Actions

Work Header

New Day

Work Text:

The year 1961, in a future that never happened.
 

The border guard wasn't a robot, at least. They could tell that, because he was an idiot.

He approved Honey's passport with a rapid click of computer keys that caused the holopic on her passport to glow. But when Kit waved Foster forward next, the guard barely glanced at him. "No Vovimians," he said.

"What?" Honey drew herself up to her full height of five feet and glared up at the guard. She was like that, whenever Foster appeared to be under threat.

The border guard – dressed in the imperial uniform of the Queendom of Yclau – waved his hand vaguely in the direction of Foster and Kit. "Only citizens of the First Landstead may cross the border here at Silver Spring," he explained. "Vovimian citizens need to return to their own country and pass over the border via Falls Chapel Skyport."

Honey looked as though she wanted to scratch out the guard's eyes. Foster stayed silent and motionless; that was his usual manner of responding to problems which didn't concern Honey or her parents. Kit sighed. Tugging up her daringly tight trousers – she had convinced her widowed father that all the girls wore trousers in public now, which was only half a lie – she stepped forward, opening her own passport.

The guard might have ignored her, but the passport made that impossible. The moment she opened the passport, a hologram jumped out, displaying a First Landstead flag being raised on a pole. An electronic orchestra played the First Landstead's anthem.

The guard paled. Amused, Kit recalled that the anthem of the High Mister of the First Landstead was the same as the anthem of the Queen of Yclau, since their two nations had been one nation until five tri-decades earlier.

"Ah . . . very sorry, young lady . . . that is, Miss Sutcliff. Would you like a royal escort to the White House?" Already his fingers were flying upon the keyboard that hung suspended in front of him, evidently held up by a hoverfield.

She stopped him with a gesture. "That won't be necessary. I brought my liegewoman and her bodyguard." She gestured toward Honey and Foster.

The guard looked blankly at them all. Honey appeared to be fighting a fit of giggles. Even Foster's mouth twitched. He and Honey were a sun-circuit older than Kit, but all three of them were quite obviously in their early apprentice years.

Out of pity for the guard, Kit added, "We'll be reuniting with our parents soon."

"Ah!" The guard's expression cleared up, and he tipped his cap. "Well, I hope you have a pleasant stay in our queendom, royal miss. Is this your first visit to Yclau? Here's a touring pamphlet."

He handed the pamphlet to Foster, who made it disappear somewhere into his multitudinous pockets. Honey was already urging Foster forward, eager to see what came next.

Not until they were well beyond the checkpoint did Kit and Honey explode into laughter. Even Foster looked as if he would have liked to laugh, though of course he didn't, being too well trained.

"Yclau folk never remember that the First Landstead's people come from many nations." Honey wiped tears of merriment from her cheeks with her white-gloved hands. "Can you imagine what his face would have been like if you'd been your father?"

Kit's father would undoubtedly have blasted the guard as thoroughly to smithereens as if he'd been a one-man fusion bomb. Kit didn't want to think about that. This was her apprenticeship birthday – her "New Day," as it was dubbed. She had reached her early youth, and this was the present she had demanded from her father: to be allowed, for one day in her life, to spend time alone with Honey, without endless bodyguards surrounding her.

"Honey will bring her bodyguard," Kit had assured her father, not informing him that Honey's bodyguard was as young as Honey was.

Now, as they followed the signs to the public transport within the border-crossing building, Kit looked warily at Foster. She had seen him many times, of course; Kit and Honey had befriended each other at a royal reception when they were young kids, and by then, Foster was already serving Honey's family. But when he came to the palace, he was only one of many servants standing in the background, despite Honey's disconcerting tendency to consult him at every juncture. Having a servant-boy accompany them on this trip was annoying, Kit thought. But there was no way around it; Honey's parents would never have allowed Honey to visit Yclau without her young bodyguard.

"We need to stay in the tourist zone," Honey was saying now. "I promised Daddy. He doesn't want us wandering into parts of the city where hoodlums have laserblade fights with one another. Foster, does that pamphlet say what we can visit in the tourist zone?"

