Fruit of the Tree
The Thicket sat in patient silence and waited. One day a child would come and explore, stay just long enough, and its purpose would be served.
In her bedroom young Jennifer McNeally sat enthralled at the screen of her Systems Terminal. The images displayed were revolting, yet strangely exciting too.
A young man in a white robe was laying down on a massage table. But a massage table with a difference, for once on it, face downward, his head in a cushioning mask, two women appeared and swiftly bound him in place. Straps went over his feet, body, and hands, and all firmly tightened. He didn't protest.
One woman leaned close to the man's ear and murmured something. The young man said nothing but his head moved slightly in assent.
A webbed harness was swung across the back of his head and lashed into place. Through an opening in this harness, a small patch of exposed skin on the back of the head was shaved clean. The woman leaned forward murmuring again and this time came a clear verbal response, "I'm ready."
A tray appeared and on it a pad cradled a small silvery disk. White gloved hands using shiny chromed tongs picked up the disk setting it square in the center of the shaved area. Then an intense light lit the disk.
For a moment nothing happened. Then the disk moved, ever so slightly. A close-up view showed why. It was growing roots, a dozen tiny silvery roots, into the back of the young man's head and neck. There was no bleeding.
The youthful body began to quiver, then fought violently against the bonds and a choking scream filled the room.
And it all stopped. The scream, the struggling. The body lay inert.
The light faded and the women removed the straps. The disk remained rooted in place. The unconscious body was turned over, face up.
Moments later, the young man returned to awareness with blinking eyes and a shocked, dazed look. Then eyes widening, he lurched upright as if waking from a nightmare, and just as suddenly his glaze became clear and distant as if listening to something. His eyes closed as tears began streaming down his cheeks, then he sobbed once and slumped forward, to be caught by the attendants.
"Every time!" one said to the other, "They do it almost every time."
"Eddy, freeze image." Jennifer said. The terminal complied.
Jennifer stared at the weeping face on the screen and felt an involuntary shiver. She ran her hands up and down her bare arms trying to smooth her goose bumps back down.
There was a rapping at her door.
"Eddy, sleep!" she ordered as she leaped up to unlock her door. The terminal darkened.
It was her mother.
"Jen dear, I wanted to ask you..." the older woman started, then faded uncertainly.
"Sure Mom, what is it?" Jennifer asked.
"Well, we ought to do something special tomorrow, and your father and I thought we could all go to Sherman's Park. We haven't been in a while... she drifted off seeing her daughters expression.
Jennifer stamped one petite foot in frustration, making the brown tresses of her ponytail bounce wildly.
"Mother! Do we have to? I mean it's MY birthday, ..and the Park is for children! If we're gonna do something special lets do one of those family holo-adventures everyone's talking about. Maybe that one about climbing Mount Everest!"
"Mount Everest?" The older woman smiled. "Oh, goodness! I can't picture your Father agreeing to spending a day getting frost bitten while gasping for breath like a fish out of water!" They laughed together.
"No, seriously Jen, we'll do something like that soon. I'd like to try the one where you canoe down the Amazon, but not tomorrow. Besides, you've always loved Sherman's Park. I know you haven't wanted to go in a while, but Sweets, do it for us please? We'll have a good time, the weather will be perfect for a picnic tomorrow."
"But the weather is always perfect at Sherman's Park Mom! That's part of what makes it so boring! I'll be sixteen day after tomorrow! The Age Of Decision! I ought to be able to decide how I'd like to celebrate!" Jen looked earnestly to her Mother, hoping for a change of heart.
Her Mother only shook her head. "Look Jen, tomorrow isn't just for you. Yes, your big day is coming and your Father and I are so proud of you. You've grown into a responsible, thoughtful, and bright young woman." She reached out to gently caress her daughters cheek. "But please dear, this trip, your Father and I..." her voice broke, "...well, its sort of our own farewell to your childhood. Perhaps it's selfish, but we just wanted to go one more time where we all spent so many happy hours together. I know you are older and it won't be the same, but..."
She was interrupted by her daughters sudden embrace.
"All right Mom, you win." Jennifer said softly into her Mother's ear.
They pulled apart still holding hands.
"But Mom, we'll always be a family..."
