She scanned her blue screen once more as the elevator continued its descent to the lowest level of Tower II. Her recruit for the day should be easy. He had no family left, no prospects, and a recent accident at work had claimed most of his left hand. Something to do with an automated lift droid malfunction. His profile read as a perfect candidate for relocation. But Mazie knew not everyone made it easy. Sometimes they needed convincing to help them let go of their former lives. While she was prepared for such a candidate, she could never understand them. Why someone would want to stay on such a miserable planet was beyond her comprehension. The relocation program offered new opportunities, a chance to be a hero, and a place on the newest discovered planets being explored by LifeScape.
She felt a sense of pride as she thought of all they had accomplished and how lucky she was to be a part of it. LifeScape had saved humanity over a thousand years ago and now continued to expand the reach of mankind’s capabilities by discovering new inhabitable planets, and yet they were still met with resistance by many of the Earth-born. Not all, but many continued to cling to an ancient ideology, a bygone notion that the planet could be saved. It was dying. It had taken thousands of years, abuse, and several defeating meteor showers, but the planet was crumbling around them. Just as they knew it always would.
The elevator silently whooshed to a stop and Mazie jerked her attention to the hallway in front of her. Through the doors she could see a dreary walkway, in need of repairs. Lights flickered in desperation, trying to keep up with the over-crowded tower, casting a medieval glow along the walls. It had reached maximum capacity ten years ago, overrun by noncompliant residents, intent on defying the procreation laws. If they had accepted their fate and lived within the law, they’d have light and enough food and clean water. But again, some couldn’t release antiquated ideals about freedom. The smell of an overcrowded population was a slap in the face as she stepped through the doors. The lower towers relied on their underground shelter for warmth, which often lead to ventilation issues. Thus, the stink. A baby cried from somewhere within one of the pods, a bleak sound echoing its defeated existence.
She closed her recruit book, the blue screen disappearing as she pocketed the device. She set a gloved finger on the buzzer and waited. The moments that passed before he opened the door, she would later be able to recall with laser focus and detail. She had a tickle on the back of her neck where her uniform rubbed her skin. The lights flickered seven times then held for a moment. Someone dropped something on the floor several doors down and cussed about the mess. Then the pod door lifted open and Tallyn stood in front of her, a scowl beset upon his face. It was the face of a laborer, hardened and unafraid. Having seen the worst life had to offer he no longer had anything to fear. It was a common look, she saw it on nearly all her recruits, but none had ever been so stunning. None had ever made her breathe in sharply and forget her purpose for standing in front of their door.
“Don’t tell me. I’ve been recruited,” he said gruffly.
She held her stance and exhaled, maintaining her calm exterior as her training mantra repeated in her mind. An officer of the Recruitment Center must exhibit excellence at all times.
“Congratulations, Tallyn H. You have been selected to participate in the world’s most advantageous opportunity. To board the Pinnacle on its next accent to the Eighth Station in Sector Corona. I am your Recruiting Officer, Mazie K. and I look forward to guiding you through this process. May I come in?” She stumbled over the beginning but pulled it all together in the end. The delivery was of utmost importance in order to put the recruit at ease.
He stared at her, hard. “If I refuse to let you in, you will call your office. Is that right?” he asked annoyed.
“Yes, that is correct.”
“And if you call your office, three assistants will arrive and detain me. Is that right?”
“Yes, that is correct.”
“Well then I suppose you should come in and discuss this amazing opportunity.” He stepped aside and motioned begrudgingly for her to come in.
He sized her up once more, knowing he could easily overpower her and run, even with one bad hand. But there could be no escape, not really. Not as long as he had his ID chip implanted. They were mandatory for the health and safety of all law-abiding citizens. Only the worst of society’s cast-offs ever dared to remove them. A life without a chip meant a short and sad life unable to be assigned. No job, no home, no credits to live on. In that regard the chip was both life and death, depending on how one chose to look at it.
She was younger than him and had a lightness about her that only an officer carries. An existence without fear means no wrinkles. She was impressive and he would have bet everyone who ever met her felt the same. He knew she was well-trained, LifeScape doesn’t allow for freeloaders, but it was also the way she carried herself and stood with total confidence. It must be nice, never having to doubt your future.
Mazie took two steps forward then stopped, looking up at Tallyn expectantly. He was a solid foot taller than she was and he was doing his best to be difficult. She sighed internally realizing he wasn’t going to make her day as simple as she’d hoped. She stood toe to toe with him waiting patiently then cleared her throat in annoyance as he still refused to meet her gaze.
