A short story.
Written by, William R. Soldan
-English Major/ Creative Writing Minor at
Youngstown State University
As the truck crested the hill, the enormous steel wall that surrounded the central sector was visible in the distance. “Dispatch, this is Ramsey,” the driver and older of the two men said after punching the button of the transmitter built into the dashboard. “Richland’s just up ahead. Estimated arrival, twenty minutes. Over.”
There was a stutter of feedback, but then a woman’s voice, devoid of emotion, came through the speaker. “Copy that, Unit Six. Transmission received. Over”
Ramsey ended communication with another punch of the button and said to the younger man, “This shouldn’t take too long.”
“And what is it we’re doing again?” asked Collins.
“Just a glitch in one of the communication panels. It’s how they contact us if there’s an overload in one of the towers’ automated compliance features. We make weekly rounds to do preventative maintenance, but sometimes something breaks down before we get there.”
Collins was a new hire and, like most new hires, had soft, unlined features and an eagerness to prove his merit. He reminded Ramsey of himself when he was fresh on the job.
“How long since you left the Institute?” Collins asked the older man.
“Well,” Ramsey said, thinking. “I guess it would have to be going on thirty years now.” He gazed down at the dashboard, as if hardly believing it had been so long. “What about you, kid? I hear you have a real knack for fixing things.”
“It always just sort of came natural to me,” Collins said. “Ever since I was a kid. I even graduated top of my class.”
Ramsey turned to the young man. “Maybe I’ll just let you handle this one then.”
Although Collins had shown great aptitude in even the more complex technical repairs, this was his first trip out since being hired on at MobileTech, and he was noticeably nervous. “I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe I should just stand by and assist you. You know, until I get my feet wet.”
Ramsey laughed and waved the young man’s modesty away with a gesture of his hand. He sounded just like he did on his first trip out. “It’s just a routine adjustment,” he assured Collins. “Nothing you can’t handle.”
“We’ll see,” the young man said.
As the two men and the truck made it to the bottom of the hill and proceeded along the pitted asphalt road that divided the barren landscape, the young man peered out at the desolation, having never been this far beyond the smoggy confines of the south sector. The expanse of dry, rocky terrain was a new sight to him. Save for the dunes and intermittent mounds of discarded metal, there were miles and miles of choked earth in every direction. Staring out at this desert, he asked, “Do you remember it?”
Ramsey looked at him and raised an eyebrow.
“The world before,” the young man elaborated.
Ramsey reflected for a moment. “I was just a boy then,” he said. “It seems like a lifetime ago. I guess when you get to be my age, you tend to forget about the ways things used to be and just try to keep sucking air as long as possible.”
“What was it like?” Collins insisted.
“Well, besides there being trees everywhere back then and life outside the Frame, it wasn’t all that much different than it is now.”
“There was life outside the Frame?” Collins asked, as if the idea of life—of anything— outside the Frame was impossible. “But how?”
Ramsey looked amused. “Look kid, before the war wiped it all out, there was life everywhere outside the Frame. There were states, countries, hell, continents—all full of life. But when the Rich finally seized complete control and dismantled the government, they built the Frame and all the sectors. The nation’s most elite all gathered, forming the center. That’s why those of us in the outer sectors call it Richland; it’s sort of a little joke.”
The young man looked at Ramsey, eyes wide, wanting to know more. “But what happened to everything else?”
“The Rich soon realized, when the resource wars were over and they had managed to destroy all competing superpowers, that they still needed people like us—people with technical know how—to help run what they now controlled. They needed skilled labor. That’s when they formed the Institute. And those who tested high enough to get into the Institute, people like you and me, were guaranteed job security for life. They had researchers and technicians toiling away, inventing things that would help them live forever; and now, after nearly half a century, they have everything they could ever need. They’ve developed serums that reverse the physiological breakdown of aging and eradicate disease; they’ve created devices that do everything for them, from dressing them to transporting them around their homes. They literally don’t have to lift a finger anymore.”
“What about those who didn’t pass the test—to get into the Institute, I mean?”
“They could no longer find jobs, since everything requires institutional certification, and eventually fled outward into the Fringe. I guess most of ‘em scavenged and survived as long as they could before disease or starvation killed ‘em off.”
The young man leaned back in the passenger seat, as if trying to process what he’d been told. Ahead, Richland was getting bigger as they approached, an enclosed fortress rising from the dust. “So now it’s just us and them?” he asked.
