Clouds


A sci-fi-story by Marcus Hammerschmitt

It will all be terribly beautiful.

The self-driving taxis which brought us there were very well behaved indeed. Air conditioning was superb, and even the cars’ voices sounded exceedingly nice. When I said so to the one carrying me, it responded: „Thank you, sir.“ Apart from that, we traveled in silence. The woman in the seat opposite to mine didn’t make eye contact even once, instead she opted for looking out of the comfortably self-tinting window, perhaps taking in all the glory of the Swiss alps. Her demeanor was one of unhappy arrogance.   

„We“ were a bunch of experts from all walks of future life: some scientists, some business analysts,  inventors, futurists, students. And me: a painter.

„There“ was the very heart of Switzerland, if not geographically then spiritually so. Imagine a massive cabin, old, sturdy and very well tended to, with lots of dark wood and small windows in thick walls of blinding white. Yes, there were outhouses in the same style, plus some giant firs casting their shadow over parts of the arrangement. Think „Heidi“, if you absolutely have to, but this looked more like the secret home base for a platoon sized detachment of rather militant Heidis you wouldn’t want to mess with.

I was amused, but not for long.

*

When we entered the building, things changed dramatically. Passing the threshold we cut through at least 200 years of human civilization, of which 50 seemed to take place largely in the future. There was no wood to be found in the entrance hall, only strangely alluring approximations of aluminum, glass and ceramics. Though you really couldn’t be sure what that stuff actually was - even by just looking at it you knew you were witnessing something so bleeding edge it hadn’t passed prototype stage anywhere else but here. No discernible lamps of any kind - the light seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere. The climate was ridiculously well balanced, at least for my wellbeing. A starship, designed by the ghost of Jony Ive, parked in a Swiss mountain lodge. Perfect.

Before anybody could say even „Wow!“ a voice came on:

„Your luggage will be processed. Find the three box room.“

„This is ridiculous“, said a large, red faced man in khaki trousers and a checkered shirt. „We came here to talk future tech, not to go on a treasure hunt!“ But when the majority of us put down their luggage and started to think about where a „three box room“ might be found in this building, he followed suit.

*

It turned out the three box room made good on its name. The sliding door revealed three boxes on a legless table, which hovered in midair, under a marble inscription saying: "Take your pick.“

We tried to make sense of the cards in front of the boxes. The first one said: „Flux. Take your Fluxcess and get your answers.“ The second: „MedBuddy. Tiny machines that wish you well.“ Card nr. 3 informed us: „7th Sense. Inhale to sync.“

I thought about leaving then and there. Maybe Mr. Khaki Trousers was right: this was utterly ridiculous.

„Berndorf, Maxwell Industries“, somebody said. Small, bespectacled, a sharp looking suit & tie guy. „By now we all know this is not the event we came here for. Call me an optimist, but I think this is something way more exciting. Like a test. I suggest to make it even more fun by choosing in private. Five minutes for each of us alone with the boxes.“

„I concur“, said the arrogant one from the taxi ride, and after a short pause we all murmured our consent.

*
„This might still be an elaborate joke“, I thought, watching the artifacts: a transparent, rectangular pane of unknown material, a moss-green lozenge and a small aerosol can, medical looking, like for people with asthma.

I looked up to that marble inscription, only to flinch in amazement - it didn’t ask for my decision any more. Instead it said now: „Two minutes to go“. I blinked, and the inscription began to count down the seconds, starting with 1:58.

„What the hell“, I thought. I pocketed the „Fluxcess“, I popped the pill, and I inhaled. Deeply.

Then I threw the can into the small, stylish garbage bin besides the floating table. There were enough aerosol cans for all of us who wanted to inhale.

*

"So it's drugs", I thought. Boy, was I wrong.

When I left the three box room, somewhat dizzy and exhilarated, I saw a woman coming up to me from the far end of the corridor. As the lighting was excellent, I could discern she was small and blonde, her steps were measured, somewhat careful, and she carried something in one of her hands.

