Val sat at his cubicle trying to avoid thinking of the gift given him by his childhood friend. A leather-bound book with half of the three hundred pages filled out in long-hand, an inconsistent and rather messy written font that no one had any use for since the end of the 21st Century. Val’s fascination with the scribbles annoyed him. He couldn’t fathom the meaning. In fact, no one below the age of seventy in all of the Western Region City State could make any sense of it.
Helmholtz had recently returned from combat missions in New Caledonia where he picked up the book, a bayonet that had the symbol of the resistance engraved in the blade, and a compass; war trophies. He gave the compass to his father, kept the bayonet, and gave the book to Val.
The floor to ceiling media screen to his right just finished airing a six hour special episode of The Big Show. As a government employee Val’s department had the best audio/video equipment, always on, always in high definition. Every screen on every floor of the Global Network Civil Services Building faded to a soft blue before the handsome face of Mother materialized.
Hers was a face that had become more familiar to Val than his own. He especially loved her eyes. They made him feel warm, the slight downward slant denoted kindness and compassion. They shone blue but not the normal type of blue. This blue was the color a poet would see and feel a deep need to describe using fancy words, maybe something like the color of the sky during childhood. Yeah, he thought, something like that.
Her few traces of age didn’t detract from her beauty, in fact they magnified it. The gray lines in her hair, the smile lines, and barely visible crow’s feet mixed almost supernaturally with her firm and full breasts to create the perfect picture of a beautiful sage and established her role as Regional Matriarch. Her caring voice spilled down from every speaker throughout the building. “Hello children, I hope to find you well on this Tuesday afternoon. In the news the World Market dropped one and a quarter point this morning on talks of a strike at the Southern Texas Region Petrol Recycling Plant in Tampico. Madame President Hienlien-Blaire assures us she will send a delegation to successfully negotiate a contract settlement. This dip follows an eleven point gain in the World Market over the third quarter. This is excellent news but we must all keep doing our part in order to get out of this current economic recession. In other news Madame President declared an end to the World Army combat mission in New Caledonia, even though the capital city Nouméa remains without the permanent government that her strategy originally envisioned…”
He thought again of the book, and then of Helmholtz. He and Val had been friends since before they were assigned their Global Network Accounts, close to thirty years. In primary school Val helped H with his reading, math, science, biology, social studies and a couple other subjects and in return H scared off the bullies that always circled Val’s timid demeanor. During the workforce assignments it was little surprise that H was given the honor of serving in the World Army. The Department of Employment: Distribution and Assignments branch picked Val to work for Global Network Civil Services: Profile Maintenance Division, or GNCS PMD. Val found the work to be less than challenging, but Mother reaffirmed of its importance daily.
“In local news, the Western Region City State has seen a rise in vandalism. The Internal Technology and Law Enforcement Department Lead Inspector O’Brien has said he will be emailing citizens asking for their help in photographing or recording vandals. Inspector O’Brien has asked if anyone has footage of a suspicious nature email or text it to your local ITLE Magistrate…”
Val’s department created profile-templates for all citizens in the Federated States of One World and they assigned them to every child-citizen on their eighth birthday. Of course the kid would personalize the profile template almost immediately. His department also creates profiles for integrated aliens becoming citizens, like the men, women, and children from New Caledonia. Since the government of the small island nation had been dismantled the population there will definitely cash in on the opportunity to join the Global Net. They always do.
Val’s M-Com buzzed. He pulled it out of his pocket and clicked on the screen. Mother’s face popped up. “Hello Val, you have an incoming text from Helmholtz Garcia.”
“Display, Mother. Thank you.”
“Of course, Val. Also, after an inventory of your wardrobe I’ve found three shirts and two pairs of pants over six months old, as per Consumer Revised Statute 63.451 they have been destroyed. Do you have a color or style preference for the replacements?”
“No, Mother. Whatever was featured on The Big Show. Check message.”
The message read:
Val, nother day in paradise, huh? LOL. Less hit up the Orbital 2nite 4 drinx. Lysa gotta friend. If u dont have tha funds, no worries. I got it. Ur doin me a solid. Lysa won’t go without her friend & I’m headin out next week bcuz some GD terrorist threat and she still hasn’t put out. C u 2nite, peeze.
Val sighed. He had the worst luck with women. He didn’t want to go, but knew he would.
He typed in code for the first batch of New Caledonians until the boredom became too much. When it got this bad usually switching to deleting profiles of the dead, arrested, or recently committed helped, but not this time. He reached into his satchel, picked out the book, and opened it. His eyes ran down one line of text, then another, and again.
So uncivilized, why write it down in a manner not immediately recognizable to everyone? M-Coms record everything a person said and did into the Global Network’s memory for all eternity. Any member of society could pull up any citizen’s memories within in a microsecond. Memories anytime, recalled perfectly, and in HD. Why convert thoughts into writing when you could video it all in crystal clarity and post it to the world media instantly?
