Plugged In, Chapter Eleven: Professor Pathos

“Can you talk or what?”

     Delaney waved a hand in front of Armin.  She had a face that was made for smiling: high cheekbones, arched eyebrows, and sparkling eyes.  Her extremely curly hair was thrown back into a pony tail, and her tan complexion was soft in the moonlight.

     “He could a minute ago.”  Satchel clapped Armin on the back.  “But I think that frizz fest on your head might’ve sent an electric current through the air and shocked him.”

     “Oh, shut-up.”  She held out a hand, and Armin took it awkwardly.  “I’m Delaney Hobbs.”

     “And this is Armin Fisher,” Satchel supplied.  “Hey, listen, is your dad around?  I’ve got a bit of a problem.”  He moved his hand, revealing a blotch of fresh blood. 

     Delaney gasped.  “What happened?  Are you okay?”

     “I’ll be better once I see your dad.  Where’s he at?”

     “Behind you might be a good place to look.”

     Satchel turned around, breathing a deep sigh of relief.  “Hey, Hobbs.  Think you could help me out?”

     Armin, after another long glance at Delaney, turned around, too.

     “YOU!”  Armin shouted, taking several steps backward and glaring at the newcomer with wide eyes.  He had seen that man before–he knew him well.  He had booed him episode after episode, cheered when Hem-V had, again and again, triumphed over his evil powers.

     Professor Pathos was staring right at him.  He looked more relaxed than during any episode, but it was undoubtedly the same person: same curly brown hair and thick glasses.  He wasn’t wearing the usual scientist lab coat, but instead was wrapped in a raggedy bath robe.

     “I see,” Professor Pathos began mildly, “that my fame precedes an introduction.”

     “You tricked me!” Armin shouted, rounding on Satchel.  “You’re part of his plan to create an army of Twickens–recruit, debriefed–how could I have been so stupid!”  He made to run away, but two pairs of strong arms held him back.

     “Calm down, kid!”

     “Yeah, you’ll get lost runnin’ off at this hour!”

     Armin continued to squirm: two men, both probably in their early twenties, were holding him back. 

     “Let me go!”

     “Looks like you’ve brought a live one, Satchel,” another voice supplied, and with a surge of terror, Armin realized there were more of them: they were coming from behind the buildings, staring at him, laughing.  More Twickens–all tan and stronger than him.

     “I’ll never join you, Pathos!”

     A chorus of laughter.

     “Satchel,” one of them, a girl with short, choppy red hair, admonished, “it’s your job to explain everything.”

     “This wasn’t my typical run. I–ouch!”

     “Sorry,” Pathos muttered.  He was examining Satchel’s wound.  “What did you do, use needle and thread?”

     “You can thank my surgeon, after he’s done freaking out,” Satchel muttered. 

     “I would’ve thought Dav could have–wait, where is Dav?”

     All the laughter disappeared as quickly as water sucked down a drain.  Armin, still struggling, was the only person making any sound at all.

     “Dav’s dead,” Satchel said quietly.  “I think they went after his family and he… he got mad at me for it.  So–”  He nodded to where Pathos was now working diligently, using materials from a first aid kit Delaney had fetched for him.  “So he stabbed me.  It was awful.  I think… dammit, I think he wanted me to see him die.  He… he really blamed me for what they did, and he wanted me to suffer by… by watching him–do I have to say any more?”  He gave Pathos a pleading look, and Pathos shook his head. 

     “That’s enough, Satchel.  We all get the picture.  Luckily, you’re okay.”

     “You can thank him.”  Satchel nodded to Armin, whose flailing resembled a fish trying to break free from a net.

     “Then let’s.”  Pathos straightened and approached Armin, who only began to fight harder, grunting and groaning.

     “Thank you for saving our dear friend.”

     “If I’d known what he was a part of, I woulda turned him in!  He tricked me, he–”

     “Come on, kid,” the redhead said with a sneer.  “That’s a TV show.  You don’t honestly think that’s the evil Professor Pathos, do you?”

     “Don’t fault him too harshly, Bly.  The line between reality and fiction is easily blurred, and the Governance knows it.”  He grinned at Armin in a way someone would when talking to a tantrum-throwing toddler.  “Allow me to introduce myself using my preferred name.  I am Milo Hobbs, former scientist for the Governance Research Facility.”

     Armin didn’t stop struggling.

     “I trust you saw my video I made a few years ago?  I also hope you realize that I was right–the Governance has been restricting the populace, using a nonexistent threat to exert their control and force.”

     “Yeah right.  I knew I shouldn’t’ve followed Satchel!  You’re all–”

     “Twickens?  Well, if the logic is that being exposed to chemicals makes you a Twicken–if it doesn’t kill you, that is–then aren’t you also now a Twicken?”

     Armin stopped struggling.  “What?”

     “Aren’t you also a Twicken?  Tell me, do you have a craving for spleen stew?”

     Nervous laughter spread through the group.  The hands on Armin’s shoulders slackened, then let go, and Armin didn’t try to run.  He realized he must have looked very silly, reacting as though a fictional villain was right in front of him… but he was.  That was Professor Pathos.

     “I’m sorry,” Armin said.  “I just–”

     “Reacted the way the Governance programmed you to.  My dear boy, no one can blame you for that.  Believe me, compared to some recruits, you were downright tame!”  The laughter became stronger, and soon everyone was welcoming him, introducing themselves.  Armin had never been around so many people, had never been touched by so many unfamiliar hands.  His eyes, however, sought just one other: Delaney came up to him, slapped him playfully, and said, “That’s for thinking my dad was a crazed super-villain.”

     “Your dad?”

     “Yeah.”  She smiled.  “And this–” She gave him a light peck on the cheek. “–is for helping Satchel.”

     “Not a problem,” Armin wanted to say, but it got caught somewhere in his throat.

     “I didn’t raise my daughter to give out kisses like they were chocolates!” Hobbs shouted from where he had returned to Satchel. 

     “Just a thank you.”

     “At least learn his name first,” Hobbs argued, squirting clear liquid onto a clean rag.

     “I do know his name.  It’s Armin Fisher.”

     Hobbs dropped the rag and the bottle; the strong smelling liquid soaked into the dirt and Hobbs swore loudly, grabbing it and standing bolt upright.

     “Fisher did you say?”

     “Yeah,” Delaney confirmed.

     Hobbs raised an eyebrow at Armin, then turned on Satchel.  “Fisher?”

     “Yeah, so what, Hobbs?”

     Hobbs spun on the spot, staring at all three of them in turn–Delaney, then Satchel, then Armin, then Satchel again.

     “Okay, okay, we can… we can do this.  Come on, Satchel, you need to lie down.” 

     The two of them, Hobbs now whispering fiercely in Satchel’s ear, walked off, leaving Armin feeling alone and confused with his overly-eager welcoming party.

     “Is there a problem?” he asked no one in particular.

     “Don’t worry about it,” Delaney said with a shrug.  “That’s just my dad for you.  Sometimes he gets worked up.  The things he’s seen will do that to a person.”

     “What has he seen?”

     “Oh, he’ll explain all of that.  But first–” Delaney spun around, grabbing his arms and leading him forward, towards the metal monsters, “–a tour!”

     “Yeah,” the redhead–Bly?–agreed.  “Now that you’re here, you’ll need to know your way around.”

     Feeling suddenly warm (a sensation that started at Delaney’s hands and migrated all the way through his body), Armin followed the two of them.  They told him all about the amusement park.  Apparently, this had been a place of fun and entertainment.  People had created these “rides” as a way to get a cheap thrill.  There had been games and food, and sometimes little shows.  It sounded like the kind of story his mother would have told him–except this was real.

     “What’s it like to ride that?” Armin asked, pointing to the giant circle that had first caught his eye.

     “The Ferris Wheel?”  Delaney asked.  “It’s great.  I’ve only been on once though.”

     “Why?  I mean, if you live here–”

     “We don’t run the electric stuff very often.  We have these back-up generators, but Dad’s careful with them.  Only emergencies or special occasions, he says.  He doesn’t want the Governance to know where we’re hiding out.”

     “Hiding out?”

     “Dad will explain.  Come on, he’s probably ready to talk to you now.”

     Delaney (again grabbing both of his hands) led him to the very center of the Park.  Everyone (about ten people, the youngest about fourteen, the oldest in their mid-twenties) was gathered around a comfortable bonfire.  Satchel was seated in a carved out boat, with peeling pink paint and a faded inscription that read T NN L O L VE.  He was stretched out in it, eyes closed. 

     “Come on, Satchel,” Delaney quipped, smacking his shoulder. “I’m not letting you milk that little cut for more than it’s worth.”

     Satchel stuck out his tongue.  “Your Dad said I could have the best seat in the house.”

     “Bet he didn’t say you couldn’t share it.”

     “Didn’t say I had to.”

     Delaney slapped him again, and Satchel moved into a sitting position. 

     Armin stared at them, eyes squinted slightly, and looked around for some vacated spot.

     “Armin, there’s room for three.  Come on.”  Satchel motioned him over, and with a sigh of relief (always better to sit with someone you know), Armin climbed into the boat as well.

     Hobbs came out of one of the buildings, carrying a fold-out chair.

     “Oh–see we’ve got enough, then,” he said, seeing the three huddled into the boat. With a shrug, he took the fold-out chair for himself, placing himself right in the center of attention.  Everyone became very quiet as Hobbs took a deep breath, collecting his thoughts, then:

     “Armin Fisher, if there’s one thing I believe in, it’s truth.  And this kind of strong belief can only come from someone who’s been both lied to and a liar himself.  Only someone who’s played on both sides of the field can truly understand what a glorious and dangerous thing the truth is, so before I say another word, I have to ask you–do you really want to know something as delicate as that?”

     Armin glanced at the pair beside him.  Satchel was staring straight ahead, but Delaney’s encouraging nod was all the encouragement Armin needed to say:

     “Yes.”

     “Okay.”  Hobbs scratched his neck, resituated himself on the chair, then said: “The beginning of a very long story: I wake up every morning wondering if I am a good man.  I figure I must be a better man than I used to be, but here I sit, in an abandoned amusement park, surrounded by people–young people with their whole lives in front of them–who would be safer if they were ignorant and at home.  And yet, I’ve taken them from their little havens and from their families, and I’ve told them the truth.  Does that make me a bad person?  Some days, I think that it does.  Others, I think I’m working for some sort of greater good, but who the hell elected me as the sole person to decide what the greater good was?  It’s a fight I have almost every day, but I keep doing it because, deep-down, I feel that the Governance is worse.  And as long as I think that, I won’t be able to stop educating people.  That’s what we’ve got going on here–an education program.

     “It started about two years ago.  As I’ve already told you, I was a scientist for the Governance.  Our job was to create poisons–”

     “Poisons?” Armin interrupted.  “But the Governance promised that no chemical warfare would ever happen again!”

     “And so they did. The key word being ‘warfare.’  They told us–the scientists that is–that the poisons we were creating were to be used to crush any rebellions.  They said they had created a near-utopia, but human nature being what it is, there was always a threat.  They claimed that they used it against Twickens–feeding our gullible minds with an urban legend.”

     “An urban–?”

     “The Twicken myth has existed since the Great Fissure itself.  The Governance has consistently used it to their advantage.  Something that has never existed outside of the masses’ imaginations and the Governance’s machinations.  But I’ll explain more about that momentarily.”  Hobbs cleared his throat. “Anyways, we scientists thought we were creating something special, something to help everyone.  We thought of ourselves as the world’s first line of defense, a rather testosterone-inducing idea for a bunch of brainiacs.

     “Well, the day came when I decided I wanted to do more.  Why stop with just this poison? I asked myself.  Why not try and do something that would help people expand their very limiting lives?  So, on my own time, I began running experiments on the environment.  What a hero I would be, I thought, if I could discover a way to dissipate the chemicals.  But do you know what I found?”

     Armin thought he knew the answer, but he stayed quiet.  Everyone had adopted disgusted expressions, and he did his best to copy them.

     “I found that the chemical traces were so minute they might as well have not been there at all.  Oxygen levels were stable; water contamination was extremely minimal–possibly even better than before the Great Fissure.  With this new information, I decided to run possibly riskiest experiment of my life.  I took a step outside.”  Hobbs smiled. “Then I took another, and another.  And then I took a whole walk!”  He released a humorless laugh.  “What a discovery!, I thought.  I was going to be the first person to tell everyone that the outside world was safe; we could leave our computers and start rebuilding the old life again.  But there was a bit of a kink in my plan–the Governance already knew.  Had known for years.  And they swore me to secrecy, when I refused…. When I refused, I came home to find a dead wife and a crying daughter.  My own poison, the one I had helped to create, had been used against me.”

     Armin glanced at Delaney; Satchel had placed a comforting hand on hers.  He wanted to do the same, tried, then stopped.  He must’ve looked like he had a nervous tick, because Delaney gave a little smile.

     “They always go after the spouse first.  They send a message.  Then they can use your kids as blackmail.  Except I wasn’t going to take it.  I told Delaney to leave home, to run, and I’d leave to.  We eventually found each other, and we continued on, with only limited rations, until we came upon this Park.  Since then, we have gardened and fished, and lived like right pioneers.  Well–”  He shrugged, “–if pioneers lived in an amusement park.”

     “The Governance killed–” Armin began, but then he realized how insensitive that sounded.  “I’m sorry.”

     “It’s okay, Armin.  Don’t apologize for something you didn’t cause.”  Hobbs looked around at the other faces, sparks from the fire framing his head.  They crackled and popped for a few minutes as Hobbs prepared the next part of his story:

     “Before I made a run for it, though, I managed to send out a video.  Apparently it went viral like that.” He snapped his fingers.  “Unfortunately, the Governance was prepared.  They used my little try at rebellion as an opportunity for propaganda.”

     “Propaganda?” Armin had never heard the word before, but Satchel supplied a definition before Hobbs could even open his mouth:

     “When someone powerful uses the media to make you think a certain way.”

     “Oh.”

     “Couldn’t have said it better myself,” Hobbs confirmed.  “They created Hem-V, a hero who’s antics constantly warn about the dangers of going outside and the inter-everything that the Governance relies on.  And, the best of course, warning against Twickens.

     “They designed Professor Pathos after me.  With a look alike and a lot of technical magic, they made me a fugitive without ever having to admit that someone was living outside with no chemical threat.  They made sure that anyone seen walking outside–such as Satchel–would be feared and, if possible, destroyed.  Wasn’t that your first impulse?”

     Armin didn’t answer.  How could he have been so used? 