You know these situations. You ask yourself: „What is this person like? I mustn’t betray my curiosity, that would be inappropriate. Still I want know: Is she pretty? Will she look at me and smile?“ About ten steps separated us when I suddenly felt drawn to her with a force I knew I couldn’t resist. I did something totally alien to me: I took her free hand with both of mine, shaking it like a very good friend from back in the days who’d finally managed to track her down once again.

„Hallo!“ I said, „I’m the painter!“ I didn’t even feel like an idiot.

She was pretty and she smiled a very pretty, if a little cautious smile. „I know! I’ve done my homework. I’m Ariana Tusk from Supermodern Toys Inc.“ She showed the Fluxcess she had been carrying in her other hand. „Aren’t these things absolutely amazing?“

And then it hit me like eight tons of anvils: I knew the most important thing about her, I knew it alright. Just beneath her pretty appearance and her cautious behavior she was of pure gold. A very good person who usually made sure nobody saw too much of this quality lest it might be exploited, taken advantage of. The certainty of my knowledge about her core qualities was staggering. I had absolutely no idea where it came from.

„Are you alright?“, she asked me, with some guarded concern. I obviously had given the impression of someone close to fainting.

„Yes“, I said, with all the conviction I could muster. „Yes, I’m just a little … tired.“

„I can relate, believe me. Just had a short nap myself. The rooms are beautiful, you’ll see. We’ll talk later.“

We actually waved goodbye.

*

„Drugs“, I thought, „it must be novel drugs“, standing in front of that unbelievable bed. Somehow it was hovering as well. This was obviously spaceship bedroom technology, I thought, sniggering against my will. Maybe some kind of future shock? A voice in my pocket said:

„I’m done calibrating.“

I fetched the Fluxcess out of my pocket, and it hadn’t changed a bit. A pane of translucent material the size of a small wallet, but only about two millimeters thick.

„How can I be of service?“, it said.

„What’s your name?“

„What do you want my name to be?“

„Rockets. I’ll call you Rockets.“

„Excellent. Anything else?“

I couldn’t think of something smart, so I asked: „What’s the height of Mount Everest?“

„Now the usual answer to that would be 8848 meters, but I have access to the data of a Chinese expedition trying to measure the height of Mount Everest with unprecedented exactitude. Should I …?“

„No“, I said. „Thank you.“ I sank onto the bed, intent on fighting sleep for just a little longer. „What can you tell me about yourself, MedBuddy and 7th sense? Short version please.“

„Well, it’s quite obvious, isn’t it? I’m a knowledge navigator, a natural language interface to the Flux, and the Flux is basically a thinking internet without the nonsense. MedBuddy is nanomachinery able to monitor your body. 7th sense is an empathy and intuition enhancing viral agent which turbocharges your brain’s areas concerned with social interaction. All three of us are making you quite tired right now.“

„Is that so?“, I wanted to ask, but I had already fallen asleep.

*

When I woke up, my belly was aching with hunger.

„Hello!“

„Hi, Rockets.“

„Supper is underway about 50 meters away from here. I’ll guide you if you want to.“

„You have access to my MedBuddy-Data.“

„I thought you might like that. Your blood sugar is quite low, so stuff your face.“

„Language, Rockets.“

„I beg your pardon, sir. From your social media postings I concluded you might tend to a more informal style of conversation.“

„Just kidding. Help me stuff my face, you nosy little brat.“

In the dining room, Berndorf was standing up while all the others were seated. Someone wants to be a leader, I thought. „Please take a seat“, he addressed me, and when I had done so, he carried on with the speech I had interrupted.

