The Grangers

beach-hammock-sunsetBrian Bruso had been laying in his hammock, minding his own business and watching the surf come in, when the newsfeed on his augment displayed a video of some chick getting the shit kicked out of her. His decision to be alone that day was enough to earn him a beating of his own, or at least heaps of ridicule.

The newsfeed was going viral. The chick kept saying “leave me alone,” and a group of about five others, all in their early twenties more or less,  kept pushing her and pounding her. Brian laced his fingers behind his head and the surf that pounded the rocks dissolved into a blur as his eyes focused on the far more entertaining image coming through the augment. The comments were hilarious: “Kick her in the pussy!” one guy said. That comment had sixty-one ‘Likes’. Most of the comments were of the ubiquitous “OMG!!!” variety, but there were a few gems in the mix here and there. The chick was walking backwards facing them, trying to get them to back off. Then she would turn and start to run and somebody would trip her, and she would get kicked again and get back on her feet and turn around to face them. Then it would start all over again.

It was something to do anyway — watching the feed. All of this was happening in Brian’s general vicinity according to the map, and in fact he could see that the pack was working their way in his direction. “My grandma is more plugged in that that dumb bitch.” That one wasn’t such a zinger, but it was better than “OMG!!!” at least. Brian gave it a ‘Like’ for effort.

They rounded the corner and were across the street from Brian’s house. The chick broke into a full-fledged run across Assembly Street and then got kicked to the grass. Then she was up again and instead of running north or south along the street, she made for the beach and, Brian noted, was about to run right past him. As the commotion grew louder and the sounds of the altercation in real life drowned out the audio of his feed, he turned his head to look just in time to see her go down again, face first, into the sand about twenty feet away. She was bleeding.

“Please help!” she was screaming. Kick. “No!” Kick. She was a bruised and bloodied mess, and she was crying.

“Maybe you guys ought to back off,” Brian said to them.

“Mind your own business old man!”

Old man? Brian was only forty-five — hardly an old man. He got out of the hammock and walked over to them. He knew as he did so that he was about to become a part of the viral newsfeed that only moments ago he had been enjoying on his augment. He didn’t care. “I said back off you little shit,” Brian said.

It was a dumb move and Brian figured they were probably going to beat the crap out of him next, but instead they just ran off. Brian adjusted his augment and looked down at the bleeding girl in the sand.

“I would ask if you’re okay, but the answer to that seems kind of obvious.”

The bleeding girl propped herself up on her elbows and glared up at him. “Getting some good video, motherfucker?”

Brian knelt down in the sand next to her and studied the bleeding girl awhile. She had tears running down her cheeks and was pretty bruised up. Her blouse was torn open and her bra exposed. She was also very pretty, or would have been very pretty were it not for the blood and bruises and tears.

“I’m not recording,” said Brian.

“Yeah. Right.”

He took his augment off and offered it to her. “No, really. See for yourself.” That seemed to earn her trust and she pushed his hand away.

“I believe you.”

“Why were they kicking you?

“I’m not augmented.”

“That’s it? Just that you aren’t augmented?”

“Yeah.”

“What’s your name?”

“Nicole.”

“Well look, Nicole, my name’s Brian Bruso. I’m forty-five and you can’t be more than twenty-five. I don’t want you to think I’m a perv or anything, but that’s my house right there. Why don’t you come inside and get cleaned up. You look like you’re in pretty rough shape.”

She accepted Brian’s offer and followed him into the house. Brian pulled the first-aid kit from his closet and directed Nicole to the bathroom. He then got some t-shirts from his bedroom closet and called through the door to her that he was leaving them right outside if she wanted to change out of her torn blouse.

She was in the bathroom for about fifteen minutes before finally coming out again, wearing the black t-shirt.

“I got sand all over the floor,” she apologized.

“I live at the beach,” Brian said. “I’m used to it. Sit down awhile. You want a Coke?”

She nodded and sat and Brian poured a couple of Cokes.

“I got blood on your towel too,” she said.

“They were beating you up because you aren’t augmented?” Brian asked again. She nodded. He had a better look at her now that she was cleaned up. She was pretty, with long brown hair that was still a little tussled from the attack and cute brown eyes. She wore no WiFi devices at all: None on her head; none on her wrists. She also had no apparent piercings or tattoos. That was odd. “You don’t even have pierced ears,” he said. “No body modifications?”

