Sleep never comes that night. I have been asked to think about two very large things and have no idea where to begin. Thinking belies the words that echoed throughout the Pleasure Dome: Don’t think, do. They served me well there.
First off, Boone can’t be right about Breeders never conceiving. There was Maya. Her belly had gotten big and round. Everyone was so excited … but then she had been taken away for a time and brought back, her belly flat once more. A false alarm, she told us. No matter how hard I wish it not to be so, Boone is right. At least during the 10 years I occupied it, the Pleasure Dome never produced a child.
Now the really hard thinking began. We were Breeders who couldn’t breed. We were given food, robes, a bed, and never were required to do anything except Couple. I’d never thought about it before, of course, but why? Humbots were required to do our bidding; if one fell to disrepair, it was removed. If a game we played malfunctioned, it was repaired or replaced. Isn’t it logical to believe that if Breeders didn’t breed, that they would be removed or replaced?
The next thought almost made me sit bolt upright, but I held myself back. Who, I wondered, would do the removing, the replacing? Other than humbots, Breeders were the only beings in the Pleasure Dome. Who supplied the food? Who provided the clothing, the beds, the CU-Screenplays … everything? Was it the Ancients? I thought about Ishmael. He knew many things, but his body was weak, his eyesight dim. I wondered, then, just how many Ancients there were.
Still, no one was ever replaced that I could remember. We reached 20 years of age and moved to the Colony. Where did we go from there, though? Did we become the Ancients? Another thought made me gasp. If the Breeders weren’t breeding, where did new Breeders come from? There was a steady population; odd how I’d never even considered how many of us there were. It was never crowded. Were there 200? 500? Many more than that?
All these questions I’d never thought of before, but had no answers. Even though Boone frightened me with his talk about being in danger, I could hardly wait for the morning and our walk by the ocean. He must have some answers for me. There were also many more things I wanted to ask Ishmael.
The next morning I’m groggy, but determined to make the most of the time Boone and I will have out of doors. With mask firmly in place and his hand in mine, I begin asking questions even before we reach the ocean.
“How am I in danger?” I begin. “Where do new Breeders come from? How many Ancients are there? Will I and other Old Ones become Ancients? What happened to Miron? Why do we not have children? Are all humbots like you?”
Boone squeezes my hand roughly. I take it as a signal to be quiet. We can’t get to the ocean fast enough.
Once there, he places his hand on my neck as before. This time we walk along the shore as we communicate.
“All of your questions will be answered,” Boone says before I can ask some more. “But since our time outside is short, many will not be answered until we are at rest tonight. First you must tell me how it is with your Ancient.”
“One very quick question before I answer that,” I say. “When did the bees die?”
By his hesitation, I can tell that he is surprised by my question.
“The last documented sighting of honey bees was 210 years and three months ago,” he finally answers.
That stops me in my tracks. If, indeed, Ishmael had been alive when the bees were still on the earth as he said, he is beyond ancient. How can that be?
“Diana,” Boone interrupts my thoughts, “tell me how it is with your Ancient.”
Despite my misgivings; Ishmael had warned me not to say anything, after all, I tell Boone everything. I leave nothing out: the books, the reading, the globe, even how he wheezes and seems weak. That part seems to interest Boone more than anything else as he tightens his grip on the back of my neck.
“It is as I feared,” he says. “The Ancient grows weaker and will need the LifeSpark very soon.”
LifeSpark. Before I can ask, Boone rushes on.
“No, not all humbots are like me, but there are many,” he says, seemingly answering my most trivial question first. “Our creator saw the vast psychosis that gripped the minds of those in power. More brilliant than all those minds put together, he buried within our microscopic circuitry a conscience – for lack of a better word – that would only engage should there be an awakening within us. No human, except you, knows this and it must remain so.”
“Understood,” I say. I, who have never been asked to keep a secret in her whole life has been asked to keep two very large secrets within the last few days. One promise has already been broken.
“Breeders do not breed because that is not their true purpose,” Boone goes on. “You will not like to hear this, but if you thought about the things I asked you to think about last night, you will see that what I say is true.”
I try to prepare myself for what he’s about to say. Instead, he asks me a question.
“Diana, what do you see before you?” he asks, taking me aback.
“Well, I see windmills and I see water, a great deal of water, as far as my eye can see.”
“And you saw a globe at your Ancient’s, did you not? And you saw where we are?”
“Yes, but he said it was an old globe.”
“Do you believe that on that globe – on this earth – there is but that small place where we are at this moment? That the rest is covered with water?”
I’d never given that a thought at all and I tell him so.
“Then have you thought where things might come from? Your robes, your food, any of it?”
