Chapter 23:

Search for the Golden Arch, Part 1


On the Earth left behind by humanity, remainers had little reason to keep track of specific days. Due to their computerized brains, they always knew exactly what month and day it was (though they often deliberately omitted the year for their own mental well-being), but it was little more than a counter for them. They had no need nor time for special occasions, and none of them had celebrated their birthday in centuries.

There was one exception: the little celebration the remainers all decided to hold at the end of the year. It would be the one time they would allow themselves to let loose and celebrate the work they'd done. It was almost entirely an excuse to indulge what was left of their humanity, and while there were severe limitations to how exactly they could celebrate, they were still determined to have as much fun as they could.

This celebration was in fact the next destination for Caleb and Hope. They had come straight from Alaska, and they were intending on doing more work, but when Caleb realized what day it was, he insisted on taking Hope there instead. Hope had disagreed, but it was clear that Caleb was not going to take no for an answer.

“Will we even make it in time?” Hope sighed as she trudged through mud dampened by the newly melted snow. “It'll be three more days before we can even make it back to headquarters.”

“We'll be fine,” Caleb replied. “Remainers have to make their way from all over the world to attend this celebration. If we only held it for a day, way too many people would miss out. The party lasts for at least a week, and sometimes it even goes on for longer.”

“Longer than a week?” An uncomfortable grimace spread across Hope's face. “I can't imagine they'd genuinely slack off for so long.”

“Well, people come and go, so it's not like you have to stay for the whole thing. We're probably only going to be there for a day ourselves.”

“Thank god,” Hope groaned in relief. “We've done nothing but walk ever since we left Alaska. I'd like to do some work so Computer doesn't think I was a waste of time.”

Caleb smiled wryly. “Well, at least give the party a chance. You'll probably be meeting a lot of remainers there for the first time. You could learn a lot from them.”

“I've already got all the necessary knowledge loaded into my brain,” Hope retorted. “What else do I have to learn?”

“I enjoy talking to them,” Caleb said. “They've got a lot of fun stories about the past, you know.”

Hope seemed to have a sarcastic reply prepared, but to his surprise she kept her lips shut. That was good. It was a sign that she was coming to understand basic decorum.

Their journey continued for a few more days until they finally arrived at headquarters. The party itself was being held in a clearing a short distance away from the building, and since Caleb and Hope arrived one or two days after the beginning of the new year, celebrations were already underway. There were all sorts of tables and chairs placed around the area, and what could have been more than a hundred remainers were scattered about chatting and generally enjoying themselves.

“There's so many people here,” Hope said with a bit of awe in her voice. “I didn't think so many of the remainers would get so excited over a celebration.”

“Remainers can still feel mental fatigue, after all. Even you have to admit you get exhausted every now and then, right?”

“Hmph.” Hope didn't respond to his prodding, but the lack of a concrete denial told Caleb that he'd hit the mark. He turned his attention to the crowd of remainers and looked for people he recognized. As he did, another remainer came up from behind and gave him a tap on the shoulder. Caleb turned around to see a large man with a bushy mustache giving him a hearty grin. His clothes were surprisingly clean and his face was well-groomed, considering his occupation.

“There you are, Caleb. You're early this year!” He said with a large smile on his face.

Caleb turned around and grinned. “Hey, Paolo. Thought it'd be good for the rookie, so I booked it here to make it on time.”

“Oh, is this the girl they're talking about?” Paolo remarked with a raised eyebrow. “Damn Computer. Always going around doing crazy things. Er, not that I mean any offense towards you, miss.”

“None taken. I know just how insufferable that machine can be.”

“Well, if that's the case, I think we'll get along just fine,” Paolo said with a laugh before turning to the crowd. “Hey everyone, come greet the new girl!”

A large group of curious remainers detached from the main crowd and swarmed the duo instantly. Caleb was surprised that anyone was this interested in Hope, but he wasn't completely caught off guard. Hope was the first of her kind, and if she was successful, there were sure to be many more to come.

Still, that didn't mean that Hope was a threat or a danger to them. In the end, she was created using human DNA and cells, and while her lived experience was different from theirs, they still felt a kinship to her as fellow remainers. A kinship that Caleb himself felt a little isolated from, as welcoming as they usually were.