“No.”

“Tramp stamps? Ankle tats?”

“No.”

“You must be vajazzled at least?”

“No.” She turned red.

“Good thing: Some dude commented on the newsfeed ‘Kick her in the pussy!’ I’d imagine that would hurt like hell if you were vajazzled. Did they kick you in the pussy?”

She turned redder and started to cry.

“That shit went viral as hell, you know.”

More crying.

“So why aren’t you augmented? That’s a little weird in this day and age.”

“Why do I have to be augmented?”

“I didn’t say you had to be augmented. Just that it’s a little weird, that’s all.”

“But it’s implied, isn’t it? When you ask me ‘Why aren’t you—’ and when those people who were chasing me attacked me, it’s implied that I have to be augmented, or else those things will happen to me.”

“Well—that’s probably true. Your life would probably be easier if it were so. But why aren’t you?”

“I don’t want it. It’s too much of a sacrifice.”

“Sacrifice? Augmentation is anything but a sacrifice, Nicole! It’s having the world’s information at your fingertips at all times. It’s being plugged in and being able to socialize with your friends and networks anytime or all the time. It’s seeing what your friends have to say and being able to tell them stuff anytime you like. It’s walking down a strange street in a city you’ve never been to and seeing everything the stores sell there and what’s on the menus of the restaurants you’re passing. Augmentation is life.”

“I know what augmentation is,” she said defensively. “But you do sacrifice. You sacrifice freedom. You sacrifice anonymity. You sacrifice empathy. You sacrifice all the things that make you a unique individual. You sacrifice your identity.”

“That sounds kind of melodramatic. Anonymity and identity? Aren’t those two pretty much the opposite of one another?”

“No! Not at all! Anonymity is vital for your identity. Without that, you can’t be free to express yourself.”

“Only bullies, trolls, and criminals need anonymity, Nicole. The rest of us don’t have anything to hide.”

“Anything to hide? How much of my life should be open to public inspection? And who decides that? Do you decide? Does Facebook? Does Google? And by what authority?”

“I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying. What aspects of your life would you hide?”

“It’s not a matter of my hiding anything: It’s a matter of your right—the public’s right—to know. Don’t you see how the argument has been completely flipped upside down in the days since augmentation took over? If I chose to get vajazzled, the question used to be ‘Does the public have the right to know?’ but now it’s ‘Do I have the right to hide it?’”

“Well—” Brian started to respond, but he wasn’t really sure how: She kind of had a point. “That’s kind of a straw man, isn’t it? The example you’re using is a pretty personal thing, so the public might not have a right to know that. Most things aren’t that private though.”

“What if I did something like make an off-color remark to a friend in private? What if I said something to that friend that’s bigoted or racist or simply unpopular? Would the public have the right to hear my words which were said in private, and to judge me in public forums and on social media because of my remarks? One can say a private conversation like that is also a personal thing, and yet today we celebrate outing people and making recordings of their private words public.”

“Why should you be allowed to hide what you say in private if what you’re saying is bad?”

“Listen to yourself! ‘Allowed to hide.’ You keep using this word ‘hide’ as if the public has the right to know everything by default, and anything the public doesn’t know is being hidden. You don’t question what the public has a right to know about me, and yet you question what about me I have a right to not share. When words are stolen from people’s private conversations, taken out of context, and scrutinized to death in public chat forums, does that actually accomplish anything other than providing a few minutes worth of titillation at someone’s expense? Does public mockery of people’s private thoughts have some grand benefit that I’m just not seeing?”

“I guess you have a point,” Brian said, agreeing mainly to end the conversation. “Can I give you a ride home?” he asked.

“I can manage. Thanks.” She stood to leave and looked down at the black t-shirt she had on. “I’ll stop back by in a day or two to drop this off.”

“You don’t have to: It’s not a very new shirt and I hardly ever wear it. Are you sure I can’t give you a ride? Is it far to your place?”

“It’s not very far at all. I’ll be fine.”

Brian showed her to the door. She unexpectedly turned around and gave him a light hug. “You’re a good guy, Brian,” she said. “You’ve got to stop watching newsfeeds of people getting attacked though: It’s not cool.” Then, she was gone.