     “Which brings us back to my little program,” Hobbs continued.  “It is Satchel’s job to do whatever he can to recruit as many new people as possible.  He’s proven himself to be both persuasive and stealthy, so he’s a natural at it.  We have a few other recruiters as well–”  He nodded at a pair, one boy and one girl, both in their late teens. “–but Satchel still holds the record for most recruits.”

     “It’s a title I hold proudly.”

     “The rest of us are runaways,” Bly offered.  “We couldn’t stand being under the Governance like that, so we left and came here.”

     “Sometimes just refusing to belong is the best rebellion there is,” Delaney explained. 

     “The amount of what we can do is limited,” Hobbs agreed with a sigh. “The Governance is many and powerful and we–well, take a look around.”

     Suddenly, the Parkseemed like nothing more than a hunk of twisted metal, tossed away and ignored. 

     “But it’s a start, and–” Hobbs shared a significant look with Satchel.  “–we’ve recently gained a new advantage.

     “But that’s us.  Who we are, what we stand for.  Not really all that dangerous, just a little… rebellious.  Though, of course, the Governance would think otherwise.  Do you have any questions, Armin?”

     All eyes were now on Armin, and he gulped.  He’d never had an audience before (the hundreds of people online suddenly seemed less real than the bodies sitting around him).  “Um… can I ask one?”

     “Please do.”

     “Were the chemicals ever real?”

     Hobbs breathed a long sigh.  “Yes, they must have been.  I said there were minute traces, remember.  And there have been skeletons discovered, mid-activity, many right here in the Park–don’t worry, you won’t find them.  We gave them proper burials.  But yes, there was some sort of warfare.  The Governance must have seen it coming.  I don’t know much about how they did.  Those who like a good conspiracy seem to think that they were a renegade bunch of radicals who slowly infiltrated the biggest governments of the day, initiating and instigating the warfare.  I, myself, think they were either a government that existed and saved a few successful or powerful people–”

     “But there’s compounds supervised by the Governance all over the world!” Armin argued.  “On the other side of the ocean!”

     “Yes.  I said one government was in charge of it.  I didn’t say they didn’t have allies in other countries.”

     “Oh.”

     “Either that, or they could have been a group of people–maybe a cult or something–that predicted a doomsday event like the Great Fissure.  So when it happened, they and their followers throughout the world were ready.  Whatever theory you believe–because I’m sorry to say that the Governance has done a good job in keeping the truth very fuzzy, even for me–but ultimately, they were prepared.  They had created the compounds, stored the food, water and oxygen, and utilized the interweb to its fullest potential.  The Governance, in the beginning, is what saved us, but now, it the very thing imprisoning us.  So is the way with power.” 

     “Satchel told me,” Armin began with a wary look at Satchel, who’s hand was still–(still? Armin thought)–on Delaney’s.  “Well… um… he told me that the Governance wanted to keep us inside.”

     “And so they do,” Hobbs agreed.  “It is much easier to control people who are contained than people who are free.  What’s more interesting is the complete lack of interest to go outside.  That video I sent out–the one that recreated me as the evil Professor Pathos–Satchel is the only one I have found who took that advice, took the risk, and stepped outside.”

     “You’ve been with him for three years?”

     “Not quite,” Satchel clarified.  “It took me a while to find him.  My dad went with me, but the Governance caught up with us.” Satchel swallowed.  “I hid, but the Governance took him… I don’t know where.”

     “How did they find you?”

     “We were clumsy and stupid.  We tried to hide in the compounds, but that didn’t work.  Late at night, Governance officials comb the areas, doing what they have to do to keep people inside.  If you don’t know their schedules–which I have since memorized–then you’re in trouble.”

     “Maybe your dad’s still alive.”

     “Yeah, maybe,” Satchel muttered, though his voice didn’t sound very confident.  He’d removed his hand from Delaney’s, and was staring off in the distance.

     “The interweb is more than just a way to keep people from getting cabin fever, more than entertainment and communication,” Hobbs continued.  “It’s a way for the Governance to watch everyone.  The Governance knows everyone probably better than they know themselves.  And not because they’re spying or invading, but because they’re just reading.  That’s it.  People post pictures and comments, statuses and Quips–have you ever realized how personal they are?  It takes so little to get to know someone when they put everything out there.  The Governance trains people to study those traits, and then learn how to use them against their victims.  Keeping people inside keeps them inter-connected, and that keeps the Governance in control.”

     “Basically,” Satchel supplied, sitting up and looking from Armin to the gathering around them.  “It takes three things to create a Governance: A dollop of fear.  A pinch of imprisonment.  And a liberal cup of spineless choice.  Do you realize how much of this happened just because no one stood up and said no, how much of this is the result of people letting the Governance in?”

     “People are lazy,” Delaney interjected.  She was sitting as straight as Satchel now, wide eyes furious.  “Why would they fight the Governance? They don’t have to work; everything is given to them!  All they have to sacrifice is their freedom for lives of luxury, and let’s face it, for most people that’s a fair trade.”

     “Doesn’t seem fair to me,” Armin muttered.  Only hours outside of the compound, and there was an almost physical reaction to being outside and with people.  It made his heart race and his skin prickle at the very thought that he was doing something real, rather than digital.  It was unbelievable, almost dreamlike.

     But there he was. And, even better, there she was, smiling at him and saying:

     “I knew I liked you.”

     “Thanks,” he said dumbly, smiling around at everyone else, who looked just as happy as Delaney.

     “Excellent,” Hobbs said.  “One more down.”

“Can you talk or what?”

     Delaney waved a hand in front of Armin.  She had a face that was made for smiling: high cheekbones, arched eyebrows, and sparkling eyes.  Her extremely curly hair was thrown back into a pony tail, and her tan complexion was soft in the moonlight.

     “He could a minute ago.”  Satchel clapped Armin on the back.  “But I think that frizz fest on your head might’ve sent an electric current through the air and shocked him.”

     “Oh, shut-up.”  She held out a hand, and Armin took it awkwardly.  “I’m Delaney Hobbs.”

     “And this is Armin Fisher,” Satchel supplied.  “Hey, listen, is your dad around?  I’ve got a bit of a problem.”  He moved his hand, revealing a blotch of fresh blood. 

     Delaney gasped.  “What happened?  Are you okay?”

     “I’ll be better once I see your dad.  Where’s he at?”

     “Behind you might be a good place to look.”

     Satchel turned around, breathing a deep sigh of relief.  “Hey, Hobbs.  Think you could help me out?”

     Armin, after another long glance at Delaney, turned around, too.

     “YOU!”  Armin shouted, taking several steps backward and glaring at the newcomer with wide eyes.  He had seen that man before–he knew him well.  He had booed him episode after episode, cheered when Hem-V had, again and again, triumphed over his evil powers.

     Professor Pathos was staring right at him.  He looked more relaxed than during any episode, but it was undoubtedly the same person: same curly brown hair and thick glasses.  He wasn’t wearing the usual scientist lab coat, but instead was wrapped in a raggedy bath robe.

     “I see,” Professor Pathos began mildly, “that my fame precedes an introduction.”

     “You tricked me!” Armin shouted, rounding on Satchel.  “You’re part of his plan to create an army of Twickens–recruit, debriefed–how could I have been so stupid!”  He made to run away, but two pairs of strong arms held him back.

     “Calm down, kid!”

     “Yeah, you’ll get lost runnin’ off at this hour!”

     Armin continued to squirm: two men, both probably in their early twenties, were holding him back. 

     “Let me go!”

     “Looks like you’ve brought a live one, Satchel,” another voice supplied, and with a surge of terror, Armin realized there were more of them: they were coming from behind the buildings, staring at him, laughing.  More Twickens–all tan and stronger than him.

     “I’ll never join you, Pathos!”

     A chorus of laughter.

     “Satchel,” one of them, a girl with short, choppy red hair, admonished, “it’s your job to explain everything.”

     “This wasn’t my typical run. I–ouch!”

     “Sorry,” Pathos muttered.  He was examining Satchel’s wound.  “What did you do, use needle and thread?”

     “You can thank my surgeon, after he’s done freaking out,” Satchel muttered. 

     “I would’ve thought Dav could have–wait, where is Dav?”

     All the laughter disappeared as quickly as water sucked down a drain.  Armin, still struggling, was the only person making any sound at all.

     “Dav’s dead,” Satchel said quietly.  “I think they went after his family and he… he got mad at me for it.  So–”  He nodded to where Pathos was now working diligently, using materials from a first aid kit Delaney had fetched for him.  “So he stabbed me.  It was awful.  I think… dammit, I think he wanted me to see him die.  He… he really blamed me for what they did, and he wanted me to suffer by… by watching him–do I have to say any more?”  He gave Pathos a pleading look, and Pathos shook his head. 

     “That’s enough, Satchel.  We all get the picture.  Luckily, you’re okay.”

     “You can thank him.”  Satchel nodded to Armin, whose flailing resembled a fish trying to break free from a net.

     “Then let’s.”  Pathos straightened and approached Armin, who only began to fight harder, grunting and groaning.

     “Thank you for saving our dear friend.”

     “If I’d known what he was a part of, I woulda turned him in!  He tricked me, he–”

     “Come on, kid,” the redhead said with a sneer.  “That’s a TV show.  You don’t honestly think that’s the evil Professor Pathos, do you?”

     “Don’t fault him too harshly, Bly.  The line between reality and fiction is easily blurred, and the Governance knows it.”  He grinned at Armin in a way someone would when talking to a tantrum-throwing toddler.  “Allow me to introduce myself using my preferred name.  I am Milo Hobbs, former scientist for the Governance Research Facility.”

     Armin didn’t stop struggling.

     “I trust you saw my video I made a few years ago?  I also hope you realize that I was right–the Governance has been restricting the populace, using a nonexistent threat to exert their control and force.”

     “Yeah right.  I knew I shouldn’t’ve followed Satchel!  You’re all–”

     “Twickens?  Well, if the logic is that being exposed to chemicals makes you a Twicken–if it doesn’t kill you, that is–then aren’t you also now a Twicken?”

     Armin stopped struggling.  “What?”

     “Aren’t you also a Twicken?  Tell me, do you have a craving for spleen stew?”

     Nervous laughter spread through the group.  The hands on Armin’s shoulders slackened, then let go, and Armin didn’t try to run.  He realized he must have looked very silly, reacting as though a fictional villain was right in front of him… but he was.  That was Professor Pathos.

     “I’m sorry,” Armin said.  “I just–”

     “Reacted the way the Governance programmed you to.  My dear boy, no one can blame you for that.  Believe me, compared to some recruits, you were downright tame!”  The laughter became stronger, and soon everyone was welcoming him, introducing themselves.  Armin had never been around so many people, had never been touched by so many unfamiliar hands.  His eyes, however, sought just one other: Delaney came up to him, slapped him playfully, and said, “That’s for thinking my dad was a crazed super-villain.”

     “Your dad?”

     “Yeah.”  She smiled.  “And this–” She gave him a light peck on the cheek. “–is for helping Satchel.”

     “Not a problem,” Armin wanted to say, but it got caught somewhere in his throat.

     “I didn’t raise my daughter to give out kisses like they were chocolates!” Hobbs shouted from where he had returned to Satchel. 

     “Just a thank you.”

     “At least learn his name first,” Hobbs argued, squirting clear liquid onto a clean rag.

     “I do know his name.  It’s Armin Fisher.”

     Hobbs dropped the rag and the bottle; the strong smelling liquid soaked into the dirt and Hobbs swore loudly, grabbing it and standing bolt upright.

     “Fisher did you say?”

     “Yeah,” Delaney confirmed.

     Hobbs raised an eyebrow at Armin, then turned on Satchel.  “Fisher?”

     “Yeah, so what, Hobbs?”

     Hobbs spun on the spot, staring at all three of them in turn–Delaney, then Satchel, then Armin, then Satchel again.

     “Okay, okay, we can… we can do this.  Come on, Satchel, you need to lie down.” 

     The two of them, Hobbs now whispering fiercely in Satchel’s ear, walked off, leaving Armin feeling alone and confused with his overly-eager welcoming party.

     “Is there a problem?” he asked no one in particular.

     “Don’t worry about it,” Delaney said with a shrug.  “That’s just my dad for you.  Sometimes he gets worked up.  The things he’s seen will do that to a person.”

     “What has he seen?”

     “Oh, he’ll explain all of that.  But first–” Delaney spun around, grabbing his arms and leading him forward, towards the metal monsters, “–a tour!”

     “Yeah,” the redhead–Bly?–agreed.  “Now that you’re here, you’ll need to know your way around.”

     Feeling suddenly warm (a sensation that started at Delaney’s hands and migrated all the way through his body), Armin followed the two of them.  They told him all about the amusement park.  Apparently, this had been a place of fun and entertainment.  People had created these “rides” as a way to get a cheap thrill.  There had been games and food, and sometimes little shows.  It sounded like the kind of story his mother would have told him–except this was real.

     “What’s it like to ride that?” Armin asked, pointing to the giant circle that had first caught his eye.

     “The Ferris Wheel?”  Delaney asked.  “It’s great.  I’ve only been on once though.”

     “Why?  I mean, if you live here–”

     “We don’t run the electric stuff very often.  We have these back-up generators, but Dad’s careful with them.  Only emergencies or special occasions, he says.  He doesn’t want the Governance to know where we’re hiding out.”

     “Hiding out?”

     “Dad will explain.  Come on, he’s probably ready to talk to you now.”

     Delaney (again grabbing both of his hands) led him to the very center of the Park.  Everyone (about ten people, the youngest about fourteen, the oldest in their mid-twenties) was gathered around a comfortable bonfire.  Satchel was seated in a carved out boat, with peeling pink paint and a faded inscription that read T NN L O L VE.  He was stretched out in it, eyes closed. 

     “Come on, Satchel,” Delaney quipped, smacking his shoulder. “I’m not letting you milk that little cut for more than it’s worth.”

     Satchel stuck out his tongue.  “Your Dad said I could have the best seat in the house.”

     “Bet he didn’t say you couldn’t share it.”

     “Didn’t say I had to.”

     Delaney slapped him again, and Satchel moved into a sitting position. 

     Armin stared at them, eyes squinted slightly, and looked around for some vacated spot.

     “Armin, there’s room for three.  Come on.”  Satchel motioned him over, and with a sigh of relief (always better to sit with someone you know), Armin climbed into the boat as well.

     Hobbs came out of one of the buildings, carrying a fold-out chair.

     “Oh–see we’ve got enough, then,” he said, seeing the three huddled into the boat. With a shrug, he took the fold-out chair for himself, placing himself right in the center of attention.  Everyone became very quiet as Hobbs took a deep breath, collecting his thoughts, then:

     “Armin Fisher, if there’s one thing I believe in, it’s truth.  And this kind of strong belief can only come from someone who’s been both lied to and a liar himself.  Only someone who’s played on both sides of the field can truly understand what a glorious and dangerous thing the truth is, so before I say another word, I have to ask you–do you really want to know something as delicate as that?”

