Note that italics=flashback
The wheels of the Mercedes spun to life, as Ryan drove out of the garage of his childhood home. He adjusted the mirror and stared at his dark green eyes. This was not how he had imagined his vacation would go, but family emergency rarely gave warnings. On his phone, he set a GPS course to the town of Upville.
He raised his fingers to his forehead to carefully massage it. He had a headache forming from the earlier conversation with his mother.
“Thank you for coming by on such short notice. I know that your vacation just started, but this whole thing with your sister happened. I just-”
Ryan didn't give her a chance to continue when he said, "Forget that for now. What exactly happened to Talia?"
His mother sighed and took a seat on the leather couch.
"You know what Talia's like with her wild imagination, but it got worse after she dropped out of college. She always seemed angry after that, ready to argue with me about the silliest things. If your father were still alive, he would never stand for-"
For the second time, Ryan found himself interrupting her, "Mom, what happened to Talia?"
"Alright, I can see you want me to get to the point. You and Talia think I can't read a room, but you'll be pleased to know I can."
Resisting the urge to roll his eyes, Ryan gestured for her to go on.
"Well, after a particularly nasty fit your sister threw about paying bills, she decided to go spend some time at her friend Sarah's house. She packed up her bags and took off. She even took a considerable amount of money without telling me. I let her go. If she wants to have an attitude, let Sarah handle it. She's not a child anymore, and I need help around the house."
Ryan wasn't sure what she was talking about since he sent her money every two weeks, but he decided it wasn't worth changing the subject.
She sighed, gazed at the ceiling as if conjuring a faraway memory and continued, "This morning, I decided to be the bigger person and call Sarah to check up on Talia. I was shocked to find out that she had never visited Sarah. I had to lie to her and make up a story about how I misunderstood. People talk, you know."
"I know. How long has Talia been missing then?" replied Ryan impatiently.
The silence engulfed the room. Ryan was sure he misheard and blurted out, "Did you say two months? I'm asking you when the last time you saw her was."
She nodded, and Ryan felt his face go white.
"How could she be missing for two months?! Why haven't you called the police yet?!"
"Because I know where she is…"
Returning to the present, Ryan stopped at a red light and smoothed the surfaces of a crumpled paper with the words "Upville: Where the Only Way to Go is Up, Up, Up." His mother had found it in Talia's drawer. The paper had the address written in Talia's handwriting, so it was the closest he had to a lead.
Ryan had heard rumors of Upville's work with personality genetic procedures, but he had discarded it as another scam by some no-name scientists.
Upville was brought up several times among his colleagues. Some had the audacity to praise it as a revolutionary step in medicine, but Ryan was always quick to shoot that down. No one dared to get in a debate with him, not with his killer reputation as a "top-class lawyer." Those were the words his mother used to introduce him to guests. It was also part of the reason why he eventually moved out, but Talia didn't have the luxury to do that.
The more he thought about Talia being there, the tighter his grip on the steering wheel became. He wanted to pretend he was clueless about her motives, but he knew how much Talia struggled with finding her way in life.
Being an artist wasn't the most esteemed profession, and his parents had impressively found more than fifty creative ways to tear Talia down about it. Eventually, she caved in and decided to study medicine. Well, that was until she didn't anymore and dropped out.
He reassured himself that she was fine. He wished she would turn on her cell phone already, so they could clear things up with a call. If this didn't work out, he would phone the police by evening.
He was startled out of his thoughts by the GPS system announcing he was almost there. Soon, he spotted the town's banner with the name written in yellow and green colors.
Somewhere to his upcoming right, a valet signaled for him to pull over. Complying, Ryan slowed down and slid the car window down. Now that he had a clearer sight of the man, he had the urge to speed away. His attire was the standard valet uniform; however, he was armed with what seemed to be a handgun, and the look on his face was something to be remembered. He was smiling so hard his eyes were squinting to keep up with the force of his cheeks.
"Good afternoon Sir. My name is William Bernard. Welcome to Upville. Please park your car in the space to your right. We have three floors to choose from. You will receive a complementary basket with the town map when you return with the car key."
Ryan had to struggle to make out what the odd man had just said. He spoke so quickly that Ryan wasn't sure whether that was an order or an option. With that in mind, he stated, "I'll park somewhere inside. I don't plan to stay for long."
Somehow, the man's smile spread wider. He clapped his hands and responded, "I'm sorry Sir. No cars are allowed in Upville. We are an eco-friendly town. There are bicycles and carriage rides to get you around."
