Credit: Hicham Kaidi, Inktober 2018 Prompt: Guarded

Closely Guarded Secret 🔑

The mayor sighed. “I believe we’ve gone through the official unfinished business.” He slapped the tenth pile of papers on his desk and slid it across to the other man.
The mayor-to-be took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. “Yes, we’ve been hours at it.”
“Nobody claimed that being the mayor was an easy task, son.”
“I understand that, sir.”
“Alas, there are more…”
“Of course there are,” the mayor-to-be said, resigned. The city was big. There were so many things to learn in record-time. It had all been a blur, the campaign, the election, the debates, the race to the finish. The current mayor hadn’t ran for some reason after his first mayoral service. That had been weird, and nobody had given the new mayor a straight answer as to why. “Okay, sir, hit me. What else?”
The mayor pulled out a couple of physical security keys, the ones that you needed to plug in physically to a computer to get access to some system. He held the two of them in his fingers, holding them in a ‘V’ pattern, looking them over. “This one,” he said, pointing at the blue one, “opens the city’s vault.”
“Just one key?”
“One of a pair, the city’s treasurer holds the other. Neither of you can open the vault without the matching key.”
“Okay, sir. Makes sense.”
The mayor smiled. “You are looking relieved, thinking that this is relay is coming to some kind of an end.”
“Don’t get me wrong, mayor, I’m excited, and anxious, and honestly shitting my pants here. But yes, I believe it’s been about twelve hours non-stop.”
“Of course I understand,” the mayor smiled. “You’re forgetting that I went through this exact rite-of-passage four years ago, to the day.” He stood up, by chance standing right next to his holoportrait on the wall.
The mayor-to-be was shocked for a moment. He could see the mayor as he was now, compared to how he looked when he won the mayorship. It had been only four years, but his face was now ridged with crow’s feet, his hair was grey, his eyes were sunken. He could have sworn that the holoportrait was of at least a decade ago, but he knew that it wasn’t.
The mayor buttoned his suit and walked out. The mayor-to-be, buttoned himself too and followed him. They went down to the lower level.
“What about the second key, sir?” the new guy asked.
“That’s what I’m about to show you.”
They went towards a huge vault door, the kind you only saw in movies with big bank heists, tons of metal arranged in a complex locking mechanism. Unlike the movies’ vaults, this one wasn’t shiny. It was old, probably as old as the city was.
The mayor-to-be stood, but the current mayor kept on walking. “What? Aren’t we going to open this?”
The mayor waved his hand in a dismissive gesture. “Ah. There’s nothing interesting in there. Just garbage, paintings and golden bars and other crap.”
The new mayor raised his eyebrows. “Okay…” Then he followed.
They went to another secure location, further down the hall. There was another security door here, albeit more of the ‘lab’ feel, rather than a bank vault’s. The mayor did the entire thing slowly, he held the digital key and pushed it in. “Here, watch carefully. This sticks a little, just feel the give.” He turned the key reverently, and then a screen lit up above the key hole. “5638829. Say it back.”
The mayor-to-be repeated it a couple of times, memorising it. He had learnt of a couple dozen passwords these last few days, so he was in a bit of a groove.
The door opened, and the smell of chemicals came wafting out. It was dusty, with a tinge of ozone in the air. It was air conditioned, the mayor-to-be felt kinda chilly, even with his suit on. Or, perhaps it was the creepiness of the place.
The lights came on as soon as they stepped inside.
The new mayor gulped.
It was a lab. And in the middle of it, was a big tube of glass, with a girl inside it. The girl was connected in multiple places of her body, and she was floating in a relaxed, foetal pose. The liquid was hazy but he could see that she was a cyborg.
“What in…” he whispered, stunned.
The mayor raised a finger, “You-You’ll understand. Please be patient for a minute.” He stepped close to face her, but she had her eyes closed. He pressed a button on a pedestal in front of the vat. “Kallipolis,” he said softly as if speaking to a little girl, “I’m back, sweetie.”
The girl moved a bit in the liquid but other than that, she gave no outward signs of reaction. Only her voice came from the pedestal speakers. “Hi daddy! Where have you been? I missed you so much. Did you bring me anything?”
The mayor sniffed and rubbed his eye. “Yeah, yeah…” he said, waving the mayor-to-be to come close.
He hesitated for a second, then did so, leaning in to see the pedestal controls. There were various buttons on it, with many icons.
The mayor pressed a button that indicated a flower. “I got you flowers, honey. Do you see them?”
“I do!” Kallipolis said, excited. “Oh, they’re lovely daddy! They smell so nice. Mmm… Lilacs.”
The mayor-to-be was shocked. His mouth agape, he checked out the other buttons. A teddy-bear. A chocolate. A dress. What was this? He had a million questions, but decided not to interrupt.
“Glad you like them, sweetie. Now, I need you to do something for me, okay?”
“Anything for you, daddy!” Kallipolis said, excited.
