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Who Counts

Who Counts
About three years ago, I posted a story that I intended to be a one-shot: What Counts. I recently thought of a follow-up that might amuse and entertain, so I took the trouble to write it down. I hope that this expansion does not detract from the original.
EDIT: Continuation here.
***
It was good to be back home; while a starship was supposed to have everything necessary for the continuation of life, nothing ever felt as good – as right – as the soil that birthed your people. The right shade to the sunlight, the correct amount of breeze, the dead-on smells in the air, the temperature that fit the season and the clime and your skin.
And the startlingly fat bank account I returned with felt pretty nice, too, of course.
I’d actually made over twice what I’d projected would be my big haul, simply because that human fellow, Jack, had taught me the hidden wisdom of his people. No, not simply. There is a wealth of understanding there, and I am still unaware of most of it. It should be quite the haul – I paid half my profit for it, after all. I stepped off the return ship, collected my luggage, and made arrangements for my cargo to clear customs and be shipped to a waiting area. I didn’t have an office, warehouse, or staff, and I wasn’t about to ship my finds to my father’s storage; I owned them, not him.
But familial obligations did not disappear just because I was independent now – a successful adult, I reminded myself, unlike the predictions he had made when I left to join the Great Run of a trading caravan. I had to remind myself, yet again, that I wanted to conceal my success, not announce it with fanfare. I didn’t know much, I had no support, and I was easy economic prey for a predator in this particular ecology. At the moment.
First thing first – opt out of the food chain as much as I could. I found a local data cafe, and registered to use their network access. It was a (relatively) simple matter to pay off the loan I had taken out to fund my initial purchase, and then I went on to pay off all the outstanding loans I had: adult educational levels, transport purchase (I didn’t have the vehicle any more – completely destroyed in an accident – but it was quite the fun ride during my adolescence), dwelling rental (and storage for when I was off planet); I was now financially unencumbered.
Mostly – I still had to pay off my clan for true independence. But the typical age for that was 30, and I had barely reached 23. I was ahead of the game. And the only strings that I had to answer to were controlled by … my father. Sigh. I would have to meet him, now that I was back.
Still, I had the unexpected wealth from my trading ventures stored away in a spare account, and I still had a goodly amount left from my expected returns – with any fortune, I would be able to take my place in the top hands of my people’s success stories.
--
Top hands? That’s the upper tier of the ranked wealthy: in our culture, that’s the top eight out of sixty-four … um, twelve and a half percent. Look, how about I just translate the cultural references, too? I mean, you people only have one arm on each side, you’ve got that extra finger on each hand, you’re easily less than two-thirds the proper height, and those skin issues make you that strange color; so much of how I think and what I noticed won’t make sense to you unless I put it into proper context.
--
No, that was an irritated and condescending look. Of course I know human culture well enough to do that! I spent a lifetime translating your best business literature into something that is effective in my culture – this is one thing that I have got down pat! (And see there – I used an idiom of your people to show my ability to use your idiom! So sit down and shut up, gospodnik.)
--
In any case, I returned to my family home to meet with my father. The family estate is a goodly distance away from the port where I arrived, but distance is the same as time, and time is always in short supply, so I distracted myself with meditating during the trip. (Because I wasn’t doing the flying myself, you understand. That was a lesson I only needed to learn once – even though the bank insisted that I keep paying off the flyer.) In my mind, I turned over one of the great aphorisms of the human market – “Price is what you pay. Value is what you get.” – and I may have come to a slight understanding.
Anyway, the trip was over all too soon, and I elected to knock rather than test to see if I was as completely disowned as I thought (My departure wasn’t peaceful, wasn’t planned, and wasn’t regretted. By myself, at least.) One of the Mamas answered, and I doubt that she knew who I was.
“I’m Shonarth, and I am here to meet with my father,” I announced.
She twittered around, and eventually realized that he would have to be notified that I was at the door. At length, I could see him approaching and the Mama flitted back to whatever duties they could give to an empty-headed thing like her.
(No, you look, short stuff. That’s not misogyny – that’s a rational realization that the impetus behind my father’s mating was economic advantage and hormonal release; to be brief, money and beauty. And if a woman of my people declares that her entire rationale for existence was to be the biological mechanism for wealth transfer, I’m going to give her the deference of believing her, and give her the respect that such a wasteful choice deserves.)
“I had hoped that you would appear at my threshold sooner,” he said.
I rolled my eyes. “A Grand Tour does not lend itself to weekend commutes, Father.”
He grunted. “Be welcome in your home.” He added, “Your room is as you left it.”
“In desperate need of organization and sanitizing?” I wasn’t being flippant – like I said, my exit from my Father’s home was unplanned, and I was an immature youth at the time.
“Well,” he slowly drew it out, “I had the Mamas go through and remove everything that would have decomposed. It might not be as bad as you remember.”
“If it is,” I allowed, “the most merciful thing to do would be to light it on fire.”
Father nodded in agreement.
We arrived at the family parlor – he didn’t even hesitate to acknowledge me as family, a big change from last time – and we made the small talk that adults made. Business, politics, status posturing, the usual. He indirectly inquired about my profit; I elliptically informed him that I wasn’t insolvent. My money is mine, old man. If you need some, get your own. He grunted, and turned the conversation in another direction.
“You should start looking to find a wife. You are getting to that age, and founding your own family will help your business image.”
‘Getting to that age?’ I wasn’t planning on getting married until I paid off my Childhood Bond to my clan, so I could run my household without his interference. I had watched how he poisoned all his relationships with his overbearing interference, until he had to continually find new buyers, investors, and Mamas to keep his estate running. He’s not doing the same in my life.
