They slipped down one of the many lane-ways that littered the city. These were trade routes, and backstreet paths; areas where they were not to be bothered by the ‘others’ who had no reason to go there. The lanes were dank and small, as if the buildings were purposely pushing to squash them out. Graffiti was smeared here and there, deriding the social order with a hollow call to arms. But these were few and far between, the great machine of the privileged cracked down harshly on such blatant critique of the order. Jess spotted one of the cleaning robots now, slithering down the side of the huge building like a mechanical spider, erasing the grime and the voices of the dissident.
Levon picked up a large bottle that sat idly next to a huge bin and launched it up into the air towards the robot. It impacted with a smash and the machine tumbled down, caught up in its own wire and support. Jess looked at him.
“We’ve got bigger fish remember.” Jess said, looking around to see if anyone had been startled by the commotion.
“I know, but those things really irritate me.” Levon replied, looking around for another object to launch up at the stranded thing.
“Here, let’s get inside quickly.” Jess said, eager to get away from the robot which would, before long, give out a distress.
She pulled open a door which, on the surface, was disguised between two brick works which converged. They both slipped inside where it was dark, Jess pulling the door quickly shut behind her.
“Come on Levon, get it together. This is important now.” She said sternly, looking for a switch. Levon found it before her and turned it on with much satisfaction.
“I know, I understand alright. So, what is this place?” He asked looking around a deserted stairwell. Jess looked at him, wondering how long it had been since his own departure from this world.
“I think you know what this place is, you go to them regularly in your cleansings.” She said, trying not to be too annoyed with him.
“Oh, so just another ghetto then.” Levon said, casually.
Jess turned and slapped his face.
“Watch it.” She said, angrily. Levon looked stunned.
“Sorry, I…” He started, but she interrupted.
“We all know of your checkered past, and how you can’t seem to deal with your situation or gift. But there’s many who would do anything to be able to do what you can Levon. Don’t turn into a prick like the ‘Others’, these are people too.” She said, her eyes wide in alarm.
Levon looked at her and shuffled his feet a little. He sighed.
“Look, I don’t mean any disrespect. I just get uncomfortable in these places when they become so grateful. It angers me they need to be so thankful to something they shouldn’t.” He said.
“I get it, I know. But they are, and this is how it is for them. So suck it up, and be more respectful. This is my family this time anyway.” Jess said and started towards the stairs which descended into a dark stairwell.
“Oh.” Levon said and began to follow. “I am sorry you know.” He added.
“Good, then let’s get on with things. Come on.” She said and upped her pace down the stairs.
The lights in the stairwell sprung to life at the movement, the motion sensors reacting to their movements and illuminating as they went. The travelled down deeply, more flights than Levon would have thought until they reached a level when Jess stopped. She went across to the wall and pulled open a small metal box affixed to it. Inside she pressed a series of numbers on a keypad, and then a door lock released, and she pushed open the door next to it which appeared, again as if from nowhere.
Levon noticed the smell before anything, warm cosy home cooking greeted his nostrils before his eyes could take in what lay beyond. They went inside, met by a room which was long yet intimate. A huge sofa extended along the wall, the bare bricks filled with pictures and holograms which moved and swayed. The people residing within which grinned and waved back, the snapshots of family moments.
Coming into the room from a door on the other side, a woman stood momentarily before hurrying across to embrace Jess. She called out for others who came also, each embracing her and smiling. Jess introduced Levon to her family; her mother and her wife, her father and her brothers and her grandparents and aunt, who all came to welcome them in. They collapsed onto the large chairs while someone went to get refreshments which before long were weighing down the table, snacked at by hands which animatedly retold stories and updates on everyone’s lives.
“How long has it been since you’ve seen everyone?” Levon asked, catching a moment between conversations.
“About three months. It’s been a long time for me. The work recently has been intense.” Jess replied, popping a small triangle sponge cake into her mouth. Levon looked at her with fresh admiration.
“You really sacrifice a lot for the cause, don’t you?” He said, perhaps a little surprised himself he had said it. She looked back at him, the dusting of the cake around her mouth. She swallowed.
“We all do.” She said, touching him lightly on the knee.
“So, is this a fleeting visit or you staying a while?” Jess’s aunt said, reaching across for a small cake herself. Levon noticed her arms were bleached a pale colour, something he’d seen frequently in those he’d cleansed, the result of working in the turbine coolant sites dotted across the city. These turbines stuck high into the sky like giant needles, catching particles that they transfused into energy. Many people worked these sites as they were very labour intensive due to the cities strict protocols for A.I’s in the workplace, limiting their presence in certain sectors.
“Well, we’ve actually come here for a favour. I’m hoping you can help us out.” Jess said, somewhat awkwardly now at being asked directly the reason they had come.
“Ooooh, is this for the Order?” One of her brothers asked, looking at the marks on Levon’s arm.
“Yes, it is. I need to tell you all everything.” She said, nodding at Levon as if seeking an approval. He involuntary nodded back, agreeing it was okay in a way before Jess told her family everything that happened and what they needed from them.
Jess younger brother was now climbing on Levon’s back, poking at his arms. He was only six but seemed fascinated by Levon’s markings which reached all the way up his back and neck.
“So, what do you all think?” Jess asked, waiting the correct amount of time to pierce the silence that had fallen since explaining. Her family looked at each other, unsure of what to say next. It was her grandmother who said something first.
“So, there’s no guarantee this won’t kill us?” She said in a blunt fashion, but not out of anger.
“No, there’s no way of knowing what….” Jess started, but Levon cut in.
“There’s a risk, but there’s a safety net too. Being so close to the Altered I will be able to move across and help if anything bad happens. I have some powers that I think will help. It’s still a dangerous risk, but I think we can mitigate it.” He said, smiling a genuine smile. He liked her family; it was what he had missed from his own life. Looking around at the humble house, he knew that despite their circumstance, there was love here.
“But I don’t even have S.I.N.” Her mother’s wife said, looking somewhat nervous at saying the wrong thing.
“That’s perfect, we need to know how it affects everyone.” Jess said, and the woman smiled in relief; knowing it seemed she could still play a part.
“So, what are we waiting for then, where do we need to go?” Her grandmother said, getting up now off of the sofa and brushing the crumbs onto the floor.
Jess exhaled in relief and looked at Levon.
“Is that a yes then?” Levon said, surprised at how quick it had been.
“You said it was important, and also that we’re against the clock here.” The aunt said, also rising.
“Indeed.” Levon said and took out his companion from the inside of his jacket.
“Wow, are we really going into the Altered?” One of her brother’s said, excitedly.
“Somewhere pretty close.” Levon said, placing the book on his lap, flicking the pages to the part he needed.
“Better buckle up Walter, it’s going to be pretty wild.” Jess said to her brother, taking out her own companion and taking in her family there in that moment together.