At last I can tell him, that yes, I had thought of that, just last night.
“There are other lands, Diana, even now,” he says. “There are other people, other cultures. Not as many as 200 years ago, but they exist. And they trade between themselves.”
“Trade?” I ask.
“Yes, they trade commodities. One culture still produces metals and has the wherewithal to create foodstuffs. Those are commodities. Another has – and will not share – the technology to create soft goods – such as fabric for clothing, the skins and hair for humbots – out of the very rock and sand in its surroundings. Not even the most sophisticated humbot has been able to unravel that secret. All of them produce their own energy. Water, sun and wind are abundant.
“There is another, but I will not speak of that place now.”
I thought about those things and I realized at the same time that this land – my land – was none of those.
“And us?” I asked. “What is our commodity?”
“This is the part you will not like,” he warned.
“Entertainment. The people of your land produce entertainment for all the rest. You are the commodity.”
It takes a second for me to understand his meaning. I think of the Pleasure Dome, of all the Couplings, the CU-Screens … it suddenly feels like someone is ramming a spike into my belly. I double over, even knowing how it must look, and vomit into the ocean. I don’t care if it results in another interview.
“We must go now,” Boone says. “We have been much too long here. We will blame your sickness on too much exposure.”
Frankly, I didn’t care what we blamed it on. And though it wasn’t fair or logical, right then I blame Boone for all of it.
“Why did you tell me all this?” I cry as we trudge back to the Colony. “Have you nothing good to tell me?” I know I am being reckless, but I simply don’t care. One part of me wants Boone to do or say something reckless.
Instead, he brings his hand back up to my neck as if to help me along.
“Diana, if there is good to tell you, I will tell it. But if I am found out, all of the telling will end.” He drops his hand to the small of my back.
How could I be so stupid? I hang my head in shame, remembering that Boone is trying to keep me from danger, a danger he has yet to talk about. I grit my teeth, then grab hold of his hand. It’s all I can do at the time.
Thankfully, there are no humbots waiting for us in our chambers. The CU-Screen is playing yet another DigiRest screenplay, which always end with beatific smiles on peaceful faces. My hand goes automatically to my pocket. I think back on how I was and how I am now. Oblivious is what I was. Ignorant. A commodity. Had I ever done anything simply because I wanted to? Had I ever placed value on life, on others? Given just a little bit of knowledge I find I want more. With a tiny understanding of how life works, I want to participate in it, actually choose how my own life is led. If there is danger ahead, I would rather know than not know.
I stare fondly at Boone, who prepares the evening meal. Even he is manipulating me, though guiding is perhaps a better choice of words. And that is all right. I can choose not to allow it or to allow it. And that makes all the difference.
That night, when Boone places his hand against my neck, I reach up and hold it. Then I pull it gently to my breast. I know there is no surprise built into Boone’s circuitry, but I still smile a bit, imagining it to be so. I pretend that his readiness isn’t merely programmed. And while I turn toward him and bring my lips to his, I think briefly of the CU-Screen, then dismiss it. Boone is my life partner and this is what I choose.
We don’t talk that night, but it’s very early when I feel Boone’s hand below my ear again. I’m ready to hear what he has to say.
“Diana, I am glad that I have been able to please you.” That wasn’t what I expected to hear and it makes me snuggle closer. Of course, being a humbot he has to go and ruin the mood.
“There are but two Ancients, Diana, yours and a female, equally as old.”
Another surprise. I wonder if I’ll ever get used to it.
“Radiation and chemical poisons humans set loose on the earth, killed much of its population. The smaller creatures went first. Then plant life. There was a huge human toll, but the largest part of that was not death, but a shorter life and sterility. Those few who were able to conceive gave birth to still-born monsters. Only a dozen or so still had viable seeds and eggs, and now just two.”
I knew which two; he didn’t have to tell me.
“One was a brilliant, but insane scientist. He searched his whole life for a Fountain of Youth. He killed many in the process, but he did, indeed, find it. He discovered the LifeSpark, an infinitesimally small particle imbedded deep within the brain. It is removed, then injected into the chosen few. The donor, if you will, must be alive and awake during removal. Immediately afterward, however, they die.
“I believe you are the next donor,” he adds.
My whole body goes cold, but Boone holds me closer.
“Immediately after the injections, the Ancients are able to produce rejuvenated eggs and sperm. As many as possible are harvested, then grown in a laboratory … the source of the new members of the Nursery and the Pleasure Dome. Indeed, the source for the rest of the world. An even more important commodity.”
The members of the Colony, then, are ready-made donors. And worse, Ishmael is everyone’s father, including my own. I think I may be sick again.