And the urge to saddle me with my first wife likely means that he plans to use the familial connection to force an investment or business activity. And having his Prime Son with a separate household would give him the status to dictate a few terms in his business circles; interest rates were trending up, and I knew that he was typically heavily leveraged. Exploiting that would be worth picking things up with my top hands – oh, sorry, worth a great inconvenience to grasp an opportunity like that.
But the practical reality of the matter was that I had my own plans, and living my life by his desires would lead me to living his life; not what I wanted at all. “I think not, Father.”
“I know a family that wants to marry off several comely girls, Shonarth,” he told me.
“I doubt that any of your friends want me as a son, and none of your enemies would let a daughter into your home,” I said dryly. “I will find my own mate, Father. But … do you really think I should get married so young? I’m still about seven years away from paying off my childhood!”
“Yes, well,” he looked around the parlor. “Perhaps I can give you a discount for paying your bond off early?”
He knew the key to my attention well. “I suppose,” I said as I affected nonchalance. “But I was counting on paying off the actual cost, not the symbolic payment. Are you interested in discounting that amount?” The symbolic Bond was a token payment that signified adult-hood; the Full Bond amount (the actual cost of raising that child to adulthood) being paid signified leaving the clan completely.
I don’t think that it surprised him that I wanted to end his influence over me and my future. It was his turn to hem and haw; he finally responded with, “I’m not sure that I can come up with the exact amount, son …”
“Father, I can call your factor and get a detailed breakdown of my debt to you, itemized by year, in less than an hour. And you know it.”
“Well,” he hedged, “we might be able to work out a minor discount.”
“The future value of my payoff in seven years, discounted to today, is about 54% of the total, and that’s not counting the concessions you were going to bully out of your seed company, your banker, and your buyer. The sooner I get married, the sooner your farm lowers expenses. And I’m not in a hurry to complicate my life with Mamas running my day.” I sat back and waited for him to respond.
It didn’t seem like he was going to. “Well,’ he tried weakly, “I might be able to work out a 5% discount.”
“Then it would make more sense for me to invest my money now, not get married, and wait until I have enough money to pay back everything that you’ve spent on me.” I was firm, and stood up. “I need to arrange for my apartment utilities to be turned on, and I’ve got to get some sort of transportation worked out. I’m heading back to the city. I assume your comm-code hasn’t changed?”
He shook his head, and walked me to the front, with a stop on the way at the family shrine. My obeisance was perfunctory, even more than my Father’s, but I didn’t get any flack from it.
--
Back in my apartment, it was in better shape than my room in my Father’s estate: no dust, neat and orderly, and without the lingering feeling of enforced obedience.
The water, power, data, air, and scent conditioner were all running well, so I just needed clothing and food; the clothing I had offworld wouldn’t give me the social standing to even approach the dealers I wanted to talk to, so … food tonight, clothing tomorrow.
I had thought about protecting my information edge on the trip back to my home planet, and I elected to do that now. I did a little exploration at the local university datalayer, and found that there hadn’t been any notable advances in cryptography during my absence, so I dumped all of Jack’s datacard into a filelocker and, just for fun, cube encrypted it.
--
Eh? I encrypted the data stream three times, using a personal method to shift the start and end of the file so that it can’t be easily detected. Any standard method can be cracked using a standard attack; using a non-standard method means any attacker has to mount a brute force comprehensive attack worth more than the probable value of my file.
--
Ok, so in the following days I thought really hard about what my father wanted, what I was culturally programmed to do, and what was within my means with the remnant of my profits. I could pay off the Vaclathi clan if they would agree to a 36% discount (or more), but I wouldn’t have much left to bankroll another attempt at business if I did that. And there were some attractions to getting married, if I could find a Mama that didn’t interfere with my life too much … which kept bringing me to the question I had been trying to avoid for about a year now.
What did I want?
Some Earth sayings bubbled to the surface of my mind.
Invest in yourself. Your career is the engine of your wealth.
Know what you own, and know why you own it.
The richest people in the world build networks and invest in people.
I was on the cusp of something, here, I just knew it. But it consistently eluded me.
I went to sleep. Again.
--
“Shonarth? This is your Father. I’ve arranged for you to be admitted to the Fethruvath Walk. Your ticket is being emailed to you, it’s being held tomorrow night at 5. I hope you can find a Mama that tickles your fancy!”
Phone messages suck. Especially ones that are just there when you wake up. One week after telling him that I’m not going to take a wife from one of his friends, he gets me this? Hmm, he must have gotten to work on this as soon as I got into the cab.
Fethruvath Walk, by-the-by, is a ritual display of eligible females for the upper crust. It used to be just their Mama taking the poor girl for a walk around a display ring, but over the centuries it has become slightly less crass, involving a large banquet space and tables for each of the girls to sit at, along with a tray of portable foods that, originally, the girls made themselves. A couple of hundred generations ago, the caterers took over that particular duty (widespread food poisoning forced a change in the format) – these girls aren’t expecting to cook, after all.
My business wardrobe was due to be delivered today, so I would be able to blend in … wait – why did I want to blend in? Didn’t I want to stand out? The bonus was that this would be quite embarrassing to my Father and whoever provided him the ticket … Spacer’s duds it was.
I went out to my leased warehouse space and got some glumbles – tchotchkes, for you shorties – out of the boxes. A few were small and suitable for concealing in my pocket, which I could distribute to an insistent girl without outright rejecting her. Dressed in my crew uniform with its planetary patches, I figured that this would be enough to upset that social order nicely.
It was an easy wait until the Walk began, as I was expecting, frankly, to be thrown out shortly after entering. If I was planning on obtaining my first Mama, I would have been a bundle of nerves, but as it was … expecting to be the object of public ridicule? My adolescence honed that skill to the sharpness of a double-handed axe. I got this.
Shortly before queueing for the entrance line, I looked more closely at the certificate that I had been sent: I was to wait and enter at the end of the line. One hundred and twenty-eighth out of one hundred twenty eight. I grinned. I was going to have to look sharp for the cameras if I was going to be the wrap up.
