Anton thinks about Professor Mad’s words carefully while leaving the office. Her two sentences make sense when he thinks about them together, meaning that he can gain some knowledge from Herbert while talking with them. But Anton is almost certain that these words have other meanings because of the discussion before.
I might learn something from them…learn something…from them…Anton suddenly recalls the fiction he read last night, the one the author ensured to be a true story but has so many bugs. What if…what if…
Anton doesn’t believe in miracles. The whole world doesn’t believe in miracles. The great People’s New Republic was built by humans and only humans. And he knows that there is something special with Herbert because they have missed every check by the Central Archive, let’s face it, they can’t be that lucky. The system that has been perfected by humans for ages can’t be that vulnerable. If Herbert really has any privileges, then the system fails because everyone should be equal. Anton feels like he is standing on a small island surrounded by deep water and suddenly there is a way out. Herbert might be the key for The Rebels to rise.
As one of the best research students in the college, Anton quickly figured out the possible consequences. If Herbert belongs to a privileged group, then the world deserves to know that the system is not equal to everyone now, and if there is some system blindness, then The Rebels could make some use of it. Even if Herbert is a spy from the People’s Committee of the Republic, Angela can still do some backtrace and invade the Central Archive. Either way, this is a good chance they will find the evidence and then encourage the people to vote against the usage of the Central Archive–The Rebels have waited for a chance like this for years.
Professor Mad is so knowledgeable. Anton suddenly understands their strange conversation and why she wants him to stay with Herbert–to find more evidence. And if Professor Mad is right, then it is safe to stay with Herbert no matter whether they are privileged or are a bug in the system.
Anton tries his best to hide his smile and walks toward the elevator.
“Ding Dong–Ground Level.” The elevator door disintegrates. Anton decides to stay with Herbert until the fieldwork next week. He feels the energy in him. He is ready to work for the whole human race!
Oh fuck. Walking out of the elevator, Anton realizes that he doesn’t know where Herbert is. Ok, Anton, that’s just a small problem. You can do this. He decides to go back to the base and ask Angela if she has any way to find Herbert. Although Angela can’t locate them with GPS, he is sure that she will find a way. Maybe through surveillance cameras and chip readers. She is capable of stealing signal feeds from the Central Archive anyway.
“Yo-hoo! Isn’t that my dear Anton?”
Anton looks toward the voice and sees the familiar purple cape at the front gate of the college. He ignores the aria tone and walks to Herbert with a smile.
“Where are you heading to?” Anton asks. The vintage cape on Herbert is blinking, and it almost hurts his eyes.
“Nowhere in particular. I wanna know more about the vampire site you’ve found in State 21.” Herbert puts their left arm on Anton’s shoulder and speaks into his right ear. No one has ever gotten this close to Anton except Loli during the medical examinations. He has only seen actions like Herbert’s in history books when talking about impolite behaviors. Anton wants to get rid of the arm immediately, but Hebert is surprisingly strong, and he doesn’t succeed after the first attempt.
“Are you crazy? Whaaaaaat are you doing?” Anton feels like he is frozen. Herbert is cold. He can feel the uncomfortable temperature even with the blazer and shirt in between their skin. Anton knows that everyone else on the street must be looking at them even though he is not looking around.
“Oh, I thought we were friends, are we not?” Herbert gets even closer.
“…Hasn’t anyone told you what manners are?” Friends? Dude I’ve only known you for a day! Anton has never wanted to see Loli and her medical examination room this much. Is there a way to see what’s inside Hebrert’s brain to gather the evidence? Anton doesn’t want to spend even one more second with them.
“Manners? You sound like my dad,” Herbert puts their arm down, and takes a step back. They change back to the calm tone when they were using with Professor Mad. Anton doesn’t know what’s wrong with them, but he guesses it has something to do with Herbert’s parents. But he can’t just ask “Was your dad also disintegrated?”
Anton hesitates for a second. He doesn’t know how to deal with the two different Herberts. At some point, they act like a perfect rebel– calm, logical, knowledgeable, and confident. But when they talk with him, they seem like the bug in the system– reckless, dramatic, abnormal, and yet the Central Archive doesn’t even bother to send out a warning.
“So…are you hungry?” Anton asks with hesitation. Thanks to the less-than-2-page investigation report on Simplified Chinese, Anton knows some old-fashioned ice-breaking methods. Evidence shows that asking if one is hungry actually means an invitation for hanging out. Herbert looks like a vintage lover to him, and Anton bets they also know his intentions. But if they understand it literally, that would be really awkward because it’s only 9 A.M.
Anton feels his heart rate increase like when he is waiting for final grades or hiding from the peacekeepers.
“A little bit.” Herbert answers after several seconds.
They take the local shuttle to the corner of Hac Street again. Herbert has been here before when they were following the chip’s mission to find Professor Mad. The street names are totally strange to them but are easy to remember at the same time. Like… who the hell would use ‘this’ street as the street name?
