Click here to read Part One of our tale.
A pleasant chime sounded once and the Scribblers vacated their cubicles in an orderly fashion, following the conveyor belt down to the cafeteria. Michael remained in his spot in line, collecting his pressed and recycled paper tray filled with his allotted rations of organic foods and purified water. No one spoke as they awaited their turns, quietly taking their arranged meals and finding their assigned tables. More robot monitors patrolled, doing their best to remain gentle observers and not interfere with the humans’ movement.
Lunchtime was the different divisions’ only time to see anyone from another floor. The robots believed that humans were more productive when their brains received the stimuli of seeing a different face for a limited amount of time. Their lunch break was timed so that they had just enough interaction with their co-workers to promote a healthier outlook on their lot in life—but not too much time, lest they grow lax in socializing.
Michael navigated through the narrow aisles, moving for his table. Already, he spotted her vibrant red tresses, and his heart quickened.
Sara Theresea was already seated, eating her lunch. In a sea of white and light grey, her beautiful hair served as a startling splash of color. The robots discouraged color, perhaps because they were unable to fully appreciate the concept themselves, leaving the world drained of life and light. In Michael’s dreams, he saw brilliant rainbow-colored light, reaching out to him, entreating him to draw near.
In the waking world, Sara was his rainbow.
“Hi,” he greeted exuberantly, sitting across from her.
She brightened, her wide blue eyes coming alive as though an internal switch had been flipped. “Hi. How are you?”
He nodded sheepishly, then began to eat. The two of them exchanged pleasantries, careful not to get too animated in their conversation. The robot monitors didn’t like that and were sure to break up any conversation they deemed too lively and unproductive. Nevertheless, Michael enjoyed his short time with Sara over the years and felt she did, as well. At least, he hoped she did.
He and Sara both—everyone in their particular building, in fact—had been designated by The Company at birth to remain celibate. Their genetic structure had even been tampered with en utero, sterilizing them. Breeders were kept far away from drones like him. Children remained with their parents in familial camps until they reached the age of sixteen, then they were shuttled off to whatever branch The Company had selected for them. All parental contact was severed at that time, for fear emotional attachment would be detrimental to production. Michael hadn’t seen or spoken to either his mother or father in two decades. Every once in a while he thought of them, remembered his father’s reprimand to blend in, to not stand out.
Not much of a legacy to leave one’s son, but it was the only legacy The Company allowed.
“I saw something strange today,” Michael said after finishing a bite.
Sara leaned closer, her face glowing with excitement. “Was it that paper outside earlier?”
They leaned even closer together over their food, speaking in low conspiratorial tones, attracting the disapproving glares of their co-workers. “What do you think it was?” Sara asked in a whisper.
Michael shrugged, still smiling. “I don’t know. Maybe it was like an advertisement for something? I saw moving pictures on it.”
A chime indicated lunchtime was over. Immediately, the Scribblers gathered their trays and shuffled off to re-form in their lines. Michael and Sara, though, continued to sit for a moment more, their smiles slowly fading.
“Well,” Sara began, a melancholy resignation in her voice, “I guess I’ll see you tomorrow. Same place, same time?”
Michael offered a smile, but failed to make it convincing. “Yeah.”
They looked to each other, and Michael drank in the sight, knowing it would have to last him a day. At last, Sara waved and stood, joining her co-workers. Michael rose to his feet, watching her leave, those bright red tresses trailing after her.
“Move it, Morrison,” one of his fellow Scribblers bellowed behind him.
Michael gnashed his teeth in frustration, but quickly submitted, heading back to work.
* * *
Michael reclined in his single-seater car as it hovered on auto-pilot through the transit tubes. He watched the other drones returning home on pre-designated paths programmed into their vehicles.
As they often did, his thoughts drifted to Sara, and he wondered where her vehicle was taking her. They’d been seated across from each other for ten years, but never spoke long enough to discuss where they lived. In fact, all he knew about her was that she worked on the thirty-sixth floor.
That, and she was very pretty.