One hour later, I found that I was only half-right. There was only one camera crew, from the bottom-feeder gossip network that was still recording the entrants. The others had probably packed up after the all the recognizable names had passed through, leaving no-names that wouldn’t draw an audience.
“… and the last entrant is an unknown, wearing a spacer uniform with all the planetary patches for a Caravan Great Run, proving that he has been trading on at least 50 planets, and so young, too …”
Entering the hall, I surveyed the young Mamas on offer. Each one was dressed to the limits of their budget, and wore a carefully cultivated expression of disdain and haughtiness. I had no idea how they expected to attract their way into another family, but being despised wasn’t high on my list of traits to bring into my life.
A server approached me, “Would the young gentleman care for a glass of wine?”
It didn’t look like I was quite as repulsive as I had … hoped. “No thank you.” A stroke of inspiration hit. If they weren’t going to cause a scene, I’d just have to do it for them. “I’m just on my way out. None of these Mamas are worth my time.” I waved him away in faux irritation, and left.
I almost missed the last newscaster as they were packing up, but managed to let them buttonhole me into an interview. “Young sir, why are you leaving the event so early?”
I waited until I was sure that the video crew was pointed in my direction. “It was easy to see that none of these young Mamas are up to the standard I am looking for. While every care was made for their appearance, the ladies underneath the finery are … truly not suitable. Have a good day!” With a jaunty wave I left them in slack-jawed awe at the disrespect I had paid to the self-appointed high and mighty.
I had the concept, but not the words. Time to search for help. Permanent help.
--
A short sleep refreshed me enough that I was back at the search. A population search – females, old enough to have finished a specialist’s education, old enough to have felt the sting of being unwanted by the few men of their year. There were some serious personal costs that resulted from our pattern of five females to each male birth, and I might have just hit on a way to profit from it. It was those human aphorisms that pointed the way, but I needed to refine it, make it work within my world.
I needed help, just like I was seeking, and the longer I took to find it, the greater the risk that this epiphany would slip out of my grasp.
Ding. Search complete.
The list wasn’t as long as I hoped, so the chances of finding an expert of the type I wanted was quite small … but needs must. The list of their educational specialties was actually quite repetitive; any of the subjects that could cover traditional subjects of the home were there in abundance. Cooking, visual arts, textiles, all there in profusion. No financial subjects, no business concentrations, no information studies.
Time to search another way. Female, unwed, specializing in taxonomy, cladistics, classification, categorization, folksonomy, or ontology. Whew. Quite a list.
The wait this time was quite a bit longer. The list was quite a bit shorter, and primarily had the names of librarians; exclude those, they’re not quite what I was looking for.
Hmm. 36 years, in this city, attached to the university, as a historical ontologist. Perfect! And now for the payoff of all those adolescent years as a troubled youth – contact a medium level private detective-slash-information broker for her probable public appearances.
Yes, it’s stalking. Just the once. In a good cause, I promise.
--
At the start of the next week, I was set. A small café just outside the campus where she preferred to take her, um, morning coffee. (For us, that mid morning break is when we take a small meal. Call it first lunch?)
She was mousy, a non-entity, her body language was all about deflection, avoidance, evasion of notice. Physically, she was about the personification of average, which made my plans quite a bit easier. She was startled at my appearance at her table, and she drawing her arms into a defensive posture, upper set protecting her neck, lower protecting her torso. I was obviously going to have to start us off.
“I understand that you are Zia Cloovatni, correct?”
She hesitantly accepted that.
“And I’ve been told that you are a historical ontologist.” I grinned, but she didn’t seem to find that encouraging. “What I haven’t been told is what that is; can you please give me an overview of your specialty?”
Her arms indicated relaxation, and she blinked. “I investigate the knowledge structure used in various times in history, and show how their ontology – the organization of knowledge – directly leads to their actions.”
“To me, that sounds like your specialization is vastly overqualified for my needs, but in every other way, you are exactly the person I am looking for.”
She blinked again, quite confused. “Really? For what?”
I sat back. “I can’t quite tell you yet. We can do this one of two ways. The least acceptable way is for me to give you a private commission, and you take a security bond to keep the details of the commission confidential.” I paused, hoping to draw her out. Surely someone with her intelligence has curiosity?
I was right – she took the bait. “And what is the preferable way?”
I tried to keep my smile reassuring, rather than confrontational. “I would prefer to take you as my first wife, and work with you on a permanent basis.”
Her eyes squinched shut. “That is not funny.”
“No,” I agreed, “it isn’t, and the offer is not a joke. I make this offer in all seriousness, because I cannot achieve my dreams without your help.”
This naked, earnest honesty was very difficult for me, but in preparing for this encounter, I realized that she would have been the veteran of many disappointed encounters, and the probable holder of many dashed dreams. She would be suspicious of being an object of ridicule, and very experienced in detecting condescension or disdain. The only chance I had of winning the perfect partner was to be completely open with my motives and plans, to show her that I had nothing to hide and that she had nothing to fear: only then would she even give me the consideration I wanted.
“So, why would you want me for your wife?” She was barely above a whisper, but there were very few other patrons in the café. I suspected that she didn’t want to speak of a painful dream aloud.
I smiled again, only this time, it was rueful. “I think that the tale will be right up your alley – it is mostly about how I came to reorganize my values and priorities. Building a new ontology, you might say.”
She straightened up at that, her eyes losing their wary distance, and I knew that she was going to pay attention. I also saw that she was much more attractive than she gave herself credit for.
“First of all, I am Shonarth Vaclathi, of 23 years, and in possession of a modest bankroll. Not a fortune yet, but I can see my way from here. My father has made it quite clear what he wants me to become and how he wants me to live, and I am desperate to avoid his life at all costs. I desperately want to be out of his house, and I had left when I was just 17. I am negotiating to pay off my Childhood Bond, and I think that I can get him to discount it as if I’m paying it off seven years early.”
