My goodbye was almost the shortest out of everyone’s, except Adam was coming up behind me– PUKE – and his dad hovered in the taxi for about five seconds then u-turned and drove back to work.
I felt sorry for him, only for like one millisecond, though. I strutted into the registry, got my arms ready to group-hug my friends, like ‘Sup guys! Where da beach at?’
It was an empty reception. The walls were white and glowing like inside an Apple store. The receptionist’s desk was behind a white plastic counter. There weren’t balloons or cake or banner. The receptionist hardly even looking up at me.
‘G’day,’ the receptionist said, ‘You’re Eden Strong, I’m guessing? You can go through if you like. Your compensation should be expected in 24 hours.’
I cleared my throat. ‘Compens… D’you mean I get a million bucks tomorrow?’
She looked up at me and nodded. I noticed her jaw was clear and you could see little diodes inside her skull flashing on and off. Her hair and forehead and eyes looked Fleshie, though. My dad had mentioned the cyborgs who worked on campus heaps, but you hardly ever saw them out on the streets. Campus is the only place where they’re safe from getting beaten up, really. ‘A maximum of 24 hours. Confirmed.’
‘The whole million or… ?’
‘That’s what I’ve been instructed to tell you. Please – head on through. Just that booth over there. You don’t need to take anything with you.’ I lowered my backpack, let it die on the ground. It was hard to let it go, I mean my birth control and mirror and PSP and stuff were in there. Plus some cinnamon rolls from Mumshine that, urgh, it just felt criminal to throw out. I’d get Fatimah to eat them or something.
‘Who’s coming with me, though?’
‘A selection of your peers. You’re just about the last to enter.’
‘Don’t we begin with, like, a test battery or a battery of tests or whatever?’
The receptionist shook her head. ‘Your parents did your permission slip for you, they provided your data, your birth certificates, your immunisation records, thanks so much for coming in, you can just walk on ahead. Oh, and we spoke to your doctor. You wouldn’t be here if there were any medical issues.’
I scratched my scalp. ‘Huh. They must’ve really wanted me to do this.’
‘Many parents are reliant upon the compensation.’
‘Compensation, yeah, the bling,’ I went, ‘You sure you’ve got my bank account number so I can get paid?’
‘You’re not going to need a bank account in there. Cash only. Thanks and good luck. You can remove your earrings and any pacemakers or medical attachments and place them in this tray. Rings, too.’
‘Ooookay. Done that. Just seems a little easy to get in here, that’s all.’
‘On you go, please.’ The cyb pressed her organiser and selected something. A hologram of venetian blinds appeared in front of her. She swiped the air and the blinds closed, shutting me out.
I walked into a clear booth which sealed behind me. I was in a thick glass corridor which only let me turn left then left again. The floors and ceiling were clean and white as a hospital. The glass became a skyway and I was walking on air on my own in a glass box, tilting. I couldn’t see any joins in the walls of my glass tube as I began to tumble down it. The entire corridor was upending. I pressed the palms of my hands against the glass trying to grip like a gecko, but the angle quickly reached what had to be 65 degrees, almost straight down. I scrabbled, found nothing to grab onto. All I could do was keep my feet in front of me. Something soft and brown was coming up, with green spots – a giant frog? A hill? How far was I falling?
I tasted air, then plunged toward a brown, foamy lake-looking surface. I hit the surface. It shattered and swallowed me in a cold wet blanket. I kicked and flapped until the water fizzed white. My legs pumped, trying to connect with bicycle pedals that weren’t there, and the lake bottom churned up brown silt that seemed to suck me. When daylight started going dark, I forced my arms to do the breaststroke, and tried the bicycle kick again. Finally I hit the river bottom, pushed hard with my feet and glided to the surface and gulped air, panting, hyperventilating. This was a wide body of water. It had to have been that river that separates Mahony from the freeway, just about turns Mahony into an…an island? THIS was our island?
I wrestled through bulrushes and clambered onto the bank. I stood, pushed down on my clothes. Overdressed dumbass, I told myself. You thought cargo pants and a tank top would Lara Croft you through all this? Epic fail. I pushed the balloons of water on the sides of my pants and they squirted brown soup. I made my way over sand and duck poop onto some asphalt so neat and organised and unblemished, it didn’t seem to belong in the same environment as this wild river. I studied the slow, mud-coloured anaconda. I could see it loop around behind the perfect houses made of new bricks that looked like loaves of toasted bread.
