System Failure – A Short Story

System Failure – A Short Story

June 15, 2019

For the last few years I’ve watched the riots, government corruption, poverty and crime rip America, and much of the world, apart. I can’t stand by, so I’ve decided to do something, and while I can’t save the world, I can create something new.

I’ll call it Arcadia, and we’ll make it the perfect city. Wolf and I have been studying universal basic income, and I think we’ve solved it. With the right mix of incentives and creativity, we’ll make it work, at least at city-scale. It’s a start.

There will be no corruption, no stiffing of ideas, and equality for all. If science and technology can achieve it, it will happen. Eventually, once we’ve built a solid foundation, we’ll provide safety for immigrants and refugees.

I will create the perfect city, a wonderful combination of scientific achievement and hopeful ideals. It will take work, investors, and people willing to adapt. But, I have faith that Wolf and I will achieve this ideal. And perhaps Arcadia will be the mold for a new world, one that treats people with respect, and allows them to realize their full potential.

Instead of looking to mythological cities like Atlantis, Shangri-La or El Dorado, Arcadia will set the standard for the world. We will change the course of human history, and possibly our own evolution.

Finally, I have hope.

Selon Brusk

Chapter One

 

If you took a poll, like one of those ancient political surveys, the results would be unanimous; Arcadia was the definition of perfect. Located in California, with glorious weather year-round, and pristine white sand beaches, the city was a modern utopia. To everyone but me.

Stained glass threw brilliants shafts of light across the abandoned subway station. This place had been around longer than Arcadia, and it was just what we needed, a place to call our own. I’d like to say it was my super-secret hideout, but once the first kid moved in, I couldn’t call it that anymore.

Now, my hideout was a refuge for all the kids who no longer had families, at least not within the city borders. If they were away from home when their families were deported, they were left behind, and well, someone had to watch out for them.

About twenty kids now called my refuge home, living with me, my robot, a motley assortment of drones, and a heap of stolen solar panel parts. I’m not really good with people, so it was all a bit overwhelming.

“Ion, please tell me we’re leaving soon,” my robot Tom said as a kid swung from his arm.

“Yeah, stay safe everyone,” I called out as we started for the exit.

A chorus of responses followed me as Tom led the way up the first ladder into the sewers. Well, unused sewers, since Arcadia uses factories to process human waste and turns it into ash and water. So I had no problem climbing through the old pipes to reach a building’s storage room directly above my hideout.

Tom and I climbed the ladder out of the sewers, and he hacked the security panel within seconds to open the door for me. My augmented reality visor lit up with various stats as I left the building. I glanced up at the high buildings blocking out the sunshine, and the long shadows flowing across the pavement.

A group of people turned the corner, and I tried to blend into the brick behind me. they didn’t glance away from their AR visors, which was fine with me. Above me, a delivery drone buzzed and darted into a window. Tom held out his arm, preventing me from stepping into the street, as a self-driving car zoomed past us, following a colored strip embedded in the pavement.

“We need Midnight PV3 Combiner boxes soon,” I said, motioning to the solar panels around each window on the building.

At my side, Tom glanced up, “Roger.”

“The fridge is empty again,” I said. “We’ll have to sell a few drones, fix Miss Porter’s solar panels, again, and we’ll maybe have just enough tokens for some food.”

“Too bad we’re illegal,” Tom sighed, “as a citizen you’d get a food stipend. We’d also get an apartment. All those kids wouldn’t be underfoot.”

“Life sucks, then you die.”

Tom froze, “look out, robot cops.”

I clicked several buttons on my wristwatch, and my visor darkened. To the sentry scans, I’ll appear to be another robot. A second later, three robot sentries turned the corner. Various lights flashed on their human-like heads, and I examined the blue spreading out from my feet.

If I imagined hard enough, I could almost feel the electrical pulses from the sidewalk moving up my skin to power my devices. Somehow it comforted me, and the invisible energy calmed my breathing. The bots didn’t glance at me as they continued down the walkway.

“Tom, run a scan.”

“Ion,” Tom exhaled.

“Please.”

“Okay.” An audible whirl came from him. “I sense seventy-five delivery drones, and twenty-nine public transportation pods labeled the property of Arcadia. Three private hover cars, marked as owned by the Bell, Harris, and Robinson families. I’m also picking up a few hundred conversations. Would you like to know more?”

“No, thanks,” I said.

“I heard,” Tom said, “humans don’t know what they look like, because their brains distort their sensory inputs. Is it true? When you look in the mirror, what do you see?”

I didn’t have to think of my answer, “mud brown eyes, a small nose, and tight lips with baby fat cheeks.”

“But I don’t see you like that, I see striking brown eyes the color of melted chocolate, and a strong jaw. So your brains really are filtering your reality. Fascinating!”

Tom stopped speaking as a delivery drone came close, and he snatched it out of the air and examined it. “Great timing,” he yanked the propellers off and passed them over.

“Get the motor too,” I said, as Tom disconnected it and handed it to me.

