Cast of Wonders 513: Gone Red
by Beverly Aarons
South Seattle — Sunday, August 4, 2080 — 3:00pm
We done gone Red and I don’t give a fuck. I mean, I give a fuck that me and Moms and Papa, and Lil’Bo is out here on the road to the “you’re for sure fucked zone” but I don’t give a fuck about going Red. Going Red means you still got a beating heart and you ain’t scared to let Zuk know that you’re pissed off, that you’re angry and sad and disappointed and feeling whatever feels they say you ain’t supposed to have under Zuk’s grey-ass skies. And so here we are—Red. Melting our soles on this hot ass concrete for a whole day already. Me and Moms and Papa and Lil’Bo and my neighbors, TJ, Kalli, Ms. Zena, Ray, and all of them I never did get a chance to know too much about, they on this road too. The whole district out here, about two hundred folks, gone Red and walking south on old Highway 5.
Every thought is a profit.
North Seattle – Sunday, August 4, 2080 – 6:00pm
A 10 x 10 grid of grey cubicles fill the warehouse sized room. Each the same. Each with no personal effects—no family photos or funny cartoons to decorate the metal walls that separate each worker. A single monitor on each particle board desk. A video feed flicking across the screens. Grey suit clad workers perch on black metal folding chairs. Buttocks on the edge, backs slanted forward, unblinking eyes staring at the screen. Oskar Hayes, data miner #1619, rolls his shoulders and gently massages his neck. Red dots on a map slowly trudge south on old Highway 5. He never sees their faces, only dots—Blue, Green, Yellow, Orange, and the dreaded Red.
“Data indicator alerts,” a robotic computer voice says. A ticker scrolls across the bottom edge of the screen. Oskar presses his finger against it. The map of red dots is minimized by half; nestled next to it is the day’s data triggers. Oskar reads them.
Great day. It was good. Feel good. Nice. Love it. Of course. Got it covered. No problem. Let’s buy it.
I’m okay. We’re okay. It’s alright. Maybe. Not today.
Not so good. Not feeling so great. It’s not going to happen. It’s not my problem.
Why? Why do you want that? Why did that happen? Why should I care?
This isn’t right. We deserve better. Do better. Rights. Wrongs. Justice.
Daily data triggers always change. One day a trigger could be ‘I washed the dishes’ and the next day it could be ‘bomb it’ and either one could take you from Green to Blue or all the way from Blue to Red. Zuk claims that the algorithm can’t be cracked but sometimes when Oskar is scanning the data he sees patterns: certain kinds of words can put you in the Orange/Red category while others will send you singing all the way to Blue land. Oskar only contemplates these things when he’s on the clock because that’s the only time he’s allowed to unplug his band.
Oskar drops his fingers to the keyboard and presses ‘enter.’ The red dot map is maximized. A small icon appears in the upper right-hand corner of the screen: a nondescript person with a metal band strapped across their forehand.
“Band data extraction process 35%.” The computer voice is high pitched and calm. But it’s this part of the process that gets Oskar’s blood pumping. The Data Privacy Act of 2030 requires that all aggregated band data be reviewed by a human but Zuk requires that the reviewing is done at lightning speed.
“Band data extraction process 85%.” Oskar cracks his knuckles and takes a deep breath that he releases in a long sigh. He steadies his gaze on the screen.
“Band data extraction process complete.” A stream of words and phrases scroll from the top of the screen to the bottom. Oskar scans the words as fast as he can, tagging combinations according to category. The algorithm always makes color coded suggestions, some Oskar accepts while others he rejects. Tonight, Oskar is reviewing his first Red district in five years, and the algorithm is quite bossy. It’s going to be a long night.
Citizenship: Society becomes how you behave.
South Seattle – Sunday, August 4, 2080 – 11:00pm
They didn’t send the buses. Someone said they was supposed to send some buses and there ain’t no fucking buses here. Feet swole real bad and my socks done gone red too from all the bleeding. Took a whole five minutes just to get my shoes off. Got till sun up to rest them but I can’t sleep a wink, can’t even close my eyes a minute for all the moaning, crying, screaming, and arguing. Ray say somebody knifed a lady and took her bag. Feels I got to keep a lookout, just in case. If there was a way to go beyond Red, this district would be there tonight.
