The Outers (a Short Story)

The Outers

Futuristic Dome City

I felt a pair of soft hands slide over my eyes and knew it was Glen before he even spoke. “I hope you haven’t made plans for this Freitag night,” he said, showing off his knowledge of ancient languages. “I’d like to take you out.”

I smile and gaze into his round, bistre eyes. “Where to?”

He gives his eyebrows a mysterious waggle. “Somewhere special.”

“Hasta viernes,” I said, showing off my own command of languages that had once been widely spoken, but had long since disappeared from the earth. Glen leaned down and kissed me on the cheek, then sauntered off to do his own studying.

After that, it was hard to concentrate on my studies. Glen and I had both been so busy lately, preparing for our detail examinations, that we hadn’t had time to go anywhere together, unless you counted quick lunches on the Green, surrounded by our other sixth term friends. And I did not count those at all. But studying was our lives right now. Our scores would determine our detail placements, and those would determine the paths for the rest of our lives.

Glen didn’t seem to take the exams as seriously as I did. Of course, he had a lot less to lose. His parents were both placed in Detail 1, the most important, influential positions in Oberon. His family had money, status, and connections that my Detail 4 family only dreamed of having. I was so flattered when he’d begun to show an interest in me during our second term of academy, since high-detail jacks like him don’t usually notice low-detail girls. But he claimed to be in love with my mind, and pursued me until I agreed to be his pair.

Right away, I was swept. Glen turned out to be intelligent, witty, and charming — a lethal combination. I didn’t have any choice but to be swept. Lately, however, something inside me had begun to hesitate when he told me he loved me. Now that I knew him so well, I could also see the cracks in his smooth, polished surface.
Glen owned an heirloom guitar — a real guitar, made from actual wood. He’d impressed the other students, and even some academy officials with his ability to pluck the strings and produce beautiful music. But one day, I’d discovered that he wasn’t playing it at all. His hands made clever strumming motions in rhythm to a high quality recording, which played from a device hidden in his pocket, the music streaming out from a speaker built into his shoe. It was just one of many small tricks he played to sharpen his image of he ideal jack, worthy of maintaining his place in Detail 1. I tried not to think about it, to instead focus on his better qualities, like his ability to think up creative algorithms to solve complex issues, or the way his mouth curved when he observed something aesthetically pleasing, like the gentle lines of the new resident building in South C, or the plump, purplish tomatoes hanging from the plants on the academy’s rooftop garden. But though I went through the motions of being his pair, something inside me had frozen, keeping me from giving my all, expressions of love painted on my face like the antique porcelain dolls at the Museum of Human History.

Though my mind raced with curiosity, I forced myself to focus on my studies until the evening chimes floated across the academy campus. Then I ran to my quarters to change clothes and tame my short, wispy curls into a manageable twist. I had no idea where Glen planned to take me, so I played it safe with a comfortable elegant slacks and a top edged with colorful embroidered flowers.

“You’re joking!” I said when he told me the address of our mysterious date. “We’re taking the express?”

“All the way to Titania,” he confirmed. We parked our solar scooters next to the station, then rode the air lift up to the express platform. My heart thudded against my chest as we boarded the sleek machine, which could be powered to travel almost as fast as a rocket, but was often slowed down so that passengers could enjoy the scenic vistas outside the windows. I had only ever ridden the express twice, due to its cost, and only at night. So I’d never seen what lay beyond the windows.

The express glided out of the station, and Oberon faded behind us as we flew toward Titania. Glen relaxed as though he’d made this trip dozens of times. But I pressed my face against the glass, eager to see a world that was unknown to me, except for brief mentions in digibooks.

“What is that?” I frowned at the cluster of squat, square buildings in the distance. They were the same hazy brown color as the foreign sky outside — nothing like the slender towers and clean, blue sky inside of Oberon. The whole cluster had a shabby, thoughtless air, like whoever built them had no concept of aesthetics.

Glen looked over my shoulder. “Those are the Outers,” he said, his voice grim. I said nothing. We did not often mention the Outers, as their very existence was somewhat taboo. A society of miscreants, criminals, people who were unable to thrive within the bounds of a civilized community. Every once in a great while, we’d hear of someone who had committed an act so heinous, that they were deemed beyond the help of the usual redirection and counseling, so they were banished to the Outers.
I shivered and pulled my gaze away from the window, not daring to look again until the train came to a stop inside the walls of our sister city, Titania.