I made the mistake of looking at the motor too long, and a tiny bubble of discomfort started inside my brain. I turned it over three times and squeezed my eyes shut. When I opened them, I tapped the casing three times and waited for it to explode. After a few seconds, I rolled it again, and put it into my bag.

My head got heavy, and I yanked the motor back out to twirl it again. Tom sighed and tapped his foot rapidly. With another three turns the itch inside subsided and I shoved the motor and propellers into my bag.

Tom stood at my side, his tall, strong and intimidating frame made me feel safe. With that theme in mind, I’d colored his arms and legs black and red, while a skull decorated his torso. Tom froze and tilted his head just so to warn me.

Immigration.

At once a harsh pulse began in my brain, and my muscles became weak. If immigration spotted me, if they caught me…

“Let’s go,” I said, pulling Tom along the sidewalk.

Tom scooped me up, loped across the street and shoved me into a hydroponic shed. I crouched under the rows of dragon fruit and listened to the trickle of water.

Terrifying scenarios worked their way through my brain as I waited to be discovered and deported. I had no clue what happened outside, but finally Tom clicked open the door and peeked in.

“You look so afraid, but they’re gone now. Wait, I know what will help, sunshine! Something about the warm rays dancing across my metal makes the world right again.” Tom pulled me from my hiding place and set me in the sun.

“Did they,” I lowered my voice, “get taken?”

“Yes,” Tom answered.

“This place is hell,” I said.

“Yes, it’s a perfect dichotomy of pleasure and pain. Pleasure for the citizens. Pain for the immigrants.”

“It doesn’t matter. The system is a failure. My father and mother proved they were a value to the city. They should have been given citizenship, but they were deported anyway.”

“You might also be taken,” Tom breathed.

My muscles clenched.

“I know you miss your family,” Tom said. “I miss your family, and I’ve never met them.”

“They were, they are, exceptional.”

“I sense you’re upset, and I know the remedy,” Tom grinned.

Tom laid an arm over my shoulders and steered me down the street. I tried to distract myself by watching the buildings as they slowly changed from high-rise offices to shops and condos. The middle-class condos were amazing, but still nothing compared to the mansions the rich lived in.

Older drones washed the second-gen solar panels, and aging building materials had lost some of their shimmer years ago. Without tokens to spend on lavish homes, most of the middle class of Arcadia lived in condos like this. At least they had a real apartment to call home.

“Talk Tom,” I said, craving a distraction from the heat in my chest.

“Okay. Arcadia produces and exports high-end electronics, robots, specialized foods, art, and sculptures. They distribute the profits among the citizens, with the original founders, inventors, and investors getting a slightly higher percentage.

“Citizens get shares of ownership in the city, and a dividend of tokens for everyday transactions. As co-owners, every citizen has access to the entire city, and what it offers. This includes housing, transportation, food, health care, education, utilities, clothes, recreation, and even personal robots.”

While I recognized all these facts and had heard them recited a thousand times, the rote information distracted me.

“When a citizen invents something, it belongs to the city, but the inventor gets ten percent of the profits, while everything else goes back into the city to be distributed. In Arcadia, life is passion oriented, and citizens are encouraged to follow what makes them happy, whether it’s building robots, cooking food, or childcare.”

As I listened to Tom, the tightness in my chest subsided, and I took a clear breath. It took significant attention on my part to miss any cracks and touch each lamppost and barrier I crossed. Tom led me around a corner, and I grinned.

“Keaka!” Tom called out. “My favorite Polynesian!”

Keaka, a massive man with broad shoulders, enormous arms and legs, turned. His features morphed into a giant smile, and though the dark tribal tattoos on his tan face intimidated others, I loved them. They were so expressive and somehow gave shape to how I feel sometimes.

“Why it’s my favorite street rats,” Keaka said with a big grin and a wink.

“We came for a pick-me-up,” Tom said.

“Oh? Well, I’ve got just the thing.” Keaka reached into his cart and pulled out a cup.

I made no move to take it until he handed it to me, reaching out for something is awkward. I settled down on the staircase next to the cart, and Tom started to talk.

“Keaka, your cookie dough is the best,” Tom said. “This will cheer Ion right up.”

“You’re welcome,” Keaka nodded.

“We ran across some immigration bots,” Tom said.

“If I wasn’t so good at cookie dough, they woulda deported me years ago,” Keaka tapped his cart. “But my dough saves me! In a dramatic change of subjects, have you heard of the big party?”

“Big party?” Tom asked.

“Yeah,” Keaka said. “Selon and Wolf turn fifty tomorrow, and it’s also the twentieth anniversary of the founding of the city. They’re throwing a huge bash for Arcadia’s upper crust.”

“A party!” Tom cheered. “I love parties.”

“You’ve never been to one,” I reminded him.

“But I still love them!” Tom said.

Keaka clapped Tom on the back so hard, the robot lost a bolt. “I get invited all the time…to serve dessert.”

Tom laughed, “behold, the power of excellent food.”

 

Chapter Two

 

Darkness pressed down on the sky and squashed all the daylight. The blueish blackness swirled as little pinpricks of light appeared in its depths. Night time comforted me, the ability to hide within its folds always appealed.