She showed puzzlement. “But the Bond doesn’t have a set payoff date, so how could you do so ‘early’? And there isn’t an interest rate, so a discount doesn’t make sense.”
“I know.” Smirk. “But he’s always been easy to confuse when he’s chasing a payoff, and I dangled the immediate money in front of him; he’s thinking that some money now is better than all the money later. Anyway, he is also pressuring me to get married so that …”
“… he will be bumped up to Elder status, and be able to swing a bit more leverage in his business deals,” she concluded.
“Yes, that was what I calculated as well,” I agreed. “He got me an invitation to the Fethruvath Walk – I have no idea what that might have cost him – but I am not interested in furthering his aims, only mine own. And when the opportunity came up to further several of my own plans all at the same time, I just couldn’t see letting the opportunity pass by.”
She regarded me carefully without saying anything for a few moments. Then, “And what were those aims?”
I brought a lower hand up to count upon. “First, I intend to make my marriages partnerships. Which means that it is counterproductive to participate in or support events such as the Fethruvath Walk, where the ladies are merely bait for the interests of a Clan as defined by a male leader. I will not place my father’s aims above my own, as I refuse to live the life that he has built for himself. So I cannot and will not marry for any reason other than a mutual agreement of partnership.” Ticking off those reasons exhausted that hand, so I switched to my other lower hand.
“Most important – and this reason is worth a hand of its own – is that I needed to prove to my first wife that I am completely in earnest when I tell her that she is the one I choose above all others.”
She almost imperceptibly withdrew; hopefully to contemplate my sincerity and my offer.
She roused from her immobility to exclaim, “You are that man! The one who dismissed the entire Fethruvath Walk!”
I was a little taken aback. “I wasn’t aware that they even bothered to show that little interview,” I said hesitantly.
“Why? What was wrong with all those girls?”
“Every one that I could see was dismissive and conceited,” I said simply.
“Why is that so important?”
Hmm, this might be difficult to get across. “Let be back up to give some history. I returned about three weeks ago from a trading Grand Tour. In my travels, I found myself under the tutelage of a Master Trader of the human variety, and he taught me a great deal. I have learned to categorize each expense and receipt, to improve my knowledge of my business. He also taught me about the concept of marginal utility; the idea that additional amounts of a good are frequently less useful that the initial amount of the thing. And while I applied that to the marketplace, and it helped me to change a massive loss into a more than massive gain, I also applied it to my life.”
I considered her thoughtfully as I paused. Zia seemed to be processing all this well. “I enjoy the company of a pretty woman.” She flinched. I suppressed a smile. “And I also enjoy conversation with an intelligent person. And I prefer to associate with people that are kind, compassionate, and supportive. Weighing each of those traits, I found that beyond a certain level of pleasing appearance, having the woman be more beautiful wasn’t all that useful; it lacked marginal utility. Having the woman be more cheerful, having her be more loyal, having her be more caring – all those things have great value, and are the things I am pursuing.”
She was pushing herself away from the table, clearly having trouble believing what she knew was coming next.
“That is why I sought out and am pursuing you.”
Quite flustered, she sought to change the subject, and I allowed it. “Why do you want an ontologist?”
“There are any number of empty-headed fluffballs that are merely pleasant; I am looking for an intelligent woman for a partnership, someone who can keep up with me and even challenge me. As I said, I have some classification and organizational tasks that would probably be exactly what you do, were it not so trivial for you. It will not be a stretch of your skills to create a categorization system to track all the monetary flow within a business …”
Zia held up her top hands to stop me. “That work has already been done. We joined the stellar civilizations about five thousand years ago, and when their power generation technology became commonplace, the corporate world joined them in the lump-sum accounting that they use. Government followed less than a generation later. Before that, our people developed an,” she sniffed in derision, “adequate categorization system for business accounting.”
I showed a bit of pleasure with my next question. “I suppose that you have already investigated it and determined where it should be improved?”
She slowly began to show happiness. “That depends entirely on your aims. If your only desire is to stem wasteful spending, then the existing systems of the 134th century will be enough. I have a friend in archeological data mining; I’m sure that she can find an accounting program that will suffice …,” she slowly finished her sentence, “… for us.”
“Us?”
“Yes, for us,” she affirmed.
“I feel that I should warn you,” I mentioned, “that I am quite immature, although I’m told that should you be able to keep me alive, I will eventually be cured of that condition.” I tried my best ingratiating expression. “And you will have the dubious opportunity to influence my growth so that I become more in line with the kind of man you desire as a husband.”
She took a deep breath – preparatory to broaching a painful subject, I thought. I was right. “And what do you plan for your secondary Mamas?”
I firmly made eye contact. “I am seeking a total partnership. Both of us will have veto power over any additional Mamas. It is a biological reality that with a 5:1 gender ratio, each marriage needs to accept an average of 5 females. But,” I punctuated with upper hands raised high, “we need not rush to add anyone, and we need not accept any that upend what we are trying to build. They need to fit in with us – and I will veto any addition that would undermine your position as Head Mama.”
Zia slowly indicated her relief. “That is all the assurance I needed.” She smirked. “I will need your comm-code, of course, and we will have to meet my family fairly soon. Especially if we want to have the ceremony this weekend.”
I had been starting to stand – I slammed down onto the chair. “What?”
Zia was vastly amused, I could tell. It wasn’t as if she was attempting to conceal it, after all, and I suspected that it was at my expense. Fortunately, like everything else she did, it was a gentle humor.