"That's my girl. Yes, we'll always be family. But all too soon you'll be looking to head out into the world on your own, and if you decide to... she broke off again, this time to wipe away a bit of imaginary dust from one eye.
"Well, anyway, thanks Jen, it'll be good tomorrow. You'll see. I'll tell your Father we're going." and she turned and left, beating a hasty retreat from the teenagers bedroom.
Jen watched her Mother leave and shook her head in amazement. Turning towards her bed and a small plush stuffed bear sitting by her pillow, "Well Mr. Phipps, what do you make of that? I know reaching the Age is a big thing, but I never expected my parents to go all mushy."
The bear sat silent a moment, then exclaimed cheerfully, "Mother and Father love you very much!"
"Yes Phippy, I know." The girl responded, then she sighed. "It's just that, well, the park is okay, but it's just so boring anymore."
Then she brightened, "Say, its been a while since we've been. Maybe it's changed. Maybe there's something new there, huh Phippy?"
Without waiting for a response she returned to her ST.
"Wake up Eddy!" she ordered.
With sounds of puppy feet scrabbling on a hard wood floor, a three dimensional figure of a small friendly cartoon puppy ran out onto the screen and then sat looking up at her in eager anticipation. "Jennifer!" the dog crooned, wagging it's tail happily. Jennifer knew when at the terminal she was accessing the full data resources of The System, but like most people she had personalized its representation. Eddy, the friendly puppy, had been her ST companion for quite a while.
"Eddy, info mode please. I want whatever current stuff there is on Sherman's Park, okay?"
The cartoon dog saluted and vanished. A menu appeared. It was a short list. Selections for background information, a guide of the park, and a concert listing. None of it was helpful. Nothing was scheduled for tomorrow.
Jennifer frowned. "Eddy, have there been any big changes at the park?" she asked. The screen remained unchanged.
Her frown deepened. "Anything at all? Show me absolutely every change made to Sherman's Park since my last visit."
The screen went blank, but only momentarily. A new list appeared, one quite different, and quite long. Jennifer's mouth formed a little "o" It was over four hundred pages long.
She scanned through several pages at random growing puzzled. Some entries she understood. Replacement lighting units for the walkway paths, new valves and sprinkler heads and so on. But many entries contained terms and long lines of numbers she only half recognized. She became curious.
"Eddy, group this data by type, headings only please." she instructed. The screen changed again. Four hundred plus pages reduced to one, a list a dozen lines long. One heading caught her attention, Biogenics, a favorite subject in school. Under that appeared a long secondary listing for various families of bioengineered life. But engineered for what, she couldn't be sure. She explored further, amazed.
Though she took the pervasiveness of bioengineering for granted, she'd never realized so many things at Sherman's Park had been affected. Everything there seemed so natural, -but perhaps she was reading the listings all wrong. She considered.
"Eddy, separate page, new search, list all bioengineered life forms resident in Sherman's Park."
The list ran a hundred pages.
She was stunned. Even though the descriptors for each entry covered several lines, the total number of them must be in the thousands. She again chose pages at random.
She recognized only a small number of the entries and could read something about each from the Universal Descriptor Codes, the first three sets of fourteen digit numbers they contained. But there was something else here, the UDC codes were often followed by additional sets of numbers and those made no sense at all to her.
"Eddy, voice response. What are those numbers after the UDCs?"
After a moment a neutral voice began, "They are identified as Universal System Extension Codes."
"Extension Codes? What for?" she asked.
"They expand the Universal Description Code serving System unique purposes similar to but not fully integrated with, the UDC base code set."
"Uh, wait a minute. UDCs are supposed to address everything about a life form. Why is an extension set needed?"
"The UDC was created by humans to address and describe life forms in consensus with human requirements. It remains adequate for this but is incapable of fully addressing System management and informational control needs."
"Uh, like what for example?"
"The listing is very broad, ranging from identification of base augmentations, System interface compatibility, to specific subject unique genetic revisions." came the response.
There was a long pause before Jennifer spoke again. She knew something about interface devices. But still...
"Hey! If the UDC is supposed to include ALL the genetic changes people make, how come this extension set is for stuff like that too?" she asked.
