As a Historian's Note, this story takes place before the events in Rift Jump, so consider this a nice little sampler of the ride in store for you in the book. And, as always, you can pick up the Revised and Expanded Edition in print and Kindle!
The Hooded Man stuck his hands in the deep pockets of his torn and dirtied long coat to combat the wintry wind. His hood kept his ears warm while concealing his upper facial features. He felt lost in the hood, cold and alone. Good. It was good to feel that way, isolated with his thoughts, his misery.
He watched the log cabin burn out there in the Wilds, breathing in the thick smoke, watching as black swirls billowed high into the gray-cast skies. The flames of the makeshift funeral pyre warmed his face, but only made his heart icier. Meaner.
It’s better this way. I can’t run from who I am anymore.
All he had now were memories of that old life, and the events that led him here.
* * *
Fifteen Years Ago
Michael Morrison had been with The Company since he turned sixteen, the same as his peers. In the beginning, it had been slightly frightening, trying to please his robotic masters, producing his daily quota efficiently. But as with everyone in the cities, he’d been conditioned since birth to take his place in a white-washed cubicle with every other man and woman. At his father’s request, he’d done his best to not be exceptional at anything. Instinct told him to strive for greatness, but his father—a wise man—told him the machines didn’t like excellence, as it only served to make The Company uneven. No, it was better for all involved to remain as mundane—as average—as possible.
Michael had rebuffed his father’s wishes for the longest time—the pride of youth talking—but now, at age thirty-six, he saw the value in blending in. The robots favored monochromatic. Everything, from the buildings, to the furniture, even down to the humans’ trim nylon long sleeve turtleneck suits, was stark white or slightly variant shades of light grey. Glancing across the aisles at all the other quiet and dutifully working Scribblers in the meticulously arranged row of cubicles, it was near impossible to distinguish identity.
That day he sat at his own cubicle on the fortieth floor, busily scratching down the afternoon’s numbers. The entire floor was a perfect hush, the same as every other floor in the expanse of glass towers that glimmered along the carefully constructed cityscape.
Michael glanced out his window and absently wondered what the other towers were working on. Indeed, he had very little understanding of what even the floors above and below him did all day. But the silent understanding persisted amongst everyone in The Company that they didn’t need to know. One simply had to fulfill his or her part of the operation and turn figures in on time.
Only the soft scraping of pencils on paper disturbed the inhuman quiet. That, and the purring of motors as the robot overseers patrolled the aisles, their faces occupied only by a single fish-eye lens that contracted, zoomed, and observed the humans’ work.
Michael concentrated on the world beyond, his mind drifting to thoughts of the past, before the machines ruled. By now, that bygone era was relegated to myth, but he wondered what it might be like to own your life—to be whoever you wanted to be.
Up ahead, he noticed something fluttering on the breeze, passing by his window. Leaning closer, he squinted against the sunlight reflecting off the glass towers. It looked…well, he didn’t know what it was. A piece of paper? Litter was strictly forbidden and heavily policed. How odd that, perhaps, this one sheet of paper had escaped the notice of all the robots in the city, to soar unhindered on the wind.
The paper twirled in his sight, impossibly halting in the breeze, dancing there right before his eyes, as if putting on a private show for him. He marveled as he saw images within the paper, like a holomovie. He strained his sight, trying to decipher the flickering visions, wondering what they showed. What they meant.
Then, just as strangely as the paper paused, it took off again, riding another gust of wind, out of his sight. Michael nearly stood to follow it with his eyes, fascinated by the odd thing, but stopped short. He sensed one of the machines approaching his work space and stiffened, turning away from his daydreaming look out the window, resuming his work and trying to maintain his composure.
The robot stopped, its servos whirring. From chest speakers, a sickeningly pleasant female voice spoke, “Scribbler Morrison, Michael, A. Sensors indicate an increase in visual stimuli, resulting in decrease of motor functions. Do you require assistance?”
“No, ma’am,” he muttered, his heart picking up. He huddled even more over his desk, trying to concentrate on his work.
“Detecting agitated heart rate.”
“I-I’m fine,” he stammered. “Just…it won’t happen again.”
The robot inclined its head, that large bulbous eye regarding him coldly. “Continue function.”
Internal gears turned and the robot carried on, continuing its patrol of the cubicles. Michael felt a flush of heat warm his cheeks, and saw the Scribbler across the aisle shoot him a scolding look.
Michael frowned and continued his function.
But his mind remained on that strange sheet of paper…
Copyright 2015 Greg Mitchell
See you on Thursday for Part Two!