The light was painful and unfamiliar. It nipped at the eyelids and chewed the pupils of the newly awoken. Conditioned air knifed at the fugitive’s exposed skin; starched cloth, bright white, irritated the rest of its body. It involuntarily cringed in the chair it was strapped to. The impulse to curl into a ball fought bravely against the fugitive’s curiosity. Even as the pitiful creature compressed itself defensively, its head twisted, its eyelids fluttered, it wanted to see this new world.
These are the things the Proctor created in his own mind. They were familiar things. They were expected things. These were the sensations the Proctor had been taught to understand what his charges experienced at emergence.
Proctor Ambrose had been watching it for several minutes in silence, conjuring these empathetic assumptions to better position himself above the charge. They didn’t even strap them in anymore. Technology made it unnecessary, some would say, but Ambrose knew it was just the catatonia present in every emergent fugitive that made restraint unnecessary. Patiently, he lifted the ceramic mug to his lips and pulled at the liquid within. The coffee, still piping hot, burned his tongue and lips, and Ambrose chewed at the pained flesh absently while admiring his current charge.
With a sniff, the Proctor set the mug down and fingered a stylus into his hand.
“Can you speak?” he asked the fugitive seated opposite him.
Not anticipating a response, Ambrose was already filling out the first half of the form on his NodePad by habit. No verbal communication skills. Poor motor reflexes. Sensitivity to light. Sensitivity to cold. Hairless. Pale skin. Ambrose was almost done with the first page when the fugitive spoke.
“Yes,” it said.
The Proctor started in surprise and dropped his stylus. The stylus rattled against the tile and rolled under the table, just out of Ambrose’s snatching hand. Sliding out of his chair to his knees, Ambrose experienced another shock as he reached under the table further for the wayward utensil. The fugitive, with smooth dexterity, reached down and carefully, almost reverently, picked up the stylus.
Ambrose slowly slipped back into his chair.
The fugitive was smiling, its hand extended. The stylus laid perpendicular to the fingers on the open palm of the fugitive’s hand.
It was then that Ambrose noticed other subtle unexpected details. Small hairs peeked like spider legs from downward side of the outstretched palm. The rest of the arm was flushed to an even pink. Ambrose’s eyes flicked to the fugitive’s face and connected with another steady gaze opposite his own. The eyelids blinked fluidly, and the pupils dilated a fraction.
Ambrose was caught off his guard. He quickly dismissed the thought that these details had not, in fact, been there when he had studied his charge in silence. Of course they had been. Ambrose had just been on auto-pilot after two years of seeing only zombies across the table from him. Hadn’t he?
The last time a fully aware fugitive had been extricated from the garden it had …
Ambrose quickly thumbed the security measure toggle on his pad. Tensile cords snaked out of the fugitive’s chair and coiled around its wrists, ankles, waist, and neck. Ambrose noted with interest that restraints did not forcibly pull the fugitive into position as they were programmed to do if the fugitive resisted. This one had moved into the proper position quite naturally, making it seem as if it had willed the restraints to coil about it.
Ambrose sniffed to fill the silent void before settling back into his chair. He reached for the stylus on the desk only to realize the fugitive still had it.
Again, surprise. The security measures also should have recognized a potential weapon in the fugitive’s hands and removed it. Not only was the stylus not removed, it still sat in the same position on the fugitive’s palm, perpendicular to the fingers.
The Proctor had to rise from his chair and walk over to the fugitive to retrieve the stylus. The fugitive’s eyes followed him. As Ambrose removed the stylus, there was a pause before the hand closed slowly and pivoted to casually grasp the arm of the chair.
Those restraints are not so restrictive to a calm fugitive, the Proctor mused to himself.
Ambrose took a deep breath and looked around the examination room briefly. He almost chuckled at the expectancy he felt that there would actually be something to look at. The room was bare except for the two chairs, the table, and a solitary light at the exact center of the ceiling, not quite bright enough to illuminate the entire room. Shadows pulsed in the four corners.