Moms spread her good blanket over four concrete stumps to make shelter. When the spotlights sweep over, I can just make out the purple flowers stitched into the cream fabric. Moms said she picked purple flowers every summer when she was growing up in a Green district. I’ve never seen flowers in real life, only the ones Moms stitched. She was always stitching things for us with bits of fabric she found on the floor of the garment factory. Took her a whole year of savings to get a machine of her own. I wonder if she’ll get a bit of time to do some stitching where we’re going. Probably not. Never did meet nobody after they gone Red anyway. But I heard many a story about what happens, where they go—where we go. Some of them stories I be wanting to believe so bad, like how you get to go somewhere far away from here and just relax, all your eating and drinking provided for, and all the nice, clean and safe houses you ever wanted available for free just so you don’t stay Red. Ray say he knew somebody who knew somebody else who had gone Red with her district a few years back. She walked this same highway to the calming zone, that’s what they call them officially. And when she got there, there was a huge field of green grass surrounded by trees as tall as an apartment block. In the middle of it all was this humongous table with all kinds of food on it—fried chicken, boiled eggs, sizzling hot bacon, homemade buttermilk biscuits, and all the sweets you can imagine. They was allowed to eat as much as they wanted and when they was done, they each got their own little house and a private room with ice cold air blowing inside. Of course that just sounds too good to be true so I always been a bit skeptical of Ray’s story. Why would they treat Reds so good? Ray say because they just trying to calm the fires so people who gone Red can return to the fold. Not sure if I really believe it but I want to. But then there are other stories—rumors. Not supposed to talk about it. Don’t even like to think about it. But now that we’re here, I got to think about it. Some say, people I respect, say that calming zones is where they put the troubled and the troublemakers. They say that the calming zones ain’t about calming nobody, it’s where people go and get completely cut off from everything. No more uploads to the band so no more information about what you need is collected. But how can that be true? How will we get food and water and all the other stuff we need? How will they know what to give us to keep us alive? I don’t know what to make of it. I never been without the band so not sure what it would be like to live like that. But some know what it was like before Zuk and the band, like Ms. Zena. Ms. Zena got to be like a hundred years old but she don’t like telling folks her age. Moms says nobody can live to be over seventy so it can’t be true. But however old she is, she definitely knows what it’s like to live without Zuk and the band.
I hear that Ms. Zena got put in our district cause she kept taking her band off cause she like keeping some thoughts to herself. Heavy fines for doing that type of stuff. Ms. Zena say when she was my age there wasn’t no band and nobody know your thoughts and your needs but you. Sounds like scary stuff. I mean I don’t like Zuk none at all but the band ain’t all bad. What if something was off inside of you? Wouldn’t you want someone to know about it? Sometimes you don’t be knowing that something is wrong with you, that’s why we got the band and the algorithm to help us stay healthy. But then again there’s stuff that just ain’t right. Like them borders they like putting on our thinking. We all humans here. Even a loyal dog get angry if you kick him enough. I like to think of Ms. Zena as a nice rich folks’ dog on the outside and a crazy fighting dog on the inside cause she don’t take no stuff from nobody. She was always sprinting around from her job at the garment factory to a whole bunch of different places around town getting folks all red faced about the latest that Zuk done did to poor folks in the district. But when I seen her this morning she was moving a lot slower, feet barely leaving the ground. Her grey hair matted to her scalp like she didn’t get no chance to pick it out. She never did look up when I called her name. I know she’s a bit hard of hearing but I’m pretty sure she heard me. Seeing Ms. Zena’s light go dim like that just sunk my heart.
Are you aware that you are in a moment of new understanding?
North Seattle – Monday, August 5, 2080 – 6:00pm
The black metal folding chair creaks as Oskar leans forward to get a closer look at the daily data triggers, mostly big bright orange and red words on the large black monitor.
Why is this happening to us?
When is it going to end?
This is wrong, this isn’t right.
Oskar lets out a tiny, involuntary sigh. His shoulders tense. Where did that sigh come from? A small pool of sweat forms in his armpits. He spreads his arms a bit, allowing the cool air from the overhead vent to dry the stain he’s sure is forming on his starchy pressed shirt. He’s not supposed to care about Reds or any of the Barbs either. He shouldn’t feel anything for the red dots but sometimes he does wonder who they are.