A vague feeling of pity floated in the back of his head for the man who wrote the book. His pity turned to guilt. He couldn’t allow himself to feel sympathy for the terrorists.
Twenty minutes until lunch. Clicking his inbox he found over forty messages and an action items list of over a dozen profile bugs to fix. Most of the bugs were easy enough. He would get an order from the Department Head or one of the Sub Department Heads to add flag words. These are words the GNCS would search for in a citizen’s profiles on the server. Since FSOW owned the server it wasn’t a privacy issue. Too many flagged words and a citizen was marked and investigated back to their 8th birthday. A multiphasic behavioral file was drawn up and studied by the ITLE Investigator. It would then be decided whether or not the subject required a visit. The investigator in Western Region City State was Michael O’Brien. Val voted for him in the last election.
Mother had wrapped up the news and said, “Children, I’m sorry but the update for Mother 10.03 will now upload to the main server which, as you know, will leave you alone for up to ten minutes. I will return and when I do the environmental controls patch for everyone’s individual living quarters in the WRCS will be updated which means I will better keep your apartments nice and toasty.” She smiled. “My system will also be free of obsolete programs and data which will free up much needed memory. Thank you all and remember the emergency network will be in place and help lines will be open on your M-Coms for emergency use only, please.” As Mother’s face faded, her eyes were the last to disappear replaced by a download status bar.
Val poked his head up out of his cubicle to find his coworkers doing the same. The woman with all the cat pictures by the elevators, the guy that always wore the bowtie, the yoga man, the fat vegetarian girl, the blonde lunch thief, and of course Todd. Todd worked in the cubicle next to Val. The only reason he knew Todd’s name because he always referred to himself in the third person.
These updates were the worst. No one spoke or made a sound. Val could never understand why. If every single person in there felt the same anxiety because of the unbearable silence why didn’t at least one person say something, sing something? Make a noise? Why didn’t he?
He started taking deep breaths at 10%.
At 15% they nodded to each other and tried to smile.
At 21% the heads popped back down. Human contact was insufficient.
At 34% he heard the lunch thief call the help line. He needed to know there wasn’t a worm or virus keeping Mother away. He needed to know everything was fine.
At 57% Val thought about calling as well. Absurd, but he couldn’t help it. Then he noticed the book in his lap. He thumbed deeper into the pages. His eyes flowed from line to line, page to page. The scribbles soothed him; each letter unique from the others, the meaning of every word or line different according to the slant of the letters or the pressure used while writing. Val understood the emotions even though he couldn’t read the entries.
Mother reappeared, floating in her beautiful poet’s blue background. She greeted them all with a smile and told them a Special Edition of The Big Show was next with every video shot by a soldier of the World’s Army victorious New Caledonian Campaign.
On a usual day Val would have scanned each scene for Helmholtz, but that day he needed a break. He took the stairs up three stories. Half the fifteenth floor was an open air observation deck. This was the only place without media screens in the entire building. It had been created a century ago to let the workers stand at the guardrail and marvel at the city’s amazing skyline, to let them take a break in the fresh air, but for fifty years it had been used only for cigarette breaks. Val bummed one from Todd. As the end hovered over Todd’s lighter he noticed a girl walk up. The grease-stained jump suit meant she was in machine maintenance. Val saw her as slender and coordinated even through the bulky folds. She smelled of diesel fumes and cleaning solvent, but her lithe features and purposeful movements sent out ripples of grace through the air like a pebble in a pond. When she met their stares she asked, “Is there something wrong?”
“Just another day in paradise,” Todd said.
She flashed a fake smile and nodded.
Shyness made up most of Val’s character. If it weren’t for Helmholtz all his friends would have been the ones his Global Network Profile had suggested and never talked to. All the reasons for him not to start a conversation popped into his head; she’s too young for him, she’s too beautiful, they had nothing to talk about…
“The Todd hates these updates, how’bout you?” Todd asked her.
She shrugged her shoulders and took a drag.
Seeing her indifferent Todd shrugged too, “Eh, it is what it is.”
When Todd didn’t get a response he looked over and saw Val hypnotized by her beauty. Val’s enraptured state was such a comical site that Todd pulled out his M-Comm to record it.
Her eyes glowed from the light of the sunset. A few stray strands of black hair escaped the pony tail and fascinated him. Val’s eyes followed her sharp jaw line, then the muscles of her neck, down to the front pocket of her jump suit. That’s where he saw it.
“Is that a pen?” He blurted.
She looked at Val for the first time. Then pulled the pen from her pocket and held it between them. “A grease pen, really. I use it to mark a length of wood or pipe.”
“Where did you get it?” Val asked.
The corners of her lips turned up in an amused smile. “We have a bunch in my department. Why?”
“Machine Maintenance Department.” Val said.