“Like I said,” Ramsey replied. “Things aren’t all that much different. They have control and the rest of us help them keep it because it’s just too hard to fight ‘em. They’ve made immortality a reality for themselves, and the rest of us…well, we do our part just so we can live at all.”
They had reached Richland’s boundary. The road, which had been rough and bumpy, now became smooth. Soon there were tall steel posts flanking either side, upon which were mounted surveillance devices, ominous chrome orbs that shimmered in the relentless sunlight.
“There’s one thing that I don’t understand,” Collins said, juggling all this newly acquired information. “If they have all these things, why do they still need us? I mean, if they’ve developed everything they could ever need, why do we still have jobs?”
“You see,” he told the young man, “as newer, more efficient machines were developed, production of them was also largely being carried out by machines. But no matter how efficient machines may seem, there will always be a need for people like us to keep them functioning properly. After all, a machine is only as efficient as the person who created and programmed it. The machines that manufacture the other machines were developed by people. That’s where we come in; we repair what is essentially human error.”
Collins nodded his head. “I guess that makes sense. But why wouldn’t they want us to live forever so we could continue to keep things running smoothly?”
“It’s an old mentality,” Ramsey said. “The Rich don’t want the rest of us to have what they have, so they keep us in positions that ensure we stay right where we are. They make sure we have enough to get by, sure, but not enough to get ahead. And their guards,” he nodded toward the lookout towers that lined the top of the wall and the steel-reinforced huts that lined it at ground level, “they make sure we don’t stray from our duties.”
The guards, who were stationed around the perimeter of the central sector, as well as throughout its interior, were human, so there would never be a need for repair. Yet they had been trained to follow orders. Their orders were simple: Protect the central sector and keep those in the outer sectors in a state of compliance. And in return they too would live forever.
At the gate, Ramsey put the truck in park and pushed the button on the door that lowered the window. Outside, there were four guards, each armed with disintegration rifles. When Ramsey stated their business and handed the work order to the guard closest to him, the man looked at the slip and then back at Ramsey with a stone expression, while one of the other guards radioed central command. “Waiting for confirmation,” the guard said in a flat, guttural tone. He then placed his hand to his ear and a moment later produced a rectangular pad with a digital screen. “Thumbprint identification,” the guard ordered.
Ramsey placed his thumb on the screen and after a moment there was a beeping sound and an electronic voice issued from the pad. “Identification confirmed. MobilTech repair. Unit Six authorized.”
The guard closest to the gate punched in a code on the touch-screen key pad on the post beside him. The gate slid open, and after it came to a clanking halt Ramsey put the truck in gear and drove into the interior of Richland.
As they drove down the main road, Collins was amazed at the sight. The inside of the central sector was pristine; there were dozens of sleek towers, tall as sky scrapers, each seeming to be made of crystal, and lining the avenues that ran between them were trees. Collins had never seen trees before, and he was awestruck by their beauty. There were also ornate bridges linking the towers together, and nestled beneath some of them were still ponds shining like glass.
“That’s where we’re headed,” Ramsey said. “Straight ahead.”
“So these are where they live, huh?” Collins said. “It’s incredible.”
“Yep. It’s a sight alright.”
“Where’s the communication panel?” Collins asked.
“The grid that powers the panels in all the individual units is on the sub-level, but based on the information we received from the grid’s built-in diagnostic scanner, the glitch is in the panel of one of the upper units. All other units are functioning properly. We’ll have to take the transit tube from the lobby to the—” He consulted his clipboard. “Twenty-third floor.”
Ramsey pulled the truck up to the main entrance and got out; Collins followed the old man’s lead.
Gathering their tool kits, they proceeded inside the automated sliding glass door, where they were met by another mass of guards.
After going through yet another identification confirmation, they were ushered toward the transit tube, which ran up the inside of the building from the lobby all the way to the terrace on the roof. The tube was clear glass, so they could see out into the courtyard that stood between this tower and the next. The entire way up to the twenty-third floor, Collins marveled that there could be such a place. He had grown up surrounded by the soot-covered structures of the south sector, and after witnessing the desolation that lay beyond its borders, Richland seemed almost mythical. As he saw Collins looking out through the glass, that’s when Ramsey decided he had better brief the young man before they entered the unit. “Look,” he said. “There’s still one thing I haven’t told you. I was hoping when they sent us out here that all we’d have to do is repair the glitch from the grid and not actually go into one of the units, but when they insisted you ride along with me, I had no choice but to comply.”
“What is it?” Collins asked.