Brian returned to the couch and flopped down. Nicole seemed like a bright kid, but as is typical of people her age, she was an idealist. Reality will hit her in the face one day. He closed his eyes and dozed off.

For the rest of the evening, Nicole’s words nagged at him. He called up the newsfeed at one point and ran a search on his name. As he suspected, he had been identified in the feed of the chase. At least two people in the comments section snarked about old men knowing their place and minding their own business. Hardly any comments raised questions about the ethics of the chase though. Those that did were down-voted into oblivion, ensuring that they would never be seen, except by those who went out of their way to search for them, as Brian had. The few comments in support of Nicole were likewise down-voted into oblivion. But more disturbing was the fact that, throughout the newsfeed and attached comments, there was very sparse information about why Nicole was being chased to begin with. It seemed to be assumed that she had committed a crime of some sort, but that information was treated as irrelevant. All that really appeared to matter was that some crazy chick is getting the shit kicked out of her and there’s a live video feed of it. What was cruel torture for Nicole was nothing but entertaining filler between cat videos for everyone else.

Brian shut down the feed and removed the augment early that night. He was ashamed of himself for having been a part of it: An active spectator ‘Liking’ comments as Nicole was being beaten.

When the Sun rose over the ocean the next morning, interrupting Brian’s dream, he sat up, realized it was Saturday, and rolled over. He had been dreaming of being chased as Nicole had been chased the previous day. He tried to recall the details of the dream, but they vanished from his memory as fast as he could recall them as his dream decomposed into an incoherent jumble of images. Finally, he got up, showered, and tossed a frozen biscuit in the microwave.

It was Saturday. He didn’t have to go to work and had no plans for the day. “Why not?” he thought, the question having popped into his head even before he had a firm grasp of what the question pertained to. He had subconsciously decided to give up the augment for a day. He finished breakfast, put his shoes on, and headed into the garage for a trip to the grocery store.

“Open,” he said to the garage door as he slid into his car. He got out of the car and looked again at the unmoving door. “Open,” he said again. “Garage … open.” Fuck! How was he supposed to open the garage without his augment? He went to the wall and pulled the emergency override lever that was intended for power outages and then heaved the door open himself and got back into the car.

“Start. Car … start.” Fuck!

Brian’s day without augmentation was off to a rough start. He could set his destination without his augment, although the in-dash interface was kind of clunky. He could start the car as well. But he would still need his augment on his person to identify himself to his car. He wanted to avoid bringing it with him since the temptation to put it on might be too great. He decided to call Nicole.

Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck! How was he supposed to look up her phone number? And if he had her phone number, how was he supposed to call her? And if he called her, how was she supposed to answer without an augment on her end? How the fuck does she even survive?

Brian got out of the car and went back into the house in defeat. He went into the bedroom, angrily snatched his augment up off the nightstand, shoved it onto his face, went back to the living room, and flop down on his sofa in disgust. He closed his eyes for a few minutes to calm down, and then proceeded to look up Nicole. She never gave her last name, but that was okay: She will have been identified in the feed from yesterday. His search for ‘nicole’ returned too many hits in the feed. Searching ‘nicole identified’ gave a more manageable number of results. The first hit gave him his answer: McKinsey. He next searched for local area Nicole McKinseys. There were quite a few, but he could filter out most of them easily: He narrowed his query to Nicole McKinseys between eighteen and thirty years of age. There were only three, and only two of those had Facebook pages.

Naturally, his Nicole McKinsey would be the one without a Facebook page. He checked the two that had pages though, and confirmed that neither was the Nicole he sought. His Nicole was unplugged and off the grid, and finding her physically might be impossible. Maybe she had a Facebook page and deleted it recently? He checked the Wayback Machine. Bingo!

There was sparse information in the cached page. She had almost no Facebook friends, and had made only a handful of posts. Her age was twenty-seven: Older than she looked. Neither her phone number nor her address was listed. He performed an image capture to copy the photo in her profile and used it to run a facial recognition query on Google. The search returned only two photos: The one he had already seen from her cached page, and another one of her standing by a window. Through the window and across the street, he could see Red’s Diner. That was a local eatery: He knew exactly where the picture was taken. He ran a query of Nicole’s name coupled with the name of the apartment complex across from Red’s Diner, but it came up empty.

