He woke that morning, and sat down in front of the console, coffee in a sanitized thermos at hand. He logged onto the server with his ID code. The options on the screen were limited. The list of residents in his district would take him approximately eight hours to process. It was not a strenuous job, but it was a tedious one.
COM5400093: Resident 540009321567. Standard techno-comm check. Please reply.
He watched the screen blink as he waited for the automated reply. Something tickled his ear. He scratched absently. A small winged insect spiraled out from his cheek and landed on the desk.
“You shouldn’t be in here,” he muttered. He stared at it. He could hear for a moment, in the back of his head, the voice of his thesis director. A dull and gentle rumbling that he associated with acute anxiety. He pressed his thumb deliberately down over the insect. It was too tiny to leave a corpse behind.
He turned to the list for the next resident number. His hands paused over the keyboard as the message continued.
RES21567: Who is this?
COM5400093: Encountering malfunctions?
He could think of no other answer off-hand. He was rarely called on to manually reply. The speakers on his console crackled and there was the sound of metallic laughter. A troubleshooting window appeared on the monitor, advising him to update his emotion software.
RES21567: No. What is your name?
He ignored the message and typed over the new words that had appeared.
COM5400093: Resident 540009321568. Standard techno-comm check. Please reply.
He tapped his fingers on the glowing keyboard as he waited. The time seemed long. Finally, a blinking red message popped up.
Which meant the resident was dead. Everyone reconnected the moment they awoke in the morning. It was the law, but it also guaranteed each resident’s safety and health. He wasn’t quite sure what to do. It was the first time he had received this message. If the screen had read Sick, he would have transferred the line to Doctor 5400093 and medicine and machines would have been sent out to diagnose and cure. If the screen had read Malfunction he could have transferred the line to Repair 5400093 and directions and software would have been sent to the resident. But Disconnection?
He pulled up the technician manual on another screen. He typed in disconnection. Words tumbled from the top of the screen and organized themselves into instructions.
If response is “Disconnection” transfer the line to Replace (# of your district).
Yes, of course. He typed the words.
He hesitated over the red button that would transfer the lines. If he pushed it, a new Resident 540009321568 would come into being. Some embryo, somewhere, that had been raised in its isolation to know, if anything, that one thing. Push the Connect button each morning. Communication is essential to life.
He pushed the red button.
During the night he had bad dreams. Dreams of the thesis paper he had submitted five years back to College 5400093 in which he had written of Doctor 79334’s theory of isolation despite communication. The principle of IDC that the world had come to live by. According to the timeline of his life that could be called up on the computer, the principle had come in to play after he had already been conceived. Which meant he had lived, at one time, in a world where people housed together.
He shivered in his sleep. In his dreams, he was trapped in great fleshy arms that were squeezing the life from him. He only wanted room to breathe…only to breathe. He woke up gasping, the electronically filtered voice of his advisor crackling in his ear.
Ever since he had received the message and instructions, his job had been that of techno-comm inspector for District 5400093. He had the sheaf of papers that listed every resident. His fingers had memorized the numbers of the keyboard. And he had sat there every day of his life. His job was essential. He was the only link between Sick and Doctor. Or Malfunction and Repair. Or Disconnected and Replace, as he had done the day before.
Before sitting down into the well worn chair at his computer, he glanced around his quarters. What would his replacement think of this tiny, sealed pod that he lived in? Impossible to leave it, whatever the replacement thought. The door was sealed. And though it might be cut through to place some new child in his pod, it would be sealed again. Sealed against the invasion of privacy, an invasion that had led to so many psychological ailments and crimes in the past centuries. Isolation cured all.
COM5400093: Resident 540009321567. Standard techno-comm check. Please reply.
Even as he typed in the number, he remembered what had happened yesterday.
RES21567: A-OK. How are you?
COM5400093: This is simply a techno-comm
RES21567: I know.
The answer interrupted his own message. He leaned back from the console and rubbed his leg nervously.
RES21567: My computer has replied to your check. What is your name? My name is Violet. Of course I made it up because I don’t think I was ever named what kind of name is Resident 540009321567 do you like Violet?
He wanted to catch his breath as though he had heard someone speaking very fast and was breathless on her behalf. He rarely heard words. He typed them. He read them.
RES21567: Are you there?
There were other computers waiting to be checked. This was unconventional, at best, and at worst, illegal. The resident was obstructing a government official in his job.
RES21567: What is your name?
He faintly remembered a piece of paper that had held information like date of birth and name. But he couldn’t recall the details.
COM5400093: I don’t know.
RES21567: Fine I’ll name you then do you like Ralph I read it in a book somewhere.
COM5400093: Please punctuate.
RES21567: I’m sorry. I’m just so excited. You’re the only one who ever contacts me. Which I know is because your job requires you to but it gets so lonely and I just sit staring at my computer screen.
COM5400093: Resident 54
RES21567: Stop! Please! Stop, Ralph. I guess you are a guy, aren’t you? Maybe my imagination ran away with me. Maybe you’re a girl. Maybe I could call you Iris?
COM5400093: Resident 540009321568 - Standard techno-comm check. Please reply.
He found himself typing very quickly as if to escape those words that kept coming, rambling and incoherent.
Awaiting new resident.
He remembered then the message that had replied to his check for this resident yesterday.
That day Disconnection appeared more than once. And the next day that message increased. And his conversations with Violet lengthened.
RES21567: How are you?
COM5400093: Fine. You?
RES21567: I wish I could see the sky.
RES21567: The sky. I’ve seen pictures of it, but I think it must be very beautiful.
COM5400093: Don’t you have a skylight? It’s standard construction.
RES21567: Yes, but I feel as if I’m looking through a picture frame at a painting. I want to breathe in the reality of the sky.