“The ol’ MMD.” She slid the grease pen back in her pocket. “I’m Julia.”
“Valentine Smith, I’m PMD.”
“Nice to meet you Valentine Smith. For a second I thought you were an ITNE Officer. Well, I have to get back to work.” She took one last pull from her cigarette and put it out in the standing ashtray. “Here, a parting gift.” She handed him the grease pen.
As she walked away he noticed Todd recording him.
“Dude, I gotta post this. You are so awkward. I’ll put this in the Best Pickup Line Thread, ‘Is that a pen’?” He laughed.
Val returned home a little after midnight. The wall screen popped on when the door opened. It played an advertisement for the new multi-community housing tower in South Town. Smiling families were finally getting a chance to move from their dilapidated and lonely one family house into a completely modern high-rise apartment.
“Mother, decrease volume, please.”
The night had gone worse than he expected. Lysa’s friend had thought he was an absurd string-bean of a man. She started telling everyone in the restaurant this right about the time Val knocked her wine into her lap. For H’s sake he ignored her outburst and acted as manly as he could, but it just came off as laughable. Val attempting to be masculine was like a deep sea squid training for a marathon. The night ended with a failed kiss attempt. She had pulled back so fiercely in surprised she fell over and ripping her blouse. The next couple seconds were hard for Val to recall. He had no idea the sequence of events but he did know he was slapped, splashed with a drink, it stung his eyes, then she screamed a long stream of profanity at him. Something like this; “OMG WTF, you effing reject. You flaccid sack of creepy. Go suicide yourself…”
Val’s timidity kept him frozen as she belittled him. His face stuck in a cramp of futility and panic. He was powerless to repair his ridiculous, terror-filled look, or even to simply shut his mouth. Every single patron, even a waitress, recorded the whole scene with M-Coms.
“Val, your heart rate is elevated and your temperature is 101.2. Would you like Social Mood Additive?”
“No, no, no.” All he could do was keep repeating no. He hated the tin feeling he got from those pills.
“I’m sorry Val, I don’t recognize your command.”
“No, no thank you, Mother. I just want to be alone.”
“Val, would you like me to order wine, beer, or hard alcohol from delivery?”
“What about an adult movie from Insta-Play?”
Val thought about that for a second. “Not right now. I’ll go with some gin. That stuff I had last time, flavored with cloves.”
“Victory Gin, Val?”
“Your order is placed. Seventeen dollars and fifteen cents plus thirty cents deposit will be charged to your account. You shouldn’t get down on yourself, Val. You have a very important role to play in our society. Profiles are the cornerstone of our culture. Without you…”
She went on with her soothing mantra but Val’s mind went to the book. He remembered how it steadied him during the update. He found his satchel on a chair in his bedroom. Turning the satchel on its side, the book slid out and so did the grease pen. He opened the book up again but this time he hurriedly skipped until he reached an empty one. Someone else’s hand written words weren’t interesting to him anymore. He didn’t care what the separatist had to say. He was more interested in what he, himself, was going to write. He picked up the pen like he’d seen done on the history shows the Global Net played when he was a child. His fingers felt heavy and clumsy. Finally he held the end of the pen between the very end of his pointer and index finger. The cylindrical base lay on the meaty part of his thumb. In a very proper modern font, almost a Garamond, he wrote a name.
An unexpected feeling stunned him. This was the first time since childhood that his mind made the connection between letters and words. He knew that to be ridiculous. Letters, words, lines, paragraphs, he dealt with them every day. This was supposed to be his strength according to the FSOW aptitude tests, but he despite this fact he found himself unable to understand how keystroke and pen were so different.
The door rang and Val jumped and slid half out of his chair. He clapped the book shut and slammed it into his satchel.
“Val, Delivery is here with your gin.”
Val stood in the security check point. The label of his new suit said Bronze God, but it just looked tan to Val. Mother had picked it out for him. It helped him feel confident about himself despite winding up on Local Net’s Most Viewed thread. A close up on his horror palsied face while being screamed at by an alluring young woman with a torn blouse landed number three on the top ten, between the Baby Bench Pressing and Epic Fail of Fat Man Running for Train.
A new suit does wonders for a man’s self esteem. Mother had told him that that morning and Val repeated it to himself over, and over, and over, in order to take his mind off the stares and snickers all around him. The security level was at Red III, two levels higher than it was the day before.
He asked the x-ray technician why. The man shrugged and motioned toward the base of the building and told him they were targeted by the separatists.
At the base of the building a small group of people scrubbed at big words on the wall. The words read:
In the land of the blind,
the one eyed man is a lunatic.
It wasn’t the long hand like in the book. This was legible, made by someone that obviously wasn’t as skilled at writing as the author of the book in his satchel.
The terror alert couldn’t have happened on a better day. It gave people something else to talk about. He heard the cat woman tell the guy that always wore a bowtie that she was certain there was a terrorist cell here in the WRCS.
