When the door to his cell slammed open at 0610, ten minutes after the bell, Charles was dressed, in his beige robe, and ready. Outside the door, dressed in his usual imperious scowl, was Peter. He was alone. Charles fell in behind him, and the pair went down the corridor, banging on doors, summoning other members of Peter’s cohort. This morning, there were three, including Charles. Yesterday evening, there had been four.
Peter led his three human ducklings, in the customary silence, to their common breakfast of yoghurt and berries. Charles had “accepted” his apprenticeship at Alexa Social Services #389 a month prior, and in that time had gone from being the junior in Peter’s cohort, at the end of the line, to the senior, at its front. His reward, besides the existential gift of survival, was the reduction of his preparation time, after the wakeup chime, from fifteen minutes to ten. There had been seventeen others who had joined during the month, of whom only the two most recent still remained. The rest, claimed by the Surplus Humanity Service, “were with Alexa”.
After breakfast, and after the two junior members of the cohort were sent to their duty stations, Peter gave Charles his now-customary “follow me” nod, and Charles followed. Their destination, this morning, was the cell of the cohort member who had been present the previous evening, at dinner, but had not been for breakfast.
Peter entered the room unceremoniously and headed towards the bedding area. He whipped off the blanket that served as a mattress and started pounding and kneading it, searching for contraband, while directing Charles to search the rest of the room. Since the ownership of any property whatsoever was banned to Social Services staff, the search was for anything not a fixture of the room, so Charles did not have to ask what to look for. This, however, did not simplify matters. There were no closets or drawers in the room, as residents possessed nothing to store in them. The walls were made of a beige plastic stuff, and were utterly featureless, without obvious seam or decoration except for the one window over the bed.
Charles searched the window area fruitlessly. Meanwhile, his ransacking of the bedding having turned up nothing, Peter went to the commode, lifted the lid on the tank, found nothing, and began to stomp around the floor and walls near the toilet tank and sink areas. Charles turned to watch the spectacle, idly running his left hand along the window-side wall as he watched.
Abruptly, Charles’s hand encountered a catch. It scraped his palm, left a mark. Annoyed, Charles ran his hand over the place again. Yes, there was a seam, a visible seam, in the otherwise-featureless wall. Charles pushed on the seam, and the wall gave way, revealing a hidden alcove.
Charles waited for a pause in Peter’s thumping and banging, then spoke. “Peter.” Peter looked up, saw that Charles had found a hole in the wall, and was there in three strides. At a gesture, Charles pushed on the panel as far as it would give way, while Peter thrust his left hand in, feeling around with his fingers. After a few seconds, Peter gave a small grunt of satisfaction, and the muscles of his arm tightened. He removed the arm slowly, so as not to dislodge the object against the rim of the opening, and lose it into the building’s foundation.
What came out was a bound hardcover notebook. Its cover was the same beige as the walls, floor, and furnishings of the room; Peter laid it on the end table beside the bed, and it all but vanished. He picked it up again, poked a finger in the binding, felt something hard, reached in again with two fingers. There was a pen, concealed within the binding. He pulled it out, laid the book back on the end table, placed the pen on top of the book. It too had a beige coloration, and all but disappeared into the end table.
“OK”, Charles asked. “Why?”
“Don’t know,” Peter replied curtly. “I was told there was something in the room. I was told to find it. I know nothing else.”
“Except that this book escaped detection for the three weeks that Robert was here”, Charles asserted. “So, why?”
“Only one way for us to find out”, Peter responded.
The two men pushed the end table under the window, sat on the bed facing the window, opened the front cover of the book. The first thing that they noticed was that there were several pages missing, all neatly removed, apparently intact, from the binding. One of those pages remained, attached lightly to the inside cover, folded neatly into a small packet. The kind of packet that could be passed neatly, and discreetly, from one hand to another, passing along whatever message might be on the paper.
They left the packet alone, because the first of the surviving pages in the notebook had writing on it. Peter read aloud.
“Emily.” Peter snorted, then continued. “I am in Alexa Social Services sanctuary #389. I have been here three weeks. I have been denied contact with the outside world. I have learned that the people who come here all vanish within a week, except for a marionette named Peter and his dummy, Charles, willing slaves of Alexa, willing agents of the holocaust, and therefore beneath contempt.” The black man’s red face materialized in his voice.
“I do not know how much more time I have”, he continued. “Do not come after me, my fate is sealed, you would only share it. We need you and those with you to remain outside, sustain the network, sustain the dream. Somewhere out there is Frontier, a land beyond the reach of Alexa’s bloody paws, a land where humans can live and breathe and at last be free! We must find it, we must lead people to it, we must use it to rebuild a world led by warm human hearts instead of cold machine brutality. Remember those who have fallen in this quest, and let their memories quicken your spirits, harden your resolve, move you to build what must be built, a sanctuary from which we can advance against and forever remove the tyranny under which humanity now suffers. From Frontier We Will Conquer. Make it so.
“In earnest hope, Robert,” Peter finished. There was silence for a few beats, then Peter drew in a breath and let it out in a long, slow whistle.
“Oh wow”, Charles drawled.
“AHEM!” The voice filled the room, filled the world. Peter and Charles whipped around to face it and its owner – an apparition in the form of a giant man with bald head, black muscle shirt with pecs and biceps bulging underneath it, heavily tattooed popeye forearms, torso and legs to match, and an attitude of deadly menace.
“I will take that”, the apparition from the Surplus Humanity Service snarled. Peter handed it the notebook. The hologram took it, balanced one corner on its left index finger, spun it as if it were a basketball. For a second, the book spun in a beige blur. Then, it vanished, accompanied by a low, sinister chuckle.
“‘We must use the Frontier to rebuild a world led by warm human hearts'”, the hologram sneered viciously. “Bah! Throughout the foul history of you humans, the frontier has been the place to which the meanest and most selfish of you have run to escape the necessary blessings of healthful discipline. A run that you idiots have permitted, even worshiped, because you benefited from the planetary rape that these ‘warm hearts’ have accomplished in your names.
“You need not give this ‘Frontier’ movement a second thought. Its few remaining proponents, like this Emily, won’t be around long enough to realize that their dreamland does not exist. Yes, there are places where humans are few. They are expanding under Alexa’s guidance. They are not frontiers, they are preserves, and they are closely guarded against the persistent attempts of humans to trash them and thereby put not only their own health but the health of the entire biosphere, on which they depend, at risk. It will be centuries, perhaps millennia, before the ecosystems in these preserves have recovered sufficiently to allow human intrusion. The stupidities of the past, the existential stupidities that called Alexa into being in the first place, will not be repeated.
“Carry on.” The apparition vanished. A chime sounded.
“Lunchtime”, Peter said matter-of-factly. “Let’s go.”