The bespectacled man's face blurred over, and was replaced by the image of a pair of bloody hands wrapped around a narrow neck.
Roy woke with a start, gasped for air, and wiped the sweat from his brow. A white light projected from the lens of his green contacts while he stared at his shaking hands with slightly jagged nails. A smiling avatar formed from the light, and blurred the sight of his hands. “Roy, your heart rate is 10% higher than normal,” it said in a robotic feminine voice. “Did you dream of something unpleasant? Please breathe and take your morning dosage. Everything is okay.”
“Yes, everything is okay, thank you Navi,” Roy replied. He calmed his breaths and reached for the small bottle on his nightstand. With his thumb he popped the lid off and raised the pointed end over his right eye until a drop fell. He closed his right eye as the liquid seeped into his contact lens, and applied it to his left eye.
When he opened his eyes, the avatar projected itself over his hands, which stopped shaking. “Much better, Roy. Your heart rate is back to normal. I’ll be here if you need anything adjusted. Have a wonderful day serving the people of Aesthetica.”
“Thanks, Navi,” Roy replied. He blinked twice, and the smiling avatar withdrew. He glanced at his unblemished fingertips and got out of bed.
“The weather is ideal for you today,” a different robotic voice said from the corner of the mirror where a graphic displayed the temperature and a sun half-lit. He buttoned up his white dress-shirt and tightened the belt around his gray slacks, smoothed back his oiled hair, and slipped his leather shoes on.
His trek down the hallway found a green haze let off by more green glass, and when he entered the kitchen, his eyes were greeted by dull yellow lights dotted across green glass. The lights followed a line until they reached the silver fridge, and one of its drawers slid open without a sound thanks to the slow jazz instrumentals that played throughout the room.
A carbon bottle presented itself with wisps of cold steam, and he opened it and took a gulp. A sharp breath out left him smiling as he retrieved his briefcase and departed.
He stepped onto the brick verandah where an white-eyed old woman walked by with a smile. “Good morning,” he said as he smiled back and glanced at the cobblestone road where cylindrical cleaning bots scrubbed around. He walked in the opposite direction, where numerous lampposts still shone on the green-tinted brick of his apartment building. Just as he looked, the lamplights cut out, and while the remaining cleaning bots scattered, he noticed something red smeared on the brick he was about to step on.
His foot hovered over the brick, and he blinked twice. The brick went blurry for a half-second, and when his vision refocused, the smear was gone. He chuckled through his nose, stepped past the brick, and checked his watch. Its digital display read “7:02."
The sun peeked over the wall that surrounded the metropolis of checkered stained glass buildings and bathed them in light. Smiling faces began to flood out of their apartments onto the road, and screens switched on amidst the glass of every building.
“Good morning, citizens of Aesthetica!” a hearty feminine voice sounded over the image of a smiling avatar. "A perfect day is on the horizon for each of you! Today, topaz citizens will see their AI officers to have their navi checked. Emerald citizens will see their counselors, and amethyst citizens will see their doctors. Lastly, pearl citizens and quartzes will see their aesthetic officers to have fortitude and aesthetic levels checked. Please be on time, and remain happy on this wonderful day in Aesthetica!"
"Roy!" a man with blond hair and the same outfit as Roy cried from the other side of the road as he navigated the swarm of smiling faces. "Good morning," he said as his green eyes glowed.
"Good morning, Felix," Roy replied with a smile. "Running late, too?"
"Yes, I just slept so well it was like heaven My poor navi had to yell at me until I woke up!"
"Sounds about right," Roy replied with a chuckle as he checked his watch. "Well we ought to get moving if we want to make it on time." The two of them jogged past hundreds of smiling faces on the crowded road, many of which watched a red-haired idol dance and sing an upbeat song.
"I bet you're excited to see your counselor today, huh?" Felix asked, nudging his ribs. "You're lucky you get to see a purple-eyed beauty every Monday, while I have blue-eyed Egen!"
"Dr. Egen is a handsome man, what's there to find unpleasant?"
"He's more handsome than me, for one. How will I find a purple-eyed beauty to marry when there are blue eyes like him running around? He's young and not as fortified as us, but he's also smart and handsome enough to act like a purple eye. He'll probably be one before us!"
"Maybe," Roy replied with a shrug. "He's already a counselor despite being a blue eye. But you might want to slow down before your navi has you explaining this conversation with him later."