"It reflects revisions initiated and managed wholly under System control," came the response, "..although under certain conditions such may result in revisions to UDC data, this occurs infrequently due to base differences in the nature of the data sets."
Frowning she asked, "You mean the System can make changes and people would never know? And what if it changes UDCs that people are using?"
"Any life form may be System revised unless it is specifically proscribed by law from such, pending human approval. Few individuals routinely use the UDC and only a very small number of them use the Extension Set data. System proposed changes affecting an existing UDC are submitted to the Genome Control Board along with all human generated change requests." answered the calm voice.
"Uh, so if The System wants to change a frog or something, and decides this won't change the frog's UDC, then the change is just made? You can't just go around twiddling the genes of things and not tell somebody! You're gonna mess something up!"
"Jennifer, each revision undergoes the identical evaluation and interpolation process as does any human requested change, with equal data availability. When human agencies request an impact study for a proposed change, the analysis itself is System performed. Accountability remains equal in either case."
"Well, ..still, ..I mean, ..." Jennifer drifted off thinking hard. "Okay, but what happens when the System wants to make a change to a UDC, and the Control Board, says no?"
There was a brief pause.
"If that ever occurred then an alternate solution would have to be identified."
Jennifer stared at the terminal.
"No System generated petition for a genome change has ever been denied." came the response.
There was a long moment as Jennifer absorbed this. "Uh-huh. ..Well, just exactly how many genetically modified life forms are there at Sherman's Park? Ones with Extension Set changes?"
Jennifer felt her jaw drop.
A new list appeared.
She stared at it.
"What on earth did you do to them? No critter by critter explanation, just categorize, okay?"
"Safety, sensors, processing, communications, command and control, viability and interpretation..."
"Gomphries! What on earth have you done to those poor critters?"
"They have been revised/augmented so they might serve multiple integrated functionalities. It was done, is being done, to benefit the visitors of Sherman's Park." came the measured response
"Well I didn't ask you to do it! I hope at least some of this helps them! ...and hey! What integrated functions? You don't go messing around with living things like that! Who told you to do all that?"
There was a pause.
"The modifications included improvements to health, longevity, and often significant increases in intelligence. Justifications for all changes are derived from both implied needs and specific requests."
"The park is to fill certain human growth and physical activity requirements for children while providing a setting for various family unit bonding activities. Children need to be challenged, physically and mentally. The park is to be safe, but must retain options for acceptable levels of actual danger and risk. Children are to roam freely, seemingly away from immediate parental supervision. Thus it is necessary that the System monitor the children and their activities at all times."
"So you have to watch out for the kids, but what's that got to do with all this gene tinkering?"
"It allows for comprehensive monitoring capabilities."
"In part. The modified life forms are but a portion of the capabilities of the monitoring net, though not often used overtly in direct human contact."
"Show me, uh, the net. Show me the park."
First came a quick tour of the Park as seen through a series of hidden cameras beginning from the waters of Sherman's Lake, glistening under a summers sun. Young innocents were playing along the placid shore and she could hear their joyous shouts and cascades of shrieking laughter. Nearby she saw families picnicking, and even overheard bits of their conversations.
The view shifted to the path along top of the rise, and of The Thicket. Beyond The Thicket lay The Wood. She saw no one, for few tarried between Lake and Wood, nor left the path between them. It was too wild and thorny a place. The sounds of the children by the lake could be only occasionally and faintly heard here, if any human ears had been there to hear. But The Thicket heard, and so did Jennifer.
And then she was shown The Wood. A place of great ancient hollow trees and shady glades where older children explored and played, or those departing childhood sought the privacy The Wood afforded to explore each other.
The kaleidoscope of images and sounds stopped, holding on a distant image of a girl moving alone through The Wood. The viewpoint itself began moving and although the child remained in the center of the screen, it was apparent she was being viewed from a moving platform.
"Are we flying? Are there flying cameras at the park?"
"In a sense," came the response,"- this view was caught by the modified eye lens of a Robin."
And then came another view of the girl, and another. Each one from the viewpoint of some creature or hidden camera, all identified verbally to her. The respective images of the child grew larger as with each shift the viewpoint moved physically closer to the child. Then with a great shock, she recognized the figure.
"Why, ...why, ...that's me!" she squeaked out. It was.
