Foreshadow

Age was important to the common generation - the extra generation, too, but that was just because of us - and it was the only reason that I stayed put. The only reason for my family, also, but I had heard them late at night discussing it.

Individuals weren't that important anymore, not even family members. We were all solitary, thousands of separate stars, and when one burned out we weren't being sucked into the black hole it had created. The only thing to worry about was oneself, but the old interpretation of family was still there, mild and incorrectly defined.

Obviously, it would be looked down upon to leave a family member alone, they would be shamed, and I would be pitied - even if the pity was false. My eighteenth was only ten months away, and then we would leave together, guaranteed if there was a guarantee. If I was left, even one day behind, the years could be altered, they might be gone, or close to, if I showed up even a minute later.

But still, family didn't mean as much as it used to, there were too many new rules and traits the common generation had taken on, that it was all out of convenience and routine. Partner up at eighteen and move along. People had stopped being unhappy long before I was around, but it took some people longer than others to find the Unfeeling. Some of them were born into the wrong time it seemed; they tried for a few years as a child to switch the way things were. Unfeeling came though, to everyone. It was acceptance. It was fate. Everyone knew that going back in time was impossible.

I wondered if some of them still felt Feeling, deep on the inside, maybe they didn't even know they Felt it themselves, but perhaps some of them still wondered if leaving would even change the system, make the doom fade. The extra generation had thought so; they fled from a different time with faith, but came to this place where common generations and extra generations just like them were leaving again, hoping for something we couldn't see. Of course there were no guarantees, but the people fleeing yesterday didn't know either. They sort of succeeded, it sounded like we might be doing better than their past lives. Lives they could leave again and again, if the future allowed, but never, never return back to.

It was unheard of to grow old in these parts, although we had plenty of stragglers. They were the ones that I hoped - no, hope was dead, too - that I had imagined might have that leftover spark, the spark that was still burning in the extra generation as they stepped into a sun that had aged two hundred years. It was usually such a weak flame, strong at first, when they found success in their mission, triumph. But we weren't as… human as they had trusted us to be, less of them already. Our conditions were harsher, but more logical than theirs had been. It was the common generation that washed away the extra, dyed them gray and erased their souls, convincing them to carry on. Not positive, not negative. Unfeeling. They could choose to stay, or take another flight, so like the last leap of faith that had brought them here. Faith was over now though, it was all debating what would be best for themselves. And then the flame was gone, gone in the gray wind and the gray rain and the gray air.

So perhaps, as I watched all them all from my hidden place, I should have realized that they didn't just not acknowledge it, they honestly didn't know. They didn't see. So maybe I never mastered Unfeeling the way I thought I had, and that was why I had always had those questions. Maybe my mind was more open from the very beginning, and the other just tore it until I had the right perspective.

Whatever the reason, I watched them from a hiding place with two viewpoints. One showed the ones that were fighting to keep me, the others to get me back. I cringed away from a strange ache-a double-sided ache-for both teams. One was real, the other false.

1. Buildings

Ten months, twenty-one days, eighteen hours, twenty-seven minutes, nine seconds. Three hundred and fifteen days. Four hundred fifty-four thousand seven hundred seven minutes until my next birthday. Eighteen.

I sighed, pushing myself onto my feet, and waited for the laptop screen to turn black. The cement floor chilled my toes as I loomed over the computer, settled on the ground, but it finally switched off. I gently pushed the bottom of my foot into the laptop's back, folding the top cover into the bottom.

I sighed again, letting myself heal with the sound. Eighteen was almost tangible, but ten months was still an uncomfortable distance. Sometimes I wondered why my family just didn't Flinch without me, or take me on the shuttle illegally.

Illegally, I cringed; the police were strict with people who broke laws. Especially the age limit, for Flinching was serious business. Nobody ever tried scamming the age department anymore, they saw through the stickiest lies and punished thoroughly.

So going illegally was out, but I could see their logic if they left without me, they talked about it at night enough. My ears were forever picking up the sound of my family's voices, arguing my importance, and my fiancée's. His family was in with the mix; their voices were just as familiar, for they wondered if they should go, too. What significance might we have if they waited for us, and Flinched with us so that we might be there together? Not too much, because neither my fiancée nor I offered much to a greater life, but not many people did anymore. What was a girl of seventeen worth towards a whole new planet? They might be shamed in the next life, though, or a greater number may be useful. For now, I was going. And the fiancée just helped my cause.

