Chapter 7: Smith
"I'm sorry, this is going to take me a bit, I don't really recognize any of these dishes..." I said apologetically to the visibly frustrated waitress.
"Sir, I have other customers-"
"Sorry, sorry, alright. What is this again?" I pointed to an image of a dish on the menu that looked vaguely like a tan-pink soup.
"That is our Creamed Bovine, it's served with-" I cut her off again.
"Creamed Bovine? As in, like... cow?"
"How is that... how do you even make that?"
"Well you begin by grinding the cow into a thin-"
"Stop! Stop! No meat. Nothing with meat, I'll have a salad or something. What's your most popular vegetarian dish?"
"People who only eat vegetables. They're the pretentious type, they ruined the acoustic guitar. Ring a bell?" Nick chimed in.
"Well, we have an exquisite tangleweed dish, but the tangleweed is quite fresh, still writhing. I don't think you'd like it."
"Wri-... You know what? Water, I'll just have water," I said, and slumped back into my seat with an overly dramatic motion that conveyed my feeling of resigned defeat. The waitress turned to Nick.
"I'll have the cheeseburger, done medium well, thanks," Nick said casually as he handed his menu to the woman.
"They, they serve cheeseburgers?" I asked in disbelief with a hint of growing aggravation.
"Everywhere serves cheeseburgers, Smith. Though frankly I would've preferred pancakes or toast..." Nick replied. I shot him a look; a few second later the waitress returned with my water. I took the glass and idly twirled the straw. Our restaurant was situated on the waterfront, and the rising sun cast a glowing, golden light over the city. The architecture of the metropolis was bizarre, and difficult to explain with words, I'll do my best. They were all sleek, mostly made of white, silver, or gray metals. Their shapes were organic rather than geometric, but they still maintained a sense of symmetry. Additionally, they were immensely tall, taller than any buildings I have seen on earth. Massive, glass banners ran between some of them, with bring, full-color advertisements running between them. Down towards the base of the buildings, there were many more screens, however they were unobtrusive, build elegantly into the buildings. I suppose the best way I could describe it is as follows: everything looked like Chicago probably will in 50 years, if Chicago decided suddenly that it was a tasteful version of New York.
"So this is cool right?" I said, breaking the silence, "Alien world and all that?"
"Is it alien? I figured it was some sort of time travel type deal," Nick replied.
"Dunno, maybe it's a synthetic Earth?"
"Actually," a voice chimed in, "It's an alternate reality." Both Nick and I jumped a bit. A black-clad man, the same one who had arrested, and then later released, us, had appeared in the third chair at the table with absolutely no warning.
"How did you get there?!" I yelled, fighting the urge to jump out of my seat.
"I walked? Anyway, let's get back to the whole alternate universe thing cause it's actually really interesting-"
"Why are you here?!"
"I'm tasked with guarding you two while you are within city limits, and making sure you don't cause any trouble. Now, anyway, alternate universe thing. See, it's like this, when realities start breaking down generally the boundaries between them start to become flimsy. Generally, a reality tries to save itself by merging with another, healthier reality, which never really works. It's more of a last-ditch effort by the one reality to save itself. When this happens, the two start 'tunneling' into each other-"
"Hey listen, Mister... uh..." Nick cut in.
"Denton, Officer Denton," the man said.
"Yeah, this is nice and all, but really it's just technobabble to make this all sound a bit more plausible, and it's nice of you to make an effort, but can we just answer the 'How does this all work?' question with 'It just does'?"
"But there is all this science behind it! At this very moment, there is groundbreaking research being done on the anomalies surrounding the facility you came out of. Ever since first contact-"
"Excuse me," the waitress had returned, but had been standing off to the side for a minute or so trying to get a word in. She handed me my water, and placed an insanely, elaborately decorated cheeseburger in front of Nick.
"How is it?" I asked Nick after he took a bite. He squinted a little and placed the burger back on the plate.
"Well that's surreal."
"It tastes like chicken, and I'm pretty sure there is a hint of chocolate somewhere in there."
"Ah, yeah, I never cared for the chocolate taste," Denton chimed in, "They do that at the gourmet places, it's supposed to 'accentuate' the taste, but frankly I've always found it pretentious."
"So, question here," I said, changing the subject, "Where are all the children? I haven't seen a single kid since I set foot in this city. Are they all at school or something?"
"There are no more kids," Denton answered.
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"Children are outlawed, by decree of the Headmaster."
"Wait, what? Why?"
"About ten years ago... well, it's a bit hard to explain. Ten years ago, people just... couldn't have children. They could conceive, but... The children would be stillborn, or worse. And often the mothers would die in childbirth. So the Headmaster decreed that no one could have children anymore. Harsh, yes, but he had no choice. People were dropping like flies."
"What... I mean why? Why couldn't anyone give birth successfully?" Nick asked.
"It's bizarre, it's like some sort of universal genetic defect of this generation. Our genes are corrupted, ever so slightly altered from those of our ancestors. But no one knows why, it's a universal defect, but no one knows what caused it, it just don't make sense."
"That must... that just must suck," I said sympathetically.
"We try not to let it bother us..." Denton replied quietly. We sat in an awkward silence for a few moments, it was Nick that finally broke it.
"What did you mean when you said 'the Headmaster' a few seconds ago?" he asked.
"Ah, the Headmaster is our political leader, and our highest scholar. See, we follow an education-based social hierarchy here, as opposed the the economy-based on your people have. At the top is the Headmaster, and he spent years of his life studying to get there. He is simply the most intelligent person in the world, he is absolutely brilliant. I could go on for hours... But for the sake of time I won't. Below him are the High Masters, a collection of six men who are experts in all fields, they do most of the day-to-day handling of the government. After that are the High Adepts, one for each main branch of Science: psychology, biology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics. There is also the High Adept of Language, and the High Adept of History. Below them come the Adept, who are roughly equivalent to your 'Middle Class', skilled workers with a useful set of abilities and a higher level of education. And at the very bottom are the Scholars, which a class generally consisting of children. They are the people who are still in the educational system."
"Why base your social hierarchy on education?" Nick asked.
"I suppose we are more resource rich than your world is. That, and knowledge, sure knowledge, is something hard to come by," Denton replied.
"But then, wouldn't that allow the uneducated, lower-class masses to be easily manipulated by the intelligent upper-class? Isn't it a flawed system?" Nick said.
"Every system can be abused," Denton replied, "You just have to know how to avoid being a victim. Now finish up your meal, it's about time we get back to your friends."