CHAPTER 3 - PERCEPTION
The doorbell resounded like church bells throughout the house. We’d been expecting the authorities, and Alison applied a quick layer of lipstick before heading for the front door, her heels, as always, clicking on the tiles.
The doors were steel-plated and engraved with an artistic, interlocking-block design, and yet, surprisingly light to open. I heard Alison invite the authorities inside. They passed the indoor wall garden and the waterfall lining a sizable foyer and entered our sunken living room. Skylights cast sunrays that bounced off the white walls. On days like this, I felt like I needed to wear sunglasses in the house to fight off the glare.
The two uniformed men introduced themselves as Officers Grant and Diaz. Grant had deep-set, steely-blue eyes that I found unsettling. Each took a seat in our white leather and chrome director-style chairs. I could tell by Paul’s expression that he was as uncertain as I was about what they would ask.
Both men had feather-light glass e-tablets on their laps, and Officer Grant busily took notes as Alison talked. She sat straight, her hands folded in her lap like she was interviewing for a new position at the firm. I hovered near the dining room
“He doesn’t usually take off like this without letting anyone know. I mean, I can see him not telling me,” Alison paused, shifting on the sofa uncomfortably, “not telling us, but not even his best friend or lab partners know where he is.”
“How old is your son, ma’am?” Diaz asked.
“And he’s a student at the university?”
“Yes,” Alison said, agitation creeping into her voice. “I’ve already told you that.”
Grant’s eyes darted to his partner. I was sure it was code for we’re wasting our time. Then he said, “Does he have a girlfriend?”
Alison was quick to answer, “No.” She glanced sideways at Paul. “I mean, he’s had lots of girlfriends, but he doesn’t have one now. As far as I know.”
“Happens all the time,” Diaz said. “Young men getting swept away with young love.”
“But Liam’s not like that,” Alison said.
Grant’s sly eyes scanned the room until they landed on me. I couldn’t stop a shiver from creeping up my back. “Can you join us?” he asked.
I reluctantly drew closer. I didn’t know why, but I didn’t like this guy.
“Are you close to your brother?”
I thought about his question. Liam was the only person in my life I’d ever been completely free around. Even though I was four years younger, he’d never treated me like the annoying little sister. We’d rallied together against our mother’s over-bearing tendencies and covered for each other when our personal relationships went awry.
Yes, we were close, but I wasn’t about to tip off this jerk.
I offered a slight shrug in response.
“Where do you think he is?”
My eyes flickered to my parents who were watching me closely. “I don’t know. I thought he was asleep in his room.”
His eyes narrowed. “What was he working on at the lab?”
I let out a frustrated puff. “I don’t know.”
“So,” Grant said, disbelief on his face. “You’re close to your brother, but you don’t know where he is or what he was working on?”
“I’m his sister, not his wife. He didn’t confide in me about everything.” I crossed my arms and forced myself to return Grant’s arrogant gaze.
Grant glanced back at his tablet, his expression hardening even more if that were possible. “I’ve just received new information. There is surveillance evidence at the East Gate recording Liam leaving the city three days ago, but nothing since. No transmission documenting his return.”
This news made my blood run cold. Where are you Liam? “We’d like to talk with your staff members, too,” he continued.
“Certainly,” Alison said. “I’ll give you a list of their names.”
Grant studied me again. “Are you sure there isn’t anything you want to tell us?”
After that awkward inquisition and the following shakedown with Alison and Paul, who were both convinced I was withholding information, I called Jackson to demand answers.
His three-inch hologram popped up from my ComRing.
“The authorities just left. Alison and Paul are squirrelly. If you know anything, you have to tell me,” I said.
“I wish I did. I’m worried, too. I’m sure the authorities will figure things out. You just need to be patient.”
“I can’t be patient. Liam is missing.” I paced around the space at the foot of my bed. The DigiWall image was set on psychedelic, and the random images were starting to irritate me. I told it to turn off.
“What about that other guy you work with, Mitchell?”
“He doesn’t know anything.”
“How do you know that? I have to talk to him at least. Do you want to come with me?”
Jackson hesitated before answering. “I can’t right now. Promised my dad I’d help him with something. Besides, I need to shower. How about tomorrow?”
I didn’t believe a word of that, and I couldn’t keep the agitation from my voice.
“Fine.” If he didn't want to come with me, I'd go by myself.
It took twenty minutes to get to Sol City University, and I used the time to review what I knew, which wasn't much. Liam had been leaving the city, but no one knew why, not even his best friend or his sister. Liam was in possession of a hand-written note with one word on it, the significance of which remained unknown. I sighed. Not much to go on here.
The university was like a city within a city. Whitewashed buildings sprawled out from a central park. Students gathered in small clusters or kept solo, studying or taking study breaks, congregating in the shade of Bacopa trees. Gold nanoparticles embedded in their leaves cast a reddish, luminous glow over the park without the need for electricity.
I made my way by foot, winding through blocks of square buildings with front door signage indicating humanities, technology, environmental studies, nanotechnology, biotech research, or other work going on inside. A round-domed building in the distance housed a planetarium and space science research.
I found the entrance of the tech lab where my brother did his research and went in. The lab was a vast, rectangular room covered in stainless steel from floor to ceiling. A row of windows facing southeast allowed natural light to fill the space. Microscopes and lab equipment dotted the countertops. Computer equipment lined a large table in the middle of the room, with oversize 3D monitors displaying colorful holographic images that hovered in mid air.
A guy around the same age as Liam was there. His hair stood on end, and half his shirt was untucked. A cot in the corner was unmade with sheets rumpled on top. Obviously, this guy didn’t spend much time at home.
“I’m Zoe Vanderveen.”
The guy nodded. “I know who you are.”
“And you are...?”
