Another cold day, but a bright one. A low sun casts glare in my eyes, making them ache as I descend stone steps towards a waiting transit. Behind and above, I hear the steady clunk and beep of auto-entry barriers, accepting credits as comm units are hurriedly pressed against by commuters to authorise travel requests.
I squint and continue walking into the white haze of sunlight, making my steady way along a long, open-air platform. Around me, others also walk towards the transit, eight narrow carriages preparing to carry us into, and in some cases through, central Citadel. Each commuter on their own, a singular part of a collective group. Each wrapped in their thoughts, each silent.
While a through-stop for some routes, this terminal is the launch point for the particular one I’m am following today. It means, if I’m early enough, I can guarantee that In will get a seat. I manage to do so, squeezing shoulder-to-shoulder with my silent and anonymous companions for this morning. I suppress the guilt of not riding. It’s cold, I tell myself. Dangerously so – the weather is only a degree or two from the point that water freezes. Ice on the roads, on a bike, is not fun. I let the excuse serve, and reach into a deep coat pocket. I mutter a hushed apology to one passenger next to me as I lean slightly into them, reaching for the contents of my jacket.
I don’t know if they heard. I don’t know if they noticed.
I retrieve a book. A real, paper based, glue bound, book. A novel in an old, old format. I have a digital reader, sure – multiple devices even on my person right now – that can display a digital book. But this one is paper. A block of processed fibre imprinted with lines of ink. It was a deliberate, and recent purchase. The fictional story of a young woman in Citadel, living in a less enlightened time. Born into slavery, living in distress. It is a tale of misfortune and struggle, a bleak life described in a much-glorified time.
I plan to read it and then talk about it at a local book group. It is part of a plan to meet more people in the area that I live, while also supporting a local vendor. Most of my books are digital copies these days, purchased from the globe’s primary vendor. It saves space, and adds to convenience – even as I line the pockets of a company that is not struggling for credits.
But this purchase, this one serves a good purpose beyond my convenience, and I’m happy to have made it. I’m supporting a small vendor, joining a social group, and – happily – reading a gripping tale, too. I drift back into the storyteller’s world as the transit makes its way into central Citadel.
Although capable of great speed, the carriage seldom reaches much of a pace, slowing and stopping regularly as it does to pick up more passengers than it drops off. It fills steadily as it rides above ground, and soon it is full. The intercom chimes at each stop, announcing the opening and closing of automated doors, which loudly grind then slam at each terminal. A recorded voice declares the route and next stop to any that listen, although most were inured to its featureless sound months, maybe even years, ago. Later in the journey, the carriage will predictably empty, after a short time dipping down into the sub-terran rail system. Most of the commuters get off in one of Citadel’s primary financial zones. The transit route runs right under the offices of this newer district.
From time to time, flicking between pages of my book, I glance up at the passengers now standing in front of me, crowded in, between the parallel rows of seats that line each wall of the carriage. Sometimes I catch someone’s eye. Sometimes I smile. Sometimes they smile back.
These are rare moment, but welcome. Seconds shared briefly with another person on the commute. Never a word spoken, simply a quiet recognition: hello, fellow human.
Most of us, though, gaze downwards – at book or at screen. Mostly at screen. Device convergence has long-since become accepted, and our comms can easily provide multiple forms of entertainment to ease us on our journey into work. Some read, some browse the data or social feed, some watch stims. Some play games or challenge themselves with puzzles. A hundred small glowing screens reflect on deliberately-occupied faces.
We dare not talk to each other.
I don’t know why.