I left a trail of drips across the asphalt, then arrived on a sidewalk of paving stones. I thought about the stones as I walked and dripped. Watson once told me Infrabot, the mech designed to plan and install housing developments, cost just $2m to develop. Infrabot adds billions to the housing economy each year, he told me, through savings, better planning submissions, logistical expertise and human resources management. Infrabot gets whole cities built within a year. Then Infrabot moves on.
If I squinted and pretended there wasn’t a glass ceiling over me, and pretended listening devices didn’t make everything I said listen-able to the mechs who were probably editing the highlights into a reality TV show, I could pretend I was just walking home from the swimming hole like an ordinary person and that I’d caught Mahonyland in a quiet moment. Everyone was dropping their kids at school. It was Christmas day, New Year’s day. The population would come back home soon.
‘EDEN! HEY!’ A muddy figure slapped the paving stones with brown sasquatch feet as he ran towards me. ‘I KNEW IT WAS YOU!’
‘Adam. Okayyyyy… wow.’
‘I was beginning to think they’d dropped me in here all by myself! $12 million for me!’
‘It’s, like, wicked to see you,’ I said with dollops of sarcasm. Adam is poor, he’s a mouth-breather, and his hygiene has never been good, even when he’s not covered in mud. ‘Found any others?’
‘I’m pretty sure they dumped everyone in the river. Even Esther, if you think about –
‘EST! SHE’LL DROWN IN HER CHAIR.’
Adam snorted at my ignorance. It wasn’t often that he got to look down on normal people. ‘The mechs are hardly going to let one of their lab rats die on the first day, now, are they. I’m sure she was dropped somewhere strategic. Perhaps in some soft, accomodating mud.’
‘Strategic? Mud? Est! She’s too – you can’t do that to someone like her.’
‘Someone from a wealthy background, you mean? Sorry.’
I folded my arms, started walking up the Riviera away from him. The river was edged with that genetically engineered grass they’ve got, the stuff that stunts its own growth when the blades get to an inch tall. You see pop-up adverts for it on the Net, all excited about how it extracts moisture from the air and doesn’t need watering. The PermaMowed™ grass verges had expensive park benches every 400 metres with wrought iron and heavy exotic wood. This would’ve been a beautiful place to live.
‘Eden!’ he panted, catching up, slobbering and dripping, ‘Sorry about – nevermind. So, the river was hardly mineral water, eh. Pretty gross start to the year, huh?’
‘Your breath’s a gross start to the year.’
Adam breathed into his palm and sniffed it.
We didn’t talk for a while. I wondered if the houses we passed were the exact same design. They were made of brick burnt a cream colour with brown edges, and had huge double glazed windows. The lawns were… not right. Too short, with just a couple of stray weeds towering over them.
‘Hey, oi, you know when the money’s coming, right? 24 hours, is that what the mech on reception told you?’
‘Who’s that? I see people.’
‘I see them too. Can you run, all muddy and stuff? Please- feel free to strip. I won’t watch – unless, um, unless you want me to.’
‘Running away from your loser ass sounds pretty good to me right now.’
I began sprinting and Adam dogged me. The dark shapes up ahead got larger, four of them, it seemed, and the shapes heard our muddy shoes slapping, and the dark shapes stopped moving and turned to see who was catching up.
‘ESTHER? EEESTHER! Where’s Es?’
Drowned, I hoped. Esther kept the standards of achievement, like, way too high.
‘EEESTHER! Is that you guys?’
The shapes turned out to be dark because they were covered in the same dark river mud. One of them was Chan, with that floppy black rockstair hair over his ears; another black-haired person was Eli. It was easy to recognise the shapes of the two guys. I’d been to enough parties that I could spot them in the dark, and discern their voices.
I squinted to try and work out who the other two muddy, dripping people were. It was hard to tell if they were boy or girl. There was something about the way they stood in relation to each other, though, and how they would be identical if the small breasts of one were put on the body of the other and–
‘KT and Kane, well heyyy, sup with you guys?’
‘Same as you,’ Kane grunted, ‘I’m hungry as anything. Tell me where the VendBots are, I’ll kick the front in, get me some cookies. Man I could eat… who’s got food on them? Anyone?’ Kane was always raging about mechs. One time in science he poured caustic soda into this teacher aide mech that was helping Vaughn, this retarded kid, and the acid did some, like, chemical reaction that made steam come out the EduBot’s ears. Kane couldn’t stop laughing, but the gas was toxic and the class had to be evacuated. He even melted this Asimo one time, I heard, like Kane and the boys tied it down and built a pyre around it go get the heat up to 269 degrees to melt the palladium in its central processor.
