Today I’m posting a short story I wrote in May through July of 2013, and edited a little tonight. Normally I’d like to have edited more before sharing it like this, but I want to stick to what I mentally committed too – posting a short story at the beginning of each month.
This one is sci-fi. 10,479 words. Here’s a blurb about it: The world is struggling with climate change. Food and water shortages, air that’s harmful to breathe, and strict population and environmental regulations shape people’s days. Amidst it all, Ethan and Tobias are trying to live normal and happy lives. Where will Ethan’s curiosity lead him when he starts investigating why all the homeless people have disappeared? Will the happiness of the life he’s forged with Tobias survive what he discovers?
Incidentally, this is the story that started as the First Sentence I posted earlier this week. Any constructive criticism and feedback is greatly appreciated, from typos to plot holes.
Above the Demise of the World
by Erika Friedman
It starts with the homeless people, and at first it seems like I am the only one who notices. They are missing. Jimmy, on the corner of Brooke and Lambert. Jonathan, on the corner of Tennant and Davies. The rest I don’t know by name. I don’t want to, don’t want to stomach so much familiarity with tales of tragedy and despair. I never avert my eyes, always stop to help, but can’t be on a first name basis and learn their stories. Now there’s no personal element to avoid. Once scattered like a blight across the city, lingering outside Targets and Savemarts, suddenly gone.
“Everything okay?” Tobias asks from the other side of the kitchen table, expression curious.
“Hmm?” I look up at him, realizing he has already finished his dry cereal while my hands rest on either side of the bowl, the silverware and food untouched. “Oh. I suppose. It’s just weird, Jimmy and Jonathan being gone, and all the rest too.”
Tobias, with whom I shared the puzzle yesterday evening between old episodes of Star Trek: Section 31, shakes his head, the hint of a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. He doesn’t share my fascination with ‘the beggars,’ as he likes to call them, and has long since given up trying to understand why I care. At first it bothered me that he looked away when I gave them money, sighed resignedly when I bought them food, and would have pretended they weren’t there if not for me. It was the folly of youth to think his loving me would make my values his own. I know his opinion is that of most people and though I wish he felt differently he does good in his own way, as a doctor.
“If you’re that worried, talk to the police. See if anything unusual is going on.”
“Oh, please,” I scoff. “They’ve got their hands full enforcing the new water restriction policies from the Safe Care Act. People in the southern districts are rioting and people around here aren’t any happier, just less inclined to go to jail to make a point.”
Mrs. Henderson would riot if she thought she could get away with it. She regaled me with her anger for half an hour yesterday when I stopped by for some fresh produce. ‘No I don’t have any tomatoes! And I won’t if they don’t give me a license soon! I can’t water my garden until I prove it’s a food source!’ To do this she needs to provide transaction receipts, which she has never kept, and pass an inspection certifying that over 75 percent of her plants are fruits, vegetables, or herbs. The latter does not present a problem and the Safe Care Regulation Committee is considering her case. I join in her apprehension that the committee won’t move as fast as her garden will die in 100 degree weather.
It’s going to get worse before it gets better.
“Maybe they got jobs?” Tobias suggests feebly, drawing me back to our conversation with no conviction in his tone.
“All at once? And no one in their right mind would hire Jimmy. He’s missing half his teeth, can barely speak, and has got to be schizophrenic.”
Tobias sends me a reproachful look that clearly says, ‘My point exactly!’ Instead of conveying this verbally, he takes a sip of coffee and returns with, “Maybe there’s a serial killer on the loose.”
“I’m sure. One who agrees with you about ‘the beggars.’ Add in some mental instability and there you go, a deranged modern day anti-Robin Hood who kills the poor to make the city more palatable for the rich.”
“We’re not rich, Ethan.”
“Jimmy and Jonathan would disagree. To them, rich is having a place to live and food to eat when so many don’t.” I try not to think about it, the state of the world is frightening. Food shortages, water that plays games, giving too much to some and too little to others, pollution that blots out the sun. Even here, in the west coast districts, we’re starting to understand what it’s like to go to the store and see empty shelves and refrigerators. Those not smart enough to abandon gas fueled cars in favor of their electrically powered counterparts are paying the price. Twenty dollars a gallon. Soon there won’t be any left at all. And now the homeless have vanished.
“What about your inductive reasoning correlation proof?”
I laugh. He must be desperate to distract me from the homeless people if he’s encouraging math speak. “You mean my proof about the ranges of inductive correlation coefficients?”
He nods, not embarrassed about slaughtering the name. Math is another interest we do not share.
“It’s in need of a different approach and so is on hold. I thought I’d worked it out but I’m stuck on there being sentinel values that aren’t extreme values that are difficult to prove the range of.”
“Is that all? You’ll have that sorted out by dinner.” It’s impossible to miss the sarcasm.
Tobias joins in my laughter this time. Mine stops first and his has barely faded when I propel us back to the mystery at hand. “You have to admit it’s weird.”
He doesn’t have any problems following the change of subject. “I don’t know what to tell you. It’s not like there’s next-of-kin you can get in touch with for more information.”
There has to be some resource available. “A homeless shelter! I can go to the one down on Elk and see if they’ve noticed a change in the local…um…homeless population.”
At this, Tobias chuckles. “That kinda makes them sound like an infestation. Like the local rat population.”
“I’ll go today during lunch. It’s not that far from the office.” I hit the table lightly, eager in my scheming.
“Does that mean you’re canceling our date?”
Fuck. I forgot. “Oh. Well, no. I can go on Monday.”
“Don’t let me rain on your Sherlock Holmes parade. We can go to lunch on Monday.” He gestures dismissively with his left hand and touches my wrist with his right.
The warmth draws my eyes to the point of contact. Tobias has always been the quickest to compromise in our relationship, without argument or apparent resentment. I want to tell him how much I appreciate it but can’t find words that aren’t pathetic and stupid. I am no poet. No utterance of mine will convey what I feel and I have no wish to blunder and express inadequately. Or maybe I don’t want the spell to break, to reveal it and have him stop.
“I’m sorry,” I offer, not sure what I’m apologizing for but knowing it’s the closest I can come to the pang in my chest.
“Don’t be. If you hadn’t pursued me with the same level focus, we wouldn’t be married.”