Brian returned to the garage and got back into his car. “Start.” The car came to life. He backed out of the garage. “Close. Garage … close.” Fuck. He got out of the car and walked back into the garage to pull the lever out of the emergency override position, then returned to his car. “Close.” It closed.

He instructed the car to take him to the apartment complex as he continued to look for an exact address. Every search he tried came up empty. He didn’t even know if the picture of Nicole with Red’s Diner in the background was taken in her apartment: It might have just been the apartment of a friend she was visiting that day.

Brian let the car find a parking spot on its own and set off to find the apartment. He walked around to the side that looked out at Red’s Diner. There were six possible apartments, but the image of Nicole at the window looked like it was taken from the second floor, so he would start with the three high probability second floor apartments.

Brian knocked on a door. An attractive blonde in a black tank top answered. “Is Nicole home?” Brian asked.

“Nicole?” asked the woman.

“Nicole McKinsey,” answered Brian.

“You might be looking for the woman next door. I don’t know her name. Long brown hair; maybe in her mid-twenties–”

“That’s the one! Thank you very much,” said Brian.

Brian knocked on the next door. He knocked again; no one answered. He was hesitant to start looking through windows: He already was beginning to feel like a bit of a stalker. He knocked a third time and still nobody answered, so he left.

“You looking for Nicole?” someone called out. He turned: An elderly woman on the porch of the apartment on the opposite side of Nicole’s from the first woman was looking down at him.

“Yes ma’am,” answered Brian.

“She ain’t home. Police came and picked her up last night.”

“The police?”

“Uh huh.”

“What did she do?”

“I dunno hon, but they came and took her away in handcuffs last night. Haven’t seen her since.”

“Okay. Thank you ma’am.”

“Anytime sweetheart.”

Brian returned to his car and instructed it to go to the nearest police detention facility. Fifteen minutes later, he was standing at a counter in the police station.

The police officer behind the counter ran a sweep on Brian’s augment. “Name’s Brian Bruso?” he asked.

“Yes sir.”

“What’s your relation to Nicole McKinsey?”

“I’m her father.” The police officer raised his eyebrows and started to speak, but Brian cut him off: “Just a friend, actually.”

“I can’t let you see her if you’re not a relative.”

“She knows me.”

“Doesn’t matter.”

“I just want to bail her out. Can’t I do that?”

The police officer sighed and instructed Brian to have a seat. He took a seat in the waiting room which was surprisingly like the waiting room of his dentist. He had never bailed anybody out of jail before. He sat back and browsed the latest feed on his augment. The hot viral video of the morning was yet another person getting pummeled by a gang of thugs somewhere in the city. He turned it off.

“Mr. Bruso.”

“Yes,” said Brian, standing and returning to the counter.

“Bail for Nicole McKinsey was set last night at booking for five thousand dollars. If you’re prepared to pay that amount in full, you can do so at the clerk’s window, through that door to the left.”

At the clerk’s window, Brian’s augment was again scanned and he was informed there was also a nonrefundable twenty-five dollar court fee. “That will be five thousand twenty-five dollars,” said the clerk. The bill for $5025 appeared in the display of Brian’s augment and he eyed down to the “Pay Now” button and clicked it. A receipt that said “PAID IN FULL” appeared in his display. The clerk told him to return to the waiting area in the front and that the detained would be released momentarily.

Brian sat in the waiting room for another twenty minutes before Nicole walked out. She still had on his black t-shirt and her grass-stained jeans from the previous day.

“You’re the one who bailed me out?” she asked.

“Yeah. You okay?”

“Brian, right?”

“Yeah.”

“I’ve been better.”

Brian returned Nicole’s light hug of the previous day and escorted her out of the police station.

“What were you arrested for?” he asked.

“Disorderly conduct, public endangerment, resisting arrest, and about a million other things that I don’t remember.”

“What did you do?”

“I got chased and beat up and the police saw the feed. They said I was a public nuisance for not having an augment and instigating a riot.”

She sounded defeated. Not angry, hurt, or sad: Just defeated.

“Would you like me to drop you off at your apartment?” Brian asked as they got into the car.

She didn’t answer. In the car, she turned to him. “Why did you come for me?” She asked. “Why did you bail me out?”

