(Fear of being alone)
In 2038, the world was practically destroyed not by war but by famine. The Great Famine could not be pinpointed as having originated in any one area of the world. The world population shrank from seven and a half billion to one billion people. The hardest hit areas were in Africa, the United States, and Canada. Since these were the main breadbasket areas of the world, it was understandable that the population would decrease at such a rate. China, surprisingly enough, was not hit as hard as the rest of the world, but due to its own population pressures, China was not willing to help any of the other countries. In fact, China closed all of its embassies and withdrew from the United Nations. Politicians in other countries soon followed suit. In the United States, most of the population left their farms in the mid-eastern states and traveled west. The people in California, Oregon, and Washington voted to join together as one mega-state, which they called Wocavia. This was done with the hope of bringing some stability to the country and with the aim of using the land productively. Meanwhile, on the East Coast, almost all of the cities were virtually depopulated. New York City became the main destination of those who survived. At first, the city had no problems taking in the refugees due to its own loss of people, but, eventually, laws were enforced which kept the population from becoming too large. It soon became necessary to indoctrinate the people into seeing the necessity of sharing living space and when it became almost impossible to find enough livable buildings, the few scientists who were still alive, came up with a viable alternative. They created holo-mates; these were holographic people who would accommodate the people’s need for companionship, if they did not have a living room mate, and eventually they became a necessity for keeping the people sane. It became de rigeur to have at least one holo-mate. The people became so used to them that they eventually accompanied them everywhere.
The City Council became the governing body of New York City and, in time, it was just called The City. Parts of The City were considered unsafe and, therefore, forbidden. Manhatten and parts of the boroughs were sealed off from the rest of the country by a wall. Anyone who committed a crime, such as hoarding, stealing, or even living alone and therefore in danger of going insane, were banished outside of The City. Those who were banished were considered as dead and their names were stricken from the population directories of The City. Thanks to the propaganda spread by the news outlets, the outside of The City was depicted as a desolate and barren area which no one in their right mind could survive for long. As for Wocavia, it was never mentioned and the people who were around at the time that the mega-state had been created were cowed into silence or faced death.
James XY63892C woke up when the artificial sun lights came on. When he got out of his cot, he went to the shower cubicle and took a shower. After drying himself off, he checked his face in the mirror to see if he needed to use the depilatory gel, since he did not want to be seen at work as a barbarian. His five other roommates were also in various stages of preparing for their day. JamesXY63892C considered himself lucky to have his five roommates (one flesh and four holos) in their studio apartment, because the thought of having his own place to himself scared him terribly. He had known a woman who had a small studio apartment with two roommates, an old married couple, who, when she had come home one day and found out that they had both died, had almost gone insane waiting for her roommate replacements. Thank goodness the city council had decided that holo-mates would be considered legal, but, unfortunately for James’ friend, the council’s decision had been too late. The woman never recovered from the trauma and was banished outside of the city walls.
“EnoraXX, good morning! Did you sleep well?”
“Yes, thank you, James XY. You are scheduled for labor today?”
“Yes! I will be laboring down by the wharf area with many fellow laborers.”
“Joy of Labor to you, then! Labor well!”
“Thank you EnoraXX! What are your plans for today?”
“Well, I have a Free Day today so I will probably visit the Virtual Mall and see a holoflick.”
“May your purchasing be bountiful!”
James XY left the apartment and slid in between a crowd of people who were riding the slidewalk. Ten minutes later, he found himself changing walks and heading to the wharf area. JamesXY63892C was not just any laborer; he was a digger. Diggers were the ones who, when they were lucky, managed to find either rare metals or signs that the soil was beginning to look like it was healthy enough to plant food seeds. Any digger who found an area where food would successfully grow was considered a hero. There was even the chance of getting a new holo-mate, and an upgrade in their food ration book.
When James XY arrived on site, he was greeted by his supervisor, Ronald XY11793B who handed out assignments.
“James, today you will be working with Deanna XX92248A and Joseph XY 90041C. Your group is assigned to the northwestern quadrant. You will start by removing flooring from the old warehouse that is currently slated for demolition. If your group discovers anything of interest, you will report directly to me. Is this understood?”
“Yes, supervisor Ronald XY, I understand.”
James XY was happy to learn that he would be working with Deanna XX92248A since he had a secret crush on her. They had worked together before, but Deanna XX was a shy woman and it was difficult to get her to open up to people. James XY hoped that today would be different. As far as Joseph XY90041C was concerned, James had never worked with him before, so he was unsure about his abilities.
“Good morning, digger Deanna XX. Is all good with you?”