"I'll check," said Kit, annoyed once again by Foster's unnecessary presence. She pulled from her purse a bright red plastic stereoscope. Without having to be asked, Foster took from his pocket the microfiche-cell that the guard had given them, rapidly checked the writing on its hard plastic cover, and pushed a button. One of the fiches popped out of the cell – the tourist zone section of the pamphlet, presumably. Kit offered Foster her stereoscope, and he carefully inserted the fiche into it.

Kit spent a moment adjusting the settings of the viewer till she'd centered the focus on the portion of the tourist zone map that interested her the most. "The White House," she announced.

Honey groaned. "We're supposed to be having fun!" she cried. "I don't want to spend all day curtsying to the Queen."

"We'll just look at the White House from outside," Kit promised, returning the viewer to her pocket. "Where's the monorail?"

There wasn't any. Their choices seemed to be to take a subway or to take a sonic streetcar that travelled through an opaque tube between ground-buildings; both stations were within the confines of the border-crossing building. Kit slapped her forehead. "I forgot. Yclau has never built houses in the sky. They all live on the ground, the way servants do."

"Foster lives in our sky-home," said Honey, promptly and predictably. "Oh, look – there's a taxi-stand. Yclau has air transport anyway."

The taxi-stand consisted of a sign and a single taxi that puttered as it hovered a few inches from the ground. Not until they got closer did Kit notice the taxi-driver. Then, instinctively, she froze with horror.

Honey didn't notice; she was dragging Foster forward with her hand. "Oh, sir, we need to get to the White House," she said to the taxi-driver. "Can you take us there?"

To Kit's relief, the driver's only response was a nod. He opened the taxi door for them. Kit glanced at Foster, who had a knowing look in his eye, but he did not appear concerned. Deciding to trust his bodyguard instincts, Kit climbed into the taxi, with Honey following.

"Isn't this neat?" Honey declared, wriggling in her seat as Foster climbed in after her, closing the door behind them. Honey immediately took off her hat and pulled in her full skirt so that Foster would have more room to sit. "This jet-car is so antique, it might as well have wheels. It's like living in the old days, before jet-packs."

"Here," said Kit, handing over her money fiche-cell to the driver. "The White House, please. And we'd like privacy on the way there."

The driver nodded again. After inserting her money cell into the taxi's payment slot and waiting for the appropriate fiche to be removed, he handed the fiche-cell back to her and lowered the privacy screen. The laser-screen glowed red, like the privacy screens back home.

She waited till it was secure, then said, "Honey, our driver is an android."

Honey gave a scream before clapping her hand over her mouth. "Really?" she whispered. Then, being Honey, she laughed fearlessly. "He's not as scary as the robots in the holovision stories. I mean, he's not trying to kill us so that robots can take over the world."

"Not yet, anyway," murmured Kit, too low for Honey to hear. Kit had her eye on Foster. He, in turn, was watching every move that the driver made.

The driver appeared to be behaving like an ordinary human taxi-driver, though. After programming the taxi's terminal, which presumably connected wirelessly with the optical computer at Yclau's air traffic control, the robot raised the jet-car into the sky. They shot through a large window in the building, and then they were airborne, flying very slowly through the air, in the usual manner of touring taxis.

"It looks just like at home," said Honey disappointedly, leaning past Kit to look out the window. "In the servants' districts, I mean. There are sure a lot of people outside. I suppose that's because it's such a warm morning."

Foster glanced out the window and frowned. Feeling uneasy, Kit pressed the intercommunication button. "Driver, fly lower," she instructed.

The taxi-driver obediently directed the taxi down toward street level. Honey and Kit both leaned forward to stare through the window, with Foster dividing his attention between the streets and the driver.

After a moment, Honey gasped. "They're robots! All of them! Where are the people?"

They were indeed all androids; they shone with the faint metallic tinge which distinguished them from humans. The streets – which were filled with buildings from the nineteenth and early twentieth tri-centuries – had old-fashioned sidewalks rather than zippy slidewalks, so it was easy to see the men and women as they walked along. Some of the men carried briefcases, while the women often toted grocery bags. Presumably, all the androids were running errands for their owners, but it was an odd sight: streets entirely empty, except for these mechanical servants.