KT’s smile broke through a muddy face. ‘Eden, suuuup. Good to see you.’ We shared a muddy air kiss and giggled and pushed our hair back behind our ears, where the mud held it in place. ‘How exciting was our entrance! You got chucked in the river too, right? It was like sooo refreshing. Talk about making a splash, eh?’
‘How original,’ Adam said, droll.
‘Adz, hi, like, über-nice to see you.’ KT walked over to Adam, hesisated, put her hands on his shoulders, gave him air kisses on both cheeks, then took three steps back so she was further away from him then when she’d begun. ‘There’s a limo, by the way, you guys. Up by that park, that Samuel Miller park?’
‘Holy smoke… a limo? Dude.’
‘It doesn’t even work,’ Kane growled, ‘Obviously I tried it. No gas in any of these stupid-ass cars.’ Kane shoved his sister out of the way and she swore at him. Kane pulled back his head, making the muscles in his neck flare. ‘I’m glad you’re here, Mechalover. I need me some entertainment.’
‘Entertainment, I see,’ Adam said, his eyes flicking side to side, looking for someone to rescue him. ‘I’ve a wide range of Gilbert and Sullivan showtunes committed to memory if that floats your boat?’
‘Rock-a-bye Baby, baby,’ Kane said with a chuckle, and everyone covered their mouths, desperate not to laugh in Adam’s face about The Thing. The thing that’s so shameful Adam can never live it down. The baby thing.
Adam pretended he had things to look at, like the river, and the perfect horizon painted by mechs filling in liquid crystal display cells on the glass. I supposed they would give us eight hours of daylight, eight hours of twilight and dawn, and eight hours of night for the next 365 days.
When we all realised Adam didn’t have any fight in him, Chan and Eli changed the subject. That’s what I liked about Chan. People out there like Adam fight and grope and struggle to keep their heads above the water of social approval, while people like Chan are so relaxed and laid back, they float. If Kane wasn’t so mean to Adam, I would’ve liked Kane a bit more, I mean he’s cute in a grumpy, pouty aggro way. Chan’s taller though, and I’ve never once heard Chan make fun of Adam. Chan just builds everybody up. Plus he’s got a chest like Superman. ‘Soooo: six out of twelve,’ Chan said, ‘Where are the others, do you reckon?’
‘Follow the footprints,’ Eli pointed out, nodding at what looked like a dotted line up ahead, ‘Can’t see the peeps, but they’ve gotta be up ahead.’ We moved forward, five of us spread out uniformly. I was proud to be in the centre of the group, as the most popular person. Adam limped along behind us.
Finally, after what must have been a couple of kilometres, varied only by little dead end streets that went in for fifty metres then looped, the cookie cutter homes gave way to a vast park with that same low, even, unnatural grass. Samuel Miller Reserve a sign said the park was called. This was where Adam’s Baby Incident happened, actually.
See, last year as a Social Studies project, we had to go outside into a nice suburban park and work alongside basic programmable mechs for a day, the simple ASIMO type that they have in every kindergarten that 3 year olds can literally programme. We were all landscaping and counting the number of crayfish and frogs and putting leaf litter in garbage bags and stuff, when Sarmila told Rebecca told Georgina told Dallas told KT told EVERYBODY that Sarmila had gone to empty her toilet belt in the lavatory, and she went inside a port-a-toilet because the door said Vacant and she had pulled that door open, and there was Adam Turing, and get this: ‘Adam Turing was in a grotty gross toilet, and he had his head in the mech’s lap, and he’d programmed it to SING ROCK A BYE BABY to him.’
‘We’ll see if there’s any interesting crap at the park,’ Kane grunted, breaking away from everyone and marching toward the play fort.
The grass seemed endless. The swings and slides and jungle gym and three-storey wooden fortress were in the middle of an ocean of bark chips. The Biodome had stopped rain or leaves or even feathers and dust drifting onto the playground. It was like a new toy out of the packet.
I chased my friends into Samuel Miller Reserve, headed for the fort, scrambled up the ladder, onto a ledge then up a second ladder. Coming up to survey our new world with me were my best friends. Just make us millionaires and this was gonna be paradise.