Not too long after that, class ends. The Magister doesn’t assign us any real work, but instead tells us to reflect on Jay Buss’s “Notes from the Singularity” essay. The other umbras grumble about it, since that essay was required reading for us all years and years ago, same as Frankenstein. I don’t say a word, though. The Magister is looking me in the eyes as he emphasizes, very slowly and deliberately, that he wants us to carefully consider how the Singularity could have been avoided. For some reason, I hear Professor Cook’s voice in my head asking how the Singularity could instead have gone differently.
I walk home by myself. Normally I would at least walk with Jaclyn, but she got to leave hours ago when free period first began. It’s not much fun walking back, not after the day I’ve had. I don’t want to look at anyone. I’m walking along with my head down, not looking at anyone, not speaking to anyone. This is how umbras are supposed to walk, I think. Not bothering anyone, not even by being noticeable. Head down, keep it all to yourself.
As I’m passing through the downtown area, a lot of the workers who spend their days serving the people of Sky City are just getting back. They step out of the big metal freight elevator and pour into the streets of Undercity like insects swarming. They all seem to have the same tired and weary looks on their faces. None of them seem to have any interest in looking at each other or speaking with each other. They probably just want to get home, like me, and try to put everything behind them just so they can do it all again tomorrow.
They say that the people in Undercity never see Sky City, but that’s not true. We see it every time we look up. And some of us even get to see it from the inside as we clean up its trash, wait its tables, care for its children.
By the time I get home, all of this is just going nowhere, circling over and over in my head. I get in the elevator and ride it to the top floor of my apartment. From ten stories up, it feels like I can see all of Undercity. That’s not true, of course. There are buildings in the way and there are shadows cast by Sky City that turn entire neighborhoods into night, but still. I can see all the way to where they say there used to be rivers criss-crossing all throughout Undercity. That was ages ago, though. Before Year Zero. Before construction began on Sky City, even. I can see for miles. Miles and miles of grey and brown and people walking and shuttles snaking through the roads. Buildings reaching almost to the platform, buildings constructed to serve as supports for the platform, the ruins of buildings demolished for some quickly forgotten purpose.
The elevator bell rings, and I step out onto my floor. Down the hallway, around the corner, and I’m standing outside my front door. I enter the code into the lock and scan my iris, and then I step into my apartment.
It’s not very big, but then, only Dad and I live in it. The front door opens up into the living room where there’s a sofa facing a vidwall. A window overlooks the rest of Undercity, but there’s no balcony or anything to step out onto. There are a few houseplants here and there, old books on coffee tables (to this day, I have no idea where my dad got actual books,) and the walls are bright, light colors: white and blue and yellow and green. For Undercity, it’s almost cheerful. Anyone who might visit could tell that Dad put a lot of his time and effort into making our apartment a place someone might actually want to be instead of just a place to go to and quietly wait for the next day to arrive.
He used to live in Sky City once upon a time, him and Mom. They probably had a nice place with nice things, a good view, real sunlight to brighten the walls. I mean, wherever they lived couldn’t have been all that great, since they were umbras, but compared to anything in Undercity, it must have seemed like paradise.
“Dad, I’m home!” I shout.
“Hey, Seph!” he shouts back. He comes out of his bedroom with his dark hair mussed, circles under his eyes, a tired look on his face. I frown. I don’t know if he hasn’t been sleeping or if he just woke up from a nap. Either way, it bothers me. I know that he works hard to make sure that all of our needs are met and that we can live comfortably enough. I don’t understand everything that he does or the sacrifices that he makes, and he doesn’t talk about them, but I just wish he took better care of himself. “How’s your day going, babygirl?”
“Oh, you know,” I say. I pause, while I consider how much to tell him. “It was a pretty shitty day, actually.”
He frowns and walks over to me. “Language!” He musses my hair and then throws an arm around me, pulling me into a half-hug. “What was so shitty about it?”
I smirk at him. “Language!” He rolls his eyes and I laugh a little at that. Once I stop chuckling, I realize that he’s looking at me like he’s waiting for an answer. There’s no way I can get out of this, not after I told him that my day had been shitty. I sigh and take a deep breath. “One of the boys in my Literature class was a real jerk to me, that’s all. Not a big deal.”
His eyes sharpen through the haze of his sleep deprivation. He arches an eyebrow and his lips press themselves into a thin line. “It must have been a big deal if it spoiled your whole day for you.”
I sigh again. “We were talking about Frankenstein, and Professor Cook started asking questions about what Victor and the Creature could have done differently so that the story hadn’t ended with everyone dying, and when I voiced my opinions, one of the boys called me a freak. Probably because I’m an umbra.”
His nose and eyebrows wrinkle in distaste. He frowns. “Don’t use that word.”
I look down at the ground. “Sorry.”