"This is creepy," murmured Kit. "Now I understand why the First Landstead only permits cyborgs and holopeople, not androids."

Honey had other thoughts. Turning her head, she said, "Foster, is it like that back home? Are there usually only servants walking around in the servants' districts?"

Foster nodded.

"I hadn't thought of that," said Kit slowly.

"Nor had I," said Honey, flouncing back into her previous position. "It must be odd. I'd like to visit the local servants' district some day. . . . Oh, look, what does that sign say?"

Reacting quicker than the rest of them, Foster already had his finger on the intercom button. He murmured the appropriate order to the taxi-driver. The taxi slowed to a hovering position so that they could peruse the neon sign.

"'Human Walking Zone,'" Honey read aloud. "'No androids above ground, except for police-bots. Please keep robopets on leashes. Air transport should take care in landing; children may be playing in the parking lots.'"

"Thank goodness for that," declared Kit. She had taken out her compact – a birthday gift from her father, acknowledging that Kit was now in her years of apprenticeship. She stared into the 3D mirror, trying to decide whether she should use the laser lipstick that had come with the compact. Then, with a sigh, she pocketed the compact. She wasn't quite ready to enter into a young woman's duty of applying makeup several times a day. In that respect, she'd rather remain a kid.

Honey and Foster – who showed no signs so far of wanting to discard the joys of childhood – were now consulting with each other in the sign language that Foster had learned on the streets from fellow servants who worked at factories where speaking on the job wasn't permitted. Thoroughly annoyed to be left out of the conversation, Kit pointed. "Here we are."

The White House came into view. Kit had seen holopics of it before: it was a dignified, white building, rather small for a palace. It had been built in the late eighteenth tri-century, back when her own ancestors had controlled this area of Yclau. Now it belonged to the Queen of Yclau, who had moved her capital here after the First Landstead gained its independence from Yclau. The Queen was a distant relative of Kit's, but like Honey, Kit had no intention of spending the day in diplomatic courtesies – not even if the Queen invited Kit to fly a rocket to the Moon, as the Queen might very well do. The Queen's holiday home, Camp David, was located up there.

Then Honey gasped again. Looking out, Kit saw why.

o—o—o

If there was anything creepier than city streets filled with androids, it was city streets filled with absolutely nothing.

As the taxi flew back in the direction it had come, Kit stood on the sidewalk, turning on the tips of her saddle shoes as she took in their surroundings. The taxi-stand – merely a pole with an alarm sonic-locked for police use – was the most modern object within view. The houses were quaint; none of them looked any older than the 1930s, when the first optical computers were invented. In addition to the White House, other large white buildings lined the streets – obviously government buildings, with patriotic mottoes written across their stone facades. The jet-car had landed the three of them in a large park across from the White House. The park was filled with winding paths under trees, as well as a small baseball field. Batting equipment lay scattered around, as though the field had been abandoned just a few minutes before.

But there were no people. None in the park, none in front of the government buildings, none in a nearby restaurant, and none sitting on the porches of a row of townhouses. Kit felt something cold crawl up her spine.

Honey whispered, "Do you suppose the Bomb went off while we were in the taxi?" She and Kit stared at each other, aghast.

Foster quickly checked the newsfeed on the wireless terminal he carried on his belt-buckle; then he shook his head. Honey and Kit let out their breaths simultaneously.

Trying to insert common sense into the situation, Kit said, "I've heard that nearly all of Yclau's employers and employees work from their computer terminals at home, connecting in with their businesses' computers. I don't suppose Yclau workers need to leave their houses much."

"And they may have house-to-house jet-cars," added Honey, looking up into the sky. "Or underground subways and tube streetcars that stop at each house."

Foster said nothing. His eyes were narrowed, scrutinizing their surroundings, as though trying to determine where the hidden danger lay.

Kit stamped her foot. "I didn't come all the way to Yclau just to stare at empty streets. I want to meet people. Honey, let's go visit the Queen."

