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The Non-Conformity Chronicles

Chapter 5 - The Road Less Traveled

"The unknown is at once exciting, terrifying, intoxicating, intimidating, enchanting, bewildering, enlightening, baffling and absolutely necessary. Without the embrace of the unknown, we are nothing." - From The Non-Conformist Training Manual

         From a clear sky, the stars and moon created an eerie pattern of shadows as they departed Dora's apartment. Until last night, he had never seen the outdoors at this time of night. There was an official curfew and the security systems were activated. Dora appeared by his right side as if from no-where, making his spine shiver and his hair stand up . . . again.

         "The infrared scanners will pick up your body heat so I am going to shield you!" she said.

         "What? How can you shield me?" he asked.

         "I . . . have the ability to create a reality bubble around myself so that I appear to be invisible," she stated.

         "Oh boy!" he thought to himself. "I've been picked up by a loony. I'm dead for sure! I'll be detected by the infrared scanners, caught, charged with hacking and executed! I won't even be given a chance to be reprogrammed."

         "Be quiet!" she commanded in a subtle whisper.

         "But I was only thinking to myself! I wasn't saying anything," he thought again.

         She took him by the arm and hurried to the center of the apartment grounds. He was vaguely aware that she was skillfully moving within the shadows and never across open areas. They skirted the pool and tennis courts and crawled over an exposed knoll into a low area with a storm drain at the bottom. With a strength that amazed him, she picked up the steel storm grate and ordered him into the pitch black hole. A putrid stench rose to insult and traumatize his nose.

         He climbed over the edge and descended a ladder on the side of the hole. She followed him, carefully replacing the grate. When they reached the bottom, she activated a luminescent projection lamp revealing a tunnel large enough to walk in. The floor was covered with dirt, leaves, limbs, puddles of water, and an assortment of packaging and other litter from civilization. This tunnel led to a larger one, and that one to an even larger one. As the tunnels got larger, the size and complexity of the debris that they encountered also increased. Now they were seeing discarded COMM terminals, articles of shoes and clothing, old tools, pieces of furniture, and many artifacts from earlier times.

         On the distant fringe of her light, he could see eyes glowing back at them. He shivered, "What are those?"

         "Mostly giant sewer rats," she replied.

         "Mostly?"

         "Uh . . . huh!"

         Then a deep guttural growl echoed through the tunnel. "Except for that!" she added.

         He didn't want to know what it was, but she told him anyway, "That was an alligator. There is a colony of them living down here. Centuries ago people collected them as pets but later flushed them down the toilet when they started getting big. They live down here eating garbage, sewer rats and other scavengers."

         "How big are they?" he had to ask.

         "The adults are about twenty feet long," she replied.

         "Will they eat humans?" he asked.

         "Only if they catch you," she replied. "Make sure they don't."

         "Are they fast?" he had to ask.

         "Fast enough," she replied.

         They walked past a pile of limbs and debris. Behind the debris in the mud was a large log. He kept looking around nervously. He noticed a reflection from Dora's lamp coming from one end of the log. "That doesn't look like a sewer rat's eyes. What is it?" he asked.

         He walked forward and leaned over to look at it. He felt her grab the collar of his jacket and jerk him backwards so hard that his neck snapped. The end of the 'log' jerked toward him. In a blur, he realized that I was not looking at the end of the log, but at four rows of very large sharp teeth. The alligator's mouth closed with a snap, leaving large tears in the front of his jacket.

         "Run!" Dora yelled.

         He ran. But it didn't do him much good. His leg caught on a limb and he tripped. Instantly, he felt sharp teeth bite into his flesh and he was being carried at a full run down the tunnel in the mouth of the alligator. He heard Dora utter an unintelligible groan. He also heard her footsteps as she chased after him. Suddenly the alligator stopped in its tracks, shook its head, opened its mouth, dropped Dr. Baker into the mud and bellowed in agony. Dr. Baker lay there dazed, not having a clue about what happened or why he was still alive.

