Katya is eight years old. Faire, her mother, and Dene, her father, are concerned. She won’t speak, though the doctors promise she is capable.
Faire holds Katya’s hand as Dene opens the door to the Science Building. It’s the place where the Corporation conducts tests on people who demonstrate abnormalities. Faire has been afraid to come here. Dene says her fears are unfounded. He would know, as he works for the Corporation as a programmer. But Faire has heard stories of children being taken away or transformed by chips inserted into their brains that change their personalities. Katya looks up at her mother, eyes wide as if this is one big adventure. Faire smiles so her daughter won’t be afraid, and they follow Dene onto the white-tiled floor.
In their apartment, Faire washes dishes of their leftover food. There are only two plates. Katya must stay in the Science Building overnight for tests. Dene touches Faire’s arm. “We have to do what we can to help her.” Faire shrugs Dene off to place the dishes on the drying rack. She takes a chocolate bar out of the fridge, breaks it in half and offers the larger piece to Dene. “She’ll be back tomorrow.” Dene bites the chocolate. Faire can hear him chewing; it annoys her.
Faire throws open the doors to the Science Building. The white-tiled floors refract the light coming in through the windows into her eyes, inducing momentary blindness. “I’m here for my daughter. She was admitted for tests yesterday,” states Faire to the woman at the front desk.
“Please fill out this form with your request,” the woman says while handing Faire a tablet.
“Isn’t there anyone I can speak to?”
“I’m sorry, but you need to fill out the form first.”
Faire fills out the form and submits it. A message appears on the screen: “Thank you for your request. We will notify you when tests are complete.”
“Excuse me,” Faire approaches the woman at the front desk. “I want to know when my daughter can come home. Can’t you give me any information about that?”
The woman punches a button on her keyboard. “I’ve added your question to your submission form.”
Faire’s cheeks burn with anger. How dare this woman keep her from Katya. She checks herself from saying anything that will result in a flag to her record. This woman is just doing her job.
Dene makes spaghetti for dinner. “You should eat,” he says, pointing to Faire’s untouched plate. Faire twists a pair of noodles around her fork and touches the pasta to her lips. The round, worm-like foodstuff is repulsive. She can’t bear the thought of consuming it, despite her desire to make Dene happy.
She lowers her fork. Dene looks sad. Faire feels bad about this. He takes her plate and scrapes her meal into a plastic container. “Maybe you’ll be hungry later.”
Faire waits on the faux leather bench in the Science Building. Today, the young man at the front desk hadn’t known how to respond to her questions. This is only his second day on the job, he said. Faire tries to concentrate on her screen where an ad for a fizzy drink plays. A man takes a swig from the bottle and grins ghoulishly. His teeth reflect the chartreuse sheen of the lime-flavored drink. Faire is careful to suppress the disgust bubbling up inside. Any show of effusive emotion could be picked up by the tablet sensors, disqualify her results, and lead to a forfeit of pay.
The woman who Faire spoke to previously emerges into the atrium from a hidden door behind the front desk. She lays into the new hire, “You don’t tell people anything. That’s the job of the software. You send them home, and if there’s anything they need to know, they will be notified.” The new hire glances warily in Faire’s direction. The woman follows his gaze to see Faire, partially obscured by a shadow cast by the marble wall buttresses.
Faire strides to the front desk. These people must answer to her now. They know where her daughter is. She’s certain.
Splaying her fingers on the shiny desk surface, Faire towers over the two employees. “Bring my child to me. It’s my right as her mother to see her.”
The woman squares her shoulders with Faire’s. “You need to leave now.”
“Who’s in charge here?” Faire demands.
“I am.” The woman’s eyes smolder. Faire wonders how a person could be so absent of empathy, but then realizes that this woman is not unlike herself; her dedication is to the Corporation, not to Faire’s daughter. The woman presses a button on her keyboard. “Your account has been flagged. As stated, you will be notified as soon as information is available.”