Great booms sounded overhead, and I ducked under Tom’s arm. My robot stared up at the flashes in the sky, and though his face was pixels and metal, I swore I saw wonder.

“Fireworks,” he said awe in his digital voice. “I’ve never seen fireworks so close before.”

Brilliant splashes of light bathed everything around me in reds and greens and blues before flickering out into twilight again.

“Too loud,” I said.

“Bah, they’re perfect.”

Spotlights danced across the face of the estate, printed from only the best 3D printers. Turquoise lined the windowsills, white and gray bricks alternated to make a fascinating spray of color. The house had too many windows, and I didn’t want to think of the horrors owning a mansion created.

“If we owned this sweet crib, the kids would have proper rooms,” Tom said.

“If we had a mansion, there’d be no orphans,” I responded.

We hid behind a line of bushes and watched the hover cars arrive. Sleek lines and bold colors distinguished private cars from public ones. While the standard hover cars provided to the citizens were bulky with muted colors, the affluent could afford to customize their transportation.

Tom and I stayed crouched in the foliage as the wealthy guests swept right past us, oblivious to our hiding place. They followed the perfect dark stone walkway, and as always, the luxury amazed me. Women wore long sweeping gowns of dazzling gems, and men chiseled tuxes of cashmere and silk. Sparkling cufflinks caught the spray of firework lights, and jewelry twinkled like the stars above me.

Tom stayed silent beside me as we waited for the parking lot to clear. When the hover car lanes flashed off, and the driveway became quiet, Tom ushered me out of the bushes. While I’d like to stay in the darkness, he was right, we had to work.

“Between you and me,” I said, “I don’t like stealing. But I need money to hire a great immigration attorney.”

“You make good moolah selling your creations,” Tom said.

“Yeah, we’ve got about eight grand stashed away. If I can get ten grand, we can hire Gene Yi.”

“I remember him, he’s that bigshot attorney.”

“Yep, he’ll help us.”

Tom nodded and his finger transformed into a wrench, “then we’ll sue Arcadia for deporting your parents before their year was over.”

“Their deportation clearly violated the law.”

“Let’s stick it to the man,” Tom pointed his wrench finger at the parking lot.

I analyzed each hover car as I wove through the lot before I pulled a tiny computer from my belt and plugged in instructions. Then Tom and I commenced our crime spree at the back of the lot.

Tom forced a hover car hood open, and I got to work. I undid a power cable from my belt and hooked it up to the magnetized target fusion core. A light flashed, and the car turned on, and it hovered a few inches above the ground.

“Let’s get this party started,” Tom chuckled.

I crawled under the car and pulled things out.

“I’d rock a silk suit,” Tom chatted quietly next to me, as he pulled parts from the engine. “Just imagine. Some stellar white suit. I’d look like the Rock, remember the show we watched, Ballers? It’s old, but he sure looked great.”

Once I’d removed some items my first drone plopped down next to me, and I loaded its compartment. I continued to pack the drone before I clicked a few buttons on my pocket computer and sent it away. Seconds later another one showed up, and I repeated the process. Pull from the car, place in the box, pull from the car, place in the box.

“We’ll probably never use these,” Tom eyed the bundle in his hands. “They’ll join their brothers in that jumbled nest of cords you call storage.”

“Hey,” I shook my head, “I might need those someday.”

“Right.”

I continued to harvest parts, all the memorized movements comforting me into a pleasant haze. I didn’t think, just let my muscles work. Tom and I moved from car to car, taking whatever we needed, and a few things we didn’t. Soon we’d emptied most cars in the lot.

A door slammed, and all my insides became tense. I dove into a bush, and the branches scratched my skin. Moisture soaked into my clothes, and I tried not to think of the filth I was laying in. An animal probably died here, and I was wallowing in its guts. The thought brought its own terrors as I struggled to calm my breathing.

Tom pointed at the nearby terrace and picked me up, only to set me in the shadows. He lowered the lights on his face, and we waited.

“I’ve already taken pictures with Mrs. Eloise,” a girl cried.

From my vantage point, just a few feet away from the balcony, I could see the anger on her features. She wore a brilliant designer dress. Knee length, and completely white, except for the paint drips coming off her waist and shoulders. I thought it was glorious.

“Tora dear,” a man stepped out behind her. “I know this is hard, but you’re my daughter, and you have responsibilities to the city and the people here.”

“That’s Selon Brusk,” Tom whispered in awe.

The man came into my view, and he looked just like I pictured Arcadia’s founder. Tall and lanky, with sharp features and a perfectly tailored yet slightly wrinkled suit. His glasses slid down his nose, and he pushed them back up.

“Daddy,” Tora turned to him, “Do you know how I’ve spent my day? I woke at five this morning to get ready for breakfast with the board of directors, then I rushed into my lessons, then I had to have lunch with Mr. Jackson and his family, and afterwards I only had an hour to paint before I had to prepare for this party. I’ve wasted the entire event being shoved from one picture to another. I want a day for myself.”

“Tora dear,” Selon drew her close, “I understand. But this city must succeed, and we’ve got to do our part to make that happen.”