Glen’s surprise exceeded my expectations. He took me to an air skating rink, which very preme among the academy students. You strapped on a pair of wheel-less skates and hovered around a smooth, glowing rink on a cushion of air. I had never been, due to the high cost of traveling to Titania, but I had good balance and physical skills, so I was gliding around in no time, even keeping up with Glen.

Afterward, we went out for dinner at an authentic Old Western restaurants, which served foods like chili and fried chicken and hamburgers, some made with real meat! I looked at Glen, shocked, as he took a bite of something that was cooked with the flesh of an actual fowl. But he just grinned and offered me a bite. I made a face. I wasn’t that adventurous.

After we’d eaten, Glen did something else unexpected, and so old-fashioned, that it fit right in with the themed restaurant. He handed me a small box, then crouched down on one knee on the floor.

“Glen!” I looked around, blushing. “What are you doing?”

His eyes gleamed. “Open the box.” I did. Inside sat a slender silver ring, set with a tiny, round stone that caught the light and sparkled with every color. “It’s called a diamond,” he said, and slipped it onto my finger. “Very, very rare.”

As I held up the ring, staring in awe, he took my other hand in his. “Sochi, will you share with me?” He asked. I redirected my shocked gaze from the diamond to his hopeful face. Share my life with him? Be his permanent pair and bear children with him? My stomach rose and fell like an air lift. A part of me was tempted to say no, to return the expensive ring. But sharing with him would mean a rise in status. A better chance at Detail 1. Better living arrangements and influence for my aging parents. And besides, there were parts of him that I had grown to love. Maybe, like plants choking out weeds, those parts could overtake the parts I didn’t care for.

“Yes, of course.” I throw my arms around him. When I did, I noticed something strange over his shoulder. A small group of young people wearing dull gray uniforms, cleaning and repair supplies in hand. Detail 4 crew, I thought. But then, one of the jacks looked my way. His jaw was set in a disapproving way, his unusually pale eyes squinted and hard, filled with a coldness like metal. His hands clenched and unclenched, and even from where I sat, I could see how red and chapped they were, from hard labor. I sucked in my breath.

Outers. I had seen them before, in Oberon. Such crews were shipped in, and heavily guarded as they performed their work. Then they disappeared, like puddles evaporating from asphalt. I wondered what this young jack had done, what his parents must have done, to lead him to such a hopeless fate, to live in a place still choked with pollution and illness, where survival was more important than aesthetics, and life barely spanned eight decades.

Gale and I planned our sharing ceremony for six months after exams, to give us both time to gain new jobs after placement. We spent time studying together when we could, though it was easier for me to work alone. At last the week of examinations came and went. On shaky legs, I took my place on stage as my peers looked on, then breathed a tremendous sigh of relief as the officials announced my placement. “Detail 1.”

“I knew you could do it,” said Glen, who had also received Detail 1. Within the next two weeks, we were both granted jobs as junior environmental engineers at Tyros Agency. There was no time to even think about planning our ceremony, as the following weeks were filled with orientations, training, and learning how to be taken seriously as professionals, and not just empty-headed neos.

“This is the environmental control room,” said a bored-sounding employee during our initial tour of the agency. “This is where we monitor levels of gasses in the air. Here is where we track natural plant growth, as trees and plants shift the amounts of gasses and reduce polluting toxins in the environment. And here is where we store data.” I peered through the locked glass case at the rows of tiny compartments. Each compartment held a single round, sparkling stone, not unlike the one on my ring.

“Are those diamonds?” I asked.

The employee’s snorting laugh made me cringe. “Real diamonds are more rare than cats,” he said, referring to the once-cherished human pet that had been abolished from society years before I was born. “These are synthetic storage chips, each able to store enormous amounts of data, which can be read by even the simplest computer systems.”

After that, I clammed up, afraid to ask any more brainless questions that might lower my status in the eyes of my fellow engineers. I quietly listened and learned about ways to keep Oberon’s air and water clean and healthy. My mind flickered to the jack from the restaurant, and the unhealthy conditions of the Outers, and I wondered why, with our advanced technology, they still chose to live that way.
Though Glen and I now lived together in our own luxurious quarters, we hardly saw one another. Our work kept us both so busy, we only had time for a few brief kisses before leaving in the morning, and quick, shared evening meals before collapsing in bed, exhausted. It was hard to believe that we would soon be a permanent pair, since at the moment, we were more like distant roommates.

Three weeks before our sharing ceremony, the world came crashing down. “Sochi, someone is here to speak to you,” said the desk assistant over the phone. “Please report to the front lobby right away.” I blinked in surprise and locked my computer. Who could be here at work to visit me? Was it one of my parents? Had someone been injured? I twisted my ring around my finger nervously as I approached the front lobby.