Dad is silent for a moment, and then he wraps his arms around me and pulls me in close for a hug. “There are always going to people in this world who think that just because you’re different from them means you’re nothing like them. Means you’re not even human like them. And not just because you have an Interface.” He lets go and pulls back a step, then smiles a sad kind of smile at me. “Even if you didn’t have an Interface, you get a lot of people all together in one place and they’ll find a reason to start hating each other.”
I give him a sad smile back. “That doesn’t really make me feel better, you know.”
“Didn’t think that it would. Just thought it might make sense to you.”
I shrugged. “I guess that it does.”
“Is there anything else?”
I briefly consider telling Dad about the whole mess with the Magister and the program I wrote and all of it, but I decide against it. He doesn’t need to hear about it right now. It’ll just upset him and prompt another speech about the nature of the world we live in. “No,” I tell him. “That’s it.”
“Well, good. How about some dinner?”
I smiled. “Sounds good. What are we having?”
“I don’t know,” he says with a grin, pushing past me and walking over to the kitchen. “I haven’t started cooking yet!”
I frown. Dad insists on cooking our meals himself, and when he hasn’t begun something by the time I’ve gotten home, it usually means we won’t be eating for another hour or an hour and a half. He’s actually a pretty good cook, given the ingredients he has to work with in Undercity. I can only imagine what he must have been capable of with the things he would have had access to when he and Mom lived in Sky City. But good cook or not, sometimes you just want something warm and filling without having to wait an hour and a half for every last part of it to be just right.
I guess I shouldn’t complain. There are plenty of people in Undercity eating nothing but synthmeat and nutrigruel for dinner tonight, and whatever he makes, even if I have to wait an hour to eat it, it has to be better than that.
He’s saying something to me. I shake my thoughts from my head and ask him to repeat himself. “I said,” he begins, exaggerated and comical annoyance playing across his face, “that we have guests tonight.”
“What? We never have guests.”
“Well, we do tonight. An older gentleman and his grandson moved in down the hall, and I thought it’d be neighborly to invite them over, so I did. Anyway, go get cleaned up and then rearrange things. We want to make a good impression, don’t we?”
I groan. A long day at school, and now I have to play nice with some fossil and his snot-nosed brat. I don’t say it out loud, but he picks up on what I was thinking. “Oh, stop it. The old guy was interesting, and the grandson’s a handsome, polite young man.”
I arch an eyebrow at him. “Oh, no. You didn’t talk about me, did you? You’re not trying to play matchmaker, are you?”
He opens up the cabinets, considers their contents, turns to the refrigerator and opens it. “No, of course not. Just relaying my observations.” He pulls out a frozen chicken, an actual chicken from Sky City that he’d been saving for a special occasion, and sets it to thaw. My jaw drops. I can’t believe he’s going this far to impress someone he just met today.
He sees my expression and shrugs. “Like I said. ‘Good impression.’ Now, stop standing there with your mouth open and go get ready! You’re going to embarrass me if you’re standing there like that the whole night!”
I mutter something incomprehensible and go to rearrange the furniture, set our lone table with plates and knives and forks. I wash the dishes and pots and pans as Dad dirties them, and finally, when there’s nothing else that needs doing, I go to take a shower. The water heater’s actually working today, and the water, even if it is reclaimed, feels good against my skin. I feel clean. I feel like I have the energy to meet these new neighbors of ours. I feel like I’m not going to let Robert Sherman and his prejudice or the Magister and his dogma make me feel bad for another second.
I get out, dry off, and throw my clothes back on. Dad takes one look at me, frowns, and shakes his head, so I change into something a little bit nicer. Pants that don’t have any holes in them. A shirt without a band’s logo on it. It doesn’t really matter, I think to myself. They’re just neighbors. They’re going to see me wandering around the building or the streets outside in what I usually wear anywhere. It’s not like I care what they think about how I look.
There’s a knock at the door and Dad sends me to answer it while he puts the finishing touches on our dinner. I open the door and there stands an elderly man in his sixties or so, silver hair cut short, beard neat and trim. But his eyes are old, impossibly old, as if they’ve seen the happiness and the sadness of lifetime after lifetime, of more life than any one person ought to be able to bear. That’s the only thing about him that really suggests his age, though. He’s a good height for an older guy, his back straight and his head held high, and he fills out his clothes with a certain amount of muscle that suggests he takes care to eat right and stay active. But he’s nothing like the boy standing beside him.
He can’t be older than nineteen, but he has a body just as strong and built as any of the star athletes at the academy. His skin is tan, strange and rare in Undercity, and his hair is dark and cut short in a style similar to the old man’s. For some reason, he’s wearing dark glasses even though we’re indoors. He must have a light sensitivity, I think.
I don’t know what to think about him. I wish I could see his eyes behind those glasses. Then maybe I could tell what he’s thinking.
