Chapters:

Chapter 1

The Wall loomed over me.

The first time I had laid eyes on it, I was in awe of its vastness—an iconic monument, stretching to the horizon in either direction. As strong and secure as its sister up north. Ten feet wide by thirty feet high by 1,954 miles long. We were told a substantial portion of it also went below ground, but for security reasons we weren’t given the exact details. “The devil lies in the details,” The Board was fond of saying. “Leave the devil to us.”

It was widely agreed that The Walls were our greatest achievement. They were a statement to the world, twin barriers that declared our country a safe zone, free from the corruption of the outside. Growing up we were shown videos of that corruption—other nations that had succumbed to violence and famine and political upheaval. I would sit on my father’s lap, his long steady arms wrapped around me, as we watched newsfeeds featuring the children of those countries. Children that had been bombed by their own leaders. Children who wandered demolished cities, starving and covered in chemical sores. Their ribs stood out like xylophone keys. The sight of them made my stomach queasy. Then the videos would cut to The Walls and I would feel relief that I was protected from such horrors. Relief, and pride.

The first day I stood in the shadow of the Southern Wall, I wished my father could have seen it with me. What would he think? Would he be as entranced as I was? But unfortunately he, like most citizens, was not permitted to come near the barriers. Security reasons, The Board told us. Details.

Now, four years later, visiting The Wall had become a semi-regular part of my routine. Working beneath its shadow. The sight of it still amazed me. This thing that held us all together, that kept us safe. The vastness of it must be like seeing the ocean for the first time. Blood rushing; skin tingling. Beholding something far more powerful than you will ever be, but instead of fear there was a sense of calm. Clarity. The overwhelming sense of a connection to something beyond oneself.

The Southern Security Barrier had been built sixty-eight years prior, making it older than most manufactured products in circulation. I had a fondness for older things. Artifacts, fossils, physical antiquities that had stood the test of time. And this Wall had stood longer than anything or anyone I’ve known.

Some still wished to see what was on the other side for themselves. Radicals and malcontents. They refused to believe, or perhaps they hoped, that the videos The Board showed us weren’t true. Maybe it was too painful for them to accept that the only thing waiting outside was a violence-ridden wasteland, that we were the last vestige of civility.

Whatever the reason, a handful of these radicals occasionally tried to challenge The Wall or The Board. But every time, quickly and justly, they were captured and charged with treason. The cameras mounted every few feet, and the surveillance drones circling overhead captured sufficient evidence. Civilian eyes almost never saw this evidence firsthand, not unless an example was to be made. We were told the radicals — and there were less of them every year—were taken to military bases to repay their debt to country. There, they would be rehabilitated into proper patriots, redeemed.

I closed my eyes and rubbed the middle of my forehead. If you asked me, they got off easy. We’d all seen the videos of life on the outside. Why anyone would choose that over the security The Board provided was beyond me.

I gathered my amber hair, peeling the resistant sweaty strands from my neck and securing them with a band I grabbed from around my wrist. The freckles on my wheat-colored arms had darkened from the intensity of the spring sun. Beads of sweat on my forearms magnified certain freckles the way dew drops magnify seeds inside a flower. I brought my arms down and wiped them off on my shirt.

The freckles were also on either side of my nose. They made me look younger than my twenty-two years, and I was self-conscious of that fact. “You know you can get rid of those,” people had told me when I complained about them. Despite finding them annoying, and a hurdle to being taken seriously, I continued to opt out of the medical enhancements many of my generation enjoyed.

I lowered myself onto one knee, driving a cylindrical soil probe into the earth. Pressing a button, I heard the bore whir downward until the required depth of twelve inches was attained. After removing the probe, I examined the rusty, dry soil inside. It was dark only slightly near the base. Still too much benzene. My finger scraped the soil, transferring the sample into a vial. The briny scent of the freshly-stirred dirt settled on my tongue, and I licked my dry, cracking lips.

