"I think beyond the immediacy of this moment's observation to understand the deeper, long-range outcome."
Third Cardinal Rule of an Imperial Observer
The Black Economic Zone (BEZ) Number Six, Atlanta, Georgia is unlike most other zones and not just because of its hover lanes crisscrossing the skies above the elevated highways below. It is the heart of the Eight Guilds and the Zones, the advanced scientific and cultural enclaves in which we live.
I gaze out on the busy vista that never ceases to impress me. Since it isn't often that I venture out of my lab in southern Maryland to come south, I linger at the view from the slanted, two-story windows.
Standing between two Sweet Olive trees, the fragrant scent of the flower clusters tickling my nose, I can almost forget my junior researchers waiting nearby. They will not interrupt me, the Director of the Science Guild, Research and Development Branch. If I want to remain indefinitely, I can. But enough is enough. Deeply inhaling the almond scent one last time, I turn.
Behind me, throngs of people move along the Grand Concourse of the Guild's Worldwide Headquarters, located in the AUC section of the zone. Functionaries, councilors, Congress people and Guild members, all going about the important business of managing the Eight Guilds.
Sentry Agents, clad in their royal blue uniforms and posted along the corridor, are more ceremonial than for protection. The zones are free of any meaningful crime. With a silent signal, I send my group ahead to the shuttle bay. I want to take my time strolling there.
Half a dozen steps along the corridor, I catch a glimpse of a young man watching me from the meeting room side of the concourse. Pausing, I peer through the sea of brown faces, but the man is gone. No one else offers me more than a cursory glance or occasionally, a slight dip of the head in acknowledgement of my respectable position.
A sudden chill runs down my back and I clench my fists. I can only wonder why my heart rate spikes until I take a few deep, calming breaths. Maybe it is just my imagination. When I face the windows again, I spot the young man nearing a section of low-slung benches primarily used by visitors and tourists to take in the view.
Tall and well-built, the young man's ebony skin radiates the abundant health that all members of the zones exhibit. His charcoal grey suit is immaculate, and the coat is cut in the latest Guild style. Curiously, the suit is plain with no sash or emblem to hint at his particular Guild affiliation.
"Excuse me, young man."
He turns to face me with a curious expression. "Yes?"
With an almost unconscious tugging on my light-blue sash, I nod to him. "Which Guild do you call home?"
"I do not belong to any Guild."
I blink hard at hearing that. "Are you a tradesman? I would have guessed you attended one of our colleges."
"I am not a tradesman. I am a chief organizer with the Cooperative."
My brows draw together. "What kind of organization is that?"
The young man scans my face as if searching for something. I don't know what, maybe to see if my ignorance is real.
"It is... " He pauses and then continues, "it's a movement."
"And you're a chief organizer?"
"Yes, I am."
"So," I begin slowly, slightly offended by his statement, "you don't believe in the saving graces of the Guild system?"
"No, we believe there is danger of stagnation in the present model."
My smile changes to a frown and my formally relaxed posture becomes defensive as my muscles tighten. My back is rigid. By the time I ask my next question, even my tone has become harsher. "What is your movement about?"
"The Cooperative resists the rigidity of the Guild system. We believe this setup, despite its operation for nearly two-hundred years, is stifling growth. People should be able to choose their own life paths and change them whenever they want."
In my mind, I sense the beginning of a cognitive dissonance, but I can't help myself. "How can you not believe in the group economic system?"
The young man focuses on me with almost inhuman intensity. "Tell me, Doctor, why do you need to believe in that system?"
The question is devoid of any sarcasm, yet I grow increasingly agitated.
"I - I believe it. I have to believe it, otherwise all would be lost. We would be lost! Can't you understand that?" I shout the last sentence. Others turn our way. A Sentry Agent speaks into his vid-com while eyeing us. He moves from his post but I raise a hand to wave him off. The agent obeys, but remains vigilant.
"Doctor, I understand," the young man says, sounding so reasonable, it angers me even more.
A heat rises inside me. "We would be lost in a miserable existence," I practically wail.
He lifts his hands in a placating gesture. "I did not mean to upset you, sir." He glances at his chrono. "I have a shuttle to catch. Please, accept my apologies." With that, he leaves.
Pacing back and forth, alternating between tightening and relaxing my fists, I ignore the curious glances of the passersby. My ears ring and my breathing is heavy for several minutes before I can calm down. When I do, I sink onto one of the comfortable benches and stare out the window, but I don't see the Atlanta zone around me. It's all a blur as my sight focuses inward. I'm shocked at my own visceral reaction to the young man's simple questions. Even now as I replay the exchange, I realize he never lost his composure. Why did I react so strongly? And where did the sense of being lost and without hope come from?
As I stand up, I hastily smooth out my coat and sash. When I'm sure I can walk without my legs collapsing, I head for the hangar bay, far away from the unsettling encounter.
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