Is there a problem?
That was what the e-mail asked. It was typed in a professional, sans-serif font; the letters were italicized, but not in anger. No. Instead, the slanting of the words was like a friendly hug. How nice, really, that the Governance would be concerned for just one person in a population of many–just one unremarkable Armin Fisher.
At least, Armin thought, someone cares. After all, it wasn’t as though Thiele did; she had made that quite clear. Armin groaned, remembering their vehement argument: the comments, the posts, the Quips–all available for everyone to see. If Thiele was a decent person (which Armin had resolutely decided she was not), then she would have argued with him via PMs. But no, instead she had made it public, a tactic for which there was no good reason.
There was actually a great reason for making their problems public, which was that people liked drama. Literally–they “liked” it, and they Quipped about it, and they shared it. Those were the ways that worlds grew.
And he had just been elected the jester of his world; not the master as the Governance so proudly proclaimed: Control your life, master your world. No, Thiele had made his own world turn on him. He had been pathetic: Let’s not do this! Thiele, please! This is just our first fight!
Laughable. And all of his friends had seen it: the close ones with whom he role-played; the not-so-close ones, who would every once in a while comment on his photos; and the ones he didn’t even really know at all, but who made his numbers look good–1,212… a respectable sum.
But “respect” is exactly what he’d just lost. And even worse than that, his self-inflicted absence from the interweb had cost him valuable chances to gain more friends. But Thiele, with all her perfectly planned drama, had certainly used their fight as an opportunity to get more. Armin scowled; she was definitely winning the break-up. After all, friends meant information, and information was vital.
But Armin had been without that sustenance for seventy-two hours, at least according to the e-mail:
To Armin Fisher,
It has come to our attention that you have not updated your profile, supplied a Quip, or added any videos, photographs, or music in the last seventy-two hours. This lack of interconnectedness is unusual for you. Is there a problem?
NIC–the Network for Inter-Communications. It was the face of the Governance. Every pop-up on the web featured the same clean-cut man in an all black suit. He had a haircut reminiscent of the ancient 1950s (Armin had seen some artifacts from the time period on an archaeology website), and he sported a wide grin. Indeed, a part from his classic appearance, NIC looked normal–except for his arms. There were six, all holding onto shining, iridescent wires, connected to a giant globe, wherein NIC, with his wide, welcoming grin, sat. Armin thought he looked a bit like a Hindu goddess (a comparison which he had, again, gained from a website).
NIC was what everyone thought of when they thought of the web. He monitored and protected, because that was what the Governance did: “To Monitor Inter-Peace, To Protect Inter-Knowledge.”
But at the moment, Armin was inter-frustrated. Well, not really. “Inter” meant connecting and sharing, and he had done none of that. After he and Thiele had fought, he had shut down his computer, turning it on only long enough to sit through the video classes that the Governance mandated and check his emails. He had not been on his profile. He had not been to his Quip page. He had watched no videos, commented on no pictures. He had wanted nothing more than to disappear from his world, which wasn’t all that difficult to do. Especially when his entire world was on his screen, and if he didn’t want to be a part of it, all he had to do was ignore it. That was, in Armin’s current opinion, an advantage to what had happened.
Chemical warfare, that is, years before Armin was born. He’d once written a paper about it, for a class that he’d hated. “Millions were killed,” he had written. “Population had been a real issue to the world back then, with billions and billions of people crowding the world like bees in a hive. After the Great Fissure, though, overpopulation ceased to a problem. The people who survived were smart, and they invented the machines that supply our homes with air and water, delivered by Drafters, and stored in a place monitored and protected by the Governance. It was a miracle, really, that anyone had survived at all, but the Governance had seen the Great Fissure coming–the chemical warfare between the once-great nations–and had taken the precautions necessary for life to be sustained.”
He had been proud of that paper, even if he hadn’t cared about the class. Indeed, most class periods consisted of him minimizing the school window on his screen so he could read the latest Hemming Virtoso blog.
Hemming Virtoso. That by itself was reason enough to plug back in.
Armin looked back at the email. 72 hours–that was almost unheard of. People didn’t disconnect for that long unless they were literally on their deathbed… and even then, most didn’t. Armin’s cousin, Elin, had posted Quips practically up to the moment her heart finally failed her. Her profile had, of course, been deleted for public view by now, but Armin could still remember those Quips; they sent odd chills running down his spine that he couldn’t quite understand. After all, that was the only way he could have been there for his cousin. The idea of actually being beside Elin was ludicrous–leaving the house, unless one was an unfortunate Drafter, was suicide. The powerful chemicals still pervaded the air, and only the stupidest person would risk going outside for any reason.
