at Matthew for a bit then turned, seemed to have seen Laura for the first time, and his eyes went wide. “By the President Himself, you are a woman!”
            Laura rubbed the bridge of his nose with her right hand’s fingers and felt tired. “Well congratulations on your amazing ability to grasp basic human anatomy,” she replied and then lowered her hand and looked at him as if genuinely curious. “Oh wait, I understand. You’ve never been this close to a woman before.”
            Matthew laughed and so did several others, despite the fact it was one of her worst joke responses ever. Jock gave Matthew look she recognized, a look that meant he was going to come after Matthew at some later date, and then he turned back to Laura. “Do I know you, Yellow-Hair? You seem familiar?”
            “I’m platinum blond, Einstein,” she replied.
            “Uh-huh,” he replied indifferently as he looked over her body shamelessly. When he raised his eyes he had a “how could I miss this” look in his eyes. “I should know you,” he said. “A girl with your body could get the best man around and we know who that is.” He blinked a few times. “Where is your mimic, Yellow-Hair? You answer me right now.”
            “I have an AIC but she’s A.W.O.L.” Laura felt her neck crap a bit as she tilted her head around and then sighed. “Tell me you’re not actually serious about that best man crap?” She knew he was but it was so stupid she doubted what she believed.
            “I want you naked,” he told her softly.
            Laura blinked several times in surprise. “What?”’
            “You are way too attractive to be seen wandering around with this so-called artist. I expect you know your way around a man’s—”
            “I’m about to rip off a man’s—” Laura’s eyes narrowed into slits and she squeezed her hands tightly into to fists to keep her rage down. She was usually quite good at doing that but cryosleep seemed to have taken almost as much of her self-control away as it did her mental aptitude. “Just let us pass, will you?”
            “You have broken a grand many laws, young woman,” stated Jock. “I will speak privately to you about it after I deal with Michener here. Perhaps we can come to some unconventional ways to pay for your cruel indecency and the unjust way you have just spoken to me.”
            “Are you for real? Like, seriously? If this is a joke and you people are really not this immature you let me known now because it is not funny.” She was starting find his earnest seriousness in his offensive flirtation more dumbfounding than angering. Such an approach would have failed on any woman short of a true slut or a prostitute and he should have known that.
            Matthew was as insulted as she should have been. “That is incredibly indecent of even you!” he told Jock. “And do you not recognize her?” Jock just stared at him. “Are you stupid or something? Look at her!”
            Jock was so offended and outraged by what Matthew had said that his lips quivered. “How dare you?” he cried and moved his arm controller to make his robot’s powerful right hand form a fist over its head that on impact would almost certainly obliterate Matthew’s smaller and much more poorly conditioned robot.
            But it stopped very suddenly before it could.           
            Jock looked down at his right arm and he began to shake with horror. Laura had just reached over, grabbed his hand, and pressed the red button on his arm computer casually. It was exactly what she thought it was, a power button, but what it also did was seem to shake Jock to the core of himself. “Y-you touched my c-controller!” he whimpered in a high pitched, creepily childish way. “You—you touched me!”
            “Isn’t that what you wanted?” she replied jokingly.
            “I’ll show what I wanted—” he cut himself short and pretended, badly, to stumble and tried to grab onto her breasts to catch himself. It was so obvious Laura would have seen it coming drunk and it was so juvenile and pathetic it wasn’t even laughable. In fact, she honestly didn’t believe what she was seeing until his fingers touched her left breast.
            Laura grabbed his wrist, twisted it in the military method she was trained in, and Jock was suddenly on his knees crying like a spoiled five year old girl who had just lost her favorite doll and Laura ought to have known what that looked like. She had once seen a doll stolen from a spoiled five year old girl by a Faction soldier. “My hand!” he shrieked. “You’re hurting my hand!” Tears ran down his eyes like two leaks in a dam. “Oh by the President of the Great Teal let me go! Oh please, please, please let me go!”