“Good morning, digger James XY. All is well and you?”
“I am fine, thank you digger. Shall we get started?”
The morning’s work was hard but fulfilling. All three of the diggers worked in harmony and, by lunchtime, were chatting with each other as if they had known each other for years. James XY learned that Joseph XY had been a digger for ten years, was married with four children, and liked to collect old time books. Deanna XX had been a digger for five years, was currently single and lived with her parents and two holo-mates. She also liked to draw in her spare time. An hour after returning from lunch, Joseph XY let out a shout of joy.
“Diggers James and Deanna, come quick! See what I have found!” Joseph XY was so happy by what he had found, that he forget to address his fellow diggers with their genedesigs. James XY and Deanna XX were so surprised by his tone of voice that they didn’t even realize the omission.
James XY and Deanna XX dropped their shovels and ran over to see what Joseph XY had found. There, sitting in a hole about eight inches deep, was a bag made of a fabric that none of them had ever seen before. This, however, was not what had caused Joseph XY to call out. Printed in large red letters was the word “Manure”. The thing that made this discovery so important was the fact that due to a plague which had almost wiped out livestock, manure was considered a luxury item. James XY pulled the bag out of the hole and, picking up Joseph XY’s shovel, dug around the ground and suddenly heard a dull thump. He handed the shovel to Joseph XY, got down on his knees and scrapped in the dirt. Soon, he uncovered another bag. After that, all three of the diggers got their shovels and carefully attacked the dirt. They did not know how many bags were buried, but they did not want to accidentally tear open any of the bags. Two hours later, they had recovered one hundred bags of manure.
“Joseph XY, please be so kind as to report to Supervisor Ronald XY our discovery.”
“Immediately, digger James XY.”
After Supervisor Ronald XY saw what the team had discovered, he stopped in his tracks and stood there with his mouth wide open. He eventually came back to reality and shook each of the team member’s hands. He then called his supervisor, who when he heard about the “treasure” that had been found, called the news-readers, who sent reporters and photographers. The discovery was such a marvel that even all of the members of the City Council arrived at the site. When the complete panel of the City Council arrived at the site, they congratulated each of the diggers and their supervisor and, speaking quietly among themselves, told each of the team members that, as a reward for their discovery, they would each be given an increase in their food rations for the next year and an additional holo-mate. Since their supervisor was married, he would also receive the food increase and be allowed to father another child.
The night air was cool and the light from the quarter moon played along the sharp angles of the apartment buildings. James XY had just escorted Deanna XX to her complex after leaving the party that the City Council had arranged for them. It was quiet on the streets since everyone was home living their lives either having dinner or watching vids. James XY, after Deanna XX entered her complex, called up one of his holo-mates to walk the rest of the way home with him since it was illegal for anyone to be alone and it made him feel more comfortable. It would never occur to James XY to be by himself, even if it wasn’t illegal. The thought of being alone frightened him too much. Like most people, he had never been alone. To deliberately be alone was considered a crime because only criminals or the insane would choose such a life choice. The penalty was banishment outside the walls of the city.
When James XY arrived home, he was greeted by Enora XX and his other holo-mates.
“Congratulations, Digger James XY! The story of your discovery has been on the news vids all day!”
“I thank you, Enora XX, for your felicitations.”
“I suppose now you will require more room for your ego to stretch.” she teased.
“I suppose if that is the only way to be given more space, then I shall take it gladly.” he replied, knowing that she was joking. They had always talked about the possibility of being given more space to live. The holo -mates did not take up much space, and they could always be turned off if privacy was required, but James XY and Deanna XX were not married to each other or lovers; they were just good friends.
“I have a surprise for you,” Enora XX said to him and, opening her bed-dresser, she took out a small box and handed it to him. It was not wrapped since wrapping paper and ribbons were expensive.
James lifted the lid and smiled. Inside the box was a package of pumpkin seeds. James asked her how she could afford such a wonderful gift, and she told him that she had been saving credits for a special occasion should either of them find themselves in this sort of situation. He set the box on the table and hugged Enora XX.
The next morning when James XY arrived at the work site, he looked around to see if Deanna XX was also assigned there. He didn’t see her and went up to Supervisor Ronald XY to ask about her. The supervisor appeared uncomfortable when James XY asked about Deanna XX.
“Um, no, I’m afraid that she will no longer be working here.”
“Why, if I might ask? Is she ill? Has something happened to her?”
“I’m afraid that I am not allowed to discuss this matter and I suggest that you forget about her.”