Or the bravest–like Hemming Virtoso. Though he was, of course, fictional. And even he’d had some pretty close calls. Just last week, he’d lost his vision, venturing out of the safety of the Haven after the deplorable Professor Pathos. The chemicals had burned through his retinas, and the special effects had been astounding, seeing the eyeballs ooze and fall out of their sockets, hanging there like balls in a twisted version of Newton’s Cradle. The comment boards had gone wild after that. The question, of course, was how Hemming Virtoso–dubbed Hem-V by his fanbase–would ever be able to defeat Pathos now that he was blind. Though, of course, he should have known better than to go outside without his belt (a high tech device designed by the Governance to aid him in his crime-fighting exploits). Yes, he should’ve remembered the belt. Armin shook his head. He liked Hem-V as much as any other sixteen year old kid, but even he thought Hem-V’s impulsiveness could be tiring.
That was it. Enough of this moping. Thiele wasn’t worth it, and besides Hem-V was new tonight, and he couldn’t miss that. He’d been with Hem-V since the beginning, and he wasn’t going to desert him over some girl. What sort of fan would he be if he did that?
For the first time in days, Armin logged into his profile to see a picture of himself smiling back: thin face, high cheekbones, reluctant grin showing his crooked teeth. He looked at the picture carefully. He’d taken it when he had been with Thiele–it was an old picture, worthless now. He turned to the camera that had been built into his computer, gave his same shy grin, and took another photograph. It instantly appeared on his desktop, and after adjusting it so that his eyes were a sharp, electric blue (he hated the dull brown color he’d been born with), he posted the photograph. It looked good; he was even happy with his hair, which was blonde and curly. His mother had always claimed that it was his best feature, that one day he would find a girl who wouldn’t be able to resist running her hands through it. Armin, however, thought it made him look like an overgrown cherub. He would have liked nothing more than to alter it, like his eyes, but he never did because his mother had loved it so much.
She had died two years ago, peacefully in bed. She had gotten weak, like so many people do, and passed away after forty-two years on Earth. A pretty good life, really, though to Armin it had felt as though she had been there for barely a day. Like she had birthed him, and raised him, and read him stories, and given him extra syrup in his chocolate milk all between one glorious rising and setting of the sun.
It was just him and Dad, though that wasn’t really true because Dad didn’t live with him. Dad was a part of the Governance, so he lived in the Federation Building. Every morning and night, they would plug in for a video chat, to make sure that Armin was doing everything that a good boy should be doing. “Paying attention in classes, Armin?”
“Yes, dad. I’m ‘maintaining’ my knowledge and ‘protecting’ my brain.”
“Don’t make jokes. If it wasn’t for inter-maintenance and inter-protection, do you know what we’d all be?”
“Burnt, bloody flesh-kabobs?”
“It’s nothing to joke about,” his father would reply gruffly. Rune Fisher was a dark man, with a face that looked as though the skin had been folded in delicate layers. He had brown hair that was full and dark despite his age, and a long nose. His dull brown eyes were set deep inside his skull. Those boring eyes were the only trait Armin had inherited from his father; a part from that, he was his mother all over again. Her hair, her slender frame.
It was odd, really, that his father had not mentioned Armin’s inter-absence during their conversations, but Rune was not a part of NIC. He worked somewhere else in the Governance, though Armin didn’t know the details. Nor did he really care to. There were more important things in life, such as reading up on Hem-V theories.
But before turning to the discussion boards, Armin had some unfinished business. He turned to his profile and added one simple update:
I am back, and this is all I have to say on the matter: Thiele is a bitch.
“Look at Armin, back from the dead! I was startin’ to think ya’d gone the same way as Toril, in episode 5.13.”
“Bitten by a chemical mutant and killed before I could spread the disease? Not quite, Stig.”
Stig chuckled; he was one of the few people that Armin would actually call over the web. “I still think that’s my favorite episode, with the Twickens.”
“It was def scary.”
“Only ‘cuz it’s true! Could ya’ imagine comin’ up against a Twicken?”
“It’d be the last thing I’d ever do,” Armin countered. He knew he was no Hem-V. He wouldn’t be able to take on an entire mob of Twickens–people who, over generations, had lived outside the safety of the communes, building adaptations to the chemicals. But at a terrible price: the mutations had warped their brains, so even though they looked like everyone else, deep inside they were monstrous cannibals. They rarely came into the communes, but at least twice a year, some house was broken into and the inhabitants ravaged.
“They make a good story though. Remember the way Hem-V blew up their cave? Man, those were some special effects!”