It was an arranged marriage, of course. Free marriage was only legal in the Dead countries in the West, the doomed ones where the Dalai was still in power.

But Sawyer was honorable, and we'd come to like each other to the degree that this marriage was almost wanted. Like a free marriage without the pain of subjecting to the Dalai. Arranged marriages were easier, so much more logical than free marriage, so much less Feeling and heartache.

My mother and father had known the Perry family long before I was born. Before Sawyer was born, before Alexia and Sagittarius. They were the only family that was close to us, we used the word "friends", but it had a new meaning. The old version of "friend" was extinct. The other families who had been like comrades were already gone; they wouldn't wait for eighteen with us. The Perrys probably wouldn't either, if it weren't for the age limit. Eighteen was final, and Sawyer was seventeen. Like me.

If they would just wait for Sawyer and I, just these ten short months, then everything might turn out fine. For me, anyway.

I picked up the laptop, a device that had always seemed out of place in the cement apartment building, and slid it into my cubby at the end of the room.

I was bored again, but I was always bored. The common generation had been putting up with the boredom of Unfeeling for two centuries. It was only six in the morning; that meant sixteen more hours of this. Maybe I could go find Sagittarius or Sawyer. I turned out of the room, walking down the short cement hallway to the kitchen.

My bare feet beat the cool concrete, slapping in a rhythm that matched the dull monotone of the day.

Slap, slap, slap, slap.

Boredom, boredom, boredom, boredom.

The kitchen door was open; my mother was standing at the counter eating a fruit bar.

"Looks like you're on Community Service this week, Lay," Mother told me as I walked through the door, "starting tomorrow."

She was rifling through the notices and mail we had received, but that was only something to take up time.

"Really? It seems like I was on the Community Service staff last week." I said, "What staff am I on this time?" But I already knew what was coming. No one under age eighteen ever got Flinch-lift staff. The age department feared illegal underage Flinching when they weren't paying attention. We only got New Flinch welcoming staff.

"New Flinch," she stated, "don't whine."

Community Service was an operation organized by the government, and enforced by the police. It was the only way our society could function, and it had been going on for a hundred years.

Without Community Service, although it was a drag, the Flinching system would crash. Hopefully, two hundred years or so into the future, when our generation returned to Earth, there would be Community Service teams to welcome them. Hopefully, Earth would still be intact to welcome them.

Flinching was a guessing game, one that we trusted solely from the extra generation's success. But who had they to trust? It centered on a theory that had been around for ages, three hundred years or so. The idea was common enough, Earth years didn't work the same as light years. Scientists had developed the first Flinch shuttle in 2068. It was the last scientific breakthrough, and everything was already falling apart. They put the idea out there, along with their new prototype, and offered ten people the chance to live in a better time. Ten out of the whole world had come forth among four billion others that wanted to try it out.

Ten humans got on the space shuttle, testing the new formula for something called "light speed".

And they were gone.

Nobody from the past, the extra generation as us commons dubbed them, would ever know if the mission was a success. For one hundred and fifty years the shuttle was a disappearance, a failure until further notice. But we knew differently. Those first ten told us in person.

The shuttle took off, at a speed so fast that it made their heart palpitations shudder and their skin itch, even from inside of the spaceship. They traveled at light speed for only two weeks, flittering into other galaxies, passing imploded suns and new species of stars. The autopilot turned them around, and brought them back to Earth, more than a century after they had left it. They imagined the world being one big city of the future, with flying cars and thousand foot tall skyscrapers.

They were off a bit, the discovery of light speed was the last breakthrough, but the world was still functioning.

It was still surprising for them to come home to a place that still reminded them of their own two hundred-year-old homes. Nothing much had changed, as it once had developed at such a frightening pace. Two hundred and fifty years ago, each year coughed up new inventions and breakthroughs. It was silly to think that that would keep happening forever. There came a point in the world where nothing more could be thought of. So for the past two hundred odd years, the world looked the same. Black cities and growing populations and hundreds and hundreds of mass-produced spaceships.

