April 13, 2018

It's early. Too early. Even for the birds. Nothing but a hint of orange on the horizon. But Barton Murphy is awake, and his heart is pounding.

He's had the dream again. 

It always starts the same way. With the sound. An old-time engine, the gas-powered kind, coughing to life, then growing to an insistent roar. And then a flash of color. A tail light glowing scarlet, boring into his eyes even though he knows, he just knows, his eyes are still closed and he's asleep.

It's a sports car. The one his father drove before the Great Ban. He's watching as it pulls out of the garage into the pouring rain. Through the rear glass a raised hand, fingers splayed, his father's interpretation of a wave goodbye. With a scream the sports car rockets down the driveway and disappears. A cloud of blue-white smoke hangs in its wake, curling into itself as if beckoning Barton to follow. But he remains rooted in place. The cloud envelops him, acrid smoke invading his nostrils. He begins to choke. And then he wakes up, kicking sweat-soaked sheets from his legs.

It's no way to start a day, but he doesn't have a choice. It's senior year. With enough practice, a swimming scholarship to State awaits. And with it, freedom.

Barton rolls off of his mattress and it silently folds into the floor. JAYNE's head and torso appear in its place. She won't be getting her legs back anytime soon. New holography units are expensive. So instead she floats over the floor, delivering her morning recitation of the air quality levels and chances for rain in a sing-song that would be comforting if the news wasn't so bleak. Dust clouds at every altitude. None with water.

Barton was three when they announced the Great Ban. He might have ridden in the sports car with his dad before then but he doesn't remember it. He's not even sure he really remembers the sound and smoke and his dad's raised hand. Dream and reality commingle.

No shower. He'll do that at the pool. Just a quick breakfast and a check of his bag to make sure he has clean underwear and a t-shirt that doesn't smell. Everything's there, neatly vacuum-wrapped against the dust.

JAYNE follows him to the door, transforming on the way into an image of his mom, or rather her upper half, wishing him a good day. He pauses to record a two-second response, blowing a kiss. Then he grabs his StarkBoard and he's out the door. Upstairs, his mom, in flesh and blood, barely stirs from her sound sleep.

The streets are empty at this hour, not that they're ever really as busy anymore as they were in the gas-powered days, before boards and skates and NowPods. Despite the lack of rain (again), there's enough moisture in at ground level to keep the dust down for once. The Great Ban might have cleared the air, but the droughts showed everyone that some damage can't be undone overnight.

Barton slaloms from lane to lane. The electric motor of his board emits a hum as he leans in to accelerate, his hair whipping from his forehead and the wind filling his ears. It's three miles to the pool, well within the range of a full charge. He'll have enough left in the batteries to get to school at least. And he can always get a quick charge during class if he needs to.

He heels his board over in a wide arc from the neighborhood street into the boulevard. There's some pod traffic, so he leans back on the board deck to slow down and corrects course onto the sidewalk. NowBikes and NowPods whisper past, heading for the early shift at the NowChip plant. An older NP025 pod kicks up a billow of dust, which roils over the sidewalk.

Barton leans back hard with a gasp, blinking reflexively. The dream flashes again. Roar, light, wave, smoke. Dust hisses to the ground behind him, mimicking the curling patterns of his father's ephemeral exhaust cloud. 

At the next intersection, the sidewalk changes from static to conveyor. No boards allowed. Barton angles back onto the street.

 

One drawback of the electric vehicle revolution: it's hard to hear approaching danger. The giant NowPodMegabus is only a few feet away when Barton senses it bearing down on him. Even if it had a driver, it couldn't stop on a dime. 

Barton leans hard on his StarkBoard's rail and it reliably responds with instant precision, veering him out of harm's way by a hair. He snatches for an open charge port on the side of the lumbering pod as it hums past, hoping to steal a free tow, but misses. It whirs away. Close one.

The pool building is a low, oblong structure peppered with inlaid solar cells and sheathed in electromagnetic pulse-resistant nanofiber NowWrap. They say the material protects against the solar ion eruptions the Earth's bruised atmosphere struggles to deflect these days, but Barton's mom heard a rumor that the real purpose is to shield against the sort of "EMP bombs" fringe corporations have supposedly been setting off in the cities lately.

Whatever the reason, it's always seemed a little strange to Barton. Why would NowCorp want to safety wrap the pool? Hardly the kind of critical infrastructure everyone worries about losing in the next "event". 

Jaime's bike sits tethered to a charging port. It's a piece of junk, a rusting frame from an outlawed gas bike retrofitted with an undersized NowBike motor held in place with duct tape and bailing wire. 

Inside, Jaime hands him a generation drogue, grumbling about the time. Barton strips down, dons his goggles and straps the drogue to his waist. He plunges into the water. The drogue trails behind him, adding resistance against his long, powerful strokes as it collects wake turbulence and converts it into the electricity that will charge Jaime's bike later. Barton Murphy, one-man hydropower plant.

At the wall, Barton dives and flips. As he barrels through the bubbles, the scene flashes again. The curling, beckoning smoke. The red light. The uplifted hand. He breaks the surface sputtering. Jaime shoots him an annoyed look. That bike won't charge itself. 

By the time he leaves practice the sun has risen a dull red above the dirty atmosphere. JAYNE was right. It's going to be another dry day. And, he's late. This time he breaks the rules and directs his board onto the moving sidewalk. He laughs off the protests of a little old lady as he weaves past. 

The late bell is ringing as he gallops through the door of a low-slung NowSchool. Inside the door, he gently deposits his board on a charge rack alongside dozens of knockoff boards and worn down electric NowSkates.

Even though it's a first generation Model Six, the simple beauty of Barton's StarkBoard stands out among the homely, boring pretenders crowding the rack. This being a NowCorp town, locals and lifers treat Barton with suspicion for riding a Stark Mobility creation. The sleek, angular, high-performance board positively mocks the NewCorp motto, "Security in Uniformity," which in the case of boards and pods and buildings translates into an unvaryingly bland, ovoid design. No corners to hide in

Barton could care less what they say. The StarkBoard belonged to his dad. It's the only evidence Barton has of his existence outside of the dream. And, like the car in his visions, it's fast

The door of environmental engineering class is already closed. Barton tries to avoid the teacher's impatient glare, giving Mindy a wink and a light caress of her hand as he slips past her desk into his seat. The lesson is about carbon sequestration and the Great Ban. The teacher drones and Barton begins to doze. And there it is again. Sound, light, wave, smoke. He snorts awake. The class giggles. 

The bell sounds again. Did he fall back asleep? No, this bell is different. Persistent. Mindy shoots him a frightened look. They pile out of the classroom. Students and teachers stream down the hall toward the front door. By reflex, he grabs his board from the charge rack and steps outside, pulling Mindy by the hand with him. He's about to slide the board beneath his feet when he sees it.

From a could of smoke an angular, black, pre-Ban sports car emerges. A furious wedge of motion and menace. It hurtles, roaring, toward the school.  

It's coming for Barton. This is not a dream. 

 

 


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