Prologue to Act II of 2100 CE
“It was another night of protests on the streets of Clearwater as opposition to the arrival of the Alban Self-Defense Forces continues to intensify, what opponents have termed a ‘military occupation.’ Standing this morning amid razor-wire barricades and armored personnel carriers, it is difficult to argue with that description.”
There was a pause in the narration, into which the sound editor added the distinct sound of an armored turret swiveling, followed by the shouting of soldiers and finally the inevitable chatter of small arms fire. As she moved from room to room, the sound of the newscast followed her via speakers hidden in the ceiling and walls, giving the impression of being directly in the midst of the action. This particular client was convinced that leaving the livestream on all day would help her pet better deal with the stress of being left alone while she was at work.
“This latest round of protests comes after the death of Miller Rodham, a fifteen-year-old activist who was shot by Alban Constables two days ago outside his home in the Douglass District of Clearwater. Video taken by witnesses at the scene shows Rodham carefully following the orders of military police before he suddenly shudders—what appears to have been a sneeze—triggered constables to open fire. Thirty-seven bullets in all struck the fifteen-year-old, killing him and rendering his body nearly unrecognizable…”
Audio of Miller Rodham’s shooting came to its cataclysmic apex just as she entered the laundry room. It was one of the few rooms in the house where the speakers—for some unknown reason—did not activate, making it one of the few refuges she had found for herself during visits. It was in fact over the muffled screams of witnesses coming from the other room that she found the client’s little Cairn terrier sheltered beneath the utility sink near the back door and the flagstone patio it overlooked.
The quivering ball of sable fur took no notice of her, even after she called to it and waved a treat around. Winston was a particularly sensitive little dog who was fearful of loud noises, particularly those of the streets: cars, sirens, scooters, shouting….
Laelyana was aware that the client did not keep the audio stream running constantly when she herself was home, and so it seemed to her fairly clear that the client either did not realize what she was doing or simply misunderstood its purpose. But it would never have crossed her mind to mention it to Winston’s owner, that the stream did little to help her dog’s condition, but on the contrary made it worse as its audio terrorized the little dog, stalking him from one room to the next. It had been made abundantly clear to her that she was to make no mention of such concerns to any of her clients, since it was in large part due to their largess—and their considerable wealth—which allowed the company she worked for to remain in operation, and which in turn finally empowered her to make ends meet. It was indeed their affluence which allowed for the development of such highly specialized niche markets as petsitting and training, markets which might not otherwise have come into existence alongside side more modest luxuries as groundskeeping, nannies, personal trainers, housekeepers, and in-home chefs. It was not uncommon for the wealthier residents of Stanleyville to maintain among their economic retinue a trainer not just for their dogs, but also for their falcons and cheetahs, hobbies for which they were willing to pay considerably.
But despite this munificence, there was maintained between patron and client a considerable amount of social distancing. Indeed, it was a reflection of just how much wealth was preserved among the elite that purveyors of such highly-specialized trades as falconry were viewed as hobbyists and not as true professionals—a form of economic indolence for its members were not seen as productive members of society, but merely as idle entertainment for those with the means to enjoy it. It was not uncommon to hear the term real job used more frequently in scorn than as encouragement for a successful future. A veiled slight to the more uppity members of the service strata, they were thus reminded that their prosperity was entirely dependent on the benefaction of their wealthy patrons—and could therefore be summarily denied.
Gently cradling the trembling animal in her arms, she carried the little dog through the house to the front door, the voice of news commentators following her every step. With each room they entered, his trembling would intensify as some unspoken hope of respite from the disembodied voices was dashed. With Winston leashed at the door, she went out and on to the small porch, slamming the door behind her—leaving the voices to converse among themselves.
She sighed with relief as she watched the little dog emerge from his catatonic shell. Unlike most Cairn terriers, Winston was neither feisty nor particularly pugnacious, uninterested in sparring with other dogs. Such temperament had rendered him ineligible for the show ring, and although this must have disappointed his owner, it had not stopped him from becoming a very good pet. Once removed from sources of stress, the little dog was attentive and quick-witted, seemingly capable of reading any unspoken question Laelyana might have—though his responses were, admittedly, wholly generic in character.
The signal seemed to beckon her down the street, away from the quieter parts of his neighborhood and towards the Port Republic Street corridor. Usually bustling with locals, tourists, and the roaming bands of brunch aficionados, this early in the morning Port Republic was still fairly destitute of traffic. What few individuals ventured out were unconcerned with either of them, seeking out pastries and caffeinated stimulants to help start their day. Such sleepy conditions meant that a dog like Winston, who would otherwise have avoided that street, felt empowered to explore its empty sidewalks and visit—
She was startled from her revelry by a sound she first took to be the ignition of a motorbike, but which realized in a half second before it darted towards them was the bark of a Shar-pei. The dog was a flash of brown fur and foaming teeth, its saliva splattering against her legs. Laelyana and Winston leapt away from the dog, colliding with a Mercedes-Benz parked directly behind her. Thinking only of Winston, she whisked the little dog in her care further down the sidewalk as quickly as she were able, and finally away from the other dog’s reach.