“Remember a while ago, when you had to remind me how to do some things in the city?”
Kallipolis tsked. “Oh daddy, did you forget again? How silly of you.”
“Yes dear, I am silly, I know. Now, over the next few days, I’ll need you to remind me how to handle some things about the city, okay? The hydro dam, the security drones, the sewage system…”
A giggle came from the speaker. God, it was so… normal. The mayor-to-be looked around the lab. Everything in here was ancient, decades old. Who had built this thing.
And, more importantly, why?
“That’s great, sweetie. Lets try it out. For example, show me how to see the Citizen stats.”
“Tsk, daddy, that one is easy. How could you forget?”
“I know, dear. Just tell me how.” The mayor nodded for his successor to work the pedestal.
He stepped in front of it, waiting.
Kallipolis spoke. “Press square, then enter the command, ‘citizen stats,’ then hit enter.” He did just that, there was nothing complicated about it.
A screen lit up on the side, an ancient cathode-ray tube with a greenish tint. It showed rows upon rows of stats about the city’s population.
“You did it! Wee! See, daddy? It wasn’t so hard.”
The mayor nodded for his successor to respond. He pressed the button. “Yeah… it wasn’t hard, thanks.” His voice was timid.
“I know, daddy. You’ll get the hang of it, I know you will.”
The mayor-to-be bit his lip, then pressed the button again. “Kallipolis? What can I do with the citizen screen?”
“Well, anything! You can issue new mayoral decrees, see birth rates and death rates, and even ostracise some people if the city becomes too big to sustain. But that last one is bad, daddy. Don’t do that,” she pouted.
“No, I won’t do it, just checking,” the mayor-to-be replied, getting the hang of it. The mayor nodded in approval next to him, staying in the sidelines, as he would be come next morning.
“What else can’t you remember, daddy?” she asked cheerfully, her lips not moving, her eyes ever shut.
“How old is the city, Kallipolis?”
“It’s two-hundred and fourteen years old, daddy. Why?”
“Oh, just checking, I had a crossword puzzle I couldn’t crack. Thanks, dear.”
“Why, it’s my pleasure, daddy!” She giggled.
“Kallipolis, do you control all the systems in the city?”
“Yes daddy. Police, fire department – I love those firemen! – sanitation, city grid technicians. Do you want me to tell you about all of them?”
“No, not right now, but I will come back again tomorrow and ask you all about it, okay?”
“Okay, daddy! Can’t wait. And don’t forget to bring me something, please? Pleasepleaseplease?”
He chuckled. “Yes, Kallipolis, I will get you something tomorrow. How about a…” He scanned the buttons. “A Teddy bear?”
“Oh, that’s great, daddy! Can’t wait.”
The mayor-to-be stepped away from the pedestal. He nodded and mouthed, ‘Can she hear us?’
“No, she cannot,” the mayor sighed, the worry pressing his shoulders down. “Only when you press the button.”
The mayor-to-be paced up and down, then snapped at him, “What the fuck, man?”
The mayor sat down on a creaky chair and his lips formed a little smile. “Get it out of your system, my reaction was worse.”
“What. The. Fuck? Why do we keep a little girl down here?”
“She’s two-hundred and fourteen years old. Not little.”
“Oh!” the mayor-to-be threw his arms in the air. “Oh! So, we’re keeping her imprisoned for like forever! That’s sooo much better, thank you!”
“It is not.”
“And why the hell is she calling us ‘daddy?’”
“I think you can work out the answer to that.”
The mayor-to-be froze. He felt a chill down his spine, and it wasn’t because of the air condition this time. He looked up, at the direction of the mayoral office, gazing through the concrete and the rebar. “It can’t be.”
The mayor breathed in deep, then checked his golden watch. “It is. The first mayor installed the system, the rest of us… We’re just inheriting it.”
“But she thinks we’re her father!”
“Yes. Maintaining that illusion seems to make the whole thing easier.”
“I can’t lie like that!”
“Sure you can. You’re a politician.”
“Okay, sure. But not like this!”
“How would it help the situation if you shattered her fragile mind? Can you even begin to comprehend the extent of her delusions, right now?” The mayor turned to the vat containing the person. “There’s some sort of dreamland for her, in Virtual Reality, fed right into her neurons. This is her reality now. And she acknowledges the controller as her father. What can we say that will make it better, hmm? Your daddy is dead, dear. You are a living mummy, dear. But don’t freak out, because we can’t get you free, the fate of the entire city depends on you.” He waved it all away. “I’ve made these arguments myself a hundred times, heck, a million. You can’t forget about her, son, it’s hard. You’ll have to keep coming down here. After every stupid meeting and every stupid argument, when there’s something to be decreed, you’ll have to come down here and make it happen. You’ll have to greet her like her father would, you’ll have to bring her a gift, talk nice to her, and then you’ll have to open the city’s screens and make the adjustments.”
The mayor pointed downwards with his finger, his sleeve lifted. “This is the job, son.”
The mayor-to-be had a feeling where this was going.
The mayor’s shoulders relaxed, as if the burden of an entire city had just been lifted. “…And as of this moment, the mayorship is yours.”

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