Josh walked along the crumbling old road, overstuffed pack on his back. The road was, of course, deserted, regardless of the fact that it was barely outside of the city that Josh had, until early that morning, called home. The mass transit system, consisting of both above- and below-ground trains, was the only allowed form of transportation; cars were illegal. People still owned them, though. They were all antiques now, some displayed proudly, some left to rot in a yard or empty lot. There was no more gas to run them-- it had all been used up years ago, and the fight between alternative fuels and public transportation had been won by the heavily government-supported-- and now run-- train system. Some roads, mostly those in the cities, had been converted to rails, or just built over, but those that were no longer needed were just left to deteriorate, unused. Their abandoned state would make them the best way to travel, Josh thought. He didn't want to have to talk to anyone until he was much farther away from the city.
He tugged at the collar of his jumpsuit. It didn't quite fit him and had been hard to get. But he couldn't leave the city in his usual clothes-- everyone wore Dispies now-- disposable clothes, generated by the household materializer. They only lasted about two days, at most, and were really only meant to be worn for one. You picked up a new outfit from the materializer in the morning, and at the end of the day, threw it in the dissolver bin, where it fell apart and the atoms were collected for reuse by the materializer. The materializer itself was connected to the System, a worldwide network that, coupled with the uni chips that were implanted in the thumb at birth, replaced the need for things like paper money, credit cards, and paper medical records. The System allowed the materializer to know your measurements, which would be updated in the System at every medical checkup, and you could program a series of outfits into it, to suit your personal taste and style. Most people programmed at least a week's worth of outfits, which would be rotated on a semi-random basis by the machine. Those who were seriously into style frequently had dozens of outfits programmed in, and changed them often. You could also order up a custom outfit right at the machine, for special events, but for daily wear, most people just pressed their uni chip-implanted thumb to the reader and got one of their programmed outfits. Disposable outfits. Just another way they try to control us.
The jumpsuit was an old piece of clothing, leftover from the days before Dispies. Although his didn't fit very well, Josh preferred them to Dispies, as they were made to last, made of durable, stain-resistant, rip-proof fabric. Of course, they weren't very stylish anymore, and, of course, that mattered. It mattered a lot, to almost everyone. People were trained into style from the earliest ages, and style could get you-- or lose you-- a friend, girlfriend, or job. It didn't matter much to Josh. He just liked being comfortable, and let his mother program in his outfits. He hadn't even really wanted his parents to get a Dispie materializer, but he was just a kid when the switch happened, and didn't really have a say in it. He'd had to trek into the rougher parts of town, away from the center of the city, to find someone who sold old and scavenged items. He'd felt uncomfortable, wearing his brightly-colored Dispies that identified him as someone whose family had money, in this part of the city that was as dirty and dark as the center was shining and bright. But he'd persevered, finding what he needed-- the jumpsuit, the canvas pack, leather boots. And he managed a few tools, like the pocketknife that he was unconsciously fingering as it hung from his belt.
The pack hung uncomfortably from his shoulders, and his jumpsuit was stuck to his back with sweat. Just a little longer, he thought, then I can stop for a rest. Maybe repack the bag, even leave some things behind. He knew that he'd been packing too much, but he'd had to pack quickly before he left and was nervous about leaving anything behind that might prove useful. And when he stopped, he'd find some way to remove the uni chip from his thumb, so they couldn't track him. Reaching behind him, he slid his navigation pad out and looked at it, plotting his course. He'd head away from the city, angling slowly toward the river. He supressed a shudder. He was afraid of the river, but it would be the best bet to keep him safe from the city patrols that would surely be in search of him after his parents discovered he was gone. If they found him, he would probably be sent to military school-- and the military was a life-long sentence. Once in, never out, except by death. May the Council of Combined Countries last forever, he recited bitterly in his head.
