The Special Assistance area of the Beautiful World facility looked more like a consular office than a service desk; only a few scattered preserved print-outs of Tadashiissei news articles and a single corporate logo on the wall suggested otherwise. Aside from that, native landscapes decorated the walls, complete with English and Japanese text identifying the views: sunset over Kigiku Island from the main ferry, or Murasaki skyline at night. The only clock on the wall was an analog disk, showing the time as just about six-and-three-fourths local, early morning. Next to it, a thick frame hung, in which was visible a real-time shot of the Tadashiissei headquarters within Irokai itself.
A large ebony desk took up the bulk of the floorspace, with three well-stuffed leather seats covering most of the remainder. Most of the desk itself was covered in screens and printouts, organized into neat groupings. Behind it was a tan executive chair, in which sat an older woman wearing a rainbow scarf with her jade-green pantsuit. With her thick-rimmed glasses and her hair pulled back into a tight braid, she looked like someone’s grandmother. A small sign at the corner of her desk said, “May Peters, Customer Relations.”
As soon as I crossed the threshold into her office, Ms. Peters turned to face the entrance, then stood and smiled, filling her face with laugh-lines. “Mr. Dart!” she exclaimed, holding out her hands to take mine. “Come in, come in.” She led me to a chair, then returned behind her desk and sat. “The day has finally come, then.”
I nodded in response, her smile lifting my spirits. “Yeah, that’s why I’m here. Emigration.”
In response, she clasped her hands to her chest and lifted her face upwards. “Lucky boy. I’ll be retiring there, one day. You mark my words. I’ve got an apartment and everything, ready and waiting.” She turned to one of her screens and tapped at it quickly with a slender finger, then motioned to the one before my desk. “A few last bits of paperwork for you, and then I can escort you back.”
As I sank into one of the overstuffed chairs, she spun one of the terminals around to face me and then sat down across from me, her fingers tapping rapidly across a keyboard. The screen flashed once, and then a text viewer opened, exposing an intimidating number of documents. “You’ll need to read these and attach your approval to each, I’m afraid,” Ms. Peters apologized. “Take as long as you need, though.”
The paperwork covered a dizzying array of subjects relating to both my employment and my emigration; I had to sign everything from a non-disclosure agreement to a list of possible side effects ranging from memory loss to mood swings. I hesitated here and there, trying to scrutinize the forms for anything suspicious, but by the third or fourth heavy block of medical jargon, my eyes had already begun to glaze. The clock on the wall was at just before eleven by the time I had finished attaching a digital signature to every file and saving everything. Ms. Peters then handed me two small bundles of paper and a pen. “They’re for Legal,” she explained with a tired smile. “Some things, you just have to have in writing, even now.”
I squinted at the headers, but my eyes were tired from staring into the digital screen. “What are they?” I asked.
Ms. Peters adjusted waved away the question with one hand. “Nothing too serious,” she explained gently, pointing to the signature box at the bottom of the top form with the other. “This one’s just stating that you understand that your job with Tadashiissei isn’t contingent on your emigration; you can change your mind on that and you’re still hired.” She flipped the page and motioned towards the header. “This one’s to certify that your digital signature on all the other forms is really yours.”
I wearily scrawled my name on the forms, a tight cluster of angles that might have been more at home in a foreign alphabet. Then I sank back into my seat, rubbing my wrist with my other hand. “That’s it, then?”
Ms. Peters nodded eagerly and rose, taking the paper and moving over to an old-fashioned filing cabinet. She riffled through yellowing folders, then dropped my signature into one of them, closing the drawer with a metal clang. “That’s it,” she agreed, gesturing towards the doorway. “Let’s get you back to Emigration.”
She led me past lines of visitors through the entryway marked, “Transit,” and down carpeted halls with soft lighting. To the left and right, we passed single- and group-transfer rooms. Most of the doors were closed; Fridays were one of their busiest days, I knew from experience. At the end of one of the hallways stood a simple door marked, “Authorized Entry Only.” A small badge reader sat on the wall next to it. Compared to the openness of the rest of the hall, the sign was austere, almost foreboding.