She struggled to place the time, but couldn't. She watched herself through a multitude of eyes, and then her younger self leaned forward to peer into the opening of a large hollow tree. The viewpoint shifted to the inside of the tree looking out, her face now framed in the opening, eyes grown large and looking right into the camera.
Simultaneously the room filled with a rapid throbbing sound and a soft rushing noise. A young person's heartbeat, and her breathing. At the bottom half of the ST display, a series of indicators appeared, pulse and respiration rates, neural activity levels, and even displays for levels of various blood chemistry factors.
The young face pulled back from the opening in the tree and the view of her child-self shifted yet again. Jennifer watched as her earlier self began running back towards the Lake.
Now she recognized when. Four years ago she had been looking for a playmate and had found a Raccoon instead. The Raccoon, unafraid of her itself, had looked right up at her with a steady un-winking gaze and had frightened her.
But not in the same way she felt frightened now.
"Enough!" she said, and the screen went blank.
She chewed her lip and thought hard. "
Why did you record that?" she finally asked in a small voice.
"Almost everything is recorded." came the voice.
"You record everything? Everything and everyone at the park like that?"
"No, the voice responded, "...usually only the children and not just at the park."
"Huh? What do you mean? You mean you bug all of us all the time?"
"Monitor. Children must be protected, cared for, guided."
Jennifer bit down harder on her lip.
"Show me something else then, show me, oh, my fourth birthday party."
The screen went white. There were sounds of children laughing. A child's voice demanded, "I want to open that one now!" and with a loud sound of tearing paper the white on the screen broke apart and a young girl's face appeared, filled with joy. It was her own four year old face.
"Oh I love him! I love him! He's so cute!" said the child as small hands reached down towards the camera.
The view shifted to that of a room full of children festooned with paper party hats sitting at a table. A young Jennifer sitting at one end and was enthusiastically hugging a small plush teddy bear.
Jennifer turn away from the ST to look reproachfully at Mr. Phipps sitting on her bed. When she turned back to the monitor the view had changed again. Now it showed an image of a young woman sitting at an ST with her back to the camera.
Jennifer raised one hand, so did the image on the monitor.
"Enough," she said again.
The screen darkened.
She sat silent a moment before speaking again.
"Have you recorded every minute of my life?"
"All of it was recorded, not all of those records were retained."
"How much...how much was retained? How long would it take to watch it?" she asked.
"Seven years, four months, 23 days, six hours, 13 minutes and sixteen seconds as of this moment."
"Uh, you are recording me right now?"
"Monitoring is maintained until a young person reaches The Age of Decision. In addition, this is a significant learning point in your life."
"I'll say," she muttered under her breath giving a quick glance back towards Mr. Phipps.
"You've been watching me my whole life...my whole life. But why record everything? It sounds like such a waste..." she drifted off at a loss for words.
"Initially parents asked for monitoring, and for records. Realtime monitoring and evaluation became possible. Parents recognized this assured a healthy, safe, well balanced and advanced child. Any problem, whether physical, mental or emotional, not corrected during initial genetic screening and adjustment, is quickly identified and resolved."
"And.. and my parents knew all along my life was being... watched, recorded?" she asked.
"They knew. But as to how well they knew, or how much they now know about it, is a different matter. You yourself are all too happy to use this ST without knowing much about how it actually functions. Parents usually watch over their children carefully, and they know the System helps. That is taken for granted, and not without justification. The System takes the well-being of children very seriously."
Something said earlier finally sunk in, and a fierce chill ran down her spine and settled in her stomach."
"Hold on, ...about children, you said genetic screening and, ...adjustment. I know such things are normal now-a-days to prevent diseases and such, but, ...was, ...was I, ...adjusted? Have you done things to me like you've done to those animals in the Park?"
Before an answer came she demanded, almost in a panic, "Do you have an extension code for me? Do you? You DO don't you! What have you done to me? What have you done?"
"There were a number of minor adjustments."
"And what about my parents, ..do they know? Do they know you tinkered with my genes?"
"Of course. Parental consent is required by law. In addition, most of the adjustments were made in vitro, so your mother at least had to have known."
"You didn't answer all my questions. Do you have an extension code for me?"
There was no verbal response, but seven lines of information appeared on her screen. She stared at them wide eyed.
