Eli exited the building onto a street filled with people. Not like in the City, where people were jammed shoulder to shoulder. Everyone here moved with what he might describe as a happy purpose. If he knew what that was. Trees, he had seen images of them, lined both sides of the street in a regular pattern.
The buildings, each slightly different in design, were all made of that pale, tan stone with more wood. His mind reeled at the cost. Clearly, they were made by some artisans. Corp types would employ them to make bespoke items, so they could brag about their uniqueness.
“Let me show you around,” said Alanna who gestured for him to follow her.
“This is a residential area, we’ve tried to make it pleasant,” she said.
“Everyone has their own house?” Eli asked.
“No, no! A lot of them are families, or groups of people sharing the space.”
A young woman led a group of children down the street. Unlike his own childhood, which was strictly regulated, these kids seemed happy. When they got distracted by something the young woman would, instead of activating a discipline collar, gently call their names and they rejoined the group.
“The school is about five blocks that way,” said Alanna as she pointed to the left, “It’s a bit of a jumble as the kids are all different ages but people will step in as their expertise is needed.”
They came to an intersection. In the middle was what looked like a fountain.
“Is that a holo?” Eli asked.
“You tell me.”
Eli walked up. He felt the mist of water on his face and leapt back and frantically tried to dry his face.
“Luis, it’s okay! It’s okay! I told you, the water’s clean,” assured Alanna.
“Why are you wasting clean water?” said shouted Eli.
Some passersby slowed and stared but Alanna waved them off.
“It’s not a waste, a fountain helps moderate the temperature, discourages invasive insect life, and it’s all part of our extensive water system. People also enjoy seeing it. It makes life better.”
Eli gazed at the fortune of clean water tumbling before him. This made the Aqua-Life Water Filter he found seem like nothing.
“But anyone could just steal it!” he insisted.
“It’s everyone’s water.”
He tried to wrap his head around this but it felt counterintuitive.
“Let me show you our Workshop, I think that will be a little more up your alley,” Alanna said.
They continued down the street and soon found themselves in a marketplace. Vendors were hawking wares. Glasswares, fabric and clothing, furniture (again, made of the very precious wood), art, and even jewelry. Strangely, to Eli’s mind, no tech, used or otherwise.
Leading him down a side street, they came to a larger building, not as nice as the homes he had seen before but it looked sturdy and its roof, from what Eli could see, was made of metal.
Coming in through a door, what was there made Eli’s eyes go wide. They had entered a long room filled with people sorting out tech. Components were sorted, and placed on trays that other people took deeper into the room. Along with the clatter of machines being pulled apart or assembled, the faint odor of soldering hit his nostrils. Looking up, he saw that while there were lighting strips, a lot of the ceiling was clear, bringing in natural light.
“Jae! Do have a moment?” yelled Alanna over the din, “I want to introduce you to someone!”
From the crowd, a woman approached. She was whipcord lean, dressed in a leather apron over a sleeveless dark blue shirt and heavy work pants.
“Jae, this is Luis. He just arrived.”
Pushing up her goggles, she stuck out her hand.
“Nice to meet ya,” she said grabbing Eli’s hand, “Welcome to the Shop.”
Eli shook her hand but his eye darted around the room, there was so much to take in.
“Not bad, huh?”
Jae made a short bark sound which Eli took to be a laugh.
“We’re all pretty proud of our operation. So Luis, based on those boots you’re walking around in, I’d guess you’re a scavenger.”
Eli instinctively took a step backward. How far was that door?
“Relax man!” said Jae with a grin, “You’re in good company!”
Turning to the room, Jae shouted, “WHAT ARE WE?”
“SCAVENGERS!” they all bellowed with pride.
Eli paused, it felt like a trap.
“Just means you got skills man,” added Jae.
“Scavengers helped build this place,” added Alanna.
“Helped?” interjected Jae, “This place wouldn’t exist without us!”
Jae playfully poked Alanna.
“Very true Jae, you’re right.”