“Tallyn, if you could please look at me. I need ID confirmation.”
He grinned and finally looked up from the floor to meet her eyes. They were blue and light enough he could see her implant flash as it read his own. A tiny gold fleck, nearly imperceptible unless you were really looking for it.
Mazie’s pocket chirped and a polite voice said, “Confirmation. Recruit Tallyn H.”
“Thank you, Tallyn.” She stared for one second more, trying her best to do her own assessment of this recruit. Would he be easy? Was he already longing for the relief of space from this tiny prison? He looked like he wanted to run. He wasn’t afraid but he clearly wanted her gone. Likely hates change, she told herself as she walked into his one-room pod.
“I’m sure you have a larger set up than this,” he said. “You’re in one of those elite cube Towers they put the Officers in, aren’t you?” His tone was unimpressed.
“Yes. With a view of the farms. They’re quite beautiful in the…” she stopped herself. She wasn’t supposed to reveal personal information. It had just slipped out, as if she were some first-time officer in training. “So,” she said, recovering quickly. “What are some of your strengths? We need to make sure we have you correctly assigned to your new post.”
He smiled and furrowed his brow as if he were confused. “What does it matter? An assignment to the sky is a death sentence for someone like me. I only have one good hand and I’m not valuable enough for them to fix it. I’ll get put on monitoring or explore and report. Either way, I won’t last more than a few months. Does anyone?”
“We have many recruits who are living happily in their new stations. Fulfilling their dreams of exploring the outer reaches of the galaxies.”
“You don’t truly believe that. Do you?” he taunted.
Mazie opened her mouth to protest but her experience told her he wasn’t the type to change his mind. He wouldn’t be drinking any of the space juice she was selling today. Better to meet him on his level and gain his confidence.
“I understand. Yes, many recruits have died in the pursuit of knowledge. But they died heroes rather than sad, useless has-beens in need of repair.” She motioned to his left hand. “How is it? Have you regained any control?”
Tallyn looked at the floor, “I can do most things just fine. As long as—”
“I read you can no longer hold more than five pounds in your left hand due to the nature of your accident. Looks like most of the bones were pulverized.” She let that sink in, even though he knew better than anyone what happened to his hand and what it meant. “We can fix it for you. LifeScape has the ability to give you your hand back. You could even get an upgrade if you like. It takes one week, and you’ll be able to lift 200 pounds over your head when it’s done. How does that sound?”
He scowled again and shook his head. “You and I both know that will never happen. I won’t last long enough to get the procedure.”
“Tallyn? I would like to be honest with you. You have nothing left here. This planet is dying, it is done with you. You have been recruited and after you complete your training you will board the Pinnacle shuttle to the Eighth Station in the Corona Sector. You will do this regardless of your will to do so. I find the recruits who do best are the ones who accept their missions with pride and put forth the effort to impress their new employers at LifeScape.”
“They aren’t new. I’ve always been employed by LifeScape. They own everything.”
“That is correct. So, I’ll ask again. What are some of your strengths?”
She smiled, the way you might to a child with whom you are losing patience. “I’m glad you have a sense of humor. You’ll adjust better.”
“I’m pretty well adjusted here.”
“Tallyn? Strengths. Or you’ll end up cleaning the water closet evacuation bins.”
He nodded and finally sat down in defeat. He gestured for her to take a chair opposite him. “I used to repair the AI drones.”
“Good. That’s very helpful. Anything else?”
“I can operate any pilot sequence.”
Her brow furrowed in confusion. She didn’t like surprises. “I didn’t see in your file you used to be a pilot.”
“I wasn’t, not officially anyway. But I can fly almost anything.”
“That would mean that you received education and training outside of your designated assignment. Or else it would be in your ID. How did that happen?”
He shrugged. “Someone took the time to show me. I was interested when I was a kid.”
“I don’t suppose you’ll tell me who gave you this priceless and unauthorized education?”
“So you can penalize them? No, I will not.”
Mazie squinted in annoyance. He was turning out to be more trouble than she had planned on. She selected a few options on her blue screen. “Fine. Anything else?”
“I really did used to juggle.”
She typed something else then pointedly pushed a button on her screen. “I will be sure to include that in your personality assessment. Perhaps it could help soften you.”
“It couldn’t hurt.”
“Agreed. Now, on to weaknesses. Anything we need to know that is imperative to your success as a trainee?”
“If I say a fear of heights can I stay?”
“No. The ceilings aboard the Corona Sector ship are no higher than these,” she said with a grin.