“Resource balance required,” the computer chimes in, interrupting Oskar’s train of thought. The warning ticker scrolls across the bottom of the screen: Extraction/Consumption level imbalanced. Requires immediate attention.
Oskar types something into the computer and a small dialog box appears on the screen.
Extraction – 20. Consumption – 100. Auto rebalance resources? Ok. Cancel.
Oskar presses cancel and pulls up another small screen that overlays the map of red dots and daily data triggers. A colorful chart appears—blue, green, yellow, orange, and red bar indicators jutting out from resource points such as food, water, fuel, medicine, and oxygen right below a column of numbers—0 to 100. To the left is a small dialog box labeled work reserve—same colorful indicators and numbers. Work reserve is in the red, a mere 20 on the scale of 100.
Oskar takes a deep breath and slides his finger over the resource indicators. He only adjusts food and water resources from 80 to 50 right on the border between green and orange. “Just a little tweak,” Oskar says. “Give these Reds a chance.” Reform is the answer, not death.
South Seattle – Monday, August 5, 2080 – 11:00pm
Ms. Zena passed out today. We was just crossing over a live district where you could just make out folks working the big gardens. That’s when Ms. Zena started swaying like a tall weed caught up in a strong breeze. Her arms stuck out from her body like she was trying to grasp something. She took just a few more steps forward before she collapsed. Good thing Papa was there to break her fall. If she had hit that concrete she would’ve definitely shattered something. Zuk guards didn’t have a drop of caring in them. No sooner than Papa try to wake Ms. Zena than them Zuks come running and barking orders to keep going. Papa pull out our blanket we been using as a roof and lay Ms. Zena in it. He take one end while Ray take the other, and Ms. Zena look like a brand new baby cradled in that blanket as they carried her for another good hour or two.
I been thinking, since we done started this march Zuk’s been promising us buses and every day they got a new excuse as to why no buses yet to be seen. Somebody ask them how long before we get to the calming zone and they say another two days or so. Somebody ask them if they can at least give the elders a tent or a single bus, and they go on making more empty promises and offering more excuses. And then, I went to pick up Ms. Zena’s medicine and they give me two instead of one. Now they know better than me that Ms. Zena ain’t going to make it long without medicine cause her sugar levels just ain’t right and ain’t never been right since I known her. Maybe they ain’t intending to keep Ms. Zena’s sugar right so she can make it to the calming zone. And maybe, maybe there ain’t no buses. Maybe there never was and never will be. I’m not sure what to make of any of it. I just don’t think I can do this any longer. And I don’t think the old ones and the young’uns can either. I just can’t walk another mile. My shoes done begun to wear down. And when the sun the hottest, I can feel the concrete heat burning my soles. And on that subject, I was busy bandaging my feet and fixing them holes in my shoes when Ray come over and sit next to me, real quiet like. At first I didn’t realize he had come over at all cause I’m used to him cracking some jokes or teasing me and he didn’t do that this time. Which was strange cause Ray usually got a smile for me or got something funny or bright to say even in all of this. But that wasn’t so today. Today he was real sad like. I try to bring a little bit of sunshine to our corner of Highway 5 by telling him Ms. Zena was going to be fine and that we going to be ending this journey soon. But he just shook his head and say Ms. Zena not what he’s worried about. He give me the most serious look. I never seen him so serious, not since I met him when we was just little kids learning to thread needles and cut fabric at the garment factory. But there he was, mouth fixed into a serious expression as he told me what he heard about the real conditions of the calming zone.
Unwanted dogs burning in a killing clinic is what I remember the most about what he said about the calming zone. That’s what he said we going to, a place to die. We going to be worked to death, every bit of life drained out of us while we producing whatever they got us producing in a place so dirty that just breathing the air will burn your lips and peel your skin. He say don’t nobody get nothing free under Zuk’s grey skies and that we bound to make up for all the resources we done took without paying. I don’t want to believe it. But what if it’s true?