Yes. I remember. We had Contemporary Moral Issues together our freshman year at UC Davis. He captivated me immediately with his eloquent participation in class discussions. An intoxicating combination of intelligent, kind, and gorgeous. Smooth brown skin, black hair shaved so close it was barely there, piercing hazel eyes, all tied together by a goatee framing his boyish grin. He was utterly flummoxed when I turned a debate on interoffice relationships to a date request in front of our professor and classmates. It took three weeks for him to agree.
That was almost twelve years ago. Tobias’ hair is a little longer now, his face clean shaved, the smile not so carefree, but I love him more for the changes we’ve experienced. I hope the changes to come are as gentle.
Before I can filter my thoughts into an answer, he’s speaking again. “I need to go or I’ll be late. See you tonight.” He moves his hand away from me and stands, pushing his chair back. The dull scrape of wood against floor is overloud in my otherwise occupied mind. Collecting his plate and mug, he empties the rest of his coffee into the sink, rinses everything off, and sticks it in the dishwasher.
“Have a good day,” I wish mildly.
Face relaxed, he presses a quick kiss to my lips on his way to the garage.
My gaze returns to where his fingers touched my wrist.
I don’t have to knock or try the door to know the homeless shelter is shut down. It’s dark inside. There are no cars parked in the lot. The notice in the marginally tinted window about food rationing is several months old. Still, I peer past the taped printout. From what I can make out, the front desk looks like someone left it for the night, not forever. There’s some kind of soda can on it, framed pictures, and stacks of papers.
Troubled, I return to the office without bothering to eat lunch. Instead, I spend the remaining ten minutes of my break Googling and calling homeless shelters. The five I manage to squeeze in before 1:00pm ring endlessly.
It’s difficult to concentrate on the programming at hand. For once it’s not gratifying to know problems only get to me if no one else has the skill to fix them. My own work would have struggled to captivate me today. Having it interrupted by needing to correct a problem in our billing software is tedious, regardless of the importance of the bug. After the latest rev it no longer correctly syncs with bank accounts to send or receive payments. A rather critical issue, actually, but my mind won’t let go of the mystery of the missing homeless people.
At the beginning of the year, the count of those living on the streets, in parks, and under bridges, reached a record high. Nearly thirty five percent of people don’t have homes. So where are they all?
At 3:54pm. I receive a text from Tobias. Might be late. Government called my number for the mandatory health inoculations. :-/
K, I text back.
With about two hours left in the day it’s time to temporarily drop my Sherlock Holmes aspirations. Fixing the glaring mistake made by the inexperienced programmers down on the first floor goes very quickly once I’m focused. After thorough personal testing I send an e-mail to the quality control team, asking them to verify everything is working. Satisfied that the entire venture was accomplished without overtime in spite of my inquisitive nature, I shut down my computer and immediately speed from the office. Normally very social, this odd behavior is greeted with a few perplexed looks. I smile but shake my head. I want to continue what having to work rudely interrupted.
Too hasty in my flight, I drop my keys in the lobby. After stopping to pick them up, I notice the sky through the glass door. Grey. Always grey, the sun a bleak, dull mass separated from us by centuries of human waste and neglect. I’ve seen pictures of rolling blue expanses splattered with pearl white clouds, pulled up countless scores of them online. We all have, just as we’ve made a pastime of criticizing our ancestors for their shortsightedness. One of my favorite photos is of the Grand Canyon, a breathtaking clean sky stretched out atop it. I can see it when I close my eyes, imagine how its relegation to history and the memories of the very old makes it more striking though perhaps less beautiful. What would it have been like to grow up with that above, instead of the murky haze?
Sighing, I force away the morbid thoughts and abandon the crisp air of the office, walking briskly to my car. The parking lot is already half-empty – a lot of people leave early on Fridays. I managed to grab a prime spot close to the building entrance today, sparing me from having to walk far in the smog infested air. My Honda Civic is fully equipped with air filtration, just like our house. We looked into buying personal portable units but they’re expensive. Nearly a hundred thousand dollars each. They’ll drop in price eventually. Until then we’ll just have to make do.
Tobias’ car is not in the garage when I arrive. He must still be getting his inoculation. I leave enough room for him to park and bound inside, impatient to continue delving into the puzzle of the homeless people.
I hastily prepare a peanut butter sandwich. Normally I’d add some raspberry jelly but the stores haven’t had any in a while. Scarfing it down while standing, I set the crumb covered plate in the sink and I plant myself in the computer room. This time, I Google for any articles showing others have noticed the disappearance, any sign of explanation or inquiry. I try ‘homeless people missing,’ ‘homeless shelters shut down,’ and various related phrases. Nothing. I can’t even find the statistics published at the beginning of the year. It’s as if the less fortunate have disappeared from online as well.
I’m on the verge of giving up in frustration when finally, buried on page 37 of my results for ‘homeless vanish’ I find a hit titled ‘Recently evicted family vanishes.’ Feeling a thrill of excitement, I click on it. It’s a lengthy article detailing how a family of five ended up on the streets after both parents lost their jobs and were not able to make the mortgage payments. At first living off the kindness of neighbors who gave them tents, sleeping bags, and what food they could spare, they setup in the outlying fields of one of the last remaining farms in district 108. After three weeks of this, the farmer, unnamed, reported the family, camping equipment, and any trace of their presence, gone. This was about ten days ago and the article itself is dated yesterday.
I jot down the name of the journalist who wrote the piece, along with her e-mail address. It takes only seconds to log into my Gmail account but then I spend a long time staring at a blank composition box, struggling to figure out what I want to say. The better part of an hour is swallowed writing a relatively short e-mail and by the time I’m clicking ‘Send,’ Tobias is back.
“How’d it go with the inoculation?” I join him in the bedroom.
Tobias unbuttons his long sleeved blue shirt, shrugs out of it, and throws it into the laundry basket at the back of our walk-in closet. “There wasn’t much to it. A lot of waiting for my turn. Once I finally got in there, they gave me the shot, warned me about some possible side effects, and sent me on my way. Bit annoying, really. I had to reschedule my last patient of the day to make their so-called appointment time only to sit in a waiting room, surfing Facebook on my phone for nearly two hours. It’s not like I’m seeing people with the flu. My pre-surgical consultations are important!”
My only response is a commiserating harrumphing noise. The smooth muscles of his arms and chest distract me. My fingers itch to touch his skin, to lead him into bed, but I know he’ll want to eat first.
