Plugged In

computer-faces

(2,310 words)

Rose knew they’d be coming soon to implant her.

It  wouldn’t be long before they caught up to her, so she’d come here, to the cabin at the foot of the mountain. Her father used to bring her here when she was a child, and they’d walk in the woods, fish in the streams, cook their supper over an open flame. Sometimes they’d roll their sleeping bags out under the stars to sleep. On cold nights (back then there were still cold nights), they’d sleep in the cabin, snug in their bunks. One night, she’d heard a bear sniffing around outside, lured by the smell of fish (back then there were still bears) but she felt safe with her father. He was a zoologist and knew about animals.

Rose walked along a dried up stream bed, thinking of her father. Only he would understand why she’d come here. If he were still alive, he would have resisted implantation to the bitter end, just as she was doing now. He might even have joined the infamous Anti-Implantation League. Rose would have enlisted in AIL if she had known where to find them. It would mean she’d become an outlaw, but the kids were grown and Greg–well, she and Greg hadn’t seen eye to eye for a while now.

 

“Nervous?” he’d asked her that morning at the breakfast table. She hadn’t touched her food and sat motionless, except the fingers of her right hand, which tapped on the table like rain pattering. She couldn’t seem to stop.

“No.” Nervous wasn’t quite the word. Panic blew through her like a disorienting wind. In one hour, she was scheduled to be implanted.

She was surprised her husband had noticed her at all. His blank face stared out across the room. He’d accessed the morning news and was now reading it as he took absent-minded bites of his breakfast. Her drumming fingers must have annoyed him, and he’d looked over.

“Look, don’t worry,” he said, trying to soothe her. He even reached out a hand to touch hers–maybe he was just trying to still it–but she pulled it away and clasped her fingers together in her lap.

“It’s not painful,” Greg went on. “One day in Recovery and you’re done.”

“You know it’s not the procedure itself that I’m worried about. It’s the consequences of the procedure.”

He sighed. “We’ve been over this, Rose. There’s no point in complaining about it, now that it’s law.”

She said nothing because he was right. They’d discussed, debated, and fought over everything there was to say about it. Greg had gotten his implant five years ago with the twins, when they turned eighteen. Before that, both parents had needed to give consent. She had refused to give it, and did so while she had any say in it. It had led to increased tension in the household, with many arguments and slamming of doors, but she had held her ground. Now she had no choice.

“Look, I understand your misgivings,” Greg said now. “I really do. Just try to focus on all the good things about it. I guarantee you’ll end up loving it. You’ll see.” He stood and put a hand on her shoulder. “It’s almost time. I’ll be right back.” He disappeared down the hallway. The bathroom door clicked shut.

Rose sat at the table a moment longer, just trying to breathe. The walls of her spacious apartment closed in on her. She spied the key card on the table. In a moment, it was in her hand, and she was hurrying out the door, down the five flights in the elevator, and into the garage where she found the car. She inserted the card, got in, pushed the start button and drove away, with no plan, no supplies, no thought, except to get away.

She’d driven aimlessly for awhile, sure that she’d see police lights flashing behind her at any moment. The city went about its business, however, as cars and transports zipped down the congested streets. Morning commuters walked in groups, island of isolation as they voiced commands to their implants, fully engaged with the computer chips in their heads.

The good things. She knew what the good things were supposed to be. A database lodged in her mind, with instant access to any of it, at any time, in any place. News, music, games, movies, work reports or charts, anything she wanted would be routed to the visual and auditory receptors in her brain. She could shop, do her banking, make and cancel appointments. Virtual reality programs would allow her to walk in wild places that were no longer on the earth. She could travel the world without leaving her living room, fly through the air, even make love to a perfect man that didn’t exist. She could do all of these things and more, and it was all free.

She didn’t want it. Not any of it, all because of what Greg called her “misgivings”. It may not have cost a things, but this revolutionary device was anything but free. Rose wasn’t willing to pay the price it demanded.

She’d finally taken the exit that led here, knowing it was where she wanted to be these last few hours. She thought they would have caught up with her on the road, but maybe Greg hadn’t called the authorities right away. Maybe on some level he understood her resistance and had given her that much.

 

The autumn sun was hot, and in her haste to escape she’d forgotten her sun gear. The UV rays were deadly without her sunscreen, but she lifted her face toward it regardless, relishing the heat of it. She listened to the warblings of the forlorn birds, the sad song of the wind through the dry, brittle leaves, the silent spaces between these things.

She wanted to stay out longer, but the sun pressed down on her like a fist. She made her way back to the stuffy cabin, which was relatively cooler. Easing down on the hard bunk, she pillowed her head on her arms, letting her mind drift. It was perhaps the last time it would be able to do so.

She thought of the twins. How embarrassed they’d be at her behavior. Like a recalcitrant child throwing a tantrum, or an old biddy, hopelessly old-fashioned, resisting modern plumbing when the outhouse would do just fine. A Neanderthal, that’s what she was, afraid of the shiny new people coming to populate the earth, with their big brains and big ideas.

 

“It’s not such a big deal, Mom,” Jake had said the last time they were over for dinner. “You’re on your computer half the time for work anyway, so what’s the difference?”

He gestured toward the back room that held her workstation. She was a biologist, but ironically, she spent more time in that room than out in the field. Most of her work consisted of writing out grant applications, articles for conservation groups, letters of protest to corporations and government officials, and lobbying the powers-that-be to preserve what little was left of the natural world.