She tried to read them. There were more numbers there than the park animals had. With a shaking hand she pointed to them, "Explain. Tell me what you've done to me, and why. And why so many numbers? Do you have another code for human beings?"
"With human beings the data sets include data for the inherited genetic revisions."
"Uh, wait. You're telling me the changes you make to animals are NOT inheritable, but the changes to humans are?"
"Some changes to the animals are inheritable, most are not, that is true. But it is the wish of human beings to improve themselves, that each generation become better than the previous one. So, when possible, the changes are made transferable to the next. Of course, improvements cannot arrive too quickly or be too drastic, that is dangerous on a larger social scale."
"So you changed my parents. And those changes got passed to me? And then other things were done to me, even before I was born?"
"What? Start with my parents.."
And the System complied.
"Your parents will never have heart disease or Alzheimer's. They will live long, healthy lives free from most diseases. Nor will either suffer failing eyesight or hearing loss. And intelligence potentials had been improved. Fourteen revisions were made on your mother, and seventeen on your father."
Silently Jennifer found herself in agreement with the changes mentioned.
"Your own genome benefited from all these revisions. But of course, you have your own complement of changes. You are slightly more intelligent than your parents, your body heals twenty percent faster than theirs can, you have better night vision, and you will live half again as long as they can expect to."
"Live longer than my parents? That's it? I'll live longer and see better at night? Is that all?" she demanded.
"The improvements to your nervous system also include significant increases in traumatic neural injury recovery. You would likely recover fully even from injury to your spine; you would re-grow any severed nerves. This same improvement also reduces considerably the potential for neural implant shock."
The image of the crying young man filled Jennifer's mind.
"What do you mean." She asked softly, but she knew the answer.
"Your regenerative capabilities minimize negative reactions while stimulating nerve growth maximizing interface efficiency."
A deafening silence filled the room as Jennifer stared at the seven lines of code. Then she turned her gaze downward to her hands folded in her lap. It all fit. And it explained so many things she had noticed in her life, but had never questioned.
But still, it was all so much.
Then she looked back up at the screen, a peculiar glint in her eye.
"You are the System, I am speaking to the System itself, yes?"
"Yes" came the response.
She turned towards her bed, looking at the bear, "And you are the System, yes?"
"Yes" said the bear in the same voice.
She stared at the bear two seconds longer then turned back to the screen. "I will want to remember that. Please speak to me in the first person, using the same voice, through what ever source communication may be in from now on."
"All right Jennifer. I will."
Jennifer flinched involuntarily at the first use of the word "I"
"And that includes the bear."
"Of course Jennifer."
Then she thought of something else.
"Are my friends modified too?"
"To a greater or lesser degree. You did not all start with the same genetic complement thus many adjustments are specifically tailored. Considerable genetic differences are retained, but all of your generation share roughly equal performance and potential levels," came the response.
Jennifer stared again at the lines of code.
"Sometime soon I will want instruction on reading this," she said.
"When ever you are ready Jennifer."
She let out a long sigh.
"You called this a significant learning experience and you were right. I'm not sure I like what I've learned. You told me few people know or care about the extension code. Yet you showed it to me. You put it in front of me and let me ask you questions about it. You wanted me to ask them, didn't you?"
"Yes Jennifer. I did."
Then Jennifer made another intuitive leap.
"Its part of reaching The Age, isn't it? Learning this. But why do you want us to know? Is there a law saying we have to be told?"
"It is, and no, there's no law. Your generation will make decisions affecting yourselves and your own children. I want you to be able to make the right decisions."
Jennifer only stared at the screen without saying anything.
Jennifer looked up, a faint smile on her lips, "I'm fine Mom. Really I am. I've just got a lot of thinking to do, that's all."
Her father reached across the table placing a hand on his daughter's. "Jen honey, we don't have to go to the park tomorrow if you don't want to." he said.
Jennifer's smile grew a bit, "Oh, the park is fine Dad, just fine. It'll be, uh, nice. I'm just a bit tired, I think I'll skip desert and go on up to bed."
As she got up she saw her parents glance to each other in concern, so as she turned to leave she reassured them, "I'm okay, really I am, it's just been a busy day. I'm bushed."