Ms. Peters turned and smiled to me. “Ready?”
I took a deep breath and nodded, and she held a small card to the reader. It chirped softly, and the door clicked. She pushed it open, and motioned me inside. The hall was wide and brightly lit, so much more so than the rest of the offices that my eyes had to adjust. Small green signs in white lettering hung high on the wall indicated lavatories, theaters, and waiting rooms, all with small arrows pointing the way. Curved mirrors hung on the ceilings at intersections to give around-the-corner visibility. The door closed behind us with a click that echoed off of the non-skid vinyl floor; an old Irokai advert flickered on its back, reminding everyone that the infinite existence was their option.
Ms. Peters brought me to one of the waiting rooms, an austere suite that reminded me of a monk’s quarters, though thankfully intended for much shorter occupancy. Outside of a small clump of electronic equipment on a stand beside the bed, the only other contents were a single bed, a desk, and a chair, all in pale green plastic. A stainless-steel bathroom hid behind the door. While I looked around, my escort activated the medical terminal with her badge. “I’ve let them know you’re here and ready,” she said, reading from the screen as I looked around. “Your relocation’s scheduled for tomorrow morning with Dr. Whitehoff. No breakfast, I’m afraid, but dinner is complementary tonight. A nurse should be by soon to help you with any last-minute preparations.” She turned away from the screen. “Is there anything else I can do for you?”
When I shook my head, Ms. Peters walked over and took one of my hands in both of hers, smiling broadly behind her thick glasses. “Good luck to you then, John, and congratulations.” She squeezed once, then let go, shutting the door behind her as she let herself out of the room. The light from the hall shrunk to a sliver beneath the door, leaving me alone.
Once she was gone, I pulled out my palmtop and popped it open, thumbing a quick message to Mitsuko. Inside the waiting room. Not long now.
Wonderful!, came the quick reply. I love you.
Imagining the words in her voice made me smile. Love you too, Mits. See you soon. Then I set the palmtop on the desk. I dithered about on the terminal and found a Special Requests menu, a list of the dishes the company kitchen could prepare for its travelers. I scanned the options, selected the “fish with three flavor,” and then tried to find something to occupy my time. The words of the novels blurred together and the scenes of the movies kept crossfading. I was bored, and anxious. I kept thinking about Adam’s words. I didn’t want to believe him, but it was hard telling a biologist he was wrong about life. Actually, it’d been easy to tell him he was wrong; it was harder to tell myself.
A knock at the door interrupted my frustrated reverie, followed by a younger Japanese woman in a white pantsuit stepping into the room. She had a cart with her, on which were two trays. One held silverware and a covered plate; on the other sat a bowl of water, a towel, a small pressurized can, and two razors: one electric, one safety. She set the first on the bed, then brought the second over to the desk, setting it next to the terminal. “Shave,” she explained, gesturing to the implements in front of her.
I rubbed my chin and shrugged. “No need; I’m—”
The nurse giggled and shook her head. “No, your head. For the procedure tomorrow.”
Comprehension hit me, making me tense up. “Oh… yeah, okay.”
She motioned for me to lean back in my chair, and I did so. The electric razor snapped to life, and soon my hair sat in shaggy piles on the floor. She switched to the plastic razor, and soon my stubble and eyebrows followed. I squirmed uncomfortably as she wiped down my freshly denuded skull with a warm, damp towel, then patted it dry. Once her hands were gone, I turned to see her gathering up my departed locks onto the empty tray. Once she had most of them, she stood again and gathered the rest of her tools and bowed, leaving dinner on the bed for me as she left.
Ignoring my last meal, I stood and looked at myself in the mirror. Hairless, I looked even less like myself than I imagined. I frowned at the bags under my eyes, the slightly puffy lips. I closed my eyes, focusing on the image of self-in-Irokai that had come to mean me, golden-eyed and ring-tailed. Once I had a clear picture of myself, I opened them again, only to wince at my wholly human self staring unhappily back at me. I looked like an alien, a stranger in my own skin.
