Chapter 27: The Unregistereds in the Outer Limits

“What are you staring at?” asks Graham Glass’s wife, Hayden.

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Graham blinks. He isn’t sure how long he’s been sitting there, staring at the blank wall across from him. “I was just…thinking,” he says. He doesn’t bother to elaborate, as Hayden wouldn’t care to know what he’d been thinking about. So long as he pays the bills that keeps their family living in comfort, Hayden is content.

But Graham is not content. Not at all. As Hayden sits beside him on the sofa and turns on some brainless television show, he continues to think. About his life, his career, his family, everything.

What does it all mean?

He goes to work Monday through Thursday, just like everyone else. He likes his job okay – not that he used to dream of being a robotics specialist, or anything. But it pays well, and is somewhat interesting work.

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It doesn’t make sense, this feeling of restlessness, of emptiness. By all measures, he should be happy. Blissfully happy. His wife and two children live in a lovely home, filled with lovely things. His wife is still attractive, despite her age, and could even be nice, sometimes, when she was in the mood. Nobody’s perfect. And his children are both pretty good kids. They make decent grades, and know how to speak proper Englinish, not that ridiculous cyberslang the kids these days are into.

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Maybe, it occurs to him, he is discontent because everything comes too easy. Like all registered citizens, he and his family have free food, free health care, free extended education. Well, maybe free isn’t quite the right word, since they pay over half their income in taxes. Still, they have the peace of knowing that the government has their back. Registered citizens live long, healthy lives, and no one is required to work very hard anymore, unless they want to amass a greater amount of luxury goods, or travel to a space colony, or something uncovered like that.

“Family,” he announces after this revelation. “Let’s go camping.”

Camping out in The Cracks is not such an unusual thing to do. Many registered citizens venture out beyond the temperature-controlled, high security boundaries of their cities to get a taste of life in the outer limits. They make a holiday off it, cooking food the old-fashioned way instead of creating it instantly in a food replicator, and playing games together that do not require electricity.

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It is the next week that Graham has his second revelation. It was not enough to spend a weekend camping in The Cracks with his family. No…what he really needs to do is go there. To the actual outer limits. He needs to know what life is like for the unregistered citizens.

It is a risky thing to do, he knows. The Unregistereds have not been immunized against measles, influenza, cancer, or even Plague 2. They may be dangerous in other ways, too, since they are far less educated than registered citizens, and therefore, more likely to commit crimes.

Still, he makes the decision to go. Without telling his family or friends, Graham makes the drive. He leaves behind the security gates that surround his city, and climbs high into the Copper Hills, where a community of Unregistereds is known to exist. When he arrives, he at once feels out of place. His car is too new, his clothes too high-tech, his haircut too stylish.

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Still, when he meets two Unregistereds, Mikhail and Char, they turn out to be warm and friendly, setting him at ease. Neither of them has ever held a conversation with a registered citizen before, as most Registereds are too cowardly to venture to the outer limits.

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The three of them strike up an unlikely friendship. And several months later, Graham does the unthinkable. He invites his Unregistered friends to hang out with him back in the city. At first, Mikhail and Char protest. Neither of them has the microchips implanted in their hands. They will be unable to purchase anything or gain entry to any facilities.

“No anx,” says Graham. For the first time, he is thrilled with the skills he has learned on the job. Make a pair of portable microchip cards for two Unregistereds to carry discreetly in their pockets? No problem!

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Chapter 26: The Devvo Miracle of Diesel Novak

I didn’t used to believe in God. Or gods, or some mysterious force in the universe that moves around and stirs its mystical fingers in the pot of life. I didn’t believe in much of anything that I couldn’t see. But one day, when I was forty-six years old, something happened that really shook me up.

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I was no one special. Diesel Novak, an ordinary IoT technician, who used to work a night shift checking computer systems at a bunch of computer-automated supermarkets, and nightclubs, and stuff. My wife, Anjelica, used to paint toenails down at the Eastwood shopping center. We were just ordinary folks, you know? Living our lives, raising our three kids.

But then it happened.

I swear, I just woke up one day, and I just had to go to the downtown music shop. I walked in and swept right past the drums and trumpets and flutes, right up to the guitar section. “Excuse me,” I said to the shop bot, “can I try out one of those?” I pointed to one of the high-tech electric guitars hanging high on the wall. The shop bot got it down and gave it to me. And then…magic. It was like the ghost of some rock star had possessed my hands. Even though I had never had a single lesson, I could play the guitar. At first, I just strummed whatever came to mind, songs I had never heard before. Then, the shop bot suggested a sheet music app, and guess what? I could read it! Next thing you know, I was wailing on the guitar like I’d been playing it for years.

Needless to say, I spent up all our savings and left with the most devvo guitar in the shop.

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And now? Our family’s raking in the dough, thanks to my miracle music talent. Nobody can explain where my sudden prodigy came from, but the crowds sure appreciate it. Our lives went from ordinary to extraordinary overnight. Now, Anjelica, the kids, and me live on the nicest side of town, right by the water. You should see our house! It’s like nothing I’d ever imagined!

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Our kids are happy, because now they have all the latest gadgets and coolest stuff. Roxy is the most popular girl at her virtual high school, and even has kids over for RL (Real Life) parties sometimes. Xixi and Cole get homework tutoring from this group of supergeniuses in Korea, which costs a fortune. But it’s okay, because now we can afford it.