Seeing that it would not be wise to question Supervisor Ronald XY about Deanna XX, James XY went to the shed where tools were distributed and received his shovel. He had been again assigned to work with Joseph XY. There was also another worker, who he did not recognize, working with them. She was petite and had short-cropped red hair and wore a bandanna on her head. She looked like she was not used to working with her hands which, for a digger, was unusual. She introduced herself as Helen XX10261C and said that she was a volunteer. It was not unusual to meet a volunteer. Volunteers were, for the most part, people who felt that it was their duty to contribute to society on their days off, by using their free time in a more useful way than watching team sports, going on gang shopping sprees, or any of the other leisurely pursuits most people engaged in. Helen XX seemed like a very serious person and when James XY tried to engage her in conversation, she only spoke in monosyllabic phrases. James XY, who had not been around many volunteers, thought that this was very strange behavior, which almost bordered on the criminally solitude-loving. He did notice that when she went to use the restroom that she was accompanied by two holo-mates, which put his mind at ease for the time being.
The rest of the work day ended uneventfully, in that no new major discoveries had been made. James XY was at the end of the formation of workers returning their equipment. As he handed in his shovel, the keeper, without looking him in the face, slyly gave him a note. The man whispered, “read it alone at home”. James XY thought that that was an odd thing to say, since no one, who was in their right mind, ever was, willingly, “alone at home”. He was about to say something to the man, but the door to the building had been closed. James XY walked to the sliding walkway and while he was half-way home, slipped the note out of his pocket and read it. It said, “come to the World Fountain at 2300 hours, if you want to learn what happened to Deanna XX.” It was unsigned. James XY’s heart started to pound excitedly in his chest when he saw Deanna XX’s name on the note, but he was afraid to go to the World Fountain at night, since he had heard many eerie stories about that area at night. It was also an area of The City that holographic signals could not penetrate. He folded the note back up and put it in his pocket. He almost missed the exchange on the slidewalk due to the contents of the note, but his awareness came around in time.
The area around the World Fountain used to be known as Rockefeller Center, but due to the Great Food Riots, it was now a no-man’s land. The buildings were in such poor condition that it was considered a waste of resources to try to rebuild it. It was also the area close to the City Walls, which caused it to be considered as a “cursed” area. James XY was also one of the people who would never willingly come here, but since the only reason he came was to find out what had happened to Deanna XX, he put on a brave face. The only source of light here was the glow from the rest of The City. James XY eventually found his way to the Fountain and sat on the edge with his light coat wrapped closely around him as he waited. Two minutes after he arrived, James XY heard a whisper from the dark calling his name. He stood up, looked around, and saw a figure standing on the stairs of the crumbling building once carrying the name of a man known for his vast wealth. He walked over to the figure, occasionally looking around for…he wasn’t sure.
“Follow me.” a man’s voice said to him.
“What…” but before James XY could finish his question, the man turned around and urged him to silence. They arrived at the top of the stairs and the stranger pushed in a door which apparently used to have glass in it because James XY saw a couple of slivers in front of the door. Once James XY entered the building, the stranger walked to the right and led him to a small room. James was unsure what the room had been formally used for, but it seemed bigger than his own apartment. The man stopped, turned to James XY, and said,
“Deanna XX was banished from The City.”
“Why? What crime did she commit and who are you?”
“Because I helped her commit the crime. My name is unnecessary for you to know,. Anyway, when she arrived home last night, she told me about what had been discovered at the old warehouse. She and I have contacts outside of The City who need what you all discovered. We waited until we knew the guard and his holos were not near the warehouse, and attempted to steal at least one bag of manure. I had taken the bag behind a corner, but before I could return for another one, one of the holo-guards discovered her and reported to HQ. I am ashamed to say that I ran and left her there. Theft of such precious material is punished by banishment.”
“Wait a minute. Everyone knows that the wastelands outside of the City are empty. How can you have “contacts” as you call them?”
“Because most of what you have been told about the outside is a lie. The City Council stays in power through the use of fear. Deanna XX will probably be given aid to get to Wocavia.”
“Wocavia? What is that?”
“It is a mega-state on the West Coast of this continent which, I hear, is starting to recover from the Great Famine. If I weren’t needed here, I would try to make arrangements for myself.”
James XY thought about this for a minute, then said, “But I must see her. I love her.”
“That is your misfortune. Now, I have told you everything that you need to know, except for one. The woman, Helen XX, is a spy for the Police, so be careful what you say to or around her. Come, I will walk with you back into the City. We will never meet again and I advise you to forget about Deanna XX.” The stranger left James XY outside of the quiet zone. James XY almost forgot to summon a holo-mate when the man left, but when he realized that he was alone, he pressed the button on his belt and the holo-mate appeared. When he got back to his apartment, Enora XX was asleep and so he decided to forget about this strange evening and also went to bed.