     Armin glanced at the pair beside him.  Satchel was staring straight ahead, but Delaney’s encouraging nod was all the encouragement Armin needed to say:

     “Yes.”

     “Okay.”  Hobbs scratched his neck, resituated himself on the chair, then said: “The beginning of a very long story: I wake up every morning wondering if I am a good man.  I figure I must be a better man than I used to be, but here I sit, in an abandoned amusement park, surrounded by people–young people with their whole lives in front of them–who would be safer if they were ignorant and at home.  And yet, I’ve taken them from their little havens and from their families, and I’ve told them the truth.  Does that make me a bad person?  Some days, I think that it does.  Others, I think I’m working for some sort of greater good, but who the hell elected me as the sole person to decide what the greater good was?  It’s a fight I have almost every day, but I keep doing it because, deep-down, I feel that the Governance is worse.  And as long as I think that, I won’t be able to stop educating people.  That’s what we’ve got going on here–an education program.

     “It started about two years ago.  As I’ve already told you, I was a scientist for the Governance.  Our job was to create poisons–”

     “Poisons?” Armin interrupted.  “But the Governance promised that no chemical warfare would ever happen again!”

     “And so they did. The key word being ‘warfare.’  They told us–the scientists that is–that the poisons we were creating were to be used to crush any rebellions.  They said they had created a near-utopia, but human nature being what it is, there was always a threat.  They claimed that they used it against Twickens–feeding our gullible minds with an urban legend.”

     “An urban–?”

     “The Twicken myth has existed since the Great Fissure itself.  The Governance has consistently used it to their advantage.  Something that has never existed outside of the masses’ imaginations and the Governance’s machinations.  But I’ll explain more about that momentarily.”  Hobbs cleared his throat. “Anyways, we scientists thought we were creating something special, something to help everyone.  We thought of ourselves as the world’s first line of defense, a rather testosterone-inducing idea for a bunch of brainiacs.

     “Well, the day came when I decided I wanted to do more.  Why stop with just this poison? I asked myself.  Why not try and do something that would help people expand their very limiting lives?  So, on my own time, I began running experiments on the environment.  What a hero I would be, I thought, if I could discover a way to dissipate the chemicals.  But do you know what I found?”

     Armin thought he knew the answer, but he stayed quiet.  Everyone had adopted disgusted expressions, and he did his best to copy them.

     “I found that the chemical traces were so minute they might as well have not been there at all.  Oxygen levels were stable; water contamination was extremely minimal–possibly even better than before the Great Fissure.  With this new information, I decided to run possibly riskiest experiment of my life.  I took a step outside.”  Hobbs smiled. “Then I took another, and another.  And then I took a whole walk!”  He released a humorless laugh.  “What a discovery!, I thought.  I was going to be the first person to tell everyone that the outside world was safe; we could leave our computers and start rebuilding the old life again.  But there was a bit of a kink in my plan–the Governance already knew.  Had known for years.  And they swore me to secrecy, when I refused…. When I refused, I came home to find a dead wife and a crying daughter.  My own poison, the one I had helped to create, had been used against me.”

     Armin glanced at Delaney; Satchel had placed a comforting hand on hers.  He wanted to do the same, tried, then stopped.  He must’ve looked like he had a nervous tick, because Delaney gave a little smile.

     “They always go after the spouse first.  They send a message.  Then they can use your kids as blackmail.  Except I wasn’t going to take it.  I told Delaney to leave home, to run, and I’d leave to.  We eventually found each other, and we continued on, with only limited rations, until we came upon this Park.  Since then, we have gardened and fished, and lived like right pioneers.  Well–”  He shrugged, “–if pioneers lived in an amusement park.”

     “The Governance killed–” Armin began, but then he realized how insensitive that sounded.  “I’m sorry.”

     “It’s okay, Armin.  Don’t apologize for something you didn’t cause.”  Hobbs looked around at the other faces, sparks from the fire framing his head.  They crackled and popped for a few minutes as Hobbs prepared the next part of his story:

     “Before I made a run for it, though, I managed to send out a video.  Apparently it went viral like that.” He snapped his fingers.  “Unfortunately, the Governance was prepared.  They used my little try at rebellion as an opportunity for propaganda.”

     “Propaganda?” Armin had never heard the word before, but Satchel supplied a definition before Hobbs could even open his mouth:

     “When someone powerful uses the media to make you think a certain way.”

     “Oh.”

     “Couldn’t have said it better myself,” Hobbs confirmed.  “They created Hem-V, a hero who’s antics constantly warn about the dangers of going outside and the inter-everything that the Governance relies on.  And, the best of course, warning against Twickens.

     “They designed Professor Pathos after me.  With a look alike and a lot of technical magic, they made me a fugitive without ever having to admit that someone was living outside with no chemical threat.  They made sure that anyone seen walking outside–such as Satchel–would be feared and, if possible, destroyed.  Wasn’t that your first impulse?”

     Armin didn’t answer.  How could he have been so used? 

     “Which brings us back to my little program,” Hobbs continued.  “It is Satchel’s job to do whatever he can to recruit as many new people as possible.  He’s proven himself to be both persuasive and stealthy, so he’s a natural at it.  We have a few other recruiters as well–”  He nodded at a pair, one boy and one girl, both in their late teens. “–but Satchel still holds the record for most recruits.”

     “It’s a title I hold proudly.”

     “The rest of us are runaways,” Bly offered.  “We couldn’t stand being under the Governance like that, so we left and came here.”

     “Sometimes just refusing to belong is the best rebellion there is,” Delaney explained. 

     “The amount of what we can do is limited,” Hobbs agreed with a sigh. “The Governance is many and powerful and we–well, take a look around.”

     Suddenly, the Parkseemed like nothing more than a hunk of twisted metal, tossed away and ignored. 

     “But it’s a start, and–” Hobbs shared a significant look with Satchel.  “–we’ve recently gained a new advantage.

     “But that’s us.  Who we are, what we stand for.  Not really all that dangerous, just a little… rebellious.  Though, of course, the Governance would think otherwise.  Do you have any questions, Armin?”

     All eyes were now on Armin, and he gulped.  He’d never had an audience before (the hundreds of people online suddenly seemed less real than the bodies sitting around him).  “Um… can I ask one?”

     “Please do.”

     “Were the chemicals ever real?”

     Hobbs breathed a long sigh.  “Yes, they must have been.  I said there were minute traces, remember.  And there have been skeletons discovered, mid-activity, many right here in the Park–don’t worry, you won’t find them.  We gave them proper burials.  But yes, there was some sort of warfare.  The Governance must have seen it coming.  I don’t know much about how they did.  Those who like a good conspiracy seem to think that they were a renegade bunch of radicals who slowly infiltrated the biggest governments of the day, initiating and instigating the warfare.  I, myself, think they were either a government that existed and saved a few successful or powerful people–”

     “But there’s compounds supervised by the Governance all over the world!” Armin argued.  “On the other side of the ocean!”

     “Yes.  I said one government was in charge of it.  I didn’t say they didn’t have allies in other countries.”

     “Oh.”

     “Either that, or they could have been a group of people–maybe a cult or something–that predicted a doomsday event like the Great Fissure.  So when it happened, they and their followers throughout the world were ready.  Whatever theory you believe–because I’m sorry to say that the Governance has done a good job in keeping the truth very fuzzy, even for me–but ultimately, they were prepared.  They had created the compounds, stored the food, water and oxygen, and utilized the interweb to its fullest potential.  The Governance, in the beginning, is what saved us, but now, it the very thing imprisoning us.  So is the way with power.” 

     “Satchel told me,” Armin began with a wary look at Satchel, who’s hand was still–(still? Armin thought)–on Delaney’s.  “Well… um… he told me that the Governance wanted to keep us inside.”

     “And so they do,” Hobbs agreed.  “It is much easier to control people who are contained than people who are free.  What’s more interesting is the complete lack of interest to go outside.  That video I sent out–the one that recreated me as the evil Professor Pathos–Satchel is the only one I have found who took that advice, took the risk, and stepped outside.”

     “You’ve been with him for three years?”

     “Not quite,” Satchel clarified.  “It took me a while to find him.  My dad went with me, but the Governance caught up with us.” Satchel swallowed.  “I hid, but the Governance took him… I don’t know where.”

     “How did they find you?”

     “We were clumsy and stupid.  We tried to hide in the compounds, but that didn’t work.  Late at night, Governance officials comb the areas, doing what they have to do to keep people inside.  If you don’t know their schedules–which I have since memorized–then you’re in trouble.”

     “Maybe your dad’s still alive.”

     “Yeah, maybe,” Satchel muttered, though his voice didn’t sound very confident.  He’d removed his hand from Delaney’s, and was staring off in the distance.

     “The interweb is more than just a way to keep people from getting cabin fever, more than entertainment and communication,” Hobbs continued.  “It’s a way for the Governance to watch everyone.  The Governance knows everyone probably better than they know themselves.  And not because they’re spying or invading, but because they’re just reading.  That’s it.  People post pictures and comments, statuses and Quips–have you ever realized how personal they are?  It takes so little to get to know someone when they put everything out there.  The Governance trains people to study those traits, and then learn how to use them against their victims.  Keeping people inside keeps them inter-connected, and that keeps the Governance in control.”

     “Basically,” Satchel supplied, sitting up and looking from Armin to the gathering around them.  “It takes three things to create a Governance: A dollop of fear.  A pinch of imprisonment.  And a liberal cup of spineless choice.  Do you realize how much of this happened just because no one stood up and said no, how much of this is the result of people letting the Governance in?”

     “People are lazy,” Delaney interjected.  She was sitting as straight as Satchel now, wide eyes furious.  “Why would they fight the Governance? They don’t have to work; everything is given to them!  All they have to sacrifice is their freedom for lives of luxury, and let’s face it, for most people that’s a fair trade.”

     “Doesn’t seem fair to me,” Armin muttered.  Only hours outside of the compound, and there was an almost physical reaction to being outside and with people.  It made his heart race and his skin prickle at the very thought that he was doing something real, rather than digital.  It was unbelievable, almost dreamlike.

     But there he was. And, even better, there she was, smiling at him and saying:

     “I knew I liked you.”

     “Thanks,” he said dumbly, smiling around at everyone else, who looked just as happy as Delaney.

     “Excellent,” Hobbs said.  “One more down.”

To be continued.

Copyright Sarah Davidson 2021

Plugged In, Chapter Ten: Motorbikes

There was no use in shouting.  Armin knew that; there was no one who would dare open their doors to someone’s useless “help” right before the chemicals began to do their work.  Armin watched as the door closed with an ominous hiss, and as Satchel, the same deplorable grin plastered on his face, appeared in the window.  Armin shut his eyes tight, holding onto his arms in a weak attempt at protection.  Any moment, the burning would start… the pain… the disintegration….

     The coolness?

     Armin, breathing so heavily he sounded like a bull, pried his eyes open.  The night air was cool against his skin.  The air smelled sweet with… what was that smell?  It was far away, but clear and deep.  There was no danger… nothing like what he’d seen in videos or read about in chat rooms.

     Had Hem-V taught him nothing?

     Apparently, yes.

     Another whoosh, this time signaling that Satchel was walking outside.  Right before the door closed, he stuck a piece of cardboard in the doorjamb.  “Kink in the system.  Just give that a wiggle, and the door’s emergency mode will kick in and make it reopen.  Got it, Armin?”

     Armin couldn’t answer.  He was standing outside.  Outside!  And he was whole and healthy and–

     “What the hell?”

     Satchel’s eyes were sparkling.  “That was my reaction, too.”

     “How is–what is–” Armin waved his arms around uselessly.  There were no words to describe what had just happened.

     “I like when I see this in a recruit.  I hate the ones who cry or act scared.  A little rebellion when you realize you’ve been lied to is a good thing.  That’s what my dad always used to say.  ‘Don’t get scared, Satchel.  Get angry.’  Advice like that’ll save your life, if you ask me.”

     “Lied to?”

     “Who told you all this stuff about the chemicals?  About the Twickens?”

     “The…”  Armin couldn’t finish the sentence.  The Governance.  And by extension… his dad.  But no, his dad was a lot of things, but he wasn’t a liar.  Especially not to his only son. 

     “Does everyone in the Governance know it’s safe?”

     “I don’t think so.  Only the higher ups know everything.  Your average worker, like the Officers and such, are probably just as clueless as your five-minute ago self.”

     Armin breathed a sigh of relief–outside.  He couldn’t get over it.  He was breathing (and living) outside. 

     Satchel placed a hand on his shoulder, and Armin was surprised by the amount of weight that came with it.

     “I’m still… uh… kinda weak, Armin.  Mind if I rest just a sec’?  Then we can get goin’.”

     “Goin’?”

     Satchel was smiling widely; it was an expression that was both terrifying and exciting.  “This is only the beginning, Armin.  We Twickens have a whole world the Governance would just love to get their grubby little hands on.”

     Armin’s heart raced.  An hour ago, he’d thought he was going to be something’s dinner; a few minutes ago, that he was going to be flambéed.  And now… now he didn’t know what to expect. 

     “If you want to, that is.  I don’t force anything.  But understand, please, that I’m going to disappear if you don’t want to come.  Just thought I’d offer you the chance to, you know, really live.”

     “What’s that supposed to mean?”

     “If you’ll come along, I’ll show you.”

     Armin hesitated.  His dad would kill him… but why did his dad need to know any of this?  Armin straightened, looked right into Satchel’s eyes, and nodded.

     “Great.”  Satchel released a long puff of breath, then continued in a tour guide-like voice.  “Right this way.”

     What Armin expected next was a dodge-and-roll spy sequence, full of tiptoeing and specialized sign language.  What happened was Satchel limping slightly, leading the way, talking in a quiet, but animated, voice.  No blinds opened to watch the two of them doing the unthinkable; no Governance officials fell upon them like spiders on flies.  Everything was quiet.  The only hesitation was when they passed the same spot where Satchel had been found.

     It had been cleaned, and the other body was gone.  Satchel paused, an unreadable mask replacing his usual carefree features.

     “Can I ask what happened?”

     “There’s a time and place for questions, the best of which being when I know I’ll only have to say it once.”  Satchel’s jaw tightened.  “Come on.”

     They continued in silence for a while; Armin wondered who could have taken the other body.  But the answer came to him more quickly than he’d expected–some people in the Governance knew it was safe to walk outside.  They must have come to pick him up after the Drafting had ended for the day.

     The Drafting.

