IN | OUT, Part 8 - Silent Symphony

in #fiction6 years ago (edited)


Sylvia stood for a nanosecond, stunned, as she looked at the woman sitting behind the ancient mahogany desk in the compact office that was the Department of Outer Affairs. She was dumbstruck at the remarkable likeness that this woman, in her surgically clean-white uniform with its crisp black trim and elegant glasses, had to her PAL Penny’s avatar.

“Resident 83451, hmm, it says here on your datasheet your name is...” the woman took a moment to study the slim Terminal lying precisely on the dark wood of the desk in front of her, “Miss Sylvia… Relocated to the Inner District through the Lotto Program two years ago...”

Sylvia was looking at an older-looking version of Penny, and the difference had set her off-balance. The woman’s hair was greying, her temples coloured by a soft dusting of snow that seemed to collect in patches and streaks elsewhere as well, and a woven tapestry of wrinkles delicately creased her regal features around stern, green-grey eyes the colour of an aquamarine ocean, veiled by a mist of exhaustion. Yes, an ocean, definitely—Sylvia had seen pictures on her Terminal—unpredictable with an unknowable and unfathomable depth and darkness beneath a placid surface.

Despite the subtle differences, it felt to Sylvia that she had somehow stepped into an uncanny valley where a crest had suddenly turned into a trough, a steep decline into an upside-down place, where nothing was as it seemed—she wasn't sure if the figure that she was looking at was a projected avatar or a corporeal human being.

Slowly, the fact that the woman was talking at her made itself known to Sylvia’s senses, as if from somewhere far away her voice was getting closer, becoming louder and changing pitch with a telltale Doppler effect. With deliberate and pained effort, Sylvia tried her best to tune into what the woman was saying like an operator turning the knob of an ancient radio array, searching for an ethereal signal on a very specific, but hard to find frequency. Gradually, Sylvia managed to catch what the woman was saying.

“…willing to overlook your tardiness, Sylvia, as you have just Transferred, but please do not waste any more of my time, we’re already out of sync. Take a seat, please." The woman stared at Sylvia over her half-moon glasses with the tired look of a professor that has been forced educate the concept of Existentialism to a roomful of mannequins. Absentmindedly, Sylvia did as she was told, taking a seat in front of the domineering desk, like a schoolgirl being called to the Headmaster’s Office suddenly.

They sat there in silence for a measured moment as the woman gently tapped on the desk with a long finger. She had a far-off look in her eyes as if she was waiting for the perfect moment to begin speaking again in time with some imperceptible musical composition.

Sylvia took the woman’s brief pause as an opportunity to break her spell and have a look around the DOA office: The sharp contrast to the surgically sterile environment just on the other side of the doors was palpable.

The sheer amount of wood that greeted the senses was quite astonishing, as it was such a rare resource, and took up quite a lot of space considering the minuscule space of the office. The solid mahogany desk was an imposing presence that occupied most of the room and had a matching and exquisitely-carved chair sitting opposite—the set was definitely an antique, centuries old at least. There was just enough room to squeeze in two other desks, far more modest and simple in comparison, that flanked the grand centrepiece. All other space was taken up by ceiling-high, perfectly aligned wooden bookshelves that stood parallel along the darkly-stained wood-panelling of the walls on either side, to an exacting degree.

The bookshelves themselves were bursting with priceless artefacts arranged neatly and formally: interesting trinkets from last-century, like a flat and round silver disk with a hole in the middle and what, Sylvia could only guess, was some kind of ancient Terminal. But, more impressively, the shelves themselves were jammed with paper books, which were rarer than clean air. The strange anachronism of this place lingered on the senses like the smell of the books’ bindings: awe-inspiring and intoxicating.


Snapping her attention back to the woman with enough force to induce whiplash, Sylvia couldn’t help but look down sheepishly at the raised eyebrow and deadpan stare that greeted her.

“You’ll have more than enough time to investigate your new office later, Sylvia, but as I intimated earlier, the DOA is experiencing an unprecedented predicament at present and we need all hands on the proverbial deck.”

