Murray Steele emerged from his home and descended the few steps to the street. He had an unusual pop to his step as he walked down the empty street past sleepy neighbors. The crisp morning air wasn’t the only reason for his outlook but it didn’t hurt. As he neared the end of the street, he changed his mind several times regarding his next direction.
Murray finally turned east across the street and continued for several blocks before again turning south toward downtown. Calling it a downtown was admittedly generous but Murray had a fondness for such archaic terms. The Comity no longer differentiated one town from the next because the distinction tended toward dissociation and perpetuated decentralization; all are united in The Comity.
Downtown constituted little more than a wide spot in the road now no longer populated by motor vehicles. The advent of hover technology left little need for such contrivances. Greater still was the impact of space colonization; the area where Murray lived had seen dramatic declines in population as people were sent to populate distant worlds. Despite these changes, the cracked and faded asphalt, a dim reminder of the past, remained home for a few shops.
Murray entered the eatery, stopping at the first empty table. As he sat, several people in the room looked his way. Walter Simmons called to him from behind the counter. “Are you okay, Murray?” he asked.
Murray thought this a strange question made more confusing by the looks of the others, “Yes, why do you ask?”
“Did you forget your Explique?” asked Rose Andrews, another neighbor and regular at the eatery.
Murray glanced down at his left arm to find that he had indeed forgotten his Explique. “I suppose I have,” he said. While he didn’t find anything wrong with this, it was clear he was alone in that.
“Is it being repaired?” asked Rose.
“They would have given him a temporary one,” someone said from the corner.
“No, it’s not being repaired,” responded Murray, “I took it off last night and forgot to put it back on.”
Like most people, Murray had been wearing an Explique in one form or another for as long as he could remember. The technology predated The Comity and had become so ubiquitous as to generally be taken for granted. Everyone came to rely on it for all aspects of life. An Explique could be used to communicate, retain records, take photographs, track credits, provide directions, instruct, and remind. It was considered by most to be completely indispensable.
As Murray raised his left arm to inspect it, all in the room stared in disbelief. A faint tan outline of his Explique adorned his otherwise bare wrist. It was likely that this patch of skin had not been exposed to sunlight for decades. It suddenly occurred to Murray that the device’s absence had been part of his particularly positive disposition. He smiled at his empty wrist.
A woman in one corner of the room gasped.
“Murray,” said Walter, “Don’t you think you should go home and get it?”
“It’s not required, is it?” asked Murray.
Walter hesitated. The wearing of an Explique was expected, but was it required? “How will you pay for your food?” he asked, trying to gently nudge Murray from what he saw as a precarious situation.
“I hadn’t thought of that,” answered Murray, “I suppose I’ll have to get it if I wish to eat. Maybe I’ll just relax for a few minutes instead.”
While the other diners looked for him to press the issue, Walter stopped short of insisting. Instead he brought a cup of coffee to Murray’s table. As he returned to the counter, hushed whispers filled the room in his wake.
Rose abandoned her table for Murray’s. “May I join you?” she asked.
“Certainly,” answered Murray, a broad smile on his face.
Being a longtime neighbor, Murray knew Rose well. She had the distinction of having been born in the area, something increasing rare in The Comity. In the distant past, she welcomed newcomers to the neighborhood with baked goods. Now that such food was largely unavailable, she substituted small crafts which she personalized for the recipient. Murray still proudly displayed the small picture frame she created upon his arrival, though he’d never had occasion to place an actual photo in the frame; the Explique made physical photos virtually obsolete.
“Why on earth did you take it off?” asked Rose, “Is it still running?”
“Yes, I left it running,” he responded.
“But why not wear it?” she probed further.
“I don’t have a reason,” answered Murray, “I wear it always. It’s very useful. I just felt like taking it off.”
Rose offered a wry smile. “Doesn’t if feel strange not having it on?”
“I was thinking it felt good not having it on,” Murray responded, offering his own smile, “The walk over seemed lighter.”
Rose couldn’t contain her look of shock.
“Why is everyone so surprised?” asked Murray, lowering his voice to avoid being overheard.
Rose looked around to find nearly everyone still looking in their direction. “We’re not used to someone doing that, taking it off,” she said.
Murray again raised his left arm, inspecting it. “It hardly seems worth noticing,” he said.
“You have to admit it’s out of the ordinary,” responded Rose.
“I suppose it is,” he answered.
After that, Rose changed the subject. Their discussion meandered through the usual superficial topics of conversation, ending after nearly an hour. By that time, the eatery was virtually empty.
Murray followed Rose out. She offered him a ride home in her hover, but he declined. He watched her speed off, realizing that his hover would fetch him had he not left his Explique at home. At that, he turned toward home.
When he reached his street, he saw several Comity hovers parked before his home. He wondered what would have caused such a visit. Surely they hadn’t come to inquire after his Explique.
As he neared, a uniformed Comity officer approached. “Mr. Steele?” he asked.
“Yes, that’s me,” answered Murray, “Is there something wrong?”
“Your Explique has been motionless for an extended number of hours,” said the officer, “When that happens, official services are alerted.”
Murray’s eyes opened wide in surprise. “I had no idea,” he said.
“Is there a reason you aren’t wearing your Explique, Mr. Steele?” asked the officer.
“No reason. I just took it off last night and…”
“You removed your Explique?” the officer interrupted.
“It’s not required, is it?” asked Murray, alarmed.
The officer looked sternly at Murray, then looked toward the other officer and emergency personnel. When he turned his gaze back, he searched Murray’s eyes as though some secret might be hidden there.
“Wearing an Explique is voluntary,” the officer finally said, “But removal of one’s Explique violates a number of Comity directives.”
Murray was no closer to understanding. “I’m sorry, officer,” said Murray, “Did you say I’m not required to wear my Explique but I’m not permitted to remove it?”
“How could that be any clearer?” asked the officer.
Murray searched for some other way to restate what he found to be an absurd assertion, “So it’s voluntary and compulsory?”
The officer shook his head in disbelief, glancing back at the others as they boarded their respective hovers. “You’re a little slow, aren’t you?” he asked Murray.
Murray decided to cut his losses, “No, officer, I understand. I’ll get my Explique on right away.”
“See that you do,” responded the officer, walking away.
The two hovers rose and sped off. Murray stood in the shadow of his domicile, watching them disappear into the late morning sky. As he entered his home, he could hear his Explique calling out to him. “Murray Steele,” it shouted to the empty building.
“I’m here,” responded Murray, closing the door behind him.