Turning away from the disconcerting image, I grabbed dinner and sat back down in front of the terminal. Time stuttered by while I ate; every few bites I felt the need to check the time. I tried to find something to distract myself, but the monochrome of my surroundings left me little on which to focus. I grabbed my palmtop and searched for something to read to occupy my thoughts, but all the words on my screen started to run together from the weariness and the stress. With a sigh, I tapped on the chat icon and then on Mitsuko’s picture. Miss you, I sent.
I miss you too, love, my girlfriend replied soon after. Is everything alright?
My thumbs hesitated over the tiny keyboard, then tapped out, Nervous. Wish you could be here.
The screen was blank for several seconds, then lit up again. You know I will still love you if you wish to stay outside.
I bit my tongue and shook my head, then thumbed at the small keypad. No, I want this. I want to be with you.
Then we will be together soon, she soothed. Relax. Deep breaths. Get some rest if you can.
Hai, I replied. See you soon. I stretched out on the bed and pulled up an old familiar collection of audio recordings of Franklin shorts, then set the palmtop to playback while I closed my eyes and listened. Franklin’s voice was full and rich, with a faint Southern accent like a dusting of sugar on a molasses pie. She tended her descriptions with loving detail, and soon visions of a Raleigh that never was danced in my head, haunted antebellum mansions juxtaposed against magical research centers, enshrouded on all sides by encroaching nature. Her characters came to life easily through her words, and I quickly became engrossed in their intrigues, this afternoon’s ordeal and tomorrow’s adventure fading to distant concerns.
Someone knocked at the door again, pulling me back to the present, and then a slightly heavy man in pale green scrubs stepped into the room. In his hands were a paper cup and a bottle of water, which he held out to me. “I brought you a sleeping pill. Most people prefer to get a good night’s sleep beforehand.”
I tapped on the palmtop as I sat upright, and Ms. Franklin’s voice halted mid-drawl. In the bottom of the former were two small pink pills. “How many people have done this before, anyway?”
“Maybe a thousand? Maybe two?” He retrieved the dinner tray from the desk, then walked back over to the door, his shoes squeaking softly on the vinyl floor. “I don’t think Tadashiissei’s ever published the numbers.”
I paused. “Has anyone ever changed his mind, at the last minute?”
The orderly set down the tray outside the room, then stepped back inside and pulled the door closed behind him. “Are you having second thoughts?”
I rolled my shoulders half-heartedly. “I had a fight with someone about it right before I got here. Mostly I’m just curious.”
He smiled gently and sat on the edge of the bed. “I’ll tell you this: nobody I know has ever been forced into this. If you don’t want to go through with it, all you have to do is say something. You can say no, right up until the procedure starts, and nobody will think less of you for it.”
I nodded again, then tossed back the pills and dry-swallowed. I downed half of the bottle in one swallow, then handed it and the empty cup to the orderly. “Thanks.”
“Don’t mention it,” he said with a grin. “Sleep well.”
Once he was gone, I stripped out of my clothes, leaving my shirt and tie hanging over the back of the chair, my pants in a puddle on top of my shoes. I picked up the palmtop again and sent a final message to Mitsuko. Not long now. Goodnight.
Goodnight, John. I love you, she replied. I smiled at the screen, then unpaused the palmtop and set it on the pile of clothes. I turned off the lights and slid beneath the sheets. The pillows were soft and cool against my bare head, and soon there was nothing to do but wait Ms. Franklin’s voice to lull me to sleep.
Morning came suddenly, in the form of four quick taps against the door of my suite. I startled out of dreamless sleep still foggy from the medication and called out, “Come in?” My voice was hoarse, my throat barren. I rubbed my eyes with the palms of my hands, trying to grind the exhaustion out of them.
The knocking repeated itself, and then the door opened to admit two orderlies with a gurney between them. “Mr. Dart?” the taller one asked. “We’re here to take you to Emigration.” They brought the gurney up to the bed. “If you can help us get you onto here, we can be on our way.”
