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Michael stepped aside as Rip entered his apartment.
Rip whistled, looking around. “This is it?”
Michael took a moment to consider his sparse living quarters. Like his cubicle, everything was white or soft grey, with no sharp edges or textured surfaces. The robots didn’t allow for personal effects: pictures, mementos, posters. A drone like Michael had to be ready to leave one apartment for an identical one halfway across the continent without hesitation or time spent gathering unnecessary items.
“This is home,” Michael shrugged, not finding the place all that bad. He hurried into the adjoining kitchenette. “Can I get you a drink?”
“You got beer?”
Michael blinked. “Is that alcohol? Alcohol is—”
“Prohibited,” Rip grumbled, waving him off. “Yeah, yeah.” Spotting Michael’s small couch, Rip flopped down on it, dust pluming off his filthy clothes, and propped muddy boots on the nearby coffee table.
Rip saw him. “Let me guess. No feet on the furniture?”
“You’re leaving a mess.”
Rip chuckled. “That’s me. Leaving a mess wherever I go.”
Michael poured himself a drink of purified water, rich in nutrients, and gaped at his strange visitor. He was about to ask something—though he had no clue where to begin—when Rip said, “Let me ask you a question, Mike. You like living here?”
Michael shrugged. “Where else would I live?”
“Damn, man,” he huffed, and Michael’s heart hitched at the curse word. “This whole planet sucks. And trust me, I’ve been to some crappers before, but this ranks right up there on the scale of dimensions that are better off getting blacked out. I’ve only been here a couple hours, and this place is already about to drive me nuts.”
Michael furrowed his brow. “A couple hours?”
Rip stood, stretching his arms with a crack. “Looking for you, dude!” He clapped his calloused hands, then stretched his arms over his head. “But now I’ve found ya. So let’s get out of here, huh? This place gives me the creeps.”
Michael set his drink down on the counter as Rip gestured for the door. “I’d say pack your stuff,” the old man said with a snort, “But I guess you ain’t got none to pack.”
“Wait, what? Where are we going?”
Rip narrowed his eyes. “You mean, you don’t know? Not a clue?”
Michael balked. “I…”
“You been getting the dreams, right? The one with all the colors, man.”
Michael stiffened, his mind snapping back to a thousand dreams of rainbow-colored lights, calling to him, urging him to follow. “The dreams… The light!”
“Yep. That’s the one. Well, let’s just say I’m here to make your dreams come true. There are more worlds than these, little brother. It’s my job to take you to them.”
Michael stepped closer, breathing harder. “Why me?”
“Who’s to say? Just the way the Boss wants it.”
“Who’s your Boss?”
Rip snarled and waved his hand. “Look, we’ll talk more about that later. Right now, all you gotta know is that you ain’t meant for this place, brother.” The shaggy man stood and observed the tidy apartment with obvious disdain, sticking a tongue to a canine. “This place is like a cage. You’re a tiger, Mike. A killer tiger, and it’s high time you got out and stretched your legs.” A mad glint crossed his beady eyes. “It’s time you hunt.”
Michael shook his head, shrinking back into his kitchenette. “I don’t know what… That’s not me.” He gestured to the four walls that hemmed him in place. “This is my home. It’s all I’ve got. It’s all…” He slumped. “It’s all I’ve ever known.”
Rip took two wide steps forward, invading Michael’s personal space. A rage flashed across the old man’s bearded face, and Michael feared an attack. Instead, the wiry man railed, “Ain’t you sick of this place? Come on, dude, you gotta feel it, all bottled up inside! You got a dark thing inside you, Mike. Those blasted machines—they’ve taken that away from you, but you gotta get it back!”
Michael shook his head, more furiously. “No. This is—”
Rip sent a backhand whizzing through the air, catching Michael hard on the chin. Dazed, for he’d never been hit before, Michael staggered back, his senses tingling. And something else tingled, too. A fury churned in his gut and his hands trembled.
Rip barked, “Did you like that? Lets you know you’re really alive. Felt good, didn’t it?”
Michael reached to his lip, touched, and pulled back a spot of red. He looked down to his chest, where another drop dotted his white shirt—the only spot of color on him, in his clothes, his room, his world.
Beautiful red, just like Sara’s hair.
He grinned. “Yeah. Yeah, it kinda did.”
Rip reached out and Michael raised his hands in defense, but the wild man just wrapped tightly coiled arms around him and gave him a squeeze. “Ha, ha! Welcome to the fold, little brother!”
Rip parted and gave Michael’s arms a strong pat. Michael beamed with pride.
* * *
Michael’s smile didn’t leave him, but remained fixed to his face the next day. Rip had stayed a while longer, talking at length about cryptic things like far off adventures and worlds to explore. Whenever Michael asked him directly about his origins and purpose, Rip dodged his questions. The best Michael could guess was that Rip was from the Wilds, and had every intention of taking Michael with him when he returned.
They talked well into the night—well past curfew—until Michael had finally fallen asleep. He’d dreamt that night of other worlds, other cities, where the robots didn’t rule, where men and women walked freely at all hours of day and night.
