Summoned by the wall, I found myself at its base once again, pacing back and forth like a hungry, captive lion awaiting its keeper. My shuffling feet kicked up the drab, dusty earth.
Countless times before, I’d tried to tally up the sections, but as a person who struggled to tap her trivial reserves of patience, defeat generally won out somewhere between fifty and one hundred. I don’t know why I was drawn to it when everyone else around me seemed to barely notice its existence. The Wall had become as natural a part of the landscape as the wildflowers that dotted its base.
The thick, gray mortar had started to crack in places, and life prevailed in the form of invasive weeds. I bowed down, plucked them from the ground and the fissures, and tossed them to the side. My hand stroked the freshly revealed surface — the surface that shielded us against the dangers that were brought to life every night on our television screens. I closed my eyes and gave thanks for its protection.
A dark shape slowly inched its way up The Wall’s face and I stretched up on my tiptoes, straining to focus my vision. I recognized the silhouette as that of a lizard, about six inches in length, tail curled against its back. A cloud drifted across the sun, and my eyes found his. We remained transfixed for just a moment, a flash really, before he turned and scrambled up and out of view, leaving me behind.
We were told the Southern United States Security Barrier measured roughly fifty-five feet high and extended a substantial distance into the earth as well, but we were never privileged with the exact details. We only knew The Wall was there to protect us from the terrors that lay in wait on the other side. With all my heart, I was grateful for the barrier in front of me, and for The Board. We owed them a debt of gratitude. Without them, we would be enslaved, tortured, maybe even drained of life.
The entirety of the Wall’s length had been patrolled by guards for twenty-four hours a day when it was first erected in 2022, and for the first years that followed when escape attempts by the treasonous were a regular-enough occurrence. No more. Decades had passed, and multiple generations had been born in its shadow. Technology had evolved and so had surveillance — progress. I couldn’t help but feel proud of our leaders.
These days, those who challenged The Wall were taken into custody for treason. The cameras mounted every few feet and the surveillance drones circling overhead captured sufficient evidence, though civilian eyes almost never saw it firsthand unless an example was to be made. We were told they were taken to military bases to repay their debt to country, and to be rehabilitated into proper patriots, redeemed.
“Stay where you are.” An authoritative voice boomed behind me and I froze, my vision still focused on the gray expanse in front of me. “Hands above your head and turn around slowly.”
With my hands interlaced behind my head, I began to pivot, knowing the drill and that the man behind me commanded respect. I also knew it didn’t take much to convince a compo to activate his or her weapon. A lump traveled down my throat and settled in my chest. The narrow, lambent eye of a directed energy weapon pointed towards my neck, clutched by the rigid hand of the compo, the shorthand term for Compliance Officer. He towered a good head above me and stood close enough that I could reach out and touch the weapon if I dared. From what I had witnessed in the past, his proximity was gratuitous, as the weapon has a firing range of at least sixty feet.
“Unauthorized persons are not permitted within one hundred and fifty feet of the barrier. Explain yourself,” he said in a hoarse, dry voice. His plump, rust-colored face resembled a beet picked too soon and left on the ground to dry in the Arizona sun. His crisp, standard issue walnut-toned uniform whispered against his leathery, aging skin. He was not an officer I had dealt with before. Through his translucent face shield, I could just barely detect several subtle glimmering images. I wondered what information he was viewing as he sized me up.
“My name is Patricia Collins,” I told him, even though he probably already knew that. “I’m Tier Three. I’m collecting a monthly soil sample for the resource division. I can show you my Idecation Device and my full marked vial if permitted to reach into my pocket, sir.” The fear resulting from standing on the receiving end of the pacifier never diminished. Even though they were supposedly nonlethal, accidents happened, and I had seen what biometric directed energy weapons could do. People were not carbon copies of each other, and did not respond equally to electricity coursing through their nervous system. The sweat rolling down my neck started to moisten my suddenly-too-tight shirt collar.
He considered my words for a minute. “One hand, and make it slow.”
I slowly lowered an arm, reached into my pocket and pulled out my device. As I did so, the small vial of soil that had been tucked in alongside it tumbled to the ground accidentally. I squeezed my eyes shut and let out an involuntary noise, somewhere between a squeak and a moan, bracing for the pain that I knew was coming. It did not come.
