“Is there even the grossest possibility this process could be more efficient?” I asked. “I’m supposed to be in about fourteen different places right now.”
The bearded tech assistant gave a little laugh. “Well,” he said, “If I don’t do this right, you will be in fourteen different places.”
It was the laugh that annoyed me, actually. It wasn’t a laugh that indicated any particular deference or uncertainty. It was a — dare I say it? — yes, chuckle. It was the sort of gentle chuckle that bearded young men tended to give when they were around other bearded young men of the same social status and educational background. It was a chuckle that said we all know what’s going on here, man, and it’s that we’re getting the shaft by fate, so let’s have a beer and let it work itself out.
Only I was not a similarly statused bearded young man. I was August Mowbray, son of Justice Mowbray, who, for all intents and purposes, was the closest thing to fate this assistant would ever touch. And I had, as I mentioned before, fourteen other places to be besides this gymnasium-sized greenhouse full of corn. The entire room smelled like chemicals, modified soil, and, beneath it all, possibly, plants.
“I would laugh,” I said, “But the intricacies of elevator humor escape me.”
“Elevator!” the assistant said. “If this was just an elevator, you’d be out of here and I’d be kicking back, man.”
Using every bit of my personal fortitude, I managed to avoid wincing at the word ‘man.’ “Enlighten me.” My father has an incredible fondness for technology and gadgets and, as County Principal, he was always looking for new ways to implement them in his benevolent rule. As his son, he’s exhorted me to show some interest.
This was me, showing interest.
The bearded tech assistant chuckled again. I could see it, the word, ‘chuckle.’ He said, “This greenhouse is forty-seven miles away from the building you came from. When you got into that ‘elevator’ back in the library, your molecules were dis-assembled, transmitted across the hi-4 wires your dad was so nice to lay out here to Meadville, and then put back together in the same configuration that you like ‘em in. Then the doors opened and you got out to look at some corn.”
I felt violated, and if Mercedes had been around, I would’ve told her so, in an ever-lasting attempt to get a laugh out of her. But the little viper wasn’t here, and I wasn’t about to joke with anyone who referred to me as ‘man,’ so I said, “I feel like there should’ve been a warning label before I attempted that.”
The tech assistant brandished a tool that I thought was called a wrench. Or a socket. I was sure I’d seen some educational and entertaining children’s program at some time in my youth where they’d established the difference, but I couldn’t remember it. “Not normally a problem, you know? Safe as airplanes. Safe as trampolines. Safe as hydro-boarding. Whatever, you know? But it doesn’t like the heat of the greenhouse. And the fan’s not really getting up to speed for some reason. Just let me try —”
He went to town with whatever the hell tool it was he had in his hand. I rolled back around to lean on the wall beside the not-elevator doors, the false sun from the high above illuminated ceiling hot on my face. Corn stretched and stretched in front of me, growing incrementally as I watched. It had already gained a foot since I’d first arrived, and tiny ears were beginning to swell against the stalks. The nearest row of corn swayed as a second, unseen assistant moved on the other side of it. I was meant to return to my father with a report of how the accelerated crops were doing here in Meadville. Why he couldn’t have accomplished the same thing with a Helyo visit was beyond me. Actually, it wasn’t beyond me. August, it’s important that we get out among them. They need to see that I — and after me, you — are just as invested in our collective well-being.
I was invested in our collective well-being. It was just that I could have been invested at the other end of a Helyo visit, nodding into a camera in the corner of my bedroom and then going back to sleep.
“So if your repair efforts are less than stellar, my molecules will be scattered across the County?” I asked.
The assistant strained against a meaty looking washer along the length of one of the metal tubes entering the not-elevator. “No way. Matter likes to stay with matter.”
“Rubin’s Theory,” I said.
“Very good,” the bearded assistant said with genuine approval, and this time it really did take all of my considerable self-control to avoid forcing him to ingest his own facial hair. Out here in Meadville, they didn’t even have the imagination to dream about the education I’d gotten. I’d tutored under Rubin himself for four months.
