THE ROYALTY OF APARTMENT COMPLEX 417

Alex Shvartsman has been making a name for himself as a writer, an anthology editor (for Baen Books and his own company), and a publisher (as UFO Publishing he has published the Unidentified Funny Objects series as well as other humorous anthologies, most recently The Cackle of Cthulhu). He is also the editor of Future Science Fiction Digest.

***

Ma Collins called a family meeting. Such meetings were infrequent affairs; in fact, the entire Collins family was rarely assembled in the same room despite sharing a three-bedroom apartment. But when Ma Collins roared—in that tone of voice—one knew the unfiltered air had hit the recyclers. Kevin sat at the dinner table and stared into the ground, his face hot, his arms gripping the chair handles, and waited for everyone to gather.

Dad paused the show he was watching and turned around in his swivel chair. Grandpa appeared from the bedroom in his pajamas, muttering something about an interrupted nap. Grandma followed him, her tablet perpetually loaded with the text of the King James Bible in hand, and the equally perpetual frown on her face. Derrick was the last to arrive, shambling in from the bedroom he shared with Kevin. He wore full-body gaming gear, his eyes bloodshot after an all-night play session. Derrick was lucky, he’d already turned sixteen so he didn’t have to wake up early and go to school every morning.

“What have I done to deserve this?” Ma Collins launched into a rant without preamble. “I spend all my waking hours steering this family in the right direction, leading by example and striving to raise my children right. I struggle, and I give, and I sacrifice. And what thanks do I get?”

Everyone knew the family’s matriarch spent most of her waking hours watching soaps, but no one was brave enough to contradict her.

“This.” She slammed a tablet onto the table. “My baby, the apple of my eye, comes home and brings me this.”

Kevin bristled at being called a baby. He had recently turned fourteen!

“What is that?” Derrick asked.

Dad picked up the tablet and skimmed the displayed text. “It’s a permission slip.” His eyes widened as he continued reading. “Permission to work?”

Everyone stared at Kevin. Ma Collins put her hands on her hips and nodded, basking in the family’s shared opprobrium.

“The Collinses don’t work, boy,” Grandpa said. “You’re a person, not a drone.”

“Jesus didn’t suffer so modern people would have to toil like savages.” Grandma waved her tablet in Kevin’s face.

Derrick just snickered, enjoying his little brother’s discomfort.

Kevin found it ironic that the family admired actors from the shows they watched so much, yet despised people who chose to work. Weren’t the actors working, too?

“It’s not like I plan to work a lot,” Kevin blurted out. “I just want to earn a little extra money so I can buy a present for someone.”

“A present?” Ma asked.

Kevin’s face turned even redder; he could feel the heat emanating from it. “For a girl,” he said.

Ma’s frown deepened. Belatedly, Kevin realized she might have thought the present was intended for her.

“No son of mine is going to work,” she said. “What will our friends think? The Collinses are royalty around here. We have to set an example for our neighbors.”

“Only stupid people work,” said Derrick. “So it makes perfect sense if Kevin does it.”

“Stupid people and weirdos,” said Ma. “What’s next, are you going to want to eat animal flesh?”

“Eww,” said Derrick.

“Okay, that’s enough,” said Dad. “I think Kevin is confused. He and I are going to take a walk, have some father-and-son time. I’ll set him straight.”

Kevin was thankful for his father’s quick thinking. Dad was going to get him out of the line of fire without managing to incur Ma’s wrath. He only had to endure another minute of berating while Dad got ready and the two of them left the apartment together.

***

As they rode the elevator from the seventy-second floor down to the foyer, Dad asked, “Who’s the girl?”

“Her name is Amanda,” said Kevin. “She’s in my class.”

“She’s special?” Dad asked.

Kevin smiled. “She’s gorgeous. All the boys want to be with her.”

The elevator reached the ground level. Dad led Kevin toward the series of pods parked to the side.