“Stay where you are,” he said nervously, as if I had just dropped an explosive and not a vial of dirt, and raised one hand in the air. “Kick it over this way.” The officer reached his hand out towards me, his weapon still trained with the other. I placed my device in his outstretched fingers and carefully kicked the vial in his direction. He took a moment to examine my credentials and I watched in anticipation as his puffy face relaxed and he lowered his weapon. He squatted down, grunting, picked up the vial, and eyed it curiously. The national emblem, prevalent on almost all man-made products, was imprinted on the side, followed by a series of numbers that would not be recognizable to an untrained eye – but that I knew to be a location code and date.
“It looks like your work here is done, Miss Collins. I expect that you will be departing now. I just need to scan you.” He stepped forward and then took a handheld scanner out of one of the waist pockets on his uniform and scanned the back of my hand. He compared the results on his scanner with the name on my Idecation Device and then handed me back my belongings. Great. I thought. This event is now in my file. It apparently crossed a line, according to the sole discretion of the compo. I knew he was just doing his job, but I couldn’t help feeling a bit resentful.
I quickly scooped up the rest of my work gear and shoved it into the department-issued slate gray backpack that accompanied me everywhere during the work week. The compo retreated a bit, but watched none-the-less, as I hurried away.
Once there was a comfortable distance between us, an audible exhalation escaped my mouth.
I wiped my clammy palms off on the sides of my slacks and hurriedly crossed the wide buffer zone between the wall and the developed sector of town. All trees and buildings within three hundred feet of the barrier were demolished to discourage escape attempts. A surveillance drone circled a few feet overhead as I walked, like a hawk closing in on a pending meal.
I ignored it and gathered my reddish golden hair, peeling the resistant sweaty strands from my neck and secured them all with a band I grabbed from my back pocket. My wheat colored twenty-two year old skin, lightly bronzed and freckled from the spring sun, was lustrous even though I had opted out of the medical enhancements that many of my generation enjoyed.
The day was unseasonably hot, and the gentle breeze on my neck did little to stave off my rapidly rising body temperature. May had been dry that year. The earth beneath my feet was cracked with thirst. I took the final paces to my car, swiped the back of my hand against the handle and heard a click, indicating that my identity had been verified and my car was unlocked. I tossed my belongings on the passenger seat and my foot tapped the gas. The engine started automatically, and I begin the drive home.
I turned up the radio and bobbed my head to the canned and recycled “rhythm,” distracting myself from the thoughts that always tried to make their way into my mind when I left The Wall. Thoughts that I knew I was not supposed to have, but that appeared uninvited nonetheless. My occupation allowed me a certain amount of leeway when it came to travel; I could go to places most others could not. But my access to The Wall was still restricted to the occasional assignment that took place in its vicinity.
After about ten minutes a loud beeping filled the interior of the vehicle.
“Air Quality Yellow.” A friendly voice resonated from the speakers overhead. “Windows will now seal automatically. Oxygen is now being filtered and recirculated. You may breath normally.” I looked at the air quality radar map on the dashboard, and saw that the yellow zone I’d entered would last about another mile.
Only those with work requiring extensive travel were permitted to own private vehicles. Inside city limits, a mix of automated vehicles and high-speed rails shuffled everyone around nicely to their destinations, while maintaining the surveillance needed for our national security.
My route home took me past factory farmland, solar array fields, and wind farms, before a sign welcomed me to the city limits, exposing the dense urban center of Tucson, Arizona. The scene around me shifted drastically.
I drove slowly through the city entrance checkpoint, then decelerated to a stop at a train crossing that demanded the right of way. Large, shining billboards hovered in the sky above me, so still that they gave the impression they were implanted in the sky. One advertised an interactive holographic movie opening at the cinema that weekend, another boasted of free two-hour drone delivery for cabinet and refrigerator items ordered by midnight. A third sported a glowing picture of a conference table adorned with several sets of pasty white hands folded resolutely on top. Beneath the table rotated a few well-known mantras. My lips moved as I silently recited the current one on display:
THANKS TO THE BOARD, WE ARE SAFE, WE ARE SECURE, WE ARE UNITED
A group of children huddled together on the sidewalk to my right outside a café—waiting to be seated for dinner, I presumed. Enjoying their free time before they would be required back at the children’s dormitory for lights out. They looked to be ten or twelve. All smiles and laughter. One of the girls was fixing another’s hair while a boy played with the dial on the bottom of her shirt, causing her tank top to ripple from purple to green. A group of compos stood a block away, watching the children attentively. Ready to intervene if necessary.