After packing away my sampling kit and slipping the vial into one of my pockets, I eyed my hands. Dirt lined my nails and nestled into the creases on my knuckles. Gloves were folded neatly in the probe kit, but I rarely used them. Though the toxicity levels at the site were perilously high during the last round of testing, I relished the sensation of dirt on my fingers and took my chances. Instead I grabbed the sanitizer and a cloth out of my backpack and scrubbed.

Turning my attention back to The Wall, I noticed a clump of mayweed growing near the base. I shook my head. Just like the radicals. Some things kept trying, no matter the conditions. I carefully plucked it from the ground then went on to clear the rest of the weeds from nearby fissures, tossing the pieces to the side. As I did so I unearthed a piece of hornblende biotite granite, which I wiped off and put in my backpack for my collection. My open palm stroked the freshly revealed surface of The Wall.

When I rose, I noticed a dark shape slowly inching its way up the concrete barrier. I stepped back to get a better look. It was a lizard, a gecko probably, about six inches in length, tail curled against its back. I had a fondness for lizards, and every once in a while, would find one scurrying outside my apartment or spot one on the walk to work.

“Hey there,” I said warmly. “Nice place you have here.” We locked eyes for the length of a heartbeat, my blue one transfixed by his lizard-green one, then he turned and scrambled over The Wall, leaving me behind. I sunk back to my heels and let out a sigh. Another radical who didn’t appreciate the bounty of our country.

“Stay where you are.” An authoritative voice boomed behind me. I froze, my eyes still focused on the gray barrier. I hadn’t even heard anyone approach. “Hands above your head and turn around slowly.”

My heart was suddenly up inside my throat.  I’d been questioned by a Compo numerous times before — we all were — but somehow it never got any easier. The hair on my arms stood upright as I interlaced my hands behind my skull. I began to pivot, making sure to turn slowly.

No sudden movements. Don’t startle him. I knew the man behind me commanded respect, and I also knew that it didn’t take much to convince a Compo to activate his or her weapon. Being shot with a pacifier was a prospect that frequented my nightmares. But deep down, I knew the fear was necessary. Fear protected, fear ensured survival. Fear was the evolutionary instinct embedded in each of us, the instinct that told us to freeze when we heard a rattlesnake, or halt when we came to a cliff’s edge. Yes, The Board used that fear, but it was worth the price. Security was our reward.

The narrow, lambent eye of a directed energy weapon pointed towards my neck. Clutched by the firm hand of the Compo, our shorthand term for Compliance Officer. A crisp, standard issue walnut-toned uniform whispered against his leathery, aging skin.  A helmet in a matching shade crowned his brow and a translucent face shield extended over his eyes.

I’d never met him before; his face was new. Plump and rust-colored, it resembled a beet picked too soon and left on the ground to wither in the desert sun. He towered a head above me and stood close enough the weapon could be brushed by my fingertips if I just reached out. I visualized myself doing so. An absurd response, given the circumstances, but my imagination didn’t always cooperate with logic. Would it be hot from the mid-May sun? I didn’t know much about the inner workings of the directed-energy weapons, but from what I’d witnessed in the past, his proximity was gratuitous. His weapon had a firing range of at least sixty feet. Would his close quarters result in more pain? A lump traveled down my throat and settled in my chest.

"Unauthorized persons are not to be within a hundred and fifty feet of the barrier," he said in a dry, hoarse voice. The dusty air had that effect.

I swallowed the surfacing lump further down my parched throat. He’s just doing his job. Like you practiced, go on — answer him. I recited my response; the response we were taught to give if questioned while on assignment.

"I apologize for any inconvenience, sir. Patricia Collins, Tier 3; authorized by the Natural Resource Department. I’m here collecting a monthly soil sample."

On his face shield I could faintly detect subtle, glimmering images. What information is he viewing? I wondered. He hadn’t scanned me yet, so it was likely recent footage from the surveillance cameras nearby. Sweat beaded on my forehead, beckoning me to wipe it off. I resisted.

