Chapter 2:

Chapter 2


A figure of sleek metal glides into the compartment. Its body is rounded and seal-like, tapering off at the base into a smooth point. Its figure is so shiny that even the reflected light gliding up and down its form is hard to look at. The bright red reflection zips up and down the dark metal, like water mixed with oil. In a sharp contrast to the smooth body, a squarish-head sits on top. If one could call it a head, that is. It has a rectangular screen with a greenish tint that curves outward slightly from its frame. A black and white static broadcast crackles up the display. Overall, it resembles the ancient televisions from museums and history books. Jun decides it’s unnerving to see old technology mashed so carelessly over a modern design.

Garbled speech chokes its way out of the AI along with words scrolling up and down the screen. “Noise violation detected. L1-Z, S3-N, and N0-N stand up.”

A moment passes. The staticky AI crackles and bars of static jerk across the screen.

“Apologies, it seems you have yet to be informed of your serial numbers.” It chokes out a sound similar to the rapid ripping of velcro.

Ren squeaks.

“Apologies once again, I was merely clearing my throat.” Perhaps sensing the confused and frightened blank stares, it adds, “Not that I have a throat, of course. I don’t eat, but I’m sure you all know that. Please remember that you don’t have to be afraid of me eating you or whatever scary stories you’ve heard about guys like me.”

It chuckles, or at least does its best to. It laughs like a squeaky door hinge, far too long and far too obnoxiously. Ren buries his face into Jun’s tunic, gripping the wet fabric. Jun figures that statement must’ve been a joke. A poor one at best.

“Anyways,” begins the AI, “You have all been assigned serial numbers in order to maximize your processing efficiency. Those numbers are listed on your tags and from now on that will be your new identification.”

There’s rustling and whispering as some kids twist about, struggling to make out the numbers on the short tag in the dim light. Ren’s tag seems to press down even harder into Jun. The curiosity is contagious, but he doesn’t dare move a muscle after being part of the reason why the AI entered the compartment in the first place.

“Ahem.” A loud pop of static, almost like a threat.

The rustling stops.

“There is no need for that.” The voice tone is the same, but the words are all capitalized on the screen. And for a second, Jun thinks he sees the font color flash neon green. “I will do roll call daily and make sure you are well aware of your identifiers.”

It begins drifting up and down the aisle. There’s no obvious hovering device keeping it afloat, so it appears suspended in the air, as if hanging by invisible strings. If it ever did touch the floor, the weight of the machine might prove too much for the elegant and narrow base. Its shadow bends and warps like some sort of shapeshifting monster as it moves under the glaring red light from the other side of the door.

“I have been notified that you humans perform best when getting the adequate amount of time to sleep each night. Thus, once the lights go out it is obligatory that silence is maintained to ensure quality of rest.”

“Ha,” snorts the lizard-faced boy. “Like I’d sleep any in these seats. They’re harder than your metal a- “

He’s cut off as the AI blasts a horribly loud and high-pitched chirp. Everyone claps their hands over their ears. The inhuman and unnatural shriek seems to reverberate after the initial cry is over. Jun’s head is throbbing from the sudden shock. The world seems to vibrate and spin with the ringing in his ears.

The words on the screen are bolded, capitalized, and flashing bright pink and green. The static tone is clearer now, but somehow that makes its speech more unsettling. The sudden clarity makes its next words heavy and distinct.

“It seems you have been mistaken. I am rather malleable and flexible.”

In a fluid twisting motion, the smooth body bends itself in half until the television head is curved above Lizard Boy’s face. There are no cracking or obvious seams in the warped metal, impossibly so. The slick convex screen is only a few inches from his face, making his freckles stand out sickly under its green and pink lights. Jun can see the words scrolling up the screen reflected in the boy’s wide eyes. The text melts into unrecognizable squiggles of light as the boy’s eyes become shiny with moisture.

“I do not enjoy being insulted and I am sure you do not either. Let’s get along or else I’ll have to move up your expiration date.” The static sound comes back on, even louder than before. There’s a more distinct buzzing to it, like an angry swarm of hornets.

Lizard Boy blinks, his eyelashes aglow with shimmering droplets. The overwhelming proximity to the AI’s screen is making his eyes water. He swallows hard but doesn’t look away. 

“Expiration date?” stammers Lizard Boy.

Jun decides this kid is the type who doesn’t know how to keep his mouth shut. He probably got in trouble a lot in school for interrupting. Still, Jun is concerned by this expiration date. The more the AI speaks, the more he realizes that he has no idea what awaits them.