But when they reached the gate entrance to Yclau's palace, they received another rude shock.

"A museum?" cried Kit. "They've turned the White House into a museum?"

Honey clapped her hand over her mouth. "Kit, I've just remembered. We read about it in school. The Queen has lived in the White House's atomic fallout shelter since the Hydrogen Wars. I suppose the shelter is sealed off from the rest of the White House, so that the palace can be shown to visitors. There must be an entrance to the shelter somewhere." She turned her head, looking.

"I didn't come here to visit a stupid underground shelter." Kit felt tears pricking her eyes. This wasn't the way it was supposed to be. This was her birthday. It was the New Day when she and Honey were supposed to have fun together, visiting a new place and meeting new people. But first Honey's blasted servant had to be dragged along, and now there weren't even any foreigners outside for her to meet—

"Kit." Honey paused from a whispered conversation with her bodyguard. "Foster has an idea."

o—o—o

Kit had to admit, afterwards, that bringing a boy along had been a good idea. Her own tutoring had been aimed at training her to eventually take over the reins of the First Landstead's government. As for Honey, she scorned all the domestic-science classes that her mother tried to persuade her to take, but her interests were purely literary. It was Foster who had signed up for every mechanical class in high school that he could, and it was Foster who proceeded to break through the sonic lock to the emergency alarm.

Kit had the honor of pushing the button that turned on the alarm. It worked better than they'd anticipated. Not only did the alarm go off, but all the doors of the nearby buildings slid open, apparently connected to the street's alarm system.

They waited breathlessly. Nobody emerged.

"The robots have eaten them," Honey said with a nervous giggle.

"This is ridiculous." Kit stamped her foot again. "There are nearly a million people living in the city of New Columbia! Where are they?"

There was a sound behind her, harsh and urgent. Kit whirled around. Something shiny and metallic was racing toward them. It growled.

In an instant, Foster had leapt in front of her and Honey. He was holding something in his hand, waving it in a warning manner toward the growling object. Kit realized with amazement that Foster was holding a three-inch laserblade. Where had Foster found a laserblade?

Then she remembered. Honey had mentioned it once, long ago, when they first met. Orphaned and homeless, Foster had lived on the streets of the local servants' district when he was a little boy. No doubt he'd needed a laserblade to survive.

Honey squealed. "It's a robodog! Oh, Foster, put away the blade; the dog won't hurt us. Will you, girl? Or are you a boy?"

Girl or boy, the robodog seemed disinclined to hurt them. It had stopped in its tracks, and its growl was replaced by a puzzled whine. Far more obviously robotic than the androids had been, the dog waved its metal tail tentatively as Honey approached, with Foster walking by her side as he closed and pocketed his laserblade.

It was indeed a dog, Kit decided. Her nanny's daughter owned a holodog, patterned after the final dogs to survive when the Vovimians killed off household pets with their sonic weapons during the Hydrogen Wars. But holodogs could only be seen; this robodog could be touched. It was licking Honey's hand now with a glistening tongue that appeared moist. Honey giggled.

"Spot!" called a boy's voice. "Here, Spot! Where have you gone to?"

"Spot must be here somewhere." It was a girl's voice, and in the next moment, Kit saw them.

There were six of them, all light-skinned: a boy and girl around the age of Honey and Foster, accompanied by two sets of what must be their parents, for one of the fathers was saying to the boy, "Tripp, we can't search the entire capital for your dog. It'll come home to us when it's ready."

Meanwhile, one of the mothers instructed the girl, "Grace, sweet one, don't run so fast. You'll wear out your hoverfield."

Grace, who was wearing a jumper and sitting in a hoverchair controlled by a joystick, responded by pointing her finger. "Look! There are other kids out! Can't we go talk to them?"

"Well . . ." started her mother dubiously, but Tripp had sighted Spot. With a shout of joy, he ran forward, with Grace racing at his heels in her hoverchair.

"Thanks for finding her," were the boy's first, breathless words when he reached them. "When the alarm went off, the front door opened and she darted out, before we could take her down to the shelter."