As he watched Hope attempt to stem the flood of questions from some of the more excitable remainers, Caleb noticed a pair of remainers approach him. It was a European man and woman, both sporting light-blonde hair, softly browned skin, and warm, expressive countenances.

“Luka! Gemma!” Caleb grinned wide as he greeted them. “I haven't seen you two in years. How have you been?”

“Well enough,” Luka replied with a wry smile. “Can't say I love making the trek all the way from Europe for the celebration, but since it'd been a while, I wanted to come by and say hi to everyone.”

“That's the girl, right?” Gemma asked as she put her hands on Caleb's shoulders. “I heard news about her from the others, but I didn't expect her to be so human. I thought for sure Computer had put together some horrible Frankenstein-like contraption.”

“Yep. I'll introduce her to you later once she gets free from the others.”

The duo waved goodbye to Caleb and went off to mingle with the other remainers as Hope reappeared, looking visibly haggard. “I can't believe you left me alone like that,” she grumbled with a glare that was more emotionally intense than anything she had thrown at him previously.

“I guess that was your first time interacting with so many other people, wasn't it?” Caleb chuckled. “Don't worry. I was prepared to save you if you were getting too overwhelmed.”

Hope scoffed, then looked to the other revelers. “So? What are we going to do at this party now that we're here?”

“Why not have something to eat?” A clear voice rang from behind them. It was Paolo, carrying a large tray with sliced meat piled on top of it. “I've been working on these cured meats all year, tweaking and switching up the recipes to perfection. Go on, give it a try.”

Almost immediately, a crowd of remainers stopped what they were doing and rushed to the tray, which Paolo laid down on a nearby table. A wave of adulation swept the crowd as the first few bites of meat were tasted, and Paolo quickly had to step in and make sure things stayed orderly.

“Now, now, limit yourself to one slice until everyone else's had a piece! Don't get greedy, I've got plenty more where that came from!”

Paolo set down more trays of meat as the remainers continued to flood the tables. Caleb could tell that Hope was surprised and gave her a little nudge. “You're not gonna give it a try? Paolo used to be a chef before he became a remainer. His food is pretty good.”

“I don't need to eat.”

“Neither do they,” Caleb shot back. “But they're eating just for the pleasure of it. You have taste buds too, Hope. You can still get enjoyment out of food even if you don't get nutrition from it.”

Hope seemed doubtful, so Caleb walked over and grabbed two slices of cured meat from one of the emptier trays. He handed one of them to Hope and bit into the other one. “Delicious! Gotta hand it to him–he hasn't lost his touch even after all these years.”

Hope was more hesitant, but ultimately she gave in and ate the slice of meat offered to her. Almost immediately her eyes lit up, a detail Caleb did not fail to notice.

“Well? It's good, isn't it?”

Hope blushed as she tried to hide her pleased expression. “I acknowledge the skill of an artisan, but nothing else.”

“What's with that attitude? I won't get you seconds if you're going to be difficult.”

Hope glared at him, but ultimately gave in. “Fine. It tastes good.”

“That's all I wanted to hear.”

As he endured another of Hope's withering glares, Caleb noted the sound of music in the air. He glanced around and spied Luka on a chair with a guitar in his hands. It was one that he had made from both materials he found in the wild and leftover parts discovered in the wreckage of cities. He began strumming a song, the lyrics to which many of the other remainers around him already knew.

“That's right, Luka was a musician. I guess he's that type that can't bear to go without his passions.”

“Aren't remainers supposed to leave artifacts of the past behind?” Hope asked stoically.

“A little reminiscence every now and then isn't bad,” Caleb replied. “Besides, he made that thing himself. Cut him some slack.”

The song soon ended, and as Luka began strumming another, Gemma came forward to the sound of cheers and whistles. She soon began singing out in a loud, clear voice that roused the hearts of the tired remainers.

“What an astounding voice,” Hope said, entranced. Even she could not remain stoic when confronted with the majesty of Gemma's voice. “They must have been famous musicians in the past.”

“Probably,” Caleb murmured as he watched the performance from afar. “I would've liked to have seen them in their prime.”

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