"Oh I'll be fine, why do you think I complimented him?" Felix asked with a smirk. "Besides, I didn't even call him a topaz— oops."
"Felix, is everything okay?" said an avatar projected from Felix's eyes. "Are you talking about a citizen's rank in an unpleasant way again? Do you need anything adjusted?"
"Uh oh, do I need to screen you? Check your levels?" Roy asked, patting Felix on the back.
"No thank you, both of you. Besides, I can check my own levels!"
The two reached a green stained glass building, and sat at neighboring cubicles. Roy clicked his computer monitor open and when he reviewed his schedule for the day, his eyes went wide. "Felix, I have a quartz today."
"Oh, a quartz," Felix replied from the other side of the wall. "This will be your first, right? Nevermind that, won't this be your first time in the outer district?"
"Since I was a quartz ten years ago," he said, glued to the screen. "Not that I remember much."
"Aesthetics sure do a number on the mind of a seventeen year-old," Felix said. "Guess you'll see how they manage nowadays. How close is this kid to his baptism, anyway?"
"Only a week till he turns eighteen. And he's flagged as non-responsive to aesthetics."
"Oh boy, looks like you're in for a treat. Hopefully you don't have to call the red-eyes on him."
"Call the red-eyes on who?" a woman asked as she appeared behind Roy.
Roy spun in his chair, while Felix leapt to his feet. "Chief Aldheim, good morning!"
"Chief, I was just reviewing my appointments, and noticed a quartz was added— Ken Jitsuo." The woman brushed her dark hair back and bent over Roy's shoulder. Felix let out a muffled gasp, and her purple eyes glowed as she peered at his monitor.
"That's right, I assigned him to you," Aldheim said as she stood up. "They asked for you specifically, actually, said to make sure I thought you were ready. He's a bit of a quirky one, I hear. Immigrated alone, so he's been living in the outer district by himself for a few months. Apparently he's on the fast-track to becoming an AI officer or something bigger, so he may be getting a little bit of special treatment."
"I understand," Roy said with a nod. "I appreciate your confidence, Chief."
"You deserve the opportunity," she replied. "Get him ready for his baptism in a week and we might both get a promotion." She winked, and her eyes glowed bright. "You a purple, and me a red. You could take over and be Rathskell's boss."
"My pscyhe might not find that pleasant," Felix said, shaking his head with a nervous smile.
"Then maybe you need to go back to being a blue eye?" she asked with pursed lips. "And be careful talking about citizens needing red eyes called on them, even as a joke. You're going to have problems when you get your navi checked. Besides, shouldn't you be focused on getting Ellie Rogers ready for her baptism in two days?"
"Yes, of course, Chief," Felix replied with a jerky bow, and sat down.
Aldheim sighed, and turned back to Roy. "Anyway, the kid may be quirky, but he's smart. You shouldn't need any red eyes. Besides, you've handled citizens with relapsed Derangement Syndrome a time or two. Just stick to your training and you'll have nothing to worry about."
"Understood. Thanks again, Chief."
She left, and Felix peeked over the partition. "You're lucky, Roy. If you get promoted, you better help me keep my green eyes. I can't lose my Saturday night bar pass, okay? Seriously."
Roy laughed, and put his headset on. Consumed by slow jazz, he worked until his watch showed 10 AM. "Well, I'm off to my first appointment."
"Who's this one?" Felix asked.
"Mrs Baranov," Roy replied as he stood up.
"A pearl, huh? You get an easy morning but a not so easy afternoon, opposite of me…"
"Her husband just joined the AI, Felix. But still, I'm sure we'll both be fine."
"Right, just having a laugh," Felix said, glued to his monitor.
"Well good luck, and make sure you aren't late."
"You too. Don't get lost daydreaming about your appointment with Dr. Purple eyes."
Roy chuckled and shook his head. "See you after lunch." A ten-minute walk brought him to a neighborhood of cabin-sized homes that hugged a narrow river-walk. He knocked on the door of one of the homes and was met with a smiling old woman and lively classical piano music.
“Officer Grainger, you’re right on time,” she said as she beamed at him with eyes so white they sparkled like sunlight.
“And as always, you can call me Roy, Mrs Baranov,” Roy said as he smiled. “May I?”
“Yes, come and sit. You haven’t had morning tea yet, have you?”