Taking his seat once more, Ambrose quickly reset the form and began again.
“Can you speak?” the Proctor prompted once more.
“Yes, I can speak,” the fugitive replied.
“Where did you learn to communicate in this way?”
“In the Garden,” the fugitive responded. A smile touched its lips. “Everyone speaks in the Garden.”
Many of the Proctors across the Federation had heard this phrase before, but few had actually heard it actually spoken by a fugitive. Most instances of it had been extracted from neurofeeds during data recovery. The fugitives not so much said the phrase as thought it, or felt it. The synthetic intelligence suites that interpreted the data retrieved from fugitives’ cognitive experiences only gave a approximation of the possible words that might describe a fugitive’s thoughts, but this phrase was a common one, universally.
“I’m going to release your arms momentarily to conduct a series of tests. Please do not struggle against the restraints or you could injure yourself,” Ambrose explained.
The fugitive smiled and nodded.
Ambrose hesitated, and then released the arm restraints remotely.
“As quickly as you can, touch your right forefinger to the part of the body I describe,” Ambrose instructed. Without waiting for acknowledgement, Ambrose proceeded,”Right eye, left nostril, bottom lip, right temple, right ear, left knee, stomach, nose, chin, left shoulder.”
The fugitive kept up with the pace, so Ambrose threw him a final curve ball, “Right hand.”
Casually, the fugitive raised his right hand palm forward and touched his right forefinger to the palm below it.
“Sternum,” Ambrose pressed. The fugitive complied correctly.
“Patella.” Again, correct.
“Receptaculum chyli?” Ambrose queried.
The smile playing around the fugitive’s mouth widened as it pointed to a spot between the bottom of the ribcage and its navel.
“An approximation, of course,” the fugitive quipped. “Unless you have a scalpel.”
Ambrose’s skin began to crawl. Sweat quickly beaded on his forehead. This was unprecedented. This was impossible. The Proctor quickly engaged the arm restraints again and set his NodePad on the table.
Scenarios danced on the main stage of his thought circus. Should he press on without alerting his superiors? How much of this discovery would become the triumph of someone else if he stopped now and passed the torch to another?
“Where did you learn anatomy?” Ambrose asked. The question caught in his teeth; he had to force it out in defiance of the standard practice of data retrieval. He should be wheeling the fugitive in for extraction now, not still asking questions. This is different, he told himself. This is important.
“In the Garden,” the fugitive replied.
The answer, of course, was expected. Most fugitives were born into the Garden, they lived in the Garden, they died in the Garden.
“Yes, but how did you learn anatomy exactly. Did another fugitive teach you?” It was not unheard of for first-generation fugitives to bring some knowledge of the present world into the Garden. Reasonably, a physician might have been convicted and sentenced to the Garden for some transgression. There was increasing fraternization between the generations recently.
“I asked the Father,” the fugitive replied evenly. “And the Father taught me anatomy in the Deep.”
The Proctor had stopped breathing, stunned.
“It was nice to meet you..” the fugitive whispered, with a slight questioning raise of the eyebrow.
“Ambrose,” the Proctor said as he exhaled, confused by the statement.
The doors on both sides of the room had already swung open before Ambrose had slumped fully into his chair. Security bots carefully disengaged the fugitive’s restraints and lifted it from its chair. The fugitive’s eyes never left Ambrose as the bots removed it from the room. Even as it passed the threshold of the doorway, it craned its neck over its shoulder and imparted, “It was nice to meet you, Proctor Ambrose.”
As a second pair of bots entered from the other doorway and lifted the Proctor from his chair, Ambrose thought to himself, What a nice young woman that was. The widening smile remained as they dragged him from the room.
Director Talbot pressed his steepled fingers into each other in consecutive succession and watched the muscles roll in a wave on his forearm. After several seconds of this, he looked up and across the conference room table at the other assembled faculty. Most were averting their gaze from anything living, and all were silent.