I drove through the city center, past a sports complex and park dotted with simulated trees, then entered a planned community of row houses. After coming to a stop in my driveway, I slowly opened the car door. The white-hot air that had suffocated me less than an hour before had been replaced by a comfortable pressing warmth and the golden curtain of an evening sunset. I stepped out of the car, a few deep breaths of the warm air displacing the residual anxiety I still held after my encounter with the compo. I stood with my eyes closed, letting the setting sun’s farewell rays bathe my eyelids and cheeks. Breathe. In and out.
My stomach rumbled, but I chose to ignore the hunger pangs for a few moments. I had put off ordering groceries for several days, and I knew I would have to scour the cabinets to assemble an acceptable meal from my scarce supply of food. I considered calling a friend to go out, but that would use up even more credits than the cost of the groceries. Besides, I was tired from the day and wanted nothing more than to relax in my own home.
Surveying the yard, I scanned for signs of new growth. Each bright May day brought subtle, beautiful changes to my home—a small, mint-green townhouse with a postage stamp plot of land that I’d planted almost to capacity. I bent over to pick a lavender sprig from the overgrown bunch beneath my kitchen window. My other hand briefly grazed the earth. I instinctively pinched a bit of soil and rubbed it between my fingers and thumb. Dry, sandy. I glanced over at the growing herb sprouts that lined the edges of the walkway, my very own welcome committee when I arrived home after a long day. They looked thirsty. With renewed energy, I marched to the outside faucet.
“Good evening, Patricia!” My neighbor Harold shouted boisterously from his side of the waist high metal fence that divided our yards, which would have been identical if not for my gardening efforts. Harold was a friendly neighbor, always sharing the weather outlook each morning and saying hello any time he saw me out in the yard. He was in his late fifties — a short, squat man with red cheeks and a redder scalp that glistened in the last rays of sun. He had lived alone ever since I moved in and never offered up information to suggest it had ever been otherwise. I looked his direction and began opening my mouth to ask him how he was, but saw that he was already silently saying his mantras and swiping his hand in front of his door to unlock it. He was returning home after a long day at the office, where he managed a team of equipment technicians. I could see it right there on the faceplate by his door:
Equipment Technician Manager
“Have a nice night,” I returned cheerfully. He gave a smile, a nod, and slipped inside.
The watering absorbed my attention the way that it always did. My garden was a soothing, satisfying place for me. Nourishing vegetables that would one day nourish me—a perfect symbiotic relationship, though always too short lived. Once the excruciating heat of summer began and the water restrictions set in, produce merely one week from maturity would shrivel and dry. The sight always elicited dread as I mentally prepared to eat over-seasoned, over-processed food for months on end. So, with the summer often a lost cause, I tried to make the most of my spring garden.
Once I started watering, it was hard to stop. Patches of cracked and gritty dirt transformed into moist, dark soil ready to share nutrients with the roots that reached out to it. The damp beds made the rest of the ground look thirstier than it did moments before. I started with a small bed located under my front bay window, and continued until every plant in the yard had been given a momentary respite from the aridity of the Southwest.
Gardening was an expensive hobby. The minerals that had to be added to the depleted soil for it to yield successful results cost more government credits than most people cared to part with. We were all given a specific allotment, that refreshed monthly, with quantity based on our tier. If you had credits in any given category left at the end of the month, they did not carry over. There was no such thing as savings; no safety net. If you spent too many food, upkeep, or entertainment credits up front, you struggled through the month’s end. As I picked a strawberry from the patch near my front door, I took a moment to feel grateful for my Tier 3 employment, which afforded me such luxuries.
I walked to my front door, stopping for a moment to place my hand on the metal placard mounted next to the frame. It stated my name, rank, and job title, and above the text, our national emblem - a straight edged image of an eagle, wings spread, and below that the words Unified Secure. I lowered my head and silently gave thanks before proceeding through the door and into my kitchen. The pangs of hunger struck again. I opened the pantry doors, then the cupboards, and finally the refrigerator. I repeated this process twice more, as if hoping that magical ingredients would somehow jump out at me in a moment of clarity, the perfect elements to concoct a quick and delicious meal. Eventually I gave up, opened the freezer, and grabbed at random.
While my meal plumped and heated in the rehydrator, I turned the gray-water filter on and watched as it sluggishly pumped water from a containment system underneath my sink and up into a counter-top reservoir. When a few servings worth had been filtered, I turned it off and filled my favorite red, over-sized glass.
I plopped down on my sofa in front of the television set with my rehydrated dinner-for-one, and settled in for the day’s mandatory viewing segment—a thirty-minute episode of All One: Helping America Succeed. It was a nightly ritual that felt somehow soothing at that time in my life. After swiping my hand in front of the wireless sensor on my end table, my identity was verified, and the programming began to play.