“As the Ancients grow older, though,” Boone goes on, “fewer and fewer fertilizations work ...”
Just then, the door to our chamber slides open. I can’t help myself, I scream, while Boone is already pulling on his clothing. Six humbots march in. One goes directly to Boone and inserts a probe into his ear. He becomes immobile.
“What do you want?” I cry, grabbing my robe from the floor.
“You have been summoned to the Ancient,” one says. “Now.”
It’s as Boone feared. Why else would I have an escort on a day I am to see the Ancient anyway? Frightened, trembling and utterly alone in this, I know I have no choice. The only hope I have is knowing that Boone will overcome the probe, eventually. But then what? It’s not like he could come swooping in, overcome a phalanx of humbots and whisk me off. And to where? My hope fades.
The humbots have to carry me; I’ll go, but I won’t go willingly.
Not surprisingly, I’m not taken to the library this time. Instead, I am deposited in a large, glaringly white room in which there are two long metal tables. One has arm, leg and head straps. Between the tables stands a robot with multiple mechanical arms. Very un-humbot-like, it almost makes me laugh until I realize that it’s probably a surgeon robot. I am left alone until a door slides open and Ishmael, sitting in a motorized chair on wheels, rolls through it.
“Welcome,” he says, “I’m so glad you could join me today.” He chuckles and rolls his chair closer.
He looks stooped, shrunken. His skin hangs in mottled pockets from his face and his fingers look like long, skinny claws. I’m repulsed and my face must show it.
He frowns, wheels the chair around and stops by one of the tables.
“What’s the matter, my dear?” he asks. There’s an edge to his voice. “Not pretty enough for you? Too old and decrepit?”
It occurs to me that he must not see me as a threat, otherwise why would he be alone with me in his weakened condition? I could easily overpower him … unless he thinks I’m too ignorant and witless. And, to his mind, I am ignorant. I intend to make sure he continues to see me that way.
“My apologies, Ancient … Ishmael,” I say, hanging my head. “This visit was so abrupt, so confusing. It saddens me to see you this way,” I add.
He smiles slightly. “Very well, my dear. Your apology is accepted. And, please, allow me to offer my own.” He sweeps his hand in the air. “I’m sure this all looks very scary to you, but I’m giving you the chance to help your old friend and teacher.”
I put an eager face on, all the while toying with the DigiRest in my pocket. “How can I help?”
Then he tells me things I already know as I pretend to be amazed and delighted. He leaves out two important pieces of information: that the infusion is necessary to produce seed, and the small part about me dying in the end. I, of course, am not supposed to know all that.
“Amazing!” I say, when he’s done. “Here I barely know the alphabet, but some incredibly intelligent mind discovered the LifeSpark and can keep you alive forever!” I see by how he sits up straighter in his chair that the flattery is working. I don’t honestly know why I continue the charade. I should just slip my finger into the DigiRest and be done with it. Maybe, though, like him I’m clinging to life as long as I can.
“Actually, I was that ‘incredibly intelligent mind’ who made that discovery,” he brags. “I bet you can’t guess how old I am.”
It would be almost worth it to see the look on his face by guessing 200 or so, but I reign myself in.
“Oh … hmmm,” I say, “40?”
He laughs, wheezing and coughing halfway through. “No, my dear, I am the ripe old age of 215!”
“Oh, my!” I exclaim. “An incredible discovery indeed.” I can’t help myself, though. “I wonder,” I say, taking a few steps toward him, “why can’t such a wonderful tool can’t be used to keep everyone alive forever?”
“Folly!” he cries, letting his true self come through. “A total waste of time to preserve minds such as ...” he stops himself, then continues more softly. “There are many, many complex reasons why that can’t be so,” he says. “Don’t worry your pretty little head about them.”
His disdain for me – for everyone – comes through loud and clear. I find myself getting angrier and angrier at his lies and contempt. I am close enough to touch him now, if I chose to. This anger is confusing; I’ve never felt the urge to do harm to anyone, but right then I feel as if I could reach over and tip him out of his chair. But then what? Instead, I do the only thing I can think to do. I pull the DigiRest out of my right pocket.
“I think,” I say slowly, “that I will decline the offer to help. I believe it will cause pain and I don’t like pain.”
What he does next surprises me more than anything. He actually throws back his head and laughs.
“Ha!” he says, wiping tears from his eyes, “my greatest invention yet! Go ahead, my dear, see how it fits.” He reaches out much more quickly than I think possible and grabs my wrist. “Here,” he says, “let me.” His grip is surprisingly strong. He grabs my other wrist as well.