North Seattle – Tuesday, August 6, 2080 – 6:00pm
Oskar places a small red rock on a stack of papers on his desk. The air coming from the ventilation vent is full force and it’s still slightly warm inside the data mining center—temperatures outside have topped 108 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s so hot outside that cold water sizzles when it hits the concrete. Oskar watches the slow movement of the Red district south on Highway 5 just a few miles north of the Barb stronghold. He frowns at the thought. Sometimes he wonders if Barbs are real or if their propaganda and sabotage are the works of insiders: other Oranges and Yellows or even Greens and Blues working against Zuk, working against him and his family and everyone who plays fair and by the rules. Maybe he shouldn’t see Reds as problems but as victims of much more powerful forces who want to use them as pawns. He huffs as the computer blares a warning and scrolls another ticker across the bottom of the screen.
“Resource balance required,” the computer warns.
Extraction/Consumption level imbalanced. Requires immediate attention.
“Yeah, right. Got it.” Oskar quickly dismisses the warning and the question to auto rebalance. He adjusts the food and water from 50 to 30. He has a theory. Resource balance requirements may be so strict that Reds get tempted by the Barbs or whoever it is that’s targeting them and convincing them to turn against a society that’s done nothing but be good to them. This time we can do things a little differently.
Saying ‘never again’ is not enough.
South Seattle – Tuesday, August 6, 2080 – 11:00pm
Moms sent me to give Ms. Zena a small umbrella today. I wedged the handle into the hollow end of a metal pole and fixed it so that all of Ms. Zena’s face would be protected from the setting sun. We sat like that together for a long time, talking as we ate. Zuk didn’t give us much for dinner—an old crusty slice of bread and cold soup—no meat. But I didn’t mind much. Ms. Zena shared a tin of fish she had stashed just in case, spread across the bread it was actually the best meal I done had in a long time. Ms. Zena say when she was growing up, before Zuk, her grandma would make fish almost every day, and in the summer they would pick apples off a tree in her yard. There ain’t nothing like that around here, not even in the green or blue zones do they got trees that give you fruit. It’s against the law to grow fruit unless you got a license, and them kinds of things is hard to come by. The only place you might get a chance to see a fruit tree is working in the big gardens, and all that produce is for distribution—always too pricey for districts like ours. But some folks like Ms. Zena and even Moms ain’t got much respect for laws that keep them from growing food for their families. Ms. Zena say ain’t nobody got the right to keep a person separated from the earth that God done blessed us all with so she kept a secret garden in a sunny corner of a backroom—growing mostly tiny tomatoes. I ain’t never tasted fruit as sweet as them tomatoes before. I guess that’s finished now. A lot of things finished. A lot of things changed.
I told Ms. Zena what Ray said—about the overworking and dying badly. She just shook her head and hissed at me about being too naïve and gullible for my own good. She say anybody who got a head full of brains and not just air been done figured out that we marching to our deaths and not a new life. Then she pull me real close with a lot more strength that I was expecting in a old lady and she whispered: “Save yourself child, don’t die with us who too weak to fight back.”
North Seattle – Wednesday, August 7, 2080 – 6:00pm
“Band disengaged,” the ticker scrolls across the bottom of the screen.
Oskar frowns. The Red district’s yellow population meter drops from 210 to 209. AWOLs don’t happen, that’s been the official line since Oskar began working as a data miner 8 years ago. But unofficially there has been a drip, drip exodus of deserters every year. Factory workers who fail to show for a late night shift. Garden workers who slip through gaps in fences. School children who never return home from classes. These deserters rarely make the news but data miners see the stats and they hear the rumors. Most call them deserters. Oskar sees them more like suicides. No band, no life. No place to live, no job, no way to get food, no way for Zuk to know what you need and no way to be coded Blue, Green, Yellow, Orange or Red. Nothing is possible without the band.
