Chapters:

Chapter 1

The Wall loomed over me, blocking out the sun. I paced back and forth at its base, a captive lion awaiting its keeper. My shuffling feet disturbed 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 at the best of times, I generally gave up somewhere between fifty and one hundred. I don’t know why I found myself drawn to this spot when everyone else around me seemed to barely notice its existence. To them, the Wall was as much a part of the natural landscape as the wildflowers that dotted its base. But not to me. To me, it was awesome, impressive. A sacred monument. My hand was always the first to spring up when the department needed soil testing done near the Wall.

Why am I here again? I asked myself as I moved closer to the barrier. The thick, gray mortar had started to crack in places, and life prevailed in the form of invasive weeds. I plucked them from the fissures, tossing them to the side. There, that’s better. My open palm stroked the freshly revealed surface — the surface that shielded us against the dangers on the other side—terrorists and war and disease and Board knew what else. I closed my eyes and gave thanks for its protection.

A shadow passed over my face and I opened my eyes. A dark shape was slowly inching its way up to the top of the Wall. I stood 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. My eyes found his. “Hey there,” I said under my breath. We remained transfixed for just a moment, the length of a heartbeat, before he turned and scrambled over the top, leaving me behind. I sunk back to my heels, swallowed hard, and let out a disappointed sigh.

We had been told the Southern United States Security Barrier measured roughly fifty-five feet high and extended a substantial distance into the earth, but for security reasons we were never given the exact details. “The devil lies in the details,” the Board was fond of saying. “Leave the devil to us.” And so we did. We knew The Wall was there to protect us, and that was enough.  I was grateful for the barrier in front of me, and for The Board. Without them, we would be enslaved, tortured, forced to engage in the sins of a corrupted world. I knew all this, but something else hid behind my appreciation, a feeling I could not name. I rubbed my hands against the front of my shirt as I tried to analyze the heaviness that I felt.

The Wall was first erected in 2022. The entirety of its length had been patrolled by guards for twenty-four hours a day at first, to prevent protestors and other malcontents from defacing it. No more. Decades had passed, and three generations had been born under its protective shadow. Technology had evolved and so had surveillance — progress. I couldn’t help but feel proud of our leaders.

These days, people knew to respect The Wall. Anyone who did not was 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 the vandals — and they were very few—were taken to military bases to repay their debt to country. There, they would be rehabilitated into proper patriots, redeemed. I closed my eyes again and rubbed the middle of my forehead.

“Stay where you are.” An authoritative voice boomed behind me. I froze, my eyes still focused on the gray expanse in front of me. “Hands above your head and turn around slowly.”

The hair on my arms stood at attention as I interlaced my hands behind my skull. 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. And, to be honest, being shot with a pacifier was a scene that frequented my nightmares. A lump traveled down my throat and settled in my chest. The narrow, lambent eye of a directed energy weapon pointed towards my neck. It was clutched by the rigid hand of the compo, our 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 his weapon had 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. I resisted the urge to wipe off the sweat beading on my forehead. Different endings to my current predicament played out in my imagination.

“I meant no disrespect, sir. My name is Patricia Collins,” I told him, even though he probably already knew the name part. “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.” It was not my first time in such a situation, but the fear that resulted from being on the receiving end of a pacifier never diminished. Even though they were supposedly nonlethal, people did not respond equally to a powerful burst of 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. “It didn’t look like you were working. Pacing back and forth like you were. Soil samples take what? Five minutes to collect?” But then he relented. “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. 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.

But it did not come.

“Stay where you are,” he said nervously, as if I had just dropped an explosive device and not a vial of dirt. “Kick it over this way.” The officer reached his free hand out towards me. I placed my device in his outstretched fingers and carefully kicked the vial in his direction. He took a moment to examine my credentials. I bit my lip and watched in anticipation, but 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 manufactured 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 you’ll be departing now. I just need to scan you.” He stepped forward, took a handheld scanner from one of the waist pockets on his uniform, and grabbed the back of my hand. My stomach turned as he scanned my dorsal chip. 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. 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 kept watching as I hurried away.

Once there was a comfortable distance between us, an audible exhalation escaped my mouth, and the stiffness I had been carrying in my muscles started to loosen. I was ready to go home.

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 plants within three hundred feet of the barrier were routinely demolished to discourage escape attempts. A surveillance drone circled a few feet overhead as I walked, like a hawk circling a potential meal. I’m not a threat, I’m a patriot. It still circled.