The new hire cowers in the shadow of his manager. Perhaps he will lose his job over this. Protocol is the Corporation’s religion, and he failed to abide by it.
Faire removes her hands from the shiny surface of the desk and takes her leave. Though she failed to see her daughter, Faire learned something. The people working for the Corporation are not as perfect as the algorithms they serve.
Outside the Science Building, Faire takes a deep breath. The walk from Corporate headquarters to her and Dene’s apartment is only a few blocks, but Faire notices things she never did before. She always assumed the street was straight, but today she sees a slight curve, a whole block of apartments that she never paid attention to, and the sign for the supermarket is missing the letter “r.”
When Faire arrives at the apartment, Dene is waiting for her. “They sent me home,” he explains. Faire hangs her purse on the hook by the door and shrugs off her jacket. “And flagged my account.” Moving to the kitchen, Faire takes out a pan to make Dene’s favorite stir fry. The cupboards in the kitchen are bare. “The food drone never arrived,” he adds. Faire finds a can of potato soup in the back. “Faire, we have to get back to normal. We can’t let this derail us.” Faire dumps the soup into a stove pot and turns on the burner.
“What about Katya?”
“The Corporation will let us know when she is ready to come home.” Faire finds a loaf of bread in the back of the freezer. Dinner will be soup and toast. She feels Dene’s arms around her waist.
“I miss her.” Dene’s arms are warm. He holds Faire close.
The wind plays with Faire’s hair. She sits on a bench outside the Science Building pretending to watch ads. From her position on the edge of the grass park, she is far enough from the entrance so as not to draw attention, but close enough to maintain a clear view through the glass walls to the front desk. The woman who spoke so harshly to Faire the day before, recognizable by her authoritative carriage, is inside training a new hire. The young man who didn’t follow protocol must have been fired after all.
Tinkling bells play from Faire’s tablet. Faire pushes the power-down button and looks up at the glass facade of the Science Building. The position of the sun has shifted, making it harder to see inside, but Faire can just make out a single body moving about the front desk. The woman has left the new hire alone. Tucking her device under her arm and composing her features into a pleasant smile, Faire sets her sights on the front doors.
The new hire is petite girl, dark hair pulled into a tight bun at the nape of her neck. Faire notes with some satisfaction that she could physically overpower her if needed. “How can I help you?” the girl asks, her scintillating voice echoing off the marble surfaces.
“I have an appointment to visit my daughter.” The girl can’t find the appointment in the system. Of course, there is none, but she is new and doesn’t trust herself yet.
“I’ll be right back,” she says. The hidden door behind the front desk swings open, and the girl hurries inside. Before the door can close, Faire rushes behind the desk and stops the door’s motion with her foot. Faire’s breath catches in her throat. No ringing alarm bells or flashing warning lights. Faire slips inside.
The hall is dark and long, lined with doors. Faire watches the girl up ahead disappear behind one of them, making a mental note to avoid that entrance – it must be the administrative office. Little cameras above the doors blink with tiny red lights. There isn’t much time. Faire scans signs above entryways as she walks: Infectious Disease, Mental Illness, Life Extension, Physical Disability. If Katya can’t speak, that counts as a physical disability, right? Somehow the characterization doesn’t fit. Faire continues down the hall.
A man in a long, gray coat emerges from a door labeled “Well Being.” Faire hurries to come up with an explanation for her presence. “Sorry to bother you,” Faire stutters. “But I’m new and can’t find my way back to my patient.”
The man flashes his straight, white teeth. “What area?” he asks, his voice reverberating like the strings that make the low notes on a cello.
“The cause has been hard to pinpoint,” Faire says, hoping a broad response will conceal her ignorance. “But she won’t speak.” The man nods considerately. “She’s just a child,” Faire can’t help but add in her daughter’s defense.
The man’s eyes glitter, “In that case, she’s likely to be in the Inundation Lab. Last one on the end.” He points down the hall to the final door.