“Where are we going?” Kevin asked.

“I want to show you something.”

Dad punched a destination into his tablet which transmitted it to the pod. The pod’s doors hissed as they hermetically sealed to protect the passengers from unfiltered air. The pod rolled into the street, leaving the entrance bay labeled Complex 417. It picked up speed and navigated past dozens of high-rise buildings identical to the one Kevin’s family lived in.

Kevin wondered if it might be possible to fix things so the outside air would be safe to breathe again.

“So, you think you can buy Amanda’s affection with a gift?” asked Dad.

“She loves orchids,” Kevin said. “I thought that maybe if I give her a live orchid she’ll…notice me.”

He was surprised at himself for opening up to his dad like that, but here in the privacy of the pod it felt somehow easier to talk about such things.

“Live flowers are expensive, and they’ll wilt and die in a matter of days,” Dad said. “You could print her a plastic orchid for free that will look just like the real thing. Even better, maybe.”

“That’s just it, Dad. Anyone could print a plastic orchid. A live one would be something memorable.”

They rode in silence for a few more minutes until the pod pulled into the history museum dome in Old Town. Kevin recalled coming here on a class trip a few years earlier. It was a preserved city block filled with store fronts and banks and fast food restaurants. Plastic mannequins dressed in vintage styles of clothing populated the streets and the businesses.

“This is how people lived once,” Dad said. “They had to buy food and clothes and other items in stores like these instead of printing anything they needed at home. Some of them didn’t even have homes.” He pointed at the mannequin of an old man dressed in rags, sitting on a bench. For some reason his hat lay on the ground in front of him. “Some didn’t know where their next meal would come from.”

“I know, Dad. I learned about this in history class.”

“Almost all of these people had to work,” Dad said. “Imagine spending most of your week doing something you don’t want to do, instead of watching shows or playing games?”

“I don’t have to imagine that. I go to school,” Kevin said.

While other kids did the absolute minimum to get through school, Kevin enjoyed some of the classes. Not that he’d admit that to his friends, or even his dad.

“Only for another year,” Dad said. “And then you’ll be free to enjoy your life. You’ll never want for anything.” He nodded toward the mannequins. “People of their time called that utopia.”

Dad kept walking at a brisk pace. Kevin did his best to keep up.

“Toward the middle of the twenty-first century the machines became sophisticated enough to handle most jobs. A lot of people became unemployed and unable to afford all these nice things you see here.” Dad pointed toward a shop window brimming with brightly colored packages. “This was before they developed printers that let you make anything, from a hot meal to the table and plates to serve it on, by rearranging molecules.

“There was unrest, protests, demonstrations. And then there was the big one: a week-long riot that the police couldn’t break up. The army was called in, but lots of the soldiers had family members who were unemployed and without prospects. Some units joined the protestors instead of restoring order.”

Dad stopped in front of a window display filled with antique electronics. Some of the gadgets were on, displaying images on woefully inadequate, rigid screens.

“Your great-great-grandfather was one of the rioters. On the first day, he put a metal trash can through this shop’s window, right here. There’s footage of it on the net.”

Kevin stared at the thick glass window. He imagined it coming down in a shower of shards.

“The government had to placate its citizens because riots were spreading across the entire country. They amended the constitution, making basic income an inalienable right of every citizen.” Dad drew himself straighter. “No Collins has ever worked since. Jobs are things that belong in the dark past, like serfdom or slavery. Son, we’re the bloodline of Peter Collins, who took a stand, right here. He was one of the men responsible for everyone’s prosperity, and we can’t cheapen his memory by letting you work. Do you understand?”

***

Kevin sat in the classroom and waited for his buddy Jordan to finish his math problems. There were no teachers, but the computer used the cameras in the classroom as well as the cameras on each pupil’s tablet to ensure they were each doing their own work. Kevin solved his problems quickly because he was the smarter of the two, but Jordan was what Ma Collins once referred to as “street-smart”—he and his family knew all kinds of people and Kevin hoped he’d be able to help.