“I’ve heard that before.”

“It’s hard for me too. There are days where I’d sell all my comic collection just to be alone, to do what I want. As a teenage girl, I can’t imagine how arduous it is for you. You want to have fun, paint all day, and sit at a lake just to watch how the light changes.”

Tora hugged Selon, “yes daddy.”

“I wish you could paint all day, you’re a creative girl. The winterscape you did for me is still my favorite. I can see it,” Selon chuckled. “I can’t give you an entire day, but I can at least give you the evening. I’ll provide the excuses, but stay close.”

“Thank you, daddy,” Tora stood up on her tiptoes and kissed Selon’s cheek.

Selon hugged her again and returned to the house. Tora remained on the balcony, and Tom leaned over.

“We should talk to her,” Tom said.

“No, she’s the daughter of a founder,” I whispered, “the enemy.”

Tom elbowed me, “maybe if we’re nice to her, she’ll bring your family back.”

“I will not use someone for my own gains,” I said, “it’s rude.”

“Fine,” Tom pulled a twig from his neck joint, “then let’s talk to her and brag to everyone we met Tora Brusk.”

“Let’s leave,” I said.

“Nope,” Tom said as he stepped from the shadows.

I didn’t want to follow, not when he’d do something stupid.

“But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Tora is the sun! Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon who is already sick and pale with grief!”

“What the hell?” Tora called out.

“She speaks. O, speak again, bright angel, for thou art as glorious to this night, being o’er my head, as is a winged messenger of heaven.”

Tora held out her hands, “come closer, O Romeo.”

Tom stepped out of the deep shadows and stood under the low balcony. He held his hands over his heart, well, where his heart would be had I put one in.

“Hello,” Tora said, “aren’t you a charmer?”

Tom kept his hands over his heart. “When one sees a beauty, a face highlighted by the soft touches of the moon, Shakespeare comes to mind. Allow me to introduce myself, I’m Technical Operating Machine, or Tom for those of you who don’t like complicated names.”

“You’re a robot. Who created you?”

I didn’t want too, but a random robot quoting Shakespeare was too weird, so I stepped out of the darkness.

“Um, me.”

“He’s yours?” Tora asked.

“Affirmative,” I didn’t make eye contact.

I swear it wasn’t my fault Tom was a geek. It just happened, he is a robot, so whatever he watches, he remembers, and well, we watch a lot of media.

“And I assume you programmed him to be so charming?” Tora looked at me then Tom.

“Sorta, see Ion here,” Tom whacked my back hard enough I stumbled forward. “Has a particular, um, yeah. I have a tendency to talk too much, but you can’t tell me I didn’t make your night. A random voice quoting one of the most romantic passages ever written has to be flattering.”

“Who says it’s romantic?” Tora asked.

“True,” Tom rubbed his chin. “There is ‘I wanna grow old with you,’ or orange Tic Tacs. Oh, as you wish,” a big pixilated grin spread across his face.

“So, you’re a cultured robot?” Tora asked.

“Damn straight, Ion programmed me right.” Tom stuck out his chest. “I even swear, sometimes.”

Tora tilted her head back and laughed.

I tried to whisper so only Tom heard me, “74, E23, E, G8, T, 74, 8, R19, T8, D8.”

“What did he say?” Tora asked.

“Oh, nothing. He expressed a desire to quote Shakespeare to you also, but alas, he doesn’t have a robot’s memory.”

She leaned on the railing, “I’m sure that’s what he said.”

I cleared my throat, I’d tell her myself, I value privacy. “We’ve got to, um, stay. I mean go, um, now, post haste.”

“Well aren’t you a cute little bundle of anxiety?”

I tried to stop rolling my hands together and twisting my ankle, but I couldn’t. Then Tora smiled at me. Now, mamma used to smile at me all the time. But Tora’s smile, there was something behind it I’d never seen before. Immediately the ball of pressure and discomfort in my chest exploded and vanished.

“Yeah,” Tom patted my head, and I swatted it away. “He’s adorable.”

A red firework display burst above our heads, and Tora gasped. “Red is my most favorite color, specifically alizarin crimson, it’s the color of rage, roses, and rebellions.”

“She sounds like Bob Ross!” Tom clapped.

“I didn’t hear her say happy,” I whispered to myself.

“Wait,” Tora held up her hands, “stay right here. Don’t move a muscle.” She skipped back into the building, and as soon as she vanished, I tried to drag Tom toward the bushes.

“Come on,” I begged.

“No.” Tom planted his feet, and I pulled harder.

“Come. On”

“Negative.”

Before I could plead a third time, Tora appeared in the doorway. She giggled as she descended the stairs, holding a plate in each hand and two balanced on her arms.

I nearly fell over as Tom lurched to help her. “I wish I could eat people food,” Tom groaned as he held out a plate for me to see.

My eyes went wide as I realized what she’d brought; desserts, glorious, delectable, desserts.

“I—” I wasn’t sure what else to say.

“Have you ever been to a party before?” She asked.

