So here we go, some new art and a new chapter to go along with it. The art is a view down main street in the city towards the traning building for the Animutes (note the circular windows, they're important...). The art itself is very mixed media, most of the piece is pencil, but some areas are chalk and others acrylic. All of this is deliberately on orange paper to match the orange tinge to the sky after the event changed the world's atmosphere.
In Part 4, if you remember, Pearl, Roger and his ever present Alarm Clock Algernon have managed to make it into the Abbot factory facility to try and found out what information they could about the N.A.P.E. In part 5, we're going to find out what they learn, and also get some history and understanding of who, and what, Pearl really is. There's a picture of her coming up soon.
Enjoy, and please let me know what you think in the comments.
The Argonaut started typing in another password. The screen flickered, but then returned the same failure message.
A beep notified him of another new incoming communication. It had been one of a number in the last hour. He had ignored all of them. The screen to his left switched to a screensaver and started rotating his nickname over and over again. He did not notice, instead The Argonaut was focus intently on his screen showing a very clear tracing symbol from one location to another across the city. The last point pulsated red and The Argonaut swore.
Roger looked across at Pearl as she typed feverishly on the computer in the lab. Her tail swished from side to side in gentle time to the typing. Sometimes the rhythm of the typing paused and the tail stopped. Other times the tail start going past back and forth quicker than usual as she stared more carefully at the screen.
'Any luck?’ said Roger.
‘Not yet.’ said Pearl. She looked at Roger and smiled with a wide and luscious grin. He cleared his throat and started looking around the rest of the room. It was large, with a number of desks almost in a circular fashion. In the centre of the room was a circular structure, about the height of a small child, that was really nothing more than a large cylinder. A cable from the central, well, machine, connected to each of the computers on each desk around the central structure.
Pearl gave the keyboard a flamboyant click and turned to Roger ‘You didn’t mention what happened to you earlier. Who were those men chasing you?'
‘I’m honestly not entirely sure. But they were wearing uniforms with the Elk logo on the front. I’m not convinced it was him though. Abbot said nobody knew about the N.A.P.E. escaping.’ Roger sat on the end of a desk. ‘But if Elk had any idea of the project, I would expect him to have been looking even before it escaped.'
‘But how do they know you were involved. Does he even know who you are?'
Roger sighed. ‘He shouldn’t, no’. He began looking around the room again. ‘It seems so nondescript here. Are you sure this is the room?'
‘I’m familiar with the layout, ‘ said Pearl, ‘it’s not a lot different from the teaching rooms they used for us.’ As the vacant expression crossed her face, the tail behind first sagged to the ground, and then started swishing back and forth very quickly in obvious irritation. You could take the physical elements away, but at the end of the day, Pearl was a feline. She didn’t walk on all fours any more, she stood upright like any human, and her front paws were human, but not perfect. She still had fur though, even on her paws, and the tail was a dead giveaway.
‘I’m sorry Pearl. I know you don’t like being reminded of your childhood’. Roger touched her arm in what he thought was a friendly gesture.
‘Training. We never had a childhood. We weren’t allowed a childhood. We had just two years to grow up and learn everything we needed. The accelerated growth didn’t give us any time for any pleasure or natural growth. Everything was on such a compact schedule. They were desperate times.’ Pearl started looking at the floor.
Pearl blinked and looked out at the rings of desks around her.
“The subject shows signs of rebellion, but very high intelligence."
“Are you sure that isn’t just the impact of the feline genes?"
“We repressed that gene in the final chromosome in that group. She shouldn't have an IQ rating higher than 120."
Pearl suppressed a smile and shifted her position on the chair slightly. She was uncomfortable, not physically, just from the stares coming from the people in the room. She was two years old, fully grown due to the hormones and drugs she had been given since birth. No, generation. There was no birth, and no mother to speak of, only the generation pools and the accelerated ‘food’ given from birth until they had become old enough to start teaching.
She looked out of the round windows that dotted the walls on her level. Just starting her second year, she was on the second level of the teaching building where her and other students did everything from eat and sleep to training and ‘personal exploration’, the rather grandiose name for all the time they had left over. It was a gruelling schedule, they were woken early in the mornings and then started accelerated teaching classes. Some she loved, but others seemed so wrong to her, even at this young age.
As a naturally rebellious person, almost certainly the result of the cat heritage, the obedience classes were her worst subject. Designed to make the animates more trainable and, well, obedient, to their human owners, to her they seemed degrading. They were instructed to bow before entering and leaving a room, to only speak when spoken to. The age-old traditions that became a combination of deference and reverence to their human masters, or at least that’s how it felt.
