Chapter 29: Preacher Man on the Rooftop Garden

If not for Graham Glass, I would be fast asleep in my cozy air-bed at home. If not for Graham, I never would have made the impulsive decision to drive up to the Outer Limits.

“Don’t blame Graham,” says Anjelica. “It’s your fault we’re stuck in this pit.”

Let me back up.

It’s like I told you. Anj and I have been living the Good Life, thanks to my miracle ability to wail on the guitar. So there we were, soaking in the plasma-jet tub at the club, chatting with some good friends of ours, when one off them brought up the topic of spirituality.

“I’m not saying you have to convert, like me,” my buddy was saying. “But you’ve gotta go listen to this devvo preacher at the rooftop garden. His name’s Graham Glass, and he changed my life.”

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I frowned. Nothing against religious types, but it’s just not my thing, you know? “What kind of stuff does he blast out?” I asked.

“Oh all kinds of things. But he’s got some interesting stories about his work with the Unregistereds.

“The Unregistereds?” Anj’s eyebrows flew up so high, they just about disappeared into her hairline. She’s got a thing for the Unreges. She watches this shallow TV show filled with all kinds of seedy, backwards folks who live in the Outer Limits. Mostly, they turn out to be thugs, thieves, and druggies, but sometimes, there are scandalous love affairs between a no-good Unreg and an upright, legal citizen. No doubt she was hoping to catch some of this drama in live-action.

So, long story short, Anj and I headed up to the rooftop garden at two o’clock and join the small flock that was gathered around this guy standing at a pulpit. He looked about my age, and was clean-cut and normal-looking in every way but one. Unlike the relaxed, no-anx expressions that define the faces of most peeps I know, this preacher guy had a fire blazing in his eyes as he spoke to us.

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“Are the Unregistereds animals, that we keep them locked in a cage outside of our boundaries?” He was saying. “Are we animals, that we deny them the privileges afforded every human being? Nutritious food? Decent shelter? Education for their children? They are human!” The fire in his eyes blazed brighter as he said this. “They may lack the genetic engineering that we have; the genetic mods that keep our skin from burning, and keep us healthy and strong. But they are every bit as human as we are.”

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I had never heard anyone speak with such conviction and compassion before. Especially about the Unregs, who most people regarded as unmodified Hill Trash. But Anj and I hung onto every word. Then, the next day, when she and I were in the car, about to head to the club, she grabbed my arm. “Can we go see them?”

“See who?” I asked. But I already knew. Anjelica wouldn’t rest until we had driven up into the hills, beyond the boundaries, to catch a close-up glimpse of some real, live Unregistereds. So what could I do? I drove. And what happened?

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The car broke down.

Right in the heart one of their backwards, ramshackle communities in the Outer Limits, my car ran out of juice. If I’d been at home, I could have easily gotten it charged up. But here, in No Man’s Land, there were no service stations that I could see. No extra fuel packs. No auto robots to give us a boost.

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Die-sel!” Anjelica’s voice takes on that shrill, whiny tone she gets whenever she’s frustrated, bored, or doesn’t get her way. “What are we supposed to do?”

I stare at the car, feeling useless. I check my phone, which, in these hills, is also useless. No service at all. “I could try walking down toward civilization. Maybe I’ll pick up a signal to call for help,” I suggest.

“But it’s getting dark!” says Anjelica, panic flooding her face. “You want to leave me here in this place in the dark?”

I’m tempted to remind her that coming up here was her brilliant idea. Instead, I march toward one of the ancient wooden houses nearby.

“Diesel! Where are you going?” says Anjelica, hurrying after me.

“To ask for help,” I say, and knock on the front door.

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Chapter 28: The Hill Folk

Sycamore Hills.

That is the name the Unregistereds give their community, although the Registereds have all kinds of unflattering names. The Sticks. The Black Hole. That Place-Which-Must-Not-Be-Named.

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But to Tabitha Hall and her neighbors, their home will always be called Sycamore Hills. There are more than just sycamore trees, of course. There are also oaks, and birch, and many other types that no longer exist down the hill. The Registereds decided long ago that they could no longer be bothered with trees that dropped their messy leaves and blossoms all over the pristine city walkways.

It is not an easy life, being Unregistered. That failure of Tabitha’s parents to have one tiny microchip embedded under her infant skin resulted in  a life sentence of living outside of civilization. No chip, no access, is the law of the land. No chip means no education in the city schools, no access to hospitals, no ability to shop at stores. The unchipped must weave their own cloth, sew their own clothes, and build their own crude wooden houses and furniture. The hardest part of being Unregistered, Tabitha thinks, is the hunger. They do their best to cultivate their own crops, and raise chickens and rabbits for meat. But often, it seems that there isn’t quite enough to go around.

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Sometimes, very late at night, Tabitha and her husband, Jake, hike all the way down to the city. They creep through the silent streets, past enormous buildings and pristine parks, until they find a community garden, or perhaps a kitchen garden, ripe with fat tomatoes, juicy eggplants, or crisp cucumbers. She could never understand how the the Registereds were able to produce so much more food, or why it grew so much larger than the vegetables the hill folk struggled to grow.

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Then they lug their bulging sacks of food back up the hillside to share with their family and neighbors. All the while, they are careful to slip through shadows and duck around corners, always alert for the Monitors. Monitors, who never sleep, but roam the city streets, on the constant lookout for curfew-breakers. Once Tabitha and Jake were stopped by a monitor, who scanned them both. As neither one of them wore an identifying chip, the Monitor triggered an alarm. “INTRUDERS! INTRUDERS!” Its tinny, human-like voice was like thunder, echoing through the town. Tabitha and Jake exchanged panicked looks, then turned and fled for the safety off the hills. They haven’t returned since.

The loss of the night raids means more hunger for Tabitha and her family. More restless nights filled with growling bellies. This state of desperation would have continued, too, had it not been for the arrival of the Preacher, Graham Glass, and his car full of food.

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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!