Mother spoke on the wall screens, “The World Market rose seven points this afternoon after oil conglomerate Alpha Environmental Solutions announced successful negotiations with the workers at the Tampico plants due, in part, to the presidential negotiators.”
The enthusiasm in Mother’s voice silenced the room. The high definition picture allowed them all to see the tears of joy welling up in Mother’s proud blue eyes. “A special State of the Union Vlog will be sent this afternoon at 1300 GMT wherein Madam President thanks and congratulates each citizen personally for their support.”
Everyone smiled and nodded to each other. Bowtie even turned and grabbed Val’s shoulder in a fraternal expression of unity. Mother continued, “The Terrorist Alert at the Western Region GNCS Tower has recently been upgraded to Red III. Unexplained vandalism of the Tower resulted in the alert early this morning. Here to comment is WR ITLE Lead Investigator Michael O’Brien.”
O’Brien’s appeared in his own rectangle. A constant smile lived on his lips and in his eyes. That smile turned fear to love, confusion to trust, and chaos to unity. One look at those bright eyes and teeth a person knew that O’Brien’s rise wasn’t anywhere near its climax. His ambition was the only thing stronger than his confidence so when he began to speak people more than listened, they believed. “After our initial investigation we’ve found that this vandalism is local. Our threat assessment is minimal and we have downgraded our Terror Alert Level to Red I. As for the messages themselves, they seemed to be the result of mental illness. We are now in pleading for the person responsible to turn himself in so we can get them the help they much need. And while we appreciate your fervor please only text or email videos you feel pertinent to our investigation.”
The Breaking News logo ran across then the usual content flashed on the screen. People sat down at their desks while short clips of sports games cycled on the wall screens.
Val sat down too. He turned his computer on and opened his first profile template for a New Caledonian refugee before Todd walked up behind him. “Hey, buddy.”
Val closed his eyes and sighed. “I’m sorry, I’m kind of busy right now.”
“Come on, make the face.”
“What.” Val turned in his seat.
“You know, the face.” Todd pulled his eyebrows into an arch and pulled his lips tight over his teeth, an expression of pathetic terror. He held it for a second and stopped, “You’re going to be big. That last post is almost two million views. I linked the ‘is that a pen’ video to it and its got almost 750,000 hits. You’re heading for celebrity, buddy. Face Man.” Todd started retelling the story to Bowtie in the next cubicle. Val had the urge to smoke even though he hated cigarettes. He needed an excuse to get out.
He stood watching the clouds trying not to think. He envied the birds that flew by, not because they were free and could go where they wanted. No, Val didn’t want freedom. He didn’t think about that at all. In fact, he purposely avoided even thinking the word freedom. What a terrible burden. He was jealous of the bird’s ability not to have a conscious thought. They didn’t have to deal with caring what the other birds said or thought, because they couldn’t say or think anything, not really. They might suddenly be hungry, or sleepy. Occasionally they might have an urge to procreate.
“Amazing how they flock together like that.” Julia’s voice filled his head from behind. “Genetic memory. They fly farther together in formation than they could alone.”
Val turned. The sunrise made her baggy overalls gold and red so she looked as though she were fitted in ancient robes. She stood there, almost holy, her sparkling eyes followed the flock of birds.
“Amazing,” he said.
She stepped out of the light, over to the cement cylinder filled with sand and lit a cigarette. As she did Val’s eyes remained where she had stood. About twenty feet behind her on the right side of the open air deck some big letters on the wall caught his attention. Val cocked his head and followed the stocks, bends and circles of the thick black letters.
Fostered in Falsity,
Pull Down Thy Vanity
“My god, more words,” Val said.
Julia kept her eyes on the clouds. “Yeah.”
“What do they mean?” Val asked.
“That’s up to you.” She answered.
“We should tell someone.”
“That’s the point, I guess.”
“Who do you think wrote them?”
“I know who wrote them. Ezra Pound wrote them.” She looked from the sky to Val as if she had just only then realized he stood there. “Valentine Smith, Are you using your pen?”
“Wha-?” The word JULIA flashed across his brain in big dark letters and he blushed.
“Your grease pen.”
“Yeah.” He couldn’t find his breath and wasn’t sure if she heard him so he repeated himself, “Yes.”
She stabbed him with those light hazel eyes. Eyes made brighter by the darkness of her hair. She stood uncomfortably close to him. “Engineers used to invent and build.”
She walked toward the edge and he followed. She placed her hands on the safety railing and motioned to the skyline with her chin. “It hasn’t changed for almost a hundred years.”
“What?” He asked
“Nothing’s new. No inventions, no buildings, no ideas. We’re a stagnant pool and nothing has any real value. No wonder so many people are losing their minds lately,”
There was a second of silence Val wanted so badly to fill. He started, but the only meaningless fluff came to mind. LOL or another day in paradise or what are you gonna do? or it is what it is. He couldn’t force himself to say these things to her, not to her.