I tried to explain my shock. “I had assumed that it would take quite a bit longer to get your agreement, and that I would have time to arrange for a home for us; I only have a one room apartment by the spaceport …”
“I have a solution for that, too.” As she got up from the café table, she asked, “Do you want to maintain your connection to your birth family or your clan?”
“Not at all,” I shot back. “But … what does that have to do with anything?”
“Well, if you can get your father to state your debt, regardless of the discount, you can give him the payoff right before our ceremony.”
“But that’s why I need to argue him into a discount – I need to preserve my bankroll to start up our business,” I argued.
“You won’t be paying it – my father will.”
“Um, Zia,” I said gently, “no dowry has ever been that much.”
“No, but combined with a clan buy-in, we can make it work. Father can cover it, and we have some homes that will do nicely. You will be in the Cloovatni clan, living with us, instead of under the thumbs of your father.”
Clan buy-ins sometimes flowed to the clan, in the case of a strong clan allowing in a desperate member. And sometimes they flowed to the individual, when the clan was seeking a new … heir? I shook my head to clear my confusion. It didn’t work. “So why are you saying yes so rapidly? You know so little about me?”
Her answer translates almost perfectly into a saying from Earth: “Opportunities come infrequently. When it rains gold, put out the bucket, not the thimble.”
And after our business began, shortly after I became a Cloovatni scion, we were able to put into words the realization that I had, the one that started our family. It’s not ‘people over policies’ – it’s ‘people *are\* our policy’. We selected our people, we invested in our people, we set up systems where they could achieve and excel.
And by rewarding our people, we are in turn rewarded.
submitted by ArchivistOnMountain to HFY

5

My friends and I are urban explorers who break into doomsday bunkers for the super wealthy. We snuck into one my father built, and we'd be lucky if any of us escape from it alive. [Part 3]

Part 1
Part 2
Part 4
Part 5
I last visited a mall during an urban exploration outing about three years ago with Joe and Nicole. It was just before Nicole had met Isha, and about a year before Cheyenne had joined us.
It was the largest mall in the region, and I had fond memories of it from its last gasp as a cultural center in the early 2000s. It took my mother thirty minutes to drive me and my then two-year-old brother to it. I remember following her through the massive, snow-covered parking lot into the vast space inside.
People from all walks of life happily bustled between well-stocked stores. A Christmas tree stretched up to the wide ceiling of laminated glass. I delighted at the holiday decorations as my mother plopped me into Santa’s lap. Those were good times.
But, you’ve probably already guessed the derelict state it was in many years later when Joe, Nicole and I snuck in after dark. The factories that left for cheaper labor overseas took the local economy with them. Only a handful of third-rate stores remained, and they were on their last legs. Ceiling tiles were missing. Rubble and shattered glass lay strewn over large areas of the floor. We were there during the summer, but I’d seen pictures of snow falling through the broken overhead windows and covering where the artificial Santa set had once thrilled me.
My present surroundings went far beyond what I witnessed in 2002 and instead represented what I had only seen in movies taking place in the 80s or 90s. Or, at least, they likely did before the floor above spilled a putrid river of decomposed bodies, supplies, and hardening molten metal over its lower level.
This floor was twice as tall as the others, allowing it space for an upper and lower level connected by an escalator. The ceiling was painted light blue – a poor substitute for the sky I yearned to see – and held bright lights. Some flickered irregularly while many others, no doubt affected by the massive hole the molten metal had made in the ceiling, dangled limply and failed to function. I noticed a thin and translucent ladder-like structure extending down from the hole. Dozens of the Chindra who had fallen to B3 ran up it back to B2.
The mall’s stores sold toys, men’s clothes, women’s clothes, lingerie, electronic gear, food, tools, and plenty else. The bottom level had a merry-go-round (I think I rolled off the tarp that covers it earlier), a food court, and a video arcade in which I found myself positioned atop a claw machine. I’d never won anything from one, but Mason had once snagged a giant plush frog that he’d kept in his room through middle school.
“Hey, you!” called a chubby man. He and a curly-haired woman swam towards me through the muck. Both were dressed in grey uniforms. “We’re coming over to you!”
Well, at least not everyone here is a clone of my father. I had every reason to expect them to be hostile and prepared myself to dive back into the water and swim out of the arcade. Hopefully, Nicole and Joe had survived and would be close by.
The woman climbed out of the water and balanced herself on the glass casing of a coin pusher machine a few yards behind me. I rolled my eyes when I saw the face proudly etched into the pieces of silver within it.
The man, not finding a surface that could reliably support him, grabbed onto the top of a mini bowling machine. Their supply belts indicated they were maintenance people.
“I haven’t seen you before. You from B5?” the woman asked.
I nodded. I had access to there, so it was likely an answer that wouldn’t give away that I was an intruder who’d helped cause this mess.
“I didn’t think they let y’all out,” said the man. “The rumors I’ve been hearing are that y’all get pumped full of…well you-know-what, and they keep you on a real tight leash during the pregnancy until you deliver, and then the process starts anew. I didn’t think y’all even had access to the plaza.”
What the fuck, I thought. Oh god.
I recalled the extensive notes on my card about my physical health, and how Isha and I were both assigned to B5. Was “Med/Rep” a place for…fertile women to deliver children? The repairman’s description didn’t exactly make it sound like a mere facility to assist women in pregnancy; I had the feeling that dad’s calculations alone determined whether and when someone got “pumped full of” you-know-what.
The hunter who carried away Isha did so after checking her ID – he must have taken here there after seeing that she was assigned to it. All the more reason to get to her as soon as possible.
“Do you know what this disaster is all about?” asked the woman.
I shook my head, wanting to give up as little information as possible.
“We were here to address an issue with the overhead lighting,” said the man. “But this is absolute hell. Never seen anything like it. Good thing the mall was closed and powered off when whatever this is happened. Otherwise we’d be shocked to death.”