“Your cut healed,” I note with surprise. A couple days ago he lost his balance on the treadmill, fell against the wall where a stray nail we’d been too lazy to remove jutted out. I touch his right shoulder blade. The gash, deep though small in length, had been there. It’s gone. He’s unblemished. “There isn’t even a scratch.”
“That’s good. It must not have been as bad as you thought.”
Apparently not. But there was so much blood. A once-blue washcloth had turned nearly black before he’d stopped bleeding. While I’m happy he’s well, it’s disconcerting to see the unmarred skin.
Tobias takes off his black slacks, hangs them in the closet, and pulls on some comfortable grey exercise shorts and a red tee-shirt. “How about Fettuccine Alfredo for dinner?”
My thoughts still on the miraculous speed of his healing, I don’t immediately decipher his words. Then I shoot him a surprised look.
He grins, “I got lucky at the store. They’d just received a shipment. I’ve got pasta, cheese, milk, eggs, chicken, sausage… Even fresh fruit and veggies for the week. The bags are in the kitchen. You can help me put everything away.”
“Fantastic! I can have coffee again!”
He chuckles. “You should learn to drink it black.”
Wrinkling my nose at the idea, I redirect my thoughts to the food that must be refrigerated. “I’ll get started. For cooking, I’ll take care of the chicken.”
“Cool. I’ll take care of the sauce and pasta.”
We’ve just served our steaming hot meal when my iPhone chimes with an e-mail alert. It’s out of my pocket before Tobias can finish asking, “What’s so important?” Usually dinner is a phone-free zone.
The message on my screen does nothing to alleviate my curiosity. It’s a failure notification for the e-mail I sent the reporter, the error claiming her address is invalid. How odd. I did a direct copy paste, even verified it three times before sending the message.
“Let me guess. A detective, responding to your inquiry into the alarming lack of homeless people.”
Before I can offer a reply, Tobias has found what he needs in my perplexed gaze. “Fuck,” he chortles, “It really is about the beggars, isn’t it? How’d it go at the homeless shelter?”
Sitting down at the table, I explain the day’s events. Tobias doesn’t comment on the shelter being shut down, or on the ones I couldn’t reach by phone. Instead, he shakes his head. “Oh, go on. Double check the e-mail address from that article. You’re won’t be able to focus on anything else until you do and the food’ll wait.”
“You’re an angel.” I dash off to the computer room. The article is still loaded in one of my many Chrome tabs. I compare the e-mail address listed against the one I sent my message to. They’re the same.
I click on the name of the person who wrote the piece – one Ella McAddams – to see what else she’s written, and hopefully find a different e-mail address. The website brings up an error. ‘Oops! There seems to be some kind of mix up. There are no contributions under that name.’
I click the back button. The article about the homeless family that went missing still loads. But that could be because it’s in my cache. After saving a copy of the piece to my desktop, I hit the reload button. ‘Oops! That page doesn’t exist. Please check the URL and try again.’ After everything that’s happened today, I’m not surprised.
Tobias, at least and at last, agrees something strange is going on. Both of us are at a loss as to what it might be and what I can try next. After dessert, we watch more episodes of Star Trek: Section 31. It’s not distracting me and Tobias can tell. A mischievous smirk on his lips, he pauses the show and whispers against the skin of my cheek, “Let me take your mind off it.”
He trails kisses up my neck and traces the shell of my ear with delightful wetness.
Groaning, I pull him against me and press our mouths together. Our tongues touch in eager greeting, smooth and soft. This is what I wanted earlier, before dinner, just what I need to- Wait. No. Stop. An icy frisson encompasses my chest and limbs, strangling me into stillness. Alarm pushes away all thoughts of intimacy. Something’s wrong.
Tobias shifts back, “What is it?”
“Um…” I falter, unsure. My heart is pounding, and not from arousal. From fear. Tobias is wrong. I can’t explain it in a logical, coherent way, but something’s decidedly amiss. Altered. Absent. Or extra and unaccounted for. He doesn’t feel the same.
I stare at the dim lights cast on the ceiling by the streetlamp, the warm glow filtering through the blinds on the bedroom window. A row of parallel lines. Unmoving, unchanging except for the occasional flickering as the bulb threatens to die. Tobias drifted into sleep hours ago, his breathing slow and methodic. I managed to extricate myself from our brief amorous foray, though not through intellect or subtlety. I stuttered something lame about a sudden migraine, a lie I was certain he would see through. He merely arched his eyebrows and advised I take something and lie down. Hampered by the script of my deception, I accepted the painkiller Tobias offered and retreated to our bedroom, leaving the lights off.
At first my mind was abuzz. Like a million voices yelling, like wanting to race along many paths of deduction merely to drown in the tumult. The only coherent thought I could muster was, ‘He’s different. Something happened.’ That lapsed into self-doubt, incredulity, and ridicule. ‘I’m being absurd. Nothing’s happened. He’s fine.’ Tobias joined me in the midst of these recriminations, gently kissing me on the cheek and wishing for a speedy dismissal of the migraine. I thanked him, listening as he fell into a restful state into which I could not follow.
That was hours ago. The problem is there’s nothing concrete. The homeless people are obviously missing. It’s empirically verifiable that the shelters are shut down. All I have with Tobias is a feeling. It wasn’t him. I kissed him and it wasn’t him. That spark, that unique blend of smell, tangy flavor, and soft skin, was off. The breath of him was wrong. But am I being absurd? I don’t have him catalogued and specimened. People aren’t the same day after day. Maybe the government clinic clung to him like cigarette smoke in an enclosed space, or the inoculation left an aftertaste. Tomorrow, he’ll be fine. Everything will be fine. I’ll tell him about this and we’ll guffaw at my stupidity. He’ll call me an adolescent drama queen, I’ll claim to have been addled by the mystery of the homeless people, and it’ll become one of our many inside jokes. Yes, that’s it. Everything is okay.
The house is silent when I roll out of bed the next morning. It’s almost 10:30am and Tobias is at his Saturday yoga class. He scribbled a note across the magnetic whiteboard on the freezer. Hope you’re all better now. There’s a plate of scrambled eggs in the microwave. I smile. He’s thoughtful as always. Nothing odd, nothing to obsess or stress over. Last night was an aberration, more on my part than on his.