Her flittering consciousness fully present again, Sylvia shifted in her wooden chair, sitting up straight and straightening her uniform. “Of course. I apologise, Miss…”

“Penelope. You may call me Ms Penelope.”

“Ms Penelo… Pen… Penny?” Sylvia tilted her head slightly trying to fight off the dizzying vertigo that this room and its occupant seemed to exude.

Her stately and dignified veneer cracking slightly, Penelope gave Sylvia a look that could melt plasteel. “I assure you, Miss Sylvia, despite for the unfortunate circumstances that lead to my likeness having been co-opted as the main avatar for the PAL Service, I am most certainly real and have no protocols to prohibit violence. I am Penelope. Call me that... other name… again, and I shall personally—”

“Miss Penelope, you’re getting worked up again...”

At the sound of the new voice, Sylvia turned to see for the first time that there was another person in the room: a mousy man with round spectacles and neatly manicured hair that had been sitting at the other desk.

Penelope seemed to jerk suddenly at the man’s soft-spoken chiding and stopped abruptly mid-sentence as if a tightly-tensioned mechanism had slipped a gear and needed to be rewound. She broke eye contact with Sylvia and began straightening the objects on her desk by minuscule amounts with intense concentration, despite the fact that they seemed perfectly straight to Sylvia already.

When she judged that everything was satisfactorily aligned, she took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and began counting under her breath while tapping a long finger on her desk with a steady, measured rhythm and her other hand twirling in the air as if conducting an ephemeral symphony.

“Don’t mind her, Miss Sylvia, she’ll be back with us presently. You got her all flustered, you see...” At Sylvia’s look of guilt, he said, “No need to blame yourself, you didn’t know.” Stretching a cocoa-brown hand towards Sylvia from his desk, he said, “Nigel, a pleasure to meet you, Ms Penelope’s personal assistant.” Nigel smiled reassuringly and added, “Probably best if you don’t mention the PAL matter again though...”

A look of relief settling on her face, Penelope’s serious demeanour returned and continued without skipping a beat, as if nothing had happened. “Ahem, yes. As as I was saying, there is an urgent matter that must be dealt with here at the DOA, something very unusual. And you, Miss Sylvia, have joined us at an opportune moment indeed…”

Penelope sat back in her luxurious leather chair—also a rare resource in this century—and steepled her long pianist fingers, “As I’m sure that you are aware, the Central Administrator controls all matters of importance concerning the Inner District,” she absentmindedly put one hand on her Terminal in a protective gesture, “and the DOA is central to the ongoing effort to welcome, orientate and assimilate all Outers that fit the CA’s criteria into the Inner District, once they have been selected by the Lotto Program.” As Sylvia nodded along, she noticed a strange look of pride settle on Penelope’s lined countenance for a moment.

Then, like a mist enveloping a placid seascape, her pride was replaced by frustration and exhaustion as her expression darkened. “However, for an extended period, we’ve been aware of a loose organisation of… Residents… that do not seem to appreciate the services that the CA provides, nor do they seem to acknowledge that in order for the CA to run with optimal precision, all variance must be strictly controlled and limited.” Penelope tried to suppress an involuntary shudder, attempting to cover it up by make sure that her impeccable bun was impeccably maintained. She continued, “It has been brought to our attention that this group has been taking advantage of certain… holes… in the Central Administrator’s purview,” she seemed to bristle at the very thought of something disrupting the innate order of the In. “Holes that can be… manipulated…”

Penelope brought her delicate hands to her head and began massaging her temples methodically, “So far, this... group… who seem to call themselves ‘Moles’—most likely as a reference to the extinct burrowing creatures of last century—have been smuggling nothing more than obsolete technology and various Outer delicacies,” she waved a hand dismissively, “Overall, nothing too troublesome, the CA can easily compensate. However,” the look in Penelope’s eyes turned from a misty morning to a stormy night, “Intelligence now indicates that the Moles are planning to smuggle in a human person from the Outer District… This is obviously very worrying, indeed. We have no idea how they plan to breach our system, and CA has no notion of potential means of exploitation. Furthermore, we have no idea who this individual is, or what this person is planning to do, but this could severely damage the careful balance that CA requires to run the Inner District efficiently.”