The old man clears his throat and smiles. “You must be Persephone,” he says. “I’m Bryant Pearson. This is my grandson, Alan. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
I nod, my eyes darting back and forth between these two men. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone quite like either of them in Undercity before. Finally, I smile back and step out of their way. “Please, come in.”
* * *
“Of course, there aren’t many who want to go into such a field nowadays,” Bryant says. “It’s a shame, really. It seems like people everywhere these days don’t have any interest in learning the how or the why of anything, let alone the human mind. You have to wonder what it must have been like before the Singularity. Of course, there are still a few organizations and agencies that see the value in a psychologist.” He pauses to take a sip of the wine Dad offered him. I was shocked to learn Dad even had wine. The bottle must have been leftover from his days living in Sky City.
“Is that so?” Dad asks. Alan and I have both been decidedly quiet as our folks have done all the talking, the conversation flowing freely between life in the city, hobbies, professions, anything and everything. This is more social than I’ve seen Dad being in years. It’s a little strange, honestly, and I spend just as much time watching and studying him as I do Bryant and Alan.
I need to say something. I’ve been sitting here being quiet for too long, and I refuse to be shy and timid in my own house.
“So, what brings you to Undercity?” I say during a lull in the conversation. Everyone turns to look at me, and I fight the urge to look at my plate of food. Instead, I smile and let my gaze drift back and forth between Bryant and Alan, letting them both know I don’t care who answers the question so long as someone does.
A look of confusion passes over Bryant’s face. “Undercity? Oh, the Commons!” He takes a moment to clear his throat. “Well, as I was telling your father earlier, we moved out here just a few days ago from Angel City.”
“Really? From all the way out west?”
Bryant nods. “It was time for a change of location. We weren’t happy living where we were, and we thought that things might be… more suitable, if you will, out here.”
I nod. I know what that must have been like. I mean, I can’t believe that anyone thought Undercity would be a decent place to live, but I understand what it’s like to want to get out of the place you’re in so badly you just pick up and go.
Someday I’ll do that, I think. After tertiary, if I test into it, or else after I graduate but before I’m given my first assignment by the Magisters. I’ll just pick up and go.
“What’s Angel City like?” I ask.
Bryant chuckles. “Oh, pretty much just like what you’d think. Spread out. People trying to go everywhere and do everything. Seems like everyone’s had some aug or another done.” He pauses, finishes his glass of wine, and points at the ceiling. We all look up. “There’s nothing like the platform, but most days you can’t really see the sun, and the sky’s almost always the same shade of grey.”
I frown. I’d always imagined the West as a place of sunshine and happiness. Angel City’s supposed to be full of beautiful people doing beautiful things, not a hive like Undercity. But maybe that’s just the way it is. Maybe cities everywhere are pretty much the same. Maybe people everywhere are pretty much the same.
After a dinner of roast chicken, Sky City vegetables, and wine that came from who only knows where, Bryant and Alan leave. Dad’s doing the dishes while I clear the table and put the furniture back where it used to be. This is my first real chance to talk to him since the others arrived, and I’m going to use it.
“So, what was all that about?” I ask.
“What was what about?” He doesn’t look up for the dishes. I frown. He’s being cryptic on purpose.
“Come on, don’t play dumb. You never invite anyone over for dinner.”
Dad smiles. It’s not like that tired, sad half-smile he gives so often. This time he seems genuinely pleased by something. “Well, I don’t often meet someone worth inviting over.”
One of my eyebrows arch and I smirk. “I didn’t think the old guy was your type. Or did you mean the kid?”
“He’s older than you, brat.” I grin at Dad, but he just rolls his eyes at me and turns back to the dishes.
“So what’s the deal?”
“The deal is this.” He turns to me and holds up his arm, his fingers wiggling. Even at this distance, I can see the gold and copper of the Interface shining underneath his skin, just like it shines underneath every umbra’s. “He saw this. He saw us. And he didn’t look away, he didn’t ask questions, his eyes didn’t go wide with fear. When I ran into him in the hall, he just introduced himself.” Dad takes a deep breath and turns back to the dishes. “So either he wants something, or he’s the first decent human being I’ve met in a while. Either way, I wanted to learn more. And besides, it gave me an excuse to cook a chicken and break out a bottle of wine.”
“Yeah, about that. Where’d you get chicken and wine anyway?”
Dad grins and winks. “Fatherly secrets.”
I laugh. “Yeah, right. Who’d you kill?”
His grin turns into a smile and he turns his attention back to the dishes for good. “No one. Now, hurry up so you can get started on your assignments. And don’t tell me you don’t have any assignments. I know you didn’t stay that long at school and come back in that bad a mood without any assignments.”
I grumble and go to my room. He’s right, of course. If nothing else, I have to reread that stupid essay the Magister assigned. He’s apt to give us a quiz on it tomorrow, or something even worse, like going around the room and asking us all to discuss it.
Another class discussion where I get to feel like the outsider But this time I’ll be the outsider in a room full of outsiders. What fun.