2nd May 2062
My whole life, it’s tormented me, Dr Xie, and I need to know. Why did my mother kill herself?
Jun forced herself to reread the sentence. It had been a long time since anyone had called her Dr Xie, and even longer since she’d been answerable to anyone. What was the woman looking for, absolution? Guilt was Jun’s second-worst feeling.
The late afternoon sunshine seared through the bleached Venetian blinds and made a stockade silhouette on the wall. Jun drained the last of her tea and discarded its cup in the sink. Its porcelain made a shrill clatter in disapproval. The inside of Jun’s home was her sanctuary, with the relieving cool caresses from the air conditioner, and the quiet moments of solitude. The undemanding silence was her companion in the morning before lectures, and her afternoon conspirator as she graded assignments and reviewed her study plans. But today the silence made her anxious, and the chilled air rattled her bones.
Her eyes drew back to the Interface and the shrift mail. That part of her life seemed a false memory, like shadows without substance. Looking back, the suicide had been the pivot that defined her life; she’d never worked in research again. Jun’s finger hovered over the screen, threatening the recycling bin icon, but she couldn’t quite bring herself to erase the mail. She relinquished the Interface down on the counter, relishing the snap sound it made as it hit the resin work surface. The past had already spent its allowance of her time, she wouldn’t give it any more credit. Wastefulness was her fourth-worst feeling.
Wastefulness generally wasn’t tolerated. Everything these days was versa-purposeful and adaptable by design. Her gaze drifted outside to their street. White identikit houses lined up like pills, deflecting the sun’s heat, but conserving its energy. Algae-festooned walk-lights stood tall and arched like soldiers’ arms saluting photosynthetic victories; access roads panelled with radiavoltaics, harnessed energy from the sun. Things with one-dimensional functionality were redundant, dismissed by a world that needed to be smarter and sustainable. No, one-dimensional things weren’t dismissed, Jun imagined a synthesised United Adaptive-voice correcting her, they were evolutionally retired.
Telestream on, she consciously commanded. There would be something on here to distract her. The largest wall in the kitchen illuminated with eighteen screens of documentaries, news, and entertainment shows. She decided on the news. The neuronal chip nestled above her cranium connected with the Stream and, thanks to the silent impulse of her conscious request, switched to the broadcast. A report flashed up on the screen.
Missing girl the sole survivor in family ‘mini-massacre’.
A holographic anchor woman appeared in front of her. She was a mirror-image of Jun herself when she was younger, with dark, straight hair to just below her jawline, and mahogany eyes set in a supple skin. Jun smeared a hand over her own thinning face and smoothed out a soft ripple. The report began, and she immediately regretted her decision.
‘Authorities are on the lookout for the sole survivor, witness and suspect in the murder of a Russo-Chin Province family late yesterday evening. Police were called to a home in the Ulan CMCD at 11.30pm last night, to find the dead bodies of Aaden, and his wife, Hani Chirchir with gunshot wounds to the head. The couple’s sixteen-year-old daughter, Kodi, raised the alarm, claiming to have escaped a home invasion. No possible motives have been released as yet, but reports suggest that Kodi Chirchir has become a key person of interest. Fleeing the scene after questioning by the family bereavement unit, security logs indicate that she switched off the family’s home computer, allowing two unidentified men to break in and murder...’
Jun consciously commanded the Stream to shut down. She didn’t want to hear any more. One bereaved daughter was quite enough for an afternoon; they were following her like shadows. A chill reverberated through her body at the thought of Kau in that girl’s position. Twenty-four and her only child, Kau was impulsive. He made important decisions as blithely as drawing air, seemingly without reason or concern. Jun never had that luxury. As a schoolchild, her still-growing shoulders had felt the responsibility of the world collapsing on them. Trying to mitigate against the widening mouth of the Yangtze or the smog clouds in Beijing, that despite the masks, stung her throat and eyes. Jun was glad that their mountainous atmosphere offered very little threat in that regard. Her eyes drew to the forest in the distance, where somewhere amongst the trees and peaks lay the United Adaptive headquarters, the bases spread like bear pits protecting the jewel in their crown, Lake Baikal.