         The alligator ran away and Dora pulled him to his feet and checked his wounds quickly. "Come on! Run! And this time try not to trip!"

         He ran. Fortunately, the alligator had lost his appetite and they made it to a safer area of the tunnel. "Why didn't he kill me?" he asked.

         "They prefer to drown their food" she replied. "He was taking you to a water hole he uses for that purpose. You see, they have a primitive digestive system so they like to take their meals and pin them under water so they can rot before dinner. That would have made you more tender and digestible," she said poking his ribs.

         "Why did he drop me?" he whined.

         "I jumped on his back and poked my fingers into his eyes. That caused him to drop you," she replied.

         "Have you done this before?" he asked.

         "No. This was my first experience at attacking a twenty foot alligator. I was taught this trick in my wilderness survival training," she replied.

         "What?" he replied innocently, "Why would anyone need wilderness survival training?"

         "Who wouldn't need it?" she replied.

         He stopped talking, but the conversation made his head spin. In his world, everything was organized, defined, safe, predictable and routine. The realization that someone else lived by a different reality was terrifying and triggered a denial response.

Finally, the tunnel opened onto a river. She made her way carefully into the brush on the river bank and shortly returned dragging a small narrow-hulled boat. "Have you ever ridden in a canoe?" she asked.

         "No. Of course not," he replied. "Why would anyone want to do that?" He recalled his training in the Central Schooling System. Outdoor skills were included in the curriculum only for those of lower rank with maintenance or outdoor responsibilities.

         She stuck him in the front of the boat and handed him a paddle. "Do as I tell you!" she said a bit annoyed at his helplessness. They spent the entire day riding the current downriver. The banks were covered with a dense growth of trees, bushes and river reeds so it was difficult to see beyond the river's edge.

         As night approached, they stopped on a gravel bar in the middle of the river and set up a camp. Dora made a fire and they ate the packaged food from their backpacks. "It will take us five more days to reach the city. We can only travel by day because some sections of the river can get dangerous."

         The second day, the water became very swift and they could hear a roar in the distance getting louder by the minute. "When we come to a rock," she yelled. "Push the boat away from it with your paddle."

         He did his best, but it wasn't good enough. The boat collided with a rock and flipped over dumping them into the rapids. Cold water gripped him and sent a shock through his nervous system. When he finally bobbed to the surface, he saw the canoe, or rather one end of it sticking straight up in the air spinning in a circle as it was captured by a whirling vortex of water. He felt a hand grab the collar of his jacket and haul him out of the water.

         "We have lost our packs, gear, food and canoe!" Dora yelled as she glared at him. Then she relaxed realizing that he was far more cold, scared, and confused than she had ever been. "Oh well . . . I guess we will just have to walk the rest of the way to the city."

         "What city?" he asked.

         "It was one of the major pre-revolution cities," she said. "It has been abandoned but maintained for centuries." "The Central Accountant assigns maintenance workers and inspection and repair bots to keep all the buildings and utilities in good condition. All of the buildings, streets, power grids, water, sewer, plumbing, fiber optic networks, and other infrastructure are clean and fully functional. The shops are even stocked with merchandise from the period and the restaurants are stocked with food. Most of them don't have fresh food, but the freeze dried inventory can be easily re-constituted into quick meals. Some of them are also equipped with culinary 3D printers that can replicate a variety of meals. A million people could move in tomorrow and everything would be working smoothly by the next day."

         "Why?" he asked.

         "It was apparently decided to keep the facilities in reserve in case they were needed or desired."

         "By whom?" he asked.

         "No one knows anymore. With information compartmentalized and conformity mandated, whoever reserved this place is gone, but the Central Accounting maintenance subroutine is still running. Convenient though."

         "How do we get there?" he asked.

         "We take the road less traveled," she replied.

         From the river, they followed an animal trail that led eventually to what had once been an interstate highway. Like the city, it was unused but maintained. In the distance, they could see maintenance bots removing vegetation that was encroaching on the roadway and repairing potholes formed from freeze-thaw cycles.

