Charlie stood in his shop. A glass of cold milk sat on a work table. His right hand hovered above it and his fingertips slightly gripped around the top of the cup. It was early and it was cold. The night dark in the shop was replaced with a kind of morning dark. Black was replaced with grey. Sunshine never found its way into Charlie’s shop.
He snapped a lever on the wall and lights above buzzed awake. They wove their sound into the steady fall of the rain. Charlie yawned and rubbed his eyes.
He took a drink out of his glass and then set it on a shelf above his head, which was hanging from an interior wall. He leaned on a stool and kicked a foot up and rested it under the seat. A tiny jet of fire shot from his gloved finger and he began burning and melting away pieces of a robot’s brain, seemingly at an unorganized whim.
The door to the shop opened and the sound of the rain overpowered the hum of the lights and even the hiss of the jet of fire.
“Early today, Jim,” Charlie called out without taking his eyes off his work. “Someone on the route out or somethin’?”
There wasn’t a response, or rather, Charlie received silence as a response. He looked up from his work, fire still breathing. January stood, drenched and hooded, in front of a large Citizen, nearly two-thirds taller than young woman before it. It turned and shut the door, and Charlie noticed that it held what looked to him like a black briefcase.
The Citizen was old and it was dirty. It didn’t look as if it had been turned on for decades. Its head was rounded well at the top, and had a defined jaw line, but like all citizens its jaw was not there to open and close. Instead it cradled a faded blue light in place of a mouth. Its eyes let off a hazy blue glow that wasn’t faded like the mouth, but muttered ‘soulless’ nonetheless.
Its body was constructed to reflect the human form much closer than the majority of Citizens that were active in New Prosity. This Citizen had arms, legs, hands, feet, and it even seemed as if, in those structures, metallic muscles were holding everything together and driving momentum. There were various other sources of light that bled from its body in dying blinks. Wires were exposed, some thick as chords, others thin as hair.
To Charlie it was a miracle the thing was even standing, let alone processing enough to know to close the door to his shop.
“Ah, January, you’re not Jim. Then again, I haven't really taken a good look at Jim in a while. Maybe he’s turned into a pretty young girl.” Jim laughed at himself. “Come, come in. Is this him then? The living one you talked about?”
Oather’s cat had been fairly informative. He had a thing with Citizens, something about a man and a box, and his patron wore a big black hat. Not many folks wore big black hats. I assumed the box was whatever the alley fight was about. Man in a box, she said. The artificial intelligence, probably.
I tucked that information away, though, and headed toward District 7 to glean some information about Gerald, and maybe about the man in the big black hat. The Brown Ash might not believe the majority of what’s stored in 7’s archives, but they’ve got a fairly large presence there. I’ve been told they like to keep regulars posted around in order to point people away from the wrong direction, and occasionally in the right direction.
District 7 was filled with wood and brick and buildings that looked old. It was quiet in most places, but there were many squares, or auditoriums where people could gather around a stage or podium and listen to speakers. Philosophy was a hot topic, if I understood correctly, and any inkling toward sciences and technology was generally discouraged. People like Charlie were self taught or had mentors who were also intellectual pariahs.
There was an older man who sat under a tree, which very well may have been an Ash, I’m not really one for tree types. He sat there and smoked endlessly on a long pipe. The tree was on a hill that granted anyone enjoying it’s shade access to the four squares that were built around it. The old man sat, smoked, and listened.
He wasn’t there at all times, but it seemed as if he was always the first in the morning out and the last to go home, wherever that was, if it was at all. He was often quiet, and was treated as a fixture or a statue by most of the individuals who lived in 7. Few spoke to him, but many spoke about him. What they said about him were words concerning the Brown Ash.
I made my way through the Guests who were walking about rigidly, in stiff and muted clothing, straight to the tree where the old man sat. I hadn’t spoken with him directly before, and didn’t expect to that evening either. Of the few students that spoke to him, he only replied to a small number. I didn’t intend to be a part of that small number, but I did mean to find one of this elect, and to inquire about Gerald.
Charlie could surely have connected me with a member of the Brown Ash if I had asked him, but I didn’t know who was attached to this yet. I didn’t want to put him in harms way if I didn’t have to.
The old man was leaning against the tree in the sunlight, sucking on his pipe and perking his ears. I sat in the shade on the opposite side of him and looked out on the two squares. The one on my left had a single man posted in the center addressing a modest crowd. The one on my right was almost overpopulated with people talking amongst themselves as they watched two individuals on the stage argue.
I could smell the old man’s smoke from my spot on the other side of the tree. In fact, it seemed as if the wind cradled it around the tree and set it spinning around my head. The smoke was sweet and reminded me more of burning wood than of grass or leaf.
Very shortly after I sat, a young man shared a few words with the elder. They were nonsense to me, and didn’t seem to pique the interest of the smoker. The young man left in minutes. After that, the tree did not have a visitor for a long while.
The bloke talking to the few spoke, with care, on the nature of morality. The Guests of 6 were spoken of frequently, but he made it clear that none of the districts was a good example of anything upright.
In the conversation square there was a good deal of drinking and, at times, it got difficult to tell what either or any of them were saying. It was rumored that the man who was sitting behind me listened intently to all speakers in the four squares, but I found that increasingly less likely as my straining to hear extended. From what I could make out, they were talking about the uneducated, as if they were the scum of the city, and mocked any who valued anything above the fruits District 7 had to offer. Arrogant is a word I would use to describe them.
At a certain point I gave up on listening to either and closed my eyes. The smoke the man produced really was sweet, and filled my lungs with a sort of peace I wasn’t familiar with.
Another student came to speak with the man. He persisted in speaking for nearly thirty minutes before taking his leave. I kept my eyes shut as I listened to him drone about a man from history named Dahz who was from a distant village, and didn’t seem to be very consequential.
I sucked in smoke deeply.
I woke deep in the night. There was no smoke. There were no crowds. I stood and walked around the tree. The old man was gone. There were lights around the buildings that surrounded the squares, and the squares themselves were lit fairly well, but the tree atop the hill was cast in a fair amount of darkness.
I was about to stretch when I saw a figure walk between two of the neighboring buildings. I pressed myself up against the tree instinctively and focused to get a better look. It was a man wearing a big black hat. It was kinda dumb too.
He cleared the space between the buildings and I set off to follow him.