The next space shuttle left a year later, but returned only four days after the first. Speed was a fickle thing, families that left separately would come a day later, and find the baby aged eighty years. No one ever expected two hundred years to pass in the space of two weeks.

At first they were appalled, like all of the new extra generations, Unfeeling wasn't a regular thing for them. For some reason they all saw it the same way. They saw an irrational world where humanity had taken a turn for the worst, where we were cyborgs of some kind, replacing human beings. But they didn't realize that this was only for the best.

Unfeeling came like acid on flesh, unstoppable and irreversible. It changed their minds quickly, and they finally saw it our way. This life was duller, more boring, but we didn't have to put up with any of the side effects of Feeling. Hate caused wars, violence, abuse. Love made enemies of brothers, made the strongest mind weak. Families and friends were only backstabbers, causing us unnecessary pain when we needed it the least. We corrected their problems with a trade that was probably worth it in the end.

Unfeeling allowed weak emotions, we felt things still: worry, confusion, happiness, embarrassment, anger. Our weedy emotions just claimed us in short, unproductive spurts. They moved like the high and low dips in an electrocardiogram. They flashed, big and impressive, but then died again quickly to drone at a steady, monotonous pace.

It seemed like irritation was the most common, the most insignificant things sent us off in annoyance. Not full-fledged anger-only spouts of exasperation at all of the little things we humans did that weren't right.

So the extra generation kept sending out more and more shuttles of people who didn't know what became of their brothers before them. They took one last step; it was always a partial suicide, into a black hole. They were always more than a little shocked when a pair of seemingly human hands opened the shuttle hatch. The Community Service hands that were hired to explain their new life here on the home they'd left, but would never return to.

Everyone was getting called on for Community Service duty more and more often, with shorter gaps in between each turn. When I started, at age twelve, I was only summoned once or twice a year. Now there was almost never a time when someone in the house wasn't on duty. These past three years were booming; the Flinch business always came in droughts and floods depending on what was happening two hundred years ago. When more people became desperate, the more Flinching there was. It only seemed to worsen, instead of thinning out like it always had, as time progressed.

It gave the impression that everything should even out, equal or more people from the current time were Flinching away, subtracting from the growing population in hundreds every week, but more extra generations kept shuttling in, and we had no way to stop that. The populace was getting out of control in these parts.

It really must be confusing for the new Flinchers coming in. Their hope was still alive, their innards still colorful and Feeling, when they arrived on the same planet two hundred years later. If they still had Feeling when they turned up, it was very disorienting, crushing to find out the turn out of Earth. They thought it was worse in the beginning.

But then their Feelings washed away, each flame turned off, some of them within one or two days. But some, the few stubborn ones that I hated, clung to Feeling tenaciously. There were always one or two in the Flinch that managed to make the week miserable. They tried to convince us to see it their way, to Feel. Didn't they see that we were unchangeable? What was done was done.

And so, in failing, their hearts hardened, too.

"All right, Mother." But I sighed, and received a glare in return.

"Maybe you'll be lucky, and you won't get a shuttle until Sunday," she said.

The Community Service department only kept you for one week, no matter if it was one day of Service, or seven.

"Maybe…" but I never was lucky, there was at least one shuttle a week per landing space, sometimes two. I wasn't getting off that lucky, but maybe they could time it for later on in the week. That way, my Service mate and I could just sit in the air-conditioned Community Center and stare at the landing pad with lazy eyes.

"How was your Community Service time last week, anyway? I don't think I ever asked you," I inquired, to change the subject and fall into the polite, traditional ways of the past. It was an old routine, but it was sort of nice, we practiced it a lot in our house.

"Fine. I was on New Flinch, too. The shuttle came late on Thursday and both families learned how to Unfeel by the time I was off the staff. Easy."

"Good," I replied, another boring, traditional reply, "That's good."

"Sawyer was asking for you," she noted, but ignored whatever comment I might have made and left through the swinging exit door.

I followed her, to go call on Sawyer.

Sawyer was almost like the extra generation, based on looks.

The extra generation always came with a glow, a bit more beauty than some of the commons. They kept it even after Unfeeling, but it was only good looks then. The glow subsided really, a side effect from Unfeeling.