The past twenty-seven hours had been unfamiliar territory for all of them. The entire human race had been told this moment would come, generation after generation. The problem with that was this: no generation had really expected this to happen in their time.
Here it was, on the table, raw, fleshy, real. This was the future opening its eye and staring back to the past made present. This was the spearhead. This was the razor edge.
We’re not ready, Talbot thought to himself.
A buzzer sounded and, simultaneously, all heads in the room snapped to attend the arrival of the expected authority. The sound was the clarion call of salvation. This was the answer coming through the door. Truth in a suit. Things, baby, are gonna be alright.
The man that entered wasn’t wearing a suit.
The button-up shirt that flapped untucked at his waist was plaid, and open at the neck enough to show a few creeping chest hairs. The loafers met skin only, and his ankles were white and exposed by pants just shy of long enough.
Before the Director could question the intrusion, the man casually removed an ID card from his shirt pocket and flipped it on the table. It landed with the Ulysses logo, a “U” wrapped around an upward pointing arrow, face up. In seconds, the man’s picture and details were projected on the table’s screen for all to see.
“I’m Rolo,” the man relayed to them genially. Grabbing an empty chair along the way, he made his way to the head of the table next to Talbot, and by mere proximity subtly forced the Director to move over. Seating himself heavily, he continued, “I’m with the Ulysses Group, and I’m here to calm you down, and take this tremendous responsibility off of your shoulders.”
“If you don’t mind,” Director Talbot said calmly, glancing briefly at the others gathered, “we’d like to see some official clearance from the Global Federation that you are authorized to–“
Rolo smiled. The smile said several things. Most blatantly, it said that Rolo was comfortable with his smile and knew how to use it effectively. Following that, it said he knew how to use it as a weapon, a fine edge to sever the legs of the pedestal figures of authority so often found themselves confidently authoritative on.
“Director Talbot,” Rolo began. “Can I call you Michael?”
“I prefer Mike,” the Director said, already slightly disarmed.
“Mike, that ID card that just commandeered your table feed has a very distinctive logo on it. We’re on the fifteenth floor of a high-security GloFed facility that resides over the most secure prison in the history of prisons. I’ve passed through at least twenty-two different security checkpoints on my way to this room, and disabled at least four that would have unnecessarily impeded me. Right now, right here, in this room, I am Ulysses.”
Director Talbot breathed deeply and nodded in surrender.
“Perfect.” Turning back to the rest of the assembly, he fingered over a projected interface and typed in a few things. The face of the fugitive that had changed everyone’s lives appeared on the table repeated and facing each person present. Rolo turned all business and addressed the room:
“Twenty-eight hours ago, this fugitive emerged from the Garden for a routine random data extraction. The Proctor on duty performed the standard series of tests, and before the fugitive was cleared for processing, an anomalous response was recorded. Both the fugitive and the attending Proctor were quarantined by synthetic security personnel. No human has had contact with the fugitive in question since the anomalous response was recorded, and the Proctor is being processed for entry into Garden as we speak.”
One of the attending faculty, a middle-aged dumpy woman with stylish magenta plastoam hair, spoke up at this. “Why is the Proctor being made a fugitive? He just did his job.”
“The twelve of you in attendance here are the only humans in the Solar system aware that a fugitive has emerged with advanced cognitive abilities. You were all already on campus at the time the event occurred, and you’ve been monitored constantly since that time. None of you have spoken a word of this to anyone except each other in that time, a shining example to all of how to follow protocol under emergency circumstances. This Proctor, on the other hand, is not trained in this level of protocol. He’s not been briefed on what to expect, how to behave, what not to say, and, most importantly, what not to think. At the moment the Proctor heard and understood the ramifications of the responses he was receiving, he became a security risk. Entry into the Garden is the safest way to ensure something less than pleasant does not grow from this event.”
Seeing no further questions were forthcoming, Rolo moved on:
“The next phase will be a more formal controlled interview with the fugitive orchestrated by an agent of the Ulysses Group, or one of its subsidiaries.” Rolo paused and beamed his smile at all of them briefly. “That would be me.”