But beauty didn’t factor into it. They were drones, not meant to be together. Feeling a rush of anger, he formed a fist before the familiar woman’s voice that was programmed into all of the machines soothingly chided him from the console. “Adrenaline levels spiking. Do you require assistance, Scribbler Morrison, Michael A?”
He sighed. “No, ma’am.”
Michael released his fist and cooled, closing his eyes for the rest of the trip home.
* * *
When he arrived at his apartment, Michael stepped out of his vehicle and watched as the compartment in the street opened, swallowing the car into its parking space until tomorrow morning when he was scheduled to leave for work.
The Company had a fixed curfew in place in order to guarantee that their human charges achieved the maximum amount of sleep. Michael still had a couple hours before then that he could call his own, though vehicle travel was strictly prohibited in that time, to lessen the chances of an automobile accident—though that seemed unlikely since the machines operated all vehicles by remote, but Michael had learned to stop asking questions.
Seth was likely coming over tonight for dinner. Michael saw his younger brother an average of four nights a week. They had another, elder brother Edward, but he had been reassigned to another city, and, per the robots’ orders, communication was entirely severed. Michael enjoyed spending time with Seth, though recognized that, at a moment’s notice, they could be separated by work—or, worse, liquidated if they proved unproductive.
Michael had learned early in his life that everything was transitory, and it was best not to invest himself in anything or anyone.
Another lesson from his father.
He stepped up to the building door, ready to ascend to his apartment, when he heard someone clearing his throat, off to his side. Mildly curious, he looked up and beheld a most strange sight. He saw a man, but unlike any he’d ever seen before. The older man wore dark clothes, worn and dirtied pants and boots, with a slick black jacket. Under the jacket, the man was shirtless, his tanned skin adorned in mysterious markings—tattoos—that seemed to twist and swirl in the light. The man’s white hair and beard were long and braided and, in his cracked lips, he held a cigarette.
The man was the living antithesis of The Company’s parameters for acceptable dress.
Michael balked, sweat beading on his brow. “Um…hello.”
The man cracked a grin, revealing extended canines. “Hey, there, Mike.”
Michael looked behind him, to his side, then faced the strange man again. “Come again? Do I know you?”
“Hell, little brother,” the man guffawed, stepping closer. “We’re like family!”
“Cursing is prohibited,” Michael stammered, bewildered. Then he rambled, “So is smoking, long hair for males, tattoos, and exposing your skin.”
The man stopped cold, clenched the cigarette in his yellow-stained teeth, and held out his hands, as if in surrender. “Ya got me, dude. I’m a regular law breaker.”
Michael wasn’t sure what to do, his hand still hovering inches from the pad to unlock his apartment building. The man surprised him by jutting out a gnarled hand for him to shake. “Name’s Rip.”
Michael eyed the hand suspiciously, wondering what germs might lurk there. Hesitantly, he reached out and shook the proffered hand. “Michael Morrison.”
Rip chuckled. “Don’t you mean Scribbler Morrison, Michael A? Damn, little brother, what’d they do to you? Turned you into a regular pencil neck.”
Michael shot worried glances over his shoulder, fearful that a monitor would be along at any moment, and catch him talking to this rugged fellow. Why is here? Why is he talking to me? Where did he come from?
Then the realization struck. Michael exclaimed, “A-Are you from the Wilds?”
Michael had only heard of the Wilds in his youth—a place far from the cities and the robot overseers, where trees and grass and animals still populated the Earth. According to fables that children tell each other, some humans actually left behind The Company and ventured out to the Wilds, to forge their own paths.
It was his most favorite story. Needless to say, his father quashed such tales.
Over the years, Michael had all-but forgotten about those bygone fairy tales, but if they were true—if a place like the Wilds really existed—then this smelly, dirty man before him must hail from there.
Rip paused for a moment, then shrugged. “You could say that.”
Excited now, Michael stepped closer. “Do you want to come in?”
Now Rip sneered. “Thought you’d never ask.”
Come back Monday, March 9 for the third installment!