         Walking along the highway was easier going, but the city was still several days away and night was approaching. Being in the open without a tent and sleeping bag posed a serious danger of hypothermia. Their clothes were still wet from the river, and they could easily be dead by morning. Dr. Baker had not comprehended this reality. He was only aware that he was getting very cold and was wondering what Dora was going to do about it.

         Dora was fully aware of the danger. "We need to find quick shelter and make a fire," she said. They walked to a bridge where the highway passed over a small stream. The banks of the stream contained an abundance of dry wood and other vegetation. She quickly organized construction of a simple shelter under the end of the bridge and gathered dry wood and refuse for a fire. She produced a fire starter from her pocket and soon they were warming up and drying out their clothing.

         "I'm hungry," Dr. Baker complained.

         "Me too," Dora replied.

         He looked at her longingly like he expected her to pull food out of her pockets.

         "Haven't you been hungry before?" she asked.

         "No."

         "Not even once?" she asked.

         "No. Food has always been available, prepared and served when desired and every home has a culinary 3D printer that can replicate snacks and meals on demand. That has been true ever since the great economic revolution."

         "You are a doctor, do you know what the physical and Psychological effects of hunger and starvation are?" Dora asked.

         "Well . . . no, that isn't something we encounter anymore."

         "You will now, so let me give you the short version. On the first day, you feel hungry, grouchy, irritable and fatigued. Does that sound familiar?" she asked.

         "Yeah . . . that is how I feel right now."

         "You may not be aware that your decision making ability is impaired by your low blood sugar, and you are more prone to make mistakes and have accidents. It is, therefore, important that you move slower and think more carefully about everything that you do . . . at least when you're not running for your life."

         "I see," he replied.

         "The second day you feel less hungry and you are more relaxed, but you have less energy and your thinking might not be as clear and rational as you believe it to be. If food deprivation continues, your body metabolism will drop, you will feel colder and you won't have the energy to cover as much ground. As it continues, you may become depressed, delusional and find yourself thinking excessively about food."

         "Are we going to starve?" he asked.

         "No. In the morning we will find food and water and, if we are lucky, maybe a ride into the city. Try to get some sleep now," she replied.

         The fire was warming, comforting and mood boosting. Hours later, they woke up shivering. The fire had burned down to embers and the sun was coming up. Dora added more wood to the fire and got it going again. Then she picked up a discarded metal container, took it to the water's edge, washed the dirt out of it, filled it with water and set it on the fire.

         "We need to bring the water to a boil, then remove it from the fire and let it cool. The boiling will kill any micro-organisms that could make us ill," Dora explained.

         Dr. Baker nodded in agreement. He may not have any survival skills, but he recognized basic micro-biology.

         She then added handfuls of fresh pine needles to the water. "This will give it a bit of flavor and add vitamin C to the water," she said.

         "Vitamin C?" he replied scratching his chin. "Wait! You haven't been genetically improved, so your body isn't making its own vitamin C is it?"

         "That's right. I have to get mine from food," she replied.

         "You would be better off if we made that enhancement."

         "you're probably right," she replied.

         Dora then got down on her stomach and crawled to the water's edge. She quietly slipped her hand into the water and under the edge of the bank. After a few minutes of moving carefully, feeling the underside of the bank, she made an abrupt quick movement and pulled a rather large fish out of the water. She wasted no time in gutting it, splitting it lengthways into two large filets, securing them with sticks and placing them over the fire. Dr. Baker had never seen or smelled live food being killed, dressed and cooked before and he was horrified. Hunger, however, is a great balancing force for overcoming food prejudices.

         Refreshed by the pine needle tea and fish, they got back on the road and resumed their long walk toward the city. After several hours, Dora spotted something moving in the distance.

         "Ahhh . . . we're in luck!" she said.

         "What is it?" he asked.

         "An inspection bot is heading our way," she said with excitement in her voice.

         "Shouldn't we hide?" he asked.

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