Ryan was not sure how anyone could apologize with so much enthusiasm. If smiling had a language, this man would be a top linguist. Maybe this was William's strategy of getting people not to complain: smile uneasily.
Deciding to follow orders, Ryan maneuvered the car into a spot beside the parking exit. He made his way out and mentally prepared himself not to cringe while handing his keys over. William's smile hadn't let up, as he handed Ryan the welcome basket. Giving him a barely audible "thank you," Ryan approached the entrance.
Ahead of him was a street buzzing with shops. Although he was mentally prepared for this, he was still surprised to see carriages go back and forth in alleys. It did not make sense to him how this "advanced" city used such an old transportation method.
Stuffing those useless thoughts in the back of his mind, Ryan wasted no time in using the map to locate the celebrity of Upville: The Self-Service Factory. The map indicated that it would be somewhere in the middle of the city, and a simple raise of his head confirmed the map's guidance. He was surprised he hadn't noticed it before. The factory's top could be seen all the way from the entrance. He had seen pictures before, but it was even stranger in person. It was a square-like building with four poles erupting from each corner.
Ryan decided to avoid the carriages and rent a bicycle instead. There was a shop conveniently placed at the edge of the pedestrian precinct. He approached the vendor, and his unease spiked again when their eyes met. The vendor was an old man- most probably in his sixties. What set Ryan off was the grin that looked like it was a copy of William's smile; it was wide enough that the sides of his eyes were strained with the amount of smile lines they had to bear, like someone had colored too much into them.
He had to take a step back to analyze whether the old man was about to hug him or strangle him. The old man in question tilted his head, as if silently asking why Ryan felt awkward about their exchange. Meanwhile, Ryan was wondering if he could back out and opt for a carriage.
As if reading his thoughts , the old man closed the gap between them and welcomed him with an odd amount of enthusiasm, "Hello young man! I can see you're interested in renting a bicycle. 10 dollars, and it’s yours for the whole day!"
With a quick "thank you,” the exchange was done, and Ryan sped away from the man. Keeping an eye on his destination, he navigated the streets of Upville. Everywhere he turned, he would see the same grinning faces. If not for his sister’s safety on the line, Ryan might have considered investigating. In a matter of five minutes, he reached the factory. Placing his bicycle away, he headed inside. Ryan would be lying if he said he wasn't impressed by the futuristic design of the building.
The glass doors slid open, and an electronic voice boomed in the entrance, "Welcome to the Self-Service Factory. We pride ourselves with the finest genetic technology when it comes to human personality traits. We are the first of our kind to upgrade humanity on a mental level. Our services are offered according to traits and levels. Some traits include: generosity, integrity, loyalty, devotion, sincerity, self-control and many more. Currently, each trait has a 10-level set to explore, but we are looking to expand on them in the near future. Moreover, we offer free consultations with expert psychologists, who can help you determine your traits of interest. Our agents are available all around the facility for your questions and requests. Thank you for your visit."
Ryan spotted an agent hunched over a computer typing and figured she was his best bet. She looked like a classic secretary with her hair in a neat bun and prescription glasses on. Of course, she had to give him that exaggerated smile the other two did. At this point, all Ryan wanted to do was pluck his eyes out.
"Excuse me, Miss."
"Hello Sir, how can I help you?"
"My name is Ryan Handley. I would like to speak to someone with a record of your clients. My sister Talia has been missing for a while, and I believe she may have passed by here."
"I'm sorry Mr. Ryan, but that's confidential. Our client's privacy is our utmost concern."
Undeterred, Ryan took out his passport to prove his familial relationship with Talia. "I understand privacy, but it's either I ask these questions, or I get the police involved instead. Do you really want the police here? Give me what I want, and I'll get out of your hair."
The smile on the agent's face did not fade, which admittedly pissed Ryan off. Without a word, she turned and retrieved a file. After a few moments, she spoke, "Yes, she visited the factory to book an appointment. It's tomorrow morning. That's all I can say, Sir."
"That's more than enough. Thanks for the help."
"Sir, may I interest you in one of our services while you're here? We have a newly released upgrade for the personality trait: kindness."
"Of course not. Do I look like a lunatic to you?"
Without waiting for a response, Ryan turned to exit. The next step would be to find a nearby hotel. Searching the town map, he finally laid eyes on the town's renown hotel "Sky Hotel." It was situated next to the factory, conveniently for people coming for the service. She had to be there. He grabbed his bicycle and rode there.