Capt stood in front of the display window. 300 unis for a simple navigation pad? They had to be crazy. But then, maybe that was a good price... he wasn't sure. He forgot the conversion rate from the old money. Not that it mattered now, anyway. No one in this part of town had 300 unis. Things had changed here once every country in the world adopted the same currency- the Universal Unit, uni for short. The economists were so excited about the uni- while once upon a time a universal currency would have spelled disaster, ever since the powers of the Council of Combined Countries eliminated the poverty of third-world countries, everyone rejoiced that the uni would truly bring global economic equality. It did, for the most part. The high parts of the cities, the suburbs, even the farms all benefitted from the uni. Millions of people all over the world were getting jobs now, thanks to the uni. But no one really looked at how short-lived some of those jobs would be. For with the uni had come the spread of new technology, new ways of doing things. The world was optimistic in its growth. But as the old saying went, a building won't stand without a solid foundation. The uni leveled the world, but the new technology built it up. Something had to give.
Capt shook himself from his thoughts and turned away from the display of navigation pads that constantly talked, explaining features, benefits, trying to sell the pads. He checked the pockets of his tattered trenchcoat and found only the few old coins that he expected to find. He held his thumb up to his face and looked at the place where the uni chip had been implanted. It would be easier to use than coins and bills, he had to admit. Just press your thumb to a store's uni chip reader and the funds would be transferred. Capt frowned. It wasn't just used for storing money, though. The uni chip was also the Universal Identity Card, containing everything from your name and birthday to your medical records to your permanent record from grade school. Once you had a uni chip in your thumb, there was no hiding anything. And everyone had a uni chip.
Taking a final look at his thumb that invisibly held the chip, Capt shoved his hands in his pockets, fingering the leftover coins of an obsolete currency. They were all the money he had. His uni chip held no unis. He was one of those in the forgotten part of society, the ones without jobs, the ones who were left below when the Council of Combined Countries did their great leveling. Capt was one of the unfortunates whose body did not react well to the new technology- he was what they called a throwback, someone who couldn't be brought into the new universal society. In this new world, it was the throwbacks who suffered.
When the uni- and inevitably, the uni chip- were introduced, the ad campaign was so well run that no one but the old and cynical doubted the benefits it would have. The world back then was hopeful, having just come out of a world war won by the idealistic youth who were determined to make the world better themselves, not just end up leaving the job to the next generation as had happened so many times before. This time, the world would unite. Technology would be shared by everyone, and the would would finally be at peace. They were a perfect market to sell the uni to. Capt himself had fought for this new world, never realizing that it wouldn't work quite as planned.
When a uni chip was implanted in a normal person, the thumb healed around it, leaving no indication that the surgery had ever been done. By Capt's estimate, 99% of the world's population reacted this way. But for the other 1%, well, the reaction to the chip was very different. The chip was implanted and the thumb healed invisibly, but underneath the skin, the chip was affecting the body, sending signals through the nerves, causing the body to turn on itself. And by the time anyone realized what was happening, it was too late. The most common effect of this was degeneration of soft tissues- the tongue and eyes softened, rotted, and melted out. Capt was one of the lucky ones. He'd gotten rich enough during the war that the doctors managed to save one eye. All he could see was grey shadows, but he was far better off than most, even if it had cost him the last of his money. Still, here he was, a throwback. The irony never escaped him, however, that he who had been one of the most vocal supporters of the new world now had no place in it, nor tongue to cry out at the injustice.
He wanted that navigation pad, though, wanted to go someplace else, anywhere, that might be better than where he was now. Still an optimistic fool, he cursed himself. In this universal society, the whole world was the same. In making everyone equal, they'd put an end to diversity. The display continued to scream its wares at him, trying to convince him to buy things that he couldn't afford.
Capt sighed and walked away from the storefront, heading towards the river. Though the air was cold, the pollution from the city caused a scum to float on the water that was several degrees warmer- enough to chase away the chills the slightest bit. Many throwbacks spent their nights here, a part of the city where most people would never go. But then, most people didn't even know about the throwbacks. The doctors had done a very good job of explaining away the problem, and with the throwbacks' inability to accept technological implants, there were no jobs for them. Now technology was invented to prevent the creation of any more throwbacks, but that cure only worked on babies. It was too late for everyone else.