“It doesn’t look like you’re working. Pacing back and forth like that. Soil samples take what? Five minutes to collect? Where’s your Idecation Device, Miss? Why isn’t it on your wrist?" A pinprick blue light flickered on my neck, mirrored back to me in the Compo’s face shield. The pacifier was aimed and ready. Its burnished surface sparkled mesmerizingly in the light. For a second, I forgot the pain it could cause. But only for a second.

"The work is dusty, sir," I replied, doing my best to steady my voice. Compos put their life on the line daily. For all he knew I was the dangerous one; the least I could do was cooperate fully. "I sometimes put it in my pocket when I work somewhere particularly dusty. To keep it protected. I can get it now if permitted to reach into my pocket." He eyed me cautiously, weighing his options as his focus darted between me and whatever information he was viewing within his shield. My muscles tightened another notch.

"One hand. And make it slow."

I nodded slightly, and slowly reached one hand down and into my pocket. I wrapped my fingers around my Idecation Device. When I pulled it out, something else fell to the ground. My eyes squeezed shut as I prepared for my worst nightmare to realize itself. Why, why wasn’t I more careful? But the pain didn’t come.

Not yet.

"What is that? What is that?" His voice swelled, and he shoved the pacifier forward, so the barrel was only inches from my throat. The blue dot grew larger on my neck.  "Answer me right this second."

The words came out more forceful than intended. "Soil, soil, it’s just a vial of soil, sir." The shaking in my voice could not be held. "It. It was in my pocket also. Please, it was just an accident."  I breathed in the dusty air in short, shallow breaths. Thoughts of my father, my mother, and of my best friend Rexx flashed through my brain, intermixed with the image of the beet-red face in front of me. I’m one of the good ones. You must know that. I dared not speak next, but I hoped he could read the truth on my face.

"Just stay where you are," he said as he took several slow steps backward. "Kick it over this way, no sudden movements or I shoot." I detected a hint of nervousness in his voice, as if I’d dropped an explosive device and not a vial of dirt. That bit of tension, it opened the space that was closing in around me. His unease gave me the room to regain an ounce of control.

I nudged the vial of soil with the toe of my boot, rolling it toward him.

"Just stay right there. Don’t you move." He kept the pacifier pointed as he stooped down, grunted, and eyed the vial 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. He reached the hand containing the soil out towards me, indicating I should hand him my device as well. I placed my device in his outstretched fingers. This is almost over, I reminded myself. He’s here to help. He’s here to help.

Eventually, his puffy face relaxed, and he lowered his weapon and clipped it in a compartment on his uniform. Oh, thank The Board.

“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, unclipped a handheld scanner from one of the compartments on his uniform, and grabbed the back of my hand, pinching it between his gloved thumb and index finger. A little too tightly.

My stomach dropped as he scanned my dorsal chip. Great. The event was now in my file. He compared the results on his scanner with the name on my Idecation Device, also known as an ID, then handed back my belongings.

"Thank you, sir."

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 national emblem split apart as I unzipped the back panel to put the soil probe back into its case, then reconstructed itself as the zipper was guided back into place. I slung it over one shoulder and clipped it across my chest. The pressure of the familiar strap against my heart and the weight on my shoulder soothed me, like a friendly pat on the shoulder.

The Compo retreated a bit, but I could feel his eyes still watching me as I hurried away. My feet crunched through the thick, low-lying brush. The quickest route to my car was straight on through.

Once there was a comfortable distance between us, I exhaled in relief. That was a close call; what the hell was I thinking? Pacing around The Wall and drawing attention to myself. I knew better. Get in and get out. I knew better and yet I’d given a Compo reason to be suspicious. To go as far as to question my motives.

I hurriedly crossed the wide buffer zone between The Wall and the developed sector of town. All trees and high-growing plants within three hundred feet of the barrier were routinely clear-cut to discourage escape attempts. The crunching under my feet quickened and a surveillance drone circled overhead, like a hawk eyeing a potential meal. I’m not a threat, I’m a patriot. Still, it circled. I looked back to where I’d come from.