I open the microwave and find a dinner sized dish, neatly saran-wrapped, and nearly overflowing with Tobias’ signature, but unfortunately increasingly rare, scrambled eggs: diced onions, mushrooms, artichoke hearts, sausage, mozzarella cheese, and a healthy amount of crushed red pepper for kick. Grabbing a fork, I pierce a few holes in the plastic, shut the microwave, and set it for three minutes.
Normally a voracious eater, I take my time, savoring each mouthful as I focus on enjoying the experience. Any time missing homeless people or Tobias being off come to mind, I gently push those thoughts aside in favor of appreciating my favorite breakfast, prepared as only my husband can. When finished, I rinse the plate, pile it in the dishwasher, and decide to have the most relaxing day possible. I’ll start by losing myself in one of my favorite science fiction novels, Speaker for the Dead.
Time passes quickly and things go well. That is to say, they go normally. Tobias comes back cheerful, not mentioning a word about last night beyond making sure I’m better. We clean the house, then go to the Olive Garden for dinner, a good choice even with the significantly pared down menu. Back in our living room we watch some stand-up comedy, laughing until it’s hard to breathe. When we’ve had our share of TV we crawl in bed to snuggle and chat. We argue about whether Captain Kirk, from Star Trek, would have done better than Captain Sisko, from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, in the Dominion War. This lapses into Trek Trivia, during which we take turns trying to outmatch the other with Star Trek questions, and finally leads to the more general diversion of Stump, an all-subject trivia game that has two forms: Sudden Death and Cumulative Demise. Today it’s the former. The first person unable to answer, or to answer wrong, loses.
This goes on for many rounds due to our both boasting excellent memories. At 11:30pm I make an unfair bid for victory that I know will be shot down for not fulfilling the ‘trivia’ requirement.
“What are the prime factors of 30,030?”
“2, 3, 5, 7, 11, and 13,” Tobias supplies without hesitation.
“What?” I demand, flabbergasted.
“2, 3, 5, 7, 11, and 13,” he repeats.
He’s right. “How do you know that?”
“Math,” he retorts in the incredulous tone of someone explaining an exceedingly obvious fact. “Oh! That reminds me. Your proof. Have you considered leveraging the relationship between covariance and the means of the bivariates?”
I stare. No, I gape. Attempting to ask a question only to realize my lips aren’t cooperating, I take a deep breath and force out another, “What?” There is unbound incredulity in the single word.
He falters. “No good? I thought it was worth pursuing but you’re the math expert so I’ll defer to you.”
“It is worth pursuing!” I erupt, as if his reclamation of the idea is what’s upsetting when its his formulation of it in the first place that I’m unable to grasp. “I’ve been pursuing it!” Okay, stop. I’m losing track of the point. “How did you even think of that? You hate math! Since when do you even remember what prime factors are? Or think about covariance, means, and bivariates?” It all spills out at once, so quickly that even I have trouble distinguishing the questions. “You know what you need for your job and that’s it. If we’d had a fireplace or gone camping you would have gleefully burned your math textbooks.”
He laughs. “So charming. No wonder you swept me off my feet.”
My mind has stopped reeling enough for me to offer a weak smile even as an uneasy tentacle of doubt slithers through my mind. He is different. He, the he I’ve known for twelve years, couldn’t have solved the prime factors problem, not because he’s hopeless at math but because he long since would have forgotten all about prime factors. As for leveraging the relationship between covariance and the means of the bivariates, he would have stumbled over the sentence even if given it by someone else. Didn’t he horribly butcher the name of my proof just yesterday? What did he say? ‘Inductive reasoning correlation?’
What is going on?
Maybe he’s been taking math classes to…um…surprise me? Or for work? No and no. His bitter and unrepentant hatred of the subject would prevent him from subjecting himself to it unless it was a choice between that or death. Okay, I’m exaggerating, but not by much. He’s the nation’s best brain surgeon. He’s very good at the math he needs for that and has happily relegated the rest to the figurative trashcan of his mind. So where has this knowledge come from?
I don’t know. But I’m going to find out. I have to.
The next day is a balancing act of pretending everything is all right while conducting my next investigative endeavor. It’s challenging because Tobias knows me so well he’s often handing me Excedrin without my having said I’m getting a migraine. Acting as if everything is okay and hoping he won’t notice is like playing a game I expect to lose from the moment I start. I keep worrying he’ll confront me, though with what I cannot say. Proclamations of ‘You lie!’ are too melodramatic to be his style and would not quite describe what I’m doing. Unless it’s lying by omission to not tell him I suspect something of unknown nature was done to him that has altered him in ways I can’t quite describe. What kind of accusation is that, anyhow? And what would I answer to the obvious question of, ‘How am I different?’ ‘You understand math that you don’t need for your job and you don’t feel right when we kiss.’ Taken apart from the sickening twist that tells me something is wrong, it sounds feeble.
I start when he’s not looking. It’s simple at first. I pull up the government provided information regarding phase one of the Safe Care Act and read everything they released about the health inoculations, something I admittedly voted for in the last election without having done the necessary research. The official information is what I expected. The inoculations are an effort to help prevent the onset of asthma, severe allergies, and all manner of respiratory disorders brought on by climate change and pollution. It is mandated that every citizen in all districts submit to it, failing to do so will result in steep legal fines and, of course, the risk of the person’s own health deteriorating. The act was passed by a landslide majority of 93.4 percent, mainly due to a series of thousands of deaths worldwide that were linked to variations of respiratory failure.
The act has several phases, including the most recent one that implemented the strict control of water usage. As they have nothing to do with the inoculations, I don’t read the specifics. Instead, I move on to finding the website of the main group that opposed the act. This takes a while, since I didn’t pay attention 10 months ago during the election and don’t remember the name of the organization. It turns out to be an association of people in the medical field: Doctors United. The DU’s concerns center around the lack of specific information regarding the inoculations, particularly that their composition was classified. They lobbied for months, demanding the government release the exact formula, but to no avail. The DU’s website states the information has yet to be made public and officially advocates against submitting to the inoculations. However, as the DU has no speculations regarding what they might contain, I still don’t have much to go on.
The next step in quite simple, really, in formulation if not in action. I’m going to hack into the server(s) of the local government facility where Tobias got his shot. I’ll call in sick to work tomorrow, take advantage of Tobias’ absence, and see if I can track down anything suspicious or unusual. While I’m at it, I will also look into the matter of the disappearing homeless people.