The AI straightens up, resuming its original form. The text reverts back to lowercase black and white, regaining its composure. “Expiration date. It is a term that you humans are quite familiar with. Let’s have some audience participation. I hear it's quite good for enhancing memory.”

A panel slides open above the screen, and a small spotlight shines out onto a girl with a headful of thin but ragged braids. Instinctively, she jerks her arms over her face, trying to escape the burning brightness.

“You there!” The text flashes yellow, “I mean, R4-Z. Name something you know that has an expiration date.”

She whimpers and Jun feels sorry for the girl. R4-Z, he corrects himself.

“I’m waiting,” buzzes the AI.

R4-Z sniffles as she lowers her arms. Her eyes are two glowing saucers of fear. Under the spotlight all color is washed out from her skin. She might as well be someone out of an old photograph. Her chin quivers. “Milk,” she says softly.

The spotlight blinks off and the cloak of darkness is pulled over R4-Z once more. The AI’s text flashes a neon blue. “Good answer R4-Z! I’m sure you all know that after the expiration date, a product starts to go bad. No one likes drinking spoiled milk, am I right? Not that I’d know.”

It chuckles its spasm of a laugh before continuing. “Each one of you has been assigned an expiration date based on scans and tests done by the lovely processing team who brought you onboard.”

The lizard boy’s face somehow scrunches up into a shape even uglier than its usual expression at the word “lovely.” For once, Jun agrees with him. There’s nothing lovely about armed drones forcing you away from the only home you’ve ever known, stabbing you with needles, and jamming tags through your earlobe.

“Everyone here will be put to good use until their expiration date. When your expiration date comes, you will be disposed of. It’s not any different than throwing out spoiled milk that has gone all nasty.”

The air suddenly feels heavy. A bead of cold sweat drips down Jun’s back and he can sense the unease around him. Ren’s hands are clenched in a death grip around Jun’s waist.

The AI seems to notice the atmosphere, adding, “However, expiration dates can always be changed. We are constantly reevaluating. If a product has shown itself to be rotten ahead of its original date, which sometimes happens, its date will be moved up or it will be disposed of then and there. In the same manner, if a product shows great productivity and longevity, its expiration date is postponed because it is clearly still fit for good use. Any questions?”

If anyone wonders what being “put to good use” means, they don’t say it. No one dares say a word. Even breathing is too loud.

“Ah,” crackles the AI. “I totally forgot! I came in here for a noise violation. This little spiel was supposed to be given in the morning when all of you would have the energy to listen.” The text is italicized now. “Silly me! Oh well, please forgive the intrusion. I’m being quite the hypocrite, aren’t I? Telling you to be quiet when I’m rambling on. Silly me!”

It bobs up to the compartment door, which opens automatically for the AI. A narrow hallway is visible behind the formidable machine, but what lies at its end remains unknown.

“Since I messed up, I’ll excuse whatever happened here tonight. See everyone in the morning!”

The AI slides out the door and the red light vanishes. All that’s left is an overwhelming silence. Someone coughs awkwardly and apologizes.

In the stories Jun read when he was younger, mystical beings would sometimes visit people in the dark of the night. Sometimes they were benevolent, wish-granting fairies and other times they were tricksters and demons. In some stories, there were angels bringing good news. This nighttime visitor, however, was no angel.

Unexpectedly, doors slide open and the horrible lights fill the compartment once again. The cursed visitor burbles, “I’ll make sure everyone knows their numbers in the morning!”

The doors shut and the red light snaps off.

Jun closes his eyes, too tired to even think about what happened. Ren’s hands are still clenched tight around Jun, but his breathing is slow and sleepy. Jun finds his hands methodically stroking Ren’s hair, as if replicating their mother’s familiar motion will bring some sense to the situation. If she and Dad were here, they would know just what to do. Except, there was no way Jun and Ren would ever see them again. For the first time that day, Jun let himself cry a little.

Click. The red light flashed back on. The absent-minded demon was back.

Horrified, Jun’s hands leapt to wipe away the incriminating stains on his cheeks. There was no way he would let any of the other kids know he had been crying. Especially not Lizard Boy who had stared the AI in the face and held his ground. Even though Jun disliked him, he admired how the boy had kept himself from breaking down.

The AI’s screen is buzzing with flowery yellow text. “Sorry everyone! I just realized I forgot to introduce myself! I apologize for how rude I was telling you so many things without even giving my identification. I am SNS-404. Nice to meet everyone!”

SNS-404 ducks back out. For the last time that night, the door closes and the compartment returns to darkness.