“My grandfather was an engineer, a true engineer. I haven’t seen another real soul since he died. Not until you asked for my pen.” She faced Val and without warning cupped his chin with her hands. She pressed her silk lips against his. She kept her eyes open as they kissed. It made him uneasy so he closed his. Instead of darkness he saw a swirl of bright colors and light. All his five senses blurred together. It took him a few moments to process the taste of her mouth, feeling her lips leave his, hearing her footsteps as she left. He must have stood there for a couple moments with his eyes shut because when he opened them he was alone.
“You’re perfect. Perfect and weird. People love it. You’re burning up the charts. You need a manager if you want to go far. I’m talking reality show, video biography, book deal. There is no limit. Don’t you worry about a thing. I’ll take care of all the submissions. I’ll just need some info.” Todd hovered over him as he typed data into his work station. Todd fumbled through the apps on his M-Com until finding the voice recorder. “Alright, first thing first, your full name?”
“We’ve worked next to each other for over five years.” Val looked up at him, hurt.
Val walked into his small kitchen. He threw his satchel on the table and as it fell on its side the journal slid out. Absent mindedly he said, “Mother, inquiry; quote, Fostered in Falsity, Pull Down Thy Vanity… unquote, search.”
Mother’s caring face appeared on the screen, her smile a blanket of love. “Searching Val.”
Small texts in a technical font ran down the screen faster than the human eye could read and within a second it stopped.
“Val, the passage you quoted is an excerpt from a poem written by the noted political dissident Ezra Pound. Although born in Idaho in the old United States he moved to Europe and used his influence over others to raise sympathy for Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. He wrote conspiracy theories laced with Anti-Semitism and views that included wild accusations such as the Bank of England being behind the United States First Great Depression.”
Val plopped in kitchen chair. “Can you please recite the poem?”
“No, Val. I’m sorry I cannot.” Mother said.
“Then please put it on screen.”
“I would love to Val, but his work was deemed obsolete and deleted from the database during upgrade 7.2. If you would like to read the poem you will unfortunately have to travel to the nearest One World Book Depository. I can also contact the GNCS to request a vacation for you. Do you want me to find travel and hotel arrangements for you? It will be charged to your account, plus fees and service charges.”
Val walked over to the refrigerator and pulled out a beer. “No, Mother, thank you. I don’t want to go through all that.” He popped the top off the bottle.
“Val, you are almost out of toothpaste and dishwasher soap, would you like me to have Delivery bring some.”
“Yes, that would be great. Also, buy me a new suit, Something in Topaz or that Tahitian Sands color. I have a feeling I’m going to have a tough day tomorrow. That reminds me, how many hits has my video gotten?”
“Break-up Face Humiliation has four million six hundred and thirty-seven thousand, five hundred and ninety-seven hits, Val. Four million six hundred and thirty-nine thousand, eight hundred and seventeen hits, Val. Four million six hundred and forty-three-”
“Thank you, Mother.” A dark mood crushed him. He didn’t think he’d have the strength to get off the chair. He figured he might have to stay right there on that seat for the rest of the night, but then under that ocean of self-pity the book shone in his memory. The book. When he though of it, he thought of Julia, he thought of the kiss.
Useless pages flipped until he found a blank one. He plunged his right hand into his satchel, fingers stretched out, searching frantically from one end to the other until he found the grease pen. Smiling he put tip to paper.
He didn’t know what to write, only that he had the need. The grease left a path across the page, a visible representation of time; where the pen started and where it ended. He slid it from one point to another, stopped, turned, circled, and crossed. A dot, a loop, one letter after the next formed until a word appeared. It amazed him that something so small could hit him so hard. He felt his heart beat against the cage in his chest as he created letters and words distinctly his own. It wasn’t until he was done that he realized he had written this;
Fostered in Falsity,
Pull Down Thy Vanity
It was only then that he really wondered what they meant. “Mother, search; foster.”
“Searching, Val.” A quick second went by. “Foster Fried Chicken Meat Logs, the best and most humanely grown meat logs on in the Western Region, for sale now at-”
“Foster Beer, it’s South Eastern Region Speak for beer-”
“Skip, Mother. Foster-comma-verb.”
“One… To bring up; nurture. Example; bear and foster offspring. Two… To promote the growth and development of; cultivate. Example; detect and foster artistic talent. Three… To nurse; cherish. Example; foster a secret hope.”
` Val especially liked the third definition. He liked it so much he forgot about his query. Instead he wrote this;
Valentine fosters a secret hope.
Valentine loves Julia.
Val wrote these sentences many times. He filled two pages with messages sloppily written over and over, sideways, slant ways, and wherever he could fit it. He finished a bottle of victory gin and had mother order another through Delivery. He fell sound asleep before it arrived.