“I need to get back to B5,” I said. “All this flooding has disoriented me…do you know the closest way down?”
“Well, most of the hatches and the door to the main staircase won’t even open when there’s flooding,” said the man. “And, the elevator’s powered down at the moment.”
“There is a door by the restrooms upstairs,” said the woman. “It leads to a maintenance hatch down to B4. It’s on a different system and would probably still work.”
My father’s voice rang out over the intercom before I could respond.
You’re probably surprised to find yourself in this setting, Robyn. Let me give you a quick explanation. This country saw in the 80s and 90s the beauty of a free market left relatively untouched by those arrogant enough to think they should interfere with it. These shopping centers brought together people from across our society. They spawned innovation through competition. They made us wealthy and happy. So, I decided to incorporate consumer culture into Abernathy City.
The denizens of B1 and B2, back when I was still planning on using human workers, would work for a few dimes a day. In their biweekly hour of free time, they would be permitted to spend what they earned down here on the very products they put together. The academics on B4, the medical staff on B5, and the technicians on B6, who earn much more, are still to be the primary customers. Robyn, I’m so close to achieving my dream. All I need is a few more modifications for this whole facility to run like clockwork, and when it does, the plaza will be at the center of its society.
Returning to our present predicament: I’ve got good and bad news for you. First, the good news: based on the responses I’ve found online, your summary has thus far not been lacking in detail. As I said before, I haven’t read what you’ve written yet, but I look forward to reviewing it when this is over! Also, you will be delighted to hear that Mason is alive and well! And, your other friend…Elsa was it? Well, I am delighted to inform you that she’s about to begin contributing to one of the most important tasks of all in a self-sustaining society.
“What is this?” asked the man. “Who’s the boss talking about?”
I feigned confusion even as I fretted over Mason and Isha.
Now, for the bad news, continued my father. You and your friends have been a serious annoyance to me. The damage you’ve caused will take quite some time to repair. I’ve put the Chindra to work on patching up the leak you created, and they stopped the flow of water for now. But, the flood may remain in my shopping center for quite some time.
You may have noticed that the ooze produced by the Chindra has a binding quality to it that assimilates different life forms into one living entity. Well, let’s just say that I did a bit of experimenting with it to produce something that could defend this facility in a situation like this from intruders like you.
This did not sound good. I closed my backpack and tied it tightly to myself. I needed to flee, and I wanted to take my supplies with me.
I’m taking off the kid’s gloves, Robyn. It’s time for you to face your hardest test yet. I really don’t expect us to have another of these conversations. You’ve never held up well against strong adversity. It’s been fun, little bird.
“The hell was that about?” said the repair woman.
As the sound cut off, I noticed a thin red dot on the wall behind me. I followed it as it approached me and then disappeared from the wall.
“What’s that on you?” asked the woman.
I glanced down and noticed that the light now hovered on my chest. I’d seen enough movies to know what was about to happen. I dived into the filthy water and swam away as I heard two gun shots ring out.
When I surfaced at the other end of the room, the man was gone and the woman drifted lifelessly in the water. I pushed her body away from me and noticed two bullet wounds in her; the shots meant for me must have hit her instead.
“You can add poor Ms. Hershing to the list of people who’ve suffered because of you,” said my father – not from the intercom, but from the very room I was in. Was he another clone sent to kill me? “Poor Robyn. Always wanting to do good, always ending up doing harm. You got that from your mother. You certainly didn’t get that from me.”
I scanned the dimly-lit room for him. Did I see something moving near the claw machine where I’d just been stationed? The water shifted unnaturally there, and something solid glided atop it – a submachine gun with a laser sight.
A translucent face gradually turned in my direction. It was my father, but his skin resembled that of the Chindra, in that it heavily blended with the background. “Surprised to see me like this?” he said with a smile. He raised his gun.
I dived again and swam desperately for the arcade entrance as I heard the loud thuds of gunshots. Blood dispersed into the water before me as a shot meant for me hit the corpse of a man I recognized as the owner of another doomsday shelter – the one I’d spray-painted months earlier – and an old business partner of my dad’s.
I surfaced by the Merry-Go-Round, where I gripped a horse’s head for support as I treaded water. The escalator upstairs (not functioning, of course) was on the other end of the shopping concourse. I had to get up there and take the maintenance shaft down. But, it was a long way to the escalator, and the route was littered with wreckage and floating corpses. Hopefully, I could lock it behind me to at least delay this clone and the third hunter from before, if he was still alive.
A ‘thump’ sounded on the roof of the merry-go-round directly above me. “Little bird,” called my dad. He must have climbed up there and seemed to be using a flashlight to scan the area ahead of me. “I know where you’re going. And I’m not going to let you make it upstairs. You could really use a pair of wings now, couldn’t you?” He laughed.
“Boss, is that you!” cried the voice of the repair man. Dad’s flashlight shifted to where he’d waded by the entrance to a toy store. He must have fled after seeing his partner shot.
“Have you seen my daughter?” the clone asked.
This distraction would be my only chance. I knew that I swam for it, I’d never make it to the other side without being spotted. So, instead, I lay on my back, kicked off from the merry-go-round, and floated, doing my best to quietly fit in with the numerous bodies that filled the corridor and only gently kicking to keep myself moving in the right direction. It was hardly a perfect illusion, but hopefully I would avoid detection in the darkness long enough to at least put some distance between me and my dad.
“I think so, a young woman was with me in the arcade,” I head the repair man say. His voice was close; I must have drifted towards him. “Why can’t I see you, boss?”
“Where did she go?” asked my father’s clone. I brushed against another body as I glided further away, measuring the distance by the passing lights on the ceiling.
“No idea,” he said. “Where are you, exactly, boss? All I see is the flashlight.”
I drifted underneath several functioning lights that cast me in greater visibility. I tried not to shiver in the freezing water. Thankfully, my father didn’t seem to notice.