Oskar sucks his teeth as he stares at the Red dots. Just didn’t have what it takes to be a Blue or even a Green, did you? Took the easy way out, rather take your chances with the Barbs, wouldn’t you? No band, no protection, no real life worth living. But you don’t care, do you? Who are you people anyway? Dots on a screen? Faceless voices? Snippets of thoughts and conversation? Oskar shakes his head. He’s never known a Red or anyone who’s known a Red. Sometimes he wonders if they really exist the same way other humans exist. He’s never seen a Red’s face. Even when they’ve committed a crime, they are a faceless monster on the news. Do they have a human face? Or, are they really monsters? Oskar can only imagine them as such grotesque beasts that mere humans can’t look upon them. Thank God for the band and the algorithm which keeps dangerous people away from citizens who play by the rules and play their part in a civilized society. Oskar’s shoulders slowly release the tension he’s been holding there. So lucky to be born a Green. And maybe one day, he and his family will become Blues if they live the right kind of life. Although, he’s not 100% sure what living the right kind of life really means.
South Seattle – Wednesday, August 7, 2080 – 11:00pm
Ray is gone. Around about noon it was raining real hard. Big sheets coming down soaking our heads and everything we carrying. Can’t see nothing, not even a few feet in front of you. Went on like that for a good hour. When it finished, the sun come up and Ray nowhere to be found. I thought maybe he sheltering under one of the tarps Lil’Bo bring but he wasn’t there. I thought he just searching for a bit more to eat since we didn’t get breakfast nor lunch but even after we settled down for the night, Ray was nowhere to be seen. The first thing I thought when I realized that Ray was gone is that he must have fallen over the edge of the highway somehow in all the chaos and commotion. I spent a long while walking along the concrete edge looking down to see if I could spot his thin brown body lying in the overgrown grass below, but I didn’t see nothing. The Zuk guards all watched me with a smirk. What the hell do they think? That it’s all a joke? I felt a big wave of sadness bury my throat and fill my head. And I was just about to drown in it all when I felt Lil’Bo tugging on my shirt. I got the mind to spin around and yell at him. And then I had the meanest thought, why couldn’t Lil’Bo disappear instead of Ray? But all them feelings just pull away when I look down and see Lil’Bo with his hands raised, palms facing me. Ray left me a message. Two circles and a bunch of inky dots looking like a path right there on Lil’Bo’s palm.
North Seattle – Thursday, August 8, 2080 – 6:00pm
Oskar tags the daily data triggers.
Red: So hungry.
Red: Why is this happening to us?
Red: I’ve got to get out of here.
Red: We don’t deserve this.
The computer drones out the hourly update. “District energy has dropped to subpar levels.”
Oskar frowns and types into the computer. The data trigger alerts are minimized and the right half of the screen is taken up by a chart filled with nutritional data—calcium, iron, potassium. Oskar is not surprised by the numbers, the district is under nutritional and energetic duress. Oskar shakes his head. In some ways he feels that they deserve this, but do they? And is that his mission—to starve them out? Shouldn’t the young who can’t even decide for themselves have a chance? They just need a little boost just to get them through the next few days so they can have a chance to be reformed.
Oskar types in a code and a dialog box appears. “Nutritional relief requires secondary authorization. Continue?” Oskar clicks ‘ok.’
A brusque voice emits from the intercom.
“What the hell are you doing?”
Oskar tenses. “Sir?”
“There’s a resource imbalance and you’re stroking energy levels like it’s a sad kitty?”
“Yes, sir…I was hoping a boost would help the imbalance correct itself, sir.”
“Well it’s not going to…correct itself. We’re not training goddamn monkeys over here, number 1619. We’re keeping the ship from sinking.”
Oskar hates it when he calls him by his number. They’ve been working together all these years and he can’t even care to call him by his real name. “Yes, sir. I think that—“
“You’re not being paid to think, number 1619. You’re being paid to code data.”
“Sir, all due respect, I’m also paid to make district assessments and my assessment is that at these energy levels, this district won’t make it to the calming zone.”
There is a stretch of silence that feels like several seconds.
“Request denied. Keep focused on the task, number 1619. Mining data. Now get that horse saddled so we can get back in the race.”
The intercom crackles and goes dead. And the Red district is just as good as dead too—for the second time. And he doesn’t even know who he’s leaving to die.
South Seattle – Thursday, August 8, 2080 – 11:00pm
Someone was shot today. Noon come and not one of us had eaten a crumb. So when the line form for a bite of food, folks got to pushing and shoving just trying to get one step closer to the only meal they done had all day. And when Zuks start handing out bread rolls, folks go from pushing and shoving to grabbing and stealing. Even had grown folks yanking food out of the mouths of little kids. And when they go to take more from Zuk guards than they was willing to share, the guards raise their guns with a warning.