At that, Penelope’s stoic exterior shattered as she started hyperventilating, struggling to catch her breath as an invisible weight tried its best to suffocate her and squeeze all the air out of her lungs. It took all of Nigel’s gentle words and hand-squeezing to calm her down and coax her from the brink of a full-on breakdown. She then immediately began reorganising and straightening the objects on her desk, before launching herself into a lively rendition of some silent orchestra.

Sylvia sat unmoving, frozen to her seat in wide-eyed terror. This was not at all what she had been expecting the DOA to be. She had thought the DOA would be a bustling hive of activity, attempting to find placement for as many Outs as possible, but instead… Sylvia looked around the office, and now noticed details that she had missed. The assertive presence of Penelope’s desk now showed signs of wear and shoddy repair work. The carpeting was threadbare and faded. The trinkets seemed to be various states of disrepair, layered with strata of dust that told a story of neglect. The countless books lining the shelves seemed to be falling apart, their spines bent and sagging like the choked dead trees that dotted the harsh landscape outside of the Districts.

This contradictory place of opulent extravagance contrasted sharply with the cramped and decaying dejectedness that this place emitted like a tart and distinct odour of decomposition. Sylvia was at a complete loss, words eluded her like a baby trying to grab hold of the stars, as the scene in front of her unfolded as if in a silent, degraded and blurry film from a forgotten era.

Finally, Penelope now calmed and present again, her green eyes tranquil and demure, like the ocean after a typhoon, with faint dark rain clouds still suspended and imposing, took a deep, shuddering breath and continued, “This… infiltrator’s… exact method, point and time of egress are currently unknown, and it has, therefore, come down to us, the Department of Outer Affairs to deal with this issue, despite,” Penelope looked around at the two, and only, other members of her Department, “our... inexperience... with such exercises.”

Once again, a disheartened look seemed to enshroud her features like clouds obfuscating the sun, as her shoulders sagged slightly. “I have attempted to petition the CA to our predicament, but have been instructed that the present course of action is the most efficient.” For a moment, Penelope looked dejected like a discarded engagement ring, but her instant of weakness resolved itself into a matter-of-fact tone. “Thus, it is our mission to find this infiltrator and make sure to extricate… it… from the Inner District as soon as possible.”

Penelope closed her eyes, concentrating, as if reading something written on the inside of her eyes, “Intelligence has indicated, though still as of yet unconfirmed, that a certain Mr Sergio, an Engineer in the Maintenance Division, Sector Six, could be an important figure in the ‘Mole’ organizational structure.”

Opening her eyes, she looked up at Sylvia and gave her a hard stare, full of a new-found strength equivalent to the churning well of overpowering force that lies hidden deep beneath the surface of a body of water. “As your first official act as an employee of the DOA, it is your task to make contact with this Mr Sergio, establish a rapport with and, ultimately, find a link to this Mole group. You are to determine if he has any information regarding this Outer person’s whereabouts, or otherwise use him to gain access to the Mole’s organizational branch and access to this information yourself. He has been invited to a gala this evening, and you are to make contact there.”

There was a brief pause as if the conductress was teasing a sustain and allowing the final notes of a song to linger and sink into an enraptured audience after a wild crescendo. Before Sylvia could shake her cobwebbed mind free from the mothballs and stammer a response, Penelope continued with one final coda, “ Nigel has already selected a lovely dress for the occasion.”

The silence was deafening as Sylvia's mind reeled at the all that had just transpired in such a short amount of time. She felt like one of the bugs trapped in amber that lay nestled in a nook of one of the shelves: the air itself seemed to have a sluggish, congealing quality to it as the soundwaves seemed to slow to a laborious crawl as they sunk into Sylvia’s comprehension. They arrived all garbled and jumbled and she had to spend additional resources of her already dwindling reserve of brain function to decipher their meaning.