I could never place myself in a generation. I didn't consider myself pretty, but pretty had many names. I couldn't be ugly, I got smiles and eyes from people with Feeling still, and it disgusted me. My hair was long, always percolating the space around my face, dripping down my back, and swishing freely like an extra set of abnormally long fingers. It was an unnamable color, the one precisely between blond and brown so that it was argued when the topic was brought up. I didn't know what to make of my facial features, and I was soft and small and not athletic.

Sawyer was handsome enough to come out of the extra generation, but even some commons were more beautiful than the extras.

He had light, sand colored hair and hard features. He had a pleasant face and gray eyes that reflected his lifestyle of Unfeeling. Even though he had mastered Unfeeling, he was somehow more compassionate than the others, better able to carry his burdens.

The Perry's apartment was only two doors away from ours; it was the eighteenth door on the twelfth floor.

My fist came down lightly on the door twice before it was pulled open. Sawyer smiled blandly at my raised hand, and I lowered it, almost embarrassed.

"I was looking for you," he announced, and pulled me through the door so that he could shut it.

"I know."

"My family gave me an interesting question last night, and it involves you."

They couldn't possibly want to scam the police? Illegality? Me? Never.

Sawyer continued, "They are getting anxious to leave, you know, and our conditions are worsening by the hour. It doesn't seem fair to our families if we don't let them leave when they have the chance."

The sun hid behind a cloud then, a visual effect to his gloomy words. It grayed the cement further, and Sawyer's irises dimmed.

"We wouldn't think of Flinching illegally," he added and I shuddered, "but they're thinking about… leaving early."

"Abandonment?" I gasped.

Sawyer nodded, placing one hand on my shoulder. Because of the circumstances, his hand felt condescending.

"They know a family we could join. They'd be friends with us, and be partners with us when we Flinch."

I shook his hand off Unfeelingly. "No! That can't be the answer! We'll have nobody to turn to, everyone will be dead!"

"We can't know that…"

"Yes we can! We see it every single day," I muttered.

"Lay…"

"What?" I snapped.

"Lay, you aren't… Feeling, are you?" he was worried.

My eyes widened, clearly objecting, and he grew placid again.

"It's something to ponder," He said, "In the meantime, I hear that you have Community Service come Monday."

I nodded blankly, still mystified by his last words. You aren't… Feeling, are you?

He must be losing it.

"That's when I start, too," he remarked, "we can leave together and everything. Maybe we'll even be Service mates."

"Maybe… Sawyer?"

"Yeah?"

"I'm not Feeling, I was just surprised."

"I'm not worried about you, Lay."

"Thanks."

I inched towards the door without bidding him a farewell.

"Later," Sawyer called, but he was focusing somewhere else.

I didn't look back, I was afraid I might have some sort of Feeling attack.

"Later."

It was bedtime before I knew it, which was disappointing because that meant that tomorrow was Community Service, but it was also satisfying to be alone. Sawyer had unintentionally shaken me up.

It was something that I often thought about, but it was always in secret because speaking out loud about Feelings was prohibited. At least, that's what it must be, because nobody ever breathed a word. But I worried, that maybe I was the only one to think about Feeling, late at night. Maybe the reason no one said anything about it was because it didn't bother the others the way it did me. Maybe I was some sort of factory reject. The police were very convincing, they explained how once Unfeeling was set, Feeling never returned. It was a permanent thing.

But sometimes I wondered.

Small gestures on the street caught my eye sometimes, I was always shocked, blown away when a small spark of what looked like Feeling sprung up, and was not called to attention. Maybe it wasn't Feeling at all, or maybe it was so small, that it wasn't even Felt inside. They appeared to be in denial, refusing to fall off the edge of Unfeeling.

Or maybe not.

Since nobody spoke of it, I kept it bottled inside me. In earlier times, in the extra generations and before, there had been real friends and therapists for all that talking. Sometimes I secretly wished; only to be horrified at myself afterwards, that I had one of those. A friend, not a therapist, who would sit with me while I talked and talked until my mouth dried out. That was strictly forbidden, it was easy to tell, even to mention things of that nature were better kept on the inside.

I slid under my covers, dull white sheets and pillows, and slept.