     “Unbelievable.”  Armin stopped, his shadow stretching in front of him.  Satchel turned, an eyebrow raised.

     “The Draft–there’s no reason for it.  If we could all go outside and get the things we needed–and if there’s no chemicals–then the Drafters are useless!”

     “Not useless.  All part of the elegant system of keeping people inside.”

     “I don’t understand.  Why would they–?”

     “You know, I’m not the best one to explain that.  Once we get to the Park, you’ll be debriefed, ‘kay?”

     “Debriefed?”  Armin sped up to walk alongside Satchel.  He’d also called Armin a “recruit.”  What was he joining exactly, an army?

     “That sounds bad, doesn’t it?” Satchel grinned painfully, clutching his side and leaning against one of the many concrete boxes that people called their homes.  “We like to think of ourselves as an ‘education program,’ does that make you feel better?”

     “Yeah, yeah,” Armin agreed uncertainly. 

     “Okay, let’s get going.  We’re nearly at the wall.”

     And after only a few more minutes of walking, they came to the final row of houses, snuck behind them, and met with the ten foot stretch of concrete that surrounded the compound.  Armin craned his neck to see the top.  He’d always known about it: there were maps that he’d studied during lessons, glimpses from the tram window.  But it had always just been a part of the landscape, a simple fact.  But, then again, the chemicals had once been that, too. 

     But now, the wall was taller than he remembered.  In his mind it had simply been a boundary: here’s where the compound ends, here’s where it begins.  No more imposing than drawing a line in the dirt.  But now, there was something prison-like in the way it obscured the stars and sent dark shadows over him and Satchel.

     “Well, we can stare, or we can climb.”

     “Huh?”

     Armin spun around.  Satchel was lifting up a loose piece of concrete, near where the ground and wall met.  He reached in, pulling out a rope and grappling hook. 

     “I’m gonna go first, just ‘cuz I’m gonna be slower than usual and I’ll need a lookout, ‘kay?”

     Armin didn’t respond; he’d only seen tools like that in the regimens.  He watched with awe as Satchel threw it over the wall (it took a couple of tries; he kept cursing, rubbing his abdomen).  But he eventually got it, and began the incredibly long (and judging by how often he groaned and swore, painful) climb up the wall.  When he got to the top, he clutched his side, and half-shouted to Armin.

     “I’m bleeding again.  Didn’t happen to bring a first aid kit, did you?”

     “No.”

     “Okay, whatever.  I’ll be fine.  It’s not bad.”

     “Are you–?”

     “Sure?  Do I look like a Medical Officer?  No, I’m not sure, but I’m hoping, so hurry up.”

     Hurrying up wasn’t exactly Armin’s strong suit.  He’d climbed walls before–digitally.  There was a difference between waving your hands in front of a sensor and actually commanding your own body weight to move at a ninety degree angle.  It took several tries for him to even get momentum going, but Satchel never once acted bored or frustrated.  In fact, he did his best to disguise the pain that Armin knew he must be feeling.

     “You’re actually doin’, good, Armin.  Way better than most.  Don’t worry about how long you’re taking.”

     “How-how long did I-I take?” Armin panted, his shirt soaked with sweat, when he finally met Satchel at the top.

     “About a half hour, but who’s counting?”  Satchel gave a half grin, then checked the grappling hook to make sure it was still secure.  He pushed the rope over the other ledge, then said, “Going down’s way easier.  Not afraid of heights, are you?”

     “I don’t know.”

     “Well, I guess we’ll find out, huh?”  He passed Armin the rope.  “Just hold onto this, and face the wall, then sort of… walk down it, ‘kay?”

     “Aren’t you going to go first?”

     “Are you kiddin’?  This is your first time, so trust me, you’ll feel better knowing someone’s up here steadying the rope a bit.”

     Armin didn’t argue, but did exactly what Satchel had said.  After all, he’d gone this far, why not see where this little adventure led him?  Going down was much easier–and he must not have been afraid of heights, because the entire sensation was a little exhilarating. 

     “Great job, Armin! Hold on, I’m coming!”

     Satchel did, with a kind of grace that could only come with having propelled up and down that wall many times.  He landed with a clumsy plop, though, still grabbing at his side.  Armin couldn’t see any blood, though he was sure Satchel was doing his best to keep it hidden.

     “Welcome, Armin Fisher,” Satchel said, regaining his tour guide demeanor, “to the Wonderful World of Twickens.”

     Armin squinted in confusion, but with a nudge from Satchel, he turned around… and gasped.

     There were trees, and bushes, and flowers… all just outside the compound.  He was standing on grass, not concrete.  That smell that had fascinated him… it was coming from here.  From a wood that breathed in and out with the wind, each individual blade, petal, and leaf releasing a bit of itself with every gentle breeze. 

     And it went on for miles.  So far that Armin couldn’t see the end of it.  Master your life, control your world–what he saw stretched in front of him was more than any person could ever hope to overpower.  Suddenly, the interweb seemed very small indeed.

     “I thought the chemical warfare destroyed all of this.”

     “Once, but that was long ago.  There’s someone who can explain all of this better, though.  Wanna come meet him?”

     Armin turned; Satchel’s voice was farther away than it had been a few minutes ago.  He was beginning to walk into the wood, motioning for Armin to follow. 

     He didn’t need to be asked twice. 

     Branches hit his face; leaves got tangled in his hair; birds and bugs chirped and buzzed around him–talk about a sensory overload.  His mom had always worried that Hem-V would be too much for him but this… this….

     This was something his mother would’ve loved.

     “I wish my Mom could see this.”

     “Where is she?  I didn’t see her–”

     “She’s dead.”

     “Oh.  Oh, I’m sorry.”

     “It was two years ago.”

     “Doesn’t make it any easier.”  Satchel opened his mouth, seemed to think better of it, then said, “I ran away from home after my Dad died.  I have no idea what Mom’s up to.  Haven’t seen her in forever.”

     “Maybe I’ll do the same.  Not like Dad cares.”

     “He said he was worried about you.”

     “Worried the same way a chess player is when a pawn gets taken.”

     “Oh.”  Satchel didn’t seem to know what to say, so he walked ahead, with a bravado that didn’t seem entirely genuine.  “Well, parents or no parents, this is the life, let me tell you.  Just wait ‘til you get to the Park.”

     “What’s the Park?”

     “You’ll find out in about an hour, but trust me, it’s somethin’ alright.”

     They came to the edge of the wood.  There was an ancient road–all asphalt and ghosts of yellow lines.  Satchel disappeared behind a clump of bushes.  When he returned, he was holding onto a machine that Armin had only ever seen on archeology websites.

     “That’s a–”

     “First of all, it’s not a ‘that,’ it’s a she.  And her name is Priscilla.”

     “That’s a motorbike.”

     “Well spotted,” Satchel said.  “You’re better read than a lot of the recruits.  Normally, I have to explain.  Now, you gonna get on, or are you gonna hurt Prissy’s feelings?”

     “Sure, I’ll get on… Prissy.”

     “Whoa, whoa.”  Satchel stepped in front of him, holding up a hand and wearing a would-be stern expression.  “I’m the only one who gets to call her Prissy.  Priscilla to you, mate.”

     “Right,” Armin said, barely stifling a laugh.  “What was I thinking.”  He leaned down to the motorbike, his reflection distorted in the curved metal.  “May I take a seat, Miss Priscilla?”

     “I’m bringin’ home a gentleman!  What a find!”  Satchel laughed, tossing Armin a helmet, and taking a seat himself.  Within seconds, they were situated, Armin holding awkwardly to Satchel’s waist.

     “Don’t get any ideas, cowboy,” Satchel joked, and he revved the motor.

     It made a sound like a lion waking from a nightmare.  Armin understood for the first time what it meant to hear something “rev to life.”  The tram didn’t make a sound like this, nor did his computer.  This wasn’t a sound made to move through the system efficiently; no, this was a sound that said “I am here.”

     “Ready to go?”

     “I guess!”

     “Then hold on!”

     And the motorbike roared onto the road.  Armin had never ridden something so fast and so smooth; it easily avoided the cracks and crevices that time had made.  The wind made Armin’s eyes water and the movement made the back of his spine prickle.  Was this normal?  Should his body be reacting like this? 

     He hoped the answer was yes, because he loved the sensation. 

     Satchel kept glancing behind him, smiling at Armin’s expression (which was somewhere between awe and uncertainty).  With both of Satchel’s hands preoccupied, Armin could now see the small, steady flow of blood staining his shirt.  He hoped they’d get to–the Park?–soon, and that Satchel could get better help there.

     “Can you see it?” Satchel shouted after a while.  “Up ahead?  It’s kinda dark, but if you squint, you can totally make it out.”

     “What?” Armin had no way of hearing him over the roaring gusts surrounding them.

     “Look up ahead!”

     Armin tried; it was difficult to keep his eyes open.  After a few seconds, he began to see something on the horizon.  It was a dark imprint in the night sky, like an embossing.  He’d never seen something that looked like it before; it looked a little like a giant abstract art piece, all odd angles and curves. 

     “That’s where I live!” Satchel shouted, his voice shaking with the motorbike.

     “How?”  Armin didn’t think it looked like a building, at least no building that he’d ever seen.

     Satchel laughed outright; his only response: “Just wait til we get closer.”

     As the motorbike advanced on the Park, it began to take shape.  It wasn’t just one giant metal monster, but a lot of them.  There was one that resembled a giant circle, another that looked like a huge snake, and yet another that seemed to be a slide.  There were little buildings scattered throughout the area (Armin could just barely make these out), and dull light (like a fire) shone from the center.

     The motorbike came to a stop right outside a main gate that read: “Cluster County Amusement Park.”  An aisle, lined with buildings advertising things Armin couldn’t understand, welcomed them.  Armin read each sign as they entered: TICKETS, COTTON CANDY, HALL OF MIRRORS, GUESS YOUR WEIGHT, FRIED VEGETABLES, SHOOTING GALLERY. 

     “What is this place?”

     “This was the kind of place people used to go to before the Great Fissure,” Satchel explained, and, with a pang of worry, Armin noticed he was swaying a little when he walked. 

     “You sure you’re okay?”

     “Yeah, yeah, Armin.  That was just more than I should’ve been doin’ is all.  A bit strenuous for someone who just got stabbed, ya know?  Just need to lie down.  I’m fine, really.”

     “You’d better be, Satchel Benedick Monroe!”

     A voice–a girl’s voice–shouted from the shadows of one of a building that had PALM READINGS written in peeled, glittering letters.

     “Ouch–middle and last name.  Why don’t’cha just throw acid in my face?”

     The girl’s voice laughed.  “I would if I thought it’d make that ugly mug of yours look better.” 

     Satchel smiled a little at Armin, but the second he turned to the voice, his face was nothing but haughty.  “Reduced to physical insults, Delaney?  Surely your well of insults hasn’t run dry yet.”

     “You wish,” Delaney replied, exiting the shadows and standing directly in front of the two of them. 

     Armin’s mouth went dry: he was staring at a beautiful girl, one with full, curly brown hair, a slender figure….

     And huge blue eyes.

To be continued.

Copyright Sarah Davidson 2021

Plugged In, Chapter Nine: Open Doors

It’s been a while, but I’ve finally had time to write again. If you need a refresher on what happened last in this story (waaaay back in April), then check out the last chapter here.


It’s loose!

     Armin had run into his house, bidding the Nuptial Officer and Murf a too-fast good night.  He had whipped off his helmet and nearly tripped getting out of his safety suit, sprinting into the living room… and then he had stopped dead in his tracks.  The makeshift ropes he had used to tie the Twicken to the couch had been torn apart and were now lying on the couch like dead snake skins. 

     Why didn’t he kill the thing when he’d had the chance! Now it was loose… and surely hungry.  First, it would corner him, licking its lips, right before it would begin its feeding frenzy.  Then, satisfied and energized, it would leave his house, searching for its next fix….

     What if it went after Murf’s family?  Or those twins? Or that newlywed couple?  Or–

     “You don’t have mouthwash do you?”

     Armin yelped and jumped backward, against the wall. He reached for the nearest thing–an empty rations box–and thrust it in front of him like a shield.

     The Twicken was leaning against the kitchen doorway, a goofy smile on his face.  He looked healthier than when Armin had left him: his eyes were brighter, his hair and skin completely clean of any residue, his skin a deeper shade of bronze.

     Bronze?  What kind of color was that for skin?  It looked unnatural, as though someone had painted over the should-be pale color that everyone else had. 

     Yet more proof he’s a freak, Armin thought, brandishing his cardboard shield with what he hoped was a courageous flourish.

     Satchel chuckled.  “Calm down, Lancelot.”

     “I told you my name is Armin.”

     “Right, sorry–I’m terrible with names.”  He laughed again, and the sound wore on Armin’s nerves like an elephant on a piece of thread.

     “Stay where you are!”

     “Or what?  You’ll give me a papercut?”  A little snicker. “I think you and I both know I’ve had worse.”  He motioned to his stomach, where the poorly-mended gash was now hidden by a clean t-shirt.

     “Hey,” Armin shouted.  “That’s my shirt!”

     “And pants.  I also used your shower.  I hope you don’t mind, but I… well… godliness is next to cleanliness–wait, no, it’s the other way around.”  He shook his head in mock-exasperation. “You know what I mean.”

     “Listen, you need to just stay away from me.”

     “I don’t need to get close for you to hear me.”  Satchel relaxed all his weight against the doorway.  “Though I’m still  a little weak-kneed.  Would you be so kind as to grant me a seat?”  He motioned to the couch, where the blood stains Armin had been unable to clean were already starting to turn brown. 

     “Uh… okay, right.”

     Armin stayed where he was as Satchel reclaimed his place on the couch.  He sat with a comfortable groan, stretching his legs out so that they rested on the coffee table.  “Much better.  Man, this is so not like me.  Normally, I’m the life of the party.”  He looked at Armin, who, between the frozen stance and pallid complexion, resembled a wax figure. 

     “You’re a twitchy little fellow, aren’t you?”

     “And you’re a Twicken.”

     Satchel sighed.  “I think our problem is rooted in a disparity of definitions.”

     “A what?”

     “Disparity–noun, meaning difference.”

     “I know what the word means, I just–”

     “Don’t get how it fits in the situation.”  Satchel nodded to himself.  “They never do.  Though, I promise, Lancelot, I’ll explain.”

     “My name is–”

     “Armin, right, right, I know that.  It’s called a nickname.”

     “I don’t like it.”

     “Really?”  Satchel shrugged.  “Okay, whatever.  But sit down one way or the other.  Ain’t no dragon ‘round here.”

     Armin was convinced he was speaking in tongues.  Did Twickens do that?  Either that, or he was trying to use some sort of weird mind trick.  One way or the other, Armin wasn’t going to fall for it.