My investigation, broken into several chunks, accounts for less than two hours of my day. I program more than I sleuth, and read more than that. It’s an act of will as there’s rarely a moment the mystery’s not on my mind, just as I imagine there’s rarely a moment when dissecting my behavior is not on Tobias’ mind. I catch him studying me a few times, his medical journals unattended in his lap.
We join at mealtimes, our conversation light in spite of my doubts and the way his gaze has likely tracked me more than I’ve noticed. It’s not until we’re settled under blankets side by side in the dark, with just the barest hint of connection at the spot where our shoulders touch, that he submits a tentative query, “You’ll tell me as soon as you know what the problem is, won’t you?”
My constant apprehension prepared me for frustration, even anger, at my odd behavior. It did not prepare me for this open vulnerability from the man I love. Instinctively, I find his right hand with my left, twine our fingers together and squeeze. “As soon as I can explain, baby.”
“I love you, Ethan.”
We don’t use endearments often, we say those words even less. “I…love you.” Always. I almost add the last vow but it’s stolen from my lips by a flood of emotion. My eyes sting with tears that don’t fall. If something is wrong, I’m going to fix it. I’m going to fix him.
“I’m calling in sick to work today,” I explain to Tobias when the alarm sounds at 5:30am and he rolls out of bed.
“Are you feeling okay?”
“Yeah. There’s just some stuff I have to do.”
There’s a pause. In the early morning darkness I can’t make out his expression, just the outline of his face. “I hope it goes well.”
He leaves the room. There is something else. Another oddity to explain. His wound healed remarkably quickly. I dismissed it at the time. Looking back, it was the first change I noticed. One more clue, one more piece of evidence to look into.
I stay in bed while he runs on the treadmill, while he showers, and while he makes and eats breakfast. When the dull whine of the garage door reaches my ears, I climb to my feet and head straight for my computer. I’ve kept my hacking skills sharpened by breaking into various high profile companies – Apple, Google, Amazon, Netflix, I’ve beaten them all. I’ve never done anything, never left any sign I was there. I don’t like making people’s lives difficult and don’t want to cause any harm. I just want to make sure I can still do it. It’s a puzzle, a riddle, a problem, and it’s fun. But not today. Today it’s more important than it ever has been, way more important than proving my own cleverness.
The government didn’t take any shortcuts with their security. The local facility is well protected. It takes me hours to make progress, and hours more to reach anything useful. Then I’m sifting through folders and files, personnel documentation, finance reports, personal photos, and it goes on and on.
It’s nearly the end of the workday when I stumble across the budget. I almost don’t open it, hardly caring how they spend our money since knowing where it goes won’t give it back. Then I look rather than read, my eyes half-unfocused so the anomaly doesn’t leap out at me. Once I notice, I stare, baffled. No less than 88.27 percent of the budget is devoted to the Android Initiative. The…what?
I perform a system wide search on the phrase. Among the first results is a set of records tracking who’s received inoculations. The notation is odd, a series of abbreviations I can make no sense of.
Aab, Morgan – ISD
Aaberg, Patrick – ISD
Aadil, Hugo – ISD
Aadneseen, Rose – ISD
Aafedt, Celeste – ISA
Entry after entry is marked the same – ISD – but every once in many names there’s an ISA, an ISE, or an ISR. The ISRs are followed by a date. I look for a key or explanation but find nothing. The database is searchable so I type in Tobias’ name. Four people come up. I click on their names one at a time – this brings up addresses and birthdays. He’s the third Tobias Matthews and is listed as ISR, with Friday’s date. I pull myself up next. ISA. What the hell does it mean?
It must be significant. I run another search, this time for ‘ISR.’ Thousands of results filter in. I skim the highlighted phrases, my eyes catching on an e-mail with the subject of, ‘ISA to ISR – Advanced Replacement?’
I open it.
Susie’s getting worse. She’s had to give up exercising and is always out of breath. She’s ISA. Is there a way to get her pushed through faster? Some kind of advanced replacement program?
Advanced replacement? What-
A loud bang from the living room makes me jump. The front door slamming into the wall. I hear stomping footsteps, many sets of them, and barely have time to register that my home has been invaded when several people are at the entrance to the computer room. There’re at least six men, the first two have handguns drawn and march forward to stand on either side of me.
“Mr. Quinto,” I’m addressed by a tall Asian man in the back. About 40, skinny, with grey-framed glasses. Impeccably dressed in a black suit and blue tie, he seems out of place among his companions, who are clad in the dull grey of district police.
I’m in serious trouble. “Yes?” My heart thrashes wildly, a weakness mercifully not betrayed by my voice.
“Please come with us.”
Please? I clearly don’t have a choice. Civilians haven’t been allowed guns in at least 40 years. Even if I had one, what would I do? Try to take out eight people?
Remarkably steady in spite of my inner shakiness, I stand, half expecting them to handcuff me. Instead, the Suit gestures for me to follow him down the hallway. The police officers who haven’t drawn arms part to let me through and the two with guns fall into step behind me, weapons steady and impossible to ignore.
In this manner I’m led through the rooms of my own house, out the front door, to one of two police cars parked on the street. The vehicle is larger than most, more like the ones from the 2000s. There’s room in the back for me and both of the armed men, again, one on either side. The Suit sits in front. One of the others takes the driver’s seat and the rest get into the remaining car.
We drive in silence for at least fifteen minutes. I’m surprised to realize they’re not taking me to the police station. In fact, I’m not sure where we’re going until we’re there, and then I feel stupid for not having known: the government facility for this district. The one where Tobias was inoculated. The one I hacked into.
The car rolls to a stop in an underground parking structure below the building. My armed guards don’t move until the Suit gets out, closes his door, and gestures them forward with a single fluid hand motion. The man to my right is the one who responds. He opens his car door, scoots out, and then turns back to me, gun trained.
Sighing quietly, I follow him. The other guard exits through his door and walks around the car to flank me with his companion. The driver does not emerge. Instead, the vehicle accelerates away, back toward the daylight of the outside world.
The car that followed us to the facility lingers, watching my armed procession guide me to an elevator. Once the four of us are inside it, I imagine it too will leave to perform some other errand. Perhaps they thought I would struggle, that the greater numbers would be necessary.
The Suit pushes the lit up button for the fourth floor and the elevator hums to a start, lifting us smoothly and without interruption. With a quiet ding, our upward movement stops and the doors slide open.