If you ask most folks if Zuk is violent, they’ll say ‘yes’ but it’s never the kind of violence that folks scared of—Zuks don’t got guns drawn to force your hand if you ain’t a Red. No roughing you up, no gunning you down. They got other, more sneaky ways to make you do as they say. So, when the guards raise them guns, I don’t think folks believe they’d actually shoot. They just continue on grabbing them rolls as they saw fit. That’s when I heard it, three loud pops and then the screams. I turn to run but my feet barely leave the ground, legs so weak from walking four days that they just give out and I found myself kneeling in a stream of blood. I hurried up and got to my feet. Folks was so jumped up with fright that they was crushing anyone who was in their way. I was lucky to get to my feet and stay there. The crowd pulled me along and away from the guards who were firing into the crowd—three pops, two pops, another three pops. And out of the corner of my eye, I see a gray haired neighbor go over the side of the highway. There’s a river below us but I don’t think this high up it matters much. You take a fall like that and you good as dead.
After it was over and all the dead had been thrown into the river, we continued our march south. I check in on Ms. Zena just to make sure she still breathing. I found her, laying on a blanket in the hot sun. Her face covered with sweat. She was holding a baby wearing a bloodstained jumper. The baby’s mom died today, shot in the back while running away. So this is it? Not enough food. Not enough water. And not enough medicine. Shooting ladies carrying babies? They don’t mean for us to survive. Don’t want us breathing for much longer. I’m not going to let them take that away from me. I want to survive. I want to live. I will live.
North Seattle – Friday, August 9, 2080 – 9:00pm
It’s dark on the road. The only things visible beneath the beam of the car’s headlights are the faded road markers and the cracked asphalt overrun with weeds. Oskar’s hands are tight on the steering wheel. This isn’t exactly breaking the rules but technically it’s against the spirit of the rules. Data miners are allowed to assess physical locations to help them make sound judgments about how to code data. There’s one little catch; no one knows the real reason Oskar is making a site assessment. Nor do they know that he won’t really be assessing the yellow district he’s responsible for but the Red district that’s just as good as dead. No one can see him. He’s unplugged because he’s on the clock and Zuk rarely monitors the back roads traveled by personnel only. But Oskar doesn’t have much time, only a few minutes to catch a glimpse of the Reds before he must return to his station. He slows down the car and makes a right turn into the crumbling concrete pathway beside an eight-story building that’s nothing more than a burnt out shell of itself. Over the years, districts have gone Red and gone dead as population is moved to the calming zone. This is one of the dead districts. Oskar grabs the small black backpack on the passenger seat and gets out of the car. He quickly makes his way into the building and up the stairs. He stretches and leaps over the many missing steps when needed, ignoring the creaking and grumbling of the structure. This place was bombed five years ago, right after the district went Red—his district, one he coded. Slightly out of breath, Oskar makes it to the top floor. Old Highway 5 is in the distance, just more than a stone’s throw away. The dark dilapidated structure is illuminated by small lamps and floodlights. Even in the distance Oskar can make out Zuk guards patrolling the perimeter, headlamps on their foreheads. He pulls a pair of binoculars from his backpack and presses them to his face. He’s going to finally see the monsters. He adjusts the focus and slowly scans the scattered heaps of tents and cardboard and tarps. He stops. A blanket covered in purple flower stitching catches his eye. It’s carefully draped over two stacks of worn down luggage. This section of the highway is very dark but he can just make out through darkness the form of—a child sleeping under the blanket. There’s movement. Another child? Older. There’s a light—a flashlight. He can see them—the monsters. But not monsters at all. The teenage girl gently kisses the sleeping boy on his forehead. Then darkness.