Val awoke with a headache. Mother reminded him that he had aspirin in his medicine cabinet. He put on his suit for work he stuffed the book into the satchel and asked Mother the hit count on his video. She told him it was above six million. Todd was right; there was no avoiding The Big Show. It may even happen that day. He needed to show Julia the book and what he wrote. He needed to confess his love before being humiliated on the World Net.
Three hours into the day and he had already sweated through his new suit. The tan suit contrasted with the dark stains around his armpits. The Big Show had advertised a new episode coming up, ITNE Investigator O’Brien was in the building interviewing people about the vandalism, and he had smoked a half a pack of cigarettes without seeing her once.
His M-Com rang. Mother told him he had a text. It read;
Profile Maintenance Technician Valentine Smith, you are next to be interviewed by ITNE Inspector O’Brien. Please make yourself available sometime within the next ten minutes.
Val had no idea how to make himself available but he probably couldn’t have if he did. Things to say to Inspector O’Brien filled his head. I’ll tell him that I voted for him, no don’t say that. Everyone says that. I’ll compliment him on, on, Val couldn’t think of anything to compliment him on. I’m sure he will be wearing something very fashionable. I can compliment him on that. No, I’d come off as a star struck idiot. I’ll say something smart. Something like, I heard the market dipped a few points, or, or, Val couldn’t think of anything else.
The reason why he was meeting this local celebrity popped into his head. The vandalism. That’s what it had to do with. Val started practicing his grave look combined with a shake of his head and even practiced under his breath, “It’s a shame, a real shame.”
Then he imagined Inspector O’Brien saying something divinely intelligent, something like, well he couldn’t think of anything divinely intelligent, but Inspector O’Brien would say something along the lines of how they will catch the vandal. This is when Val practiced his supportive smile/nod combination.
“Hello friend, am I… interrupting something?” O’Brien spoke with a quick but smooth voice. In person his voice was deeper and gave Val the feeling of spreading butter on bread straight from the oven.
“Wha, no, I… Inspector O’Brien, wow, that is a nice suit. I am Val-”
“Valentine Smith, yes I know. I am here so we could have a little chat.” Val was amazed with how O’Brien pronounced his t’s. Most people skipped write over them but he was so exact. They echoed in his head, a little chat.
“Yes, sir.” Val said and shot for O’Brien’s outstretched hand to shake. “You know, I voted for you.”
“Excellent. May I, have a seat?”
“Of course.” Val looked down at his work space. The only chair was the one he sat in. He promptly offered it to O’Brien.
Inspector O’Brien thanked him and sat down. He motioned to Val, “Please, sit down.”
Val waited for a moment as if Inspector O’Brien had the power to make a chair materialize from thin air. When one did not appear he thought about sitting on the floor, but remembered there were chairs in the break room. “Yessir, I’ll be right back.”
Val started to speed walk across the twelfth floor. Inspector O’Brien called him to take his time. Val burst into the break room and slammed both hands down on the back of chair, picked it up, and darted back toward his cubicle. Somewhere in there he remembered he had brought the satchel. It was under the desk by O’Brien’s feet. The book, what he wrote in the book, the same phrase found on the wall, and his love professed to Julia in the most childish way.
He faltered and slowed. At one point he set the chair down in the middle of the room and leaned over the back of it trying to catch his breath. His feet lifted off the thin carpet and his head sank in the seat. I’m going to be arrested by my hero for something I don’t even understand. His head swiveled back and forth with the weight of his body on his neck. A small whine came from the back of his throat.
“Man, this is great. You keep them coming and the Todd will keep posting them. We’re going to be big” Todd had his M-Com out recording.
Val sprung up like a switchblade. When he returned to his cubicle Inspector O’Brien was closing the bottom left drawer on his desk. The satchel hadn’t moved. He stepped into the cubicle and sat in the chair. They faced each other. The wallscreen behind them advertised jobs mining Helium-3 on the lunar surface.
“Thou art a beaten dog beneath the hail,” O’Brien said with an attentive smile.
Val sighed, arched his eyebrows and nodded, “I definitely feel that way sometimes.”
O’Brien squinted at him intently, held it for an uncomfortable moment. “Do you like poetry, Mister Smith?”
Val frowned and blew air out his mouth like it escaped from a pressure gage. “Sure, I guess. No more than the next guy. I’m more concerned with what’s happening now, the news. You know. I mean,” he swallowed, “I heard just today the market dipped five points.”
“It’s back up seven,” O’Brien said.
The two men sat not looking at each other.
“You saw the vandalism on the fifteenth floor? The ITNE Security Supervisor said you knew something about it?”
Val’s hyperbolic nods were meant to show how much he agreed with O’Brien.
“You told him to look for someone named Ezra Pound.”
“Ezra Pound is a traitor to the state. I thought, maybe he did it.”
Surprised, O’Brien asked, “You thought he did what?”