He liked her. She had an edge in her voice and wasn’t taking any of his bait. “No weakness I can think of. You can’t afford a weakness down here.”
“Fear of being alone? Isolated? Bothered by small, enclosed spaces?”
“I have a very real fear of being jettisoned into outer space after a major explosion burns half my body to dust.”
“That is valid. You will be relieved to know only two recruits in the history of LifeScape have ever died that way.”
“That is a comfort. Thank you.” He rubbed his left hand absently, wondering if he would really be able to use it again.
“How do you respond in a crisis? Do you frequently find yourself helping others when they’re in trouble?”
“Does it matter? I go up either way.”
“Yes. It matters. You’re going up to help the world,” she said.
His jaw tightened, a sure sign he was more than just a little resistant to the hero concept.
“How about we skip the questions. You already know everything about me anyway.”
“True. But how I see you is not as important as how you see yourself.”
“I’m not special. If you want to know if I would save someone who’s dying right next to me, I guess my answer is, it depends on who it is. Does that give you enough insight into my soul?”
“Yes. That is helpful.” She typed a few notes on her screen then closed her book again. He was coming to terms with his fate and soon he’d be angry. Well, angrier. She’d seen it before. “We can do this later. I’ll give you a few moments to gather your things. Only the items most important to you. Clothing will be provided for you so no need to pack that. Your pod will be cleaned and reassigned so now is the time to take what you want. I’ll wait outside.” Mazie stood politely and walked out into the hall, leaving him alone.
He watched her leave; she was the picture of calm. A perfectly poised wrecking ball who breezed into his life and smashed it to bits. She was like the transformers at the electrical station. An unassuming piece of metal, innocent and shiny. But if you tried to touch one, your body would turn to ash and blow away. Her black uniform had more than one Merit on the shoulder meaning she had worked hard to be where she was. She had likely gone to Officer Prep school when she was young and knew nothing else. LifeScape owned everything. If you design the schools, government and the system of labor and economy, you can build humans in your image. Design them. That’s who his Officer was, this Mazie K. She seemed kind and approachable and smart because they’d made her that way. They’d programmed her to be as appealing as possible. A pretty face, a strong skill set, she probably had the best recruitment record in the organization. It wasn’t in his nature to be compliant, but she was disarming. He couldn’t fault her for that. But he could be annoyed by it. Laughing to himself he realized how many others must have had this same moment of clarity before walking away from their lives forever. Sitting in their sad little rooms, staring at her calm face, they’d think to themselves, Well, my fight is over. I can’t run. I might as well enjoy the time I have left. They would spend their days on earth training and trying to gain her approval. Following orders, unconsciously hoping this beautiful and successful Officer would see something in them no one else ever did. And of course, that was exactly what LifeScape wanted. That’s what they’d designed her for. To subconsciously enforce compliance so the recruit fully believed in the cause, walking the line towards their own end without a fuss.
“Damn, they’re good,” he said to himself.
He looked around and had no hesitations about leaving his pod. It was small and awful. It was never really a home, just a place to sleep after he spent his days climbing in and out of transformer grids. Anyone he ever loved had died years ago. Aside from his clothes he owned only one box of possessions. Memorabilia from a life lost. It sat on the small shelf to his left, covered in a thin layer of dust. He’d last opened it five years ago, when he saved enough credits to get really drunk. But the drunk didn’t numb the pain, it only made him not care about feeling it. His life died a long time ago. And no one knew that better than him. No one, except Mazie K. Grabbing the box he stood to go meet her in the hall.
“I’m ready,” he said with false confidence.
Mazie nodded. “Good. I will travel with you to the Recruitment Center to see you are settled. We will begin training tomorrow.”
He wanted to follow her but for some reason his feet seemed stuck. The lights flickered along the walls, casting half her face in shadow. “I…I don’t know if I can,” he said.
Mazie smiled softly. “Of course you can. You are a survivor Tallyn. I read your profile, several times. You survive everything and you will survive this. Try not to look at it as a sentence but rather a gift. You are being gifted a new life. So many would love to be in your shoes. We don’t know how much time we have left here, and you are guaranteed a future. You have no more worries once you leave with me. You are a survivor.”
Damn. She was good. Really good. He could practically hear the motivational music swelling as she spoke. He laughed a little then nodded before falling in step behind her. They walked in silence to the elevator, leaving the noise and smell of his would-be-future behind with the whoosh of closing doors.
Mazie couldn’t help but afford herself the slightest of grins. Her track record would remain intact.