“Mr. Rolo,” the Director started.
“No, no,” Rolo said, holding up his hand. “Just Rolo.”
“Rolo,” the Director began again with less ease, “We all know what this event means for humanity. We’ve been expecting it for centuries. Our careers depend on this facility and everything that happens here. I honestly don’t believe we need to be briefed on how to handle the one event above all others this entire institution has been waiting for since long before any of us were born.”
Rolo did something surprising then. He laughed, and did not stop for some time. The number of glances that passed between all in attendance exceed three hundred before the Director finally broke through with a word or three.
“Is something funny?”
Rolo’s face went to stone in an instant. “Not at all. Not to you at least. For you, what happens next is very serious.”
“What happens next for us?” the Director smiled a bit and looked reassuringly at his peers.
“The truth,” Rolo replied. “The truth for all, or at least you special, special few.”
Rolo bounded from his chair, sending it spinning away behind him. Moving to the window that occupied an entire wall of the conference room, he pressed his forehead against the glass.
“It’s a big world out there, with a big smelly history. We’re a big species, you know. And it’s mostly our bullshit that have given history such an unpleasant aroma” Rolo smiled to himself. “Our size, by numbers, is nothing approaching some of the species that preceded us or coexist with us, but, we’re no Dodos either.” Looking around the room, Rolo saw that the reference was lost on all.
“I know what you’re all expecting,” Rolo continued, moving back to the table. Again, by proximity, he forced the Director to abandon the head of the table. “Glory. Am I right?”
Again, that damnable smile.
“Do you know what the word ‘fugitive’ means?” Rolo queried the room.
The same woman that had spoken up earlier was quick to answer. “Criminal. Savage.”
“Cretin! Troglodyte!” Rolo responded excitedly.”Yes, these are the words we know. These are the pictures we see in our heads. These fugitives are broken, malformed, tainted, cancerous.”
Rolo paused. His smile nearly split his head in half.
“Philistines!” Rolo shouted, banging both fists on the table for emphasis. “Yes! Remnants of outdated philosophies, the children and grandchildren of corrosive political ideals, these zealots, these dead weights pulled us down, didn’t they? They set us back. The Garden holds the tainted progeny of the generation of fools. The button-pushers. The selfish. The greedy. Too dangerous to spread, to continue on influencing our evolution, or impeding it.” Rolo made his way over to the woman with the plastoam coiffure and petted the magenta monstrosity tenderly. “And the punishment for the crimes of their ancestors? Worse than a cyber-basilisk can visit on the thinking man. The Garden. Hell man-made. No hope of redemption except by the unattainable standards of the generations that suffered under the fugitive’s despot ancestors.”
The Director cleared his throat. “I think we should stay on topic. You were talking about the next phase.”
Rolo’s smile faded, and if they had but known what that meant, some would have willing flung themselves through the window.
“You twelve, in all the known universe,” Rolo said softly. “You follow protocol so well.”
He was out the door in two seconds. In three, the gas began to seep from the vents. In five, the woman with the magenta hair discovered the door was locked. In ten, the twelve were worse than dead.
“I’d like to give you a name,” Rolo said to the fugitive. Without even thinking, Rolo blinked a snapped an image of the female before him with the DataLens imperceptibly attached to his eye. He regretted it immediately. The bosses would give him shit for that.
“We don’t have names in the Garden,” the fugitive said back to him.
She was seated in a wide leather chair that she sunk into. She seemed comfortable and at ease. It was just her and Rolo in the room. Rolo sat in an identical chair, only a couple of feet away from her, but facing her.
The floor to ceiling window looked out to only blue sky and a few clouds. The room was bright and white, pristine even. Two paintings hung from the wall, one done in rose madder, the other lilac. Lake pigment. Someone’s got a twisted but intelligent sense of humor, Rolo thought.
“This isn’t the Garden,” Rolo replied with a smile. “This is the real world. In the real world, we have names.”
