A quick waft of pure oxygen raised Shinsei's consciousness gently out of deep sleep and into REM, allowing him the briefest flash of a dream before an electronic chime completed the job of rousing him to wakefulness.
"Good morning, Shinsei," said a disembodied voice, at once reassuringly motherly and utterly synthetic. "It's 0615 on Monday August 22, AD2912. Your upcoming events: in 45 minutes, First Day at Work. In six days, Johann's Birthday. In 40 days, First Paycheck Due!. In 47 days, Mission 20th Year Party. This concludes your diary.
"Estimated arrival date at Epsilon Eridani B is February 7, AD2937.
"In your newsfeed today: The popular netgame 'Horizon' is due to receive a major update this week, with three new high-level areas to explore and a host of new SS-Rank weapons and armour. Rumours suggest that the update may include skill tweaks for the Hunter class to increase their playability in PvP. The upgrade will mean the Star Child server will be down from 0200 to 0800 on Wednesday August 24.
"Latest figures from the Celestial Fleet Schools Board suggest that average exam grades have risen this year, continuing-"
Shinsei swung himself out of bed and onto the cream-carpeted floor, and stared blearily at the walls for a moment.
"Coffee. Shower," he said to no-one in particular. But his Angel heard, and understood.
He thought about it for a while as he stood in the shower waking himself up properly, a job the alarm system never seemed to manage. He'd always spoken out loud when he'd given Angel commands at home - it was polite, after all, and it at least gave some impetus to start talking. Otherwise, many a family would pass an entire evening in silence. There was something that just felt good about talking, even though it was slower than just thinking. Or perhaps it was that there was something bad about not talking, like the less we talk, the greater the danger that we might forget how to.
Plus it had been trendy, recently. Talking to computers was kind of retro, like in the ancient storyscreen shows they made us watch in History lessons to learn what humans used to think interstellar travel would be like.
"Dry." The shower stopped blasting him with water jets and switched to hot air instead.
Trendy, huh? That was something Shinsei supposed he'd have to forget about now. He wasn't a kid in school any more, he was an employee. And not just any employee - fifteen years old, and already about to start work for one of the most prestigious companies in the Fleet!
Shinsei stepped out of the cubicle, dressed, grabbed his cup of coffee, and sat down heavily on one of the boxes he'd still not unpacked. He took a sip, and sighed.
"Angel, data on my neighbours."
Images and text flooded across his vision, accompanied by sound that bypassed his ears. The Angel could have just dumped the knowledge straight into his short-term memory, but he preferred it this way, at least until the caffeine kicked in.
"In Cabin F," said the synthvoice, "Xiao Wing." His picture flashed up.
"Looks like a nice enough guy," Shinsei muttered. "Age fifteen! Must be a school-leaver like me. Next."
"In Cabin H, Alexandra Harrisson."
"Not bad!" Shinsei zoomed her image out a bit. "Pretty hot, actually. Twenty-two though, half my age again. Damn."
He finished off his coffee, then grabbed the packet of fillers off his bedside table. 'Guaranteed satiation!' it claimed in multicoloured letters. 'That full-up feeling for three hours from just one pill! Full of vitamins and minerals!'
He chucked two in his mouth and swallowed hard. The boy could almost feel his mother's disapproving glare, but he looked around his barren apartment and smiled. "Independent man, now," he said to himself. "Can eat anything I want!"
The block was empty when Shinsei stepped out. Row upon row of cabin doors, walkways of glittering white plastic, even the obligatory potted plants, but no people to be seen. The ever-present synthvoice woman picked up on his curiosity, and provided a voice-over.
"This block consists of twenty-five cabins, of which only ten are currently occupied. This block is one of many that were set aside to cope with the rising population of the Star Child, and has previously been empty. Assuming corporate recruitment of school-leavers follows last year's trends, the rest of the cabins should be filled by-"
"Stop," said Shinsei. "I was enjoying the quiet, actually."
'Audio Off' flickered at the corner of his vision.
The floor in front of him lit up with a thin red line, generated somewhere in the ship's vast computer network and inserted into his own visual cortex, bypassing the real world entirely. He followed it to the nearest transit stop, which was only a couple of minutes' walk. Not bad! But his heart sank when his transit route flashed up. Sixteen stops into Nexus F, twenty-eight decks down, and another seven stops on a different line.
"Alright," he thought as he walked along, addressing his Angel. "You were right, 45 minutes was pushing it. Wake me up at six from now on."
By the time Shinsei finally made it to the transit stop, it was well past seven in the morning. From the station to his destination was not too far a walk, but down on these decks, it would've been easy to get lost without electronic assistance. Up on the habitation decks there were open spaces, parks, holographic sky and simulated sunlight. Everything was built to look like Earth before the war, or so they said. But down here it looked like the ancient storyscreen spaceships did - grey and white corridors twisting between rooms of unknown function, six feet wide and ten feet tall and all exactly the same.
A tall man in a severe-looking suit and an even more severe-looking scowl met him at the door. Above him, and after a similar fashion, a sign declared the door to be "Illuminated Research Corporation, Deck 34, Entrance G22". They said this wasn't the kind of company for big, flashy advertising, and they weren't wrong.
The man tutted and looked at his watch. "Twelve minutes past seven," he said. "I trust this will not happen again?"
Shinsei followed him inside, wondering if the man wore such an archaic thing as a watch just to make the point that he took timekeeping Very Seriously.
"Wait here for a moment." The man addressed his comment to thin air, but the boy presumed it applied to him. "Now then... Angel, confirm identity of this person." A pause. "Assign corporation, Illuminated Research Corporation. Assign job, Neuroscientist. Assign rank, one. Assign clearance, Black two." Another pause. "Welcome to the company."
It took Shinsei a few seconds to figure that the man was talking to him again.
"Oh! Sorry," Shinsei said, shaking the man's proffered hand.
"You'll find your office through there," he said, indicating a big set of double doors at the end of the lobby. And with that he left through a side door, still without having introduced himself.
Not the most traditional of welcomes, but then, Shinsei supposed, they did say that Illuminated wasn't the most traditional of companies either. But it was an honour to work for them, definitely. Everyone had been very clear on that.
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