“I think I like you,” he answered. “You’re nice. I tried to go without my augment today, but I couldn’t even get out of my house. Couldn’t get the garage open; couldn’t start the car. Then I thought I would call you and get some pointers on how to go without an augment, but I couldn’t even look you up. Then I realized that, since you didn’t have an augment, I couldn’t call you anyway. So I went back in and put my stupid augment on and found out where you live, more or less. The elderly woman next door to you told me you were arrested, so I came to the police station.”

As Brian spoke, a grin gradually appeared on Nicole’s face. It was the first time he had seen any expression on her face not marred by hopeless defeat.

“I’m not a stalker, honest,” he added. She smiled broadly.

“I don’t want to go home,” she said.

“We can go to my place, if you want. You can even stay there a few days if you don’t want to be alone: I have a spare bedroom. You look like you need a change of clothes though.”

“Why are you being so nice to me?”

Brian considered his words. “I don’t know … you look in need? You—There’s something about you and you seem in such despair. I don’t—”

“Do you know what that is?” Nicole asked.

“What do you mean? What what is?”

“What you’re feeling. That’s called empathy. Most people don’t have empathy anymore. It’s one of the things that augmentation destroys.”

“How do you know I’m not just a perv trying to get into your pants?”

“Maybe you are. But if so, you’re an empathetic perv,” Nicole answered, grinning.

They drove back to Nicole’s apartment so that Nicole could pack some clothes and things. Nicole invited him in while she packed and he looked around at her shockingly bare apartment.

“You don’t even have a TV!” he said loudly, as she was in the bedroom packing.

“I have a TV,” she called back. “It’s in the closet.”

“Why is your TV in the closet?”

“Because I never use it.”

“How do you even survive?”

“Sometimes,” she called back, “I ask myself that of everyone else. How do people survive when they’re constantly plugged in?”

She returned from the bedroom. “Ready,” she said.

They left and stopped by the grocery store on the way to Brian’s place to pick up the groceries that he had wanted to pick up without his augment that morning.

“Do you carry cash on you?” she asked.

“No. Why?”

“If you managed to get to the grocery store this morning, how did you plan to pay for your groceries with neither your augment nor cash?”

“Oh. Duh.”

When they arrived at Brian’s house, the first thing he did was strip off his augment and throw it on a table. Then he showed Nicole the spare bedroom. They weren’t at her apartment long enough for her to shower or change out of yesterday’s clothes, so he left her to do that while he put the groceries away. Then he went to the living room and fidgeted. He couldn’t figure out what to do, absent his augment, to pass the time. Normally, he would have browsed a feed or two. After a while, Nicole came out in a fresh blue blouse and jeans and sat down next to him.

“You look sort of bewildered without your augment,” she said.

“It’s tough … like giving up heroin or something. What do you do? I mean, without an augment or TV?”

“Read books.”

“Without an augment?”

“You have heard of paper books, haven’t you? I mean, I’m the twenty-seven-year-old. You’re forty-five.”

“Well yeah, but you don’t see them very much anymore. I wouldn’t even know where to buy one. And I can’t buy them online without my augment.”

“There are places to buy books—real paper books. You just have to know how to find them. I’ll show you.” Nicole sat back on the sofa and nudged Brian playfully with her toe. “It’s not just me, you know. There’s a whole community of people who are unaugmented. Most of them have to be augmented during the day for their jobs, but when they leave work, they take the augments off. It’s kind of like a social network online, except we meet in the flesh and talk. Sometimes we discuss books or play antique board games.”

“You’re fully unaugmented?” Brian asked. “Even at work?”

“I am. I used to teach school, but I left that for job that I can do without being augmented. I work for others who are also unaugmented, and I’m paid in cash.”

“That can’t pay very well. Stores still take cash? You know, I don’t think I’ve seen anybody use cash in years.”

“Most don’t take it, and there are fewer that do each year. It won’t be long before augmentation is the only way to pay for things.”

“Then you’ll be forced to go back to your augment.”

“No I won’t. I will leave here and go someplace where people are allowed to be free, where individualism isn’t a crime, and where empathy isn’t viewed as a disease.”

“I doubt that such a place exists.”

“Many such places exist. Have you ever heard of the Grangers?”