A car commercial preceded today’s episode, featuring a new silver economy vehicle with a wraparound solar array, virtually seamless against the vehicle’s exterior style, that allowed it to run twenty percent longer than last year’s model. Up next was a quick local promotion about the upcoming baseball game and the abundance of joys that awaited those who attend, including an enhanced firework experience, premiere seventh-inning entertainment, and copious amounts of snack food. Virtual activities would be streamed for those who could not attend in person.
Then, the National Emblem lit up the screen — the same one that appeared on everything from hotel chains to restaurant tables to toothbrushes to my very own front door. An announcer introduced Aelia Ramey. A petite woman, gorgeous and in her mid-twenties with an elegant crop of dove-white hair, appeared.
“Welcome, Americans! Today’s topic is ‘The Family Dinner Table.’ We’ll explore ten conversation topics that will bring you and your loved ones closer as you enjoy a family meal together between work, school, and getting your children back in time for evening rituals at the dormitory.” Behind Aelia a video was running of a family of four at their dinner table, laughing, smiling, and enjoying each other’s company in a manner clearly staged for the audience.
“I suggest taking notes and keeping a list in the dining room for when conversation starts to lag—you don’t want to be left to your own wiles now!” Aelia said with an over-exaggerated laugh and a wink. Behind her, the on-screen mother showed us where she kept her list—on a reusable pad mounted to the dining room wall. “First up, we have the good old-fashioned sharing of one’s day.” The words “#1: Sharing Your Day” popped up on the floor-to-ceiling screen behind Aelia. “Kids can share with their parents what they learned from their virtual instructors on the subjects of Math, English, Patriotism, and Communication Skills. This is a great time for parents to help children master the art of acceptable conversation! Older children can discuss preparations for their aptitude tests. Parents, you can share an unclassified overview of what you did at work today, and how your role helps make America the greatest, safest, most united nation on Earth.” I beamed with a bit of pride, alone in my living room, for being a part of the picture that she painted.
I took a nibble of my dinner, which was about as appetizing as sawdust, but made palatable by the fresh mint that I layered on top before sitting down. “A second great topic of conversation is the weather,” Aelia continued, accentuating the last two words as if she thought of them herself. “For example, you might say, ‘It looks like our dry spell will continue’ or ‘that last flood ended sooner than expected.’ Weather is an excellent conversation topic, and it’s one that naturally changes daily. Rain one day and sun the next—why, the possibilities are virtually endless!
“Number three!” Aelia gestured excitedly as a #3 and the words “Onscreen Friends” were added to the list behind her. “What is going on in the lives of your favorite television characters? Discussing on-screen friends makes for a fun and entertaining way to connect with your family members. ‘What do you think will happen in next week’s episode?’ Remember, all programming is approved by The Board for your enjoyment, and automatically filtered based on the age of the viewer! Just be sure that everyone watching has registered by swiping their dorsal chip.”
She tapped the back of her hand, and I did the same without thinking. Dorsal chips were implanted within minutes of a child’s first breath. On the day of delivery, the baby was removed, whisked away, and implanted before the mother ever woke up. A person’s chip contained their whole identity —not just their identification, but a record of their work history, aptitude tests, and medical requirements. Without it, it was almost as if a person didn’t exist.
Aelia continued through her list, and my mind wandered, hearing words like “baseball” and “fashion” tossed out as potential topics of conversation. While the program played I could feel the living room camera’s lens focusing on me, its presence as intense as a magnifying glass. It was mounted in the corner, framed on each side by hanging plants, feigning serenity. I knew that it was necessary for our protection, but every once in awhile I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the poor saps who had to review the boring footage of me eating dinner in my living room.
Eventually I heard the standard sign off, “Thank you for making time to join me today. We are all one, united.” Aelia smiled wider than I thought possible. “I look forward to tomorrow, when we will discuss going to the zoo, seeing the native and non-native animals, and how a ‘native’ sign signals that there is more to learn! This is Aelia Ramey, and I will see you tomorrow!”
The screen lit up one last time with the ubiquitous national emblem—the words UNITED, SECURE, emblazoned above the bold outline of an eagle. The screen faded to black and the program ended. Out of habit I scrolled through the other entertainment options, searching for something to pique my interest. Sporting events to catch up on, the latest episode of a sitcom, a romantic movie, an invite from a friend to login and play a holographic video game. After a few halfhearted attempts to engage, I wolfed down the rest of my bland dinner, tossed my dishes in the all-in-one recomper (recycler, composter, and washer), and called it an early night.