“Damn right I’m right!” she said as she winked at Eli conspiratorially.
“Why don’t you give him a tour?” asked Alanna.
“Great! I think you’ll enjoy this Luis,” said Jae as she took him by the shoulder.
“Bring him to supper at Gibson’s,” said Alanna.
And with that, she left.
Jae took Eli all over the Workshop. Most of it was stuff he’d done many times himself, breaking down a piece of tech and sorting out the useful bits. But the scale was astonishing. About fifty people working together. Occasionally, scavengers might work on one job together but at the end of the day, in the City, you could only trust yourself.
“Not too shabby, eh?” asked Jae.
“How do you keep people from stealing stuff?” he asked.
Jae’s face got dark for a moment, then she relaxed.
“There’s no reason to steal. I know it’s hard to understand. I used to be just like you. Living day to day. If you can call it that. I once stabbed a guy over a gasket. Crazy.”
Jae pulled him to the side and said, “We all have a stake in this place. Pretty nice, right?”
She sighed and gave him a slightly sad smile.
“I get it, I really do. It’s not a trick, I swear. Which might mean nothing to you, and I get that too. But give it a shot. You’re luckier than you know.”
Eli nodded cautiously.
“Wanna give us a hand?” asked Jae.
She lead him to a table where they were breaking down old tech. Everything was sorted into categories. Still good, fixable, and recycle, and placed into bins that were taken by some of the younger scavengers.
More puzzling to him, just as Jae told him, no one was pocketing anything. This was a fortune of discarded tech. It didn’t make sense.
Eli worked quietly but those around him chatted and joked with each other. It unnerved him. He kept waiting for something terrible to happen and the longer it took, the larger it grew in his mind.
The Scavenger on his right asked him to hold the casing of a holo-projector while she uncoupled the crystal lens. After she smiled and introduced herself as Shanna.
Then the others around him began to ask him questions. What was his name? Where was he from? How long had he been scavenging? What was the craziest thing he’d found?
Eli’s answers were terse. In his experience, being asked a lot of questions was a prelude to something bad happening. If it bothered the others, they didn’t let on.
Even if everything else was unsettling, this work was familiar to him. Eli knew what this was, he had done it hundreds of times. It was comforting. He settled into a rhythm.
“All right scavengers! Good work everyone! It’s quitting time!” shouted Jae.
Her announcement was received with great enthusiasm as the scavengers all got up and headed to exit. Eli heard snatches of conversations about plans. Unsure of what was going on, he continued to remove a coil from a larger piece of machinery. Shanna tapped him on the shoulder.
“C’mon, the shift’s over,” she said.
“But there’s so much to do.”
She smiled and said, “Luis, it’s not going anywhere.”
Eli reluctantly stood when a high-pitched whistle was heard. Everyone stood still. Then the lights went out, and darkness covered all. He was about to run when he felt a hand on his arm.
“Hey, just relax. Everything will be fine,” whispered Shanna.
Eli stood still. Memories of gangs and Regulators flooded his mind. The urge to run was almost overwhelming. He could hear his heart pounding but it also sounded like it was far, far in the distance. After what was either minutes or hours, the whistle was heard again and the lights came back on.
Another big cheer went up but Jae yelled at her people, “Okay! Okay! We’re all fine, right? So get going or I’ll lock you in here!”
“She’s just joking,” said Shanna.
Jae came over and reminded Eli he had dinner plans. She led him out of the Workshop and towards the residential part of, well, wherever they were.
She told him he had a real knack for breaking things down and asked him if he could put things together as well. He said that he could. Jae smiled and gently punched him on the shoulder.
As they walked, they talked shop, how you could repurpose so many things if you were clever about it. He caught a reflection of himself in a passing window. He was smiling. It was both weird and somehow good.
They arrived at Gibson’s place, a large building that was bathed in the light of the setting sun. It was then that something occurred to Eli. When the lights went out, so did the sun.
Author’s Note: Last week I told you I was an unreliable narrator. This isn’t over yet. At least you have been warned. More to follow.