A Question of Freedom
Maast blinked when the watch – the third stand on the right, above the bloody kitchen knife, beneath the bundle of wires he kept promising himself to sort out tomorrow, never today – started beeping uncontrollably as if possessed by real life and a rather choleric personality. 00:00 it boasted far too proudly. Too bad it was broken and it only occasionally recalled that hour much to Maast’s dismay. He blinked again. The screen in front of him was blank – now he noticed. The cigarette hanging loosely from the left corner of his mouth had long burnt out.
He stared tiredly at the screen before, with great effort, as if handling heavy machinery, he lifted one of his arms and with a still numb finger tapped on its surface lightly. He spat the cigarette bud on the floor where it joined a neat little carpet of similar friends with the exception of a few creepy black-shelled unknowns that could actually drag themselves around because they possessed a little something the cigarettes did not: life.
“Come on, don’t do this now,” he muttered half-heartedly and no sooner had he said it that the screen flickered and his yet unfinished work appeared before him like a shadow looming over him. He sighed and inspected his band-aid covered fingers. A message had been written across them in big bold letters while he was out cold. Sleep in a bed sometime, idiot. Signed simply: B. He smirked. He knew B. B stopped by sometimes. Mostly unannounced. Mostly while he was not there or whatever strange disease he had picked up made him unaware of himself for hours on end.
B for some odd reason cared that he didn’t sleep. B lived somewhere near. Possibly in the same building. The same floor. B was probably lonely. She didn’t have blackouts to keep her company. He didn’t like her as much as he tolerated her. B talked a lot. He didn’t pick up on half the things she said. She talked too fast, too much. For someone like him who avoided company so blatantly, it was hard to keep up with her. He hated the fact she gave him a sense of time. He liked days to be identical, repeatable, indistinguishable. He dealt in days when it came to his work. In so many he had to finish one thing or another. A few more and he had to pick up his payment and drop off the work. He had no sense of day or night – it was the reason he had chosen to live in the infested slums the light of the sun did not reach. Of days of the week or months or even years he had no clue – he long stopped counting those.
But lately he had found a measure of time in B. She talked about the weather and the seasons and holidays he knew of. He was regaining a sense of time and he didn’t like it. He wanted to tell B about it, but B was disheartening and she loved time and its measure far too much.
“Maast, you neurotic little ingrate!” a screen on his left suddenly clicked open and an angry voice yelled before his bearer even had a chance to fill the frame. “Where the hell have you been?! I’ve been trying to reach you for hours, but every wire connected to that sorry ass outdated computer of yours is in silent mode.”
“Sorry about that. Whenever my vital signs indicate that I’m…” he considered being honest for a moment and telling him the truth, but wondered whether Lau wouldn’t simply deem him unusable and search for help elsewhere if he did – although it was quite possible he would not be able to find another helper quite as accommodating and non-ambitious as Maast. “Asleep,” he decided a lie was the safer way to go. “Everything follows my example. It’s very considerate that way.”
“Of all the rotten things…” Lau sighed and running a hand through his perfectly combed hair, added: “You’re going to get me thrown out one day and then where would we both be?”
“I assume I’d still be here,” he replied and held back a smile. “As for you…well, I heard there’s a vacancy down the hall. It’s not very roomy, but…”
“Don’t even joke about things like that,” Lau was instantly horrified at the thought. The reason he never considered looking for Maast in person – even if it was something urgent – was because he would have had to travel beneath level 21 to reach him. Just his presence there would have been enough to discredit his good name.
“Fine, fine, I’ll meet you up by the Level 22 access gate in four hours,” Maast said dismissively and the connection was cut off before Lau had a chance to complain. He leaned his head in one hand and sighed heavily. He didn’t feel like doing the work. He didn’t feel like doing anything really. Not even sit there and stare blankly at the screen. He acknowledged somewhere at the back of his head that the current situation was his fault entirely. He was the one who had made Lau depend on him to such an extent. While Lau himself might not have seen it that way, he knew better. At that time, he had felt a thrilling sensation at the thought his work alone would decide Lau’s fate and position in society. He liked to torture him sometimes by intentionally inserting errors into his work and listened gleefully when Lau told him he was scolded by his superiors. Lau was never very kind to him in school. Lau deserved to be punished occasionally.
Work consisted of writing programs based on prerequisite data clusters. Sometimes he could have sworn he was doing warehouse inventories, other times that he was planning a war, moving satellites around or fixing the weather.