“Thank you. I must have gotten turned around. All the doors look the same.” Faire hurries away before the man can question her explanation.
The door at the end of the hall is metal and very tall. Faire holds her breath as she pulls the handle. To her delight it opens, and she steps inside.
At first, she is blinded by sunlight. Her nostrils are inundated with smells. Good smells. Honey, lavender, and fresh cut grass. Does she hear birds chirping?
As Faire’s eyes adjust, she finds herself surrounded by flowering plants and lush, green trees, the sun shining overhead. A pair of yellow parakeets flit across Faire’s path and dart into a thicket. The sound of trickling water sooths Faire’s mind. On the other side of the thicket is a small stream, running over smooth stones. The sunlight dances across the water’s surface, bending slightly on its path from sky to earth, and Faire realizes that this paradise is not open-air, but surrounded by glass.
“Aren’t they beautiful?” The voice is crystalline – like wind chimes. Faire turns slowly to see Katya, her beautiful daughter, the two yellow parakeets in the palm of her hand, filled with grains of sugar. Eyes filling with tears, Faire rushes to her daughter. The birds flutter into the trees, and Katya brushes the sugar from her hands. It settles like stardust on the grass beneath her feet.
Faire swoops her daughter into her arms. Her hair smells like honey suckle and her blue dress is soft. “I love you,” Faire whispers.
“I love you, Mamma,” Katya says in her chime-like voice.
Faire sets Katya down and kneels so their eyes are on the same level. “They didn’t change you,” Faire says. She pulls a tumbling curl back from her daughter’s round face. Katya smiles, reassuring her mother of her happiness.
“It’s her world that’s changed.” The low voice is out of place in this pellucid realm of birds, flowers, and running water. The man in the gray coat chooses his path around the flowerbeds carefully and comes to stand next to Katya, placing his hand on her shoulder. “All of us are impacted by the world around us, but Katya is especially susceptible. The sounds, sights, and motions of the world outside are too overwhelming for her delicate mind.”
Faire feels like a fool. She thought she was ahead when she was actually many miles behind. “Who are you?” She gets to her feet reluctantly.
The man takes a silk pouch from his coat pocket. Katya holds out her hand expectantly. He opens the pouch and pours the contents, sparkling grains of sugar, into her palm. The little yellow birds swoop down and land delightedly in Katya’s palm. The smile that sweeps her face is precious.
“I am the director of the Inundation Lab,” the man says. “Katya’s not the only child who cannot handle the overwhelming nature of our world. Long ago, our ancestors lived in a place like this.” The director gestures broadly at the surrounding canopy of trees and trickling stream. “We’ve recreated that environment here, but without the stresses of human needs faced by our predecessors.” Katya’s eyes are alight with wonder as she watches the parakeets consume the sweet, saccharine crystals with their narrow beaks.
Faire struggles to push down what feel like a wood block lodged in her throat. “When can she come home?” she asks in a strained whisper.
“You can take her home with you today, if you like,” answers the director. Faire feels her heart rocket excitedly into her throat. “But she will go back to the way she was before. It is only here where she will be sheltered from the stimulants that caused her to retreat into her shell. I fear the shock of the world outside may cause her to withdrawal permanently. Faire swallows the bile rising from her trachea. “You are her mother, so of course it is your choice.” Faire hears the director’s voice, but the sound is like that of the birds and the stream – just part of the environment. She watches Katya raise her hands to the glass heavens and the parakeets take flight. The sugar brushed from her hands hangs in the air in a glittering haze.
Nikki Brown is a narrative writer and filmmaker who grew up in Grand Rapids, MI and who now resides in Los Angeles, CA. In addition to her fiction work, Nikki is a journalist who explores the impacts of emerging technologies on culture and society. Nikki also co-wrote and produced the indie feature film, Up on the Glass, and earned her MFA in Writing for Screen and Television from the University of Southern California and BA in Biology from Dartmouth College.