"Ha! I made it!" looking over the narrow brook he had just waded Atto shouted hysterically at his pursuers. The three men stood there panting in their hunting leathers, clearly frustrated to be so close to their quarry but incapable of grabbing it. The brook marked a border between Archon Nyrell's Fief and territory claimed by the Nouveau Chemin, a border which was starkly obvious. The hunters stood on a muddy bank having just cleared the edge of an overgrown and knotted wood, by contrast Atto appeared to be on the edge of an arboretum so diverse and well-kept that it easily rivaled a garden of the wealthiest nobles.
"Don't do this Atto, come back right now and I'll be willing to grant leniency," called one of the hunters, his darkened eyes portraying his rage.
"If you want me father, come and get me," Atto boasted. A long minute passed as the hunters uneasily looked amongst each other. Technically there was nothing stopping them crossing the brook just as easily as Atto had, taking him back though would be another matter.
"I'm serious Atto, think of what you're doing. You're betraying your kin and if you stand on that demon ground much longer your soul will be forfeit."
"Betrayal?!" Atto yelled back, using his anger to push aside a part of him still clinging to the fear of demons. "How can you talk to me about betrayal? You were planning on indenturing me!"
"It's better than you deserve you ungrateful little worm!" His father shouted back, taking one step closer to the water. "If I didn't have to waste time and money keeping a cripple like you, the farm would actually prosper. Your uncles and aunts could all eat every day and your cousins might get a chance to do more than simply stand in for mules!"
"Don't even try to blame me for the state of the farm! If you all weren't addicts it might have a chance. You're not even selling me for the farm; you're selling me to pay your debts. Well, I'm not coming back; you can all go to rot for all I care." At this rant his father bellowed and jumped into the brook. Atto turned to run but after two nights of fleeing he hadn't the strength, within a few steps he sensed his father right behind him and in a panic slipped. He waited for the inevitable beating, all faith in the Nouveau Chemin promise of protection gone.
Curled into a ball, Atto whimpered in fear, yet after a pause he realised no fists had touched him. Cautiously he opened his eyes to find his father reaching for him, but frozen in position. Atto struggled to make out what he was seeing; it was as if smoke as clear as glass had erupted from the ground, enveloping his father, before solidifying. It had apparently left space around his father's mouth as he was clearly shouting but no sound could be heard. Cautiously standing Atto brushed himself off before nearly falling to his knees again as a voice called out from right behind him.
"Hey there!" It exclaimed, "Welcome to Nouveau Chemin, Southern Glade. My name is Hoot, sorry to see you're having family trouble." Turning around to find the owner of the voice, Atto was greeted by an even stranger sight than that of his immobilised father. Hoot was at least a head taller than Atto with oddly fat arms and legs; rather than a healthy grey its skin was a light brown and from its absurdly round head sprouted black fur that reached down to the shoulders. Hoot was also clearly a woman, her characteristics being so exaggerated that Atto could tell despite the fact she was clothed. After a moment of silence she gestured to the smoke. "Don't worry, your dad will be fine. The security fog is having a word with him. It will release him once he's calmed to the point he isn't likely to have himself an accident." Judging by the red colour encroaching on his father's wide eyes, that didn't seem like it would be any time soon to Atto.
"I don't think he's ever going to calm down," He said lamely to Hoot, then with more vigour "Please help me, he's trying to drag me back. But I don't want to be indentured, I don't want to be gelded and serve in the fort. Please take me in, please don't send me back."
"Hey hey hey!" Hoot exclaimed, raising her hands in a calming gesture "No one here is going to make you do anything. Look, why don't we have a little wander to the village and have a chat about it. That might help your dad here with his little tantrum." Nodding, Atto took a final look at his father before following Hoot away from the brook. Now that he had time to view it he realised just how beautiful, although strange, the Nouveau Chemin glade was. Some of the trees were the same as in his home wood, but healthier and spaced out. The rest though were all new to him, showing all manner of shapes, sizes and colours. Some even seemed to move without wind.
"The first thing you need to know is that the moment you crossed that brook you became a guest here, there's no way anyone can make you leave against your own will, even us." Hoot began, "I take it you've heard something about the Nouveau Chemin, perhaps about how we help people or who we are?"