I fell into a fitful sleep—a regular occurrence resulting from what my parents deemed an “overactive imagination” that I was sure to grow out of. Well, there I was, twenty-two years old, and the volume of vivid imagery floating around in my mind each time I closed my eyes at night had only increased with the years. I tossed and turned, rearranging my pillows, throwing one leg over the blanket and then, moments later, back under it again. I fussed with the sweaty hair stuck to my neck, hoping that it was somehow the missing link impeding my sleep. After some time, maybe minutes, maybe an hour, sleep finally enveloped me.
Suddenly I was ten years old, surrounded by my classmates during our virtual science lesson. The room looked just as I remembered it. A large national emblem decorated the far wall from floor to ceiling. The other walls were covered with what was known as ‘educational encouragement’: childhood mantras, national slogans, and images of children as model patriots. In unison, we lowered our hands from our hearts and sat down in our chairs after reciting the pledge.
A split second later we were fully engrossed in the screens in front of us, already habitualized to know the difference between the time for learning and the time for socializing. We listened to the lecture, the same exact recording that every ten-year-old in America was listening to that day, through our individual headphones, tapping the screen when prompted to provide the answer to a question.
Even in my dream, my leg jiggled under the table as it did back then. Our classroom facilitator, Maro, stood like a statue in the corner. He had followed our particular group of twenty since we began our formal education at the age of seven, precluded by six years of a streamlined virtual preschool curriculum. He periodically walked up behind each of us, patting our shoulders and providing encouragement. Childish squabbles provoked by the restlessness of our young bodies were intercepted with firm, understanding kindness, before we were inevitably redirected back to the screens in front of us.
The door swung open abruptly and two compos stormed in.
“Officers,” Maro began with a slight tremor in his voice, obviously startled. “As you can see, I am in the middle of a virtual session. How may I assist you?”
The compos roughly grabbed hold of Maro, each with one hand on a shoulder and one forearm, pushing him up against the wall. Several young voices screamed out of surprise, then stopped themselves short, knowing better. I remained silent and terrified, and my legs became still. The compos leaned their faces in close on either side of his, speaking words into his ear. We could not hear the words, but the rough tone enabled us to grasp the tenor of the conversation.
“I’m innocent. I swear. I have proof,” Maro said in a pleading voice just loud enough to hear. “Please, please. Not in front of the children.” I knew then and there what I was about to witness. Though I had seen it play out in the distance and on the screen, hundreds of times by this point in my life, this was my first experience up close, with someone that I knew and cared about.
We watched the rest of the scene unfold in silence, as we were taught. My classmate Elliot’s small, shaking hand grasped mine underneath the table and I felt the tears welling up in my eyes as the body of the teacher I had spent hundreds of days with convulsed in front of me, emitting a noise so low and horrible that in caused me to flinch in my dream and in the present.
Moments later, unconscious, yet still trembling, Maro’s body was hoisted up and his arms were wrangled behind his back and clasped together. We watched as he was dragged through the classroom doorway and out of our lives forever.
I woke up shaking. My sweaty t-shirt stuck to my body. I clawed at the neck, willing the air to circulate. Maro had not crossed my mind in several years and I wondered why he had appeared in my dreams that night. Even after so much time, his memory elicited a feeling akin to having a fifty-pound weight dropped onto my chest. The knowledge that someone you think you know, someone you care about, could willfully disobey The Board and put the rest of us in danger shook me to my core. I was crushed. I never found why exactly he was taken into custody or what happened to him. That information did not exist for us.
My clammy hands pawed the nightstand for the glass of water. I turned on a light to get my bearings and drank slowly, absorbing the reassuringly familiar image of my bedroom. The large screen on the far wall reflected the light emanating from the small dome on my nightstand. My eyes wandered to the corner of the room, where a camera was mounted.
“Just had a nightmare,” I said calmly and respectfully to the room at large before tapping off the light, lying back down and pulling the green, scratchy polyester blanket up over my face.
I then closed my eyes and repeated one of the mantra’s that we were taught as children. “You are safe. You can handle this. The Board will keep you safe.”
As I settled back into sleep, my consciousness ebbed and flowed. I found myself transported back to the wall, to the same spot I had been that afternoon, squatting down to the earth, scooping up the dry soil and packing it carefully into a vial.
“Stay where you are.” A large voice boomed behind me. Suddenly, in my dream, there was nothing but pain, disassociated screams, and convulsing. I woke up frozen in bed, fear pulsing through me, unable to move.