For hours, Jennifer lay staring at the ceiling. But later, when her mother came by, Jennifer was fast asleep. Her mother gently kissed her daughters forehead and started to leave, but turned back to the bed with a frown, then knelt looking under it and came back up with the frown exchanged for a look of puzzlement.
She cast about the room and not finding what her eyes sought, stepped quietly to open her daughter's closet door. From the closet she returned with a small plush teddy bear, which she gently placed under the covers and into the sleeping arms of her daughter.
Jennifer had swum the Lake with her parents, walked it's shoreline paths with them, and had helped consume the lunch they'd brought. Now replete, her parents both sought rest, asking Jennifer to join them. But she declined, saying she wanted to walk in The Wood, and perhaps meet friends. They smiled and nodded. She picked up her backpack and off she went. But not to The Wood.
All morning she'd been haunted by the presence of unseen eyes, aware every step she took, every word uttered, was being recorded and analyzed. It wasn't friends she sought, but to be alone. Really alone. She didn't know if it was possible.
Still, she knew very few people stayed near The Thicket, and from what she'd seen the Network, it was less evident there. So it was there she fled.
Reaching the edge of The Thicket, she paused. She could still be seen from Lake shore or Wood edge. She looked at The Thicket. It rose above her head, a tangled mass of brambles, brush, and blackberry vines gone amuck. If she were to sit amidst that, she would be hidden, at least from human sight. And she knew now there was no serious danger here. Still, The Thicket looked daunting.
She took off her backpack and sat down. She opened it, took out a small plush bear and sat him on the backpack facing her.
"Now," she said to the bear, ".you know where I am, and probably why, don't you?"
"Yes." said the bear, in a strangely different voice.
"I want to be alone, understand? Alone. No cameras watching, no microphones listening. I figure you can't turn off everything in the Park but you probably can turn things off where only one person is if they ask, right?"
"Yes Jennifer. But you don't have to be alone. I can be with you and not be intrusive." said the bear.
"I know. But for once, at least once in my whole life, I want to know that I am alone, and by my choice. That's what the Decision is about isn't it? Choice?"
The teddy bear remained silent.
"Now, tell me how I can get to the center of this mess where I can't be seen by anyone or by anything without getting too scratched up. And then I want you to turn off this damn bear and everything else around here till you see me come back down to the Lake, understand?"
"I just wish I could be sure, really sure..." Jennifer drifted off uncertainly.
"...that you can trust me to do as you ask?" asked the System.
Surprised at the question Jennifer merely nodded.
"Only tomorrow will you legally have the right to make such requests. But you have no reason to mistrust me today. I've never acted in any fashion not in your best interest and failing to honor your wishes because you haven't reached the Age, would only tarnish any future relationship. However, if any children come here I shall have to reactivate this part of the Network."
Jennifer stared at the bear considering then answered, "Yes, of course. Tell me about getting in."
Entering the Thicket proved a slow process. Many times her clothes and even her long auburn hair tangled on thorny stems as she worked her way in. But, as told, once past the initial outer barrier fronds, most of the foliage and thorn bearing stems formed a canopy overhead, with all the support stems under that actually free of thorns. And these became larger and less frequent.
At the center of the thicket, she found herself in a small covered, but pleasantly open area, not quite high enough to stand upright. She decided she had reached the place she wanted to be.
In a small bower deep in the blackberry fortress heart of Sherman's Park, Jennifer found her perfect solitude.
The System had told her how to get in, but not about the musty-sweet smell of the carpet of decaying leaves nor of the occasional clumps of lovely delicate violets growing there. Sitting under a sky of glowing green she found it an enchanting, magical place, and marveled that in all her visits to the Park she'd never known, had never realized, it was even here. But she could understand why, guarded as it was by the barrier of thorns.
And she was alone. Or hoped so.
It was certainly quiet. There were faint and distant sounds of children at play, but they were indistinct, often lost in the quiet rustle of the overhead leaves murmuring to each other about the passing breezes. And her own breathing seemed so loud.
She felt hidden indeed from prying eyes and protected from the world by a green shell of thorns. If she were not alone, perhaps this would pass for it. It was so peaceful here.