Fan’s Intuimoto came into view and punctured her thoughts; its transparent, bullet-like chassis darted up the access road to their home. He was early. He wouldn’t typically be back for another hour at least. There were two bodies in the car instead of the usual one. Kau was with him. Her stomach lurched. They should both still be at work; something must have happened.
Kau’s car door swirled open; Fan’s followed, prompting Jun to stand up and smooth out the creases in her white linen house-dress, annoyed she hadn’t thought to press it earlier. The house computer chimed and recited its pre-programmed greeting as the door opened. Jun stifled an eye-roll, even after all these years it still grated.
‘Welcome home Mr Li and Mr Li junior. It’s great to have you back. The time is 16.49pm, and the temperature outside is 43°C. It is a temperate 15°C in the house. There are no scheduled plans for this evening.’
Jun heard the house door shut behind them and Kau talking to Fan, casual and light. The upward inflexion and steady rhythm of his voice rippled a warmth across her chest; he sounded well.
‘Kau,’ she said, walking into the hallway to greet them both. He looked like he’d put on a little weight and his face was less defined. She wrapped her arms around him and breathed him in slowly. His torso felt bigger, softer; her arms didn’t fit around him like they usually did. She brought her hands to either side of his mouth and thumbed his cheekbones. He probably hadn’t been exercising, even though it was United Adaptive, UA, policy to take at least one hour per day. He was a powerful swimmer and had won a scholarship at Oxford University in the North Euro Province. She still had his trophies, though Fan insisted they be moved from the sitting room to his bedroom when he left home for his studies. It had felt like she was packing his childhood away. She found herself keeping his most prized trophy pride of place amongst the family photographs - their Pix - a flourish of her pride.
‘Bǎobèi, how are you? You’re looking well, who’s been feeding you?’ she said, ruffling her hand through his hair, which had grown too unruly around his face.
‘Yes, yes,’ he said, patting her hand away, and then kissed it. ‘No one’s been feeding me either – you do like to needle, don’t you? I’ve just not been able to swim as much as I’d like, but nothing to worry about. Let’s go inside, and we can talk about it properly.’ Kau walked through into the kitchen, and Jun heard cupboard doors open and glasses making a clink on the work surface.
‘Is he okay?’ she said to Fan, softly enough so Kau couldn’t hear.
Fan nodded; his starched collar remained taut. Even after the blazing sun they’d endured today, Fan’s diligence was unflappable. He kissed her cheek and guided her through into the kitchen.
‘I wasn’t expecting both of you, and so early,’ Jun said. Their Ai-ssistant, Qin, appeared at Jun’s conscious command; Jun’s chip and Qin’s software connected quicker than a heartbeat. Despite Fan’s irritation, Jun had insisted on naming Them. She had always named their Ai-ssistants when she had worked in labs. Admittedly, that was a long time ago and it was largely frowned upon these days, but Jun considered it only respectful. ‘I haven’t thought about supper yet, what would you like darling?’ she said, mentally going through Kau’s favourite dishes. ‘What about braised eggplant?’ Qin had pre-prepared some earlier that week. ‘We can have Manchow soup to start?’
Kau nodded gratefully.
‘I would suggest Egg Drop soup,’ Fan said scrolling through his phone, for work no doubt, before his gaze fell back on Jun.
Jun blinked at Qin as she gave her a conscious command. Egg Drop soup it was.
As the eggplant warmed in the oven and Qin began to set the table in the dining room, Kau fidgeted with his hands in that way he did before he had something important to say.
‘I have something to tell you. A good something. I have a new job. I didn’t want to mention it until it was all agreed, and then I’ve not come up for air in the past couple of weeks, but it’s exciting. I’m doing work of substance.’
‘Oh!’ Jun pursed her lips and looked to Fan; his eyes didn’t meet hers. ‘That is a surprise...’ Kau had been working in the Migration, Integration and Inter-community Development team for the Province for the past two years. He’d done well for himself. There was plenty of work with the perpetual calendar of migrations.
‘I was headhunted by the UA. I’ve been working with them on…’ he stopped and licked his lips. ‘Special projects.’
Warmth drained from Jun’s face, and her mouth turned stiff and dry.