“You know, wrote the words on the wall.”
“You thought he painted the words onto the wall?”
“Yes, that’s what I said.” Val sincerely wanted to point Inspector O’Brien in the right direction.
“I see, and what gave you this idea?” O’Brien asked.
Val paused and slowly gathered his scattered thoughts. Something vague swirling in his thoughts told him not to bring Julia’s name up. He needed to lie. “I was surfing the other night, and one of my friends, he’s in the war, Helmholtz Garcia, he is a soldier in the One World Army, a sergeant I think, he vlogged about, uh, terrorists, and he must have mentioned Ezra, well I mean, he spoke about the terrorists mostly, but he also mentioned this guy Ezra. So I looked him up, and Mother told me he was a political dissident, and so I just put two and two together, and, uh, well…”
“I see. Good job, it’s citizens like you that make our One World society possible.” Inspector O’Brien said.
“It is what it is,” Val shrugged.
“I appreciate your time Mister Smith and I don’t want you to worry. We will catch this vandal.” Inspector O’Brien smiled one last time and walked away.
Val used this opportunity to use his supportive smile/nod combination.
Val stood at the guardrail on the fifteenth floor smoking deck searching the skyline for birds. He felt lucky that O’Brien didn’t find the journal, but he also felt guilt for not coming clean. Inspector O’Brien built his whole career making sure every citizen in the Federated States of One World could sleep peaceably at night and here he was purposely omitting information to his hero. Val thought of the terrorists. They must be good, better than anyone thought if this guy Ezra was able to get into the building without being detected by security, especially with all the lines, and x-rays, and checkpoints.
“Hey.” Julia had walked up behind him.
“Hey.” He said his focus still half lost.
“I heard Inspector O’Brien spoke to you.” She looked hopeless, desperate.
“Yeah, but they’ll never catch Ezra Pound.” Val said defeated.
Julia paused for a second, but then she started to laugh. Val had no clue why, but he laughed with her. The laughter didn’t stop. He needed it, like a valve turned letting his stress flow out. It went on for awhile.
The interview had drained him so much he thought he might wait another day to show her the words he made for her, but his video would be on at any moment. After that there was no chance she would look at him the same way. So he pulled his hand from the satchel. Slow and shaking, he held the book out to her.
Julia’s eyes burned and she snatched it out of his hands. In a quick but careful motion she opened the front cover, thumbed back one page, another, then another.
“My god.” She said.
“Yeah.” Val said, confused but refusing to let that keep him from matching her enthusiasm.
“I knew it. There was something about you, something about you I hadn’t seen since Grandfather.”
Val wasn’t sure how to take that. He pointed, “It’s the back few pages that I wanted to sh-”
She slammed the book shut and stuffed it in her overalls. Her eyes shot to the door. It was Todd walking over in a quick strut. She grabbed the back of Val’s neck and pulled him to her for a full open mouth kiss. When he opened his eyes this time she was still there but little white sparks framed her smiling face.
“I can’t look at it here, but I… you don’t know how much this means to me. To find someone else who… who sees. I have to go.” She sped away, back into the building.
“You are on fire!” Todd said as he walked up. “Everyone wants a piece of Face-Man.”
“You debuted at number five on The Big Show’s Top Ten with an honorable mention for the Pen Pickup Line, man. Look the girls are already all over you.”
The following morning Val dressed in another newly delivered suit. He needed the confidence of Suntanned Sultan Biege. Two videos of him were at the top of The Big Show’s Top Ten with Face-Man Sits On Head with over 2,300,000 hits. He almost called in sick, but he had to chance it to see Julia. She had been so excited about the gibberish in the front of the book he figured when she finally saw what he had written in clearly legible letters she would fall in love. His luck with girls had finally turned around.
They were there as soon as he got out of his car, but their reaction was different than he expected. Dozens of people patted him on the back and fumbled all over themselves. It was different than he thought. People stammered as they introduced themselves. They parted the security line and he had no problem getting through even though the alert level had been raised to Red IV. He imagined he had some of the magic ITNE Inspector O’Brien wielded on a daily basis.
They cheered for him when he stepped out of the twelfth floor elevator. Bowtie ran up to him and told him he was right on time. Mother had been playing his story every half hour and was about to start again.
“The market has had its first double digit gain in a year due, in part, to the apprehension of a high level terrorist in the Western Region. GNCS Machine Maintenance Technician Julia Huxley had been apprehended by local ITNE Inspector Miguel O’Brien with what they believe to be an original copy of the separatist’s handwritten manifesto.” A rectangle formed to reveal footage of O’Brien and two Security Officers apprehending a handcuffed Julia in front of the GNCS Tower. The clip played in slow motion, twice.
Stomach acid shot into Val’s bottom jaw and he swallowed it down. They caught Julia with the book. Separatist’s Manifesto? Oh god, he thought, my book.