     “I’m good here.”

     “Fine, whatever.  Doesn’t stop me from–”

     Beep, beep.

     Satchel froze.  “What’s that?”

     “My dad!” Armin exclaimed.  He dropped the box and ran to the computer.

     “Not a word, please!” Satchel begged, and his cool demeanor was suddenly replaced with panic as he ran into the kitchen, clutching his side the entire time.

     Armin hesitated.  He’d let chance after chance slip past, and now his best opportunity for losing the Twicken was waiting for him to answer the video call.  There was no way he was letting this one go, too.

     “Hey, Dad,” Armin said, taking a seat at the computer.  Rune Fisher looked livid.

     “So you do remember our arrangement of talking each night?”

     “Of course I–oh.”

     “Oh?  You completely forget to contact me last night, and all you can say is ‘oh’?  You’re a Drafter, Armin, and I had no idea where you were.  Do you have any idea how worried–”  Rune stopped.

     “You were worried about me?”

     “It is not in my business to fail, and that includes parenting,” Rune answered simply, though he couldn’t quite meet Armin’s eyes.

     “I’m fine, Dad.”

     “I can see that.  Though your carelessness makes me seriously doubt whether your current living arrangements are plausible.”

     “What?”

     “One thing.  I ask you to do one thing each night, and you completely neglect–”

     “Only one time!”

     “That is no excuse, Armin.  I see you didn’t even add anything to your profile–no Quips, no comments, nothing–yesterday.”

     “I was busy.”

     “With what?” Rune asked suspiciously.

     There was his opportunity–all dressed and ready to greet him–and all Armin said was:

     “I’m not a baby.  I don’t need you knowing every second of my life.”

     “Your life is only as real as the world you create.  And this is the second time you’ve been absent from it.  A seventy-two hour absence not long ago, now this….”

     “I had a good reason last time!”

     “A little heartbreak?  Armin, that’s no reason to unplug!  Quite the opposite.  Connect more when there’s something huge in your life.  Make your life bigger with it.  That’s why the Governance uses the interweb, to–”

     “Maintain inter-knowledge and protect inter-peace.  I know, Dad.  Anyone who’s sat through five minutes of a lesson would know that much!”

     “Stop taking that tone with me!”

     “Stop acting like a paranoid freak, I’m fine!”

     Rune deflated, though his stare didn’t waver.  Armin kept his eyes even with his father’s: brown meeting brown through wires and digital signals.  Armin was breathing heavily; Rune appeared calm.  When he spoke, it was in a much lighter, controlled tone. 

     “You’re a teenager,” he began. “A little attitude is to be expected, but I suggest you get it out of your system before we talk next.  I do not appreciate it, Armin.”

     The screen pixilated for just a moment, and then went black, NIC’s emblem replacing his father’s face.  Armin didn’t move.  It wasn’t until Satchel was directly behind him that he even looked away from the screen.

     “Your Dad sounds like a real disciplinarian.”

     “He likes to think he is.  He’s nothing but a Governance worker, though.”  Armin met Satchel’s eyes.  “Just a cog in the Governance, but the brain that controls me.”

     “Sucks.”

     “Sometimes.”

     They both turned away from the computer; Armin took a seat in the arm chair, Satchel on the couch.  There was a silence that could only come after a fight: careful and delicate, like a perfectly set table, waiting for someone to pull the tablecloth out from underneath it. 

     “Thank you, by the way,” Satchel began.  He looked straight at Armin, and he saw for the first time that Satchel’s eyes were a bright green.  “I’ve built up quite a life debt to you.  I know you think I’m dangerous, and you’ve had ample opportunity to turn me in.  You haven’t.  I won’t forget that.”

     “Good,” Armin muttered sarcastically.  “Does that mean you’ll do me the favor of knocking me out before diving into my flesh?”

     Satchel released a nervous chuckle.  “I think that’s where we need to start, Armin.  First of all, my definition of a Twicken, and yours are very, very different.  And only one of them is right.  Guess which one?”

     Armin didn’t answer immediately.  “That’s what a Twicken would say. They’re masters of trickery, you know.”

     “Oh, we’re masters of something alright, but what you call trickery, we call education.”

     “Huh?”

     Satchel grinned mischievously.  “Tell me what you think a Twicken is.”

     Armin gulped.  “It’s someone who’s lived outside with the chemicals, and built up a resistance to it–” 

     “How does that work, exactly?  If the chemicals immediately kill anyone who comes in contact with them?”

     “Um… I don’t know… over generations–”

     “But they burn and sizzle immediately, don’t they?”

     “Well… I guess in a place where the chemicals are weaker.  Yeah, that’s what it is.”

     “Hmm… seems like a weak cover for a plot hole.  Maybe the Governance should hire new writers.” He gave a little wink, then urged, “Go on.  Tell me more about myself.”

     “Well, the chemicals make them go crazy.  They became cannibals and–”

     “Must… eat… your… brains….” Satchel mimicked in a low, guttural voice, holding his arms out and tilting his head stupidly to the side.  “Are we talking Twickens or Night of the Living Dead?”

     “Night of the–”

     “Wouldn’t expect you to get the reference.”  Satchel waved the thought away.  “Go on, go on.  You’ve got my interest.”

     “Well, they break into houses, and they eat people, and… that’s it.”

     “Fascinating.”  Satchel leaned back, stroking his chin in a would-be-debonair way.  “Do you think I fit those criteria?”

     “Yes.  I found you outside, and the chemicals didn’t hurt you.”

     “Fair point.  But have I eaten any flesh?  Have I acted as though the chemicals have addled my mind?”

     “Well… no.” 

     “And yet I can assure you, I am, in fact, a Twicken.”  Satchel rose, walking to the hallway.  Armin, curious, followed.

     “You’re not making sense.”

     “Oh, sure I am.  I promise you I am one-hundred percent Twicken.”

     Armin snorted.  “What are you, some sort of vegetarian Twicken?”

     “Towards cannibalism, but I like a cheeseburger as much as the next guy.  Like I said, it’s all about definition.”  He groaned, clutching his stomach and leaning against the door that led outside.  He was quiet for a moment, but when he continued, he was smiling, considering Armin carefully.  “My definition is simply someone who doesn’t live in a compound.”

     “That’s impossible,” Armin argued.  “The compounds are the only safe places.”

     “Not for Twickens.”

     “I think your brains are addled.”

     Satchel shrugged.  “Maybe this is something only another Twicken would understand.”

     “Probably,” Armin muttered, beginning to back away.

     Satchel’s grin turned wicked as he said, “I’m glad you agree.”  Then, with a strength that he had been hiding, he reached for Armin with one hand, hit the button that opened the door with the other, and, with a hysterical laugh, tossed Armin outside.

To be continued.

Copyright Sarah Davidson 2021

Plugged In, Chapter Eight: Business as Usual

Gulup

     That was the sound Armin’s companion was making.  His breaths had turned to soggy coughs, and Armin didn’t know what to do.  It was far too late to call for a Medical Officer… and the stuff at his house was only the basics for first aid.  He didn’t know how to fix a stab wound, especially one that was creating such a sickening mess. 

     “I’m…uh… we’re almost there.”

     “Cut you a deal,” the Bleeding Man groaned between bursts of that terrible choking sound, “you get me inside and I’ll do my darned’est not to die on you.  ‘Kay?”

     “Good.  Good.”

     Armin stopped the Tram, then let it connect to his house.  Never before had he realized how slow the thing was–the gears turning and clunking into their proper place, the sirens in his own house blaring.  For the briefest of seconds Armin was afraid Murf had forgotten to give him the universal keychain that could unlock his door from the outside, but then he found it, tossed underneath the front seat.

     “Not… not like I’m tryin’ to rush ya’….”

     “No, no, I got it.  Let’s go.”

     And then Armin was dragging him again.  The Bleeding Man didn’t complain, just continued to cough and staunch the wound.  With a giant heave that left his arms numb and shaking, Armin lifted him onto his couch (Mom would hate this mess….), and ran into the kitchen for the first aid kit.

     The Bleeding Man was a little quieter when he returned, eyes closed tightly both in pain and in the concentration he needed to just stay alive.  “I–I don’t know–”

     “I’ll w-walk you through it,” the Bleeding Man interrupted.  He was talking in sharp groans, like when a video online became pixilated and choppy.  “Here’s what–what you gotta do.”

     Armin followed the instructions: he cleaned the wound.  He checked to see how deep it was (“Feels deeper… are you sure?” “Ye–yes.”  “Okay… okay… movin’ on.”)  He then, shocked and with a shaky hand, began to repair the wound the way his mother would have darned his jeans.  The Bleeding Man kept his eyes closed as Armin used a needle and thread (“Sterilize it first!  Get a match or something and stick the needle in the–the flame–good, good, now… now get to it.”) to close the wound.  When he was done, there was a very messy scar that would have looked better on a doll than in someone’s flesh.  The area was still stained red, and there was a bloody trail stretching from the door to Armin’s couch.  The Bleeding Man’s breathing had calmed, and his tightly shut eyes and relaxed.

     He was asleep, and Armin was shuddering.

     He stood there, staring down at the nameless Bleeding Man.  His hands were wet and sticky.  Scared tears were prickling at the corners of his wide eyes.

     He lowered himself into a sitting position on one of the few clean spots on the floor, watching as the Bleeding Man’s chest raised and lowered, completely oblivious to the panic that Armin was feeling.  The worst was over for the Bleeding Man… but it had just begun for Armin Fisher.

     He had just witnessed a crime.  That was the first thing that Armin realized.  When was the last time something like that happened?  Not the digital warfare that people (like Thiele) sometimes used to increase their friends list.  This was more than hacking or spam… this was something physical, something that probably hadn’t happened since before the Great Fissure.

     Armin was living in history, but how?

     How was it that two people had been outside?  How was it that they had stood there, with the chemicals surrounding them, and argued until it culminated into a passionate fight?  Hem-V’s adversaries tended to sizzle and peel as soon as they went outside… that’s how the chemicals worked.  They were swift and merciless.

     But there was the Bleeding Man in front of him, perfectly whole save for the stab wound.  It was as though the chemicals hadn’t affected him at all.

     Armin leapt up, running as far away from the Bleeding Man as he could get.  His back hit the wall, and he wished he could climb up it, farther from the scarred mess on his couch.

     He had brought home a Twicken.  Armin was sure of it.  There was no other explanation.  The Bleeding Man and his dead companion must have both been Twickens… and they had turned on each other.  Everyone knew Twickens were bloodthirsty cannibals.  They must have failed to break into an innocent’s house and, in a fit of mad hunger, had turned on each other.  Yes, that was the only answer that made sense.

     Armin moved against the wall as though he was traveling alongside a cliff, keeping the Bleeding Man in sight.  As soon as he woke up, Armin would have a live, ravished man-eater in his own house.

     What had I been thinking?

     Armin ran the last few steps into the kitchen.  He threw open a drawer where a knife was glittering innocently.  A moment’s hesitation–long enough to see his reflection, all blood-speckled and extra pale, staring back at him–and then the hilt of the knife was in his hand and Armin was back at the couch, standing over the Twicken. 

     He didn’t look particularly ferocious when he was sleeping.  His dark brown hair was sprawled over the pillow and his angular face was lost in dreamless sleep.  He had thick eyebrows and a long nose.  There was a little bit of stubble on his chin.  Nothing all that unusual about him, really.

     Armin shook his head.  He couldn’t think like that; the worst thing about Twickens was that they looked like everyone else.  He couldn’t let that lure him into a false sense of security.  Hem-V’s old sidekick had done that once, and he’d paid for it with some of the goriest special effects to ever grace the interweb. 

     He raised the knife, placing the point right over where the Twicken’s heart would be.  He waited, taking in heavy, trembling breaths.  The Twicken didn’t do so much as stir.

     Do it… just do it.

     Isn’t that what the Governance said to do?  They said that Twickens were like wild animals, better to destroy on sight than to give them the opportunity to kill you.  It was survival of the fittest, and, in this moment, Armin had the upper hand.

     Do it!

     He dropped the knife, watching it slide lamely across the Twicken’s chest and fall to the carpet.  Armin just couldn’t bring himself to interrupt a heartbeat when it was midway through its speech; he couldn’t force it to stop. 

     Armin glanced between the knife on the floor and the peacefully sleeping Twicken.  He couldn’t just let him lay there.  After a moment’s consideration, Armin realized what he had to do. 

     He ran into his bedroom, found his spare sheets, and began cutting them into long strips.  Within minutes, he had used them to fasten the Twicken’s hands and feet to the couch.  He returned the knife to the kitchen drawer, and turned his attention to the next task: cleaning up.  The smell was starting to get to him.

#

     “A good guest should clean up after himself.”

     Armin froze.  He was on his knees, arms stretched out in front of him with a bleach-soaked sponge.  He didn’t turn when the Twicken spoke, just listened to see if he would say anything else.

     “I mean, I should, but–” A groan and then sounds of awkward movement.  “Um… any reason why I’m tied up?”

     Armin didn’t answer, just continued cleaning.  Scrub forward, then back, forward then back.

     “Hey, did you hear me?  Why am I tied up?”

     Don’t let him know that you know what he is.  Just ignore him, ignore him….

     “Hey, Cinderfella, what’s with the bondage?”

     “Just a good idea,” Armin muttered.

     “What do you think I’m gonna do?”

     Really don’t answer that.

     “Well, I can’t go anywhere.  I don’t feel up to it.  I mean, if you’re this starved for company–”

     “No! I just don’t want you eating my brains!”

     “Eating your–oh.”  And then the Twicken did something very strange: he started to laugh.  It was a loud chortle, and Armin leapt up, staring at him. 

     “I don’t care for brains,” the Twicken chuckled.  “I prefer livers.”

     Armin clutched his abdomen and backed away; the Twicken laughed even louder. 

     “Joking, joking.  I’m not a Twick–well, I guess I am, but not how you think.”

     “What are you–?”

     “Listen, kid, I’m really tired.  And you look busy.”

     “Yeah, I’m–oh crap!”  Armin stared at the clock.  It was almost 4:00 in the morning.  He’d been up nearly all night cleaning his house.  “I’ve gotta go!”

     “Where ya’ goin’?” the Twicken asked, sounding slightly worried.

     “I’m a Drafter, and I’m supposed to–well, it’s a long story.”

     “Oh, right, that scuba suit you had on,” the Twicken replied, nodding to the chair where Armin had tossed the safety suit.  “Right, go on.”

     “I–I will.”  Armin began to throw the safety suit over his clothes, but stopped mid-dressing when the Twicken, unexpectedly, asked:

     “What’s your name?”

