by Nathan Knaack
Steven made a conscious effort to awaken several minutes before his alarm sounded every morning, creeping out of bed as quietly as he could to peer out the window at the street a few stories below. The immaculately cleaned road had never suffered an automobile on its surface, as most of the traffic in Commonwealth Prime was airborne, clogging the skies above the incredible city in a perpetual jam of personal vehicles, public transportation, and security patrols. Ground level was reserved for pedestrians, with narrow walkways punctuated by neatly trimmed gardens and every imaginable shape of abstract sculpture. Thick nationalist banners hung from so high up on each towering skyscraper that the morning haze would obstruct their origins, making it appear that they hung from the clouds themselves, unfurling to broadcast their message of loyalty and pride. Steven wasn’t interested in any of that, not the cleanliness and beauty of the metropolis, or the eerie complacency and ruthless efficiency of each passersby. All he cared to see was the single hovering garbage collection drone that would visit the intersection just below his window every morning, a few minutes before his assigned duties began.
Crouching next to the window, the seventeen-year-old gently touched its interior surface, which caused the opaque shade to slowly give way to a transparent view of the street below. There were very few people out that early in the morning, mainly those assigned to an exercise route or maintenance androids. Always wary that someone might look up to his level and see him watching, Steven wondered if anyone would know or care that he was up before his assigned time. On one hand, most citizens of the Commonwealth were entirely self-absorbed, caring only for their prescribed duties, but on the other hand, the draconian guidelines that kept the city functioning required the immediate reporting of anything out of order. Not about to take any chances for his singular guilty pleasure, Steven exposed only enough of his face so that he could clearly see the street corner.
Right on cue, as though it needed him to be watching in order to occur, the hovering trash collection vehicle rumbled into view a few stories above, coming around the corner between buildings suspended on four massive fans that labored to keep it afloat. It was one of the older model vehicles still active in the city, not really vital to transportation or defense, and therefore low on a perpetually growing list of assets to be updated or replaced. The cranky old barge got the job done, and as long as that’s what the paperwork supporting it said back at a main office somewhere in the city, the entranced official that shuffled those papers around would remain content. One would have to look very closely anywhere else in Commonwealth Prime to see rust streaks, loose panels, and rattling motors, but Steven delighted in watching something continue to function with all of those afflictions on a daily basis. He pressed his nose to the glass so as not to miss a second of the performance.
The truck wobbled over the street about five meters high, then turned slowly as it neared the intersection, overcompensating for a clanking rotor and finally reaching an angle that would allow it to land without crushing any of the identical trees. Settling onto the concrete as gently as it could, Steven could feel the dull thumping of the landing gear through the window, which brought a smile to his face for a reason he couldn’t quite explain. The joggers and laboring robots moving about in the pre-dawn light simply altered their paths to go around the vehicle as though it had always been there, or perhaps as though they had already determined where they needed to go just in case anything happened to land right there. When its weight had settled, the engines powered down and, for a brief moment, serenity returned to the intersection.
Leaning forward onto the balls of his feet, Steven pushed up the sleeves of his grey sleep suit, eagerly anticipating what he knew would happen next: The side door of the blocky craft opened slowly on creaking hinges, allowing a crude humanoid robot to step out awkwardly. It was a much older model than the ones a citizen could see every day staffing a food station or supply depot, made from opaque and weathered components instead of the slightly translucent and illuminated materials used in the androids that were designed to be more appealing to the eye. Its joints weren’t at all concealed like the newer models, but its face was an emotionless mask of rigid plates and eerily glowing yellow eyes that in no way responded to prompts from nearby humans or other automatons.
No sooner had its feet hit the ground than the robot moved quickly around the garbage truck towards the intersection’s single disposal bin, which hadn’t once been completely filled in all of the years that Steven had lived in the youth crèche on the third floor there. Perhaps it was the close proximity to one of the industrial sectors of the city or more the result of the lack of any real garbage to fill the receptacle, but it always surprised him that such a superfluous task had been religiously completed every single day for as long as anyone he knew could remember. However, that wasn’t why Steven watched every day. It wasn’t the execution, the process, or the result of garbage collection that fascinated him. It was a specific moment during the ordeal, right when the robot approached the refuse bin to pick it up, when it had to make a short ascent over the curb, which stood at a height of no more than ten or fifteen centimeters.
The robot neared the curb and raised a foot to step up over it, but caught itself by the toe and stumbled. It prevented itself from falling by reaching out and grabbing the side of the hover truck, looking down to reevaluate what it needed to do to circumvent the obstacle. Panning slowly to either side of the step, it locked onto a shallow ramp that provided easier access for rolling conveyances just a few meters to the right. Turning and moving in that direction, the robot went about twenty seconds out of its way to use the ramp instead of simply raising its foot a few centimeters higher to overcome the curb. Steven smiled so widely from his window that he honestly thought someone might catch the glare off of his teeth and report him for being out of bed before his designated hour. It was worth it every morning, though, for it always happened the exact same way. The obsolete garbage truck and the idiot robot always made him feel better somehow, gave him the strength and patience to face each day in the monotonous and unchanging city of Commonwealth Prime.