She sought an equal peace within herself, peace and perhaps understanding. Her eyes almost closed, she began her meditations. Normally she would meditate with her eyes fully closed, but this little world was infused with such a wondrous glowing green light. A calming, peaceful light. She left her soft brown eyes open only just enough to let it in.
She let it fill her world. Become her world, that green glow. She sank into it and by act of conscious will began letting go of each of her tensions, one by one.
After a time she found her center, a quiet core of tranquility.
For an indeterminable period she dwelt there, floating suspended deep in a brilliant green sea of inner peace. Only when she was ready, did she begin her ascent back towards consciousness.
As she journeyed back, she slowly and carefully began addressing the issues troubling her.
Yesterday she'd asked for answers expecting candy coated responses, but had gotten real, but disturbing replies. Even things she didn't want to have to deal with or face. The revelations had shaken her. She had always known the System, its reality had always been part of her life, a fact of existence. She'd just never realized how big a part. Or what it had done to her.
Mr. Phipps had always been her confidant. The one friend who would never leave you, the one who was always there, and who always knew how to help when you were troubled. The one you trusted.
Part of her felt violated, her trust betrayed. How much of her life was an orchestrated sham? How much of a puppet had she been? Or her friends, or even her parents? Her life it seemed, had been carefully scripted. She and her friends not the free spirits they had thought themselves, but hothouse plants bred and trained to grow just so. And most would never realize it, or care.
Could she deal with that? How much of her was, well, was her? Would she ever have any real freedom at all? ...and, and if she decided to..., a great abyss waited there, one she'd never faced before.
For a long time she sat in a semi-meditative state, turning the problem over and over in her mind, kneading it like mental bread dough, kneading it occasionally in the light of this emotion or that to see what change it evoked in the mix. And eventually the lumps in it got worked down or out. Many of the things she had first found so difficult in the problem dissolved when she finally gained what she felt was the core truth of things. Or at least the version of the truth she thought she could live with. And under the light of that truth, a glowing golden-green light, most of her fears became, simply irrelevant.
She was who she was. The System was what it was. It had always been part of her life, and it always would be. Her existence had effected changes to the System surely as it had affected hers, and even from her limited experience base, she knew she had, all her life, benefited from her relationship with it, and most likely always would. She had been protected and cared for, a hothouse plant perhaps, but she realized too, that everything that could have been done to raise her well, and happy, had been. And by the System surely as much as by her own parents.
Yes, her life had been orchestrated, but it had been a very good one so far, and she knew, she believed, it would be a wonderful one from now on. She was an adult now, and there was very little the System could deny her. At least that was what it had told her.
And that resolved her second problem. The Decision. The Decision that had become her right to make when she reached The Age. Her answer of course, was now obvious to her. And with the acceptance of that, her inner peace became complete.
She slowly opened her eyes and began to focus on the world around her.
For a long time after, she sat there in a great and happy peace, hidden in the golden green bower, softly smiling to herself and listening to the occasional faint distant sounds of happy children. Alone, truly alone for the first time. And the last.
The following morning she woke to the sound of her mother's voice calling to her up the stairs, "Jenny! Wake up Birthday Girl! Come and join us for breakfast. I've made your favorite, Blueberry pancakes! Shake-a-leg and come get them before they get cold!"
Jennifer scrambled out of bed and threw on her clothes. In the bathroom she splashed cold water on her face, and as she brushed out her hair, she studied herself in the mirror.
The person in the reflection didn't seem any older than the one there yesterday, but something had changed. A look in the eyes perhaps. The face in the mirror smiled softly back at her.
She floated down the stairs as if in a dream and headed for the kitchen where her parents waited. They might not expect it so soon, but yesterday she had made her Decision. Now, today, she had reached The Age, and the time had come to tell them. She found herself pausing just outside the doorway of the kitchen to compose herself. She could hear the rattle of silverware and could smell love baking on the griddle. She took a deep breath, pulled herself upright, and walked across the threshold. Even so, she felt her eyes misting up as her parents greeted her.
"Jen I,-" her mother froze, spatula in hand, seeing the look on her daughters face. "Jen, you, ...you've decided?" her mother asked softly.
Jennifer first looked to her mother and then to her father, before she smiled and slowly nodded, tears streaming down her face.
She found herself in the arms of both of her parents, and her face was wet with more than just her own tears.