“How odd, it rained today, out of the blue. Clock turned to 12 and off it went,” B once told him on a day when Lau had turned in a project called R-MS-12PM. Rain, moderate shower at noon. Maast knew how to set weather patterns now because Lau was an idiot who couldn’t even change the title of an assignment. Lau of course thought Maast would have no interest in such things even if he did realize it. He was right. Maast could not have cared less about the weather.
Work that day reminded him of codes he had learned to break while still in school. Beginner’s stuff. Boring as hell. No wonder he had blacked out. By the time he was done, he still had about an hour to get up to gate 22. He would never make it on time. He didn’t particularly mind though. As B pointed out to him on several occasions that week, it was winter and he enjoyed the thought of Lau freezing his ass off somewhere waiting for him.
He got up and his bones crackled like the joints of a rusty old machine that hadn’t been oiled in ages. He grabbed his coat and the chip with the program and left. Rummaging through his pockets he found a pair of gloves and an old candy wrapper.
“Oh, right,” he muttered to himself remembering the coat had once belonged to the old man that had died a few nights back due to the cold. Nothing to pay the heating with. Nobody had come to claim his belongings and his neighbors had helped themselves to them. He hadn’t been there when the vultures had raided his apartment, but B had. She had taken that coat and the gloves and had brought them to him.
“He doesn’t need them anymore and I think if I let you have your way, you’ll wind up having the same fate as him,” she had told him as she had practically forced him to try the coat on. It had fit.
He stared at the translucent candy wrapper for a moment. The old man had liked sweets. More than a kid. He remembered that. He ate whole boxes of the cheap artificial junk sold at every corner of the slums as candy. It made kids sick, but when did they ever think about that? Parents tried to stop them sometimes, but they never really could. He once asked Lau to buy a box of good chocolates – the kind that could be found only in the upper levels – for a boy that lived down the hall from him. He was happy when he got them, but after trying one, he spat it out and told him that it wasn’t real candy. He wanted the cheap kind. He liked it best and ate so much he grew two new fingers and died when his heart spurt an extra aorta. If the old man hadn’t died because of the cold, the candy would have done him in in the end. Still, Maast suspected he would have liked it better if he had died of a candy overdose. He shoved the wrapper back into his pocket and set out into the streets.
The buildings were covered in posters announcing the Mayoralty’s upcoming launch of the new spaceship prototype, the Cerberus. B had told him about it. He hadn’t expected the enthusiasm to reach all the way down to the slums though. What was it about space that made even the hopeless dream?
Lau – curled blond hair carefully tucked behind his ears, immaculate white uniform, azure tie, spotless gloves, every crease of his coat meticulously arranged – was obviously freezing his ass off, but looking regal while doing it. That was the essential difference between Maast and Lau. Maast fit the part. Lau looked it. Seeing him, Lau’s air of studied indifference melted away faster than the snow in the layers of acid clouds floating above the lower circles of hell which was what the uppers referred to Maast’s home level as.
“Is the watch I gave you broken already?” Lau was responsible for the occasional blinking 00:00 that bothered Maast’s daily routine.
“Nah, it’s working just fine,” Maast didn’t want another watch. One that could potentially work.
“Use it then,” he pressed the words, but while the insults were brimming on the surface and his lips quivered for a second as if he was going to let them out, he didn’t. Maast had strange mood swings. Maast was an occasional ass of the variety that would screw Lau over on a whim.
“Here you go. Tell the joker who came up with this crap to go back to the Academy and rethink his carrier choices. It was child’s play,” Maast told him as he held out the chip. Lau cautiously picked it up and stared at it for a moment, a frown crossing his features. Maast knew that look too well. It meant Lau had attempted to actually do the work himself first, but found it downright impossible. Sometimes, Maast felt sorry for him. It wasn’t really his fault. His mind was just not made for it like his was. He knew Lau tried hard while they were at the Academy, but nothing ever really stuck to him. His family however could not accept that and did what they thought best: pretended the problem itself didn’t exist. Something that had brought Lau directly into his current situation.
“You…you didn’t overdo it, did you?” he asked looking up at him and Maast shook his head. He never put all his heart into it because if he did, it would make Lau stand out too much. Lau’s life goal was to stay below the system’s radar and appear – at least professionally – as a normal mid-level technocrat with nothing special to offer, but that could do his work well enough not to tarnish his family’s good name.
Lau sighed rather dramatically like he always did – Maast thought he considered himself a tragic hero due to his reluctance to oppose his family’s wishes – then removed a small black box from his belt and offered it to him. Maast took it, didn’t even open it and put it inside his pocket, next to the candy wrapper. He was ready to leave. He finally felt the cold too. Piercing, demanding, like a thousand small daggers plunging into his body.