South Seattle – Saturday, August 10, 2080 – 1:00am
Flying. That’s what it felt like when I go running through them tall grasses, it felt like I done grew wings and took off. I didn’t say a proper goodbye to nobody, I just drunk in their faces one last time while they sleeping and then I took off down the exit ramp. Not sure if Zuk guards come after me and I didn’t take no time to look back. I just took off my band and start running in the direction that Ray’s map say. It was so dark. I didn’t know where I was stepping. If there was a hole or trap or a big ocean I could’ve fallen in but I didn’t. I didn’t fall into nothing. After I get so winded that just breathing send me struggling and coughing I find what look like an old factory—maybe one of the circles on the map? I wasn’t too sure but I went in there anyway and listen for anything in the darkness but I didn’t hear nothing, just silence and the sound of rain starting to come down. For awhile, I look up at the moon smiling down on me and giving the only light I seen all night. I was feeling guilty but happy too. Guilty about leaving Moms and Papa and Lil’Bo and Ms. Zena behind but happy to be living and breathing and having a chance at surviving. My clothes were so wet that every time I moved they made a squishing sound and my throat was so parched that it hurt just to breathe. I decided to search the place for stuff to make a fire with. I was pushing through piles of trash when I noticed something out of place, a welcome mat surrounded by piles of old newspapers and small blocks of concrete that looked a bit too neat to be quite right. I lifted the mat and pushed the papers to the side, and that’s when I saw it, a small bottle of water and a tin of baked beans in a clear plastic box. And in the corner of the box was some paper folded into the shape of a heart. It was a note.
Don’t be afraid. We are a friend. You’ve taken the first step to freedom. We’re waiting for you.
It’s not a massive leap to draw parallels between the pervasive and controlling social media platforms that rule the lives of the people in… the real world, and the Zukunft Azure – blue future – of this story. Now, that’s a name that has been very deliberately chosen. We live in carefully curated enclaves, fed a diet of social content that has been tweaked and parametrized by algorithms designed mostly to fuel advertising revenues, clicks, and engagement. There are no morals or ethics here: just echoes of what people want to hear, the things that fuel their own self-interest and reinforce existing hierarchies of power. Under-resourced social safety-nets are crumbling, and blame is laid on those who are most in need. No, this story is not a million miles away from where we are now. This is a future created by apathy and naivety. It’s not my problem. Why should I care?
Into this mix, we have Oskar. The human element that supposedly brings fairness and understanding, a veneer that’s paper thin. Trying to do something right, but doing it within the existing system. Relying on the system to be fair, believing the system rewards those who follow rules and do what they’re told. This is a lie told by so many different powers over the centuries: our rules are harsh and intrusive, but if you’re a good member of society you have nothing to fear. Oskar is taught that the reds are monsters, recidivists. Not the children, families, innocents that he finally comes to see. A truth that he should have known all along. A truth he was hiding from, even as he crept closer to it.
Glimmer has been living under a similar set of illusions – that oversight and intrusion are benevolent forces designed to protect and preserve – but unlike Oskar, feels the full pressure of that tight fist around people’s thoughts. It ain’t right. But even so, for a long while she still trusts, in spite of the wrongness of everything around her. The excuses for broken promises. The hope that you’re not in so dark a place as this, that other people still see you as people, not numbers, that you’re going somewhere better, not somewhere to be quietly disposed of. Ms Zena is old enough to remember her history. Zuk and the band have stolen that from everyone else.
What can we say to societies and structures like this? At what point does inaction become active complicity? How far along that road have we already walked?
Something to think about, anyway.
About the Author
Beverly Aarons is an award-winning writer exploring the intersections of history, hidden realities, and imagined future worlds. She’s won the Guy A. Hanks, Marvin H. Miller Screenwriting Award, Community 4Culture Fellowship and Creative Consultancies Awards, Artist Trust GAP Award, the smART Ventures grant, and was an ARTS at King Street Station Artist-In-Residence. She currently writes for the South Seattle Emerald and is producing a play about the future of human migration.
About the Narrators
Sean D. Sorrentino
Sean D. Sorrentino lives in the Raleigh, North Carolina area with his wife and his dogs.
Bria Strothers is an educator, amateur DJ, orator, and sonic storyteller based in the Bronx, NY. Their current work involves blending speculative prose with storytelling soundscapes along with developing a Black mythological webcomic series. She holds a BA in English from George Mason University as well as an MFA in Creative Writing from Pratt Institute. They have appeared in Apparition Literary Magazine, midnight & indigo literary journal and Pratt Institute’s physical publication The Felt. You can follow her at fordarkfigures.com and on twitter/instagram at @btheorator.