Blind and speechless, the throwbacks were left to form their own communities, unable to receive new mechanical eyes or electronic voiceboxes to regain their speech. They'd come up with a sort of rudimentary grunting language, to communicate as best they could without having a tongue, or, in some unfortunate cases, lips, to shape the words.
Raising a hand to the shoulder of his friend Shani, Capt gave it a quick squeeze and made a sound of greeting. To her inquiring noise, he responded with a negative, to say that he had been unsuccessful in finding anything useful. Shani wanted to leave this city too, even though she too knew that there was really nowhere to go. She was as poor as he, and completely blind, though she had a stump of tongue left that allowed her to make a wider range of sounds than most other throwbacks. She could almost speak, but it still took some practice to learn to understand her. Capt felt sorry for her, as she was one of the youngest throwbacks. When the doctors had invented the throwback antidote, she had just passed the age when it would have worked, and, taken from her parents, was cast out of the society as a young child. Luckily for her, Capt found her, afraid and alone, on the streets after a few days, and decided to take her of her. Easily twenty years her senior, Capt played alternatively the roles of father and big brother, raising her as best he could in the world of the throwbacks. A teenager now, Shani was tired of life by the river and longed to leave. Capt, as devoted to her as ever, was doing his best to find the means for them to do so.
He sighed again, and, grabbing a lump of foul-smelling clay from the riverbank, sat down inside their tent. His hands carefully shaped the clay. He'd never been much of an artist, but he found that working the clay helped him to think, since he had so few ways to express his thoughts. His vision was bad enough that he couldn't read, and he certainly couldn't afford a pad that would read to him. He could write with a pen, he knew, though he'd be hard-pressed to find someone who could read it. He thought that he remembered how to type on the old keyboards, too, though they were rare nowadays. Everything was speech-activated, just another way to prevent the throwbacks from being able to exist in this modern society, though no one would ever admit that it was intentional.
As he worked the clay, he wracked his brain as he had every day for years, trying to figure out some way for them to leave and find somewhere else to live. One problem would be food. It was hard to identify food, without being able to see it or taste it. Shani had a good sense of smell, for a throwback anyway, so she might be able to smell what would be safe to eat. Capt would have to be in charge of navigation, with his limited vision. They could take their tent with them. It was sturdy enough, an old canvas Army tent that had only a few holes in it. He wished that he could find the supplies to mend it, but all trash went straight to an incinerator, so dumpster-diving was out of the question. That made it even harder for the throwbacks to survive. Even in this world, there were still poor people who couldn't afford all the new technology, and although most of them were determined to join upper society, some were compassionate people who left out food and various odds and ends for the throwbacks to find. At least, they would until the police found out and put a stop to it. It was always a struggle to find new sources of handouts.
Capt had tried to work in exchange for food and supplies, doing chores, odd jobs, but most people wouldn't hire a throwback, if they could even understand what he was trying to communicate to them. Once in a great while, he was able to sell a clay bowl or cup that he had made, but he was sure that people only bought it out of pity, giving him a small sack of leftover food or maybe an old tool in exchange.
As an evening wind kicked up and blew the smell of the river over to them, Capt had a thought. All rivers had a source, right? What if the source was far away from the city, maybe even clean enough to drink from without treatment? The more he thought about it, the surer he was that following the river was the only way that they would have a chance of making it. He called to Shani, who was sitting not far away. With a hopeful tone, he dipped some water from the river into her hand and swept it to point away from the city. She made a questioning noise, to which he responded with an affirmative. Excited, he left a slightly-bewildered Shani as he headed back toward the city, intent on finding supplies for the trip.