“Anything else you want?” he asked impatiently signaling his impending retreat.
“There won’t be anything for another week or so. Work’s been rather slow so…” he noticed Maast was once again staring at the ground. He always did. Lau tried to remember the last time he had seen him looking at anything above the level of his shoes and wasn’t sure whether he ever had. Immaculate white gloves reached out for Maast and long elegant fingers lifted his chin up. “Look up once in a while, will you?” he muttered in an exasperated tone and it occurred to Maast that Lau would have never touched him if he hadn’t been wearing gloves and even they seemed tainted by contact with his unshaven skin.
The first thing Maast saw when he finally looked up to humor Lau was the blinding light of the sun, the second was B’s big smiling face plastered all over giant screens floating around the city.
“Who’s that?” he asked blinking and pulling his chin out of Lau’s grasp. Lau followed his gaze not sure what he meant and when he came across the screens he looked at Maast incredulously.
“How can you not know?” he scolded him. “They’ve been searching for her for weeks now. Apparently she escaped from a high level security facility and attempted on the life of the Minister of Health. Honestly, I don’t know what world you live in,” Lau shook his head in disapproval.
“The one down under naturally,” Maast replied absent-mindedly still staring up at the screens. “What was she in for?”
“It wasn’t a prison,” he explained. “She was in a lab. She was one of those genetically manufactured embryos that survived the testing process long enough to actually be allowed to be born. People call them Bright Young Things because of the program’s name, BYT, as well as the fact they were supposedly engineered to be clever.”
“Is that so?” Maast mused, then abruptly said: “See you in a week?”
Lau made an undecipherable gesture with his hand that Maast accepted as a sign of dismissal and hopped onto the nearest service elevator heading down. It was the easiest way to travel to the slums.
When he arrived home, he felt like something was off. More than just the chipped paint on the thin walls corroded by the acid rain that occasionally spilled in from the gutters. Or the one light bulb that still worked and that gave off a much too weak a light probably signaling its own impending demise. He never contemplated the dreadful conditions he chose to live in. He never noticed the room’s dreary appearance or the way everything about it screamed misery. He blamed it on the sudden discovery of B’s identity.
It occurred to him that B never actually spoke of herself – who she was, where she came from – so he couldn’t very well call her a liar. He never did ask. She never did say. But there was still something strange about his filthy floors and silent screens. Was it because he had suddenly become aware of his surroundings after all that time? He couldn’t quite put his finger on it – years of fully ignoring his environment had made a less than keen observer out of him. Then his eyes drifted over to the watch still blinking apathetically in the dim light and the space immediately underneath it. That bloody kitchen knife. Where had it come from?
“You’re home,” B stood in the doorway, as cheerful as ever, covered from head to toe in thick synthetic wool – she couldn’t stand the cold.
“You don’t happen to know where I got that from, do you?” he pointed toward the knife and B smiled:
“You’re being awfully verbal today. Usually it’s just huh or a-ha,” she said. “But to answer your question, no, I don’t know what you could have possible done with that knife. It looks rather gruesome so I was afraid to ask. My best guess would be that you skewered a rat with it. Perhaps the one that kept chewing on your cables. Or maybe you stabbed an intruder.”
“Intruder?” he tried hard to focus and remember. He was almost certain the knife hadn’t been there the last time he had had one of his blackouts.
“Maybe someone realized you’re not all that poor – what with all the fancy computers – and tried something stupid,” she suggested.
“I don’t have a knife,” he recalled. Although there was a cramped kitchen space somewhere in the back of the room, he never used it. The few times he remembered to eat he heated up frosted food and used the plastic forks provided in the packages as cutlery. “Did you bring me a knife?” B always brought him things. Whether he wanted them or not. Like the coat he had on. Like the knife with the dried-up blood abandoned beneath the blinking light of the watch.
“Did you do something?” he asked when she grew silent. “Did you kill someone and bring the knife here?” she shook her head silently. “I know you’re being followed. I saw the wanted ads on the upper levels. I don’t care what you had to do to protect yourself, but tell me if it’s yours.”
“It is mine,” she admitted. “But I didn’t use it. You did.”
“I did,” he looked at his hands and his band-aid covered fingers. “Did I cut myself?”
“No,” she paused for a moment before adding: “You killed someone.”
“I…,” he frowned, but then relaxed realizing it made no sense: “Who would I kill?” B didn’t answer. “B, who would I kill?” his voice was a little louder, firmer than usual.