“Don’t worry,” he says, “it won’t kill you. That’s the lie we tell to give you idiots an illusion of choice. Before I came up with this little beauty, we had Old Ones killing themselves left and right. Poor stupid babies couldn’t stand the idea of being out of their little womb Dome. But we couldn’t have that.”
I look down at our hands, his gnarled fingers biting into my flesh.
“It doesn’t kill us?” I say, still incredulous.
“No, no, no. Oh, it’ll knock you out for a good long time, long enough to get you stored away for a LifeSpark infusion, but kill you, no. It doesn’t work if you’re dead. It was so much easier when I could use the smaller children … but, alas, their LifeSparks are too strong. Many an old friend paid that price.”
He seems to be drifting off into memories and I feel his grip loosen a bit. A long sleep, I decide, is better than just giving in.
It all happens so fast. I manage to get the left hand free for a fraction of a second. We fumble and struggle, but I do it, I jam the DigiRest onto a finger.
It isn’t however, my own.
The look on his face is not the peaceful one from the DigiRest advertisements. First, there’s amazement, then an ugly grimace of horror. It may not kill a younger person, but I do believe it has killed him.
As he slumps in his chair, a door slides open and I don’t bother to look up. If I have to pay the price, I’d rather not see it coming.
“A last,” says a voice from the doorway. “We must act quickly.”
I look up to see the Ancient’s senior humbot. He rushes to the Ancient’s side and presses his fingers against his neck. I’m too paralyzed to move.
“He is dead,” the humbot says. “You must come with me now before it is discovered.”
“What? You’re helping me?”
“Indeed,” he answers. “It is my duty, as it is your humbot’s duty.”
“Is Boone all right?” I say. This humbot must be one of the others of his kind that he had spoken about.
“He is, but we must go now. He will join us there.”
“There, where?” I ask as we scurry out the door and into an elevator.
“Your questions will be answered in due course,” he says as we descend at a great rate of speed.
“May I at least have your name?” I ask.
“I am called Michael,” he answers.
The elevator stops, but we don’t get off. Rather, Michael inserts a forefinger into a hole on the panel and we resume our descent.
When the door opens it opens into a dark, dank hall. It seems to be carved from the very rocks of the earth. Water drips along the walls and sometimes on our heads as we make our way down its length. My light robe is scant protection from the cold and damp. It is the first time I recall ever being truly cold.
At last we come to some unevenly carved steps. Michael leads the way up, but at the top there is no door. He cocks his head as if listening, then again inserts his finger into a hole I hadn’t noticed. A heavy door swings slowly open. Light, at last. And Boone.
“Diana,” he says, “I am glad you are safe.” It’s not exactly a warm greeting, but I know it’s the best he can do. I run to hug him anyway.
“I didn’t mean to kill him, Boone,” I say. “We were struggling ...”
“All is well,” Boone says. “You must now leave, though.”
“Leave? Leave for where?” It’s then that I notice we’re near the ocean and there is a strange, large craft that seems … yes, it’s sitting atop the water.
“The other land I spoke about,” Boone says. “You will be safe there. No one knows of its existence. It is well-protected from any surveillance.”
Michael comes up to stand next to us.
“The eggs and seed have been obtained and loaded,” he says. “All is ready.”
“The eggs? The seed?” I say.
“They are needed to help repopulate,” Boone says. “The Ancients kept many generations frozen.”
My gaze goes back to the craft. I see a very old woman being carried between two humbots, sitting regally on their crossed arms.
“The other Ancient?” I ask, nodding.
“She was as much a prisoner as you,” Boone says. “She wishes to live the rest of her life in freedom. She will likely never see the new land. She is aware of this.”
I’m just as eager to get away. “Let’s go then,” I say.
“No,” Boone says, I think with some sadness. “I must stay. There is must work to be done. The children in the Nursery, the Breeders … all will need guidance and education. The leaders of the other lands will be unhappy when the CU-Screens are disabled. It is my duty.”
I throw my arms around him once again. I understand, but I will miss him. There are still many questions, but I ask only one.
“Boone, why didn’t you simply kill him yourselves?”
“We are incapable of killing,” he says. “It is hoped that one day, your kind will be as well.”
I nod and see that Michael is holding out his hand to lead me to the vessel. I walk toward him, then stop.
“No,” I say, turning to Boone. “I wish to stay.”
For a moment, he appears flummoxed.
“There is danger,” he finally says. “The land is hostile. The work ahead is enormous. We may never be able to leave again ...”
“Nonetheless,” I insist, “I can be of use. I know the alphabet. I know of a library.”
“I know, it’s your duty,” I say. “And it’s my duty, Boone, to use the freedom I now have in the way I see fit.” This is the most frightening thing I’ve ever thought or said, but I know it’s right. And it is.