“No,” Tom said, “we haven’t, and the most dessert-ish thing he’s ever had is cookie dough.”

Tora looked at Tom, then me, “well, allow me to introduce you.”

Time didn’t exist as Tora gave me dessert after dessert, and I tasted things I’d never imagined. After the plates were empty and only discarded crumbs remained, I attempted to express myself.

“I owe you one,” I said, “best night of my life.”

“That was the most I’ve heard you speak! It’s a miracle,” Tora giggled.

Tom snorted, “the power of good food.”

 

Chapter Three

 

Dim sunshine bathed the world in glimmers of gold and yellows. I had not only resupplied my hideout, but Tora proved to be a new friend. Well, I thought she might be, and it was a good sign I’d spoken to her by the end of the night.

Tora’s house appeared different in the light of day. Besides the hulks of disassembled hover cars in her driveway, the colors of the mansion looked crisper. Almost like it was printed just to be amazing. Tom rambled on at my side as we crouched in the bushes, waiting for Tora to appear.

“I told you,” I whispered, “she isn’t interested in ditching with two losers.”

“She is,” Tom glared at me, “she promised, and she isn’t the type to break a promise.”

“She isn’t coming.”

“I’m so excited to ditch with you,” Tora said as she suddenly appeared at my side.

I jumped and hit my head on a low tree branch, the pounding in my skull echoed in my chest as I struggled to keep from crying. Tom giggled and attempted to disguise it by coughing.

Tora tried not to laugh, “sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you.”

While I struggled to think of something to say, she grabbed Tom and planted a kiss on his cheek. I scooted away, lest she grab me and try to kiss my cheek.

“We’d better go fast,” Tora glanced at the house. “I’m scheduled to meet with Mrs. Amelia and paint her seven Pharaoh hounds.”

“Then let us depart,” Tom said as he pulled aside a branch.

Tora crawled out of the bush, and I followed. We crouched behind a statue of Selon and Wolf until security bots cleared the area.

“Why are all of Selon’s robots white?” Tom asked.

“My daddy is red-green colorblind,” Tora said.

“Oh,” Tom patted his head. “I was red-green colorblind for a few minutes, but then Ion hit me with a wrench, and I was cured! Maybe we need to knock your dad with a wrench?”

Tora shook her head in mock severity, “tried it. Unfortunately, it didn’t work.”

“Bad luck,” Tom said as he offered her his arm. Tora giggled as she took it, and they walked down the sidewalk together.

I followed, wringing my hands and hoped I didn’t step on a crack. Tom talked as we left Tora’s neighborhood and entered the first middle-class area. The entire time she grinned and pointed out colors she loved, or items she’d someday paint.

Tom rattled off facts about the wind and solar-powered buildings, or how space is allotted by family size. Whenever we’d pass a restaurant, he’d explain how hydroponic gardens grow all the food, and how the excess was distributed. He also showed her a brief video on how meat is 3D printed from specific printers.

We passed a clinic, and Tom explained, “as a wealthy citizen, you have a personal body scanner to detect and erase any cellular imperfections. Ion was in line to get his anxiety and OCD fixed by a public scanner, but then—”

I chucked a wrench from my belt at his head and the metal clinked against his skull.

“Right,” he cleared his throat. “Since mental illness can be corrected, there are no homeless. Though I know someone who enjoys just sitting on the sidewalk.”

“I’ve got to say,” Tora said, “your perspective is so entertaining.”

Tom batted his eyes and kissed her hand, “I’m at your service my lady.”

“Tom, can I paint you?” Tora asked.

I almost fell over, but thankfully Keaka came into view before Tom answered.

“Keaka!” I shouted before I realized the outburst was weird, and I looked at my hands. I hope she didn’t judge me for such a thing, I’d rather crawl in a hole and die.

Keaka stopped and turned to smile at us, “hello, and who is this?”

Tora reached out her hand, but Keaka embraced her and laid his forehead on hers and inhaled. Keaka had never done the honi greeting with me, but then again, I’d pass out being so close to someone else.

Tora didn’t pull away until Keaka released her. “My name is Tora Brusk. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

“A new friend deserves the special treatment,” Keaka unlatched the cooler and handed her a cup.

Tora took a bite, “oh, this is amazing!”

Keaka slapped Tom on the back and caused the robot to fall forward. “See, I knew I liked her, she has great taste.”

“Tora here leads a busy life,” Tom said, “we’re taking her out for a break.”

“Is that right?” Keaka handed her another cup.

“Yeah—” she started.

Tom interrupted her, “immigration!”

I tensed as the immigration van turned the corner and stopped across the street from us. Tom remained in front of me and blocked most of my body. Tora didn’t hide, she stood next to Keaka’s cart and watched. Several robots entered the building and moments later hauled a family of four out.

It was easy to hear the father yelling of the injustices and the woman cried. Muscle tremors wracked my arms and legs as all the panic flooded my chest. Tora watched the scene until the robots shoved the family into the van and left.

“I wish they’d earned a place here,” she said.

“They probably did,” Keaka said as he latched the cooler closed. “This world isn’t the perfect place everyone says.”