I nodded and scooted to the edge of the bed. It took a coordinated effort, with me still half-asleep and trying to preserve some measure of modesty under my blanket, but eventually I ended up on the gurney, which the orderlies then escorted out of the room. I stared upwards at the ceiling as we travelled, laughing quietly; someone had taken the time to paint the ceiling a light blue, dotted in clouds and the occasional rainbow. Here and there a plane or a bird flew, as well. I was flying, floating through unfamiliar hallways on my way to a magical kingdom far away.
The journey came to a stop all too quickly with the bang of my cart hitting a pair of double doors that swung wide as I entered the room. Figures in white and pale blue drifted around a bank of intimidating electronic equipment, studying the lights upon them intricately and speaking to each other in hushed tones. One clamped something to one of my fingers. A second began drawing something on my forehead. A third approached with a tray and a wheeled stand with a plastic bag hanging from it.
“This is going to hurt just a bit,” the last figure warned in a deep voice, and then I felt a sharp pinprick in the back of my right hand. I winced and looked down to see the spectral form taping a tube to my hand. “The I.V.’s ready,” he said before slipping away to attend to another console.
A shorter man, his face obscured by a cap, mask, and goggles; leaned over me. “Mr. Dart? I’m Dr. Whitehoff. I’ll be leading the team that’s helping you out today. How’re you feeling?”
I blinked, trying to decide how I was. “Tired,” I admitted.
The doctor nodded. “That’s okay, really. We’re almost ready to go, so just be patient for a moment.â€ Then he was gone, off discussing something with one of the others. Another figure in off-white—almost a cream, or an eggshell—hovered nearby, tapping on the plastic tube. I watched her inject something into the line, then give a thumbs-up sign.
“Good!” Dr. Whitehoff said again, his face suddenly before mine. A soft rubber mask slid over my nose and mouth, and I caught a whiff of something faintly sweet. “Now, breathe in deep as you can and count down from twenty for me.”
This is the last thing I will say with this voice, I thought as I nodded. “Twenty,” I said as I breathed out. “Nine… teen….” These are the last breaths I will take with these lungs. I managed as black tendrils swam up around me. “Ei—eight… teen….” These are the last thoughts I will have in this body. Those warm dark threads wrapped themselves around me. If something goes wrong, tell Mits— “Sev….” Then they pulled me down into oblivion with them.
An empty eternity later, I felt claws gently brush against my forehead. I flinched, then batted lazily at the touch with a paw. I heard a gasp, then the sound of a splash and the cracking of a china teacup and saucer. “John? John!” Mitsuko’s voice startled me, and I closed my fingers around hers as she tightened her grip.
Sensation came gradually back after that. I could feel the texture of the woven tatami mat beneath me, the warmth of the blanket over my legs and stomach. The window was open, letting in a cool breeze that ruffled the fur on my chest and muzzle. Strains of a classical music broadcast filtered from a terminal in the other room. I opened my eyes to see Mitsuko gazing into mine, the afternoon sun tinting her emerald eyes with softest gold. The fur beneath them was damp, but her ears were high and she was smiling.
With Mitsuko’s help, I stood carefully, not quite sure I could trust my legs. One cautious step at a time, she walked me over to the open window, and I leaned on the bamboo sill and stared out at the warm, long rays of light. The broad roofs of the houses of Midori Prefecture glowed a rich yellow. In the distance, the long flat tram platform stood invitingly, and golden rails disappeared into the distance towards the other parts of Irokai.
I glanced around, pulling up my hardline and checking the interface. Everything seemed the same, except for one element. Buried deep within the menu structure was an option for a wake-up call, a warning to let me know a few minutes before being lifted out of Irokai. This time, the option had simply been greyed out. Trying to access it got me only an apologetic reminder that that function was unavailable.
I smiled back at her, pulling her down into a warm embrace, nuzzling into the fur of her neck. “Looks like I’m here to stay this time,” I whispered in her ear.
“Hai, John,” she breathed, holding me tightly. “Welcome home.”