The fire illumined the man’s face as he vocalized, “No one knows how it happened. Maybe it was a terrible accident. Maybe it was an injury from war. Maybe it was a horrible birth defect. But everyone knows… he didn’t have a crown, and he couldn’t have one. Something about the connections to his brain weren’t right. They couldn’t support any operating system. He’d crash every single one of them. And they also knew… he was insane!” The man flung his arms out and howled at the moon.
The kids sitting in the front row stared with wide eyes. They were young, maybe six or seven, and they’d never heard of anyone without a crown. How could there be someone like that? It would be worse than losing your eyes!
“Oh, yes, he was insane, the Man Without a Crown. Insanely jealous! He wanted a crown. Oh, how he wanted to know what it was like to be on the uplink. He wanted to post like everyone else did and not be condemned to…” The storyteller grabbed his throat and croaked once. “He didn’t want to have to vocalize for everything like some baby that was too young even for a circlet. But… it was his curse!”
Tavis munched some popcorn. He stood with his back to one of the tents that bordered the small clearing, Amalla next to him. She reached over and snatched some of a handful of popcorn.
“Not my fault you’re holding food so close to a hungry girl,” she answered.
Hiding on the other side of Amalla from Tavis, Josie giggled. She was the exact age Tavis had guessed before; about fifteen. She acted it, too.
Tavis wrinkled his nose.
The storyteller continued, “He went to school, but he couldn’t learn much, since the teacher couldn’t download anything to him. He couldn’t find any friends, since he couldn’t message anyone. His own mother forgot to feed him because he couldn’t send to her to tell her that he was hungry. He was so lonely. He was so sad. He was so angry at everyone that they had crowns but he couldn’t. Everyone could do things that he couldn’t do.
“So, one day he devised a cunning plan. When he was only fourteen, the Man Without a Crown got up in the middle of the night. He crept to the kitchen and slipped a long, sharp knife from a drawer. He stepped, so quiet, so careful, to his mother’s room.” The storyteller whispered as he tiptoed around the fire, holding in his hand an imaginary knife. “He raised the blade over her sleeping form…” The storyteller’s voice fell silent, and every eye tracked his every motion as he inhaled, lifting his hands and imaginary knife high. “And he sliced down! He severed the crown right from her head and yanked it away, running as fast as he could. The poor woman was discovered three days later, dead. She couldn’t call emergency services without a crown, and she had been left alone for that entire time.
“But that crown wasn’t good enough. He couldn’t attach it to his own brain! So, the Man Without a Crown began searching for another person to attack. Of course he hid from the police, and without a crown, who would ever be able to track him?
“He would strike without warning. Sometimes he would wait near a bus stop, lingering, until a child passed by. He would leap from the alley and yank her circlet from her poor head!” The storyteller thrust his hands toward a young girl in the front row.
She yelped and hid behind a friend.
Josie yelped, too.
“Sometimes he would break into a house while everyone was sleeping and slice the crowns from every head in the building, one by one, until he had them all in a pile. Suddenly husbands and wives weren’t able to speak to each other. Children would never get fed.
“He was the terror of the city… until one day, he just… stopped.” The storyteller dropped his voice. “He disappeared. No one knows what happened to him. Maybe he died. Maybe someone found him and finally got revenge. Or maybe, perhaps…” Again, he began pacing around the fire. “Maybe, he’s waiting to find the perfect person. The perfect crown that might work on his head. A crown that fits just right and has the connections he needs. Or, at least, the connections he thinks he’ll need.”
His voice began to crescendo. “But if he’s still alive, he’s still out there, waiting. So be careful. If you see a man without a crown, watch out. It might be him. And if it is, that means you could be next!” He flung his arms out, and most of the children jumped.
Tavis covered his mouth to keep from laughing.
Amalla hit him.
Josie hid behind Amalla.
Most of the adults looked around awkwardly. They couldn’t post “good story” in the public forum. What were they supposed to do?
One slapped his hands together, producing a sharp sound. He repeated the process in a fast, steady rhythm. A few other adults joined in, until everyone was clapping. The storyteller smiled and bowed.
Tavis posted to Amalla, “What are we doing?”
“Applauding. It’s what they used to do before we all went non-vocal.”
“You need to speed up your search processor.”
Josie posted a thumbs up.
Tavis was glad the glow of the fire hid the redness of his cheeks. It wasn’t easy being shown up by a cute girl. Even if he wasn’t interested.
A sudden roar lit up the night sky as light flooded the area. The sirens went off.
Tavis shrugged and posted, “See you later. Lights out, I guess.”
“I really hate it when they call for a blackout. Stupid war.” Amalla wrinkled her nose and waved as she and Josie moved off one direction and Tavis the other.
Tavis switched off his uplink, moving into silent mode. He loaded up some music as he made his way to the tent. Maybe his new roommate would be there and they could meet. Hopefully it wasn’t some rules-bound old man.
The sky lit twice more in the few minutes it took Tavis to find his tent. The fighting must be intense up in the atmosphere. Hopefully nothing got through orbital. He sighed, looking up. It would suck to be military and have to be up there in that.
He slipped into the tent and flipped on his enhanced vision filter. A form snored on the opposite cot; apparently his roommate went to bed early. No matter. Tavis had plenty of games he should be able to play at low level and not break any blackout rules.
He undressed and slid under a scratchy cover, glancing over at his roommate. And then he stared at him.
Scars marred the man’s bald head where connections should be. He had no crown.