“It is,” Tora turned to him, “immigrants get a fair chance to prove they’ll be useful.”

“Maybe in your world,” I said.

“We live in the same world,” Tora put her hands on her hips. “The immigration policy states, any immigrants granted temporary residency have one year to demonstrate their value to the city. If they do, then they’re allowed to become full citizens, with all the rights and privileges that go with it.”

“Tell that to the twenty kids I feed because their parents were taken, before their year was up,” I said.

“Eighteen,” Tom corrected me.

Tora looked at me, “you take care of kids?”

“Kids whose families were deported while they were away, they came home to trashed apartments and no parents,” I crumpled my cup.

“I present evidence,” Tom turned and faced the building, a whirl started as he played the recording he made from yesterday’s encounter.

Tora watched as the father repeated it hadn’t been a year, and she didn’t move until it was over.

“This is Arcadia, he must have been mistaken,” she said.

“Nope,” I shook my head. “they took my family before their year was up. My father was developing a new solar panel and had he finished it, it would have boosted the efficiency from fifty-eight percent to eighty-two.”

“I don’t believe it,” Tora folded her arms.

“Believe it kiddo, I’ve got many stories just like that one,” Keaka unlocked the breaks.

“You’re all wrong. You must be. Tora pulled Tom’s arm, “I’ll prove it, just come talk to my father.”

“Selon Brusk?” Tom’s voice sounded as skeptical as I felt. “He won’t see an illegal kid and a random robot.”

“He certainly will, and we’ll sort this out.” Tora dragged me to my feet.

Her hand was warm on my clammy skin. I wanted to pull away, but I realized this was the first human touch I’d had since my family left. And more shocking was that I liked it.

 

Chapter Four

 

Time passed quickly as Tora continued to drag me closer to her father. I wasn’t sure if I was more nervous or excited. Selon Brusk was a revolutionary, a genius. But I was also walking towards the man responsible for deporting my family, and I didn’t want the same to happen to me.

Before I had fully prepared myself, Tora burst into her front door. The interior of her mansion reminded me of those black and white movies. Splashes of black accented the stark white furniture, and shades of turquoise filled the walls.

Great paintings occupied the walls, and I stopped to gawk at a breathtaking winterscape. “This is beautiful. Too bad our city isn’t this wonderful.”

Tora paused and stood next to me, “everything in this city is beautiful, but too often we don’t see it. We focus on the negative instead of the positive, and miss the forest for the trees.”

Before I responded, Tom cut me off, “do you sell them?”

Tora shrugged, “some of them, but since I have no use for tokens, I give them back to the city.”

“Careful,” Tom said, “you’re so sweet you’ll give me a cavity.”

Tora giggled and shoved me back into movement. She didn’t stop or show us around as she moved through the house. I assumed we were going to her father’s workroom, which telling the truth I’d love to see. Instead, she heaved open two pitch black doors etched with white designs to reveal an immense office.

Dark wooden shelves contained so many books and artifacts, I couldn’t figure out where to look. Selon glanced up, jumped to his feet and dashed across the room to sweep Tora up in his arms.

“I was so worried about you,” Selon held her tight. “You’ve been out all day without telling me, I thought someone had taken you. I sent the bots out to find you.”

“I’m sorry daddy,” Tora wrapped her arms around Selon.

Selon let her go but kept her hands in his.

“Daddy, I’ve got a problem,” Tora said. “I was out with Ion and Tom, and we saw an immigration van,” she said.

Selon squinted, “who and who? You ditched out on your responsibilities to go sightseeing?”

“Yes, because I’m tired of those responsibilities, and it was only a few hours.”

“What in the hell were you thinking Tora? I’m disappointed in you.”

“Daddy,” Tora stomped her foot, “not the point. Do immigration bots take people before their year is up?”

“What are you talking about?”

“Tom, show him.” Tora gestured to Tom.

“Uh, yes, sir, ma’am, I mean ma’am,” had I given Tom the ability to blush I’m sure he’d be blushing now.

Tora pushed a button on the desk, and a white projector screen lowered over the window. Tom pivoted to face the screen and with a whirl the images appeared. Selon and Tora watched as the family got tossed into the van. I did my best to avoid looking, I really didn’t want to have a panic attack in front of Mr. Brusk.

When it was over, Selon looked at me, and I felt his gaze soak into my skin and taint my flesh. I hated when people looked at me like that, well, I hate when anyone looks at me too long. For a while, I squirmed under his attention and debated bursting out of the door behind me and running for my life.

Selon let out a breath, “I’d say this is staged. We have fair laws, I suspect this is propaganda.”

“Precisely what I said,” Tora nodded.

“You obviously don’t know what’s going on here,” I said, shocking myself with the outburst.

A long second passed as Selon watched me again, and sweat appeared on my forehead. Selon sat back down in his chair and opened his laptop.

“I believe in concrete arguments.” Selon crouched over his keyboard.

Tora bobbed on her feet and wove her fingers together. After more time passed, Selon looked at Tora then me. I wanted to melt into a crack, all this pressure will give me a stomach ulcer or a heart attack.