Several people padded him on the back. One of them was Todd. “Wait for it, here, here’s the best part.”
“In other news a new viral celebrity has popped up on the Global Net. For the first time in The Big Show history one man is in three out of Top Ten videos. Valentine Smith Profile Technician for the GNCS has an indisputable ability to evoke a strong response from viewers. Here at the number one spot is Face-Man Breakup Humiliation.”
Everyone yelled and laughed and grabbed each other as if his humiliation was an award shared by all. There he was in the restaurant with Helmholtz and the two girls, wine dripping from his frozen horror-spasm face. Laughter erupted until many of his coworkers cried tears of pure joy.
This is the worst day of his life. Cat woman laughed so hard she had to gasp violently for air. Bowtie broke into a fit of coughs and doubled over he was laughing so hard. Open mouths and squinted eyes met him every direction he turned.
“They love you, Face-Man,” Todd whispered in Val’s ear.
He thought about it. They did, every since he got out of his car that morning. He remembered the magic. His petrified feeling slowly faded as he saw that the people truly loved him. A smile cracked across his face like it would across a frozen pond. Shame fell from him as if it only had been an outer shell that had weighed him down most of his life, but now easily discarded. He floated to his cubicle as they cheered him on and chanted his name.
They know my name.
Mother went on to other news and the chant stopped, but the excitement remained. Without knowing what else to do he went to his cubicle. He had two red emails. That meant he was to move these two cases to the top of his action items list. They had top priority. After opening both he decided one was good news and one was bad. He picked the bad news first. The email came from his Department Head. It told him to delete Julia’s profile. That meant that she was probably never going to be seen again. Moved to an off shore detention center or committed.
I really misjudged her, he thought. I can’t believe I could have been so wrong about someone. It took less than twenty keystrokes and she was gone forever.
As he worked messages kept popping up on his screen. Almost all from people he never heard of, most desperately wanted to be his friend. Some were media agents. He ignored them. He knew that this was probably his last day at work. A reality show was in the works for him, at the very least, but he wouldn’t think about that right now. He was so proud that finishing his action item list seemed the most natural thing to do.
The second red file was the good news. ITNE Inspector O’Brien’s profile needed to be updated. He received a promotion and would from that day be Head Security Consultant on Madam President Heinlein-Blair’s Cabinet. Finally, he is being used to his full potential, he thought. Val may not have understood his new found celebrity, and who knew, it could only last a couple of months, but at least he got to do something that really mattered. He got to update his hero’s profile to a status he deserved.
Val’s excitement got the better of him as he typed and his heavy key strokes knocked a paper down that had been hidden behind his monitor. He recognized the lines from the grease pen. It was a few pages from the book. His lungs emptied immediately. It wasn’t over. In all the excitement they were easy to forget. He grabbed them and quickly found them to be the pages he had written.
“Forget about this menial stuff, man. As your manager the Todd suggests you come to the break room at once. The little people are throwing you an impromptu party.” Todd said from behind him.
Val jumped and would have slid off his seat if he didn’t catch himself.
“Dude, stop. You’re always on. I have to record you 24/7.” Todd laughed.
Val stuffed the paper into his pocket and swiveled in his chair. “I, uh, I need a smoke. I’ll be there shortly.”
“Fine, but you better start getting used to this,” Todd said as he pulled a bottle of champagne from behind his back. “The GNCS Head Administrator sent this down to congratulate you. He said our whole floor gets the day off.”
Val ran to the guardrail of the smoking deck. He ripped the paper a little in his haste to unfold it. He saw, in his own handwriting, his love confessed to Julia. He held both pages, but noticed a third. The writing was very similar to Ezra’s. Julia had written him a note. It read.
I know they will catch me. I don’t have your skill to hide behind the continence of an idiot. You are surely a master of concealment. I never had one suspicion you would be my one true love and we’ve worked in this same building for years. Truthfully, I always thought you were one of them, an ignorant cog to an ever consuming machine, but then you asked about my pen. Such a small catalyst for limitless love.
I don’t have much time. I believe they are coming even as I write this, but I wanted you to know that my last wish in this world is for you not to blame yourself. I have been looking all my life for an opportunity to sacrifice something in this dull world. I gladly give my life, a hundred times over, for a cause that truly means something, and no cause is more worthy than hope or love. This stagnant pool we call civilization has driven me insane. So, please love, please, don’t blame yourself. You have given me a gift and for this, I will always love you, I will never tell them about you, about us. That will be the one secret I keep to myself, my one real thing in this world.
Val crumpled the papers into a ball and threw them off the fifteenth floor. He cursed his luck with women. Just when he thought it had changed he goes and dates a terrorist. Maybe his new found celebrity would change all that. He hoped so. He felt bad for Julia, but she said herself she was insane. He shrugged and made a mental note to tell mother to buy the exact suit O’Brien had on. Then he turned and went to the party.