The Compo was gone, and his vehicle was nowhere in sight. In the distance, beyond The Wall to the right, a mountain range was barely visible. From my current angle, the peaks stuck up from The Wall’s edge like thorns on a rose stem. 

The gentle breeze on my neck did little to stave off my rapidly rising body temperature. May had been dry that year. But truth be told, no dryer than most years I could recall. Rains were few and far between and the earth beneath my feet was cracked with thirst. I took the final paces to the car, a vehicle checked out from the Natural Resources Department. I swiped the back of my hand against the handle and heard a click, indicating my identity had been verified and my car was unlocked. I tossed my belongings on the passenger seat. It swiveled slightly in response.  Sinking into the driver’s seat, I pressed my palms into my eyes. Even though I’d escaped the pain of the pacifier, my heart hadn’t yet gotten the message.

My foot tapped the accelerator, humming the electric engine to life. The white steering wheel telescoped out into my hands from its resting place within the front panel.

The Natural Resource Department had twenty vehicles for scientists to checkout for use when performing field work outside of city checkpoints. Inside city limits, everything operated on a tight grid. People were seamlessly shuffled around using a mix of light-rail trains and capsule-shaped unmanned vehicles called SafePods. They looked a bit like lightning bugs on wheels, especially in the evening.

Most days I was grateful for the travel leeway provided by my occupation. I relished the reflective time afforded by my solitary drives to and from the city. And learning to manually operate a vehicle was a privilege few were granted.

But after my encounter with the Compo, I just wanted to be home. The car bumped and jostled as I drove down the largely-forgotten road, swerving to avoid the largest potholes. There were no potholes within city limits—even the slightest crack in the pavement was reported and filled in immediately. Tucson was a model of maintenance and urban planning.

Ten minutes into my drive, my windows rolled up of their own accord and a voice, friendly and familiar, issued from the speakers overhead:

“Air quality advisory. Moderate. Windows will now seal automatically. Oxygen is being filtered and recirculated. You may breathe normally.”

My ID beeped as well. I didn’t check it; the message would be similar. Glancing at the air quality radar map on the dashboard, it was clear the orange zone I’d entered would last about another five miles. Air alerts never specified the exact danger, as most citizens wouldn’t understand the terminology anyway. But as a scientist I liked to deduce which harmful substances encased my vehicle at any given moment. Looking out the sealed windows, the air had a slight flaxen hue. Ozone or Sulphur Dioxide levels were probable culprits, and particulate matter pollution (excessive dust) was also likely.

My vehicle left the alert zone just as it reached the outskirts of the urban center. My route wound me past factory farm compounds, and my nerves continued to buzz. Though I’d been questioned before, having my chip scanned was a first. I didn’t know what to expect next. The Board granted Compos full license for their actions based on professional judgment of a given situation, and I knew I was lucky. I walked away unscathed, unpacified, and that’s something, I told myself. Maybe he wouldn’t report me further. The gnawing feeling that I hadn’t heard the end of it chewed at my chest, though.

I crossed the checkpoint into city limits.

ENTERING TUCSON, ARIZONA GRID. PLEASE RETURN VEHICLE.

I leaned my head back against the headrest, as a sign welcomed me to Tucson, Arizona. The scene around me shifted drastically. My lips turned up in a smile. I was almost home. I just had to return the car, then hop on a SafePod. A rectangular flashing light ahead, indicated a train was about to cross and I pressed the brakes.

Large, shining billboards hovered in the sky above. 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.

A third billboard sported a glowing picture of a grand sprawling conference table adorned with several sets of hands folded stalwartly on top. Though I didn’t count them, I knew there were exactly thirty pairs. 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.