“The people who are trying to take me back,” B offered in a small voice.
“Why would I kill them? Why wouldn’t you?”
“Because they know me too well. I was made and raised in a laboratory. I am conditioned to be predictable. They know what choices I’ll make, what reactions I’ll have to what stimulus. Why do you think they found me even here? You were my only solution, Maast. You have to understand what I did,” she pleaded with him, but only managed to confuse him.
“What you did?”
“You were the easiest to approach. An isolated specimen. You had no purpose. No goals. I just reprogrammed you to have one,” she explained enthusiastically. “Being raised in that laboratory may not have taught me much about the real world, but it made me more than just a little knowledgeable in neurologic patterning.”
“Reprogrammed?” it suddenly dawned on him that his blackouts had started around the time B had first knocked on his door asking for forks. “You brainwashed me?”
“I rewrote your value system so that you would consider my protection your number one priority. My safety is your reason to live now,” she said. “You see, one just had to observe you to see how truly miserable you were.”
“Undo it! Whatever you did! Undo it!” he demanded.
“It’s not something you can reverse, Maast. Your mind accepted the change so eagerly it even astounded me. It became so dedicated to its new cause it even decided to erase its old persona in favor of a new one whose sole purpose was my protection,” she watched him stagger back and fall into his chair in front of his screens, dumbfounded.
His eyes rose hesitantly toward the computer. His gaze lingered there and B confirmed his suspicions: “I honestly thought you’d figure it out earlier. I wasn’t very subtle about modifying it, but then again you do have a real gift for ignoring everything around you. Why I thought subliminal messaging would work best.”
“It was in the computer. The whole time,” he muttered.
“Nothing else really had your undivided attention,” she pointed out with a thin smile. “You don’t have to worry though. I have no desire to take this any further. Mental slavery is just another form of confinement after all and I’ve been confined enough all my life to not wish it upon anyone else,” she rummaged through her pockets as she went on: “Your other self is a bit of an ape, I’m afraid. Quite vicious if provoked. He couldn’t help me with what I needed though. It was you who offered me the key to my freedom in the end. Which is the only thing I really ever wanted.”
She pulled a chip out of her pocket that resembled the kind he usually gave Lau and went on: “At first I thought that if I killed the person responsible for the program, it would be shut down and we would be set free. It was the reason I was allowed to escape. They knew what I believed. That man – the minister they called him – reduced the program’s funding and they wanted him gone. But I realized it before it was too late. I ran away and came here. The place no one asks questions. That’s why you came here too, right?” she paused for a moment playing with the chip between her fingers. “However, they found me even here. You were my safety net, a random unpredictable threat. It’s no use though. They sent one person to bring me back, next time they’ll send ten. Running now wouldn’t change anything. It would happen the same way over and over again until they would finally catch me.”
“You’re not thinking of killing yourself, are you?”
“No,” she laughed. “I’m going somewhere they can’t reach me.” She looked up at the ceiling as if whatever she was thinking about was up there. It didn’t take long for Maast to understand her intentions. He realized the program he had written earlier – unusual for Lau’s type of work – was only a cover for a code he had wound up unknowingly cracking. The results had been a series of numbers reminiscent of the keys used in the launch sequences of the weather satellites. And if B wanted to go up, there was really only one way she could.
“You’re planning on hi-jacking the Cerberus?” B only smiled like a mischievous child. He rubbed his face tiredly.
“What does BYT stand for?” he suddenly asked as if it was a matter of importance.
“It’s part of a serial number. It doesn’t stand for anything except how many failed attempts there were before me.”
“What are you? What were they trying to make?” he asked.
“Dolls or perfect people? Or maybe they wanted to be allowed to experiment on humans and given we were made not born, we aren’t exactly viewed as people,” she offered.
“What do you think you are?”
“Me? I’m just a clever girl,” she said with a smile.
The doors flew open and men in full body armor entered the room and encircled them. Their faces were hidden behind protective masks and heavy guns were aimed at Maast’s head. As they were restraining her, B called out to him. It took him but one second to black out.
When he came to, he was lying on the floor, face down, something heavy across his legs. It was the body of one of the men that had attacked them. A foot or so away, a gun had been left carelessly in the middle of the floor. Another body was laid over the remnants of his smashed up computer. Curiously, although his clothes were covered in blood, Maast himself was not seriously injured. B was nowhere to be seen. Somewhere near the kitchen another body was sprawled, the knife sticking out of its stiff chest, new blood coating the old as a curious insect inspected its sharpness.