The Suit exits. I go next, without prompting. The guards momentarily lag, as if not expecting my preemptive motion, but compensate quickly so they’re directly behind me once more. We walk down a long, strangely deserted, hallway to the door on the opposite end. This opens into a large windowless room where an older woman sits alone at the far side of a long conference table that can easily seat ten. Dark skinned with vivid green eyes, her black curly hair is neatly trimmed, greying slightly around her ears and temples.
“Amanda Fields!” I exclaim enthusiastically, walking forward.
Amanda Fields stands as I approach. She frowns and tilts her head to the side. “Have we met?”
I stop when I’m a few feet from her. “No. I know your work. Your theory about artificial intelligence is fascinating, and breaking into the FBI’s servers in less than an hour was really impressive.”
“I’m not used to people recognizing me. Thank you.” Her smile reaches her eyes. “I could say something similar to you. I designed the security system you quite handily bypassed in your sortie through our files.”
I can’t help but grin, unable to take that as anything but a compliment.
“Thank you, gentlemen,” she addresses the men behind me. “Please wait outside.”
I had forgotten the guns, forgotten the precarious situation I’d gotten myself into. Glancing over my shoulder, I watch the Suit and my two armed escorts turn without word, their footsteps barely audible against the grey carpet.
“May I call you Ethan?” Amanda Fields asks once the others have left, the door shut behind them. Her friendliness, my childlike glee at meeting a personal hero of mine, and the inescapable urgency of my arrest create a strange juxtaposition.
“Thank you. Amanda is fine.” She extends her right hand.
Shaking it reflexively, I note her firm grip, my thoughts in shambles. I hacked into the government’s servers, saw some very confusing information, was arrested, and now am in the same room with a programming genius who, if I’m honest with myself, is the reason I went into the field myself. Tobias is never going to believe my day. Assuming they let me go home.
The thought wipes the last traces of mirth from me.
Amanda sits down, indicating the seat to her immediate right.
I sit without further prompting. There’s an iPad on the table in front of me, screen off. I don’t ask, assuming we’ll get to it soon enough.
“I’ve prepared some information for you.” Sooner than I thought, apparently.
I touch the screen, slide to unlock the device. A simple text page is displayed. On it is a very short list of terms and abbreviations:
Inoculation Status – IS
Disqualified – D
Replaced – R
Eliminated – E
Approved – A
Tobias Matthews – ISR – Inoculation Status Replaced
Ethan Quinto – ISA – Inoculation Status Approved
A whine of fear drowns my thoughts. Disqualified. Replaced. Eliminated. These aren’t innocuous words.
“The situation is far worse than most people realize,” Amanda begins when I look up at her, her tone noticeably sad and soft enough to require my complete focus. “Famine is rampant in the remaining autonomous countries. Thousands die of starvation and dehydration everyday due to severe weather conditions and lack of viable farmland limiting crop yields. Pollution and radiation are close to rendering meccas such as Tokyo, London, Berlin, New York, and Los Angeles uninhabitable.”
She stops. Not because I’ve interrupted or made any sign of wanting to ask a question. Perhaps to let it sink in. I knew it was bad. Anyone who goes outside knows. But uninhabitable? I never imagined that. Can’t picture what that will mean for the shape of the world. Where will all those people go? There’s no room for them anywhere else. Absorbing all of the displaced people when San Francisco and other coastal cities flooded was a terrible challenge. The population control laws enacted by the World Alliance fifty years ago have helped, but not enough. Not yet.
“People are dying from respiratory related illnesses and complications, this you know. By the end of the year that number is projected to be in the range of millions.”
My mind reels as if thrown from a careening airplane. “But… why haven’t I heard about this?”
“Unrestricted journalism is a thing of the past. The so-called First Amendment of what was once the United States has been eliminated.”
When? The question I ask instead is, “Why?”
“Because mass panic would ensue if people knew the truth,” she pauses, voice weighed down by sorrow and grief, face sympathetic, before she delivers the worst blow. “Earth is dying as far as humans are concerned, Ethan.”
A torrent of frigidity spreads through my body as if carried within my blood. I swallow, open my mouth, shape silent words, an uproar of questions fighting for supremacy.
Before I can ask any of them, she forges on. “Pollution, global warming, radiation from ill advised weapons experiments, a failing atmosphere that won’t continue to offer us the oxygen we need… There’s not enough food for the world population, not enough water either. Experts disagree as to whether most will die from lack of food and water or from respiratory failure when our bodies just can’t handle the toxins in the air anymore, but they agree the near total annihilation of humanity is near. Even here, in Sacramento, we’re on the brink, the tipping point, between barely contained disaster and apocalypse.”
“What about the Safe Care Act? All of the efforts to decrease pollution and contamination that were enacted by various world governments starting in the 1990s?”
“Companies’ efforts to ‘go green’ weren’t enough. In our arrogance we waited too long. Thought ourselves above the world’s demise. Did more damage than we can undo.”
The silence that falls isn’t neat or comfortable. It’s rigid, fraught with tension and terror. I had no idea what I was going to find when I started looking for the homeless people, no idea where digging into the inoculations would bring me, no idea that my life would ever lead me here, to hearing these words. How can this be?
“And the Safe Care Act?” I whisper, noticing the goose bumps on my arms but not feeling them.
“The Safe Care Act is a front for what we here are calling the Android Initiative,” Amanda answers immediately. Her tone is steady, though without volume, and she doesn’t falter for words. It’s as if she’s so familiar with the story she can recite it at will. I’m not fooled. It has taken its toll. Her expression is pained, the lines in her face, at first glossed over by my enthusiasm in recognizing her, suddenly pronounced. She looks very old. “We’ve given up on saving the Earth but not on the survival of our species. Mars is a terraforming work-in-progress but it won’t be ready for hundreds of years. Engineers and scientists are racing to build a series of massive space stations that can sustain human life in the meantime. Gravity, gardens and greenhouses for food, sustainable oxygen…
“The biggest problem is water. There’s not enough fresh water left on Earth, a large quantity is contaminated beyond repair. Scientists think they’re close to creating the means to safely generate or replicate water, if you will, but not close enough.”
“What does that mean?”
“Three remarkable breakthroughs have been made. Ones that befit the creativity of Asimov. The first is the creation of androids. Nearly indistinguishable from humans, unless examined by a doctor. They don’t need food, water, or oxygen.”