Josh's feet ached in the leather boots, so he finally gave in and sat down in the shade of an abandoned building, dropping his pack and pulling off the boots, struggling a bit with the laces. Dispie shoes didn't have laces, and they didn't have such stiff soles-- but in the city, everything was so well-kept that soft, flexible soles worked just fine. He'd never had to walk on such rough, uneven ground, nor so far in one day, and although his feet were sore, he knew that he was better off than if he'd been wearing Dispie shoes. The soreness and what was, to him, rustic clothing somehow made him feel more real than he had since he was a small child.
After a massage of his tired feet and a quick snack and drink of water, he forced himself to get up. He knew that he should go through his pack and root out some things that weren't essential, to lighten his load, but he decided to wait until he stopped for the night and could light a fire. He didn't want to leave any traces of himself behind, just in case there was anyone looking for him.
Checking his navigation pad again, he resumed his path toward the river and away from town. He rubbed his thumb as he went, thinking about the uni chip implanted there. Should he dig it out? There had been rumors that the chips could be used to track people, but those had all been unequivocally denied by the government. Maybe he was just being paranoid. Still, it wouldn't hurt-- except literally, that is-- to remove the chip and let it float downriver, back into the city. Then if it was found, they would probaby assume that he was torn apart by wild animals or something. Josh shuddered, not knowing if the stories of vicious wild animals was true, or if it was just another ruse to keep people in the city, where they could more easily be controlled. Everyone knew that the farmers who grew the small supply of real food, not the stuff that could be had from the materializers, were a little odd.
Josh walked through another abandoned town. The broken, faded signs advertized hotels, restaurants, laudromats, all the things you'd have found in any average town before the Council of Combined Countries took over the world's government and encouraged, bribed, and in some well-covered-up cases, forced, to move to the cities. Josh didn't remember any of that, though; he'd been born well after the war was over and the new, global government set up. He was one of the Shining Generation, those babies born once everything was running smoothly again. A baby boom of children who grew up knowing only the new way and some history lessons about how terrible things used to be, before there was worldwide peace and civilization. He shook his head. Josh was a thinker and didn't take anything for granted. He was also curious, and all these traits didn't make him fit in very well, part of why he'd decided to leave. His values just didn't fit.
Cautiously, he entered a hotel, poking around a few of the rooms to see if they would be a good place to spend the night. The beds were old, linens yellowed and covered in a layer of dust. He stepped into a bathroom and tried the tap-- dry, of course. He wasn't likely to find much water without going into a city, or very far away from one.
Sneezing from the dust, he headed back outside and found an alley where he could set up a tent. He hadn't actually been able to find a real tent, but he'd managed to get two canvas tarps and some rope, which he was reasonably sure that he could make work, even if he had no real idea how tents were supposed to work. First, he gathered all the combustible materials that were in the area and arranged them to make a campfire. He'd light it later, when it got darker and colder, but wanted to have the fuel ready. Then he turned to setting up his shelter. There was chain-link fence at the end of the alley, which he intended to use to hold up one end of the tarp. He tied one end of the rope to the fence, just above head height, looped the rope through the grommets of the canvas and the through the fence, then pulled the rope tight so that the canvas wouldn't sag. His knot pulled loose and the whole apparatus fell to his feet. Josh sighed. He tried again, tying a couple extra knots for good measure. He wished that he knew a better way to tie it, but his tying skills were very limited. There just really wasn't any need for knots in the city. He re-looped the rope through the fence and tarp and carefully tightened it. This time, it held. He tied the loose end of the rope to the fence too, and laid the other canvas on the ground for a groundcloth.
Then Josh turned his attention to the fire. He'd gotten a couple boxes of matches, and knew that he'd have to ration them so that they'd last as long as possible. He knew a little bit about fire, having played with the stove they had before they got the materializer. He grimaced, remembering the punishment he'd received for that one. But he'd learned a thing or two about fire. He knew that small, dry things caught fire better than bigger things, but once you got them lit, bigger, thicker things ended up burning longer. So he'd have to use the match to light something small and dry, then use that flame to light the bigger pieces of wood he'd found.