The sky had that orange tinge to it; although it was slightly stronger at this time of day, it provided an interesting effect to the sky. She had heard that the sky had always been blue before the event, but to her the orange glow was familiar. Friendly even. She wondered how it felt outside, to feel the fresh air on your skin, the wind to blow through your fur. To experience the full smell of sulphur and smoke permeated the outside air. All she had known was sanitised, air conditioned. To her feline nose there was a strange absence of smell from the vents that felt alien compared to the mixture of people, food and computer equipment that was the real odour of the training centre.
She shifted her position again and tried not to wrinkle her nose and show her displeasure.
Mr Simmonds looks down at her again from the edge of the room. The circle of desks was designed so that different tutors and support staff could train and continually test her. The Informational Neural Implant, or INI, the main method for delivering information and content booths were located around the outside of the room, with broken, but concentric rings towards the centre. Each Animute spent most of their time in the booths receiving information and learning about different aspects of life and knowledge, mostly high;y specialised and tailored to the requirements.
Like a typical production line, each Animute was given a custom programme so that they could learn their specific skills, with requests from their eventual owners being the driving force. Pearl could see the showroom, where you could select your Animute and request their skills and knowledge, from where she sat. Some Animutes were raised ‘on-spec’, fitting into some automatic programme with a standardised set of skills, such as valet, or kitchen staff. For those that were ‘custom’ everything from the preferred names of their owners, specific skills, even their preferred hobbies could be pre-determined and introduced from ‘birth’. Of course, this implied that they had to wait for years before they got their assistant, servant, or factory worker, but most were willing to wait when they knew they would get a highly trained and capable individual.
Pearl shuddered again. She had no memory of her early months but what she did know was that it bore no resemblance to a real birth. She also didn’t know whether she was a standard model or a specialist. A strange condition of the raising and training process is that Animutes were not told what their future role or job would be. It was designed to eliminate the problem of groups and conflict within the Animute training centre. Nobody wanted to see them fight, and even less did the trainers want them to learn or experience the type of rebellion that could lead Animutes to disobey their owners.
The sneer on Mr Simmonds’ face matched the sneer inside Pearl as she realised the dynamic between the Animutes and trainers was of owner and property, even before they had reached their true owner.
“You look sad, Pearl. That would not look good to your new owners now would it?”, said Mr Simmonds.
“I don’t care!”, said Pearl, “Jason”. Many of the tutors preferred the Animutes to use their first names and make it a bit more informal, considering how much deference and obedience they were being taught elsewhere. But she didn’t say it with any warmth, just the acid touch of utter disdain.
“Now Pearl. That was uncalled for. Have I not shown you the utmost respect?"
“Today? Yes. But not always.” She narrowed her eyes. The human part of her was attractive and Jason had not always been shy of showing this in their one to one tutorials. The feline part of her appreciated the attention, but the human part felt used and uncomfortable at the thought.
“Come now, I thought we had an understanding?"
Pearl leapt, in a single lithe movement from seated on the chair, bounding over the two desks in between, and pinning Mr Simmonds to the display with a hiss. Her tail flicked side to side in obvious anger, and her finger nails while not the claws she would like, dug into his neck as deep as they could go without drawing blood.
Jason, for his part, looked smug, rather than shocked, at the response. He positively gleamed at his ability to rile her and provoke such a strong response. The other tutors in the room took a few seconds to react and appreciate what had just happened. They stood stock still, unsure whether to approach her, berate her, or to somehow assist. And they did assist, who would they help? She had moved so fast many of them were afraid of how quickly she might move again.
She relaxed her grip slightly, and then tightened it again briefly before letting go. This time, Jason flinched. As soon as her grip had gone, he left the room through one of the side doors. Her nose twitched, and she was pretty sure her attack had had the desired effect judging by the smell now leaving the room.
Walking, positively, back to the chair in the centre of the room she sat down again.
Her tail lashed from side to side twice before finally sinking and falling to the ground beside her.
As her tail fell, Pearl snapped back from her memory. She had been gone for minutes in her head, but mere seconds here, but it had been long enough for Roger to look pained, and worried, and rush to her side again. As he touched her hand she gave a start as if his hand were red hot.
“OK?” he whispered.
“I’m…fine.”, she said. The sky outside was darker now, and the broad, square windows were letting in as much light as they could, just enough to see the shapes in the room of the various computers, terminals, and robotic equipment used to assemble and repair the APE devices during their required training and evaluation process.