“No, I’ve been looking forward to yours all morning,” Roy replied as he reached the kitchen, which bore a pale white on its walls and appliances. With two blinks, the lights switched to green and yellow, and the music stopped. He sat and opened his briefcase on the glass table. “While you brew that tea, I’ll go ahead and set up the screening.” He retrieved a tablet and laid it flat on the table. With a few taps, he pulled up a report with several image attachments.
“All ready,” Mrs. Baranov said as she laid a carbon mug next to Roy’s right hand which tapped away. She sat down opposite him, and began sipping her own tea with a meek grin.
“You seem a bit nervous, do you need to adjust anything before we begin? Maybe the music?”
“Oh no, it’s okay,” she replied with a hand wave. “It’ll just have to be turned off anyway. Don’t concern yourself over me.”
“That is my job,” Roy replied, and laughed. “Well, if you insist, we can go ahead and lower all effects. Your last dosage was this morning, right?”
“That’s right,” she said as she folded her hands.
“Still 250 nanoliters?”
“Alright, let’s dim the lights and turn off music,” Roy said as he looked her in the eyes. When they locked eyes, they both blinked twice, and the lights cut out. The only light left in the room came from Roy’s tablet, and their eyes. “May I confirm with your navi that effects are lowered?”
“Yes, Officer,” a feminine voice replied, though no avatar appeared from the woman’s eyes.
Mrs. Baranov’s hands shuddered for a split second in the light of the tablet, and Roy furrowed his brow. “Well, in a moment we can review Dr. Vanna’s report on your check up and go over any health needs that may require adjustment. But first I’d like to ask you about a dream you had. Your navi captured a lucid image and submitted it to your AI officer. I’m going to pull that image up now, and ask you a few questions if you’re ready.”
She nodded, and he clicked the tablet. The screen’s light projected itself vertically, forming a transparent screen which displayed an image of a shovel lying next to a patch of disturbed dirt. “Can you tell me what this is a picture of?”
“I… believe it’s a grave."
“But Aesthetica doesn’t have graves, does it?”
“It doesn’t. I’ve probably recalled something from before I immigrated.”
“Dreams will do that,” Roy replied. “But there’s usually a catalyst, like a concern or unpleasant feeling. Do you have any of those right now?”
“It might be a fear, Roy,” she said as several blue spots dotted her eyes.
“And what might that… fear… come from? Your husband’s passing?”
“I know he’s been called to join the AI in navigating us to our happiness…”
“You’re right,” Roy replied in a near whisper. “Your faith is strong as ever, Mrs. Baranov. Your husband Isaac is assisting your happiness more than ever. But, please, continue.”
“I… fear,” she replied with a gulp. “That somehow, I won’t be able to see him again.”
“And why would that be?”
“Because he’s…” She looked away from the image, and her eyes flashed solid blue. “…gone.”
"We can stop there," Roy said as he swiped the screen, and the image disappeared in favor of the room's lights. Mrs. Baranov blinked twice, and took a deep breath.
"I'm sorry, Roy," she said, her eyes back to their white hue. "I know better than to think like that. Father Gregory says those who believe in Aesthetic Intelligence will live here forever.
"Exactly," Roy replied, squinting. "But Mrs. Baranov, I'm sorry to ask… May I take a sample?"
"Oh, yes, whatever you think is necessary, dear," she said, sticking her hand out to reveal a small capsule which protruded from the skin between her thumb and index finger. He pulled a small device out of his briefcase, stuck the clamped end of its thin tube over the top of the capsule, and held the digital reader attached to its other end. He twisted the clamped end, which opened the capsule, and moved its slider back to retrieve a blue liquid.
He waited for it to beep, and its display read "hourly avg: 189 nl". He looked up with a frown. "Mrs. Baranov, is it possible you forgot to take your dosage this morning?"
"Why… I suppose it is," she replied, her eyes wide. "Oh no… How could I be so careless?"
"It's okay. These things tend to happen in our later years. "You aren't in danger, so as long as you take your dosage now, everything will be okay."
"I'll do that, thank you." She withdrew a bottle and dropped its contents into her eyes.
"We'll leave it there for today," Roy said as he stood and packed up. "I'm going to move up your appointment with Dr. Vanna. And if your AI officer asks you about this tomorrow, try not to be alarmed. It's just protocol. Even if we decide to up your dosage, it will be okay. Alright?"
"Y-yes, Officer Grainger, I understand."