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Know what’s also devvo? Anjelica quit her toenail painting job and went to music training school for a couple of years. And now, we’re a husband and wife rockin’ duo. We pack houses for our concerts, every time.

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So now, I am a changed man. A convert. A believer. People don’t just wake up one day, down a cup of java, then suddenly know how to play guitar like a rock star. I figure it’s gotta be God, or the Force, or something. Hallelujah!

Chapter 25: Feet in My Wine

Now that the princess is able to talk, the king is a changed man. His cloud of depression has lifted, and he is in a perpetual good mood. “Thanks to the skill of my royal wizard,” the king announces to the court during dinner, “my daughter, Princess Lalia, has been offered in marriage to the young Prince Igor of Fallendale.”

The court cheers and raises their goblets. I lift mine, too, even though Prince Igor is barely old enough to grow facial hair and seems more interested in archery than women. But whatever, I guess.

After I’ve eaten, the king’s page seeks me out to deliver a message. I am to retrieve a bottle of His Majesty’s favorite wine from the cellar, then meet him in his chambers. So I wander down a steep set of stairs into a dimly lit cellar, whose stone walls are lined by racks and racks of wine and spirits. For a minute, I wonder if there’s any way for me to smuggle a bottle or two back to my own time, and if the wine would age well over hundreds of years. Then I am distracted by movement across the cellar.

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One of the maids is standing in a large wooden tub, stomping grapes in her bare feet. I know, I know. That’s how it was done in those days. But I shudder to imagine someone’s smelly feet dancing around in my glass of wine.

“Uh…greetings,” I say, suddenly unable to remember the proper way to greet people in this century. Salutations? Hola? Wassup?

The maid gasps. “I did not hear you coming,” she says, her voice thick with the accent of the land. She climbs out of the grape slush, her bare feet stained deep purple, and drops into a low curtsy. “Wizard, sir.”

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“It’s okay. No need to bow to —” I freeze. At that moment, the air blurs as the maid shifts, transforming to a familiar face. “Melissa!”

“Al?” Her face breaks into a grin. “Oh thank heavens! I was starting to fear that I’d be stuck in this hellhole forever.” She throws her arms around me. “Please tell me you’ve found Richard, so we can get out of here.”

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I groan. “Not yet. I’ve been trying to focus on him with every person I come into contact with, including the king himself. But no sign of Richard.”

She snorts. “Richard, the king? Ha! That’d be the day.”

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We chat for a few more minutes – turns out that life for a royal maid is not as much fun as a wizard’s life. Lots of manual scouring and chamber pot emptying. By candlelight. In a dress. Then I grab the bottle of wine she thrusts toward me, and I scurry off to the king’s chambers.

I’m expecting the king to discuss royal business – perhaps tell me to move in at court, or offer me another job to do. But to my surprise, he orders me to sit down and play a game of dominos with him and Jacko the Jester. As far as I can tell, the real Shadowhood has never played a game of dominos in his life. And the last time I’ve played was somewhere back in grade school, with a cheap, Star Wars themed set I’d gotten for Christmas then shoved into the back of a closet. But these dominoes are fancy, and probably carved from a real elephant’s tusk. Poor elephant.

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Jacko and the king are really serious about their dominoes, slamming them down against the wooden table and letting out whoops of glee when one of them gets ahead. I try to mimic them, but get beaten easily three times in a row. What a newb.

And then, it happens. Just as we are beginning a fresh round, Richard appears, this time, wearing the clothes of the jester. I am so taken aback, I burst into a fit of coughing.

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“Oh great – here comes the plague,” Richard jokes, in typical jester fashion. Then his eyes meet mine, and a look of understanding dawns on his face. Al? He mouths. I give a slight nod, relieved. We don’t say anything to tip off the king, instead focusing on the game, until at last the candles have burned down to a stub, and the wine bottle is empty.

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The second we’ve exited the chambers, Richard and I go in search of the maid. When I tell her that Richard is the jester, her face drains of blood. “You have got to be kidding me,” she says, dismayed.

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Richard waggles his eyebrows at her. “Whasss happenin’ hot stuff?” he says, voice slurring. Then he grabs her toward him and practically shoves his tongue down her throat.

Melissa grunts in protest, then shoves him away. “Ugh!” She wipes her mouth, then gives Richard an earful.

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“Look guys,” I say. “I don’t want to break up a lovers’ spat…” Melissa glares at me. “…but we’ve got a search to do.”

It takes us most of the night, traipsing up and down corridors and staircases. Richard and I have an especially tough time, since we are both still off balance from all the wine we’d drunk. But at last, we find the Holy Grail – the dusty old telephone booth-slash-time and space machine.

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“Know what guys?” Richard throws an arm around both Melissa’s and my neck. “I don’t know about you, but I had a blast this time. Do you know how much fun it is to be a jester?”

I have to smile – both at how plastered he is, and also because I get what he means. It was kind of cool being able to do real life magic spells, even if half the time, they ended in disaster. And when I really stop and think about it, it was also pretty fun being a kid again, and playing guitar in a rock band, and getting to play detective in the world’s creepiest town. Even though I am looking forward to getting my feet back on familiar soil, and sleeping in my own bed again, I’m starting to see that this adventuring stuff can be kind of fun.

Except when it’s not.

But I’ll save that for another story.

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