Pausing to catch her breath, she saw now that the Shar-pei was tied to the porch railing of another house, one which she had passed numerous times before. The other dog must have been sleeping or lying down, reacting to their approach only at the last second. With a moment now to think, she recognized both the dog and the house, and sighed with frustration. The lady who owned this house had once kept a whole pack of the breed, some five in total, whose barks and snarls heralded her transit from one place in Stanleyville to another. More recently they had begun to pass away with age until now there remained this last one, the smallest of the pack, if she recalled.
The pugnacious animal yanked against the leash, willingly strangling itself with its collar amid fits of frenzied spinning and barking. She had known at least two of the other dogs to have bitten a neighbor, one too kind to report the incidents to the authorities but still conscientious enough to warn her employer…
“Hey!” a voice shouted from down the street, calling out a second before its speaker rounded a car, emerging from the house’s side yard. “Leave her alone—you know how Shar-peis are!”
Laelyana blinked. She of course recognized the Shar-pei’s owner—a local celebrity—but it was what she said that confused her. Was she speaking to the dog, or to her? “He’s tied up blocking the sidewalk,” was all she could think to say.
“Yeah, and you’re walking on the wrong side of the street!” The other woman stabbed a finger in the air, pointing to the opposite sidewalk. “You are supposed to be walking on that side!”
The Shar-pei mirrored its owner tone, snarling and spinning against its leash.
Her next words came true but unbidden, and at once she regretted saying them. “That’s messed up.”
The other woman’s eyes widened in outrage.
Laelyana’s breath caught in her throat. The consequences of being caught alone in an area where she did not belong at that moment fully blossomed in her mind, and so without making so much as another sound, she spun around and hurried away, Winston shadowing calmly at her heel.
Ambulances attending to a car accident at the intersection of Kirk and Alliance blocked their way on the return to Grant Street some forty-five minutes later. She had heard the sirens coming from the direction of Branchfield Medical Center but had not realized quite how close they were until Winston began to shake erratically. She turned from their present course to alleviate the little dog’s anxiety, and it was only once he was settled that Laelyana realized she was now returning by the same way she had earlier left—and was still on the wrong side of the street.
The horror she felt at the realization of her error was compounded by the sight she saw once she rounded the corner onto Grant. Indeed, she was still standing there, her Shar-pei standing at her side. Laelyana faltered in her step and nearly tripped over an out-of-place paving stone.
Winston’s house was on this side of the street, four doors down.
As the other woman turned to look at her, Laelyana saw two men—each more than twice her size—standing alongside her where they had all been in discussion. They had the look of groundskeepers, dressed in jeans and shirts heavily soiled by the morning’s labors. And yet when they turned their gaze on her, there was that same sense from them that Laelyana too often felt from the Security Police who demanded to know what she was doing in Stanleyville every time she disembarked at the Uptown Monorail Station.
She fumbled for her phone, a tiny device barely worth its weight in parts but functional in every other respect. With the device in hand, she activated the video camera and confirmed it was recording. Only half-thinking, she clutched the device to her chest while she held Winston’s leash at her side and started forward.
At once the Shar-pei’s owner began, “Now whose on the wrong side of the street—do you even know the history of dog-walking?”
Laelyana said nothing, only turning the phone pressed against her to continue facing the other woman as she passed, careful to avoid making eye contact with either her or her dog. The Shar-pei, seemingly only now noticing her and Winston, roared to life at its owner’s side. Winston ducked his head and scurried past, only to stop short a few paces later. The little dog looked up at Laelyana and then to the two men looming before them. They were blocking the path down the narrow sidewalk and stared her and Winston down, giving no indication that they intended to move. Together, then, Laelyana and Winston wound their way to a narrow corridor between a large magnolia tree growing from the sidewalk and the Mercedes-Benz against which she had earlier collided.
She tried to keep herself calm as she hurried away, quickly saving the video before sliding the phone back into her pocket. Not wanting to tempt fate by staying out too long, she all but kicked the front door open, slamming it behind her. She unleashed her charge at the front door, the sound of the newsfeed’s audio intensifying a sudden cacophony over the rush of blood in her ears. Trembling hands nearly spilt the water she carried to the laundry room for Winston and with which she ran her fingers through his wiry coat. He licked her hand, a rare moment of introspection for the little dog, before once again reverting to his catatonic state. Those same trembling fingers confirmed the conclusion of her visit on her phone, and with weak knees she hurried from the house to her next charge.