Sleep was easy for me to find, it always had been. When I knew that my alarm clock would wake me up earlier than I was used to, I got into bed for a more satisfying night.

But I found myself awake, as I was silent and still in between the sheets, but only in a dream.

I was surprised. I usually wasn't one for too much dreaming, and when I did occasionally have one, I never recognized the fact that I was still asleep.

I was walking along an unfamiliar corridor, but my dream self knew it, I was eager as I walked the tunnel, knowing that something I yearned for was drawing near. It was like a sixth sense, I pulled memories off these walls that my conscience couldn't get a peek at. It was somewhere in a place where the walls weren't as dead as they were here. It was cement, just like I was accustomed to, but it was white washed, giving in a subtle, almost heavenly, glow.

I ran my hand along the walls, they were smoother than I would've thought, and with them a strange, warm coursing sensation ran through my body. It was some sort of emotion, but one I wasn't comfortable with. It chilled me to think of what it must be, a forbidden emotion that was classified as a Feeling.

I took my fingers off the wall, but kept walking, as the hall widened into a large, empty room, all white cement with that same Feeling.

I stood stock still, the hair on my arms rising with definite knowledge. Someone was watching me.

They managed to stand barely out of my line of sight, just next to me, so that I could only feel their presence. I could've turned easily, to see who watched me, but I was too afraid to so much as breathe.

Again, there was a sort of knowledge. The eyes that watched didn't bother my dreaming self, and I wanted to turn.

The person got impatient, and one hand flipped out to me, an invitation. It wasn't a menacing gesture; it was one that offered a safe embrace of some sort.

It was a beauteous hand, most likely from one of the extra beautiful eras, all white skinned with the strangest undertone of a sheer gold. Like ashen skin with the last remains of an impressive golden tan. It was completely flawless, and as smooth as glass. The fingers were all extraordinarily long, and very slim, the goldish skin stretched evenly over its thin joints.

When I saw that hand, I felt the same warmish, fluttering Feeling as before, but in a much stronger dose. Something in my chest protested, and then branched off, sending Feeling all through my veins, to the tips of my toes. It was urging me towards the hand.

I took a step back, away from the angelic hand. Whoever the hand belonged to, seemed uncertain, and the second hand rose slowly, like a question.

I stood there for only a minute longer, my stomach flipping and my hands twitching as I fought the irrational urge to reach out for the hands. I argued with myself, it could be a trick, but the hand was so angelic, and angels weren't supposed to be bad. If only I would turn to face the person the hand belonged to. But I refused to rotate a fraction of an inch.

Better safe than sorry, I grimaced, and turned around without facing the stranger.

I ran back along the white hallway, feeling strange, like I was betraying something that I knew I shouldn't betray. I only made it a few steps before something called me out of the dream, a squawking that I was used to waking up to.

I was blinking and yawning before I was actually conscious, my alarm clock cried in the background like a child that wouldn't stop howling. I swallowed heavily, erasing the graphic, Feeling dream that I had only just been saved from.

The insufferable alarm siren screamed on behind my thoughts, unceasing and unstoppable until I was forced to cross the room and touch the "off" button. I wasn't done with sleep yet; I had only got up to switch off the timer.

The bed in the corner of the room looked incredibly appealing, even appetizing, but I slugged on to my closet and dragged the door out of my way lethargically.

Most of the common generation clothes looked alike, nothing was too unique or tasteful the way of the extra generations often came in. Our shirts were plain, monochrome and nondescript, but soft and more wearable than their old clothing. The pants were the same way, either soft cotton or loose denim.

I chose an outfit for myself without eyes, and then sat on the floor to tie my shoes.

There wasn't really much to expect from Community Service. It was all the same for a seventeen-year-old like me, except for the few times when you got unlucky and picked up a couple of the nutty ones.

I'd had my share of those. There were a few types.

The ones who tried to convince you to see it their way, tried to transfer false hope and leftover emotions into everyone. They were easiest to deal with; you could effortlessly dissuade them with a little negativity.

There were the ones who tired to escape the rules, to break laws and find their own way in the city. Sometimes they even became illegal aliens, trying to Flinch without the proper preparations. They were difficult to take on single handedly, but the police where quick to stop them. They never succeeded at illegal alienisms, the policemen were too fast.