The next morning, since it was James XY’s Free Day, he decided to go to a holo-flick. He took two holo-mates with him and rode the slideway to the theater. He and the holos were standing in the line to purchase a ticket, when James XY felt a hand on his elbow. He looked and saw that the hand belonged to a Police officer.
“Digger James XY63892C, you will accompany us, now. Do not resist or you will regret it.”
James XY’s head fell to his chest and, without saying a word, accompanied the officers. His holos had been turned off by the other officer and the few people still standing in line kept their faces forward and remained silent. In the pre-Famine days, such an event would have caused people to either say something or protest the, as they would have perceived it, “illegal” arrest. Nowadays, such a response would result in the protester and the others to also be arrested. No one wanted to risk that.
James XY was put in the back of a Police Floater and taken to the nearest station. Once there, he had his retinas scanned, his fingerprints taken, and his bio-chip read. He was then put in a cell with five other prisoners, who didn’t say a word to him after the cell door was closed. James XY looked around the cell and at his cell mates and then slumped down to the floor. His thoughts flooded in his head as he tried to figure out why he had been arrested. Surely, no one had known that he had been in the area of the World Fountain. He knew that he did not talk in his sleep. He decided that the Police had made a mistake and determined that he would let them know that they had the wrong person. Shortly, however, he decided that it would be useless to say anything; after all, when they arrested him, they had his full name correct. James XY merely sighed and rested his head on the wall and closed his eyes, while waiting for his case to be called.
After what seemed like hours to James XY, even though it was only thirty minutes, he heard his name called. He slowly rose up and walked to the cell door. The Policeman opened the cell, handcuffed James XY’s hands behind his back and walked him to a long green-painted hallway. On the walls were holograms of the members of the City Council and some judges. As he passed each one, he noticed that, somehow, all of the portraits seemed to have cold eyes. James XY was surprised at the ability of the photographer to capture that coldness. Before he knew it, he was led into a cold, sterile room made of concrete. By the back wall seated at a flat faux wood table were the three judges. The Police officer did not remove the cuffs, in fact, he wrapped a chain around James XY’s feet and secured it to a heavy iron plug set into the chamber floor. The judge in the middle was a woman who looked to be in her mid-50s, had a short-cropped head of grey hair, and was whispering to the judge to her right. After a few seconds, both judges nodded their heads and faced James XY.
“Officer Daniel XY 98034B, what evidence do you have to present in this case?”
“Your Honors, the prisoner Digger James XY 63892C was viewed on the monitors last night entering the area of the World Fountain. The suspect was timed as being in this area for a total of 32 minutes, 54 seconds. When he exited the area, he was observed leaving with a person known to us as being a smuggler for the Black Market. Once this person had turned a corner and was not in sight of Digger James XY 63892C, it was a full two minutes before the prisoner activated a holo-mate.”
The male judge at the left end of the table asked,
“Was the smuggler also arrested?”
“Yes, Your Honor. The Officers on scan waited to have him arrested until they could determine if he was alone when he entered his domicile. Three more smugglers were also arrested in the domicile. They all are currently being sentenced.”
“Has the prisoner been interrogated?”
“No, Your Honor. He did not speak to the other prisoners in his cell.”
The female judge looked at James XY and said,
“Why did you go to meet this man at the World Fountain?”
“I was given a note saying that he had information for me on what had happened to a work mate of mine.”
“Who was this work mate?”
“Her name is Deanna XX 92248A.”
“What was your interest in her?”
“I became concerned for her when she did not show up for work the next day. My supervisor refused to tell me what had happened to her and, so, when I got the note, I decided to find out the truth.”
“Officer Daniel XY98034B, do you have any information about this person?”
“Yes, Your Honor. Deanna XX92248C was arrested for attempted theft of a bag of manure from the wharf-side factory. The smuggler that we arrested last night was her accomplice. She has been banished.”
“Very well. Digger James XY 63892C, you have been found guilty of crimes against The City. Since your crimes were more of a personal nature, this court will be lenient. Instead of banishment from The City, you will be held in a cell on The Island for the term of one year. If you do go mad while incarcerated, you will be banished. This case is adjourned.”
James XY 63892C was stunned. Imprisonment!? That meant that he would be placed in a cell alone! They might as well kill him now! Everything inside James XY 63892C wanted to rebel against this unjust sentence, but he, like everyone else in The City, had been conditioned to never rebel. Instead, it only took three days in total isolation for James XY63892C to die. The loss of his access to his fellow man had been too much.