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About the author:
Olga Toprover was born in Russia, lived in Canada for a few years, but currently resides in Los Angeles. Olga holds Master Degree in Computer Science from Moscow State University. She is also a published media author.
Her scientific education and journalistic experience as well as living in different cities and countries formed her into the writer she is today. Olga believes that true literature is about people. Her stories, above all, are about us.
Here is a short sample from the book:
For a moment, I thought there was snow on my car. But how, I ask you, could there be snow in California, especially in August? My world swam as the absurdity of it started to sink in. Maybe it’s a dream? After all, dreams can be extremely convincing, so convincing you get completely fooled. You wake up and it takes you a while to shake it off.
Or maybe I’m floating in some VR environment where California snowfalls are as ordinary as London fog. You never know.
I walked up to the car, reached out and touched the white layer over the trunk. No, that’s definitely not snow. I stared at the gray powder left at my fingertips, puzzled, until it dawned on me – it was… ash.
And that’s when I noticed the burning scent. I couldn’t believe I got into that damned report that I didn’t notice what I was breathing the second I opened the door. Crazy!
It looked like the wind blew some ash blizzard in from somewhere. What’s going on? What’s burning? It’s been a while since we had a fire around these parts. The climate is dry, yes, but the universal anti-fire network can take care of accidental fires within seconds. And it’s been around for a pretty long time. Why didn’t the machines work now?
I went into my car and turned on the auto-drive.
“Where are we going?” the artificial voice called out.
“The usual,” I replied.
The ignition started and the rear transmission took over. As the car turned onto the road, I ordered.
A video screen lit up the top left corner of the front window.
“…An unbelievable tragedy,” I heard. “The fire appeared at approximately 2:00 a.m., catching the residents asleep.”
The reporter’s pearl-white shirt and light-blue jeans stood in striking contrast against what unfolded behind his back. A black pillar of smoke rose off a little distance away. Even higher up in the clouds, it turned into an enormous, menacing mushroom – just like the one they usually draw in textbooks when they talk about explosions.
Meanwhile, the autopilot guided the car along the familiar daily route south, toward the city. Everything was perfectly ordinary until the view straight out of the newscast appeared on the east. The “mushroom” was pretty far away, but it looked much scarier and more impressive than on the video screen. Oh, how I wished it would all turn out to be a dream! I’d even settle for a horrifying VR simulation, just…
But – alas – there really was a large fire burning to the east. Somewhere in the direction of Kingstown.
Ah, that’s what it is. Kingstown is a Humanist settlement. At least it would explain a few things. As if reading my thoughts, the reporter continued:
“The Humanists consider their settlements the nature preserves of humanity – the sort of humanity that developed naturally. They not only reject any scientific developments relating to human modification, but they also reject the latest scientific fields, including robotics technology. That includes even the automatic fire suppression system, which, it has been reported, didn’t exist in Kingstown. We will keep you posted on the latest developments…”
The segment about the fire ended, and it was immediately followed by a story about the reaction from Washington D.C. President Bill Freeman gave a quick interview in front of the White House. He expressed his condolences and promised to get to the bottom of it.
By the way, I liked our president. No, really. He’s always been very charismatic, even handsome, man – not in a fashionable, sugary-sweet way. He had a very masculine, rugged and down-to-earth look, and it drew you in. His face radiated power, and you never doubted that he was a born leader. You wanted to believe him. But what most remarkable about him was something that was a rarity for a national leader – his family status. Bill Freeman was single.
As I considered all this, the interview ended and the President turned and walked back to the White House door with a brisk athlete’s strut.
‘Oh, if only he wasn’t a President of the United States, he’d be a man of my dreams!’ whispered my inner girly-girl. Though I had to say that, in my experience, it was impossible to get into politics without getting your hands dirty, and a man with dirty hands couldn’t possibly be a dream.
Next, the newscast played to an interview with William Bots, head of the Robotics corporate group. He was furious: if the Humanists weren’t so stubborn and used his product, the tragedy would’ve been avoided. Like Bill Freeman, Bots had a good build, but his face didn’t express emotions very well. He was a business shark, and that’s it. He wasn’t interested in anything except hunting for profits. Like the president, Mr. Bots didn’t find time to start a family, but I didn’t care about that part of his biography.
A phone call from Brian, my boss, interrupted my thoughts.