„As I was saying: I will be leaving within the hour. My MedBuddy installation has detected a medical condition which can’t be treated reasonably by the MedBuddy agents in my bloodstream. I’ve signed  the required NDAs and will be admitted to the closest hospital specializing in treating my ailment. I must say I’m sorry to leave, but I’m also grateful for our host to give my chances of recovery a tremendous boost.“

We ate mostly in silence, apart from my encounter with one George Best, who introduced himself as the head of „Future Archeology“ at the University of Durham. He sat right across the table.

„So what do you paint then?“ he asked. His dark eyes, betraying a fierce intelligence, were overshadowed by thickset eyebrows.

„I call it yonderscapes. Others call it >neo-surrealism<. I don’t care.“

„You’re lying“, he said. „You care quite a lot.“

„Touché“, I said and smiled, but my smile eroded quickly when I, still looking him in the eyes, suddenly saw: this man had killed. Real people. Not once or twice, but many times. He held my gaze without so much as a blink.

„Yes“, he said. „ Used to be a soldier. More like a mercenary. Not proud of it, not going to discuss it.“

I concentrated on the food, which was beyond excellent.

*

When Berndorf later left, me and the arrogant one were watching. Berndorf stoically waited for the taxi to arrive. When it did, elegantly swooping onto the cabin’s yard, he turned to us, waving shyly, once, twice. I waved back, the arrogant one didn’t. Berndorf put his luggage into the taxi’s trunk, and off he went. The last rays of the sun turned the glorious Swiss summits into gold. I sensed the arrogant one wanted to be spoken to but couldn’t get over her pride.

„We haven’t become superhuman, have we?“

„Not at all“, she replied. Her voice was deep and raspy, like a female rock singer’s I’d listened to quite a lot in my youth. „We have dehumanized ourselves, in the most peculiar way. It feels good. Disturbingly so.“

No question about it: she also was a triple user.

„They’re never gonna make it in Europe“, she said. „Maxwell and their cars. The Californians and the Germans will eat them alive.“

She left me without saying good night.

*

And so it went. The night was low on strangeness, apart from the best sleeping experience I’d ever had.

The next day, everybody behaved rather shy. There seemed to be no real conversations. Obviously the majority was occupied with the Flux and MedBuddy. I thought about Berndorf with a slight feeling of guilt, entirely aware of it’s irrational nature. If my body was acting up, Rockets didn’t tell. When required to he just gave data, by the steamshovel. But he kept ominously silent on the subject of who was really behind all of this.

I had another awkward ten seconds with Ariana Tusk. When checking out the lunch buffet, we suddenly stood side by side. I could feel so many things about her at once. She was even more guarded and cautious now that she knew she could be found out so easily. It didn’t matter. I’d seen more of her soul than a good friendship would have revealed in years. Somehow, talking was totally besides the point here.

„It’s ok“, she said, rearranging the food on her plate for better aesthetic value.

„Yes it is“, I answered, not knowing where to put a little more of that uber-delicious Caprese salad.

Avoiding George Best was easy. He made himself so scarce I thought he might have left clandestinely. Just as well - I didn’t want to excavate anything about this man’s past, present or future, especially not involuntarily so.

I had an extended walk, and nobody seemed to mind.

*

The next morning granted us one more wonderful breakfast. Shortly thereafter, we were requested to congregate in the entrance hall. In my case it was Rockets who made the will of our overlords known, others joked about ghostly voices in their rooms, summoning them to our meeting point. Everybody was there, including George Best. After a while we all fell silent, waiting for an explanation. We didn’t have to wait long.

„You will leave now. Some of you will be contacted at some point in the future, others won’t.“

The entrance door of the lodge opened onto the yard, where the three taxis were already waiting to take us away.

Shortly prior to boarding, I looked up. The sky was clouded for a change, and the clouds sported a strange, rather unnatural looking shade of violet. The moment I wanted to avert my eyes, a ripple went through the violet clouds, like a shockwave mellowed by the unimaginable distance of its origin. Settling into my seat, I became aware I knew exactly what had happened up there. I just couldn’t say it in words.