     “Huh?”

     “Your name.  You got one?”

     He hesitated, then answered, “Armin.  Armin Fisher.”

     “Mine’s Satchel, and I don’t like my last name, so it’s utterly inconsequential.”

     “Oh.”  Armin thought he sounded really smart for a chemical-deranged cannibal. 

     “Can I ask you one favor?” Satchel asked as Armin was lifting the helmet onto his head.

     “Depends.”

     “Don’t tell anyone about me, ‘kay?”

     Armin didn’t answer; that had been exactly what’d he’d been planning to do.  He’d decided to tell whatever Governance official came with the delivery tram, and he was going to get that dangerous Twicken out of his life.

     “I mean,” Satchel continued, closing his eyes once again. “I know you’ve already done a ton for me, saving my life and all, but don’t tell anyone.  At least give me the chance to state my case.  Aren’t I worth that?  If you still wanna tell after that, fine, whatever, but… don’t I deserve at least a chance to talk to you?”

     Armin didn’t answer.  Satchel looked as though he was losing whatever energy his unconscious sleep had given him. 

     “Please,” Satchel muttered, but before Armin could answer, he was asleep again, and Armin had only seconds to stare at him and wonder before turning to the door and beginning his journey to Murf’s house.

#

     “Cuttin’ it close, kid.”

     “Sorry, I–overslept.”

     There it was: the first lie.  Armin didn’t know when he’d made the decision to succumb to Satchel’s wishes.  On the drive to Murf’s?  When he had first stepped onto the tram? 

     Or when Satchel had added, so weak and desperate, “please”? 

     It was likely the latter, and even more likely a fatal mistake.  People didn’t just harbor Twickens.  That was like building a bomb in your kitchen.  Had Hem-V taught him nothing?

     Apparently, because the Governance official came and went (with Armin hiding quietly in Murf’s bedroom; the Governance would never discover that Murf had taken a break from his duties).  Armin listened as the Governance official finished delivering the rations for the week, along with one nuptial officer for a couple on the south side of the compound.

     “Playing matchmaker today, kid,” Murf began, more cheerful than usual.  “We’re delivering a bloke to a lucky little lady.”

     “Great,” Armin said with a wan smile.  “Let’s get going.”

     Those three simple words began the day.  They started their journey at the house with the little twins. (“I’m sorry,” the wide-eyed mother apologized.  “They require a lot of attention.  Memphis, go sit with your brother.”)  An hour later, the tram added an extra passenger: an anxious, dark-skinned young man, who kept asking the Nuptial Officer questions and pacing throughout the small space.  He met his new wife right before lunch, and they held hands, awkwardly, for the very first time right as the Nuptial Officer pronounced them man and wife.  The Nuptial Officer stayed with them for the rest of the day, even eating lunch with them.  He raised an eyebrow when Murf mentioned the missing table cloth.

     “Where is it?  My wife made it special.”

     “Is it not there?” Armin responded, a little too quickly.  “Weird.  Let’s get eating, okay?  We’ve got a long day.”

     Murf squinted his eyes at Armin, as though he was trying to see him a little more clearly, but shrugged it away.  Armin downed his crackers in record time, thinking that subtlety was not his strength.  Oh well, whatever got him home faster.


Copyright Sarah Davidson 2021

Plugged In, Chapter Seven: The Bleeding Man

Most people don’t appreciate time.  Their precious routines make time seem like nothing more or less than a light breeze skimming the roofs of their houses: unnoticeable, unassuming, uninteresting.  It comes, it goes, it leaves them behind until, like a long-extinct leaf, it blows them away with it.  Time is nothing to most people.

     But Drafters are not most people.

     Two weeks to a Drafter is like slicing away pieces of cake.  The more you slice, the less there is left–but as you digest those slices… you realize you’ve taken more than you can handle. 

     Armin left the bathroom, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.  He wondered if maybe the chemicals had caused him to feel so ill.  Murf, too, said he’d not been feeling his best, though he tended to get headaches.  He said it happened every time he looked at his wife playing with little Boston, and he thought that maybe, just maybe, that would be the last time he’d ever see them.  Maybe, just maybe, something would malfunction, or he wouldn’t close the tram properly and chemicals would leak into his own house, or maybe…. and then he’d get a headache.

     Thoughts like that usually preceded Armin’s nausea.  As if the damn chemicals weren’t bad enough, this mental pollution was enough to make Armin go crazy.

     He sat his computer.  Turned it on.  Heaved a sigh.  Looked out at the still-dark sky.  4:15 AM, and he was wide awake.  Disrupting his perfectly normal sleep schedule (bedtime at two and waking at noon) was possibly the worst thing that Drafting had stolen from him.

     Though, to be fair, it had given him at least something (even if Armin would never admit it aloud). 

     He was on his profile when he stopped, mouth dry, staring at his newest friend request:  Preema Jennings.  Her large green eyes made up half of her profile picture, which was all sexy stare, pouty lip, and sneaky peek down her t-shirt.  The request came with the message: I’d love to see if you’re as brave as you pretend to be.

     He accepted her friend request and replied: How can I show you that I am?  I’m open to suggestions.

     Send.  Never before had a girl like that talked to him… that was enough to make him feel wide awake even at this ridiculous hour.

     Five o’ clock came quietly and quickly, and Armin had just finished writing a new status (Wonder if I’ll ever get to drive the tram.  Move over, Hem-V, and check out my stunts!), when the sirens alerted him that Murf was, again, at his door. 

     Not even a few minutes into it, and already his safety suit was chaffing.  Murf seemed to be feeling the same way, because he greeted Armin with, “You’d think with all the technology we’ve got, we’d be able to wear something that didn’t make us so damn sore.”

     “Yeah.”

     “Ready to get started?”

     “Whenever you are.”

     And with that, the day, like every day before it, began.

#

     “You ain’t got no right to complain, kid.”

     “I have as much right as you.”

     “Oh no.  No, no, no, no, no.”  He and Murf were taking their fifteen minute lunch break (though they used the term “break” very loosely).  Murf referred to it as their “daily dance with death.”  They had to eat, but couldn’t do so without taking off their helmets.  Somehow, one less layer of protection made the tram walls (though inches thick and fully shielded against the chemicals) seem paper thin.  “I’ve seen those cocky posts of yours.”

     “They’re not as genuine–”

     “Oh, I figured that out from day one.  The way you talked, I was thinkin’, you must be one of those smart-alecky losers.  But you’re just some awkward dork.”

     Armin glared at him.  “I’m not a dork.”

     Murf snorted.

     “I get top points in the regimens!”

     “It’s cute you think the regimens make you strong. Kid, they’re just the Governance’s way of making sure your heart stays interested in keepin’ you alive.”

     “I’m not cute, either.”

     Another snort.  “You’re young and dumb, will you grant me that much?”

     “No.”

     “Then you’re stupid, too.  That’s what I mean by you ain’t got no right to complain.”

     Murf took another bite of the dried ham he’d brought with him; Armin was eating some pureed vegetables between crackers–all original recipes of the Governance’s ration packages. After a long chew, Murf swallowed and said, “You’ve got one person to think about, kid, and that’s you.  There’s no one else in your house, no one depending on you to be a father and a husband.  You know what it’s like growin’ up without a father?”

     “Yeah… well… sort of.”

     Murf surveyed him for moment, then shook his head.  “Yeah, well, that’s not what I want for Boston.  And it’s not what I want for my wife either.  I married her, and that’s a life commitment, and by that, I mean her life, not mine.  I always figured it was the husband’s duty to live longer.  Not like I want her to die, or anything.  I’m just sayin’, like, if we’d both live to a hundred”–he smiled here; ages like that were only appropriate in fairy tales–“and we were both feeble and sick, I’d make sure I’d stay alive just a little longer to make sure she’d never have to feel the sadness of losing the person she loved, so that she’d never have to be lonely.  I’ll take bein’ lonely; I’ll be okay.  I’ll take the burden… that’s what men do.”

     “I guess that’s at least something my dad did, then.”

     “Your dad not get along with your Mom?”

     “My dad doesn’t get along with anyone, really.”

     “Including you?”

     Armin didn’t answer.  He took a bit of his crackers, feeling the dry mush roll over his tongue.  “Depends what mood I’m in, and what mood he’s in.  I mean, he’s my dad.”

     “Fair enough,” Murf agreed.  “But, like I was sayin’, you don’t understand what kinda burden it is, thinkin’ you might leave the people who need you to stick around.  And then, at least at night, you can forget you’re a Drafter.  But I’ve got that damn tram outside my door.  And it sounds freakin’ crazy, I know, because I can’t see it… but I know it’s there….”  Murf trailed off.  “It’s a reminder and a threat, and I hate this stupid aluminum can.”  He jerked his head around the tram–a funny thing to hate, considering it was the one thing keeping them (and really the entire commune) alive.

     “Sounds tough,” Armin agreed.

     No answer.

     “I mean, I get it.”

     Still no answer, then….

     “I’m a selfish son of a bitch, I know that,” Murf said.  “I know we need all this… ‘delivery system’ shit.” He raised his eyebrows, quoting the often-mocked Jess.  “I know it’s selfish, but, man, it’d be nice if I could just have a break.  That’s the worst part of this job.  But it’s just me bein’ selfish, really.”

     Armin took a swig of his water.  “I don’t think you’re selfish.”

     Murf blinked, then muttered, “Thank you.”

     “Yeah, well, you deserve a break.”

     Silence, except for the sound of their chewing.  Armin watched Murf; he was paler and thinner than when they had first met.  Yes, if there was anyone who deserved a break, it was him.

     “Wanna hear a crazy idea?”

     “How crazy?”

     “Crazy enough to calm your nerves.”

     “There’s crazy, and then there’s impossible.”  Murf made to get up, but Armin cut across him, saying:

     “What if I took the tram home?”

     Murf froze, looking like a video on pause.  “What?”

     “My house works just like yours–everyone’s house is designed the same way–and you could teach me the controls.  Besides, I’ve been wanting to drive–”

     “Oh, no–no joy rides!”

     “Come on, Murf,” Armin argued, raising an eyebrow. “I thought you had my act figured out.”

     A moment’s hesitation–just a moment–and then Murf grabbed Armin by the collar and dragged him to the controls.  “Okay, kid, here’s how it works.”

#

     Murf was doubled over in laughter. 

     “Shut-up.”

     Murf howled, holding onto a pile of rations boxes for support. 

     “Shut-up!”

     “You act like your tryin’ to defuse a bomb, not drive a tram!”

     “I don’t wanna–”

     “Don’t wanna live up that lie on your page?” Murf’s face was red with the effort to hold in his laughter.  “Go right on ahead, you’re doin’ a great job!”  The laugh broke out, spraying spittle everywhere.  Armin glowered in disgust and annoyance, steering towards the next house.

     “Okay, okay, I think I’ve got it.”

     “Sure… sure you do.”  Murf was beginning to calm down.  He approached Armin, grabbing onto his shoulder.  “And you’ll make sure you’re at my house extra early?”

     “Yeah, by four.”

     “Good.  Don’t want anyone to know we’ve changed up.  Doubt the Governance would want to know we’re…uh… amending their ‘delivery system.’”

     Armin laughed nervously.  “Yeah, they wouldn’t like that.”

     There was a long pause as they stared ahead at the endless rows of concrete boxes.  The Tram connected to the house, and the two of them could hear the sirens, just barely, through the Tram door.

     “Back to work?”

     “Yeah,” Armin agreed.  “Back to work.”

#

     There was a sick, twisted kind of power that came from controlling a two-ton vehicle.  Man versus machine.  And in that one, glorious instant, man whooped machine’s ass.  Armin turned the steering wheel, still more cautious and hesitant than Murf ever was.  But right now, Armin was the brain of this metal behemoth, meandering through the dusky streets, watching as bluish computer lights flickered across closed blinds.

     Another turn; he could feel the tram vibrate under him, feel it glide on the straights and clunk on the curves.  It was all about him, and his power, and his control. 

Control your life, master your world.

Even Drafters, Armin figured, could have that much.  That was the one guarantee the Governance promised. 

#

     There were two voices not far from Armin, but not quite loud enough for him to hear.  One was a choked voice, a voice that was trying to squirm its way out of a throat that wasn’t quite big enough to let it.  The other was reasonable, steady… and stubbornly refusing to panic.

     “You p-promised me n-nothing bad would h-h-happen!”

     “Listen, Dav, you need to calm down.”

     “Y-you said, and now…now–look in there!”

     “Dav… Dav, NO!”

#

     “NO!”

     Armin stopped the tram.  There were voices, loud voices, as though they were right outside the tram door.

     Outside?

     He didn’t know what to do.  The whirring of his safety suit told him that he could step out, but… what if it was a Twicken?  Then again, what if it wasn’t?  Didn’t he have some sort of moral obligation to check?

     Technically, he did.  But technically people have moral obligations to do a lot of things, and they don’t necessarily do them.  A moral obligation was just about as useful as the old flash drives that some people kept as collectibles.  The smart thing to do would be to keep going.

     “DON’T YOU DARE DIE YET!”

     Well, there went the whole ignoring thing.

     Armin, moving with as much speed as that clunky safety suit would let him, ran to the door and waited the impatient five seconds for the door to whoosh open.  He hesitated for a moment–the first step he would actually take outside, not onto a tram or into a house, but actually outside–but he brushed that thought away, running towards where the voices were still shouting.  They were inarticulate now, maybe even in pain.  He began to run, his suit fwush, fwushing louder and louder… such a stark contrast to the voices, which were becoming quieter now, more or less just labored breaths.

     Or one labored breath.

     The first person was dead, no doubt about that.  A knife was sticking up out of his chest, precisely at his heart.  Armin was reminded, ridiculously, of a toothpick in a sandwich.  Blood was pouring out of his chest and….

     Armin was going to throw up.  It had a smell; there was a smell that came with copious amounts of blood, a fact he had never noticed from the little scrapes he would get while playing, little nothings that his Mom would fix with a bandage.

     But this was… was something that belonged on Hem-V.  Not here, not in front of him.

     Gasping.

     Armin’s attention turned to the other.  He was not much older than the first (who, Armin realized, was probably only a year or so older than himself), but this one was still alive, hand clutching at the rip made by the knife lodged in the other’s chest.  He was lying flat on his back, eyes nothing by mirrors of the stars.  His hand was on his stomach, attempting to hold on to something that was literally slipping through his fingers.  Armin watched as the blood seeped through the fickle barrier of his hand, watched as he heaved each breath….

     Each breath?  That wasn’t helping him any!  The chemicals would kill him faster than any wound would if he didn’t get inside immediately.  Armin shook his head.  Now was not the time to be shocked (that would come later); now was the time to do something.