“Not as good as last week’s,” Armin reminded him. He was scrolling through the discussion boards, reading the different theories. The most popular one seemed to be that the Governance would supply Hem-V with a miracle cure, but Armin thought that was bollocks. The Governance might be able to “maintain and protect,” but they weren’t magic. They couldn’t grant eyesight any more than they could de-mutate the Twickens. “I’ll tell you what’s gonna happen in tonight’s episode,” Armin began, sitting back in his chair and resituating his headphones. “Hem-V is just gonna have to learn to live without his sight–”
“But Professor Pathos–”
“And he’s gonna have to rely more on Lina.” Armin couldn’t see Stig, but he could hear (and picture) him hitting his hand on his desk. Armin had only seen Stig in the photographs he posted on his profile; he was an obese and pink-faced kid, around Armin’s age. He had a mess of sandy hair and violet eyes (though Armin doubted those were real). He also had an accent, which made Armin think that he lived in a commune on the other side of the ocean. It was hard to say exactly where, though, since most communes housed many different people. There had been a time when you could tell a person’s approximate location based on slang, but all the “inter-knowledge” had spread eccentricities in language, creating one overarching speech pattern. The Governance had overseen that assimilation, just as they had overseen the construction of the communes. Each commune was like a miniature town, filled with safe houses that could protect against the chemicals. All the communes were overseen by headquarters, all of which were controlled by the Governance. It was an elegant system, really.
“Lina!” Stig shouted. “Of course! I should’ve seen this comin’. The way Hem-V’s been ignorin’ her… of course the writers were gonna wanna re-establish their co-dependence!”
“Exactly. Hem-V’s been doing too much on his own. It isn’t healthy.”
Stig gave another exclamation, using language that Armin’s mother would have hated.
“Have you tried the new regimen yet?” Armin asked, diverting the subject as he scrolled through his Quip page. Thiele had Quipped that:
Why are some people in this world are so immature @ArminFisher
Armin rolled his eyes. He didn’t want to have another fight with her. But unfortunately, the damage had been done, and people were already responding, either in support or refute of Thiele’s allegation.
“You’ve gotta say somethin’, man,” Stig responded. “Thiele’s givin’ you a bad name. Ya’ dun’t want people deleting ya’ from their friend list.”
“I know,” Armin mumbled. It was a curious thing, a friend list. It reminded him of tiny building blocks his mother had once given him. It was a luxury to have a toy like that, something to touch and feel (and put in your mouth, much to his mother’s aggravation. His three-year old self had chewed many of those little blocks to gnarled stubs). It was probably his dad’s work in the Governance that had won him such a treasure. But those little blocks were a lot like the friend lists that people so meticulously planned and protected. Just as Armin had constructed imaginary worlds from those blocks (castles, where he’d used leftover ration boxes as pillars; skyscrapers where bowls and plates had acted as sensitive solar panels; even once, a mansion, where pillows had taken the place of a rolling landscape)–all those worlds had been so carefully designed by Armin. His friend list was the same: the people he chose to follow–the ones whose profile updates flooded his news feed–those were the people who made up his world. They were people who loved Hem-V, people who hated the Governance classes as much as he did, people who shared his competitive spirit with regimens–though Stig was not a part of that last group.
“You didn’t answer my question about the new regimen,” Armin pointed out, grudgingly scanning through a long list of Quips that were in favor of Thiele.
“You know I hate those damn regimens!”
“You should do them. They’re good for you, the Governance says–”
Stig gave a derisive snort. “I don’t need some virtual walk in the woods to be healthy.”
“I bet a Medical Officer would say differently.”
“Low blow, Fisher.”
“You’re right, sorry.” Armin gave up the conversation. Stig was not the person to talk to about regimens. The Governance had attempted to keep life after the Great Fissure similar to the life that had been enjoyed before it. Obviously, exercise was essential, so they had used available technology to supply that need. Every computer was equipped with a wireless port, which, when activated, could pick up individual movements. Regimens could be downloaded, and with the wireless program, any sort of exercise imaginable could be completed. Armin’s favorite was the newest program: fencing. It was a lot of fun, and with his recent hiatus from the interweb, he had managed to achieve a score that deserved some bragging.
“Dude, this Thiele girl is bad news for you. You’ve got to say something!”
But Stig was not the person to brag to; he wouldn’t appreciate it. He did, however, have a point about Thiele. Armin breathed a deep sigh, trying to think of something to counter Thiele’s Quip. At last, he remembered a song his mother had always sung while preparing the rations. It was an archaic song, and he’d never really understood it’s meaning, but it seemed appropriate for this situation:
You take the low road, and I’ll take the high road @ThieleThomas
A loud clap and excited shout from Stig almost made Armin throw off his headphones. “That was good, man! That was good! What the hell does it mean?”
All of his friends seemed to have the same question, and his simple comeback quickly became the buzz on the comment boards. People liked analyzing cryptic words like that, and once Armin admitted that he’d heard it in an old folk song, people became even more interested. Trying to figure out things from before the Great Fissure always sparked debate. His first day back from a three day absence was, indeed, a very busy one.
He gained fifteen friends that day.
TO BE CONTINUED.
Copyright Sarah Davidson 2021