“Don’t come to the office!” he exclaimed in place of introduction.
For as long as I’ve known him, Brian was extremely straightforward and never stopped to think that others might make their own plans.
“You know, I’m already on my way,” I responded, puzzled.
“Great! Then head straight for the location of the fire.”
“What, you want to get rid of me?”
“Don’t make me laugh, Mia. You might still be useful to me. And the fire is starting to die down.”
“So why am I going there?”
“We have diplomatic relations with the Humanists and…”
“I know, Brian,” I interrupted. “Can you make this quick? I’m on the road.”
“Okay. To make it short, Yvon Tred, the chairman of the Humanist Association wants to temporarily borrow you. He needs an experienced negotiator– like you.”
“And that, my girl, he’ll tell you himself.”
I hated when he called me “my girl.” He could’ve struck up for me! Said that I was busy for the next few weeks, but he just folded. And called me “my girl.”
“Listen, Brian,” I seethed. “I never worked with them, never, do you understand? I’m not a fit candidate!”
“Oh, you relax!”
“I could say something un-PC…”
“But you won’t!”
“Choose another expert!” I insisted. “Before it’s too late!”
“Can’t do,” he snipped back. “Tred didn’t ask for just anyone – he asked specifically for you.”
“Okay, fine! But why do I need to go to Kingstown? I’m not some Joan of Arc you can just toss in the fire.”
“Nobody is going to toss you anywhere,” my boss responded. “But it wouldn’t hurt you to see what’s going on with your own eyes. I’m almost positive that whatever business they requested you for is somehow tied to the Kingstown tragedy.”
Oh, he’s ever a strategist! Always ready to send his co-worker if not into the fire, then into its ashes. As we talked, I looked at the pillar of smoke, looming menacingly in its unrealness. And now I have to go over there.
“I want to change route,” I addressed the auto-drive. “We’re heading toward the smoke.”
“It is a fire,” the machine responded. “Approximate location: Kingstown. Distance – 5.5 miles. Please confirm.”
As we approached the disaster site, I saw that the highway was closed off. The auto-drive turned the car onto a city street, which soon turned into an alley. The horrible gray mushroom kept growing right before my eyes. Impulsively, I opened the window by hand – and got so much soot in my face that I collapsed into a coughing fit. Somehow, I managed to hiss: “Close!”
My God, why am I going here? In this day and age, you can see everything, absolutely everything on screen. The burning-out Kingstown is probably already being streamed across the net, and you can look at the aftermath of the fire without breathing all this poison.
Now, I was surprised that I didn’t make this argument to Brian and why I didn’t look for live broadcast sooner – I could’ve seen everything without getting out of the car. But this very wise idea came too late: the auto-drive was slowing down my transport in close proximity to what used to be Kingstown. The car stopped in front of the yellow ribbon that blocked our way. A long police bus stood nearby – do they live there or something?
A cop climbed out of the bus and walked straight toward my car. I gathered my courage, took a deep breath and lowered the glass – and got my face whipped with warm concentrated soot. I was amazed that I didn’t cough this time. See, that’s why psychological preparation is so important!
“Ma’am, the road is closed,” the officer said. “For your own safety.”
“I have a right of passage anywhere I want,” I said confidently as I tried to make out something, anything, behind his back. “I have a Green Pass.”
Pulling the phone out of my belt pocket, I said, “Identification” and, once I saw that the barcode square lit up, I passed it to the cop.
“This method is out of date,” he responded.
I looked at him quizzingly
“I already know who you are, Miss Arc,” he said a little too evenly. “Data was acquired based on your iris scan.”
Only then did I shift my gaze from the horrible landscape around me toward the policeman’s face. It looked like a mask. I looked down and saw a blue sticker on his breast pocket.
“Are you…” I said. “That?”
“I do not understand what you mean by ‘that,’” he answered. “I am an android.”
“Who the hell sent an android to a Humanist settlement?” I blurted out.
“The Governor,” he responded.
“They will consider it an insult,” I fretted.
“Who?” he asked in what I now realized was a standard even voice.
“What do you mean, ‘who?’” my rage started to boil. “People who live here. Humanists!”
“There are none left.”
“None?” I gasped.
“One boy survived.”
“One!” I couldn’t believe it.
And that’s when I finally started to cough. Figures. I managed to hold out long enough.