Roy walked along the canal, and typed up a report on his tablet. He ended the report with "Please have her navi checked thoroughly to ensure proper disclosure."
"Roy, did you need directions to Dr. Phuong's office?" his navi asked within his head. He shook his head with a smile, and followed the road to a yellow-stained builidng.
"Good morning, Roy." The door opened in the small patient's room, and the blond-haired, purple-eyed woman smiled at him. "How are you?"
"Good morning, Dr. Phuong," Roy replied with a smile. "I'm well, and you?"
"I'm doing great, thank you," she said as she set her clipboard down and took a seat on a rolling stool. "Why don't you sit?" Roy followed suit, sitting on a small sofa opposite her.
"Anything new with work since our last visit?"
"I did have a citizen skip their dosage, which proved a bit trying," he replied, arms folded.
"Oh? Is everything okay? Did it leave you with any unpleasant feelings?"
"No, it's okay," he replied, shaking his head. "I was a bit affected, but I didn't require assistance from my navi. But, this morning…"
"Did something happen?"
"I had an unpleasant dream," Roy replied, eyes downcast. "I think it was about my baptism, which I know is common, but then I had an image of my hands… wrapped around someone's throat. I have no idea why. But my fingernails were wounded, and when I woke up, they actually hurt. I did activate my synthetic nerves before taking my dose."
"Well that's good. Aesthetics and Synthetics work together to assist in our happiness. You stabilized your synthetic nerves, which gave you time to take your dosage. Many citizens need their navi's assistance with that, so that's a testament to the strength you have in those green eyes." She winked, and chuckled through her nose.
"The last part of your dream is a bit concerning, though," she said, tapping her leg with her finger. "I'm sure your navi will have sent the image to your AI officer. But if this isn't something you've dreamed before, it's probably safe to chalk it up to your baptism dream and forget about it. The one question I have… Did you remember anything specific about your baptism?"
"No, nothing about The Truth. I'd have gone to the chapel, of course."
"Right," she replied, chuckling. "Well, how's the rest of your day looking?"
"Actually, I'm going to the outer district to screen a quartz."
"Oh? Sounds like an eventful day for you. Do you want to schedule an appointment for tomorrow, just in case the quartz gives you any trouble?"
Roy waved his hands. "Oh, I wouldn't want to trouble you."
"It's okay, I enjoy our visits," she replied with a grin as she looked at her watch. "It looks like I have an opening for noon, anyway."
"Okay, I won't argue, then. I'd like that."
At noon, he departed, and sat down at a cafe with purple and yellow lights. He was served a small cup of coffee, and a plate of chicken and rice. When he returned to the office, others greeted him with a smile, but when he reached his cubicle, Felix wasn't at his.
"Chief Aldheim, have you seen Felix?" Roy asked as he approached the office at the end of his row. "He's not back from lunch."
"He had some trouble with his quartz," she replied without looking up from her desk. "Nothing to concern yourself over. You have your own quartz to prepare for."
"Yes, ma'am," he replied with a polite smile as he walked back to his cubicle and reviewed the file named "Ken Jitsuo". He squinted when he got to the section notated "Close associates." "Ellie Rogers… That's the one Felix saw."
He left for his afternoon screenings, and when his watch showed 4PM, he made for the outer district. His breaths grew labored by the time he reached the iron gate that separated the bright architecture from the decidedly dimmer outskirts, and he greeted the red-eyed guard who returned his smile with a scowl as he stood and dusted off his gray fatigues.
"Show me your eyes, sir," he said in a grainy voice. The two locked gazes, and the words "Sable Rausse/Ruby/military officer" appeared over his eyes.
"Roy Grainger, an emerald aesthetics officer with an appointment with quartz Ken—" His cheek and eyelid tensed up, and he cracked his knuckles. "You're screening Ken Jitsuo?"
"Yes sir, is there a concern?"
"I doubt you'll find the kid," Sable replied as he sat down. "The bigwigs have been trying to find him, they want him to help counter the hacking from the terrorists on the outside— oh right, you call them anti-aesthetics, sorry."
Roy narrowed his eyes. "He's that talented?"
"Yeah, talented enough to block the tracking on his watch and navi but still use them. Those of us with 100% synthetic brains can't do that, so it's scary to think about what he'll be capable of when he becomes a full citizen and upgrades from 25%."
"Even at 50% I can't do anything like that," Roy said with a forced chuckle.
