The gaping maw of a mechanical beast leered manically across the horizon. There was no façade of grandeur. No rose-colored glass painting the city with the illusion of paradise. Just a tangled jungle of concrete and metal where the people only served as cogs in the great design of Meropis. They were complacent against all evidence that their only purpose in life was serving the continuity of the city. But a new dawn was on the horizon. She had to believe that, if not only for her own morsel of sanity as she preserved the pretense that she was one of the herd, but also for the future generation to come.
The illusion, however, held true behind closed doors.
The mid-morning light stretched its brassy limbs across the parquet floors of the two-bedroom apartment. Izzy wiped the fatigue from the corner of her eye with a knuckle as she swung on the steel fridge door with a phone pressed against her ear. Despite the frigid temperature beyond the two-paned glass windows of the fourteenth-floor apartment, she wore polyester shorts and an oversized grey t-shirt. Her black hair was gathered in puffy bun, misshapen and only partially secured at the top of her head. Her bed, which also conveniently served as the family couch, was currently in the process of being occupied by two beady-eyed kids making engine noises and running toy cars across the coffee table.
“I can find someone else to take care of the kids today.”
Izzy hissed out a breath of exasperation as she closed the fridge door with her foot, balancing the phone against her shoulder and juggling a loaf of bread and jam in each hand, “It’s a cold, Jas. I think I’ll survive for the next six hours.”
Admittedly, Izzy was a little nasally, but she sounded far worse than she really felt; a little hazy and groggy, but hardly requiring a house call from a doctor. Over-analyzing the common cold was an unfortunate outcome of having a nurse for a sister.
Jasmine sighed on the other end of the receiver, “It’s just, the kids, they can be pretty wild during the day.”
“They are five and three, what sort of mischief can they really get up to – Ames”, she called out over her shoulder, “are you going to give your Auntie Izzy any trouble?” The five-year-old shook her head, although it was clear as she drove the toy car off the table that it had been merely an instinctual response. It was enough of a confirmation for Izzy. “See, we will be fine. You worry about work. In the meantime, I’ll stop them from burning the house down while you are out.”
“How comforting.” Jasmine said in reply.
Izzy set the bread and jam down onto the counter. As she contemplated finding the plates and some cutlery, the intercom to the apartment pinged with a blue fluorescence.
“Look, I have to go, there’s someone at the door. We’ll be fine, Jas. We will see you when you get home.”
Before her sister could protest any further, Izzy hung up the phone.
Izzy tossed a quick look at her niece, “What did I tell you about inviting boys to the house when your mom is out.”
The five-year-old giggled and stuck her tongue out at her in reply.
Izzy smiled and running a hand through her hair, she tapped the touchscreen of the intercom. Nothing. The lobby was clear. Strange, but not entirely out of the ordinary. Half of the calls they received were for the wrong unit number. But then she heard a knock on the front door. On the other side was a face she didn’t recognize. She kept her hand poised on the door handle and waited for him to speak first.
After a few minutes of silence, Gregory fished a paper from his pocket and compared it to the number mounted on the door. His sense of direction had never failed him before, but there was a first time for everything.
“Ms. Fox?” He knocked again. “I’m conducting a survey of regional supply distribution. If you have the time, I would appreciate it if you could fill out a short questionnaire.”
He’d give it another two minutes before moving on.
It was early. Too early. Something was wrong. Slowly, Izzy released the deadbolt and opened the door.
“You guys were already here three-weeks ago.” She said a matter-of-factly meeting his stare. She didn’t know him. She had never seen him ever before in her entire life. But there was something about the way he returned her stare – a knowingness – that kept her from closing the door back on him.
He was one of them.
House calls were rare. Not just rare, extremely rare. Something hadn’t just gone wrong. Something had gone horribly astray.
“Alright, come inside, but make this quick. I’m watching my niece and nephew.” She directed him inside, tiptoeing between scattered toys and mismatched pairs of shoes.
When she closed the door behind him, her voice dropped to a harsh whisper, “What happened to Pryce?”