Her final appointment was scheduled for between 4 and 7pm, and although she was unsure if the dog was being taken out earlier in the day, this dog was nevertheless astounding in holding its bladder. This particular “walk” consisted of little more than leashing up the excitable Alsatian “Sarge,” taking him around the corner to his preferred spot, and then walking back. The owner had specified that Sarge should not be taken along any other route but that one, and indeed he kept a locator device on Sarge’s collar which told him precisely where his dog was at any given moment. Deviating from the preset course, or lingering for too long at any given juncture, would prompt a phone call to her employer’s office, which would inevitably result in a call from Kristen in that manifestly fake-cheery tone of hers.
Sarge was a good dog, though, and unlike some of the other dogs Laelyana walked, he made it easy to keep to the routine. There was admittedly a consistent moment of hesitation at the doorway which returned Sarge to his owner’s studio condo. He would stand there downcast for a moment, before sighing in resignation and entering his home. Once inside, though, he was again a happy dog, grabbing a toy and marching around the tiny apartment with it in his mouth, squeaking in cadence with his proud step. This little parade would nevertheless be followed by a drooping of tail, ears, and even his head as he watched her return to the front door, with the final sign of defeat coming with the unceremonious way in which he would release the toy and, dejected, return to his bed.
Exactly two minutes before the 7pm deadline, she used her thumb to mark the appointment as complete, and with it completed her day. Starting towards the monorail, she absently she began to scroll through the list of appointments, surveying her day’s labors and what income they would yield. Petsitting was among the services which allowed those of lower economic strata to keep themselves and their families housed and fed. Rarely was the income sufficient for true economic viability and thence advancement. The residents of Stonebridge were among the rare number who these days could continue living without equitable income, given the contractual arrangements of the tenement projects for the housing of lower economic laborers. The service came reputably free of charge, but the reality was enormously different, and in particular fees levied for security of the community made savings a near impossibility for its residents. There were days when Laelyana wondered if that was why her mother had just given up trying….
Now bearing the requisite status of working age, Laelyana was subject to many of those same fees—though at a considerably smaller rate, due in part to her age, but more critically due to her status as an economic dependent of her mother. Occupying this economic purgatory afforded Laelyana a rare chance to both make and save her income to a greater extent than anyone else of her economic strata. Whereas all income her mother might bring in would first be gutted to cover community expenses and taxes, Laelyana’s income was almost entirely private—and it would remain so until she either emancipated by choice after the age of eighteen or by statute at twenty-four. If then still residing at Stonebridge, her income would likewise be assessed and gutted, and so she had made it her goal to save all that she could before that moment—in the hope of being able to advance. Without that, she would have to remain here and shoulder her and her mother’s combined economic burden, effectively converting her mother to Laelyana’s economic dependent.
A message popped up, block her list of appointments.
It was from Gene, the company’s owner.
Just had an angry conversation with a neighbor who says you confronted her on the street. Were you walking one of our dogs??! I need you to come in NOW
The office for UptownSitters.pets was housed behind a large mansion commissioned by one of the Huangs, but who died only a few days before moving in. Still owned by the Huang family, it remained unoccupied, standing as a monument to the former owner and the family as a whole. Staff were kept on retainer through a trust fund, cleaning and maintaining the residence and its grounds as though it were daily occupied. The residence had become a tourist attraction, at times being open for tours, but more often left as a somber reminder of the family’s patronage. And so it was a little embarrassing to approach the green ramshackle shed that had once been planned as the residence’s garage. After abandoned halfway complete, it was sold and shoddily completed to house a plant shop.
An antique light illuminated the door beneath, which now opened and out stepped the tiny blond form of Kristen. A face etched by stress tightened to form a smile, and with a high-pitched greeting she squealed, “Gene and Martha are waiting. Bye!”
In the interchange, Laelyana had more quickly than she had hoped flung herself through the door and was at once before those particular worthies. Awkwardly she closed the door behind her and set down her backpack. This particular room served as part foyer, part daycare, part office, and part conference room, complete with a battered table in the middle and mismatched second-hand office chairs all around.
At the table’s head, Gene’s thin, pale figure gestured to a seat at Laelyana’s left, and quickly she took her place. Across from her sat the company’s operations manager, Martha, whose rather ovine aspect now bore something resembling both amusement and anger—a eminently odd expression which Martha managed particularly well.
Gene unfolded one his arms across the table toward Martha, a movement which monetarily put Laelyana in mind of a praying mantis….
“I ran into Sir Peter Weyland’s wife today, Yvette,” Martha said by way of preamble. “Do you want to explain to me why you confronted her?”
