The siren woke him up. It screeched endlessly, and the emergency lights in his house blinked on and off, on and off.
“I’m coming!” Armin shouted, rolling onto the floor and running to the door. He looked outside his window and saw the tram pulled up to his house. Its stop at his doorstep had activated the alarms, and he pushed the button that opened the door. There was a sucking sound as his door revealed the inside of the tram and one of the Drafters in his white safety suit.
“You know we’ve got a schedule to keep, young man.”
“I know. Sorry–late night.”
“Well, move out of the way, why don’tcha? You’re just slowin’ us up more!”
Armin moved to the side and let the Drafters do their work. The first one hauled in the oxygen and water tanks that would last him until this same time tomorrow. He rolled them to the utility room, his suit making soft scratching noises as he moved. The second Drafter carried ration packages into the kitchen. While the first was installing the tanks, the second turned to Armin, reciting the usual questionnaire.
“Are you in need of a Medical Officer or do you expect to be in need of a Medical officer in the next 24 hours?”
“No,” Armin replied automatically. The Drafter’s breath fogged up the clear section of his helmet, which overlapped his head and connected to the rest of the suit. The breathing apparatus that he used made odd, whirring sounds. The Drafters had always made Armin feel uncomfortable, not just because of the way they looked, but also because of what they represented: they were the most unfortunate of all the citizens, the ones Drafted into a year of manual service, preparing and transporting the necessities throughout the compounds. And though much of their work took place at the compound’s Federation Building or inside the Tram, there were still moments when they had to step outside… a thought that was too terrifying to consider outside of the Hem-V show.
“Are you in need of a Technical Officer or do you expect to be in need of a Technical Officer in the next 24 hours?”
“Are you need of a Nuptial Officer or do expect to be in need of a Nuptial Officer in the next 24 hours?”
“Fair enough.” The second Drafter turned back to the tram, waiting for the first to return. He did without so much as a word to Armin. They closed their door first, and then Armin copied them. With both doors closed, the siren stopped sounding and the lights stopped flickering. The house was again completely sealed from anything on the outside.
Armin watched through the window as the tram stopped at his neighbor’s house. He could see, through their blinds, the flickering emergency lights. He wondered who lived there, considering briefly if perhaps one of his hundreds of friends could be so close, and he simply didn’t know it. It was mind-boggling, really. Someone smarter than him could probably find something philosophical in it, but all Armin cared about was that the Drafters had come and gone for the day. He always dreaded the arrival of the Drafters, but more so this year than any other. This year’s Drafters had been particularly brusque, and he hoped that the new ones would be friendlier. Perhaps they had been so curt today because their service was drawing to a close; a new batch would start next week. Last year had been the first that Armin’s name had been included in the draft, and he had, thankfully, been overlooked. He hoped the same would be true for this year.
Stig always told him he was in danger of being drafted. He was young, healthy, fit… and he didn’t hesitate to broadcast his high regimen scores. Those were the traits that the Governance looked for in Drafters, but Armin always brushed Stig’s concerns to the side.
Armin watched the Drafters for a long time, as the monorail carried the tram to each house on his street. It wasn’t until they turned a corner and were out of sight that Armin closed the blinds and went to his computer.
“Let’s be honest here: it’s the 22nd century! It’s not like women are hoop-skirt wearin’ baby-makin’ factories!”
Armin snorted. He was leaning back in his chair, swiveling from side to side as he watched one his favorite video personalities. Lars Haxton had an opinion about nearly everything, and with Drafting Season days away, it was no surprise that he’d chosen that topic.
“I mean, I get the idea behind not letting the lovely ladies be Drafted–you can’t monitor and protect inter-anything if there’s no population–and women have a nine-month part in that little play. But people, come on! If Roxie Lyons can end the year as the most watched video, then I think that’s telling us one thing: women can hold their own. And not every woman is pregnant at one time, so how about those that aren’t ready to chase ankle-biters do the world a favor and, to coin a phrase, MAN UP.”
Lars Haxton’s face was inches from the camera; Armin could see the pores on his nose. Getting close like that felt personal and was a good method for conveying a big point–especially if it was a point that Armin agreed with. After all, if women could be Drafted, that meant even less of a chance of him having to do it.
“All I’m asking for,” Lars Haxton continued, settling away from the camera, dropping his impassioned revolutionary act for a more subtle demeanor that would have suited a scholar, “is a little equality. Isn’t that what women always say they want? Well, fine, ladies: here you go. Take the chance of being Drafted. Of leaving your nice houses and your computers, your lives of luxury and convenience, and going out with the chemicals. Does that thought scare you? Good. That’s what equality feels like.”
The video cut to black, and Armin liked it immediately. He also shared it. According to the ticker, he was far from the first person to hit the “share” button. Lars Haxton had over one thousand friends–not surprising; he was always a guaranteed buzz.
Armin stood and stretched. His neck gave a satisfying pop, and he fell back into his chair, flexing his fingers. There was still another hour until the latest installment of Hem-V (Two new episodes, two days back to back!), so he needed something to occupy himself. Role-playing? He wasn’t really in the mood–Stig’s character was supposed to be Hem-V’s cousin, but he’d been acting extremely out of character lately, and if there was one thing Armin hated, it was when people weren’t canon. Scroll through the newsfeed? No, Thiele was still making a fuss, and he wasn’t really in the mood for drama. Regimens? No, now was the time of day to relax, not get hot and sweaty. In the end, he decided to watch more videos. He scrolled through the ones he had favorited, stopping at one entitled: A NEW WAY.
He clicked it, settled back into his chair, and watched.