“The difference is an off button,” Rose replied, trying to catch his eye, though she knew he was distracted. Probably searching for the next song, or listening to the latest commercial that popped up through the ether. Even in Inactive Mode, which she insisted on when they came over, The user is still “online”, subject to the occasional but consistent weather update, breaking news, or infomercial. Maybe even one of Greg’s ingenious ads.

Everyone ignored her. Perhaps they simply didn’t hear her.

“Besides,” Julie piped up. “With the virtual reality programs, you can walk with the rhinos and elephants and whatever on the Serengeti. Or watch polar bears float on the Arctic ice floes. Isn’t that something you’ve always wanted to do?”

“It isn’t real, honey,” Rose said, pushing her reconstituted food around on her plate. “What would be the point?”

Greg slammed down his glass of water, sloshing it onto the table. “The point is, Rose, that it isn’t real now, and never will be again. Don’t you see that? No matter how many letters or articles you write, no matter how many more dire reports you make or protests you organize, the world is never, ever going to be what it once was. Why can’t you just accept it?”

The table fell silent. The twins were looking away, and she knew they were secretly accessing something, anything, to fill the awkward silence. Greg busied himself with a towel,soaking up the spilled water.

Finally she said, “I can’t accept it. I won’t. No one’s talking about it, but I will. I can’t accept something that will allow others to know where I am, what I’m doing at all times. Who I call, what I watch, what I listen to, what I write or read, how much money I have in the bank, what I buy. It’s like being stripped naked in front of strangers. It’s like being raped.”

“Geez, Mom, don’t be so melodramatic,” Jake said, cringing at her words.

“Yeah, it’s just a safety thing, you know that,” Julie said. “It’s to stop the terrorists. They’re blowing people up everyday. You want them to be stopped, don’t you?”

“Of course, but not in exchange for my privacy.”

“People who have nothing to hide shouldn’t feel threatened by this,” Greg insisted. “So what if others know you’re reading the latest thriller or called your mother yesterday? The point is to monitor for signs of terrorist activities, like buying bomb materials or calling known terrorist suspects, suspicious activities like that. You’re not doing any of that, are you, Rose?”

“Of course not.”

“Then what’s the problem?”

“The problem is that it’s nobody’s business what I do with my life!”

“You’re being selfish, Mom,” Julie said, as if admonishing a child.

“Selfish?”

“Yeah. It’s a small price to pay for keeping us safe, don’t you think?”

“You do want us to be safe, don’t you, Mom?” Jake added, finally meeting her eyes.

Yes, she did. Of course she did. What kind of mother would she be if she had given any other answer?

 

She felt nauseated, and not just from the heat and her thirst. She forced her mind back to happier memories, like being with her father here in this cabin. They’d go on adventures together, either in these woods, pretending they were great adventurers like Lewis and Clark; or in their imaginations, as they read books together, real books with the smell of paper and ink. He’d take her to the zoo, where the last remnants of wildlife had been gathered. She’d watch the lions loll about in the sun until it became too hot, even for them. The sad-looking gorillas, listless and apathetic, seemed to know they were the last of their kind.

Her father’s death two years ago had been the hardest loss she’d ever had to endure. He’d been on the boat coming back from Africa with the last herd of elephants in existence. He’d some how survived the incomprehensible violence of that continent, the rampant disease, as well as the massive, complex paperwork involved in getting the elephants onto the boat. But one night on the way home, he’d somehow fallen over the railing into the sea, and was presumed dead.

Painful thoughts, after all, but they were hers. She lingered on them, remembering his peculiar smell of aftershave mixed with the scent of hay and animal dung. His easy laugh, the books they read together. She remembered one in particular: Watership Down, it was called, about a group of rabbits trying to find a home. She’d loved the rabbits as a child, but realized later it wasn’t just about bunnies. It had been about the need to live free.

Rose drifted off and dreamed about rabbits caught in barbed wire, their fury flesh torn and bleeding. She woke to the sound of a vehicle approaching.

She sighed and got up from the bunk, wiping the sweat from her brow. Her time was up. Time for Rose Green to be plugged in.

She opened the door and looked out. Along the dirt road that led up to the cabin, one lone vehicle approached, leaving a cloud of dust behind it. It didn’t look like a police or government car. It was an old gasoline-powered Ford pickup, something she hadn’t seen in a long time.

Curious now, she left the door of the cabin and walked toward the car. As she stood in the hot sun shading her eyes, a young woman emerged from the driver’s side and approached her. She wore travel-stained clothes and a gun belt, but her hands weren’t near the holster.

“Rose Green?”

“Who else would it be?” Rose replied, inclined to be insolent. “You know exactly who I am and why I’m here.”

A corner of the woman’s mouth turned up. “Yes, I do.”

Why wasn’t she arresting her? “You don’t look like the police.”

“That’s because we’re not. But they’re about ten minutes behind us, so if you want to avoid that implant, you’d better get in the truck.”

After a moment of confusion, a burst of hope. “You’re A.I.L.”

The woman nodded. She held out a calloused hand. “Hurry.”

Rose took it without hesitation. “I’m Elena,” the woman said, and led her to the car.

“But how did you find me?”

Elena didn’t reply. The passenger side door opened and a man emerged. His long white hair blew in the wind and his weathered face behind the sunglasses was cracked like mud in a drought. Rose knew who he was before he even spoke.”

“Not many places left for you to go.” He smiled, showing cracked, stained teeth. “What do you say, Rosie?” asked her father. “Ready for another adventure?”

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