Maast stood up and stumbled around, not knowing what exactly he was looking for. More bodies? B? A sign that she had escaped? It dawned on him for the first time that his room was littered with dead officers of some kind and he was covered in their blood. That wasn’t something he could get away with even in the slums. As the thought sank in, an ominous feeling overtook him. He paced around the room, racking his brain for a solution and noticed a movement beneath his desk. He lowered his head and saw the little rodent that had been pestering him for months chewing serenely on the power cables as if nothing had happened.
When Lau opened the door, he was barefoot, his hair wet and his body wrapped in a white robe. White was Lau’s favorite color. He looked at Maast surprised and then worriedly noticed the blood on his clothes.
“Evening, Lau. Wasting the planet’s resources I see,” he pointed towards his wet hair and even reached out a blood covered hand to touch it, but Lau took a step back and grimaced. Nobody took real baths anymore. Not since the invention of the “cleanser”, the human-safe variant of dry cleaning. Old style baths were reserved only for the very rich – which Lau’s family was.
“What are you doing here?” he asked frowning, but gestured for him to come in, then checked the hallway for potential spies.
“Don’t worry, nobody saw me. I crawled in through the service robots’ shaft,” he assured him. Lau shut the door and stared at him suspiciously.
“What do you want? To get me in trouble?” he accused him without remorse.
“Funny thing,” Maast chuckled as he stood awkwardly in Lau’s vast living room, as white and immaculate as its owner. “I got into a little trouble…” he was downright laughing now.
“Funny thing…,” he repeated. “I needed to lay low for a while and realized you’re practically
the only person I know.”
“I’m your only friend? How sad,” Lau said smirking and contemplated throwing him back down the service shaft just to get back at him for all the trouble he’d caused him over the years, but found he could not. “You’re just too pathetic for words,” he offered instead disdainfully.
“I just need to use your cleanser. And if I can borrow a portable computer, I’ll be out of your hair in a second,” he promised and Lau sighed.
“I don’t have a cleanser. You’ll have to take a shower,” he said and led him toward a door at the end of a spacious hallway. “I hope you realize you gave me the wrong chip when we met. Thank goodness I looked it over before turning it in. Imagine the trouble I would’ve gotten into!”
“Just imagine…,” Maast chuckled to himself. Lau had obviously no idea of what he had in his possession.
Maast had never taken an actual shower before. Or a bath. He vaguely remembered playing by a river bank as a child, but that was the only time he had used water for anything but drinking. Lau showed him how to use it and then left. As the water came splashing down his naked body the rain came to his mind. As he remembered it from school, falling from the sky, cold on his skin. Not the harmful, dirty green acid drops that reached the slums. Few could experience it even in those days, that refreshing rain he felt in his school days. The other kids had laughed at him for standing outside in it for hours and laughed even harder when he had caught a cold because of it. Lau had asked him why he did it once, walking up to him, holding an old fashioned umbrella over his shoulder and looking at him curiously. Maast hadn’t been able to explain it. Maybe man had been made to bathe in water after all.
“Who’s wasting the planet’s resources now?” Lau asked standing in the doorway and Maast realized he had lost track of time. He was curled up next to the wall under the running water and some time had passed since Lau had left. Noticing something was wrong, Lau neared him and wanted to turn off the water, but Maast grabbed his arm.
“No, leave it,” he demanded in an almost pleading tone. Lau nodded and released the lever. He slid down on the floor of the bathroom next to Maast.
“I never did figure out why you liked the rain so much. I think I get it now though. The city rain is all smoke and mirrors. Purified water vaporized and turned into clouds by clever machines,” he admitted with a smile. Maast was asleep though and couldn’t hear him. Lau turned off the water and wrapped a robe around him, then struggled to carry him into one of his guest rooms. When the body finally fell unto the bed, Maast let out a groan of satisfaction. He hadn’t slept in a real bed in ages. The pillows were soft, the covers warm and the sheets, slippery and cool. Lau returned to the bathroom to gather Maast’s bloody clothes and then burned them in the incinerator.
He then decided to check the day’s news to see whether the unexplained trouble Maast had gotten into had drawn any attention. The reports were filled with images of a mysterious fire in the slums that, worsened by sudden showers of acid rain, had spread and engulfed an entire building. Fugitive BYT745798/398 was still sought and the Cerberus, the much anticipated new space ship prototype, would launch in two days as planned. Lau didn’t understand the desire some people felt towards outer space. What could they possibly find so alluring about it? It was just a big empty boundless place.
Originally published as Bright Young Things, 14 April 2013 on