The bearded assistant shoved up his glasses and peered at me. “So matter stays with matter. If the molecules don’t all get assembled correctly, fast enough, that vacuum of matter-staying-with-matter is a killer, man. The people-mover will keep trying to put you together, but it’ll use what’s around. Last month some dude went through a malfunctioning mover, and it pulled some molecules from the board table he was going to. His whole arm, man. Wood and vinyl and shit. And of course, the desk looked like hell too. They kept finding fingernails places. How tall are you, man?”
I kept looking at him.
“Sir?” he corrected.
But the way he said ‘sir’ was as disagreeable as the way he’d chuckled. He said ‘sir’ like one bearded young man would say it to another, like it was a shared joke. I found nothing funny about ‘sir.’ When I got back to Philly, I was suggesting Meadville get a few more weeks of bad weather to give them time to contemplate their role in the world. It would be more snow, of course. My father preferred snow as punishment. I failed to see the punishment in snow. When I became County Principal, it would be tornadoes and hail.
“Five foot eleven,” I replied.
“Same as me,” the assistant said happily. I smiled thinly at him. Let him think anything about us was remotely similar, if it made him work more efficiently.
The second assistant emerged then — did everyone have beards in Meadville! — holding a forked soil collector by his side. He was a little taller than the first assistant, but he wore the sallow apathy of rural twenty-somethings in just the same way. When he spoke, he had the accent my father had always told my mother to eradicate in her own voice. You’re better than that, Ellen.
“How’s it going, Ben?”
“Oh, it’s nearly there,” said the first assistant. “I just need the, you know, the thing, man.” They both looked at me, and I realized I had been standing without considering my expression for several minutes, which meant I could still feel the shape of boredom and disdain on my mouth. I rubbed my lip.
The second assistant asked, “Are you sure?”
The second assistant moved to a small, plywood shed that bore more resemblance to a dog house than to a supply shed for a hi-tech growing facility.
“What, pray tell,” I asked, “is a ‘thing’?”
The second assistant emerged with a flat, plastic-looking disk, its surface rippled and molded. A few bright green wires ran around the outside of it. “It’s a Fascia-Protector. It’s just a safe-guard, in case the fan’s not working. You’re going to hold it over your face while you transport. Ben’s going to go with you, to make sure everything’s good on the other end too.”
“You and me, baby,” the first bearded assistant said, punching his fist into my shoulder. My hackles didn’t go down this time.
“You’re sure this will work?” I demanded. “Let’s just get this over with.”
The second assistant handed Ben a second fascia-protector and hit the button to open the people-mover’s doors. We stepped in front of it. Inside, the mirrored doors reflected us: my courtly, proud form, the result of generations of good breeding; and Ben’s slouching, humble one, a man who knew his place in the world. Behind us stretched the corn, the cobs now bursting with ripe kernels.
Ben and I stepped into the people-mover.
“See you later, man,” Ben told the other bearded assistant. He leaned forward to bump knuckles with him. I’d had about enough of the outer County’s customs. I wanted to be back home. “Fascias up.”
As the doors slid shut, we both lifted the fascia-protectors. I saw now that the molding roughly corresponded to the dips of a face: bump out for the nose, chin, eyebrows. In the mirrors, Ben and I looked identical behind the protectors. Around us, the people-mover began to hum as it had before. Before, I’d thought I was traveling up floors or at light speed or — I’m not sure what I’d thought. I thought that I’d been moving as a unit, though, not as a collection of individual molecules. I hadn’t thought I’d been assembled.
The people-mover stopped humming, and the doors slid open, revealing the library of my father’s house.
Ben said, “I think both you and your father are sons-of-bitches, and you’re going down, man.”
I ripped down my protector at the same time that he did. I opened my mouth to snarl a response, but for once, words failed me, not because I wasn’t permitted to use them, but because I couldn’t find them, because my lips weren’t my own.
I had nothing left to say, really, because he wore my face.
Author’s Note: Our common prompt this week was “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” This story began as a dream and went from there.
image courtesy: jcoterhals