I gathered my reddish golden hair, peeling the resistant sweaty strands from my neck and securing them with a band I grabbed from around my wrist. My wheat colored skin, lightly bronzed and freckled from the spring sun, was beaded with sweat. The freckles weren’t only on my arms, they were also on either side of my nose. They made me look more youthful than my twenty-two years. “You know you can get rid of those,” people had told me time and again. However, I continued to opt 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, sunk into the driver’s seat and pressed my palms into my eyes. Even though I’d escaped the pain of the pacifier, my heart was still beating. It was another few moments before my foot tapped the accelerator. The electric engine started automatically, and I began the drive home.

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. Still, I knew how lucky I was to have a job that allowed me leave the city, if only for brief periods of work.

After about ten minutes a loud beeping filled the interior of the vehicle.

Air Quality Yellow,” said a friendly voice from the speakers overhead. “Windows will now seal automatically. Oxygen is now being filtered and recirculated. You may breathe normally.” I glanced 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 on-call 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, and my lips turned up in a smile. I was almost home. I just had to get through the city center as quickly as possible.

I drove slowly through the city entrance checkpoint, then decelerated to a stop at a train crossing.  Large, shining billboards hovered in the sky above me. One advertised an interactive holographic movie opening at the cinema that weekend, while another boasted of free two-hour drone delivery for cabinet and refrigerator items ordered by midnight. I need groceries, I thought. A third billboard sported a glowing picture of a conference table adorned with several sets of hands folded stalwartly on top. No faces. There were never any faces, or names. 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 evening ideology and 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. Adolescence was a delicate time, and it was imperative to ensure that loyalties lied where they should.       

I drove through the city center, past a sports complex and a park dotted with simulated trees, then entered a planned community of Tier 3 apartment buildings. After coming to a stop in a parking space in front of my unit, I kicked 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. There was shame that came with someone thinking, even if only momentarily, that I was a threat to the country I loved, a home that I would do anything to protect. I stood with my eyes closed, grounding my feet into the pavement, letting the setting sun’s last 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 walked up the sidewalk until I reached my lower level apartment – a small, one-bedroom with a mint green door and a concrete slab patio out front. A thin metal chair hardly fit next to a raised garden bed which encompassed most of the slab.

 I bent over to pick a lavender sprig from the overgrown bunch nearest the chair. 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 thick plastic bed, my very own welcome committee when I arrived home after a long day. They looked thirsty. With renewed energy, I turned the faucet set underneath my kitchen window.

“Good evening, Patricia!” My neighbor Harold said boisterously as he walked past. 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. 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:

Harold Thompson

Tier 3

Equipment Technician Manager

“Have a nice night,” I returned cheerfully. He gave a smile, a nod, and slipped inside.

I turned my attention back to the watering. 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. With the summer often a lost cause, I tried to make the most of my spring garden.

I watered until each patch of cracked and gritty dirt transformed into moist, dark soil ready to share its nutrients.

Gardening was an expensive hobby. The minerals that had to be added to 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, 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 the ingredients of a satisfying meal would somehow jump out at me.  Eventually I gave up, opened the pantry, and grabbed at random. And the lucky winner is - Lasagna containing 20 grams of insect protein.

Insect protein was one of the staples of the American diet. Insects such as meal worms, crickets, and beetles provided protein and nutrients and were cost effective and sustainable to breed. Insect powder and pastes served as the basis of most meals, combined with fast growing grains such as corn, barley, and oats. I never thought twice about eating insects.

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.

After a quick shower, I plopped down on my sofa in front of the television set with my rehydrated dinner-for-one, kicked my legs up, 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. 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 the day’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 more 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!

I nodded slightly, remembering my multiple conversations about weather that very day.

“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. Even the thought made my stomach churn. Or possibly it was the lasagna.

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. Living alone, the round glass eye brought comfort, knowing someone was keeping watch on me. 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 Board bless us all!”

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. I tried to keep it under control, but at twenty-two, the volume of vivid imagery in my mind each night, and often during the day, 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, I finally dropped off.

Suddenly I was ten years old, surrounded by my classmates during our virtual science lesson. 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 recited the pledge, then lowered our hands from our hearts and sat down in our chairs.

A split second later we were fully engrossed in the screens in front of us, already habituated to know the difference between the time for learning and the time for socializing. We listened to the lecture, the same exact recording 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 just 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. Sitting there, in that small gray metal chair, my heart broke in two. “Please, please,” he continued. “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. Someone who was now a traitor.

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 as the compos pointed their pacifiers. 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.

Back in the present, I woke up shaking. My sweaty t-shirt was 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 my 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 replaying the scene at the Wall. “Stay where you are.” The compo’s words echoed over and over in my head until the rising sun illuminated the room. The harsh cadence of the alarm on my Idecation device prompted me to check my messages.

REPORT TO THE DEPARTMENT 20 MINUTES EARLY TO DISCUSS THE RECENT MARK IN YOUR FILE - G

I was officially in trouble.

Next Chapter: Chapter 2