            Laura looked over at Matthew to see that while he was shocked by what he was seeing she somehow sensed it wasn’t Jock’s behavior that created that shock. When it soon wore out he looked, if anything, deeply sad with some vague amusement mixed in.
            “You let me go, you violencer you!” The word “violencer” was filled with such contempt, hate and power that the entire crowd of people from the lobby all gasped. Matthew winced a bit but that was all.
            Laura blinked. “Violencer—”
            “You touched me!” shrieked Jock.
            Matthew stepped forward and said, “You asked her to touch you—”
            “No I didn’t!” he squeaked and Laura sensed that he was the kind of person who could make that stick in his mind. He could tell himself anything he wanted and he would, in time and provided he knew the lie couldn’t get him hurt, come to believe it as much as another man might believe in gravity.
            “You touched her first against her will,” replied Matthew. “You violated the Touch-Law and was trying to hide it with a pathetic fake fall—”
            “No I didn’t!” he squeaked again.
            “I saw you—”
            “YOU SAW NOTHING!” he shrieked at the top of his voice and from behind Laura saw every single viewer who could not have mistaken what he was doing for anything but what it was, all agreeing and nodding as if he spoke a gospel truth.
            Laura could not believe what she was seeing. It was not that he was acting like a child, that no longer came as a surprise, but that he was screaming in earnest agony and she was not even close to hurting him. It hurt a little, yes, but mostly because he was panicking and pulling against her while she wasn’t letting go. Even then it was still about like getting one’s knees scraped or being lightly slapped, maybe, possibly, a sore wrist but the way he had fallen onto his knees and whimpered one would think she had just snapped all the bones in his wrist and squeezing them.
            “Let me go!” he cried. “Oh please, please, pleeeeeeease let me go!”
            Laura sighed. “Jock,” she said, “My knowledge of Greenland is very limited but I can’t help but feel that average Greenland man should be more of a man than whatever I see before.”
            “Let me go! Let me gooooo!” Laura was about to say something more when Jock cried out, “Oh dear President, no, I’ve wet myself! She’s killing me! KIIIIILLING ME!”
            She looked down, saw the pool forming at his feet, and that was when she let go. Jock threw himself back across a lobby along the exit wall as if he was dodging bullet fire, scrambled into the nearby office on the perpendicular wall, and slammed the door shut as hard as he could. Laura could only stare in a dumbstruck shock that did not seem to have an end in sight.
            Once safe behind walls his head appeared in the door’s window. “You’ll be sorry!” he cried through the pane of glass. “I’ll call the sheriff and you’ll be sorry!”
            “Wow,” Laura said as she stepped away from the small pool of liquid Jock left behind. “That—was really easy.” Jock had been so scared of that grip that had even forgotten his robot which remained in the same exact place in the same exact prepared punch ready position.
            Everyone was staring at her like she had just grown a second head. Someone squeaked in a way that might have been a laugh and then Matthew did laugh. It was a strange laugh, a surprised laugh, and he said, “And he was a war hero too.” There was an edge of hysteria to his laughter but he got it under control quickly.
            “I’ll get you for this, Michener!” cried Jock from the other side of the door. “I’ll get you!”
            “What did I do?” asked Matthew earnestly.
            “It doesn’t matter,” said Laura as she stepped around the puddle toward the door. “He’s a bully and he doesn’t have the balls to come after me.” She gently pushed open the doors to reveal the heavily rain drenched streets before them. “That marsh mellow couldn’t handle being breathed on but he wants to prove otherwise so he’s using you.”
            She stepped out into the world and felt the beautiful rainy chill flow through her. A better look at the buildings from the outside told her that they were as square as the cars and almost as boring and identical as building blocks. She could almost imagine herself shrunk into a Lego village where every color was lost except green and black and that made her laugh for some reason.
            Laura shut her eyes, took one step forward out from under the lip of the museum entrance, and felt the water come down over her. She had felt it last in the Reclamation Facility but since there were no longer any Faction people to stop her from enjoying it she held out her arms and let herself get lost in it.

 

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