“Vaguely. I thought they were an urban legend or something.”

“No, they aren’t an urban legend. There are whole towns of Grangers: Whole towns where augments aren’t even allowed. You think they’re an urban legend because they’re unplugged. The augmented live in a virtual reality that is so real to them that anything outside of it is unreal. To them, the only reality is virtual reality. Isn’t that kind of funny, and sad too?”

“How do you find these towns of Grangers without being augmented? How do you look them up? How do you travel to them without augments?”

“There are ways. It’s like the underground railroad in history books. There are safe houses and waypoints along the way.”

“And nobody is plugged in at these Granger towns? There are no augments at all?”

“Nope: None at all.”

“Gawd! That kind of gives me goose bumps. It’s like going back to live in some frontier town in the Wild West.”

Nicole gave Brian another playful nudge with her toe. “It’s not that bad,” she said.

“So … what should we do? Without augments, I mean.”

“You live on the beach and you have to ask that?” she said. “Duh!”

They ate lunch and spent the afternoon swimming in the warm green waters of the Atlantic. Afterward, Brian reluctantly reequipped his augment so that he could drive his car, and Nicole took him to a bookstore, which turned out to be the home of an elderly gentleman named Jack. Every nook of the house seemed stuffed, floor to ceiling, with used books on every subject imaginable. New books were also available at Jack’s, transcribed, Brian was told, from the augment edition at the home of another person named Sal. Both Jack and Sal were Grangers, Brian learned, who lived in the city to instruct those who wanted to abandon the augmented life on how to get to Granger towns.

“You mean she wasn’t pulling my leg?” Brian asked Jack.

“Oh no … the Grangers exist alright,” said Jack. “Sal and I are sort of the first stop on the underground railroad. It’s not as if it’s illegal or anything: The police might sneer at us, but they don’t bother us otherwise.” Jack eyed the look of incredulity on Brian’s face. “People think we’re an urban legend because we have no online presence. We’re a ghost! You have to find out about us by word of mouth. When’s the last time you had a real face-to-face conversation with somebody, other than Nicole?”

When they left Jack’s, Brian considered dinner at a nice restaurant, but none of the restaurants he frequented accepted cash. Ultimately, they went back to his house to eat. After dinner, they enjoyed the warmth of each other’s presence as they sat in silence and read the books they had bought. He waited until she put her book down, and then he put his down as well.

“Nicole,” he said, “you said this morning that I had empathy. I know what the word means, because I’ve seen it used in old books. But I’ll swear I don’t think I’ve heard anybody use that word before this morning.”

“It’s not very common. If you use that word online, it will just get down-voted and nobody will see it. People just dismiss you as an anachronistic weirdo when you use words like that.”

“I wasn’t very empathetic to you yesterday.”

“You chased those people off who were attacking me, and you took me in even though you didn’t know me. That’s empathy.”

“It wasn’t empathy when I asked if they kicked you in the crotch. And when I told you the video was going viral, I knew it would hurt you.”

“Why did you tell me that then?”

“I honestly don’t know. I think—you weren’t a person to me. You were a thing.”

“So why did you stop the attack?”

“I don’t know.”

“I think maybe I was both a person and a thing to you. I was both, and you had to make a decision. On the one hand, there was the thing in your augment’s newsfeed, and on the other hand, there was the person in the flesh. You had to choose.”

“Maybe,” Brian said.

Brian told Nicole to stay up as long as she wanted and not worry about making noise and that he was going to bed. He patted her shoulder and left her with her book. Twenty minutes later, he felt her sliding into his bed next to him.

“I’m not a perv,” he said.

“I know,” she said.

A week later, Nicole emptied her apartment and moved in with Brian. He was gradually getting used to life without his augment. He had to wear it at work, but he tried not to wear it otherwise. In the car, he kept it in his pocket so that the car could identify him, but otherwise he programmed his destinations using the in-dash display. He found banks that would distribute cash, and he used the cash to purchase his groceries in grocery stores that were owned by the unaugmented.