A surge of indignation rose from deep in her bowels, but the implications of what was now resolving before her stayed Laelyana’s tongue. More than once she or one of her coworkers had encountered an unhappy constituent of Stanleyville’s local elite. These encounters were just as frequently accompanied by a call to the office in complaint, and in only a few instances was the word of the client not valued over the word of the employee.
“She shouted at me that I was walking on the wrong side of the street.”
“What did you say to her about her dogs?” Gene said.
“There was only one that I saw,” Laelyana started. “She tied it to the railing of her stoop, and it leapt out at me and Winston. We had to run to move away.”
“You couldn’t have gone the other way?” Martha asked.
Laelyana paused to consider that. “I…I didn’t think about that. I was just taking Winston for a walk to Port Republic Street.”
“And why did you go back that same way?”
Laelyana blinked. “I—I don’t understand, Gene. I was just walking my dog. Her dog lunged at me and Winston. She told me that I was supposed to be walking on the other side of the street. I told her that I thought that was a messed-up thing to say, and then I walked away.” She paused to catch her breath, but in the interlude, Martha interjected, “And she says you came back that way and shoved your phone in her face and then waved it all around her car.”
All Laelyana could do was blink in response.
“I apologized to her about this whole incident, and I told her that you would delete the video,” Gene said.
“She was saying that she was going to call the police and that she was going to get a restraining order,” Martha was saying. “You know, I think she’s a lawyer…”
“You know, she has known us for a very long time,” and turning to Martha, Gene said, “for ten years now…?”
Martha nodded. “Ten years.”
“Ten years,” Gene repeated, turning back to look at Laelyana. “You know, we don’t want trouble from our clients—”
“Why did you apologize?”
“Excuse me?” Gene said.
“Why did you apologize?” Laelyana repeated, struggling to keep desperation from her voice. “I didn’t do anything wrong. And now she’s threatening to call the police and you want me to delete my video of her doing that?” She could feel her breath coming faster and faster as her heart raced in chest to keep pace. Her hands and knees were trembling again.
Martha rolled her eyes. “This isn’t a big deal, Lily. I just told her that you would delete the video guaranteed that you would not go anywhere on her block—”
“No,” Lalyana repeated. “If she’s going to call the police, then I need that video to protect myself. That’s the whole reason I took out my phone, to take video in case anything happened. She was really angry, and she was blocking—”
“I DON’T CARE,” Gene boomed, rising in his seat with enough force to send it slamming against the desk behind him. “How do you not see this as a problem?”
Laelyana felt herself physically recoil from the owner, shrinking into her chair.
It took some dozen heartbeats or so for Gene to resume his chair, folding lanky arms across his chest as a sign of his displeasure. Sometime after that he began again, “I don’t care if she was blocking the sidewalk. When I sell this company to clients, part of what I tell them is that the people who take care of their pets and come into their house are—well,” he gestured vaguely to Martha, “they look like us.”
“Remember a few weeks ago when that lady at Arlington Heights didn’t want to let you in, even when you had the building code?” Martha said. “Remember how you were dressed?”
Laelyana looked down at herself: jeans and a hooded pullover sweatshirt. She had been dressed the same way that day, too.
“It’s the same thing,” Martha said, as though it were self-evident. “Were you wearing your body camera?”
“I don’t have a body camera.”
Gene and Martha exchanged looks.
“Don’t we pay you enough to get yourself a body camera?”
“Whatever,” Martha went on, rolling her eyes. “If you’d had a body camera, we wouldn’t have this problem now, would we?”
“I have the video on my phone—”
“That can be edited and doctored,” Gene said with a wave of his hand.
“But why am I at fault?”
“Who said you’re at fault?” Martha responded.
“You did,” Laelyana snapped with more fervor than she had intended. “By apologizing you are—I mean, my mom told me that if you apologize for something you didn’t do, you are admitting guilt.”
Martha rolled her eyes. Gene just looked annoyed. “Just delete the video and avoid her block.”
Laelyana swallowed against the pressure forming in her throat. “I cannot delete the video.”
Rage flashed in Gene’s eyes, yet seemingly uncomprehending, he repeated himself: “Delete the video and avoid her block.”
Laelyana swallowed again, feeling nauseous. “It’s the only way I can defen—”
“You’re wrong!” Gene shouted, rising to his feet again. “Take out your phone and delete the video now!”
Martha’s eyes were wide as she glanced from her boss to Laelyana and back again, unsure of her role in this impromptu performance.
But Laelyana knew exactly what she had to do, and before the pressure in her throat could overcome her, she ran out of the office—and threw up in the street.
Continues in Twilight.
Part of 2100 CE.