"Some," Atto replied as they passed a shrub from which tiny birds flickered in and out. "You protect people from the nobles. You came from an empire from another world and can trap spirits in your tools to make them magic. The priests say you are demons."
"Well we're not demons, but everything else is sort of true. Any guest here is protected and we do come from an interstellar political union, though technically most of this system is now a member. It's just a few enclaves like your nobility holding out. That's why we set up these glades to be honest, to show people that there's better ways of doing things. Something that your ancestors deliberately forgot incidentally in favour of some idealistic notion of primitivism." Presently they arrived at a clearing in which a number of glossy buildings stood. Groups of individuals were milling about, relaxing on wide verandas. Atto observed that most were similar to Hoot though some were like him and others looked very different. A panic started to rise within him upon seeing some that resembled predators that prowl the woods; he felt it first as a tension in his head before a numbness started to seep into his limbs. Perhaps sensing this, Hoot guided him along a path to a smaller house with a table set up for two outside. "I thought you might be hungry so I arranged for refreshments." Atto felt his eyes drop to a warm orange at the sight of so much food, "Thank you," he said "I didn't manage to take much when I fled."
They ate in silence for a while, enjoying the plethora of dishes. There was more food than Atto's family could afford to eat in several meals. When they were done eating he started to feel uneasy again, "Thank you for helping me. I don't really know where to go from here though. Is there somewhere I can stay?"
"Of course, but we can get to that in a bit," Hoot replied, sipping a drink. "You know it was no coincidence I came across you today, I've been waiting for you."
"Waiting for me?"
"Oh yes. We might not intervene in the fiefs but we do observe. When you set out to get here we knew. There are several of us that like to act as greeters, I was given the job and so went in search for you. I'm meant to make sure you settle in, answer any questions you have and explain the situation. With me so far? Your eyes have changed colour again, purple means confusion right?"
"Yes," Atto replied, "I'm just trying to understand that if you saw me why didn't you help me at the start? Life under the nobles is horrid and everything I've heard about the Nouveau Chemin, everything not from the priesthood, says that you hate the nobles and you take care of people. But if I had been caught I would have been dragged back and indentured." At this question Hoot's facial features shifted drastically, Atto guessed this must be how her people showed emotion considering their stunted eyes.
"It's a hard question. Believe me there are many who agree with you and say that we should send in a fog, kick out the nobles and set up post-scarcity infrastructure. But the High Trio forbid intervention at that level, you know about them right?"
"Well the priests claim you're led by three Devils but they lie about everything." Atto confessed, suppressing the urge to look around for religious police.
"They certainly do," agreed Hoot. "The High Trio are the transapients that govern the meta-nation of this system, of which the Nouveau Chemin are a part of. They arrived in system twenty years ago, they built habitats in various places then allowed immigrants to download through a comm wormhole. Your people were already here of course and the High Trio have forbidden overt interference, though setting up sanctuaries like these is allowed. Don't worry if that didn't make much sense, you're safe now and can take the time to understand at any time."
The conversation lulled and Atto took time to reflect on what Hoot had said, thinking about the sermons the priests had given and the rumours the poor swapped about the Nouveau Chemin. "You're right things are still a bit confusing," he admitted. "Two days ago I woke up expecting another normal day only to overhear my father negotiating to sell me into debt bondage. Since then I've been running alone and afraid but now I'm safe in a way that seems too good to be true. It might take me a while to get my head around this."
"Of course. You must be exhausted as well, how about I fill you in on a few more details about staying here then you can rest?"
"A rest would be good. I don't have any money but if you were to offer me a place to stay I will find work as soon as possible to pay you back. I'm only a farmboy but I'll try my hand at anything."
"Oh don't worry about any of that, we can get you set up in your own dwelling later and we don't use money here. Pretty much everything is free." Hoot explained in a blasé manner. Atto was stunned. "Free?" he stammered, "But, how? I was told of your protection and charity but surely you can't just give everything away."
"It's a key right that everyone has free access to resources sufficient enough to live a decent life. The technical side of it is complicated but the reason is that we don't have to toil like your people do. Our tools are sophisticated enough to work themselves." Hoot explained.