“Now do you understand why androids were sent in?” he said. “Close the window, ma’am, and turn on the air conditioner. It will filter out the air, and you will feel better. You can remain here as long as you want, but you cannot travel beyond the yellow ribbon.”
I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the dark gray, still smoking landscape. I watched what used to be a city from the distance. Kingstown was down below, in the valley, and its burnt-out husk was completely visible. The merciless flame burned everything – living and non-living. In the matter of hours!
I had to drive past this settlement before. For some reason, I always wanted to get a better look and see what was going on, as if the tiny details would clear up some unfathomable mystery. What kept those people there? What attracted them to their lifestyle, a lifestyle that didn’t fit at all into the modern world?
Kingstown was made up of small wooden houses with framed doors and gardens in their front yards. There, flowers grew every year – chamomiles, gladioluses, dahlias… Humanists lived in large, close-knit families. The use of contraception wasn’t encouraged, so the families had as many children as they conceived.
The streets were always crowded. For Humanists, every day was a holiday. I was kind of jealous of them – after all, we spent a lot of time absorbed in television, the Internet, the chat rooms… And now, those people have been wiped from the face of the earth.
The view I saw chilled me to the bone. Instead of yards, flowers, children playing in the street, there was nothing but smoking ruins.
Used to be that I stop right over there, where the road turned into the city, and bought flowers or fruit from a skinny teenager that stood here with handweaved baskets through rain or shine. Always dressed in beige linen shirt and a brown cap that has long since faded thanks to California sun, he looked to me like someone from either another time or some alien civilization. I didn’t know why, but I always wanted to look into his eyes and find some truth that Humanists understood but I couldn’t grasp. I felt like, if we had a couple more meetings like this, I’d be able to catch something important. But alas, there were no more flowers, no more salesperson, no driving into the city, no Kingstown at all.
But, come to think of it, life can create such paradoxes! The locals thought that progress leads humanity away from its roots and, in doing so, destroys it. They defended the harmonious coexistence of humanity and nature. But the merciless nature wiped them out from the face of the Earth, as if it didn’t want this kind of harmony. And an artificial intelligence that Humanists so opposed could’ve stopped this tragedy. They haven’t considered that. Life wasn’t anything like what Humanists imagined. Everything was inside out! The fire swallowed up three and a half thousand lives. In one night!
The smoke was still rising into the air, but up close you couldn’t see what unfolded up above. You couldn’t see the black pillar, the tip of the “mushroom” – just a city shrouded in darkness. I wondered what the Humanists that lived in other settlements scattered throughout the country felt about this. What kind of conclusions did they draw from the tragedy? Will they do anything about it? No, trying to predict their reactions wouldn’t be worthwhile – you can’t apply your own logic to the thought processes of people whose own logic might as well be from another planet.
I drove around the police tape, looked at the dead city from a different side and returned to the police output. I gathered my courage, opened the door into the smog and took a few steps toward the bus. The observation system worked immediately, and somebody got out – this was a different police android. I didn’t have time to explain everything – I knew I wouldn’t be able to talk for long in this air.
“Listen,” I quickly addressed him. “Where was the city fire service during the fire? Weren’t they obligated to save the Humanists?”
“Of course they were!” he sighed. “But we had an unlikely coincidence – the nearest engine company left in the opposite direction just when the fire broke out. God damn those fires!”
‘God damn?’ That didn’t sound like any android that I could imagine. Small, slit-like eyes, flushed cheeks, bristle that hasn’t been touched in several days…
“You’re human!” I asked.
“How do you work in those conditions? You can’t be working in this smoke! By the way, I am a representative of the Green Movement. I can file a complaint against your superior.”
I couldn’t hold out and coughed. He waited until I was done, and finished.
“There is no need to complain against anyone, Miss Arc! Not that long ago, I took advantage of a special genetic modification that makes smoke and other hazards less dangerous to my health. Now, my organism processes heavy metals like, say, lead, a hundred, if not a thousand times better than baseline!”
“Lord, and they sent you to Kingstown!” I sighed. “Your very presence here is an insult to Humanists. They are very uncompromising about this issue and speak out against any human modification.”
“Looks like you didn’t believe the last interlocutor!” he chided. “You should have! He’s absolutely right. There is nobody to get upset. Kingstown is gone.”