It was not my parents. A team of security officers stood waiting, their faces stern. Palo Vyer, the head of the agency, stood nearby, and Glen was beside him, his expression filled with worry and doubt. My pulse raced with sudden fear. What was going on? Was Glen in trouble?

“Sochi Desai?” said Palo. I nodded. “You are being charged with theft. A very large amount of data was recently downloaded from agency servers, and the download was traced to you.”

“What?” I stared, openmouthed. “There’s no way! I would never do that.”
“As you know, our agency contains very sensitive data that could be dangerous in the wrong hands,” he continued. But I was so stunned by the accusations that I barely heard what he was saying.

“I swear, I had nothing to do with this!” I tried to twist away as the security officers restrained me, locking my hands behind my back. “Glen, tell them I wouldn’t steal.”
But Glen refused to meet my gaze, his eyes cast downward at his own folded hands.
“It was Glen who told us the truth,” said Palo. “Glen chose to come clean when he realized that his pair,” he spat the word as though it were filthy, “is a spy and a criminal.”

Hot tears filled my eyes. “Glen, no…” But the truth was sharper than a razor. Glen, my charming, clever pair, had conned me, like he conned everyone else. He was never going to become my permanent partner. He had set me up for this fall.

I was silent as the security officers took me away. Silent as they strapped me into an express train headed toward an unknown location. Silent as they handed me a rough, dingy gray uniform to wear. I changed into the strange new clothes, and as I did, I slipped my sharing ring into one of my pockets. The security officers had not noticed the ring on my finger. The slender, silver ring set with a small, round stone, which caught the light and sparkled, and contained the secrets that had the power to transform even the most hopeless of worlds.

Dude, Where’s My Flying Car?

Jetsons car The 2000s were supposed to be the defining moment – the shining boundary that separated the archaic past from the future. Goodbye to the era of The Flinstones; hello to the age of The Jetsons. Well, here we are, in the year 2014, and I have just one question: Where’s my flying car?

They were supposed to be here in the future. The pop culture of my childhood assured us that the future would be like a cross between Back to the Future 2 and The Jetsons. Self-lacing sneakers! Instant food! Suburban neighborhoods in the sky! But alas – even as we approach 2015, we must still bend over to tie the laces of our sneakers, and cooking an edible meal in the microwave still takes an annoying two minutes. Maybe we took a wrong turn and somehow landed in a dystopian future.

Future Technologies We Are Still Waiting For:

Hoverboards

Admit it — you know you’re still waiting for your chance to hop on one of those babies and soar around the neighborhood like Marty McFly. It’s on the bucket list of every Gen Xer. Sadly, other than the Tony Hawk hoverboard hoax, the technology still does not exist.

hoverboard

Still waiting for real-life Hoverboards

 

  1. Flying Cars

Really, I don’t even want to fly one, due to a slight fear of heights. I just want to see the vision brought to life. Just imagine – streams of cars flying through invisible freeways overhead, while down on the ground, the rest of us float along on Hoverboards and miniature, Power Wheels versions of flying cars.

Eyeglass televisions / telephones
Imagine if we were able to watch television and answer the phone and everything using our eyeglasses. That would be so…wait, what? That already exists? Oh yeah – Google Glass!

Google Glass

Google Glass is actually really, really cool tech.

  1. Trips to the Moon

Nope…although millionaires may choose to travel to outer space for a day of anti-gravity kicks, we still can’t hop on a spacecraft and take the family for a casual camping trip on the moon. Too bad. I was looking forward to helping my kids earn a scouting badge for space travel.

 

Robot Servants

Okay, I’m gonna come right out and say it. I’m glad that we don’t have robot servants like Rosie the Robot. Not that it wouldn’t be incredible to have a robot servant. It’s just that Rosie, with her low-tech blinking lights, wheels, and choppy, robotic voice, would be kind of a let-down. I want my future servants to be realistic – like a cross between The Terminator and the androids from I, Robot.

http://www.google.com/url?sa=i&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&frm=1&source=images&cd=&cad=rja&uact=8&docid=siOcTKAw9UB6HM&tbnid=2KJgurY8dfl63M:&ved=0CAUQjhw&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.thepaltrysapien.com%2F2012%2F07%2Fwhere-are-our-robot-servants-and-other-gizmos-asks-david-graeber%2F&ei=9yEXVNeREYO4ogTvnoGABw&bvm=bv.75097201,d.cGU&psig=AFQjCNEmwXWPyLc6txoQAltZZSFM3gPzqw&ust=1410888572333853