“So… what do you want for lunch?” Anton asks.
“What? You’re gonna cook?” Herbert regrets their tone the moment they say it. They know they shouldn’t be rude to someone they’ve just met and who has been nice to them. But Herbert just can’t control themselves. They feel like they’ve known Anton for a long time, he reminds them of Aelianus and Cynthia.
Herbert bets that their two best friends are not in any records anymore, not even in the database. Their names and their lives are already lost in the river of time thousands of years ago, and the only proof of their existence is the grass bracelet on Herbert’s left wrist.
“Gonna?” Surprisingly, Anton isn’t showing any anger in his voice at all.
Herbert sighs. Something had been lost.
“It means ‘going to’ in academic English.” They explain the word seriously, just like every time they explained the theory of existence and other strange philosophical ideas to Cynthia.
“Oh, thank you!” Anton then answers their question without feeling the rhetoric at all, “I can cook if you want. But I’m not good at it.”
“No worries.” Herbert smiles, “Do you know how to make honey with pumpkins and apples?”
“Do I what?”
“No worries. I can make it for you.” Herbert puts their hand on Anton’s shoulder again, “We are friends, aren’t we?”
Herbert is shocked that Anton is not trying to push away their hand. They’ve noticed that people in the republic are polite but distant from each other. They hardly ever see anyone making physical contact with each other on the street except shaking hands.
“There’s an ingredient pick-up site just across the street.” Anton points to the door decorated with fruit paintings on the glass.
“Great!” Herbert nods. While waiting for the traffic light, they give the order ‘search ingredient pick-up site’ and give the one-time transmission access to the chip to directly feed the information in their mind instead of showing it on the screen. Herbert doesn’t want Anton to know that he was living in a monarchy yesterday. Although they already knew that everything is free here, Herbert is still shocked when they learn that ingredient pick-up sites are kind of like supermarkets from their age, except that everything is completely free. And once people finish picking the cooking ingredients, workers in the site will put them in the transportation tube, which will deliver the fresh ingredients to people’s fridges.
“What about frozen tofu stew with beef–are you vegetarian?” Anton asks, walking into the disintegrated door.
“No. I’m open to anything,” Herbert answers, secretly praising the designer of this place. From what they’re looking at, there are at least 20 kinds of apples in perfect aisles from the greenest to the reddest. There’s even duck blood tofu.
It’s been so long since their last proper meal. An old vampire like Herbert doesn’t really need to eat every day. Cassius can even sleep for 100 years. Plus, they love human food, so their stomach is always full. But the desire for blood has not disappeared–it haunts them whenever they smell it.
Plus, humans make really delicious dishes with blood. Herbert hasn’t eaten anything since they got here, and now their stomach is shouting for fresh duck blood tofu.
They hold the corner of Anton’s red velvet blazer, “Do you know how to cook that?”
“Which one?” Anton stares at their fingers on his blazer for seconds, and looks toward the section Herbert is pointing to.
Herbert searches in their chip for ‘blood tofu’ to make sure that it still has the same name now, “Blood tofu. Aren’t you a vampire researcher? Are you good at vampire dishes?”
“Don’t be silly. Vampires don’t eat, they drink blood from human bodies.” Anton refutes, “But I can make it if you want.”
No, darling, you’d be so shocked if you met Camille. Herbert agues back in their mind without saying a word.
Herbert takes one round orange pumpkin, two fuji apples, and four jars of honey. They want to get some spices, but Herbert can’t find where they are. They look around, and Anton is five shelves away.
“Do you need any help?” A woman in a white T-shirt and black glasses asks. Hearing an unfamiliar voice, Herbert quickly gives the order to use facial recognition, and the result, which comes back in a second, shows that they’ve never met.
“Yes. Could you please advise me where the shelf of spices is?” Herbert asks with a polite smile.
“No problem. The second shelf down there behind the vegetable section.” The woman points to the corner “I’m Cosima by the way.”
“Herbert,” they shake her hand. “Thank you for your help.” Herbert shakes her hand
“Thank you and have a nice day.” The woman smiles, like the sunshine in a dark winter. Herbert walks to the end of the fruit section and looks at the woman taking a box of orange juice and greeting everyone she’s seen.
Maybe this world is not that bad after all. After all those wars, famines, discriminations, crises, and human corpses, isn’t this world the perfect place? Everyone is productive, polite, and more importantly, a fully functional human. If the price is surveillance, is it too high? And if no one realizes the price, does the price still exist? Herbert wishes that Ludwiga and Camille were here. They would definitely fall into an argument, but at least there’s someone to discuss these things with.
Herbert walks to the high shelf full of bottled spices and picks cinnamon, lemongrass, and pumpkin spice. They put it into the small basket, and find Anton in the vegetable section.
“Which one do you want in the spicy duck blood tofu stew: spinach or lettuce?” Anton raises both hands to them with spinach in his left hand and lettuce on the right.