“Are you a friend of my brother’s? Were you researching together? When was the last time you saw him?”
“Whoa, enough with the hundred questions.”
I blew air through my nose, and forced myself to calm down. “I’m just trying to find him.”
“Yeah, I figured that. I already told the authorities everything I know.”
“Did they take his computer?”
“It's a shared computer, so they just downloaded the hard drive.”
“Can I check it out?”
Mitchell shot me a look like I'd asked him to drop his drawers. “It's university property.”
“But he's my brother. Maybe I’ll notice something that they missed.”
The guy still wasn’t giving in. “I’m sure he’ll show up.”
“How can you be sure?”
Finally, Mitchell dropped his hands in defeat and commanded the computer to log on. “Here you go.” My heart jumped as I sat in front of the screen. Then it sunk. I tapped on all of Liam’s files.
They were empty.
“There's nothing here,” I said.
“I tried to tell you.”
“But how could there be nothing in Liam's files?”
Mitchell shrugged again. “I don't know. Someone wiped it clean.”
“But who would do that?”
I waited for the shrug and got it. I wondered had Mitchell wiped it clean, and if so, why? Why were he and Jackson being so elusive? I pulled the paper out of my pocket and presented it to him.
“Do you know what this means?”
I expected no reply, and I was right. Mitchell just gave me another helpless shrug. Some detective I'd turned out to be.
I went back to the parking stall and instructed my pod to take me home. Maybe my parents had heard something by now.
When I entered the living room, Saundra was there washing the windows. Even though we had spider-like robotic cleaners for the higher ones, Alison still wanted the lower windows done by hand because the machines occasionally left streaks. I wondered if Alison had thought of that on her quest for humanoid help.
With a house like this, there was never a shortage of things to clean. At least for now the maid’s job was secure.
The glass 3D monitor was on, but muted. Even though it was more than eight feet long and five feet tall, taking up a large portion of the southern wall, the high ceiling made it look smaller than it was. I could hear my parents arguing again.
“How could they not have found any leads by now?” Alison's voice cracked with worry.
“I'm sure they're working as hard as they can,” Paul said in the exact laid back tone that drove Alison nuts when she was stressed. A door slammed, and I guessed Paul was standing on the hallway side of it.
So they hadn't heard anything, either. I turned the TV up to keep Saundra from overhearing Alison and Paul discuss our family's personal problems. I had to admit that if we had robotic humanoid help we wouldn’t have to worry about outsiders knowing all our dirty laundry.
Just as I commanded the volume to go to ten, a news story flashed on the screen. A group of teens was demonstrating in front of Sleiman Center Three, an imposing high-rise on the outside that was sheeted with glass. In the distance I noticed a brick and stucco clock tower. It had an ancient kind of face with numbers posted in an outdated circular fashion. Its ornate small and large rusted-iron hands were stuck at an incorrect time.
I could tell the kids were from the outside by the variety of their appearances. They had every kind of hair and skin color, varied heights and weights, and most carried archaic, hand-written placard signs denouncing GAP governing policies with slogans like “Transhumanism is un-natural, Science is not a true religion, and one with an angry red circle and an X over the word GAPS.
The camera zoomed in on a face I recognized—it was Noah, the maid’s son. The 3D monitor thrusts his image into the living room and his dark eyes blazed with an anger I hadn’t seen in anyone before. The other day I'd thought him exotic; now I found him frightening.
“Genetically Altered Persons have unfair social advantages,” Noah told the reporter. “They have the wealth and opportunity allowing them to leap ahead of poorer naturals. They have the best of the best of all things, including real estate. Look at Sol City. It was built on land that once housed lower income citizens. GAP status allowed them to push the poor off their land after the quake so they could build their walled, GAP-only, utopian city.
“They fund the government and shape unfair policies. And most importantly, they have time. They have artificially expanded lifelines. They have no right to play God in this way. The alteration of human genetics must be stopped!”
The ticker that ran under the scene said, NOAH BRODY, GRANDSON OF LESSER-KNOWN GENETIC SCIENTIST MATTHEW BRODY, CODEVELOPER OF THE PROCESS OF HUMAN GENETIC ALTERATION.
A lesser-known genetic scientist who developed Human Alteration? But it was my own grandfather, Dr. William Vanderveen who developed the procedure. The now-Democratic presidential candidate, Senator Vanderveen. He was the one everyone credited with the extension of the human life span.
Why hadn't I heard of Matthew Brody before? And if he’d played a part in the discovery of human genetic alteration, why was his grandson protesting against it?
I caught Saundra staring at the news story. The woman quickly looked away. She was thin, with toasted skin and dark hair streaked with gray. Wrinkles fanned away from her green eyes and I guessed for a natural, she was probably around forty-five years old. Alison wouldn't begin to look that way until she was closer to ninety.
Saundra was married to the son of the man this report credited with sharing the spotlight with my grandfather. How was it possible that she and her son weren’t GAP? How did she end up working as our domestic staff?
I turned back to the newscast in time to see a still photo of a well-dressed man on the screen. I recognized him as Ronald K. Smythe, CEO of Sleiman Enterprises and my father’s boss. If Liam hadn’t gone missing, my parents would be attending the black tie event taking place there tonight. The reporter stated that Mr. Smythe was not available for comment.
The story flipped back to Noah Brody. Beside him stood a teen with flaming red hair like nothing I'd ever seen. The newscaster thrusts the mic in his face, and he went off on a similar rant against genetic alteration.
Under his face, the ticker flashed, ZACK DEXTER, PROTESTER.
My heart skipped. Dexter? Could Liam’s note be referring to a person? This guy, maybe? Was that why Liam went to the outside? What would my brother have in common with a guy like that?
Suddenly, I knew what I needed to do.