At this, I scoff. “Don’t be modest. If there are androids it’s because you invented them.”
“Not in complete isolation but,” she nods, “yes, in large part. The second I also participated in. The ability to transfer human memories, an impression of consciousness, to the artificial mind of an android.”
The implications still my tongue. It can’t be. It can’t be what I’m thinking. I’ve watched and read too much science fiction. The truth is not this outlandish.
“And the third I was not involved with. Stasis chambers so advanced they essentially pause all of the body’s functions, allowing someone to remain unaging, unchanging, without the need for nourishment of any kind.”
I goggle at Amanda, the pieces aligning as I feared. “You’re putting people in stasis and creating android replicas of them… replacing them with their artificial counterparts.”
Amanda nods. “Earth will cease to sustain human life before we’re ready to leave it. We’ve selected a small percentage of the population to replicate and put in stasis. Their androids will continue to function after…” she seems unable to say it, for the first time stumbling in her narration of our doom. “They can continue to perform the functions necessary for the survival of our race. Once the stations are built, everyone in stasis will be transported to them. When the water problem is resolved they will be woken.”
Amazing that such an insane plan can be conveyed so easily. “And the androids?”
“There is some debate there. Some people think they should be deactivated, others feel they should be given the freedom to decide for themselves. Earth is not lost to them.” I have no doubt that she is in favor of her creations remaining functional.
“You said ‘a small percentage of the population.’ How many have been chosen?”
She looks away, looks down, looks anywhere but at me when she answers. “100,000.”
100,000, out of ten billion. Oh my God.
We built ourselves up so high to fall so low. I never thought it would come to this. Even when I hid from the news, hid from following the obvious decline, I never thought it’d be a permanent spiral. I worried it wouldn’t get better in my lifetime but I didn’t worry it wouldn’t get better at all.
I believed in the warless era. The era of treaties and open cooperation. The era after the borders and old rivalries were struck down. There is no more United States, no more United Kingdom, no more Italy, Germany, Greece, Russia, Japan, or countless others. The World Alliance replaced the old allegiances. While some people still call them by the former names, still talk of the U.S. or Britain, most have adopted the new nomenclature. The WA doesn’t have countries, it has districts functioning as a cohesive whole. Of course it was never perfect, some still stand apart – China, Mexico, parts of the Middle East, most of South America – but I believed it was only a matter of time before the WA really was the World Alliance. Only for it all to be struck down, wiped clean, reduced to a handful of people from each place.
But no. That’s an assumption on my part. “How were the 100,000 chosen?”
“Mostly based on utility and youth. They had to make sure all the important professions, all the professions essential to a well functioning society, were represented. Some were concerned about not destroying any of the races but we’re fortunate diversity has spread so far. That took care of itself just in selecting the smartest people in each specialty. And of course, half are men and half are women. They also paid attention to family units, realizing it would hardly help things if the people chosen ended up alone amidst a sea of strangers.”
I was presented with this very dilemma in Contemporary Moral Issues. ‘Assume there is a worldwide catastrophe and you can only save ten percent of the population. Who would you choose and why?’ It was a short little paper, barely enough to touch the surface of the problem. Thinking of all the permutations, trying to fit it into my allotted word count, gave me a headache. I’m close to getting one now.
I struggle to bring the conversation back to something smaller, something easier to wrap my mind around. “Tobias was replaced with an android on Friday, wasn’t he?”
So he is different. His cut didn’t heal. The android never had it. And the math knowledge makes sense. His brain is a computer now. But… “But I saw him eat!”
“I created the androids to have the ability to consume real food. They could hardly pass as human if they never ate.”
True. “What about the food shortage?”
“They only eat when they’re around humans.”
“Are there even inoculations?”
She pauses, looking as if she wishes I hadn’t asked. “Yes,” the word is strangled, barely decipherable. “Well, no. Not inoculations. Injections. The people who were not chosen for replacement but are still deemed necessary to maintain the Earth’s economy are being injected with a small device that, when activated, will…kill them instantaneously, without pain. The ones who are not necessary are…”
“Being killed outright.” I close my eyes briefly. “Like the homeless people.”
“Yes. There just aren’t enough resources to justify sustaining them when the survival of humanity is at risk.”
“I’m not sure that any part of ‘humanity’ is surviving in this plan of yours.” I look straight at her, not accusatory but intense.
“It’s far kinder than the fate they would have had otherwise, slowly dying with the Earth’s resources.”
Emotion and horror aside, I suppose I can’t argue with that. Quick and painless versus starvation, dehydration, or respiratory failure, to name just a few possibilities. Still… It’s terrible beyond description.
“Why are you telling me all of this?”
“Because you weren’t going to stop until you knew. Now you have a choice. You were already approved to be replaced by an android, though you weren’t scheduled for another couple weeks. You can be put in stasis now and your replacement activated.”
“You can receive a painless but fatal injection.”
Cooperate or die.
“Is everyone given this choice?”
“Everyone selected for replacement, though most don’t receive an explanation in person. They’re handed an iPad with the information pre-loaded.”
“You tell people this in writing?” I’m aghast.
She does not avert her eyes. “It’s an imperfect world, getting more imperfect by the day. We don’t have the time to do things the way we would like.”
“And Tobias chose to be replaced. He…his android, did a good job of pretending not to know why I was worried. Almost perfect recreation of my husband. Should get an Oscar.”
Amanda shakes her head. “That’s because he doesn’t know he’s acting.”
“What do you mean?” I ask even though there’s no want of understanding. I need to hear it.
“We can’t risk knowledge getting out. There’d be mass hysteria. None of the androids know. Well, none of the androids in the general population. They won’t know until the later stages of implementation, when we remotely activate a microchip. Certain people that have been replaced in key government positions, particularly in positions relating to the implementation of the replacements, retain full knowledge of both the crisis and their status.”
“You mean… My replacement android won’t know either? It’ll leave here thinking it’s really me…not remembering…knowing what’s going on?”
“Yes. The memory transfer is very exact. All of the memories of being apprehended, of our conversation, will be restored when the android’s microchip is activated. Then the androids will work on the water problem, and on finishing the space stations.”
I’m stuck on the androids not knowing they’re androids. “But you said they only eat around humans. If they think they are humans wouldn’t they get suspicious of themselves?” I’m not sure I’ve framed the question very well but Amanda is nodding, apparently having understood.