“Don’t know, don’t care.” Gregory eyed the floor as he whispered back. “Lucky him, his schedule hasn’t changed… yet.”
He took a few steps into the foyer. Doorless openings separated the tiny entrance from the rest of the apartment. More than one room. It would have been refreshing if Peter’s voice hadn’t immediately started playing in his head; must be a newer complex. The lobby used slate instead of linoleum tile, a bit more expensive but lasts longer and saves on cooling. I remember approving the blueprints in 327. Not my best work, but...
“Is there somewhere we can talk freely?” He asked, a bit stronger than he meant to.
There was something about his presence that felt unsettling. It wasn’t just the way he talk nor the way he looked at her when he spoke.
No, it was something… else.
She chewed on the side of her cheek diverting her eyes to floor. After a prolonged pause, she nodded her head and inclined her chin in the direction behind him, “Back bedroom.”
Izzy took the lead, cutting passed the common area where her niece and nephew still sat perched on the balls of their feet leaning over the table edge. Reassuringly, she smiled at the two of them. The youngest resumed interest in his toy, but Ames watched the two of them curiously as they crossed behind the couch to her sister’s bedroom.
Izzy wouldn’t exactly be able to hide this house-call from her sister. It was bad enough that Jasmine was wildly overprotective, add a stranger to the mix and there would no doubt be a discussion later that evening.
Quietly, Izzy shut the door behind them.
“What did you mean when you said 'lucky for Pryce his schedule hasn’t changed yet'?” She crossed her arms protectively against her chest, “What exactly happened?”
“What exactly has happened, is that you’ve been promoted.” He pulled a file folder out from under his coat and tossed it on the bed. “On the highest authority too, you should be proud.”
Recovering those files had been more difficult than Gregory would care to admit. The reclaimers were already processing Morgan’s apartment by the time he got there. Come to think of it, they should be waking up right about now. With any luck, his brief visit will be the only thing they’ve forgotten.
“You’ll be filling in for the late Morgan Thames.” He explained. “The details are in there, but his duties pertained mainly to supplies and recruitment.” He glanced at his watch. “I’ve also been assigned to train you. Our first rendezvous is in forty five minutes, can you be ready by then?”
He nodded towards the door. Muffled giggles and engine noises still clearly audible through the flimsy wood. Not my best work… Peter’s voice echoed in his head.
“Training?” She parroted. “You can’t be serious?” Shaking her head, she became acutely aware that she hadn't even gotten dressed yet this morning. She’d process the fact that someone had just died in order to promote her later when the impact of that statement finally hit her. “I don’t even know who you are.”
That was one of the complications with the game they played – none of them knew each other. They were strangers in perfect concert. It kept them safe. But a dangerous consequence was never quite knowing who you could trust.
“I don’t see how that affects anything.” Gregory shrugged. “It’s a job, not a date.”
He took a few steps towards the bedroom door before adding, “But it’s up to you. Accept the position or don’t. Either way, I have appointments to keep.”
Izzy bit her tongue and tasted metal.
When she finally opened her mouth to reply, it took a concentrated effort to keep the agitation from her voice.
“Look, make no mistake, I am one-hundred-percent committed to this initiative. I’ll do whatever it takes to see this through to the end. But I made a commitment today and my word is only as good as my action. I’ll take the position, but the training will have to wait until this evening. I don't make promises I have no intention of keeping.”
Gregory nodded, pressing his thumb and fore finger to the bridge of his nose. “Alright… Fine. I’ll take care of things until then. Just be sure to show up to the SMIR pick up.”
Grabbing the handle of the door, he hesitated before opening it, “If you do not show up, you’re not only refusing the promotion, you’re resigning.”
It wasn't necessary answering with anything more.
Resigning herself to the quietude, she waited for him to resume exiting the bedroom, before, rethinking, she stopped him a second time, “Wait, you never told me your name.”
“You never asked.” Gregory sighed. “It was one of your more promising qualities.” He pushed himself torso first through the door and marched past the two infants staring at him from the sitting room. Checking the note in his pocket one more time, he let himself out the front entrance.