Kit, Honey, and Foster exchanged looks. Leaning down to glance at the tattoo on Tripp's wrist, which revealed that he was first-ranked, Honey evidently decided to be cautious, for she said, "Is that where everyone is, sir?"

The Yclau boy laughed. "Oh, don't call me sir. It makes me feel old. I'm Tripp." He shook arms with Honey, and then with Kit and, surprisingly, Foster. He didn't even bother to check their rank-tattoos. "This is my cousin Grace. Our families live in townhouses next to each other. So we visit each other."

It was clear from how he spoke the words that this was a momentous achievement. Kit – envisioning dozens of families hiding in separate underground fallout shelters, afraid to emerge – sighed and told Foster, "You might as well shut off the alarm. Nobody else is going to come outside."

"Did you turn on the alarm, then?" Her cheeks flushed, Grace appeared delighted. "Thanks! I've never been outside before. My parents are worried I'll fall out of my hoverchair."

"She can't walk," Tripp explained. "I've been outside before. Field trips. The roboteacher I take telecast classes from thinks it's important for students to get outside sometimes, to visit old buildings. So all of us taking the classes go on trips, once a semester. I really like going outside twice a year. I've been trying to persuade my parents to visit outside for ages."

The parents, Kit noticed, had stopped to consult with one another about directions. It was obvious that, having walked a block or two, they were completely lost. Stifling a laugh, Kit hooked her arm around Honey's. "Why don't you introduce us to them?" she suggested to Tripp and Grace.

o—o—o

Tripp and Grace's parents were duly impressed to meet the High Mister's daughter and her young liegewoman. "How very brave of you to come here with only a single bodyguard," said Grace's mother, eyeing the streets nervously, as though she expected to see a robot army charge toward them.

"Now, dear, the First Landsteaders often travel outside," said Grace's father. "I must say, I find this surprisingly refreshing. I haven't been out of the house since I was a young man."

"But Grace's health," began her mother, only to be interrupted by Tripp's mother.

"Oh, Stanley, look!" she exclaimed. "A restaurant with an old-fashioned cooking area! The restaurant lets patrons cook their own food. On stoves."

"Wonderfully primitive," Tripp's father agreed. "Reminds me of my time as a Boy Seeker. We did a lot of outdoor camping, back in those days. Shall we go inside and make ourselves a feast?"

All the children simultaneously sighed.

"Couldn't we stay outside?" begged Tripp.

"I want to play in the park." Grace pointed to the grass.

"Sweet one, I'm not sure your hoverchair can handle rough ground," demurred Grace's mother.

At that point, Grace's father laughed. "This is absurd. Here we are, out in the fresh air, and we're acting as though we're still inside. Stanley, Doris, you go make your feast, but bring it outside to these picnic tables and eat your meals under the sun. Candi, darling, I've heard you say many times that you wanted to visit the White House gardens. Well, here's our chance. Let the children play outside; Doris and Stanley can keep an eye on them."

"If you're sure they'll be all right," said Grace's mother, clearly torn between protecting her daughter and seeing the Queen's gardens.

Grace's father winked at Tripp. Taking the hint, Tripp quickly said, "Race you to the park!"

They all sped away, before the grown-ups should change their minds.

o—o—o

Six hours later, the park looked very different.

Discontented at the idea of eating alone, Tripp's mother had used a public viewphone in the restaurant to call all her friends. Cautiously, more parents and children had emerged from the townhouses. With Honey's encouragement, Foster had organized a baseball game for the kids, teaching everyone how to throw and catch and bat. He did so with silent gestures; Honey was the one who explained the baseball rules that Foster had evidently taught her long ago.

Kit – whose previous experience with sports had been confined to a few sedate games of croquet with her nanny's daughter – was delighted to discover that she was the best batter of them all. Tripp became a shortstop, missing balls that came his way without any diminishment of his high spirits. As for Grace, she scornfully rejected the idea of being made umpire. "I'll bet my chair can beat any ball home," she proclaimed. Unfortunately, she proved to be correct; by the end of the top half of the first inning, the score stood at 63-0. After a quick consultation together, the teams agreed that Grace should be assigned the duties of a non-batting pitcher. Spinning her chair around to achieve the right velocity, she let loose with fast balls that left the batters breathless and laughing. Meanwhile, the fielders were working energetically to keep the ball away from Spot, who had evidently been programmed all too well to fetch.