     Armin approached the Bleeding Man.  He walked right above him, into his desperate line of vision, so that he would know that someone was there to help. 

     The Bleeding Man’s eyes opened wide, terrified.  “No… please no…”

     “I’m here to help,” Armin said, and his voice sounded garbled and strange through the helmet.

     “Like hell you are!”

     And, unbelievably, the Bleeding Man tried to stand. The effort was too much, and he fell over, slipping in the pool where his and the other man’s blood were mixing.  His face screwed up in pain, and Armin reached over. 

     “Let me–”

     “No… no…” he argued, but there was no strength to back up his protest.  Armin tried to lift him, failed, then proceeded to drag him to the nearby tram.  He heaved him inside, and the Bleeding Man groaned.  How much blood could someone lose without dying?

     “Here, uh… let’s… uh…”

     “Stop the bleeding… get a cloth or somethin’.”

     Armin spun around the tram; there was the dining cloth that Murf had jokingly brought for the lunches.  He lunged for it, ripped it apart, and pressed it to the Bleeding Man’s stomach.

     “Pressure… here…” he instructed through gritted teeth.   

     Armin, dizzy and shaking, followed the directions.  He applied the pressure, breathing almost as heavily as the man on the floor of the tram. He couldn’t stand here, keeping the blood at bay forever. He wrapped dining cloth, tight, around the Bleeding Man’s waist and made to get up.

     “Where are you going?” the Bleeding Man asked weakly.  His pale hand reached to apply the pressure that Armin had abandoned.

     “I can’t help you any more than that here.  We have to get to my house.”

     The Bleeding Man didn’t argue, so Armin turned to the controls, started the tram, and began to drive with a shakiness that even Murf wouldn’t have laughed at.


Copyright Sarah Davidson 2021

Plugged In, Chapter Six: The First Day

“Don’t you look the part of the solider preparing for battle?”  The Governance official, all careful manicure and styled hair, chuckled at him.  “If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you were walking into a war zone rather than a delivery system.  That’s all you are, after all, sweetie, a delivery man.  Does that make you feel any better?”

     Armin wanted to know who had given her the right to call him “sweetie.”  He stared at her, mouth slightly agape, mostly because he had never seen someone so perfectly chiseled out of hairspray and makeup.

     “You know, people tend to get all worked up over being Drafted.  And yes, I get it,” she closed her eyes and nodded as though to emphasis that she had once been in Armin’s place: a definite lie: (1) She was a woman, and women were never Drafted; (2) A career in the Governance exempted anyone from the same fate as Armin.  “I get that the chemicals could cause some harm, but what all the Drafters have to keep in mind is that this is all just part of a bigger process.  You don’t think the Governance would do anything that could hurt you?”

     Does this woman ever stop talking?

     “Heavens no, sweetie!  The Governance is all about keeping population… well, populous!” She giggled.  “So, you see, you really have nothing to worry about.” 

     She finally stopped talking, and Armin wondered whether it was because she’d finished her speech or if she just needed someone to deposit another twenty-five cents.

     “Um…..”

     “Oh, look at me.  I’ve forgotten to introduce myself.”  She held out her hand, and Armin shook it.  “Jessinia Martin, Drafting Coordinator.  You may call me Jess, if you like, Mr. Armin Fisher.”

     The “Mr.” sounded weird in front of his name, but Armin ignored it, saying, “Do I just get started?”

     “Mercy no.  First the safety suit.  Here you go.”  She reached into the tram and passed him a package.  “Go put it on directly.  And hurry back–we have a schedule to keep, which I daresay we are drastically behind on!  All this senseless chitter-chatter!  That’s the first thing you have to learn to avoid as a Drafter, and the sooner you learn it the better!”

     Armin stared at her.  The sooner he learned it?

     “Well go!” she reprimanded, returning to the tram.

     Armin obeyed; he felt suddenly nauseous (from fear or frustration he wasn’t sure), but he obeyed nonetheless.  The safety suit was difficult to put on, and even more uncomfortable to wear.  It rubbed against everything that should never–never–be rubbed against, and it was unnaturally hot.  Worst of all, it made a swooshing sound as he walked; that, coupled with the whir of his breathing apparatus, made him feel more conspicuous than a troll in a chat room. 

     “Are you com-ing?” Jess asked in a sing-song voice.

     “Yes,” Armin muttered, much too quiet for her to hear, though that was sort of his intent.  He had been terrified last night at the prospect of losing any Governance help after only one day, but now he was nothing but grateful.  The sooner he never had to see Jess again, the better.

     He paused temporarily at the threshold of his door.  His computer was still shut off; he should have taken the time to make a status.  It could’ve been so sarcastic… his friends, his fans, and his followers had all probably been expecting it. 

     “Mr. Fisher?”

     Too late now.

     “I’m coming,” he said, much louder.  One last look around his house: the only five hundred square feet he had ever known.  The only floor his shoes had ever scuffed.  That was changing now.

     He stepped onto the tram.  Walked into it, saw Jess and another unnamed Drafter staring at him.

     Five hundred and one square feet.  Talk about small steps.

     “Well, before we ‘hit the send button,’ to coin a phrase–” another ridiculous chuckle; there was just something wrong about political people using slang. “–how about some introductions?  I know the two of you can’t really see each other properly, but, Mr. Armin Fisher, this is Mr. Murf Sundry.”

     “Sundry?”  Armin asked, turning to look at his partner. Through his helmet, Armin could just barely make out a face.  It was mostly a lot of facial hair.

     “Yes.  Why?”

     “I know your wife; she’s on my friend’s list.  You just had a baby.”

     “I’m aware of that,” Murf replied.

     “Well, isn’t that wonderful!  I just love babies!”  Jess clasped her hands together.  “Your son will be so proud of his father, the Drafter!”

     “Right, because newborns can feel things like pride.”

     “I thought we were just delivery men,” Armin countered, raising an eyebrow.

     “Oh, yes, well…er….”  Jess was temporarily flustered, but she overcame it quickly, waving Armin away and saying, “Whatever makes you feel better.”

     Murf held out his hand, and Armin took it.  “Should we try to keep each other alive?”

     “Sounds like a deal.  But understand if it ever comes down between you or me, I’m on my side.  I have a family.”

     “Oh… I…”

     “I can’t expect a young kid like you to understand, but being selfish isn’t always all about you.  Besides, I never claimed to be a hero.”

     “Fair enough.”

     “Listen to the two of you!  Am I watching a couple of Drafters or a Hem-V episode!  I swear, the drama people put themselves through!”  She turned to Murf.  “I taught you how to drive.  That will be your job; a more… mature hand, I think, would be best suited to the steering wheel.”

     Armin smirked, wondering if perhaps the Governance had seen his posts.  They probably had, but he found it funny that they’d taken his “character” so seriously.

     Murf gave a stiff nod; he hesitated over the controls for a moment, but within minutes, the doors had sealed themselves from Armin’s house. 

     “Very good, Mr. Sundry.”

     A grunt, and then he had the tram moving.  Armin watched as the houses passed by the window.  It was the same street he had always lived on, yet his view had been so limited before now: a neck-craning perspective of rows of concrete slabs. Now he saw that they were neat little boxes, all lined perfectly side by side in a long line.  He’d always known that, but seeing it was a little surreal.  It was like watching a video with the effects, then watching it again with just the green screen.

     “Now, Mr. Fisher, if I could have your full, undivided attention.”

     Easier said than done, Armin thought, but turned to her nonetheless.

     “Are you giving me eye contact?  I can’t tell with that blasted helmet.”

     “Yes–and why don’t you have one?”

     “Oh please, sweetie, I won’t be going outside at all.”

     “What if we messed up the controls?”

     “Not possible with me here, darling.”

     Darling… worse than sweetie.

     “Fine.  What do I do?”

     “You will be a navigator.  That is, you will be in charge of making sure each house is visited.  There is a pre-designated starting place which Mr. Sundry is currently driving us to.  As the driver, he will be the one responsible for picking you up and dropping you off at your house. So the tram will stay at his house.  Understand?”

     “Yes, I think so.”

     “And it just stays connected to my home?” Murf shouted back, sounding aggravated.

     “Yes, but you can close both your door and the tram door if you like.  There’s an automatic button on the keychain I gave you that can unlock the tram from the outside.  It’ll be as if the tram isn’t there at all!”

     “Brilliant,” Murf mumbled.

     “But, anyways, back to you, Mr. Fisher.”  Jess twirled to the edge of the tram, where the rations boxes and oxygen and water tanks were stored.  “There is another tram that comes from the Federation Building which will visit once a week to restock.  It will come to Mr. Sundry’s house, but it is up to the two of you to ensure that exactly what is here lasts until the next delivery.  Just follow these order forms–” She passed Armin papers that explained exactly how much of everything went to each house.  “Easy enough, correct?”

     “Yeah,” Armin said, even though he already had a head-ache.  He now knew why a Governance career had never appealed to him: it was complicated and intricate.  The creation and storing of these precious provisions, then making sure they were all delivered, plus tracking how much was given to each household?  The planning must be intense.

     Armin just hoped he wouldn’t botch it up.

     “Now, Mr. Sundry, being the masculine type–”

     Which would make me what exactly?

     “–will be in charge of carrying the oxygen and water tanks. Mr. Fisher, you can bring in the rations and ask the questions.  Do you know–?”

     Armin recited the questions he had heard every day of his life.

     “Excellent.  Truly excellent.  And if anyone needs a Technical, Medical, or Nuptial officer, all you have to do is fill out this form–”  She passed him a very flat computer touch screen. “–and hit ‘send.’ Understand?”

     “I know how to send an e-mail.”

     Jess tittered.  “Well, I would certainly hope so.  That would be like… well, not knowing how to send an e-mail!” Another girlish laugh at her own joke.  “You just send that, and the appropriate officer will be transported via tram system by five o’clock the next morning to hitch a ride.  He will meet up at Murf’s house, of course.   So, Murf, when then happens, just go to the back door–”

     Armin looked; there was, indeed, a back door.  There was a siren and a button beside it, much like Armin’s door at home.  Obviously, trams could hook up and the supplies or officers from one could move into the next. 

     Such a delicate system.

     “And then, last thing, the only reasons you two would have to go outside would be if there is some faulty wiring.  Have the two of you studied the pamphlets that were sent.”

     Armin and Murf both nodded.

     “And taken the tests online?”

     More nods.

     “Good, and your scores were perfect.  Of course, if they hadn’t been, we would have just taken you for manual training at the Federation Building.  Did you know some people have the absolute gall to purposely fail to try and get out of Drafting?”

     “Really?” Armin asked, though it was a tactic of which he was well aware.  He had considered it himself, but he knew that would ultimately amount to nothing: just training with a real person rather than a computer, and extra days tacked on to his draft season.  It was mandatory to be in the field for a year, and any time taken for extra training wasn’t forgiven.

     “I know, some people!  You’d think it was a big deal!”

     “Imagine that,” Murf muttered.  The tram came to an abrupt stop.  They were in front of a house that looked no different from any other, but, as Armin checked the map, he could see that this would be where their rounds would begin for the next three hundred and sixty four days.

     “What is needed, Mr. Fisher?” Jess quizzed him.

     “Um… family of four.  Mother, father, two twins, age three.  Right?”

     “Yes, so how much?”

     “Two tanks of water and oxygen, four rations packages?”

     “A natural!” She clapped her hands.  “Look at you, taking right up on this whole thing! What do you think of that?”

     “I think it means I can read.”

     She laughed, though it was rather forced.  “Good spirits help with Drafting.  But that’s going to be very hard to maintain if you get behind on schedule.  So get going!”

     Armin and Murf didn’t wait.  Already, they’d gotten the idea that the faster they moved, the sooner they could get home.  Armin asked the questions of the mother, her two twins climbing all over her.  It might have been cute… except that he wanted to get home as soon as possible.

     “As soon as possible,” though, didn’t happen for nearly another six hours.


Copyright Sarah Davidson 2021

Plugged In, Chapter Four: Characters

“This is unexpected, Armin.”

     He stared at his father, gulped, and composed himself.  If he was going to play the “My Dad Works for the Governance” card, he had to first appeal to his dad, and Rune Fisher had no sympathy for panic. 

     “I got an e-mail today, Dad.”

     Rune considered him, those deep-set eyes unblinking.  “And I, Armin, received one hundred and three e-mails today.  Please enlighten me as to why your one should take precedence over all of them?”

     “It was a Drafter e-mail,” Armin argued, his voice wavering on desperation, but he did his best to keep it strong.  “A Drafter e-mail.”

     Rune’s expression did not change.  “And what do you want me to do about it?”

     “I–”

     “You surely have not called me outside of our pre-determined time because you think yourself higher than the rest of the populace simply because I am your father?”

     Armin didn’t answer because, yes, that was the exact reason why he had called.

     “Armin, tut, tut, tut.”  He adopted a voice that would have been better for lecturing a naughty toddler; it was a tone that Armin hadn’t heard even when he was a toddler, and it grated on his nerves.  “I thought I’d raised you better than that.”

     “Then you don’t care?”

     “Care?  I care a great deal.  My son has been selected to be a hero–”

     “Heroes aren’t selected,” Armin muttered.

     “Ours are,” Rune argued.  “And it’s an honor–”

     “It’s not an honor, it’s a freakin’ death sentence!” 

     Armin regretted his outburst the second it left him; he had never spoken to his father that way before.  Rune closed his eyes and twisted his mouth.

     “I’m sorry.”

     “No, no, Armin, by all means, shout at me.”

     “I–”

     “You obviously know so much more than I do.  Than the Governance.  Yes, in your sixteen years on this Earth you must have experienced so much, learned so much.  So, please, Armin, enlighten me with your wondrous wisdom.  A death sentence you say?  Do tell.”

     “No, no, Dad.  I didn’t–I mean, I know it’s necessary, and–”

     “Necessary?  No, not necessary at all.  The Governance just enjoys tying strings around its citizenry and moving them around like toy sailboats in a stream.  We’re wicked and manipulative.”

     “No, no!” Armin leapt out of his chair.  “I didn’t say that–you’re saying that, I never–”

     “Say, imply.  What’s the difference?”  Rune shrugged.  “I’m surprised, Armin.  Here, I thought you understood how the world works.”

     “I–I do.”

     “You understand nothing,” Rune snapped, and his voice reacted as if someone had flipped a switch: the sardonic lilt became suddenly low and grave.  “You, Armin, who have spent half your time on your mother’s lap, and the other half acting a minor role in a vicarious play.  Sixteen years of luxury, and you claim to understand?”