“My androids are very good, the programming quite complicated. I created them to overlook that in themselves. Just as your Tobias overlooked whatever differences you noticed that prompted your inquisition.” The last word is delivered with amusement.
“So you’ll prevent my android from making its way right back here to find the same answers I was looking for by…what…deactivating its curiosity?”
“Something like that. It’ll be you, almost. There will be certain modifiers until the microchip is activated and full transfer occurs. It will not remember being taken into custody. It will think it didn’t succeed in hacking into the system and drop the matter.”
That doesn’t sound like me at all. I’ve been inquisitive my whole life.
A possibility occurs to me that some might find frightening but I can only see as fascinating. “Are you an android?”
She smiles wearily. “I don’t know. I hope so.”
“Can’t you check the system?”
“I can but…if I haven’t been chosen, I’d rather not know.”
“You must be one of the ones who’s going! You created the androids.”
She smiles wanly. “Yet I am 67 years old.”
“But with androids that won’t matter. They won’t age more. Surely it’s the aptitude of the mind that qualifies you.”
“Being human matters. Androids won’t reproduce and repopulate the species. Nor will I, I’m afraid.”
“But I’m gay.” Tobias and I won’t be having children either.
“You’re also a computer genius, and fertile. If it becomes necessary your sperm can be used to impregnate a suitable woman.”
True. But it makes no sense that Amanda wouldn’t be replaced. Her technology is key to this operation. Someone like her might test the implementation and accuracy of the memory transfer by seeing if it would work on her own replacement. I keep this to myself and offer up a joke. “Stop. That’s so romantic you’re making me blush.”
She laughs. It’s short, strangled by the burden of such terrible knowledge, but genuine for the time it lasts. “There’s not much left to be romantic about.” A moment of silence, then, “I’ll leave you to your thoughts. When you make your decision let the guard outside the door know.”
“That won’t be necessary.” I don’t think there are many who, when faced with survival or death, select death.
Amanda observes me appraisingly, waiting.
“It’s not really a choice, is it? I don’t want to die and I won’t let Tobias wake up alone. Will the androids’ memories be transferred back to us?”
“Yes. It will be as if you experienced the entire…ordeal.”
The thought is not comforting. If anything, the weight is heavier, the blood in my veins colder, the breath in my lungs thicker. I don’t want to remember Earth failing. I don’t want to remember everyone dying when some government official activates their poison, like pushing a ‘stop’ button. Simply considering it is enough. There will be so many bodies, in homes and offices, crowding streets and leaving cars to careen madly to a messy stop. What will be done with them all? I imagine the androids gathering them into mass graves or burning them in enormous pyres.
Amanda stands and I follow her lead. “I’m sorry we didn’t meet under more pleasant circumstances.”
I take the hand she extends and shake it, wondering if she’s woman or machine, if there’s any way I can tell.
“A nurse will be in shortly to take you to the medical ward where they will prepare you for stasis.”
I should say something but can’t think what. I watch her leave the room, staring at the closed door for a long time after her departure.
It started with the homeless people, it continued with Tobias. If only it had ended with them, if only it were that small.
I can’t say how long I’m left alone, nor can I describe being taken from the conference room to the medical ward. My mind is full of fire, picturing an Armageddon more visually dramatic than it will likely be. One of explosions and ash, great floods and massive tornadoes.
When I come back to myself I’m sitting in a comfortable, padded chair in a small white room. Doctors come in and out of it. They take blood, prepare me for the sensation of falling into coldness, say they don’t know whether I will dream, explain that my memories will be transferred to the android after I’m in stasis.
I think about Tobias laughing, his face opened up in joy and mirth, remember kissing him at the end of our wedding ceremony, wonder if he was scared when they processed him for stasis and replacement. I should have asked to see him. I wonder if he’s suspended in a glass tube. I wonder if they’ll put me next to him.
Finally, when a petite young blonde tells me they’re going to take me to the stasis chambers, I ask a question as rapidly as it presents itself to me. “Can I see my android?”
She hesitates, glancing around as if hoping to find coworkers that aren’t there. It’s probably not something she’s supposed to do, or maybe it’s a possibility she was never trained to cope with.
I meet her eyes. They’re like the sky, before it was destroyed. “Please.”
The plea touches her face with sympathy. “Yes, all right.”
I follow her down halls, occasionally passing people who I look beyond. Sometimes she exchanges greetings with them, sometimes she nervously quickens her steps, but no one stops us. Normally I’m very aware of my surroundings, can navigate any building or set of streets after seeing then once. This time I don’t pay enough attention, would get lost if she told me to make my own way back.
When she opens a door halfway down a brightly lit corridor there’s nothing to differentiate it from all the others we’ve passed or walked through. I expect more walking and stop short when I see Amanda. She’s turned away from us, facing a man standing in the center of the room. The man is naked and completely still. I look at the face and am struck by the sensation of falling. Falling and falling.
It’s me. Exactly me. Wavy hair, no more than three inches long. Nose, slightly crooked and seeming just a little too small for the face. A neatly trimmed beard, its brown just dark enough to make someone wonder if my natural lighter hair color is the result of dyeing. Oddly long eyelashes, their shade caught somewhere between that of my beard and that of my not-quite-curls.
The eyes are what alarm me the most. Perfect in their mix of grey and aqua, open, unblinking, and empty. He, it, he…hasn’t been activated yet. He looks just like me, with all the life taken out. But he won’t look that way for long. Amanda is holding a large tablet, fingers flying over the screen. I assume she’s preparing for the massive transfer of memories, of consciousness, of self, that will occur as soon as they’ve put me in stasis.
Will the android Tobias notice anything different, anything suspicious, when he’s interacting with my replacement? I want him to. Or maybe not. I don’t know. I don’t know what to think, I don’t know what’s best. They will be living our lives for us, preserving us so we can survive. What of the time between now and our waking?
I stare at this flawless recreation of me. Questions run races in my mind.
What choices will this being make that will be returned to me? Will I recognize them or will it be like watching a movie of someone else’s life? Will he be willing to relinquish that life back to me? Or am I attributing sentience to this machine when all that exists is an imitation of it? I do not know. I could spend the rest of my life exploring the moral implications of what we’re using these androids for. All I can hope is for the plan to work, for there to be a chance for someone to do just that in the future.