She looked at Fan; his eyes had a steeliness that she’d come to depend on, two ball bearings that had the power to pierce at will or gravitate to stability. She wanted to ask him if he knew about Kau and the role, but of course, he’d known. Forty years working for the UA meant at the very least he’d sanctioned the decision; at worst, he’d instigated it. He should have talked it over with her, but then, he knew what she would have said. Even after all their years together, he still struggled to play as a team. Jun willed his face to reassure her, a nod in agreement or a weary smile, but he didn’t. ‘What do you think about this?’
Fan shrugged. ‘If it’s what he wants to do...’
‘Do you think he knows what he wants?’
Kau groaned. ‘Why are you talking about me like I’m not here?’
Jun touched his shoulder in acknowledgement. He was young, and there was so much he still had to learn, but he insisted on throwing himself in both feet first, regardless. It was so typical of Kau to make a big decision without thinking it through. Once you were in the UA, it was hard to navigate your way out; her internal compass had never recovered.
‘Are you still helping with the migrations in the Governance department?’ That work suited him, playing to his strengths of creating order and structure, along with his capacity for warmth and compassion. Kau was sensitive and had emotional depth, traits Fan didn’t appreciate in his son. It made her feel so much closer to him; their relationship that little bit more special.
Kau’s eyes shifted from Fan to Jun, then back again. ‘I can’t tell you. It’s restricted information.’
Restricted information. Words Jun had heard so often from Fan. Words she’d said herself enough times too over the years at the lab. From Kau’s optimistic lips, they were alien. She studied his face to see if he was holding back a smile. She’d seen smirks from others often enough when they’d uttered those words; a silent exultation of power. Jun’s fingers turned the string of her apron around her index finger until the skin pulsed. She saw Fan’s eyes following her fingers but didn’t stop.
‘This project is revolutionary. The UA is building a specialised team and need someone with my experience. It’s a great opportunity.’
Fan sidestepped to Jun and tugged at her fingers; the apron string fell limp.
She raised her voice, something she seldom did. ‘Kau, have you thought this through? Your father,’ she looked at Fan and began again more softly, ‘I’m sure will agree, was always at work. Even now he’s forever working. They expect, no demand, your full attention and loyalty.’
‘You don’t trust me to make my own decisions?’
Kau’s forehead creased and Jun felt his displeasure, finding herself in the shade when she’d been basking in the sun.
Fan sloped from Jun’s side to stand next to Kau’s.
Jun shook her head. ‘You don’t have to accept just because they’ve made you an offer. I don’t want you to make the same mistakes I did.’ And she had made mistakes. One had been allowing her mother to convince her that joining the UA lab would be good for her career. Another had been letting her father’s constant sniping wear her down - the UA didn’t expect ‘no’ for an answer. She had preferred it at the hospital; working with the intimacy of the problems, and the immediacy of her solution.
Kau looked at his father as though he already knew the answer to the question he was about to ask. ‘I guess you won’t be coming to the welcome dinner they’re throwing me?
Jun’s heart tugged. Qin came back into the kitchen and began to pull out ingredients for their meal.
Kau looked at Jun as though there was something he wanted to say, but clearly thought better of it, and instead turned on his heel and stormed out the kitchen. Jun tried to call after him, ask Kau to not be angry with her…but it seemed he’d taken her resolve with him as he walked away.
In the doorway opposite her, Fan stood and waited until finally, they heard Kau’s old bedroom door close. That sound usually filled her with reassurance.
‘Egg drop soup, right?’ Jun said as Qin placed a pan on the hob. It glowed to life.
‘You were out of line,’ Fan said, his voice quiet, that flash of gunmetal in his eyes.
Jun looked at Qin and consciously dismissed Them away. She didn’t like Them being privy to certain conversations; it made her feel exposed in a way that never bothered Fan.
‘No, I was out of the loop,’ she gave Fan a brief smile before pouring the broth into the pan, enjoying the satisfying spit and hiss as the silky spindles bubbled with the heat.
‘What would it look like if we didn’t go?’
She stirred the broth, slow and steady. Fan was right, of course, they would have to go. She felt his hands around her shoulders, and his lips lightly dust her cheek.
‘I’ll look after him. I’ve always looked after you both,’ he said quietly.