“The records,” Selon said, “I can’t get them.”

“What?” Tom asked. “I thought you were a founder?”

“I am, but it says not authorized.” Selon typed more and shook his head.

“Does this mean the immigrants really aren’t getting fair treatment?” Tora asked.

“I don’t know, but it makes me suspicious,” Selon frowned, “I know Wolf thinks our immigration laws are too generous. He—no, I won’t jump to conclusions, let’s go see what’s going on.”

Selon stood up and held down another little button on his desk, “get the car ready.”

“We get to ride in a hover car?” Tom’s eyes flashed. “I’ve never been in a hover car before! Especially a fancy one. I bet it has those little drinks in the back.”

Tora grabbed Tom’s arm, “I’ll give you the window seat Tom. It’s the best one in the house.”

“Tora,” Tom said. “I love you.”

I gulped and tried to avoid eye contact with anyone in the room. A robot declaring love to a rich girl will get me in trouble, but Selon laughed and clapped Tom on the back.

“I’m sorry, human-robot relationships aren’t allowed. Yet,” Selon winked.

Tom snorted as Tora kissed him on the cheek. I swear his pixels got brighter.

“Let’s go.” Selon opened the door.

I ducked out and hovered just outside the office. I’d never, ever consider leading a group of people this large, it would be too much pressure. If all these people followed me, I’d pass out then die. Selon breezed out of the room, with Tora next to him and Tom stopped beside me.

“Maybe we’ll save the city,” he said, leaning close.

“Maybe.”

The hover car was the best thing I’d ever been in. Plush gray seats were so fluffy I sunk down three inches, and the little drinks were yummy. Tom and Selon debated the ethics of assigning robots a moral code and Tora laughed at the grand statements Tom made, and I had to smile. It was then I decided rich people weren’t all bad.

Gliding through the city, we reached the city center quickly. I didn’t like this part of the city. It was too open. All the elaborate fountains, gardens and palm trees made it hard to find a place to hide. We walked along the dark stone walkway and I marveled at how the white sand between the stone glittered.

Selon gestured to the most prominent building, “that’s where all our offices are. Wolf is there, we’ll talk to him and get this sorted out.”

A security bot held open the elaborate glass doors, and Selon ushered us inside. He pushed his thumb into a port in the elevator, and soon we were whizzing to the top.

“Thank heaven Ion isn’t claustrophobic,” Tom said.

I gulped, and my face became hot. I examined my feet as I imagined all the looks I was getting.

“Um, beautiful woodwork in here.” Tom touched the wood panels covering the elevator car.

“They’re too red,” Selon said, “it looks like baby puke.”

“The color is magnificent,” Tora said. “I love painting trees because wood is so fascinating.”

Silence spread over the elevator as the numbers on the display clicked higher. When the doors opened, I stumbled out and took a deep breath. Selon led the way through the fancy hallway and he stopped at a grand door with ‘Wolf Anders’ etched in gold. Selon didn’t knock, he just burst into the room, trailing us in his wake.

“Selon,” Wolf said from behind his large desk, shuffling papers together and shoving them into a folder.

Wolf’s office reminded me of an animal den. The walls were dark with rows of shelves filled with books. One wall contained a colossal painting of cliffs being ravaged by a violent ocean, and a bright red rug blocked most of the floor. It made me nervous.

Wolf glared at us from behind his desk, and I didn’t like him. It was his face I realized, it was stuck in a permafrown. I stayed behind Tom and did my best not to faint. Tora stood next to her father and didn’t look away from Wolf.

“We’ve got an issue, Wolf,” Selon said.

“Yes,” Wolf sighed. “Whoever stole all those items from the party has vanished. I bet it was an illegal, they only cause problems. We’re facing a small dilemma to replace all those parts.”

“About that,” I gulped as everyone looked at me. “I, um, I liberated them, but that was before I learned how awesome you guys are.”

“Yeah,” Tom said.

I wrung my hands together, “I’ll return them.”

Tora snickered, “I knew you were up to no good last night.”

Wolf’s face twisted into anger as his eyes locked onto mine, “you little—”

“No,” Selon held up his hand, “we’re here for something else.”

“Oh?” Wolf stood up and walked around his desk.

“I need access to the immigration records,” Selon said.

Wolf blinked and his face contorted, “why?”

“There are several reports of immigrants getting deported before their year or being removed even if they’ve proved a benefit. What’s going on?” Selon asked.

Wolf sat on his desk and crossed his arms. “No. The records are complicated, and the laws around immigration and deportation are delicate. You’ve distanced yourself from the daily operations, so don’t step on my toes.”

Selon met Wolf’s gaze, “we’ve been friends for nearly forty years, and you’ve refused me once in all that time. Remember? You’d gotten an Oreo cupcake in your lunch and were trying to hide it from me.”

“We were twelve,” Wolf said.

“Yes, but you have the same expression on your face,” Selon put his hands on his hips. “It’s why I don’t play poker with you, you have no control over your face. I can read you like a book.”

“Leave my office now,” Wolf growled.

“So you’re still refusing to show me the records?” Selon’s voice dipped.