"You mean spirits do all your work?" Atto asked, eyes pale with awe.
"No, not spirits. The ghosts your priests tell you about don't actually exist. But we can make tools that are smart, many of them are smarter than the average person, but they aren't alive. They do pretty much everything, even making new tools. Take this house for instance, in your father's house I bet there was a lot of work to keep it clean and running right?"
"Of course," answered Atto. "Every evening we'd have to clean, cook, wash the clothes and search for holes to re-thatch."
"Well we don't have to do any of that here. The house cleans itself and as for cooking or washing the dishes..." Hoot tapped the table between them and it moved. Atto jumped out of his chair in fright but the table didn't approach him, it simply walked on its legs into the house, the front door opening and closing behind it. "Sorry didn't mean to scare you; it's just going to drop the plates into the recycler. Please sit down again." Atto sat but the experience had unnerved him. He'd thought about the spirits the Nouveau Chemin were said to command but seeing it work in person was a shock. A tension returned to his head as he felt a panic coming.
"Anyway," Hoot continued. "I was going to cover the basics before you rest wasn't I? Well it's important to note that a lot of what was ok in the fiefs isn't allowed here, conversely there's a lot that is allowed that isn't there. I'm not going to go over the whole legal framework but I might as well start with the basics. Chiefly any guest in Nouveau Chemin has six core rights." She began to list them, ticking them off on her fingers as she went. "Everyone is equal, no one gets special treatment legally or otherwise. Everyone has the right to bodily autonomy, you can't be hurt by another without consent. You're free to think and believe whatever you like and express those thoughts and beliefs in pretty much any manner, so long as it doesn't infringe someone else's rights. Personal space and privacy are guaranteed to all. There's also a right to free movement, you can come and go anywhere as you please so long as it doesn't violate personal space, you can't walk into my house without permission for example. Finally everyone has the right to resources necessary to fulfil needs. There is a seventh core right to political participation but you have to apply for citizenship first which comes with extra duties and obligations. Questions?"
"Thousands," Atto replied making Hoot laugh. "How can everyone be equal? If everyone can say what they like what stops them convincing others to do stupid things? What's necessary to fulfill needs? If-"
"Woah woah woah," Hoot exclaimed. "One at a time. It's probably best we stick to the basics at the moment. I could chat all day but you need that rest hmm?" Atto nodded. He was feeling very drawn out and the tension had progressed despite his efforts to push it away. "I'll answer your last question as it's relevant to the question of work. Everyone is freely entitled to a personal dwelling with automated furnishings, utilities including material, power and bandwidth, ample healthy food, generic clothing, transportation within the meta-nation, security, healthcare, education, legal representation and a few everyday items. You also get a stipend of one millicredit per second with a cap of ten kilocredits. Your credit started accumulating the moment you crossed the brook, currently you have a little over four credits. You use credits to purchase goods from public assemblers that aren't judged necessary to fulfil your rights." At this point Atto physically reeled. What she was describing as basic needs given freely represented wealth reserved only for the nobles. It was too much to take in, his limbs started to numb and the tension peaked. He knew any minute he was going to give in to a panic, an episode that marked him as a cripple amongst his people. He would convulse, be blinded by pain and soil himself. He clung to the comfort that once it was over he would still be in sanctuary with more than he could ever dreamed of.
"Hey, you don't look so good. You're eyes are as grey as your skin, do you need help?" Hoot asked reaching a hand out to him.
"I suffer from panics." Atto explained. "One's about to start, it's been a hard couple of days. It might last an hour but I'll be fine after. Would you mind making sure I don't hurt myself?"
"Panics? Were you not listening to me before when I said you were entitled to healthcare? You should have mentioned this sooner. I've called for a healer, should be here in a minute. Probably just need a little tweak of your amygdala, one oral spray of sedatives and medibots and you'll feel better than ever. In fact you'll never have them again."
"A healer? Never again?" Atto whispered as his heart raced.
"Never," Hoot promised, her mouth stretched in the widest of smiles. "You can leave sickness behind with everything else, welcome to a new way of living." Table of Contents