"This is swell!" declared Kit, collapsing so that the back of her head settled on the stomach of Honey, who had been lying on the ground as a spectator, for her voluminous skirt had proved ill-suited for running bases. "But we've got to get back. I promised we'd be home by dark."

Honey glanced in the direction of the sun, settling toward the horizon. "Rats! I like this. And I suppose that, the next time we come, everybody will be hidden in their houses again." She reached for her hat and gloves, which she had discarded some time ago.

"Kit! Honey!" It was Tripp, racing across the park lawn to them; he skidded to a halt, with Grace applying her brakes beside him. "We're coming back with you!"

"What?" Kit jerked upright.

Grace laughed as Kit and Honey scrambled to their feet. "Thanks to Tripp's father. He was talking with my dad about how they never did anything spontaneous and fun anymore, the way they did when they were kids. And Tripp's father said, 'You know, if I had the guts, I'd move my family to the First Landstead, where Tripp could play outside with other children all the time.' And my dad said, 'Why not, Stanley? You'd only be living a few miles from us. Our families would still be able to visit each other.' Tripp's mother has gone home to pack overnight bags, so that their family can start searching for a new home immediately."

"And Grace's mother wants to stay here, but she loves the block party." Tripp pointed to where Grace's mother was gathered with a group of other women, talking and laughing. "She wants to have block parties every week now."

"She's even talking about starting a school." Grace's cheeks had turned pink. "She has a teacher's certificate. She wants to open a neighborhood school she teaches herself, with everyone sitting in a classroom together. And we'd have recess outside in the park! —Yes, I'm coming, Mom!" She darted away to where her mother was gesturing, evidently wishing to introduce her to a new friend's children.

"That's wonderful!" Honey hugged Tripp. "Your family can stay with us till you move into your new home. We have two guest rooms—"

She stopped abruptly, looking at Foster, who had been standing nearby all this while, as silent as always. Foster said nothing. Kit remembered then that Foster had lived in one of those guest rooms since Honey's father brought him home from the streets. Foster was not entirely a servant, not entirely a family member. . . . Kit had never been more conscious than now that Foster lived a precarious life.

A sharp bark brought Kit's attention back to the ground. She gasped, remembering. "Oh, Tripp!" she said. "I'm so sorry. You won't be able to bring Spot with you. Robots are banned from the First Landstead."

Tripp looked bleakly down at Spot. Spot stared up at him, wagging her tail, grinning her robodog smile.

Then Tripp whistled at her. "Come on, Spot. You've always liked Grace, haven't you? And Grace loves you. You're going to come live with her."

Kit shook her head as she watched Tripp lead Spot away, with Honey following alongside. "What a generous boy he is. It must hurt him terribly, to give his pet away like that. It's like giving away a servant you're fond of."

Too late, she heard the words she had spoken. She looked over at Foster: a kid like her, with dark brown skin like her, but tattooed with a servant's rank-mark on his wrist. Foster the orphan, who had no home except for that of his employers and their daughter.

Without thinking twice about it, Kit leaned over and hugged Foster with her arm. He turned an astonished face toward her. "Is Foster your real name?" she asked him. "Or did Honey's father give you that name?"

His voice was soft and surprisingly pleasant. "It's my real name, ma'am. Miss Honey's father gave it to me."

He was that fond of Honey's family, then. That was good to know. Honey, Kit could guess, would never allow her parents to abandon Foster. Kit gave him another squeeze. "You're wonderfully gifted. Guarding, lock-picking, baseball – what else are you interested in?"

And so the four of them – Kit, Honey, Tripp, and Foster – talked about 4D cameras all the way home to the First Landstead, while Kit reflected for the first time that her apprentice years would bring new places and new people and new responsibilities.