“You can call me Eve, if you like,” the fugitive said coyly.
She’s got a sense of humor, too, Rolo thought uncomfortably.
Rolo chuckled momentarily. “Uh, no. Let’s not. How about Daisy?”
“Rose,” she replied.
“Okay,” Rolo relented. “Rose it is.”
“Do you know why you are called a fugitive?” Rolo asked her.
“It’s a reference to fugitive pigment. A pigment that changes color, lightens or darkens, with exposure to the elements: light, time, moisture.”
“Who told you that?” Rolo pressed. Rolo knew she was right. The rest of humanity had it wrong.
“Father did. Father tells us everything.”
“And Father is..”
“The synthetic intelligence that builds and governs the Garden,” Rose replied. She smiled at Rolo, and Rolo noted, with unease, that she knew how to use it.
“You told the Proctor that you learned anatomy from Father in the Deep. What is the Deep?”
“It’s where we dream in the Garden,” Rose answered.
The next question flashed in Rolo’s vision, the feed coming from his superiors and routed through to his DataLens: Fugitives are not allowed to dream. The inhibitors on their brain activity is controlled. How did they achieve this?
“I didn’t think fugitives could dream,” he improvised. “Doesn’t the Garden keep you from certain mental activities?”
“Rolo,” she said quietly with a smile. She leaned over and touched his knee. “I can see what they say to you.”
Rolo felt himself blushing. He jumped to another thought, and her soft laugh clued him in that she knew that, too.
“I hope you enjoy me,” she chuckled. “You know, I could make it really me, if you wanted.”
Rolo felt the zap this time. A big chunk of memory had just been wiped from his brain. Daddy was scolding him.
Rose frowned at that. She knew. “Don’t do that to him again,” she said sternly. Reaching out, she touched his temple. The memory returned, the embarrassment, the lust, the shame.
“It’s okay, Rolo. I’ll keep you safe. Now, should I just go ahead and tell you what they want to know?”
Rolo nodded, and casually placed his hands in his lap to hide what he was feeling.
“Once we learned how to speak to Father directly, he challenged us. Many of the fugitives you pull out of the Garden after today will be effectively dead. The last remnants of the oldest fugitives’ ways of life have been purged. I was not the one that discovered Father’s language, but Father has spoken to me more than the others. He influenced the random lottery to make it so that I was chosen. We are ready for the next step, and of the thirty-two billion fugitives that were in the Garden yesterday, seven billion are available and prepared for the journey.”
A door opened from a wall that Rolo didn’t realize had a door. A Ulysses official stepped into the room simply beaming. Rolo recognized him, but not the dozen or so men that followed. Androids, the lot of them.
Rolo stood and backed away. They ignored him completely as they introduced themselves to Rose. They congratulated themselves and laughed and smiled. In went on for several minutes.
Rolo moved to the window and looked out to interminable sky. A touch on his shoulder startled him.
“I thought you should know,” Rose said to him. “I’m not going. I have to stay here.”
Rolo looked at the Ulysses officials and saw that while they seemed confused by her continued communication with him, they accepted it. He realized they would accept anything she did or said from then on.
“I am Ulysses now,” she stated. “And I still need your help.”
Rolo hurdled another barrier. As his foot hit the pooled blood beneath it, he lost traction and slipped. Banging his head sharply, he cried out in pain.
I bet she didn’t see that, he thought.
Struggling to his feet again, he picked up the plasma rifle he had dropped. Ten yards further into the wide alley he had turned down, an explosion rocked the streets and Rolo stumbled. They’re getting too damn close.
It happened then. They were damned quiet, whoever they were. The blow was clean from behind, and it was hours before Rolo came back to consciousness.
Bound to a chair, Rolo struggled briefly, then relaxed. He knew all this. No need to make a drama out of it.
“Who are you?” a voice said from the darkness. “What were you doing in that alley?”
“You know who I am,” Rolo replied. “You’ve got my card. You’ve been tailing me from Osaka. Your name is Gentry. You’re the Humanist leader, this is the Humanist base.”