Wolf nodded, “I handle the immigration because I know how to spot desperate criminals looking to suck the life from our city.”

“Immigrants aren’t criminals!” I blurted.

“Oh?” Wolf looked at me. “From the looks of you, it seems like you’re one of those illegal riffraff we don’t want here, and you did just confess to stealing thousands of dollars’ worth of technology.”

My heart thudded as I realized the hole I dug myself into, because he was right.

Tom put a protective hand on my shoulder. “If Ion’s family wasn’t deported before their year was up, and if he didn’t have to feed all those kids, he’d never resorted to theft. And we’re also saving up money to sue your asses into the stone age.”

“What?” Selon started to speak.

Wolf jabbed a finger at me, “see Selon. This is why I control the records, immigrants are criminals, they abuse the universal basic income we’ve started, they set up slums and dirty our pristine city, not to mention their drain on the medical system.”

Selon stepped closer to Wolf, “I created this city to give equal opportunity to all. It’s true we can’t support the entire world, at least not yet, which is why I set up the rules. Anyone can apply to live here, and they’re chosen randomly by lottery. It’s unbiased, and they’re given a fair chance and enough time to show their value to this city. You have no right to change that.”

“I’m a founder just like you are,” Wolf said. “And I care about this city just like you do. I’m simply trying to help it succeeded.”

“The more you talk, the more you seem guilty,” Selon said. “I know your opinions on allowing immigrants into the city, last night you were complaining about them. Now I see a video of a family being dragged away, claiming unfair treatment.”

“I don’t care what evidence you’ve got,” Wolf didn’t move, “immigration is my job.”

“Give me access now,” Selon said, “I’d like to check to make sure you’re being fair. You still work for me Wolf.”

“No!” Wolf said, crossing his arms.

“You sound like a petulant child,” Selon sighed, and he clicked a button on his watch. “Give me the password, or I’ll have you arrested. Last chance.”

“I call your bluff, you can’t afford to arrest me. Who’ll run the city, you?” Wolf shoved a finger at Selon.

“Yes,” Selon said as the door opened.

Four white security robots burst into the room, and one grabbed Wolf by the shoulders. I don’t know what Wolf was trying to do, fighting a robot, but he threw a wild punch. It collided with the robot’s face, and Wolf cried out.

“Sure,” Tom said, “assault the innocent robot.”

After a brief struggle, the bot pinned Wolf between his arms. Selon nodded once and sat at the computer. Tora moved behind him, her hand on his shoulder. I didn’t want to be near Wolf, so I stepped beside Selon. Tom stayed by Wolf’s side and kept an eye on him.

“You won’t get in,” Wolf said.

Selon punched keys on the keyboard, “I trusted you, Wolf. But I anticipated someone betraying the city. I didn’t know it would be you, but I prepared for it by making a backdoor into the mainframe.”

Selon pressed enter and the screen lit up. Tora leaned in closer, and I looked at the monitor too. Selon clicked and clicked until he located what we were looking for. Wolf had instated a new standing order for the immigration robots: deport immigrants at month seven, no matter what.

“Look up my family,” I said, fully expecting to be refused.

“What are their names?” Selon asked, tilting his head at me.

“Ossa and Tari Sosa,” I spoke their names for the first time since that day.

Clicks followed as Selon typed, “it looks like Ossa and Tari were approved for citizenship, but Wolf deported them anyway.”

All the air caught in my lungs. I knew my father and mother were both benefits. And Wolf had destroyed it for them, for me. I glanced up and locked eyes with Wolf, funneling all of my hate into my gaze, and for the first time in my life I didn’t look away. But he did.

Selon’s jaw clenched, “how dare you. This is supposed to be a haven! For everyone!”

“No!” Wolf yelled back. “Immigrants are a drain on this city, they use up resources, perpetrate crimes, and don’t assimilate. They are worthless and pathetic, and you’ll regret this!”

“My only regret is having you as a friend,” Selon said.

Wolf thrashed more as the bots hauled him away, “you can’t do this!”

“He can,” Tora said, “and he did.”

The bots led Wolf from the room, and he screamed the entire way. Selon looked back at the computer screen and continued clicking.

“What are you doing daddy?” Tora asked.

Selon leaned back, “first, I think Ion deserves citizenship, second, I’m ordering the release of all the immigrants scheduled for deportation, and third, I will find and return Ion’s family.”

Tears bubbled in my eyes. When Tom first spoke to Tora, I never imagined this would be the result. Extreme happiness built in my chest, and I had no words to describe how I felt.

“Thank you,” I said.

“It’s the least I can do,” Selon smiled, “you showed me what was really going on in this city, and I’ll be eternally thankful.”

“Wait,” Tom said, “there isn’t any good food here. I thought there had to be good food on special occasions like this.”

Tora and Selon laughed, and I joined in.

If you took a poll, like one of those ancient political surveys, the results would be unanimous; Arcadia was the definition of perfect. Located in California, with glorious weather year-round, and pristine white sand beaches, the city was a modern utopia. To everyone…

Including me.

 

THE END

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