He had. He’d always been by Jun’s side, steering her steadily, and she needed him to do it again. The weight of Fan’s hands on her shoulders made stirring hard work, their unspoken words mixed and churned with the broth.
‘Remember the subject that took her own life? Before we got married and fell pregnant with Kau?’ She turned her back to the pan and faced him, curling the apron tie around her finger again, slowly and beneath his gaze.
Fan’s eyes flickered with recognition.
‘Her daughter got in touch with me today.’
Fan reached beyond her to stir the broth. ‘Saying what?’
‘She’s in a bad way - wants to know why her mother killed herself. I’ll be damned if I know; it was twenty-five years ago. Why would she want to bring it up now?’ Jun pulled the tie tighter against her finger.
‘Can I read it?’
Jun handed him her tablet, and he scanned the mail. His eyes briefly met hers before he re-read it. The broth murmured, blowing fat bubbles behind her.
‘What was her name?’
‘The subject? Odgerel Zaye.’
‘Can you help the daughter, this…Solo?’
‘I could tell her why we observed her mother and her capabilities, but not much beyond that. It was so long ago...’ The broth simmered, popping and frothing angrily behind them.
‘I don’t think any good can come of it. For either of you. I don’t think you should contact Solo.’ His arms found their way around her and squeezed, the way he always did when he’d given her the answer she’d been looking for. ‘It’s for the best, my love.’
She let out a sigh and uncoiled the string from around her finger; the skin tingled as the blood circulated again. ‘You’re right. That’s all I needed to hear.’
5th May 2062
The waiters bobbed through the tables like they were ballroom-dancing, holding their serving platters closer than partners. It was a rare sight that Ai-ssistants weren’t attending, but then The Inspiro Dining Rooms was the place to go if you were feeling indulgent or celebrating. In the United Adaptive’s case, it was often both. The Inspiro was well-known for being the place where deals were brokered during the formative years of the United Adaptive and Global Governance Alliance. Only 20 minutes’ drive from the UA HQ, Province dignitaries from around the world flew in to talk crisis management and globalised commercial solutions, while the UA negotiated and procured contracts over the finest vodka and baijiu. Meanwhile, the rest of the world was lurching from one disaster to the next, the death toll lowering the global population by over 20% - a number, Jun had read, was akin to the 1800s.
Though it had a reputation for welcoming the world’s socio-political elite, The Inspiro kept a modest, understated air; folded away in the mountains that mirrored the careful consideration of its napkins. Jun scanned the room, her eyes unable to rest on one place. The dining room held at least seventy tables; the low-lighting accented their dusky tablecloths. To anyone else, The Inspiro offered a warm welcome. Despite her instincts, this was Kau’s night, and it was vital she laughed at the right moments and cooed with interest at others. What Jun wanted more than anything, was to put her mind at rest. Reassure herself that Kau wasn’t making a terrible decision, that she wasn’t letting her son walk into the lion’s den, as she had.
Jun felt a hand on her waist and turned to see Fan, who gave her one of his ‘looks’; a silent question, checking if she was alright. He knew she hated these kinds of things. It had been so long since she had mixed with the UA establishment. She had, thankfully, been spared from attending social things with his work. The endless demands it put on him, and his irritability at the slightest probing was enough to know it was a door best kept closed. Perhaps he sensed her resentment of the UA’s demands on his time. Not to mention the business with the Public Service Announcements, although they’d never brought it up again after that night, the night that Odgerel had died.
It had been a few days since Solo’s mail. Despite Fan’s reassurances that it was for the best, the guilt and anxiety had wound itself around her, not him. She had barely been able to sleep with it dancing around in her head.
Fan squeezed her waist, pulling back her consciousness. She kissed his cheek and tried to filter through the snippets of mundane conversations that jangled like coins in a jar. The women were nestled together with the men like macaroons, only sandwiched more tightly and with perfectly-styled hair. One of them, she noticed, had long elegant fingers which swirled around her face as she spoke. Jun fumbled in her pockets for a piece of thread to wind around her finger.
The party began to sit down, and Jun was thankful to be next to Fan and Kau. Opposite her, a bear of a man pulled out his chair.