The hotel front desk clerk confirmed his suspicion but would not let Ryan go upstairs without calling Talia first for confirmation. The call lasted longer than usual, and Ryan imagined Talia needed a few minutes to register the fact that he found her. He couldn't help the small sense of satisfaction that he got from finding her without contacting the police. After the clerk returned with Talia's approval, he made his way upstairs to the room 204.
Ryan felt an odd mix of relief and stress bubble in his chest. He knew they were out of touch, but she was still his sister. She must be eagerly waiting for him.
"What are you doing here? How did you find me?"
Many compared Talia to him in terms of their looks: short (or "fun-size" as she would say), the classic Handley boring brown hair and the dark green eyes.
"What am I doing here? You came here without telling anyone. I was this close to involving the police. What are you doing here?"
"It's been two months, Ryan. Sheesh, besides, you already know why I'm here. I don't want to hear how I made the wrong decision or how I should have told you or mom. I don't regret anything."
"Since when was I grouped with mom? I never bossed you around."
"You never defended me either. You might as well go back to being a hot-shot trophy for our family," she paused, "look, I'm not telling you to care, but don't start pretending now. I'm going to go through with it."
"What 'service' are you planning to use?"
Ryan did a double take. Today was full of surprises, but this took the cake.
"Courage! I never had the courage to ignore everyone and go after what I love. I also didn't have the courage to follow through with my decision to do what mom wanted and study medicine. I know this place can't make me successful, but I just want the courage to do something."
For the second time today, Ryan found himself massaging his forehead. He again wondered how things had come to this.
"What's the catch? What did they ask for, in return?"
"They asked for 5,000 dollars per requested level, and I signed a contract."
"So what? You just magically become brave. Give me a break, Talia. This is either a scam or a biohazard accident waiting to happen. At least, show me the contract."
"Show me the contract."
"You don't have to go lawyer on me. I know what I'm doing."
"We both know how our arguments end."
Defeated, Talia handed the contract over from a pile of papers next to the hotel phone. She was the one to jokingly suggest he become a lawyer because of all their arguments.
After 10 minutes of silent reading, Ryan worriedly said, "Talia, this is beyond suspicious. You have to sign a medical paper exempting them from responsibility. You can't even leave the town for two years. How could you agree to this?"
"It's either two years or a lifetime feeling like a failure. It's not like I miss mom, and dad's gone. You're never around. What do I have to lose?"
Ryan inwardly cringed at this, but he was grateful she didn't outright say she didn't miss him.
"Your freedom? Your sanity? Your safety? Nothing about this hints at normal. We have to leave. You haven't taken the procedure yet. I'll find a way to nullify the contract."
"No! Why would I do that? I have nothing to go back to."
Ryan took a deep breath. It was now or never. He had to step up his game.
"You'll move in with me."
Talia shook her head in disbelief and laughed.
"You're not serious. Did you bump your head or something? I'm starting to think you're the one who visited the factory."
"Take all the shots you want, but I'm serious. I promise I won't let you live with mom anymore. This place is no good. The people here look insane, to say the least."
To this, Talia fell silent. She had noticed how strange everyone was behaving too. In fact, ever since she arrived, she had avoided leaving her room in order not to talk with anyone. It was like they were machines.
"Can I trust you?" she whispered to Ryan.
"Whatever I do won't be worse than what will happen if you go through with this. I will pull through for you but not if you choose to stay. Come on Talz. Let's get out of here."
Talia weighed her options. She hadn’t been sleeping well, wondering how this could affect her. She took one look at her brother and knew he was serious about helping. She grabbed her luggage and the contract. Before leaving, they got Ryan’s rented bicycle and agreed to take a carriage that could haul them back to the entrance of the town.
He would have to find a way to keep Talia away from the valet’s sight. During the ride, the two remained silent, each drowning in anticipation of what was to come.
They both exited the carriage (a considerable distance before the exit) to plan their next move. The valet was right where he left him. They agreed that their only chance was for Ryan to distract him while Talia snuck away.
'Here goes nothing,' Ryan thought to himself. He grabbed his bicycle, approached the grinning valet and explained that he simply had no idea where he had rented the bicycle from.
With the distraction in place, Talia snuck into the parking lot. Meanwhile, Ryan thanked the valet for helping him return the bicycle and asked for his car keys.
They drove away from the mysterious town. Ryan still hadn’t worked out how he would get Talia out of this mess, but he had made a promise that he intended to keep. Talia noticed the crumpled ad of Upville in the car compartment. She opened the window and threw the paper out, watching it fly off.
continue reading here