As I read the familiar words, my nerves finally started to calm. The effect was as instantaneous as if I’d been injected with a sedative. I felt my body sink deeper into the white, bucket seat, my muscles relax, and my jaw loosen. I said it once more, this time out loud. “I am safe. I am secure.”

After the train had passed, I glided over the seamless light-rail tracks, passing the children’s dormitories where I’d spent my nights between the ages of five and eighteen. My gaze climbed to the fifth floor, the tenth window from the left. My old room, which I shared with five others in a row of beds spaced a foot apart. Mine was the furthest on the right, next to the camera. I wondered who was sleeping in my bed, and who was in Amara’s. Wondered if they held hands across the space between when something scared them in the dark. The thought, or another like it, surfaced nearly every time I passed the building for the past four years. Once Amara left, the memories shifted from comforting to piercing.

One block further, 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 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 dozen feet away, watching the children attentively. Ready to intervene if necessary. Adolescence was a delicate time, and it was imperative to ensure loyalty developed as it should. We were all tasked with weeding out potential traitors, it was our civic duty.

I continued through the city center, past a sports complex and a park dotted with plastic trees, then came to my office building. It rose out of the sidewalk like a long glass tooth, narrowing as it extended toward the sky. I pulled around to the back, to the car return hangar, reached my arm out the window to swipe my chip and a wide garage door opened to reveal a room large enough to house twenty identical vehicles. The hangar shared the first floor with the gray-water recycling equipment and battery banks for the building. Ours was the only department in the whole forty-story building which was granted access to private vehicles.

Once the car was parked in its original space and charging, I grabbed my stuff out of the back and walked to the rear of the sprawling hangar. It always smelled like wet cement in there, even though the cement hadn’t been fresh in decades. In the back corner, several long tubes descended from holes in the ceiling above. A stack of transport cylinders sat on the counter underneath. I carefully packed the soil sample from the day into one of the cylinders, swiped my chip at a scanner mounted on the counter, then sent the sample up one of the tubes where it would travel to the lab and be waiting for me in the morning.

I wandered out of the hangar to the sidewalk outside, pressed a button on my ID, and within sixty seconds, a SafePod pulled up and opened its doors for me.

The vehicle navigated through a planned community of Tier 3 apartment buildings and pulled up to the curb in front of a lumicomm post. The units on the end of the hooked posts reminded me of ladybugs ready to take flight. The solar-film coated lights cascaded outward like glistening wings, while the central rotating surveillance camera resembled the beetle’s abdomen.

Thank The Board I made it. The white-hot air from less than an hour before had been replaced by a comfortable pressing warmth. I grabbed my backpack and stepped out of the car. As I walked away, a chirping noise indicated no chip was detected in range and the vehicle had automatically locked behind me, then it drove away. I stood with my eyes closed, grounding my feet into the pavement, letting the setting sun’s last rays bathe my eyelids and cheeks.  A few deep breaths under the safety of the familiar lumicomm displaced the residual anxiety I still held after my encounter with the Compo. You’re home. You’re safe. You’ll do better next time.

I walked up the sidewalk, between two of the ten identical Tier 3 buildings, until I reached the outside of my lower level apartment – a small, one-bedroom with a mint green door and a concrete slab patio out front. I’d had to request the lower-level unit when I’d moved in, but it was granted almost instantly. The higher units were more popular, and floor number was often worn as a badge of honor. Higher floor; better view of the city. But I had a reason for wanting the ground level.

A thin metal chair fit snugly on the slab next to three raised garden beds made of thick recycled plastic, the only ones in sight.

Letting my backpack fall to the ground, I bent over to pick a lavender sprig from the overgrown bunch nearest the chair and inhaled the aroma. My other hand briefly grazed the earth. I pinched a bit of soil and rubbed it between my fingers and thumb. Dry, sandy. With renewed energy, I turned the faucet underneath my kitchen window.

“Good evening, Patricia!” My neighbor Harold said boisterously as he walked past. Harold was friendly, 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 pockmarked cheeks and a bald scalp that glistened in the last rays of sun.