Even though he still wore the augment at work, the atmosphere became increasingly strained. His colleagues asked why he didn’t post anymore. They wanted to know why Brian didn’t comment on their vids, why he suddenly carried cash, and why they could never contact him outside of work hours. His boss asked if everything was okay at home. After Brian had told his boss on several occasions that everything was fine, his boss eventually told him he needed to shape up and get his act together. One day, his colleagues were all laughing, enjoying some augment feed and they told him to check it out. He opened the link and saw that the feed was of a news anchor who had apparently suffered a stroke on-air, becoming dysphasic; the broadcast disintegrating into a series of unintelligible sounds. A few weeks ago, Brian would have laughed along. Now, he just turned it off in disgust. Brian was no longer considered a team player, and he could see his future was limited at the company. A few weeks ago, that would have bothered him. Now, he couldn’t wait for the end. A month later, Brian was given the two weeks notice that he came to crave. He told Nicole that night.

“What are you going to do?” she asked.

“I’m thinking—what do you say we take off? I mean, to a Granger town?”

“Are you serious?”

“Yeah, why not?”

“Yes!” Nicole said. “But it will take a while. You’ll need to sell the house, and my court date is still two months away.”

“It’s a beach house: It will be on the market less than a week. And we can come back for your court date … or not.”

“Do you think they would come after us?” Nicole asked.

“A bail bondsman would, I’m sure. But I paid the bail in cash. My guess is, your punishment will be a fine that will be less than the $5000 bail I posted, and I doubt they would bother. Plus, it’s been worrying me that they might require you to augment for the trial, and that you might end up in jail. I say we disappear.”

Nicole wrapped her arms tightly around Brian and kissed him. “There are rules to follow,” she said. “It’s a tough slog. We can’t take the car, because they don’t want the road to the Granger towns littered with abandoned vehicles. It’s not illegal to go off the grid, but the Grangers still like to keep their exact locations unknown where possible. We’ll want to sell everything and convert it to gold. Are you sure you’re ready for all of this? It’s not the kind of thing you do spur of the moment.”

“I’ve been ready Nicole.”

The house, as Brian predicted, was on the market less than a week before it sold. His last day at work came and went and he spent his days selling off furniture and appliances while Nicole continued on with her job at a small unaugmented-owned cash-friendly retail store. Brian needed his augment to sell off his possessions online quickly, as well as to sell the house and to buy gold from various pawn shops and coin dealers around town. He knew, however, that his need for the augment was quickly coming to an end.

His final transaction conducted through the augment was the closing of the house sale, and after that Brian and Nicole moved into Sal’s house, where they stayed for five days before setting out. Sal supplied them with a car—a manually driven antique—and gave them directions and a paper map to a waypoint 400 kilometers northeast of the city. At the waypoint, they would be supplied with another car for the remaining 200 kilometers of their trip into the Blue Ridge Mountains.

dark-horizonThe drive was quiet. It had been a good decade since Brian had been anywhere outside of the city in an automobile, and as they traveled he realized how much such travel had declined. They past other cars only rarely along the way, and a number of interstates and roadways seemed nearly in ruins. People just didn’t travel beyond cities anymore, except on business to other cities by plane or train. Why go to Yellowstone National Park, when you could do so in VR through your augment from the comfort of your living room?

They stopped along the way to their waypoint at a country home where Sal had indicated they could obtain fuel and have lunch, and they enjoyed the company of their hosts there before setting off again, with Nicole taking her turn at the wheel. As Nicole drove, Brian removed his augment from his breast pocket and looked down at it.

“Getting ready to do it?” asked Nicole.

“Yeah.”

He ran his finger along the smooth titanium surface of the side piece, the neodymium rail, the carbon fiber cowl, the silicon dioxide lens. Inside the computer and battery housing, he knew, was a host of other elements: Gold, gallium, arsenic, lithium, americium, thorium, and many others. If any one device represented the current state of human technology, it was the device he now held in his hand. Its very existence was a miracle.

Failing-Google-Glass“You once told me augmentation was life,” said Nicole. “Do you still believe that?”

They drove on into the mountains, leaving Brian’s broken augment to rot on the decaying asphalt surface of the highway.

— R. S. Huber

Kind of long … I know. 😛

Various versions of this were rejected by three different magazines. It’s not the best thing I’ve written, so I decided not to pursue it further.

On a lark, I Googled “The Grangers” a little while ago and was surprised to see that there was something called the Granger movement following the American Civil War. For the record, the Grangers in this story got their name from a minor character that appears towards the end of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.

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