As if a machine, its gears suddenly biting down and finding grip after aeons of rusting disuse, Sylvia’s mind booted up again in a jerking movement,“B-b-but, Ms Penelope, with all due respec—”

As she stood looking up at the pretentious crystal chandelier that overhung the marble dance floor like an icicle poised to succumb to gravity, Sylvia sighed - heavily. She was trying to block out all the dirty glares that the Ins kept shooting her, thinking that they were being clandestine, and willing that stupid, crystal fixture to fall with all the psychic impulses she could muster.

She was standing on a balcony overlooking a lavish ballroom within the Central Tower, feeling uncomfortable enough without the added attention. Here she was, in this opulent teal ball gown, heels that threatened to twist her ankles off, her face practically sliding off from all the make-up… She’d never looked more like an In, and never felt more Out.

She had never been to an In gala before, or more accurately never been invited. Such extravagances were only open to couples—or failing that, special invite only.

Not that she ever would want to go anyway.

But she had to admit that the grandeur of the affair that played out in front of her, was kind of impressive… All the couples waltzing to the music was… okay.
Stupid, but okay.

Desperately trying to find something else to occupy her attention, Sylvia looked around for the umpteenth time, trying to spot this Mr Sergio person.

He was late, that inconsiderate bastard. And to add insult to injury, just as she had decided on heading for the expansive buffet, mid-chew even, the blithering slob decided to make a grand entrance and head straight for the buffet, practically knocking Sylvia out the way in the process, before gorging himself on the selection like a starved boar.

This is going to be so fun, Sylvia thought to herself as she suppressed the urge to roll her eyes with all the delicacy of a steamroller.

[Next](Coming Soon!)

In | Out
Part 1 - The Window
Part 2 - Sylvia
Part 3 - Gone Phishing
Part 4 - Queen of the Flutter-bys
Part 5 - Sylvia Redux (Monotone-y)
Part 6 - System Breach
Part 7 - Dreams of an Automaton

Orignal artwork created by myself.
Images used are CC0 Creative Commons, sourced from Pixabay or Pexels.

You're more than welcome to download the full-res image here, if you want a wallpaper.

If you could please Upvote & Resteem, that would be most kind of you.

Much apprecated in advance :)

I would love to hear your thoughts and opinions, so please leave a comment.

Until next time, as always, see you in the comments!

This is MajorMajorMajorThom, over and out.

DeviantArt | Instagram | Twitter

Scribo, Specto, Lego, Cogito, Ergo Sum

Steemit Logo

art and flair courtesy of @PegasusPhysics

Team South Africa banner designed by @bearone


WARNING - The message you received from @gordonramsay is a CONFIRMED SCAM! DO NOT FOLLOW the instruction in the memo! For more information, read this post:

Wow. This is an excellent short story. I love how this chapter fits in with the rest of the in / Out World. I think here, in this section, you've really mastered your similes and connection images.

For example, the scene where Sylvia is so distracted by Penelope and you describe it like searching for a radio signal that is very difficult to find was awesome. It reminded me of fiddling with one of those old analog radio dials where the sound was never perfect unless you found exact right placement and left it there.
Gears finally moved through to find purchase and begin grinding forward. These are simply two examples of excellent language laced throughout this section.

I feel like each new chapter is another flexing attempt to improve your writing, and it succeeds. Thank you as always for sharing, and I can't wait to read more.

Exemplary detail of the characters, most enjoyable story line @majorx3thom

Good quality reading, thank you. Will have to return to get the full story in sequence.

Congratulations! This post has been upvoted from the communal account, @minnowsupport, by MajorMajorMajorThom from the Minnow Support Project. It's a witness project run by aggroed, ausbitbank, teamsteem, theprophet0, someguy123, neoxian, followbtcnews, and netuoso. The goal is to help Steemit grow by supporting Minnows. Please find us at the Peace, Abundance, and Liberty Network (PALnet) Discord Channel. It's a completely public and open space to all members of the Steemit community who voluntarily choose to be there.

If you would like to delegate to the Minnow Support Project you can do so by clicking on the following links: 50SP, 100SP, 250SP, 500SP, 1000SP, 5000SP.
Be sure to leave at least 50SP undelegated on your account.