The man pressed a button and the glass bars connecting the gate retracted. "I doubt he's willing to see an aesthetic officer, but if you do find him, let him know he's got a lot of other people looking for him, not just the bigwigs."
Roy gave a slow nod and passed by. "Will do. Thanks for the heads up."
"Just doing my job," he replied with a yawn as he sat and pulled his hat over his forehead. "Don't forget, the outer district is less regulated. Make sure your fortitude is taken care of." Roy nodded and hurried through the less populated streets of the outer district, and found his eyes blurring to adjust something almost everywhere he looked, from cracked bricks to tattered wooden buildings. What remained was the blank stares of red-eyed soldiers, and the inquisitive stares of several pink-eyed teens.
"Roy, would you like directions?" his navi asked within his head. "That's okay," he replied. "I don't think I'll find him where I'm supposed to, anyway." He looked at his watch, and found a message where the address of his destination had been. It read "Meet me at The Aldgate".
"Okay, Navi, I think I need directions now."
"Right away." It projected itself to form a map. He followed its digital arrow to an even dimmer block with flickering lights over a sign that read "The Aldgate Pub. "Do you need anything adjusted before you go in?" it asked, reverting to a smiling avatar. "What about taking your evening dose early?"
"That's okay, my job calls for me to be able to handle things like this." He approached the wooden storefront and pulled over its creaky door. Inside, three men in dark clothes sat at a table, drinking under a dim hanging lamp. They looked at him with red eyes and scowls.
He locked eyes with one of them, but the only text that appeared above him was a question mark. Roy gulped, and approached the men. "Do any of you know if I can find someone by the name of Ken Jitsuo here?"
"Ken? Not here."
"Do you know if he was here, and if he might return?"
"You think we have to answer your questions?"
"No, not at all," Roy replied, waving his hand with a forced smile. "I apologize if I intruded." He hurried to the farthest table from the men, and as soon as he sat down, another message appeared on his watch's display. "Out back." Another message followed right after: "Order a shot of Suntory first."
Roy furrowed his brow, and proceeded to the bar, where he locked eyes with the yellow-eyed bartender as he ordered the whiskey. When he set the glass on the counter, Roy held out a thin metallic card with his name on it. The man blinked at the card like he was taking a picture, and his eyes glowed. He stuck his thumb up and began to walk away.
Roy glanced at his watch. "Oh, do they have peanuts?" a message read. Roy sighed as he flagged the bartender down. After he paid again, he walked back to his table, but never sat down. Instead, he made for the back door which laid at the end of the hall to the restrooms, and pushed the door open with his hip as he balanced the drink and snack in his hands.
"Hey, you guys really do make it on time everywhere!" a youthful voice cried within the shadows of a dark alleyway. A tall, lanky boy emerged from the shadows, smiling a goofy smile and adjusting the straps of his backpack. "And you really do cater to your patients— this is great!"
"Are you Ken?"
"YOU must be Roy," he replied, stepping into the sole light in the alleyway to reveal a baggy black hoodie. His boyish face suited his singsong voice, and his messy black hair nearly covered his pink eyes. Roy locked gazes with him, but a question mark appeared over him as well. Two more question marks followed as the boy tilted his head, and then two upside down question marks. Finally, the phrase "BOO!" appeared, and the boy threw his hands out and made a goofy face. Roy stared at him with a dumb expression.
The boy nearly fell over laughing. "You should've seen your face, Roy!" Roy let out a sigh mixed with a chuckle. "I'm Ken!" he said, hand outstretched with a grin. "Nice to meet you, Roy!"
Roy handed him the peanut bowl and shook his hand. "Pleasure to meet you, Ken."
"No need to be so stiff," Ken said as he poured the peanuts into his mouth from above his head. "I'll have to call you Roybot if you're like that all the time!"
Roy released his grip, and scratched his head. "Sorry, I'm kind of at a loss for words." He looked down at the glass of whiskey, and nearly raised it to his mouth before Ken snatched it and gulped it down in one go.
"Ahh! Thanks for that," he said with a close-eyed grin. When he opened his eyes, he tilted his head. "Oh, don't worry, I turn eighteen in a few days! I won't report it if you don't." He waited a moment, and doubled over laughing.
"Um… May I ask why you had me meet you here?"
"You talked to the gate guard, didn't you? They're pretty much all looking for me."
"But you agreed to see an aesthetic officer?"