It’s actually rather impressive how many future predictions from The Jetsons and Back-to-the-Future have already come to fruition. Just look at the amazing technology we are surrounded by that were no more than science fiction just a couple of decades ago – flat screen televisions on our walls, video conferencing, mobile tablet computers, and 3D movie super-sequels instead of original material (Jaws 19, anyone?). Luckily, there are also a few future predictions that did not come true, such as moving conveyor belts inside our homes (pretty sure that wouldn’t help the obesity epidemic); or houses built on stilts as high as the stratosphere (because I kind of like being able to breathe, and because falling off the front porch could be a real bummer). I’m also really hoping that when the year 2063 actually arrives, our society will not have reverted back to the patriarchal, homogenous culture that apparently still existed in the Jetsons future. In that regard, perhaps we really have arrived in a sort of utopian future. Except for the lack of Hoverboards and flying cars.

It’s the End of the World (and I Feel Fine)

emergency prep I’m pretty much the opposite of a Prepper. Although I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, where even TV commercials constantly drill into your head the importance of being prepared for The Big One, I tend to be anything but prepared for natural disasters. Not that it isn’t important. It’s good common sense to keep certain things on hand in case of earthquakes, or alien invasions, or the zombie apocalypse. For example:

  • Flashlights / Lanterns (Great! We have about a half-dozen of these)
  • Extra Batteries (All AAs, which are great for WiiU remote controls, bad for dead flashlights)
  • A Well-Stocked First Aid Kit (Mine has exactly 3 band-aids and some expired Jr. Tylenol)
  • Drinking water (Do toilets count? Hey, if we were dying of thirst…)
  • Non-Perishable Foods (Humongous supply of Ramen noodles — check!)
Preparing for dystopia

I’m pretty sure that my survivalist relatives are preparing for this dystopian future.

By contrast, the rest of my relatives tend to be extreme Preppers. No, I am not exaggerating. I’m pretty sure that a few of them have actually built underground bunkers. They are often perplexed by my lack of concern that any minute, we could all be in a state of emergency due to North Korean bombs or falling meteors.

My mother called the other day in a panic. “Do you still have that stack of face masks I sent you?” she asked. “You may need to buy more. And when you get a chance, go over to Costco and stock up on food, just in case”

I groaned. “What for this time?” Silly me. Didn’t I know about the impending plague of Ebola Virus? Hadn’t I heard that our government had allowed for the return of two very ill American doctors who were going to spread the disease to the rest of us? Ebola! Seal your windows with plastic! Keep your kids home from school! Acquire weapons! This is not a drill. I repeat, this is not a drill.

Yes, I have heard about the tragic outbreak of Ebola Virus in West Africa. Yes, I have been following the news reports about the deadly disease. According to dozens of popular media sources, Ebola is highly contagious, and has a mortality rate as high as 90%. If it is not well-contained, then the illness could spread around the world, wiping out much of the human population.

protected and ready for anything

Ready to survive the Ebola Outbreak

But here’s the thing: Ebola is not that contagious. It is not spread by coughing and sneezing like the flu or common cold, but by absorbing the bodily fluids of an infected person. (Yes, I realize that this is exactly how people become zombies on The Walking Dead, but that’s beside the point).

“…to become infected in the first place, a person’s mucous membranes, or an area of broken skin, must come into contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person, such as blood, urine, saliva, semen or stools, or materials contaminated with these fluids such as soiled clothing or bed linen. By contrast, respiratory pathogens such as those that cause the common cold or flu are coughed and sneezed into the air and can be contracted just by breathing or touching contaminated surfaces, such as door knobs. A pandemic flu virus can spread around the world in days or weeks and may be unstoppable whereas Ebola only causes sporadic localized outbreaks that can usually be stamped out.” (Scientific American, July 30, 2014)

Ebola is an unfortunate and devastating illness. I am hopeful that scientists will soon devise a cure, and am encouraged by the recent reports that the American patients are showing signs of recovery. And I will continue to make efforts to live as healthy a life as possible, by eating healthy, exercising, washing hands well, and getting plenty of sleep to keep my immune system strong. But I refuse to seal my windows with plastic, stock up on weapons, or build an underground bunker. Yeesh! This is not World War Z, people.

However, it would probably be a good idea for me to buy some more batteries. And some bottled water. You know — just in case.ultimate survival gear for preppers