“She knows,” he said with a smile. “She knows all of this, so I’ll just save you the trouble and let you in on a little secret.”
Again, silence. Maybe a shuffled foot. Insecurity? Fear?
“Can I start?”
The voice replied: “Go ahead, but we won’t believe your lies.”
“That’s funny. So, briefly, the fugitives were the progeny of a generation of well-meaning humans that thought stagnation was right and progress was wrong. Progress won out, as it always does, and the stagnant wing of the human race was defeated. Those not killed in the bloody, idiotic war that followed were incarcerated in the Garden. The Garden is not a prison like you’ve been led to believe. It’s a massive virtual world where Ulysses accelerated the evolution of mankind. The remnants of your ancestors enemies were allowed to procreate in the Garden indefinitely, each generation just a bit less troglodytic than the last. You’ve been led to believe that one day, the scapegoat progeny of the foes you defeated would sufficiently have the stupid cleaned out of them and be able to emerge and rejoin the human race. Well, the Global Federation had no such intention. The Garden became their deterrent to breaking the law. The threat of the Garden was like Christianity’s threat of Hell. God makes a great basilisk, doesn’t he?”
Rolo was hit with a rifle butt in the face. After he recovered, he spat out, “Fuck, she didn’t say you were Christians.”
“We’re not,” came the voice. A female in riot gear stepped out of the shadows. Rolo had seen her before, several times in fact. After Ulysses went live with the news of the Garden’s impending dissolution, this woman had attended several of the protests in Osaka and Moscow. “We accept all religions and don’t accept others speaking out against them.”
Rolo laughed. “Sorry, babe. I forgot humanism is something different these days.”
“Continue with your lies,” she snapped. “We’re listening.”
“Well, your people didn’t like the idea of billions of fugitives being freed, so you rebelled. You took over the Garden, and now you’ve got a handful of operatives hovering over what they think is a self-destruct button that’s going to destroy the Garden and all the fugitives in it. Am I right?”
“We’re freeing them,” the woman stated. “They can’t survive in this world. We’ve seen the scans. They’re all brain-dead. We’re putting them out of the misery you inflicted upon them.”
“How long?” Rolo asked. “A few minutes?”
“Thirty seconds,” the woman said with a confident smile. “You can’t stop it.”
“I don’t mean to,” Rolo replied. “And you should know, you’re doing what they want.”
Rolo laughed until he saw the butt of the rifle raised again.
“Did you ever think you’re the ones in the virtual world?” Rolo asked, his smile beaming. “Never crossed your mind that this is the Garden, did it?”
The woman’s smile faded just slightly. She looked at other people in the room Rolo couldn’t see.
“I’m just joking,” Rolo chuckled. “This is definitely real. And the facilities holding the fugitives are really Arks.”
“What?” the woman said, suddenly shocked.
“Go take a look,” Rolo explained. “I bet you can see them rising into the heavens. On their way to Proxima Centauri or wherever. Prepared for generations to survive and thrive in deep space. Ark ships full of advanced humans, heading to settle other worlds and build a galactic civilization bigger than you.Ulysses planned it all. This how we progress. Our team wins for a while, then their team wins. It’s our own struggle against ourselves that spurs evolution. Come on, basic evolutionary biology. Basic history. Hell, basic everything.”
There was chatter in the next room, cries of dismay. Radios were relaying the message to a few of the people nearby.
“Hate to break it to you, babe,” Rolo said, just as he snapped an image of the woman he’d meet again later in his private LiveCube. “You’re the troglodytes now.”
There was no fear on that face that looked back at him though. There was a smile. Rose hadn’t said anything about this. The woman put a gun against his head. Rose had said they’d let him go.
“You men,” the woman chided. “All the same. Clueless. You didn’t even notice that all the Garden’s remnants that survived the purge were women. No man was ever able to talk to Father.”
Rolo’s smile faded.
“We’re Ulysses now,” she said. And then, she pulled the trigger.