* * *
Later that day, otherwise just as unremarkable as every other day Steven had experienced growing up in the city, something different happened. Sitting there in the educational pod, it wasn’t altogether uncommon for the instructor to pass by behind a student and pause for a moment to observe what he or she was doing on the secondary monitor. Steven was one of the brighter students in his echelon, so he rarely suffered the personal attention of the professor, but that day it seemed like CED 14 Brighton was paying an inordinate amount of attention to all of the students, not just the ones struggling with the lesson.
As he traced out geometric patterns with an acute stylus, according to the computer’s requests for mimicry of displayed shapes, Steven glanced over his shoulder a few times to see not only Brighton but an assistant he had never seen before moving anxiously behind each pod, exchanging glances every now and then. The assistant was a shorter man with a well-kept Commonwealth Educational Division jumpsuit, somewhat different from the broken in old outfit that the professor wore. The data pad tucked under his arm was receiving dictation from the head-mounted microphone perched just before his mouth, recording his every word, which apparently had something to do with the female student they were both observing.
Steven knew her as Citizen 3 Valmont, a redheaded girl probably six months younger than he. She had been in a few of his classes, but he hadn’t taken much notice of her; sexual education wasn’t scheduled for his age group for another five semesters. The two instructors hovering over her pod seemed to be much more interested, whispering to each other as they intently watched her toil at the same lesson he had nearly completed. Frowning as he turned back to put the finishing touches on his pattern, Steven felt a tinge of jealousy; why would they be so impressed by her work if he was already done? He double-checked his project to ensure that he had exactly copied the image, growing even more frustrated when he found no errors.
“CED Fourteen Brighton,” he blurted, turning halfway in his chair and raising his hand. When both instructor and assistant had looked over in his direction, he continued, “I’ve completed the lesson.” The two older men exchanged glances briefly, then walked over to Steven’s pod together, standing on opposite sides of him.
Brighton spoke first in a hushed voice, “Citizen Four Lesuvo, you were told to complete the exercise and then wait for the rest of the class quietly.” When Steven looked over at the assistant, he added, “This is CED Twelve Markov. He is observing our class today.” Markov nodded after his introduction, then brought his data pad out and began tapping on it.
“Apologies, CED Fourteen Brighton,” Steven whispered, “but I seem to finish all of my lessons before everyone else.”
Markov stopped tapping and peered over the top edge of his pad at Brighton, who stiffened noticeably before responding. “It is highly irregular, Citizen.” He scratched the back of his neck and repeated, “highly irregular.”
Sensing his colleague’s uneasiness, Markov interjected, “Steven, do you enjoy your lessons here at the youth crèche?”
“I understand their relevance to my education,” he replied before the realization set in that the assistant had used his first name to address him. Swiveling in his chair to face Markov, he added, “but I abhor the repetition, sir.”
Taking the signal, Brighton nodded to Markov and went about surveying the other students, none of whom were watching the exchange. Reaching out and touching the student on the shoulder, Markov leaned in and smiled, whispering, “Come with me. I have something very important to discuss with you.”
* * *
The instructor’s office was a bland cube of white walls, a single door, and a desk so uncluttered that it appeared no one had ever before used the room for anything but brief, uncomfortable interviews. Markov walked around the desk and seated himself, motioning for Steven to do likewise. When the door whistled closed behind them, the older man inhaled to speak but the student cut him off. “I didn’t mean to disrupt the classroom or begrudge my lesson, CED Twelve Markov.”
Waving a hand dismissively, Markov also interrupted, “Stop.” Steven sat back in his chair and waited for what he surely thought would be a reprimand and stern chastising on the importance of a good Commonwealth education. The older man removed his head-mounted microphone and set it down out of the way. “My name is GCED Thirty-Two Markov, but I’d like for you to call me Markov in private like this, Steven, when other citizens aren’t listening.”
Hitting him like a thunderbolt, he finally started piecing together what had been going on all day. Markov was a high-ranking member of the Global Counter Espionage Department, an elite branch of Commonwealth law enforcement that regulated covert activity around the world. Most citizens didn’t even know it existed. “What do you…”
“Want with a student?” Markov smiled and stood up and sat casually on the corner of the desk. “You’ve noticed that you’re somewhat different from the other students, from everyone else your age, right Steven?”
“You keep calling me that, I-“
“It is your name, is it not?”
His throat was dry, making his voice waver uneasily, “Only the matron back at the dorm calls us by our first names.”