Where men and women met and fell in love.
Everywhere in those dreams, the rainbow trailed like a ribbon, worming its way through every world, whispering promises to him of self-discovery and release. When Michael woke that morning, Rip was long gone. He instantly missed the old man, but didn’t fear.
He knew Rip would be back.
Michael caught a little more sleep during the ride to the tower, but still felt the effects of his long night. His co-workers remained stiff and attentive, but he slouched through the day, his writing sluggish, his mind distracted.
His eye continued to drift toward his window and the city outside—and beyond that, the Wilds. His home, where he belonged.
The grin broadened and he felt tears moisten the corners of his eyes.
Whirring motors, a clank of mechanized feet stopping. A female voice asked, “Scribbler Morrison, Michael A. Detected increase in heartbeat, rise in adrenaline levels, and slight endorphin boost. Do you require assistance?”
He faced the large photoreceptor on the robot, holding its cold gaze. “No, ma’am. I’m doing just fine. How are you today?”
Every pencil squeaked to a halt. The oxygen left the room and Michael realized that everyone within hearing distance had stopped to stare at him, mouths hanging open in shock and alarm.
Michael smirked, looking to the robot monitor again, waiting for an answer.
The robot stood frozen, no doubt processing the question. After a moment, the pleasant female voice replied, “Invalid request. Please rephrase.”
Michael set down his pencil and stood, straightening. It was then he realized how much taller he was than these androids. A few gasps accompanied his rise to his feet. He felt his co-workers’ eyes on him, sensed their fear. He was breaking the rules, changing the routine.
It felt great.
Resisting a laugh, he propped his hands on his waist, sucking in a deep breath. “Too tough? Howabout this one, then? Howabout you get off my back?”
One woman nearby yelped and clamped a hand over her open mouth.
Michael sneered, stepping closer to the robot, towering over it now. “I’m tired of you looking over my shoulder every minute of every day. You regulate what I eat, and when I eat it, when I sleep, when I wake up, who I can and cannot be friends with—and I’m damn tired of it!”
More cries from the crowd of spectators, a crowd that continued to grow as others across the room caught onto the scene.
The robot merely leaned back, its single lens expanding and contracting with a comical buzzing noise as its processing unit worked to keep up with the confrontation. “Vulgar vernacular is not tolerated, Scribbler Morrison, Michael A. This is your first warning. After your second warning, you face a reprimand.”
Michael laughed in the robot’s lens, exhilarated.
Then he glimpsed three more monitors making a beeline his way. He blanched, his throat suddenly parched. Swallowing hard, he felt beads of sweat emerging on his forehead.
His co-workers leaned over into other cubicles, whispering about him, murmuring about what had caused him to snap. Fear gripped him, strangling his throat, and Michael thought to apologize. To return to his numbers. To blend in.
But he was done with that.
Michael let loose a roar and lunged, shoving the robot into the others as they approached. Someone screamed at his outburst, and he raced for the door, yanking papers off desks and hurling them in the air. “Yaaah!” he exclaimed like an idiot, flinging pencils and garbage bins every which way, trashing the place as he made his dramatic exit.
Behind him, the four robots worked to untangle their gangly limbs and give pursuit. He exited the room, looking either side in the hallway, trying to plot his next move. A chime sounded overhead and he anticipated a tower-wide announcement that they had a drone on the loose. Much to his amusement, though, he realized it was the lunch chime. Doors opened all along the hall as the conveyors started up. Drones exited in tidy rows, as usual, suddenly gawking at Michael as he stood still, sweating and out of breath.
“Cease and desist all efforts to escape,” the monotone female voice commanded. He whipped his head about, spotting the droids shuffling out of the office, trying to navigate through the lunch lines to get to him.
He grinned savagely. “Bring it on! Come and get me!”
He let loose a throaty laugh, but gulped when he heard his name called. He turned and saw Sara amidst the countless drones, her bright red tresses separating her from the sea of white.
She gaped at him, just as stunned as the others, but the hint of a smile upturned the corners of her lips. “What are you doing?”
Michael shoved his way toward her and grabbed her hand, pulling her out of line. “Come on! We’re getting out of here!”
She caught her breath, looking at him with wide fearful eyes. Fearful, but excited. “But-but where would we go?”
“To the Wilds!” He laughed.
Sara anxiously looked to either side as her co-workers paused to watch her reaction, frowning in disapproval. From behind, Michael heard the robots gaining ground. He took Sara’s other hand, giving them a gentle squeeze. “Sara,” he spoke softly. “Don’t you want to see what’s out there?”
She lowered her head. The robots’ warnings grew louder. Closer. Michael knew he needed to run, but he couldn’t—not without her. At last she held his gaze, a devilish smile coming to life on her porcelain face. “I do,” she said, then giggled.
He giggled, too, like a fool, and wrapped his arms around her, leading her away. “Come on!”
Copyright 2015 Greg Mitchell
Tune in Thursday, March 12 for the next installment!