And then there were the people set on finding the Dead countries.

I'd only had one small shuttle of those kinds of people, once when I was fifteen. It was traumatic for me; they were more stubborn than other people. They weren't even dissuaded with time, depression, and logic; the threat of the policemen didn't faze them. Unfeeling just wouldn't root in their hearts.

There had been six of them in my group, and once they heard about the freedom in the Dead countries, in was all engraved in stone.

They were slippery, sliding in between policemen and specialists, turning invisible when it was convenient. My Community Service sentence had been prolonged for three extra weeks in order to keep the case running until they were caught.

We tracked them all over Chicago, into three other states in a helicopter. In the end, only three were caught, the others were in the Dead countries before we could reach them.

Then there was nothing that we could do for them. The law claimed them free when they were within the Dead boundaries.

Of course they'd broken the common laws, a hundred of them, but the biggest was entering the Dead countries. The second they touched the Dead soil, they were "saved". Until they found sense and crossed back into the common countries, they were free.

But if they ever dared coming back, the law was waiting, and they'd have a fresh sin on their records to deal with.

For it was just as illegal to go into the Dead countries, as it was to come out.

No one ever did come though, unless the police were keeping it hushed up. There were probably no survivors to come out anyway; the Dalai most likely had them executed before they could even consider their wrong doings.

I gave a sigh for their benefits, but it probably served them right. That is what the police force told us to believe.

Personally, that confused me. That we were supposed to feel like the hardships the Dalai put on them was a consequence of their own choice, seemed… cruel. They must not have the sense to realize the real danger they were putting themselves in, they must not have had fear.

There weren't people like that in the common generation. We all had instincts, we all had fear. I just hoped that I would get a small, Unfeeling shuttle this week. That'd be nice.

When my shoelaces were in knots, and my bag was slung over my shoulder, I stopped myself from thinking difficult things, and let myself trot down to the kitchen to find breakfast.

I was reaching for a bowl when my father spoke, startling me from behind.

"Community Service today?"

I regained my posture, "Yes, you?"

He shook his head mechanically, "Not this week, Lay."

"Oh." I went about my breakfast, collecting a bowl, a spoon, milk, and corn flakes on the kitchen table. My father watched from the doorway, holding onto the grudge he'd had against me since my sixteenth birthday.

We barely ever talked, he grunted usually. Unfeeling allowed anger, but usually it was in short-term spurts.

My breakfast was tasteless, but foods were now days. My eyes flickered awkwardly from bowl to father, bowl to father. He gave up finally, and disappeared back into the sitting room, leaving me to clean up in silence.

I had to sneak out the back, in order to avoid Father.

This is stupid, I told myself as I shut the door and locked it behind me, and then turned for the stairs, it isn't right to divide the family like this.

But what was it that we ever did? Families were myths, sometimes mentioned by the extra generation. It was never a concept that I could wrap myself around. They had some Feeling about all of it, so I shouldn't understand, but I… yearned to. To see what was going on in the extra generations' heads. People weren't that important. People were disposable. The way that "families" were defined, you'd think that the members of one average, blasé family were all supreme beings.

None of that in this time, I thought, treading the sidewalk in slow, dozy footsteps, they don't know how much easier things are.

I watched the buildings pass at my sluggish pace. They were different on the outside; they were every color of paint, brick, metal, and concrete. But they had the same guts, the same contents on the inside. Gray cement, gray people.

We were buildings, different on the outside, but the same all together. All humans were, even the ones coming out of the shuttles with Feeling left in them. They were the same, even if they refused to acknowledge it. They used strange words to describe themselves. Unique, special, other. No one was unique, no matter how they thought. It all came down to the way each of our brains worked.

We were mildly selfish, even with Unfeeling, but we didn't crave family or friends the way they thought we did. Those things were delusions, something to dissuade us from our resolve. There were distractions, things that seemed different. But they were the same. Same, same, same. It's how humans work.

I was off to another day of the same type of people, convinced that they were individuals. I was off to another day where the humans that surrounded me were so much alike that I could practically read their thoughts. I was off to another day where nothing changed, and nothing ever would.

I was off to another day of persuading human beings to stop Feeling.