     “I pay attention in class.  I know the Drafters–”

     “Are our life source, in short.  A necessary sacrifice.  And you blemish their name with your pathetic whining.”  Rune wrinkled his nose.  “I did not raise my son like that.”

     Armin didn’t meet his father’s eyes.  Rune, in fact, had done very little “raising,” and Armin knew it… though he wasn’t quite bold enough to point it out.  Rune would only tarnish Mom’s memory some more, and Armin doubted he could take that. The Technical Office would have to supply him with a new computer….

     Already, he wanted to run his fist through it.

     “Can you blame me for being afraid?”

     “Of the chemicals?  There are precautions–”

     “There are accidents.”

     “You have my sense, so there will be none.”

     Armin pushed his lips close together.  There would be no reasoning with his father.  He had been foolish to try, but he’d known that his only hope had rested in Rune.

     With hope like that, who needs despair?

     “Armin?”

     No answer.

     “Armin?”

     Refusal to respond.

     “Armin, you’re smart.  Too smart to get yourself into an accident.  And you’re cautious.  You will not get hurt.”

     Stubborn teenage silence.

     “Armin, for God’s sake, stop being so damn stereotypical and answer your father!”

     “I want to disconnect.”

     “You will do no such thing, young man.”

     “What can you do?”  Armin glared at his father.  “You’re at the Federation Building.”

     “Don’t tempt me to action with your attitude, Armin.”

     “What are you going to do?  Take away my computer privileges?”

     “I could.”

     “Fine, do it, I don’t care.”

     “You want your entire world gone?  I’ve done it to people, Armin.  It makes them crazy.”

     “I don’t give a damn.”

     “You will refrain from that language!”

     “Why?”

     “Because I am your father and will not be spoken to like that!”

     “A father who won’t even protect his own son?”

     “I can’t, Armin.  It’s as simple as that–I have no authority, no power in that realm.”

     “Would you even do it if you could?”

     Rune didn’t answer immediately.  “No.”

     “No?” 

     “No.”  Rune shook his head.  “It would be… ill-advised.  And, for you, it’s an opportunity.”

     “Opportunity for what?  A first class funeral?”

     “No, to expanding your world.”

     “I like my world as it is.”

     “Do you really?”

     Armin was caught off guard. “What?”

     “You have everything you need from your world?”

     “I–yes.  I have friends, and things to do, and stuff I like.”

     “Nothing else?”  Rune’s lips twitched.  “Come now, Armin, you have most certainly reached an age….”  He trailed off, letting Armin finish the sentence.

     “I talk to girls!”

     “But do you talk to women?”

     Armin’s defense caught in his throat, and Rune smiled.  “Opportunity, Armin, is Cupid’s real name.  It’s how I met your mother.”

     “How you met–?”

     “There was a training program available for those interested in being a part of the Governance.  I posted updates and videos that made my training seem…”  He chuckled.  “Glamorous and dangerous, I suppose.  Neither of which it actually was.  Being a part of the Governance is actually quite dull.  Not that my world needed to know that–your mother included.  Women like men, Armin.  This is your opportunity to make yourself into one.”

     Armin didn’t know what to say.  His anger, his shock, his fear–they had all been drowned out by the gears working wildly in his brain.  Armin was sure this was a temporary fix, that as he lay in bed, waiting for his first day as Drafter to creep in with the dawn, the fear would return tenfold, playing cat-and-mouse with his imagination.  But for now, Rune had calmed him.

     “Armin?”

     “I don’t really understand.”

     “People want their worlds to be entertaining, Armin.  That is the whole point–the interweb exists as a way to keep us from going insane.  There was an old term before the Great Fissure called ‘cabin fever.’ It meant that people would grow restless–and eventually mad–from being locked up in one place too long.  Well, obviously, people can’t go out, so we provide a vicarious outlet, a way to combat cabin fever.  Entertainment, in short, is what people want from their worlds.  So give it to them–make yourself irresistible.”

     “But how do I–?”

     “The same way you change the color of your eyes. It doesn’t have to be real, it just has to be interesting.”

     “So I–”

     “Give them a character: Armin Fisher, Drafter.  Who is he?  What is he like?”

     Armin thought for a moment.  “He’s not someone who would be afraid, that’s for sure.”

     “Very good.”  Rune leaned away from the computer, apparently satisfied.  “Do you feel better, Armin?”

     “What?  Oh, yeah.  Yeah, sure, Dad.”

     “Then I have done my job.  I daresay another talk won’t be necessary, so let’s not worry about our usual nine o’clock call.  Tomorrow, back to schedule.”

     “Yes, tomorrow, back to schedule.”

     “Good night, Armin.”

     “Good night.”

     His father left him, and Armin was again with NIC and his welcoming grin.

     Rune was right:  There was nothing concrete in truth; it was available to his bending and his will.  Whatever Armin wanted, he could create, so why not make something great?  Why not really master his world?

     Why not?  No reason.

     Armin returned to his profile.  Give them a character, his father had said, and Armin felt he could do that:

Guess who just got Drafted?  That’s right–me.  Now, who else fancies a walk outside?


Copyright Sarah Davidson 2021

Plugged In, Chapter Three: The E-Mail

“Did it live up to your expectations?”

     “Oh, yeah, sure it did,” Armin answered his father.  Rune Fisher stared evenly at his son, ignoring the several blinking and buzzing computers behind him. 

     “I noticed you were looking forward to it.”

     “Yeah, you and my other three hundred friends.”

     “I doubt your other three hundred friends care as much as me, Armin,” Rune argued.  “Or, at least, I would hope not.”  And then, almost as an afterthought: “Don’t talk back to me.”

     “I’m not talking back.”

     “Your tone sounds dangerously close to it.”

     “It’s not intended to.”

     “Good.”

     Silence.  Armin picked at a dry spot on his lips.  “But, yeah, Hem-V is always good though.  This one was really exciting.  You know how he’s blind now?  Well, he’s having Lina be, like, his eyes, so she’s having to get stronger, cuz she’s a real wuss really, and–”

     “If I wanted to hear a summary of tonight’s episode, I could look on any number of websites, Armin.  I am here to talk about you.”

     “Oh.  Yeah.  Right.”

     “Are you attending your classes?”

     “Yes, Dad.”

     “And you are getting to bed at a decent hour?”

     “Sure, it’s decent enough.”

     “Armin,” Rune titled his head, casting his dark eyes into an ominous shadow.

     “It really is.”

     Rune didn’t seem satisfied, but he didn’t push the subject.  “You are eating as you should?”

     “Yes.”

     “Exercising?”

     “You’ve seen my regimen scores,” Armin replied with a cocky smirk.

     “They are very good.”

     “Thanks, Dad.”

     Rune nodded automatically, the way a waiter would after refilling a glass.   

     “How are your friends?” Rune asked.

     “They’re fine.”  Armin laughed, then said, “Mastering their worlds, maintaining inter-everything.  The usual.”  He grinned, waiting to see if his father would laugh at the joke.

     “You look like your mother when you smile.”

     “I look like Mom all the time.”

     “Cursed thing, that hair, isn’t it?”  Rune replied.  “Your mother always called it a jungle.”

     “She loved it on me.”

     “ ‘Boys with curls send girls into a whirl,’” Rune muttered.  “ ‘Girls with a messy mop, spend nights crying nonstop.’”  He raised his eyebrows.  “Your mother considered herself a bit of a poet.  That was one of her statuses.”

     “I don’t remember it.”

     “Before you were born.”

     “Oh.”  Armin didn’t know what to say; his father didn’t talk about his mother often, but when he did, Armin always felt very uncomfortable.  It was like walking in on a little kid playing pretend; the kid would turn around, mid-story, and stare at the adult.  And the adult would stare back, sensing they had interrupted something wonderful, but realizing they would never be able to understand everything that was going on in the child’s head.  That unknowing was Rune Fisher; his blank expression and empty eyes were impossible to read.  There were times, like now, when Armin really believed he’d loved his wife, but then….

     “Not like her statuses were all that provocative, though.  She didn’t really have a lot of sense, your mother.”

     He would always say something else. 

     “Mom had sense.”

     “To a boy, perhaps, but there is a reason your mother never even reached three-hundred friends.  She didn’t really understand the way the world works.”

     “She understood things.”

     “Rhyming words perhaps.”  Rune chuckled.  “But a rhyme and a week’s worth of rations will give you food for a week.  Nothing more.  Understand, Armin?”

     Armin didn’t respond.

     “You are more like me, Armin.  Be proud of that.  Now I have to go.  I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”

     And with that, Rune Fisher’s face was replaced with NIC’s emblem.  Armin stared at it for a long time.  When he was little, he had really missed having a father in the house, but now that he was older, he understood how lucky he was.  A father like Rune Fisher was best delivered through ones and zeroes, thirty minutes a day.

     Nothing more.

#

     Great, now the couch is gonna be all sweaty.

     Armin considered getting up for the briefest of seconds, but then decided against it.  Who would be sitting on the couch besides him, anyway?  His mother never would have stood for that; she would have shooed him away and started cleaning it immediately.  Armin, however, was not nearly as tidy as his mother.  With a scowl, he wondered if that was a trait he’d inherited from his dad.

     He exhaled through his nose, turning his attention to his regimen score.  It was official, he was the King of Fencing–the great swordsman of Arminstan. 

     Not a bad way to start his day, really.

     The rest of his day was pretty typical: comment, post, Quip, watch videos, role-play.  He didn’t gain any new friends, but not all days had to productive; some days were just ordained for relaxation.  A friend of his, Maylee, had created a profile for her new baby boy.  Armin scrolled through it; the baby was only a few hours old, and already he was inter-connected!  What wonderful parents, already thinking of their child’s future.  Little Boston already had twelve friends!  (There was a current trend to name kids after long-dead locations; Armin wondered what Boston had been; it sounded like a good name for a mountain.  A few years before he’d been born, the craze had been to name children after defunct items: Pen had been a really popular name.  All Armin knew was that he was glad he’d been born in a year without silly fads.)  He navigated away from Little Boston’s page, scrolling idly through his newsfeed. Thiele, at least, seemed to have moved to be bigger and better things than destroying Armin’s life.  Yes, all in all, Armin enjoyed a quiet day, a peaceful day….

     A boring day.

     Armin stared at his screen, as though his eyes could force entertainment to materialize.  No such luck.

     “Stig, feel like talking or RPing?”

     Stig’s voice was hurried and exasperated.  “You’re who’s calling me?”

     “Uh, yeah.  Who were you expecting?  Professor Pathos?”

     “I mean, you’re who I put Lithia on hold for?”

     “Lithia–who’s she?”

     “None of your business, but bug off, Armin.”

     The line went dead.

     Armin pursed his lips and breathed deeply.  Stig–fat, geeky Stig was talking to a girl.  Stig had a girl, and Armin had a computer screen.  When they’d been dishing out fairness, Stig had apparently cut in line.  No, Armin reconsidered, when they’d been dishing out fairness, I must’ve been held up in the curls line.

     He smirked: that sounded like a status update if ever he’d heard one.  Within minutes of adding it, he’d gained twenty likes, including his father, who’d commented:

Blame your mother for that.  My DNA had no part in it.

     Armin snorted.  A new status had bought him a few minutes of entertainment, but after that, he found himself bored and irritated again. 

     E-mail.  He hadn’t checked e-mail. 

     Most of the messages were commonplace: alerts to friend activity, suggestions from NIC, nothing spectacular.

     Until he reached that morning, 7:06 AM. 

     The message was marked IMPORTANT.  The sender was the Governance.  Armin had never received an e-mail from the Governance–not once, ever.  No one did, and no one ever wanted to.

     For the briefest of moments he tried to convince himself it had something to do with his father, but lying to himself was utterly useless.  If there were any problems, his dad would have spoken to him directly.  Armin knew there was only one reason why the Governance would send him–a healthy, Drafting age teenager–an e-mail. 

     And Armin was right.

     To Armin Fisher:

     You have been selected as one of this year’s proud Drafters. As I’m sure you know, this is a huge responsibility that is delegated to only the most capable citizens.  It is a selfless task, and I am sure that an individual as fit and adventurous as yourself will jump at this opportunity.  A year of service is required once selected, and though dangers exist, I assure you that the lifetime of honor you will receive following this sacrifice will be well worth any disadvantages you may currently feel.  We are sure you understand this.  Remember, Hemming Virtoso, the great hero, was once also as a Drafter. 

     Attached are your instructions.  We look forward to your service!

Inter-Peace to You!

    Tisiphone Jones

 Head Secretary of the Drafter Division

     Armin stared at the email for a long time, read it, re-read it.  There was a lump forming in his throat.  Could they think–even for a moment–that Hem-V had anything to do with this!  He was an action hero, he wasn’t real!  Armin was flesh and blood and person, not the imaginings of some writer!  He had no super belt, no unwavering bravery! 

Proud drafters…. huge responsibility…lifetime of honor…. Those were not the images of the Drafters that Armin knew.  What he knew were the harsh, sad men that went about their work, hoping that their suits would be enough to protect them, praying that nothing would go wrong.  Every day.  For a year. 

Armin did not want that life.  He wanted to stay at his computer; he wanted to do the regimens–Damn Stig!  Why didn’t I listen, why did I have to post how good I was, how healthy!–he wanted to have his world and none other… especially not any that took place out there.

     Armin drew his eyes away from the computer.  For a moment, the harsh glow of the screen lingered on his retinas, but then it faded, replaced, instead, with his closed window and the outside world it concealed.  It was now dusk, and darkness was presently fighting for its rightful place.  Tentatively, Armin raised his blinds.  He saw the railway of the tram illuminated by lights shining between the blinds of the house in front of him: a house that belonged–assuming odds were accurate–to a person who was not a Drafter, a person who was safe.  A wave of resentment rose in Armin, and he looked away from his neighbor to the other surroundings; never before had he taken such careful notice.  There was concrete surrounding the houses: no grass, no trees, no flowers.  The compounds were slabs, the houses constructed like mausoleums. An appropriate comparison, Armin thought, because without the thick concrete walls and high-tech doors and windows, the chemicals would kill them all, and their houses would be nothing more than tombs… but the Governance had ensured that that would never happen.  They had assured that everyone would always be safe.

     Everyone but the Drafters.  Everyone but him.


Copyright Sarah Davidson 2021

Plugged In, Chapter Two: The Unfortunate Drafter

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!”

     “Right, sorry.”

     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?”

     “No.”

     “Are you need of a Nuptial Officer or do expect to be in need of a Nuptial Officer in the next 24 hours?”

     “No.”

     “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.

     “GO!”

     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.”

     “Superheroes?”

     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?”

     “Yeah.” 

     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

Plugged In, Chapter One: Master Your World

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.

     Lie.

     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

     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