When Jordan finally finished his work, Kevin told him of his predicament.

“…so they won’t sign the permission slip because some distant ancestor of mine looted a store.”

Kevin tracked down and watched the historical footage of Peter Collins. The man wasn’t any sort of a human rights crusader. He stole a television from that shop’s window and dragged it away in the midst of the riot. Kevin wondered if his dad had ever seen the video himself.

“You’re dumber than a janitor bot if you think any girl is worth getting a job for,” said Jordan.

“You once spent two months growing vegetables in a game simulation,” countered Kevin. “That’s basically work, and you did it for free.”

“Exactly right,” said Jordan. “It’s the principle of the thing.”

“Aw, come on, I’m not asking you to work. Do you know any way around the permission slip? I don’t want to wait until I’m sixteen to ask Amanda out.”

Jordan thought about it. “If you’re really serious, I can introduce you to this one lady.”

“You’re amazing. Thank you!”

“Yeah, I am. You’re still a dummy, though,” said Jordan.

***

Kevin felt ridiculous and more than a little self-conscious. He wore a freshly printed waiter’s uniform straight from the history dramas: dark trousers, starched white shirt, black waistcoat and a ridiculous butterfly tie. The clothes chafed and the tie choked him. If people had had to wear such clothes to work, no wonder they’d hated their jobs!

The work itself was easy. He wandered around the ballroom carrying a tray of champagne glasses. Every once in a while a guest would pluck a glass from his tray and eventually, when only a few glasses remained, he’d make his way over to the bar where another person filled more glasses to the brim from fancy-looking bottles.

It was rather boring and he wished he could be allowed to listen to his own music instead of the pretentious noise coming out of the speakers while he worked, but it wasn’t difficult and he was earning more than enough to afford the orchid. Better yet, the lady who hired him never asked to see a permission slip.

He saw a familiar face across the room and almost dropped his tray. It was Ketifah, a fifteen-year-old girl from his apartment complex who was in the senior class of their school. She was also carrying a tray. He hesitated, torn between curiosity and shame, but she’d already noticed him and was making her way across the room.

“I’m surprised to see you here,” she said. “First time?”

“First and last,” Kevin said defensively. “The whole thing is stupid. A machine could dispense drinks more efficiently than us.”

“Some jobs are stupid,” Ketifah agreed. “But that’s how it was in the past; you had to work stupid jobs so you could afford to pay for your education and get the job you actually wanted. If these people want to pay me to hand them drinks, I’ll take their money.”

Kevin made a face. “Work so you can learn how to work even more? That’s not a great plan.”

“Choose a job you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life,” Ketifah said.

Kevin grinned, but then he realized Ketifah wasn’t kidding. “Huh. That’s actually kind of profound,” he said.

“Keep circulating!” The lady who hired them intruded into their conversation. “I’m not paying you to stand around and chat.”

Ketifah shrugged, as much as she could shrug carrying the tray. “Work!” she told Kevin in a stage whisper. They both grinned as they resumed their rounds.

***

Kevin arrived on the school floor of Complex 417 early the next day. He carried a large cardboard box. He smiled at Amanda as she approached, flanked by a pair of friends.

“Hi, Amanda,” Kevin said.

She paused and looked at him, then at her friends. They giggled.

“I got something for you,” Kevin said. He opened the box and retrieved a beautiful orchid in a small clay pot. He handed it to Amanda. “Do you like it?”

She sniffed at the flower, touched the delicate petals with her fingernail. Then she smiled. “It’s very nice.”

“Umm…I was wondering,” Kevin said, his heart beating fast. “Would you like to, maybe, go out with me this weekend?”

Amanda’s smile widened. “Why, Kevin,” she said, “it’s so nice of you to ask. But, you see, I don’t date the help.”