“When we get up there,” he paused, thinking of how to word what he was trying to say, “you’re going to see something that I hoped you wouldn’t have to see. Not so soon anyway.”
“What,” Collins urged.
“The Rich have been living in this self-contained little world for a long time, growing more and more dependent on the things they’ve had created for them. What I’m trying to say is they’re not the same as they once were; they’ve…changed.”
“Changed?” Collins repeated.
“They don’t look like us anymore. They don’t look like people anymore. As they grew more accustomed to having everything done for them, even the most basic things, they began to waste away, physically. They’ve managed to develop the means of cheating death by eliminating their risk of disease, and their organs can all be regenerated through serums…but their constant inertia has caused their muscles to rot, leaving them looking almost inhuman.”
Collins face was mortified.
“Doctors from other sectors come and give them protein injections to try to counteract the atrophy, but they can’t seem to detach from their reliance on all these…these devices. Their units are equipped with droids and thought-controlled appliances that wait on them hand and foot. They don’t even have to chew their own damn food!”
Ramsey stopped for a moment to compose himself before continuing. “All I’m saying is that what you see up there is probably going to shock you, even after being given a heads-up. I was the first time I saw one of ‘em for the first time. Normally we can do our work without seeing them, but sometimes we’re not so lucky. Just keep a level head and we’ll be out of here before you know it.”
When they reached their floor, a set of guards was there waiting. Leading them to the unit, they walked in sync with one another, not speaking. When Collins, in an awkward attempt to mask the apprehension he felt finally said, “It sure is nice around here,” neither of the guards so much as nodded in response.
The unit was located at the end of a long corridor. When they reached the door, one of the guards placed his thumb on a screen similar to the one that confirmed Ramsey’s status at the main gate and again in the lobby.
There was a whirring sound as the locking mechanism within the door was deactivated, and the door swung open.
Inside, a large foyer opened up into an even larger room. There were oil paintings of verdant landscapes on the walls and in the center of this larger room was a fountain with a stone sculpture of a nude woman holding a jug on her shoulder in the center. Out of the jug flowed sparkling water that splashed onto a rock and trickled down into a big ornate basin.
“The panel should be in the next room,” Ramsey assured Collins. “Should be a quick fix.”
That’s when the owner of the unit spoke. “Gentlemen, thank you for coming so promptly.” The voice was watery, as if spoken by someone with fluid in his lungs. “I so hate to be out of touch for too long.”
The two repairmen turned, and there, in an alcove to the left of the room was one of the Rich. He sat upon a hovering device that looked like an easy chair with an array of buttons and knobs on both arms. Out of the back of the chair was what appeared to be a number of tubes which inserted into a band around his head. He had the face of a human, but it was hanging slack on his skull. His body—what was left of it—rested on its floating seat, limp and lifeless, wearing a silk robe that hung open, revealing a doughy torso. The man’s skin was like putty, draped across his frame, and his hands and feet dangled from the chair, swaying grotesquely as it hovered in small circles in the mouth of the alcove. He looked, Collins thought, like someone had deflated him, leaving only the fleshy sac of his body.
The young man tried to stay calm.
“If you could just direct us to the communication panel,” Ramsey said, “we should have you back up and running right away, sir.”
The thing in the chair said, “Certainly, gentleman. Right this way.”
Collins realized the thing’s mouth, or rather the flaps of his lips, just hung there as it spoke. In fact, it wasn’t even speaking from this festering maw; it was transmitting its thoughts through the tubes and somehow projecting them through a speaker in the arm of the chair. That’s how he also appeared to be moving about—by directing the hovering device with his mind.
He showed them the panel that was malfunctioning and said, “The guards will show you gentlemen out when you’re finished.” Then he hovered off into another alcove on the far side of the room in which the panel was located. A door, made to look like a wall, with a painting of mountains on it quickly slid shut behind him.
Collins proved to be every bit as handy as he claimed, replacing one of the fried circuits in the panel with dexterity and precision. Ramsey had offered to take the reins, thinking the young man might just want to stand by, but it turned out the only thing that was keeping Collins from breaking down in a fit of terror and revulsion was the distraction of fixing the panel.
As they descended toward the lobby in the tube, Ramsey said, “You did good in there, kid. You know your stuff.”
But Collins couldn’t hear him. He was far away in his head. Looking out at this beautiful city, his throat became dry and he started to tremble. So many towers, towers full of those things.
The young man’s mind slowly began to unravel as he faced the reality of his position in life: tending to the needs of the monsters that ruled the world.