Frowning, Markov rolled his head back to look up at the ceiling lights, “We’ll have to make a note of that, thank you.” Reasserting himself to the young man, he continued, “Steven, have you noticed that you’re different from other citizens?”
Not knowing how to respond, he ventured, “Yes, somewhat different. I mean, not entirely. I obey the doctrine, I sanitize regularly, and I love the Commonwealth.” Unsure as to whether or not he had provided the right answer, he waited through a few excruciating moments of silence.
Markov suddenly belted out a hearty laugh, a rolling display of mirth that made Steven jump upright in his chair with surprise. He continued for what seemed like forever before drying his eyes and clapping the student on the shoulder, “Quoted right from the plaque near the door of this very building, excellent!” He chuckled for another few seconds before sitting back down in his chair and tossing his data pad onto the table. “I want you to look at this, Steven.”
The digital readout displayed what appeared to be a security camera feed replaying a loop of about five seconds worth of footage. It panned quickly from left to right across a street corner scene somewhere in Commonwealth Prime, a busy district with at least fifty citizens and robots visible. Shadows passed quickly overhead as hover vehicles raced above the pedestrian traffic, security forces marched in unison, and the bland uniforms of the citizenry made them blend together to form one flowing mass of people, like an enormous blanket with numerous individual legs.
Steven studied the video for three loops of the feed, then looked up at Markov expectantly, “What am I looking for?”
Markov leaned back and clasped his hands behind his head, “You tell me.”
The younger man tilted his head slightly in confusion, then answered without looking back down at the data pad, his eyes locked onto Markov’s the entire time, “There is a flicker in the northwest street lamp, two citizens are wearing the wrong day’s uniform, and the robot cleaning the windows of the dark gray building is missing a brush on its lower right appendage.”
Raising his eyebrows in applause, Markov leaned forward and admitted, “Nicely done, Steven, nicely done.” Something about his posture or choice of words betrayed his disappointment, though; Steven noticed it immediately and told him what he knew he wanted to hear.
“At time index 14:32:52, the man standing on the northeast street corner facing south with the dark hair and blue uniform is not a citizen.”
Markov grinned from ear to ear and snatched the data pad, inspecting it for himself and pressing his finger into the screen to pause the display at that exact moment. “How did you come to that conclusion?”
Answering flatly, Steven explained, “He stops at the street corner and looks in both directions, when any citizen would be familiar enough with the flow of ground traffic to know that every block alternates right-of-way. There is no need to stop when heading in that direction from that corner.” Markov looked up with doubt in his eyes, but Steven wasn’t finished yet, “His uniform has only one replaced button, but regulations clearly state that all buttons are to be replaced if one malfunctions. Also, his eyebrows have not been trimmed according to sanitation standards in at least a few weeks.” Stopping for a moment to make sure he didn’t overstep his bounds, he concluded, “The man is obviously not a citizen.”
Markov nodded and cleared the image before setting the tablet back down on the table. He launched into a startling dissertation, “Before you were born, Steven, your biological parents were selected to be part of a very exclusive group of loyal citizens, those with a unique combination of hereditary traits and life experiences that would make them ideal for producing… special children. For your entire life, your nutritional supplement pills have not included some of the basic… mood stabilizers that make our great civilization possible, which you have probably already noticed by now.”
“How would I-“
Continuing without hearing out the interruption, Markov went on, “For example, I know you detest the lessons you receive here at the crèche, you look for excuses to alter your routine even temporarily,” he smiled, “and you have an uncanny knack for pinpointing disorder, don’t you?”
Steven wasn’t sure if he was supposed to be excited or frightened, but something about Markov’s demeanor hinted at the former. “Yes.”
Taking a deep breath before pushing himself back from the desk, Markov stood and motioned for Steven to do the same, “You are to begin reporting to sector nine, building sixteen, floor five, room six hundred twelve from now on at eight hundred hours, do you understand?”
“Finish the rest of today’s lesson here, but tell no one of this conversation or where you are being transferred.”
“I understand, Markov.” Steven left the room and closed the door behind him, his mind overflowing with a sense of revelation, like the heavy curtain of the government had been pulled back just enough for him to see light on the other side. His entire life was about to change and he could sense it.
As soon as the door closed, Markov pulled out his personal communicator and brought it to life with the push of a button and a single high pitched beep. A voice drifted in over the connection, demanding, “Status?”
Pulling the data pad over next to him on the table, Markov activated the screen again and inspected the image. “Secondary objective completed, GCED 1 Lesuvo was successfully activated.”
“Understood and noted for promotion. The primary objective?”
Markov pushed the screen with two fingers and stretched them apart, causing the image to zoom in on the face that Steven had identified as a non-citizen. “Fugitive identity confirmed, it’s Vanik.”
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