‘It’s Jun, isn’t it?’ he said. ‘Fan has obviously been part of the UA Family for some time-’
‘And very well-respected too,’ a bronzed woman to Fan’s right interrupted. She was younger than Jun, by a good twenty years. Her hair, which Jun expected to have been oil-black at one time, had a peppering of grey. Jun wondered how her husband felt about it, the times his wife put the UA before important family meals like Fan often did, or holidays disturbed by calls or mails. A fleeting thought flashed across her mind and left an unpleasant taste in her mouth - what if that hadn’t been their situation at all, but exclusively hers?
A woman sat next to the bear-man. She had a whippet-thin face, which was glued to her phone. She liberated a glass of wine from the table like she was scooping a handful of bubbles and threw it to the back of her mouth with abandon. Wiping a stray drop from her mouth, she said. ‘Almost as long as Anton, though the jury’s out on the respected…’
The bear of a man Jun now understood was Anton, looked at the Whippet from the sides of his eyes. He carried on, ‘You also worked for the UA at one time?’
Jun felt twenty eyeballs on her. Her mouth didn’t want to work.
‘Jun was a Neuroscientist, specialising in mental cognition,’ Fan boomed around the table, making sure everyone could hear. ‘She was part of the UA’s dedicated global Neurological and Brain Augmentation Team, until we had our son.’
When she had been Dr Xie, she’d pioneered the Cognitive Repair and Rejuvenation program in Tiantan Hospital, and driven the Memory-Cloud project for the Neuroscience Research Institute, in Beijing. Her star had then risen to the United Adaptive. There had been the thrill of leading observations and procedures, and the rush of unlocking the brain’s potential. These days, thrills were exclusive to her students.
‘You don’t work for Them anymore?’ The Whippet said and momentarily stopped punching into her phone. She looked at Jun as though she had said something outrageous, and went to grab her wine again, but Anton moved the glass away. They glared at one another.
‘I lecture Neuroscience at the University of Russchin,’ Jun nodded politely, keen to shut the conversation down. A few of them exchanged glances around the table, before talking amongst themselves. The Whippet took a call. The younger Jun would never have joined an institution like Russchin. But after Kau, it had been impossible to join another lab or hospital. Doors closed in her face until gradually, she stopped looking for them. Her analytical mind accumulated the commonalities of her rejections and studied them like cells in a Petri dish. Her evaluation pointed only to one source. Thankfully, an old professor with connections at Russchin had made a generous introduction. She’d eased herself into the rhythm of education, conducting her orchestra of students, encouraging them to create the music that had abandoned her. She was sure a few ex-colleagues’ eyebrows had been raised, and smirks barely-stifled, at her appointment. A product of national border dissolution and Provincial autonomy, what Russchin lacked in heritage and gravitas, it had made up for with independent spirit. Till of course, inevitably, the United Adaptive assumed control.
Jun could hear Kau talking about his new job, beside her; how it offered ‘a life-changing opportunity that before now, the Earth simply couldn’t…’. His tone was urgent, his body hummed with enthusiasm. He quietened his voice, perhaps aware he’d caught her attention, and she heard no more. That was the most he’d talked about it in her presence, saying he didn’t want to breach security, in a tone not too dissimilar from an Ai-ssistant. As he’d said it, Jun’s skin pricked as though it had turned into pins. She tried, discreetly, to listen in but felt someone’s eyes on her, like a warm and sticky breath against her neck. Her eyes met Anton’s; he smiled, and she felt obliged to reciprocate.
‘You asked me about my time at the UA,’ Jun said and felt Fan turn and stiffen beside her. ‘Tell me about yours? How long have you known my husband?’
Anton smiled and gave a lazy laugh. ‘Fan, your wife asked me how long I’ve known you?’
‘The simple answer would be too long.’
‘When we were both a lot younger, well, I was a lot younger. You’ve always been past it haven’t you, old boy?’ Anton’s laugh crunched around the table like churned gravel.
‘Old enough to know all the skeletons rattling around in your closet,’ Fan said, and reached for his wine. He didn’t often drink, but he was already on his second glass.
Anton clapped; his paws thundered together so loudly a few people from other tables turned to look at him. ‘Ha!’
‘Do you work in Geology as well?’ Jun said to Anton, trying to navigate the conversation to calmer waters.