About two and a half hours, three quarters of a box of matches, and a lot of swearing later, Josh finally had a small fire going. He'd choked it at first, not realizing that a fire needs a significant amount of airflow, and then, once realizing his mistake, blew and fanned too hard, spreading the sparks out and extinguishing the flames yet again. Finally, with just the right amount of tinder, kindling, and patience, he managed to keep the flames burning. He made sure that he had a good-sized pile of wood, mostly old chairs and shipping pallets.
Looking at his stash of matches, severly diminished by his sad fire-making attempts, he made up his mind to find a way to carry fire with him. A torch would probably burn too fast, he decided. And he didn't have anything to use for fuel on a torch. He'd have to find some way to carry the coals. He'd learned, while trying to get the fire going, that even a small spark could flare and catch fire to other fuel when he gently blew on it, and once it burned down to coals, he thought that he could get a fire started from a coal again.
But how could he carry a coal so that it wouldn't burn him or his pack, yet not burn out? He decided to sort through his pack while he thought about it. Maybe he'd even find something useful for that, but at the very least, he needed to pare down the contents or the weight would end up making his trip much harder than it would already be. He pulled the pack onto his lap and began pulling out items, sorting them into piles as he did so. He had a couple blankets, but he'd need those. It was already getting cold and it wasn't too late yet. The extra rope, he'd keep too. Rope always seemed to come in handy. Next came his food and water. The water was in an aluminum canteen and a plastic bottle, the most durable containers he could get his hands on. The food was nothing special either, just packets of nutritional concentrate bars-- the stuff that only poor people ate, those who couldn't afford a materializer. It didn't taste that bad, really, but there was precious little variety in it and he expected it to get monotonous after a time.
The next items he removed were there for nostalgic purposes, mostly. His great-great-grandfather's collection of vintage comic books. They'd been handed down to him from his grandfather, skipping his own father entirely. Josh remembered the look on his grandfather's face as he'd handed over the comics, explaining that if his parents found them, they'd probably be taken away. Josh's parents didn't believe in that sort of "mind-rotting rubbish." He'd brought the books with him, knowing what would happen to them if he'd left them at home. These he would keep, as long as possible. At the very least, he could use them to get fires started.
A sad smile spread its way across Josh's face as he reached into the pack and his fingers touched fur. He hadn't been able to resist bringing this, but it was taking up too much room. Gently, he pulled out the stuffed form of his childhood dog, Rascal. The dog had been his mother's before he was born, but when she brought the new baby into the house, Rascal had immediately decided that this new creature, who even as an infant was larger than the long-haired chihuahua, was worthy of his fiercest protection. When the dog died when Josh was 7, he was so distraught that his parents had his pet stuffed, hoping to console him. He'd been outraged, at first, not to have Rascal buried properly, but over time, the stuffed dog grew on him. Now it was finally time to let go. Carefully, almost reverently, he placed the dog into the fire, wrinkling his nose as the long hair burned and released an acrid smell, then the body began to fall apart, burning until it was gone.
He hung his head as a tear fell down his cheek. Goodbye, Rascal, he thought. He set his pack aside. He'd finish going through it later. For now, he'd distract himself by trying to work up a solution for carrying coals. He sat down and began to think.
Shani sat outside their tent, waiting for Capt to come back. She usually had little trouble understanding his ideas, but this last one puzzled her. Surely he didn't mean that they would follow the river? If it were a viable drinking source, she could understand, but she didn't see what point there was in following such a polluted river. Maybe Capt had finally cracked under the pressure of the lifestyle he'd been forced to live. Or maybe the damage that the uni chip had done had spread to his brain, like it did some people. Still, she'd had enough of this life herself, and if he was ready to leave, she'd follow, no matter what they might find. She didn't think that anything was likely to be worse than this.
Site and contents (except where otherwise noted) Copyright © 2004- Kethrim