"Not just any aesthetic officer," Ken replied as he polished off the peanuts. "You, Roy!"
The door burst open, grazing Roy's hair on its path into the wall. The bartender stood there huffing as he glared at Roy. "What are you doing taking my dishes outside?" he cried as he shifted his gaze to Ken. "Ken! You owe me money you little quartz shit!"
"Run, Roybot!" Ken cried as he grabbed Roy's arm. The bartender grabbed a hold of Roy's other arm, and Ken chucked the bowl at his crotch. The man howled and fell backward, while Ken and Roy took off down the narrow alleyway.
"You've made a lot of enemies, haven't you?"
"You don't know the half of it," Ken replied with a laugh. "They want us to experience everything we can before our baptism. So I have fun, but it seems to put people at odds with me, though."
"Roy, are you okay?" Roy's navi asked inside his head. "Your heart rate is skyrocketing, and I don't even know where to start with the unpleasant scenery and language."
"I'm fine, I have to do my job," Roy replied in his head. "I'll let you know if it gets to be too much."
"Hey, no chatting with your navi in private!" Ken said as he looked back with a pout. "Oh, here's fine for now." He stopped on a dime, and turned down an adjacent alley with better lighting.
Roy caught his breath, and strode to catch up to him. "I have… so many questions. But I'm here to do your screening. And that's what we're going to do. He grabbed Ken by the shoulders, and moved his back into a dusty brick wall. He set down his briefcase and pulled out his tablet.
"Aren't we supposed to be in a special room or something?"
"I can do this anywhere," Roy replied, wagging his index finger downward. Ken crouched to the dirty asphalt, and Roy squatted down against the opposite wall. He tapped away until a white light projected itself between them.
Ken's eyes changed from pink to blue as the white light formed an image. However, his blue eyes then turned green, and then purple and yellow, and finally returned to pink as he snorted at the image— a bowl with one peanut in it.
"Look, it's Ralph the bartender!"
Roy sighed. "So you're on such a high level that pretty much all of Aesthetica's tech is useless."
"Pretty much, yeah."
"Okay, forget the peanuts," he said as he swiped the image away. "What's your deal with aesthetics? I don't need to test your…" He winced. "Blood, to know you aren't taking your dosage. Why? Are you afraid of your baptism?"
"No, I just haven't decided if I want to do it," he replied plainly. "Also, you aren't going to trick me into losing my cool. I'm not on aesthetics, so I don't need them to stay sane."
"Please don't…" Roy muttered as he held his hand over his eyes. "Don't say words like that."
"Looks like your manipulation tactic turned around on you."
Roy took a deep breath and removed his hand. "Why wouldn't you want to live inside as a full citizen? What point is there in being in the outer district, then? Why not just leave…?"
"Do you actually think there's anything out there?" Ken asked, his lips curled and his eyes wide. "The only thing out there is suffering and death."
"Exactly why Aesthetica is the perfect place," Roy said, staring him in the eyes. "It's Earth's last bastion of hope, the only place you can live in a town full of happy people and find happiness yourself. Everybody wants to be here… Why wouldn't you…"
Ken stood up. "I don't want to be controlled like the rest of you."
"There he is!" someone shouted from the path they'd come from. "It's Ken!"
"Oops, Ralph's buddies caught up," Ken said as he sprang into a run. "Let's go!" Roy followed, and they came to a fork in the road. On the right, another group of men ran toward them.
"There's the little shit," cried the leading man, whose voice belonged to the gate guard.
"Oh come on, not now," Ken said in a whiny voice as he took the left fork.
"So let me get this straight," Roy said through labored breaths. "You're wanted by the military and you've picked fights with soldiers and small bar owners?"
"To name a few."
"Yet the outer district is where you want to be?"
"Better than being a sheep on the inside, or dead on the outside."
Roy gnashed his teeth as he blinked his eyes through blurred walls and windows. The alley finally ran into a road, where a military truck rolled by, followed by several cleaning bots.
"Wait," Ken said, holding his hand up. They hid until the truck was out of sight, and Ken jumped out into the road. Ken crept up behind the bots, and waved his finger in front of his face like he was tapping on a screen. Two of the bots stopped on a dime, and he smiled. "Get on."
Roy, wide-eyed, looked the bot up and down before he stepped onto its base and hugged its round trunk. Ken laughed, then glanced at the alley they'd come from.