A man appeared, the camera so close to his face it looked like it was trying to go up his nose. He was in a dark room, making him seem ghostly pale. He had shockingly curly brown hair and wide eyes that were magnified by thick glasses. He had the overall appearance of someone who had been electrocuted. His thin face was deathly serious, and when he spoke, it was with a voice that was trying (and failing) to be strong.
“I need everyone to listen to me. There are problems here–big problems that you can’t possibly understand unless you’re in the thick of them. Problems that can’t be explained, but they can be shown–”
A crash off camera; Armin’s heart started racing. This was the best part.
“Listen,” the man continued. “Go outside. Right now. Take a step, breathe the air. And when you’re skin’s still intact and your heart’s still beating, go back to your computers–just for a minute–and tell everyone! Go, go now! Tell them, and then go back outside. And stay there–stay–”
“What are you doing!” a high-pitched voice demanded.
There was a struggle, and then the video cut to black. The next video in the playlist began, this time showing a Governance official, dressed like NIC (suit, slicked back hair, old-timey grin). “We interrupt the peace and tranquility of your worlds to inform you of this new threat.” The screen cut to the deathly pale man and his insistence to do the impossible: go outside. “Introducing, Dr. Pathos. A man bent on manipulation and domination. His only goal–to use the Twickens”–here the video cut to an artist’s rendition of the crazed cannibals; after all, no one who had ever seen a Twicken was still around to upload a video or share a picture–“to use these abominations to undermine the Governance and to destroy the world as we know it. Who can possibly save us from this terror?”
“Who indeed,” Armin answered with the handsome and heroic Hemming Virtoso as he burst into the news room.
The Governance official leapt backward. “How did you get in here?”
“Is that really the question you’re going to ask? Wouldn’t a better question be: what am I going to do?” Armin laughed; Hem-V always had a good comeback. The camera zoomed in on him, then cut to a rapid play-by-play of everything that viewers had to look forward to: exploding caves, passionate kisses, and plummets from high buildings.
“Introducing,” a much more dramatic voiceover began, “a new hero in a time when we need it most. Hemming Virtoso.”
A scene: Hemming talking to a dark-skinned Governance scientist in a sleek red dress and cat-eye glasses. “This belt will keep me safe?”
“As long as the needles can stick into your skin and provide the antidote to the chemicals. The green light means you have enough; if you see the red–”
“Get to safety.”
“Get to safety.” The dark-skinned woman took a step closer. “I mean it, Hemming.”
“Ms. Lina Randall, I’m a professional.”
“So am I.”
“You’re dress tells differently.”
Cut to quick scenes of Lina and Hem-V embracing, kissing, touching…. Then back to the belt scene. Lina was wearing a twisted smile. “You are observant, Mr. Virtoso.”
Cut to black; the music slowed, then immediately picked up, tumultuous and exciting.
“I do what I can,” came Hem-V’s voice as several more clips flashed across the screen: fire, guns, screaming, buildings collapsing, then….
HEMMING VIRTOSO: MAN OF THE HOUR. COMING SOON.
“Never get tired of that,” Armin muttered. He shared it, adding the message: I can’t wait for tonight’s new episode!
It had been a great idea on the Governance’s part: releasing the teaser of Dr. Pathos and his plan to make people go outside. That was truly diabolical, nothing more or less than forced suicide. The fake news report had followed that video not long after it had gone viral, and the preview of Hemming Virtoso had created such a buzz on the interweb that nearly everyone had watched it. Armin could still remember when it first came out, nearly three years ago. He had watched it with his mother, excitedly bouncing on the couch.
“Armin, calm down.”
“But, Mom. This show looks so amazing!”
“It’s just a show, Armin. Besides, it looks nothing like the superheroes my grandmother used to tell me about.”
And then she had told him stories about men from other planets and mutants who had powers that humans could only dream about. The superheroes had been fascinating, but nothing like Hem-V, who was suave and dangerous and everything that a thirteen-year old boy wished he could be. His mom had watched every episode with him, even though she didn’t really like it.
“I don’t like when the chemicals hurt people,” she would say.
“But that’s what chemicals do, Mom. You can’t have a show with people going outside without some people getting hurt.”
“You think so?”
Every new episode, for the last year of her life, she and Armin had curled on the couch and watched Hem-V blow things up and save Lina. Good Moms were like that, Armin thought. They did things with you (even when they secretly could care less about them) just because there was nothing they cared about more than the child in their arms.
Armin sighed; there were times he really didn’t like thinking about his Mom. And there were other times when thinking about her was better than added friends and liked videos and new Hem-V episodes all put together.
He cleared his throat, cracked his neck again, and looked at his profile. Stig had commented on his shared video: You were right. He is gonna have to rely on Lina more.
Armin responded: tys.
Stig: No one likes a bragger!
Armin laughed. Tys (told you so) was his favorite phrase, and lucky for him, he got to use it pretty often, especially with Hem-V. If there was one thing Armin was good at (besides the regimens), it was Hem-V.
He returned to the home page of his computer to check the time; only a half hour more until he could watch another chapter of Hem-V’s epic life. Armin stared at his home page for a second; the Governance’s assertion to “Master your own world” was at the very center of the screen. That was probably the truest thing the Governance had ever said. Armin really did feel like the master of his own world. A globe, filled partially like a pie graph, informed him that he had only plugged into thirty-two percent of what existed, and that sixty-eight percent of the interweb was untouched by him, waiting to be hacked away, explored, and claimed. But Armin didn’t like looking at the globe sixty-eight percent empty; instead, it was thirty-two percent full: of his favorite music videos, of role-playing websites, of Hem-V, and of other people who liked those things, too. It was Armin’s world–Arminia, Arminstan, whatever–and he loved it.
Copyright Sarah Davidson 2021