I opened my mouth to ask how he was, but he was already silently saying his mantras and swiping his hand in front of his door to unlock it. No doubt wanting to relax 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 called after him. He gave a smile and a nod, then slipped inside.

I turned my attention back to the watering.

My garden might be small, but it 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.  With 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. I felt as if the water was washing over me as well.

Gardening was an expensive hobby. The process that went into first stripping contaminated soil, then adding back in the nutrients needed to produce successful results made the end product cost more credits than most cared to part with. We were all given a specific allotment of credits that refreshed monthly, with quantity based on our tier. As I picked a strawberry, I took a moment to feel grateful for my Tier 3 employment, which afforded me such luxuries.

I quickly harvested more berries, several radishes, a few leaves of mint, and one ripe tomato. Harold’s door stood next to mine. When viewed together they resembled the two front teeth on a smile made up of all the doors in view on the first floor of the cylindrical building. Hoping I wouldn’t be interrupting anything important, I knocked on Harold’s door. He answered quickly, smiling when he saw what was in my hands.

“To have with dinner,” I said as I handed him a few radishes, and the tomato.

“I don’t deserve all of this, Patricia. Thank you. These look delightful.”

“No problem. We might as well enjoy them before the heat kills everything.”

After a few more pleasantries, I stepped over to my front door. My hand found the faceplate adorning the siding. Every home in America had one. It stated the name, rank, and profession of the resident.

Patricia Collins

Tier 3

Natural Resource Specialist

Below the text was an image as familiar, or perhaps even more so, than my own hand. The National Emblem. The strong outline of an eagle, wings spread, and the words Unified Secure in bold typeface along the base.

In a ritual we were all taught to follow before crossing the threshold, I placed my hand on the metal placard. It was warm from the sun. I lowered my head and said a mantra in my head:

THE BOARD PROVIDES. THE BOARD PROTECTS. I AM GRATEFUL FOR THE PROTECTION.

The routine was calming. On the rare occasions I walked in without saying the mantra, I felt distracted and antsy until I remembered to do it. Such was the product of countless training sessions I’d been given in the dormitories and classrooms.

Inside, I tossed my belongings in a pile by the front door and headed into the small kitchen built into the front left corner of the open space. Scouring the cabinets for dinner ideas, I was left largely disappointed, but I kept at it. Part of me clung to the hope that if I just opened the cabinet a second time the magical ingredients to concoct the perfect 5-minute meal would appear. But I hadn’t shopped in several days and my supplies were dwindling. So, no such luck. Eventually, I opened a cabinet a third time and grabbed, from the far back, a prepackaged meal.

The lucky winner was lasagna. Containing 20 grams of American-farmed protein! it declared prominently on the front of the package.

As my meal plumped in the rehydrator, I showered quickly, changed into some fresh clothes, then returned to the kitchen. It’s amazing the difference a shower can make. With my dust-free hair and skin, I felt lighter, both physically and emotionally. I flipped a switch on the counter and watched as liquid from the gray water tank under the sink sluggishly filtered up and into a reservoir next to the switch. When it was done, I filled my favorite red cup, grabbed my meal, and with the type of sigh that only emerges at the end of a long day, I dropped myself with a thud onto the sofa. A bit of water splashed onto my clean pajama shirt. I wasn’t always the most graceful.

I liked my home. The one-bedroom apartment wasn’t as large as Tier 1 or 2 housing, or as spacious as the Tier 3 apartments a couple would be reassigned to upon marriage. But compared to the dormitories where I spent my evenings until four years prior, it was roomy. And more importantly, it was all mine. Occasionally, I’d rearrange the furniture to fit my mood, playing with the few options of the space. The Board allowed us to decorate our space however we saw fit, provided the fixed screens and cameras were not blocked.

My sofa sat against the wall underneath a floating shelf holding a few trinkets – digital frames which cycled through photos of family and friends, a row of gemstones and rocks I’d collected over the years, and a few decorative candles which I almost never lit.