“Then you’re no use to me,” said my father.
I felt myself bump into the maintenance man. “Huh?” he said, startled. “Wait, boss, I think I found-”
Two more shots rang out. The heavy force of the man’s body crashed into me, sending me underwater.
There was no use in pretending any longer. I swam while submerged, pressing onwards despite the weight of my soaked backpack, as far as I could go. When I surfaced for air, only a few shops remained between me and the escalator.
A ring of light appeared around me only a moment later. I dived again as my dad fired. Luckily, a nearby half-eaten corpse shielded me from several shots as I swam closer to my destination. I didn’t have time to process why I recognized the corpse's faded dyed hair.
Bullets hit the water all around me again when I next surfaced. Most landed in the space between me and the stairs; he was trying to block my path. One bullet ricocheted off the wall. The next thing I remember was incredible, reverberating pain as high-pitched noise flooded my head. I grabbed at my left ear and, to my horror, discovered that part of it was missing.
Panic and shock ran through me. I hurried into the nearest store, which sold men’s clothing. I dizzily sputtered in and out of the water. The world spun around me even as I grabbed onto the dry top of a clothing rack and tried to calm myself.
“Clever girl, blending in with the dead like that,” called my father. “But not clever enough. I’m coming for you. We’re about to have a long-awaited reunion.” He was getting closer. I heard distant gunfire from upstairs; perhaps Nicole and Joe were facing a similar enemy.
I needed a place to hide; maybe I could lure him deep into the store and sneak out the way I came in while he searched for me?
I found myself against a wall. How did I even get here? What part of the store was I in? I was bleeding, a lot, and likely to get infected from exposing an open wound to the toxic substance in which I was immersed.
“I’m here, darling! Come to papa,” said my dad. The noise my wounded ear had sent into my head had diminished enough for me to understand him.
I used the wall to push myself along until I found a corridor away from the soaked clothes that filled the store. I realized I had stumbled into a series of dressing rooms. I swam to the last one and locked the door.
“You’ve got a lot working against you, Robyn. Not only am I stronger and smarter than you, but I also know how you think. You’re hiding in here, hoping to draw me in, and to then sneak out the way you entered.”
That was may plan, until my dizziness led me to corner myself. It was only a matter of time before he found me. From the sound of his voice, he was in the area by the check-out counter. I had a few moments as he looked through the store.
“I’ve read your diaries, your emails, your text messages,” he continued. “It delighted me to no end when I learned that you would make a trip out here. If you’d texted the date and time, I would have prepared a welcoming committee. Why did I spy on you like that, you may be thinking? I wanted to see if you measured up to the family name. And guess what? My early assumption was correct. You didn’t.”
I threw my drenched backpack onto a small raised surface for placing clothing as I stood on a cushioned sitting platform that extended from the changing room’s wall. I took out two objects.
“Your grades were painfully mediocre. You didn’t excel at anything – sports, hobbies, you name it. You even lacked your mother’s ability to find a superior marital partner – her only skill.” He was on the opposite side of the store now. If I wanted to escape, now was my chance. But I knew I wouldn’t make it.
“I know everything about you,” said my father. He was at the entrance to the changing area. Luckily, I had a plan. And that plan involved him coming to me.
“I know you had your first kiss with that no-good Sheldon boy after senior prom. You waited over four years after that to get laid, only to lose it in a lousy one-night stand with a guy you’d just met and never talked to again. ‘The most awkward two minutes of my life,’ you texted Nicole the next morning,” he said, in a mocking voice. “Haven’t held a guy for more than three weeks since.”
If he was trying to rile me up, he was succeeding. I’d known about the diary entries, but it pained me to realize that this monster had reviewed virtually every private correspondence I’d ever made.
“It’s no wonder you’ve ended up at a convenience store, spending your free time with a bunch of dropouts and vandals,” said my dad. He knew he’d found me. I heard him push open the door to the first of the three changing rooms. “You always were a disappointment.”
The second door opened. I put on the goggles I’d taken from the hunter earlier as I braced myself.
“I blame your mother for creating you,” taunted my dad. He was in the stall next to me, moving more slowly as he cherished the moment of impending victory before he caught up with his prey. “But after she gave me the male heir I wanted, she became useless to me. She wasn’t worth the trouble it took keep around, much less the trouble of divorcing her. Little bird, you still think, even after all that you’ve seen today, that she died in random accident, don’t you? You inherited that naiveté from her. Not from me.”
I’d never been more furious as rage coursed through my veins. Even so, I composed myself and lifted my arms.
“Our journey is at an end, Robyn,” said the clone. "I hope you've enjoyed the tour so far." He was directly in front of me; only the flimsy wooden door divided us.
I fired three times through the barrier. He made muffled screams. I heard him crash into the water. “You didn’t count on one thing, dad,” I said, kicking the door open.
My goggles saw through the camouflaged skin of my fleeing father. One of the shots had hit his gun, which drifted broken in the water, and the others had hit him. As he feebly tried to wade away, he brushed against the wall and left behind a trail of blood on its white paint as he did so.
“You’re far sicker than I ever realized,” I said as I followed him. “But I knew that you spied on me when I was younger. I knew you were lying when you said that you wouldn’t review my notes until this is over. More specifically, I’m sure the clone I’ve been talking to has been reading them and sharing their contents with you. That’s why I didn’t mention that I picked up a gun from the fallen hunter in the last update. That’s why I wrote that I was ‘unarmed and defenseless’ when I really wasn't.”
I fired a fourth shot into the back of his head. He collapsed into the water and stopped moving. I returned the pistol to where I’d kept it in my backpack.
I’d known that my dad would outgun me in a fair fight. My dad was a gun enthusiast, whereas my only experience with firearms was when Nicole helped me fire a few rounds at a makeshift shooting range the five of us had made out of several weeks’ worth of empty beer cans in my backyard. But I had a plan in case I got cornered, and, miraculously, it had worked.