The screen blinked as if to punctuate the conversation, and then reported ‘Nothing found’. Pearl frowned.
“If it was here, we should have gotten something back from the training roster. If it was an official project at least.". She turned to Roger.
"Well, it was unlikely to be official under the circumstances. Isn’t there some other system you can get into that might give us something to work with?"
“Not that I’ve already broken into. There are deeper custom records for each APE unit, but I’ve been unable to get into those before. You either need the APE here so that they can verify themselves, or you need the master key to get in.” Pearl started idly clicking around the screen again to see what other information she could find.
Roger sucked in through his teeth. Outside the traffic noise was increasing and a number of vehicle doors could be heard slamming shut. “Where’s Algernon?"
“Probably looking for his alumni association secretary”. Pearl looked back at him with a smile.
“Never mind. We’re leaving.” Roger stood up and looked back at Pearl who had become engrossed in something on screen. She started reading the words, running her finger across the words as Roger cringed at the oily fingermarks she was leaving behind on the glass. “Come on. Before they find us!”
"I’ve got something. Let’s go.” Pearl stood up and switched off the terminal at the same time in a fluid motion Roger could not get his head around, but he had no time to ponder. “Algernon!” he whisper-shouted as loud as he judged was safe. They started leaving the room and headed towards the central lifts.
Algernon rounded a corner at full tilt, as fast as his mechanical legs could carry him, pumping his arms in what he assumed was a suitable ‘running for his life’ style. His programming was designed to make him at least act human, even if his clock face, hinged arms and legs didn’t give him an exactly human-like appearance.
Roger could see Algernon in the distance, his bright green electronic face glowing in the darkness, and bouncing up and down gently as he ran. “Algernon!, Come on!”. Algernon started to sprint faster. The lift arrived, and Roger could see there was another lift right behind it, just a few few floors behind.
Behind Algernon, Roger and Pearl could make out some shapes, but it was too dark to determine what they were. Then they could see lights and displays, glowing red in the darkness, but moving too slowly to catch up to Algernon. He rounded the corner into the lift through the doors as the slammed shut, and then Roger picked him up and look concerned into the face of his alarm clock.
“Welcome, my name is Lincoln and I will be your lift for this journey. Which floor do you want?"
Roger pressed the button. He refused to answer Lincoln on principle.
Algernon nodded. “I, er, found some APE units in the lab. I don’t know what had happened to them."
“Ding, you are now on floor 12."
“What do you mean?” said Roger.
“They were in pieces. But, they were not being assembled, it looked more like someone had been taking them apart, trying to find out how they worked.” Algernon shuddered using his silent vibration mechanism. It somehow seemed appropriate, although he did not know why.
“Ding, you are now on floor 8."
“But that doesn’t make sense. The things are designed here, why would someone take them apart?” Roger furrowed his brow and turned to Pearl.
“Ding, you are now on floor 4."
Pearl looked at Roger and shrugged her shoulders. Then she looked at Algernon, who was looking between the two of them hoping for some explanation.
“Ding, you are now on floor 2."
“Ding, you are now on parking level 2."
Roger took out the leather clad box from his pocket, held out his palm where Algernon was standing, and allowed Algernon to settle himself inside before closing the lid.
“Ding, you are now on parking level 4."
“Ding, you have arrived at your desired level. This is subway level 6. Thank you for using me as your lift provider this evening. I understand that other options for moving between floors are available, and thank you for your custom."
Roger stepped foot outside the doors as soon as he could and tutted as he left, frustrated at the overly friendly Lincoln. Sometimes the artificial personality went too far. Lifts were altogether too happy for Roger’s liking.
“You have arrived at Teaching level 2. Thank you for your using me as your lift provider fzztt."
Julio removed his hand from where he had smashed the control panel on the lift. He walked outside, two of his associates following him as they looked around for evidence of someone on the floor after the alarm had tripped. He had fully expected that they would be the first to trip the alarm, but the main door to the building had been very clear that they were not the first people to try to get in this evening.
At the end of one corridor he noticed a pile of components on the floor, but could see no evidence of how they had got there. He picked the pieces up and looked at them closely. The covers and various plates had been removed, and some of the components seemed to be missing. Julio did not claim to be an engineer. Actually, he didn’t claim to be anything, since he didn’t really think that much. But even he could tell that the pieces had been disassembled.
As they entered the classroom he noticed the wall of desks and chairs, each neatly tucked underneath, aside from two on the opposite side of the room, one had been pulled out, and the other moved to one side nearby. Julio smiled. So someone had been here after all.