Amanda walked past him into the classroom, carrying her orchid. Kevin was left there, stunned. He noticed the other kids grinning and whispering to each other as they looked at their tablets and pointed at him.

He fumbled for his own tablet and loaded the social media feed. There, right on his class thread, was a photo of him in the ridiculous waiter uniform, carrying a tray. He looked like a total loser. The photo was being quickly shared among other classes and various social groups from their complex.

Kevin felt shame, which quickly turned to anger. How could Ketifah do this to him? Why? He scrolled through to find the original post, and his anger intensified.

Kevin stormed up to Jordan in the classroom. “I thought we were friends!”

“Why would I wanna be friends with the help?” Jordan said loudly, causing several classmates to giggle.

Kevin fumed. It was the same phrase Amanda had used…

“You did this so you could ask Amanda out yourself, didn’t you?”

Jordan sneered at him. “You did it to yourself, drone.”

Kevin’s fists clenched at the insult. His reputation was ruined, and his parents would surely find out soon, all because this smug jerk wanted to date the same girl.

“Hey, Kev.”

He whirled around to find Ketifah smiling at him.

“Can I talk to you for a minute?”

Everyone stared at the senior in their classroom.

“Sure,” said Kevin.

As they walked away, one of Jordan’s buddies began to chant, “Kevin and Ketifah, sitting in a tree…”

Ketifah turned around, gave the amateur bard a little smile, and took Kevin’s hand into hers as they walked away.

The chant petered out and the entire classroom watched them leave in stunned silence.

When they were out of sight, Ketifah let go of Kevin’s hand. “There,” she said. “Perhaps it’ll help rehabilitate your reputation if they think you’re dating an older woman.”

“Thanks,” he said. He felt a twinge of disappointment that she was only pretending. “Where are we going?”

“The library on the forty-fifth floor,” she said.

“There’s a library there?”

She smiled. “Exactly. No one uses it but us Morlocks.”

“What’s a Morlock?”

“That’s exactly why you need the library,” Ketifah said. “Let’s make sure The Time Machine is on your reading list.”

They entered a room filled with tablets, screens, and even a shelf of ancient paper books. Several kids he’d seen around the building were there, engaged in conversation.

“Kevin, meet the Morlocks,” Ketifah said.

All heads turned toward him, but there was none of the malice he had faced from his classmates earlier. They welcomed him.

“Most of the Complex dwellers are the Eloi,” said Ketifah. “They want to coast through life watching shows and playing games. We want to do things. Design new buildings. Explore the cosmos. Cure diseases. We want more out of life than life is willing to hand us for free.

“If you want more too, you’re welcome to join us,” she said. “Continue your studies past the age of sixteen, so you can make an educated decision about your future when the time comes.”

“How?” Kevin asked. “We graduate at sixteen.”

“You can go to university,” said Ketifah. “It’s also free—part of the basic rights amendment. But you have to pass an entrance exam to get in. And our sad excuse for a school”—she waved in the general direction of the classroom floor of their apartment complex—”won’t sufficiently prepare you to pass that exam.”

“Well…how do I pass it, then?”

“We have access to pretty much the entirety of human knowledge on the net,” she said. “We study together. Mathematics, physics, history, literature. We take sample exams and we help each other prepare. We use money we earn from part-time work to hire tutors. Being a teacher is one of those jobs the Eloi make fun of, but a good one really helps you learn better.”

“So, are you in?” asked one of the kids.

Kevin wondered what it would be like to build things and influence the lives of others. To wake up each morning with a sense of purpose.

“I…I think so,” Kevin said.

“Splendid!” Ketifah said. “Welcome to the Morlocks.”

“I still don’t know what those are,” said Kevin. “But you’re the kids who are going to run the world someday. So I have another name, a name some of my family members have mis-applied to themselves.”

“Oh yeah? What’s that?” asked Ketifah.

“Royalty.”

Copyright © 2019 by Alex Shvartsman