She quietly contemplated over all he'd said to her. He got up and looked through his file, checking his research and giving her some time to think.

"It's not necessarily a bad thing, what they're doing..."

He frowned, turning around to look at her. She knew this wasn't the response he expected.


"It's understandable. The Rusties were archaic and primeval. Essentially asinine. They almost ended mankind completely. If altering our brains is what it takes to save us from ourselves, who's to say that's such a bad thing?"

He stared at her, gaping.

"Besides, if your theory is veritable, then how came you to such conclusions? If we're all brainless nobodies, like you stated, how were you able to find out all of this information on your own? How are we even able to have this conversation?"

"I realize I forgot to mention the difference between us and the rest of the population."

"By 'us', you mean..."

"People like you and I. Doctors, safety guards, firefighters...people who constantly have to think on their feet. Those of us who choose a more dangerous profession, somehow, we get reverted back to normal. We couldn't possibly be doing the job we're doing now if we remained our thoughtless, New Pretty selves. That wouldn't make much sense, now would it?"

"I suppose so..."

"And those of us who haven't changed back to our normal thinking patterns are still brainless, only we look a bit more mature. That's why it was so hard for me to relate to Nero and all my other old friends."

Maddy stood up and crossed her arms. Az waited for her response. She wasn't sure which side to take...

"Why are we so different? What set us apart from the rest of the group? Did we honestly choose our own professions or were we programmed to..."

"I don't know, Maddy. I don't know for sure. I don't have all the answers. And that's why I really need your help. I've conducted some of my own studies, but nothing substantial enough to really be able to present my findings publicly."

"You're planning to go public with this?" she stared at him. He nodded.

"But I need to get into the Cognitive Branch. I need to get into a lab, see exactly what they do."

"That would be more than a little difficult."

"I know. That's why I need you. Together, we'll be able to figure out a way."

She wasn't so sure she would be much of a help. In fact, she wasn't sure she was willing to help. It seemed so risky, so vague, just pipe dreams. She had a sudden headache. It was time to get home. But there he stood, waiting for her answer. The hope in his eyes was unbearable.

"I'm sorry, Az. I need some time to think about this. It just doesn't seem..." she sighed, seeing the immediate dejected look on his face. "I don't think I can help you, not the way you want me to."

He was about to say something, but she couldn't take anymore. She quickly walked over to the door.

"Let me know when you gather more evidence. Then, we'll talk." She reached for the door handle.

"Wait-" he started to say.

She didn't want to hear anything else.

"Please, let's just-"

"You forgot your painting." He interrupted, bringing it over to her.

She reached to take it and kept her gaze on the floor. Why did she feel so guilty?

He opened the door for her as she stepped out.

"Thanks for coming over and hearing me out."

She looked up at him and melted. The worst part was the look in his straightforward stare. Dejection and utter hopelessness in his green eyes. Like she'd just shattered his biggest dreams.

"I'm sorry, Az..." she said sincerely before heading toward the elevators.

"Think about what I've said. Don't give up on me." he said as she walked away.

She placed the painting in the middle of the wall opposite her bed. That way, every morning when she'd wake up, she'd see a beautiful forest of evergreens, stretching out before her, sunlight glimmering off of hidden lakes and ponds, thick underbrush growing under the shade of the trees...

She knew there had to be a place out there just like it. Somewhere in the world, there were beautiful forests spreading out as far as the eye could see. She knew she had to see it. There would be some way, any way. This was the place she'd been yearning for all her life. This place was her home. A home she'd always longed for but never knew existed till now.

And something told her that Az would know where it was. He was her ticket to getting there.