The Whippet had finished talking on her phone and returned to the conversation, glass in hand. ‘Geology?’
‘In my former life, yes, Helena,’ Anton said glowering at her. ‘But I’m afraid, we’re not able to talk about what Kau and I are up to. At least, not yet. All in good time though,’ he said and winked at Kau.
Helena threw back another glass of wine and abruptly excused herself to get some air. Jun didn’t want her to leave. She was refreshing compared to the stiff necks around the table, and her gut feeling about Kau joining the UA hadn’t abated. Perhaps Helena could help inch the dial one way or the other. She hoped for Kau, it was the other.
‘I’ll join you,’ Jun said. As she stood up, Fan readied himself to move.
‘Are you sure?’ he said quietly.
‘I’ll be fine.’ She patted his shoulder and wondered whether she would.
Helena had already started towards the terracotta-tiled courtyard, which was interspersed with small Weeping Cherry Trees, their deep rose-pink buds cheerfully drooping. A couple of men in linen-suits turned as Helena and Jun joined them out on the courtyard. They took a few steps back from the bungalow-style building, and moved towards the undulating peaks in the distance, and the more immediate shadows in the courtyard. Jun collected a glass of water along the way. She handed it to Helena.
‘You’re not at all what I expected,’ Helena laughed. Her smile slowly disappeared, tip-toeing away as if it had never been there in the first place. ‘I’ve never spoken to anyone in that... position, before.
What was hiding behind Helena’s carefully-phrased words? Their eyes gripped one another, but neither spoke.
‘How do you feel about Kau joining the ranks?’ Helena said, finally filling the silence.
Jun remembered Kau and Fan’s words before they left. ‘It’s his decision…or so he and his father keep telling me. How do you find working ‘in the ranks’?’
Helena shook her head. ‘I’m not a bureaucrat, but we all work for the UA in one way or another, right?’
That was true, especially in the UA heartland. It was difficult to find jobs or prospects that weren’t funded, even partially, by the UA. Not just in their Province, but in the world. It hadn’t always been that way. Not when she’d started out.
Helena swallowed her water hungrily. ‘I’m a producer. The evening news on Channel RC1 and the Weekly Adaptive Affairs show on Channel UniProv.’
That explained the frantic calls and messages. The RC1 – Russo-Chin Province 1 channel reported all the news from their Province. The Weekly Adaptive Affairs show curated the notable highlights from all the Provinces globally and discussed their united impact. Her fingers would be on many pulses. Likely she’d know something about most people in that room. No wonder the men from the courtyard had shied away.
‘There’s been a new development with a Province-led story we’re reporting on. The girl whose family were killed, and she survived. Whoever did it, tried to break in again. They were looking for the home-comp hyperframe, but the Police took it with them.’
‘It’s awful,’ Jun said, remembering the news segment a few days earlier, just after she’d read Solo’s note. ‘I can’t believe what they’re saying, that the girl had anything to do with it...she’s so young.’
Helena shrugged, and Jun kicked herself for being so clumsy. She didn’t mean to slam Helena’s reportage.
At that moment Kau appeared, looking apologetic. ‘Papa wants to check you’re okay?’ he said and looked at them both.
Helena gave a sly smile. ‘Check up on us more like.’
Kau gave a nervous chuckle, ‘Yes, I suppose.’
‘We’re talking about the Chirchir family,’ Helena said and tapped her fingers on the glass, a crystallised heartbeat. ‘You know that story?’
‘Not much,’ he said. ‘The job’s been full-on. Ignorant to admit, I know,’ he said and gave a bashful smile. ‘I’ll go back and tell them you’re alright.’ He paced back to the table.
‘You do that,’ Helena mused after him.
But Jun had stopped listening. Her mind was stuck in the stickiness of Solo. She and the Chirchir girl were both orphans, of sorts. Solo had her father, at least. She thought about Kau in Solo’s or the Chirchir girl’s position. She would want someone to support him. Jun might not have the answers to Solo’s questions, but could still help her in some way, maybe reach a new level of understanding. Solo was someone’s child after all, and she was someone’s mother.
The only other someone that mattered, and the one she’d need to convince, was Fan.