“Why don’t you take them both?” Herbert doesn’t understand why he is asking such a simple question. Only kids make decisions between two things. A grown-up can take them both. Besides, it’s free.
“That’s too much. We can’t finish them all in one meal.” Anton frowns, “We shouldn’t take excessive resources.”
“Lettuce then.” Herbert smiles. See, the world is not so bad after all. They become more and more curious about what happened to the human race in 382 years. How the hell does something so selfish and greedy become so generous and altruistic in 382 years? Herbert lived for almost two thousand years, and they watched humans falling in the same trap again and again and again. Time changes, but history repeated itself for all those years. Admittedly, some of them were Robin and her fellows’ faults, but those wars and disasters would not happen if humans didn’t have unlimited greed in them.
Camille would love this place. Hearing Anton talking about how he digged, literally, the recipe of spicy duck blood tofu stew from a time capsule at a historical site that used to be called Pearl of the Orient, Herbert gets rid of their thoughts.
“So what language was the recipe in?” Herbert asks, and gives the order to search ‘Pearl of the Orient’ in their mind at the same time. The information shows that it was a television tower that was built in the Material Age in the Second Republic of China.
“Simplified Chinese.” Anton sighs, “You can’t believe how long I spent on translating it.”
“Uh-huh. So how was that related to vampires?” Herbert can’t stop their satire. After all, they are a living vampire standing here listening to humans’ completely wrong assumptions about them. Herbert thinks they’ve got the permission to be sarcastic.
“To trace the development of blood-related food in human society might lead to evidence that vampires had secretly influenced human development in some ways,” Anton answers while walking toward the transportation tube.
Anton doesn’t know which thing is more unbelievable: that Herbert knows how to cook or that they wear their vintage cape while cutting the pumpkin. He already put the hot pepper, duck blood tofu, and bean sprouts in a pot. The stew machine is cooking frozen tofu, beef, and glass noodles. He lays on the dining table, and looks at Herbert who just finished cutting apples into slices, and now is dealing with the orange pumpkin.
They seem so serious and focused when dealing with the ingredients on the chopping board. Anton didn’t know that one could have so many different personalities before he met Herbert. Aren’t they tired? Anton is exhausted every night just pretending to be one other person, but Herbert has already shown three completely different characters. He doesn’t know how they manage to do that.
For the first time in a year, there is no Mozart playing in the apartment. Herbert puts apple slices and pumpkin pieces into a steamer, washes their hands, and sits next to Anton.
Aren’t they supposed to sit on the other side of the table? But Anton doesn’t even bother to ask. He is almost used to Herbert’s namelessness. There has never been anyone sitting this close to him, not even Loli during the medical exams. Anton can even smell the peppermint scent of the liquid soap.
“So, you don’t look like the cooking type.” Anton tries to hide his nervousness by pushing the topic on Herbert. Anton wants to know where they learned about vampires and why no peacekeepers stop their inappropriate behavior. He wants to know more about Herbert.
“Yeah, well, my guardian is very boring. He basically eats the same thing every day and has been for years, so I have to learn.” Herbert is back to their aria tone. Anton misses the quiet and serious Herbert as soon as they open their mouth.
“Wow. wouldn’t that cause malnutrition?” Anton asks. Eating the same thing for years sounds…unbelievably horrible.
Herbert suddenly laughs loudly.
Did I say something funny? Anton starts to doubt himself. But he can’t think of anything funny. Wait. Is malnutrition the right word? Since Herbert speaks academic English with him, Anton also uses academic English to talk with them. It’s a perfect opportunity to practice. But Anton is not 100 percent sure that he uses the words the right way. After all, it’s a dead language. Herbert speaks even more fluently than Professor Mad.
“Nonono, you’re right. It’s a brilliant question. I’m definitely going to ask him next time.” Herbert answers with a laugh.
Anton still doesn’t understand what just happened. The steamer ‘dings’ Herbert laughs even louder and opens the steamer. They put the soft chunks into the mixer, and open the switch. After a minute, they put the honey in. The honey in the blender quickly changes from light yellow to the color of a sunset.
“So, why do you like to blend them together?” Anton asks, while Herbert pours the liquid out of the blender and puts them into five organic glass jars which they got from the container pickup site earlier after leaving the ingredient pick-up site.
“You’ll love it once you taste it.” Herbert melts some of the honey blends into two bottles of warm water, and hands over one bottle to Anton.
Anton takes a sip. It’s warm. It doesn’t taste like honey at all. Anton suddenly can’t find the right word to describe the taste. It tastes like harvest and sunlight.
“Isn’t it wonderful?” Herbert asks, putting their arm on Anton’s shoulder.
“Yes. What’s the taste of it?” Anton turns his head, looking Herbert in the eyes.
“It’s the joy of foison and hope.” Herbert hugs him from the back.