To my left, a fixed, rectangular screen about the size of a tabletop was mounted firmly against the wall. Every few minutes the image shifted. Currently it displayed a simple crimson background and the following words: Patriotism is about character – honesty, moral courage, respect, and loyalty.

Across from the sofa, another screen, wider than the other, that matched the curvature of the wall.

I settled in for the day’s mandatory viewing segment—a thirty-minute episode of All One: Helping Our Nation Succeed. It was a comforting nightly ritual, though the content of the segments varied greatly. After swiping my hand over the sensor on my end table, my identity was verified, and the show began to play.

A quick announcement about the new silver economy auto-vehicles being put into rotation was up first. The models featured wraparound solar arrays, virtually seamless against the exterior style, allowing them to run twenty percent longer than last year’s models. Next was a quick local promotion about the upcoming baseball game, including an enhanced firework experience, premiere seventh-inning entertainment, and copious amounts of snack food. Virtual recordings would be streamed for those who could not attend in person. I made a mental note to ask Rexx if he wanted to come over and watch.

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 own front door. The voice of an offscreen announcer introduced Aelia Ramey. A gorgeous, petite woman in her mid-forties, with an elegant crop of dove-white hair, appeared. I smiled at the familiar face, feeling almost as if a friend had sat down next to me on the sofa.

“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. It’s a great way to catch up before getting your children back in time for evening rituals at the dormitory.” Behind Aelia, a family of four sat at their dinner table, laughing, smiling, and enjoying each other’s company. It looked lovely.

“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 a floor-to-ceiling screen behind Aelia.

“Kids can share with their parents what they learned from their virtual instructors on subjects such as 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 she painted. But behind the pride there was also shame. I promised myself to not let the events of the day happen again.

I took a nibble of my dinner, which was about as appetizing as sawdust, but made more palatable by the fresh mint, carrots, and radishes I’d sprinkled around the dish. “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, remembering multiple conversations I’d had 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 virtual 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. 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 name, but a record of their work history, aptitude tests, medical requirements, and location. Without it, it was almost as if a person didn’t exist. 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. I thought about my parents and how I owed them a visit. All the while, I kept my eyes on the screen and felt the living room camera’s lens focusing on me. 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. I also couldn’t help but feel sorry for the poor saps who had to review the 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. Unlike me, her face was smooth and blemish-free.  “I look forward to tomorrow, when we’ll discuss going to the zoo, seeing the native and non-native animals, and how a ‘native’ sign signals there’s more to learn! This is Aelia Ramey, and Board bless us all!”

Every night for the past four years, I had sat on my couch, watching the mandatory programing. I had welcomed Aelia Ramey into my living room. Before that I’d done the same, though I’d been in the rec room in the dormitories, or sprawled across my parent’s living room floor, or on a sofa at a friend’s house. Regardless of where we were, before the day ended, it was our patriotic duty to swipe our chips and watch America One: Helping Our Nation Succeed. It had been that way since before I was born in 2068, and it would continue that way long after I died. It was life.

The screen lit up one last time with the ubiquitous national emblem—the words UNITED, SECURE, emblazoned below 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 called it quits. The day had worn me out. I wolfed down the rest of my bland dinner, tossed my dishes in the all-in-one recomper (recycler, composter, and washer), and decided to call it an early night.

A fitful sleep waited for me—a regular occurrence resulting from what my parents deemed an “overactive imagination.” I tried to keep it under control, but at twenty-two, vivid imagery continued to surface, like pockets of air released underwater. 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 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 a virtual classroom session. 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.

The screens embedded in the long desks in front of each row of children flashed to life. We put on our headphones, and all was quiet. In my dream I recalled how it felt—the posture we were taught to adapt to show we were paying attention, the knowledge that if we slipped up we’d be removed from our classmates, put into an isolated room with a single desk and chair until our punishment was complete. We were taught early to know the difference between the time for learning and the time for socializing.