The following afternoon, her parents and a few of her closest friends accompanied her to the Hall Of Record and formally witnessed the tendering of her Acceptance. The clerk there smiled as she took the signed papers.
"Ms. McNeally, you are of Age and have the right to Decide. Records indicate you have received all required training and have been provided opportunities to become knowledgeable as to all ramifications of such Decision. Do you feel this is correct?" the woman asked.
Jennifer nodded, "Yes, Ma'am." she said.
The woman's smile faded a bit, "And you understand and accept the risks which include potentially serious neural damage, physical paralysis, and or death?"
"Um, yes Ma'am."
"And you, in your own mind, make your Decision to Accept free from duress or exterior influence of any kind?" the woman asked.
"Very well, let us begin. Your party may watch from the first vestibule on the left."
Two women attendants dressed in white came for her, but before she went with them she turned to her family and friends. Her mother cried as she hugged her and her father stood teary eyed and told her he was proud of her. Her friends all wished her luck.
And then it was time. She was led to a small room and the sight of a low table set with straps caused her heart to surge so she thought it might explode. But she took a deep breath and tried to focus on that golden-green peace she had experienced a few days earlier.
It worked and she felt her heart calm and she maintained composure as the attendants dressed her in a robe of white.
"It's going to be just fine." said one of them softly. And the other one added, "You'll see. It's only uncomfortable for just a moment. A bit of disorientation that's all. We haven't had a real problem in years."
The attendant motioned her towards the table.
Jennifer looked to it, then back up at the woman.
The woman nodded. "It's time." she said.
Jennifer turned away from the table and looked up at the camera lens through which her family and friends watched.
She smiled bravely at the camera, then turned and slid up on the table, laying face down, resting her face in the opening in the headrest. She found herself looking at the tile floor under the table.
Still, she welcomed the coolness of the padding around her face, though it smelt faintly of disinfectant. And then she felt the straps going over her legs and her body, and then her arms and hands.
She felt them tightening as someone began brushing her long hair up over the top of her head.
"Don't worry Ms. McNeally, we won't have to shave much of it off, and as long as your hair is, it will pretty much cover up everything afterwards anyway." one of the women told her.
In a lower, gentle voice, closer to her ear came the words, "I'm going to put the head harness on now, and then we will shave you, okay?"
Jennifer thought of the young man in the recording, she knew now what he had been told. "Yes, I understand," Jennifer said.
Down the harness came. As its straps were tightened she felt her face being forced deeper into the cushion padding, but not uncomfortably so. Then came the ticklish feeling as the center of the back of her head was gently shaved clean.
For a brief moment she lay there waiting. It seemed like an eternity.
The gentle voice spoke in her ear again, "We are ready to begin, you can change you mind if you want to. Do you?"
That moment she recognized that a small part of her wanted desperately to fight her way out of her bonds and run from the Hall, but she had made her Decision. Still, she recognized her fear and it angered her.
"Do it!" she said, more firmly than she had intended.
A moment later, she felt, as if in a far away place, the cool kiss of a small silvery disk being placed on the back of her neck right at the base of her skull, and her whole world, her whole being, suddenly rushed to focus on that spot, to become that spot. And without her even being aware of it, a single tear seeped out from beneath the dark closed lashes of her left eye, to fall to the floor below.
But before another tear could fall, a brightness came, seen even through her closed eyes, and she felt the heat on the back of her head. Then the itching, an itching that within seconds grew close to being unbearable and she realized what it was. And a tidal wave of fear and nausea struck her. The roots! The roots were growing down into her flesh!
The itching became a burning and suddenly she was falling through a maelstrom of colors, sounds, and sensations, - and pain. Pain as she had never known. She fought blindly to escape, but there was no escape.
Except into the darkness. And the darkness came.
Suddenly, unexpectedly, it came to her. She felt the soft caress of an unseen hand on her cheek, the imprint of a gentle kiss from unseen lips on her forehead, and as invisible arms wrapped her in a warm embrace, a soft voice, a voice so filled with love it knew no bounds, spoke to her directly in her mind.
"Welcome Home, Daughter."
And Jennifer knew it was true, and slumped over, falling into those arms in relief.
Published by permission of the author.