As I reached the escalator, I heard the sounds of a firefight upstairs. I climbed the steps carefully, staying low and using the metal sides as cover.
I saw Nicole crouched by the front counter of a jewelry store. Her stained, sleeveless white t-shirt exposed the strong arms with which she held the shotgun she’d nabbed earlier. In the back of the store, behind a cash register, was the remaining hunter – yet another clone of my dad. Unlike the one I had just fought, he was fully-visible and didn’t seem to be ‘joined’ to any degree with the Chindra. Did they all retain my real dad’s memories and consciousness? How was that even possible?
He noticed me and let off several shotgun blasts. I ducked and covered my head as the metal around me shook violently. I heard two more shots after that, followed by Nicole’s voice.
“You can come out now, Robyn. I’m so glad you’re alive.” I emerged cautiously to find Nicole standing over the hunter’s whimpering body. “Joe and I have been in a long standoff with him. He didn’t know I was there. Your distraction was all I needed to get the drop on him. Shot him twice in the chest.” She snatched away the dying hunter’s shotgun, removed its shells, loaded some into her weapon, and slipped the rest into her backpack.
“You look like you’ve seen better days,” said Joe as he stood up from behind a sunglass stand. “But I’m glad you’re okay. That guy had me pinned down here for ages.”
“You need to get that treated,” said Nicole, motioning to my ear. She whipped out her first aid kit, removed an antibiotic ointment, and prepared a set of bandages.
“Go ahead,” whined the hunter. A pool of blood extended out from him, and he clearly had no capacity to move. “Get it over with and kill me.”
“Let me have your knife,” I said to Nicole. She looked at me blankly. “Now!” I asserted. She handed it to me. “Hold him down if he tries anything,” I ordered my friends.
I proceeded to drive the blade into the hunter’s chest between his gaping wounds. The hunter screamed in further agony. “What are you doing?” cried Joe.
“How about we make this is long and painful as possible?” I said. “Unless you answer my questions.”
“Robyn, we’re not like that-” Nicole said.
“Do you have all of my dad’s memories?”
“Yes,” croaked the clone. “Up until he last had his brain scanned on B6; about a year before the helicopter accident. After that, I have the memories of the primary clone, who you’ve been hearing on the intercom, and then my own memories once I was created from him.”
“Did you really kill my mother?"
The clone smirked. “I’ve made some mistakes in my life. One of them was waiting six years after Mason’s birth to get rid of her. I should have done it sooner.” He spit blood up at me. Anger coursed through me. I dug the knife deeper into him and twisted it.
“One more question,” I said, as his blood and saliva ran down my cheek and dripped back down onto him. “What does that clone – the ‘primary clone’ – want with Mason?”
The clone nodded through the pain of two gaping shell wounds and a knife protruding from him. “Your real father – the one who died in the crash – has been kept in the same stasis chambers used by the Chindra since the helicopter accident. He isn’t dead, just extremely close to it. The one you saw at the funeral was a clone created just to be used there as a prop.”
“What does that have to do with Mason?” I asked.
The clone eked out a gleeful smile. “Your real dad wants to resume the life he had before the accident. We’ve developed a technology to help him – one that can transfer a consciousness between bodies. Not just create a new clone, but actually cause him to experience his own life continuing in a new body. It is built around the mechanism through which the Chindra queen communicates with the rest of the Chindra.”
“The bodies have to be compatible, and compatible bodies are hard to find,” the clone continued. “They require certain physical, cognitive, and genetic commonalities, and differences in sex and gender can pose substantial obstacles in humans. He also wants a younger, fresher body than the clones we can presently create, and his clones have demonstrated occasional instability that make them undesirable vessels for him. So, for the time being as we continue the testing phase, we rendered the facility only accessible to those fully-compatible with him that fall within those parameters. We were soon going to begin soliciting ideal individuals using our access to medical records. If we got desperate, we would even accept someone half-compatible like you, though your father would be reluctant to try a risky procedure just to inhabit the body of an underperforming female. But, luckily, you and your friends brought an excellent candidate right to us.”
“Your father wants to take the form of the son who better resembles him and bears his name. The procedure will upgrade Mason’s current consciousness. The boy will simply be replaced by an improved version of himself: his father. Have I answered all of your questions? Can I die already?”
“Fuck all this,” said Nicole.
“Mason,” gargled the clone as he raised his head closer to me, “will grow up to be just like me. It is inevitable.”
I kicked the knife deep into him with all the force I could muster. The clone finally stopped breathing.
Joe kept saying something to try to calm me down. I didn’t – couldn’t listen. I walked clumsily in a circle before collapsing on the ground.
When I awoke, Nicole had wrapped a towel around my wet form and bandages around my ear. Joe had gathered our armaments – the shotgun, my firearm with four bullets left in it, a fire ax, and Nicole’s knife. Joe, who still had Mason’s backpack, realized it contained Mason’s key card, which will give us access to the bottom level when we needed it.
I shared with them the information I’d obtained about the service entrance to B4 and then the painful news I’d heard about where Isha had been taken. Nicole was as furious as I expected. A sense of urgency drives each of us – to get Isha, to get Mason, and to get out.
My iPad, barely operating and with a crack in its screen, buzzed, and I quickly typed this update just in case my dad (should I say ‘the primary clone’?) still has the ability to cut off the air supply if I fail to do so. Don’t worry – there are no lies or omissions this time around. I hope, dad, that you can forgive that minor deviation from my otherwise thorough notes.
Nicole, Joe, and I are heading down for Mason and Isha. We will stop at nothing, and I recommend warning anyone else still present in Abernathy City to stay the hell out of our way.
submitted by PeaceSim to nosleep