Mathematics, technology, communication skills, post-Seclusion history, patriotism and ideology. Those were the subjects that filled our days. Everything that took place before The Seclusion (before the addition of the Northern Security Barrier in 2030 sealed our country) was highly classified for our protection. Many topics were strictly forbidden. Un-American history was one of them; pre-Seclusion American history was another.

We sat quietly and listened to the same exact recording every ten-year-old in America was listening to that day, tapping the screen when prompted to provide the answer to a question. Even in my dream, my leg jiggled impatiently just as it did back then.

Our classroom facilitator, Maro, stood like a statue in the corner. Sometimes he’d stand so still that with his crisp white shirt, waxen skin, and chalky white hair, he’d appear to melt into the wall behind him. Maro had followed our group of twenty since we began our formal education at the age of five, the age we moved into the dormitories.

Every thirty minutes or so, he’d leave his alabaster camouflage corner, walk up behind each of us in turn, and pat our shoulders or provide other modest encouragement. He answered our questions respectfully; not in a way that made us feel like we were flies on his shoulder as many adults did. We spent more waking hours with Maro than with any other adult in our lives. Even at ten, I knew we were lucky to have him as our facilitator. I’d heard others talk about their facilitator’s short tempers. Heard stories of isolation longer than any in my class were forced to endure.

But on this day, the door to our classroom swung open abruptly and two Compos stormed in.

“Officers,” Maro began with a slight tremor in his voice, obviously startled. “Is there something I can help you with? As you can see, I’m in the middle of a virtual session.”

The Compos didn’t answer his question, but instead roughly grabbed hold of Maro. Each with one hand on a shoulder and forearm, they pushed him up against the wall so hard I felt the pain in my own forehead. I stiffened in my seat as several young voices screamed out in surprise. Then they caught their tongues, knowing better.

I remained silent and terrified, and my leg ceased jiggling. The Compos leaned their faces in close on either side of Maro’s, speaking into his ear. We couldn’t hear the words, but the rough tone was enough to grasp the tenor of the conversation. Then, as if the Compo was saying the next words with the clear intention of us hearing them, the words aim to subvert educational institution went through the silent classroom. I didn’t understand what they meant, but I knew they weren’t good. Tears slid down the bridge of my nose.

“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.”

Please, I mouthed along with him.

I knew then and there what I was about to witness. Though I’d seen it play out in the distance and on the screen, probably hundreds of times by that point in my life, it was my first experience up close, with someone 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 continue to spill over 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 it caused me to flinch in my dream and in the present. My free hand crossed my lap and found Elliot’s, encasing her hand in both of mine, offering the only comfort I could.

The scene in front of me blurred as my eyes lost focus. I was terrified to look at his face. Then, one small detail grabbed my attention. Maro’s shirt collar. Maro was always clean, always crisp. He clearly took pride in his appearance. He slicked his hair back in a way that said he went to great measures to perfect it before he left his home in the morning. The collar of his shirt rumpled in a way that would have ordinarily had him smoothing it out with both hands. I stared at the collar, followed it as they dragged him, unconscious yet still trembling, 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 hadn’t crossed my mind in years and I wondered why he appeared in my dreams now. Even after so much time, his memory elicited a feeling akin to having a fifty-pound weight dropped onto my chest. The realization 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. That was the day I learned heartache; that those you trust can deceive you. Maro was replaced the next day, and we never found why exactly he was taken into custody or what happened to him. All we knew for sure was that he was a traitor.

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 the 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 over my face.

I closed my eyes and repeated one of the mantras we were taught as children. “You are safe. The Board will keep you safe.  You are safe.  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 heavy words looped, stealing any hope of a deep slumber, until the rising sun illuminated the room.

With puffy, sleep-deprived eyes, I reached for my ID to check the time. A message was waiting from my supervisor.

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

Next Chapter: Chapter 2