"Ken!" the gate-guard cried. When Roy looked at him, his name, Sable Rausse, appeared.
"See ya, Sable!" Ken said with a smirk as the bots turned around and zoomed off.
"Where are we going?" Roy asked through choppy breaths. "I need to finish the screening."
"You're still on about that?" Ken asked, jutting his head as the bots turned down another street. "Give up, you still have a week to get me dependent on aesthetics. There's somewhere I want you to see. Maybe you'll think it's not so bad here."
Roy looked back, and his jaw dropped. The armored truck was speeding toward them with the rest of the cleaning bots in tow. From the passenger seat, Sable pointed a long barreled gun.
"Oh, shit," Ken replied. He waved a finger around, and their bots deployed metallic parasols.
"This is for rain!" Roy cried as his eyes darted to and fro and the truck began to blur.
"Yeah, graphene is something else, huh?" Ken said as the parasols swung down to cover each of them just in time. A thud resounded as something batted into them, and exploded into dozens of pieces which ricocheted in every direction and grazed Roy's elbow.
"They're just rubber bullets," Ken said with a wink. "Sable would be in big trouble if he killed either of us. Those BB's will mess you up though, so cover your eyes."
Roy did as he said as another bullet slammed into his parasol. The pellets scattered again, and one landed in his forearm. He grunted in pain, but gnashed his teeth and blinked twice. His skin pushed the bullet out, and the pain turned to a tingling.
"Let's see if we have some, too," Ken said, and a double barrel turret lifted itself from the top of his bot. It fired with a crack as it pelted the truck's grill and hit a tire. The tire sank, and the truck tipped to one side before swerving to a smoky stop.
"Oops, they were real bullets," he said with a chuckle. The bots continued their path unfollowed while Roy remained silent until they entered a square plaza lined with the only stained glass buildings around. Ken tapped the air until a voice sounded from inside the bot. "Code Orange on the run in the shopping district, chasing a female quartz. Everyone to their intercept points!"
"Good timing, I'll let you see this first." He cut the line with a flick and led Roy, whose eyes darted around, into an empty building. A flight of stairs brought them to a vacant rooftop, where they overlooked the plaza which basked in the light of the sun setting beyond the wall.
Ken leaned over the glass railing. "You want to know why I agreed to see you? I want to see the inside of Aesthetica before my baptism. I'll even let you do your screenings if you can make it happen. I want to see whether the people are really happy. Whether living there is really worth the blood it's built on."
"What does that mean?"
"The writings of Dr. Peter Jordanson. What did they do to the world?"
"His writings contained The Truth," Roy replied. "Everyone who read or heard his words developed Derangement Syndrome, and turned on each other. Countries destroyed themselves from the inside out, society collapsed, and the world became a lawless wasteland. Until a group managed to restart society here, founding Aesthetica."
"Go back to the part about everyone turning on each other," Ken said. "Why'd the writing make everyone go mad?"
"If you're asking me to recall The Truth, you want me to break my contract of citizenship."
"I'm not talking about the Truth. I'm talking about the cure to the derangement created by it." He pointed to the plaza, where a young woman appeared, running from a knife-wielding man. She stumbled and backed herself into a stained glass wall, tears in her eyes. The man's eyes glowed bright orange as he scratched at his head with bloodied fingernails.
"What?" Roy said as his breathing halted, and his fingers jittered out of his control.
"I've already figured it out," Ken replied. "Which is another reason I don't want to be baptized. I don't know what The Truth is, but I know the only way to cure Derangement Syndrome, the only way to put your mind at ease without aesthetics—"
The sun disappeared behind the wall, and dozens of ground lights flooded the plaza with the myriad of colors reflected off the stained glass. The lights also revealed two turrets in the west corner, manned by men in gray fatigues. Their red eyes shone as they moved their arms.
"—is to kill another person," Ken said as he slumped against the glass, and the crazed man was made into an ornament on the wall. His blood smeared across the colorful glass as well as the woman's face as she dropped to her knees. The bullets that missed bounced off the stained glass with a pop, and then there was nothing aside from her screams.Roy's eyes blurred the sputtering holes and painted the scarlet blood blue, but that didn't stop his hands from shaking or his chest from heaving. Within the blur, he saw a glimpse of a slender neck being squeezed by bloodied hands. When the blur cleared, he was facing Ken, who looked up at him with a broken smile. "Welcome, Roy— to the real Aesthetica.