COM5400093: You can’t breathe in the sky.
RES21567: I could try if I got out.
COM5400093: Got out? You don’t want that, do you?
COM5400093: You’re crazy.
He meant it literally.
RES21567: Am I?
More residents were disconnected. He’d become used to the red-lettered message by now. He’d memorized the routine. Transfer the line to Replace #. Then he noticed that the same resident he had replaced once before had become disconnected again. When he transferred the line, he felt nauseous. He had not felt like that since he was a kid.
RES21567: Have you ever seen a violet?
COM5400093: Do you mean so you can breathe it in?
RES21567: You actually sounded human.
He had forgotten to update the emotion software, so the laughter attached to the message sounded both distant and screechingly near at the same time.
COM5400093: Don’t use the emotion software. It doesn’t sound real.
RES21567: You can’t breathe it in?
COM5400093: You might say that.
RES21567: I will say it.
Their conversations were so trivial. But he had never before talked about violets or the sky. He did not ultimately care about those subjects, but there was a pleasure in seeing new words on the screen. Now, in his spare time, he thought of what he would say to Violet the next day.
RES21567: What do you look like?
COM5400093: I don’t know.
RES21567: Look in a mirror.
COM5400093: Why? Do you want to breathe me in too?
RES21567: Look and tell me tomorrow. Do you want to know what I look like? I think my reflection isn’t quite right since I see it in the spoon I eat with.
COM5400093: Tell me.
RES21567: Say please.
RES21567: I have long really long brown hair. I’m afraid to cut it myself and the brown is like a dirt brown. My eyes are a dark purple blue which is why I chose the name Violet.
He didn’t have a mirror. Who did? But he wondered why he hadn’t looked at himself in the back of a spoon before. He found that his hair was also the color of dirt. It was the most he had ever known about himself.
RES21567: So you have hair the color of dirt too? There is one good thing about dirt.
RES21567: It smells.
He laughed for the first time he could remember. The noise startled him. He turned back to the screen, trying to concentrate.
RES21567: You are probably laughing. Not tinned metal laughter but real rich - maybe even snorting - laughter. But I mean it. Everything here smells too sanitary.
COM5400093: No disease.
RES21567: No life.
He remembered those last words when he continued down the list of residents. Disconnection flashed repeatedly on the screen. The transfer key to Replace was the one he hit most often now. He didn’t know what to think of this repetitive message. His last check of the day revealed Sick. He felt almost relieved to see something different. It was not a malfunction of his computer then which was one of the theories he had drawn up. He punched in Doctor 5400093. And waited. There was no confirmation message. No Transfer Complete.
He waited longer. His heart thumped sickeningly in his chest. He grasped the keyboard as if reaching for a connection.
He heard his voice as if it were far away and barely recognized it. His eyes were riveted to the screen.
Disconnected. The doctor mainframe could not be disconnected. It was a relatively self-sufficient hub, engineered to resupply itself. He tried to connect to Repair. There was a long waiting time.
He moved to punch in Doctor then stopped himself. Doctor 5400093 was disconnected. Perhaps another district? He drew up his manual on the second computer screen and scanned the table of districts. Behind 5400093 was 5400094. Of course. That was only logical.
Wrong District. Override?
There was that same pause that had tortured him before.
He found himself punching in Violet’s number.
RES21567: Twice in one day! How lucky!
COM5400093: Just checking that the computers are working.
There was a pause and he felt that his palms were sweaty.
RES21567: Well, are they?
COM5400093: Yours is.
RES21567: I located some voice-to-voice software. The previous resident had hidden it in a junk file.
COM5400093: I’m sorry, Violet. I have to go. There’s something wrong with the whole system.
RES21567: Just one minute?
He sighed to himself and it sounded loud in the pod. He looked around. The light from the skylight was growing weaker as the sun set, so the small bulbs set into the walls were beginning to glow. His bed was unmade. He had not eaten yet today, but the kitchenware had left a plate on the counter regardless.
“Ralph?” He jumped, and looked back at the computer screen. There were still words on the screen, but they trailed the voice coming from the speakers.
“Violet?” His voice was soft. She did not sound like he had expected.
“Hi, Ralph.” She lingered over his name.
“It’s strange. I don’t know what to say now that I can finally talk to you.”
He shrugged and then realized she would not be able to see that.
“What you always talk about.”
“I really did want to see the sky. For real. Big, outside my window.”
“Maybe you will then.” It was a thought that made him shiver, but he said it anyways. She wanted it so badly.
She was quieter and less sure than he had imagined in his mind.
“Is everything alright?”
“Do you like the name Ralph? Can you call yourself that whenever you’re wondering about what kind of thing we are?”
“You want me to?”
“Yes. That way I’ll have said something worth saying.”
“I am Ralph.”
She laughed, and it was a real laugh. It was beautiful.
“Your laugh is beautiful.”
He leaned back in his chair after he had finished talking with Violet. There was a panic welling up inside him now that he was no longer distracted by the novelty of another’s voice. He punched in the number of another district.
He fell asleep over the keyboard after he had punched in Doctor 5401135. He didn’t see the reply.
When he woke up, he started where he had left off. Despair had settled on him now. What had happened to the world he knew? For the first time, he wished he could open a door and walk outside and be able to see things far away. He wanted to scream from his roof and find an answer.
He expected nothing other than another Disconnection message. The screen blinked out something different.
Don’t let the ****** bugs in! The virus is spreading!
And then, before he could react. Disconnection.
The filter of the computer had streamed out the objectionable language. It was strange that any technician had so forgotten his or her formal language. He looked toward his skylight. Some small insects like the one he had killed were bouncing against the glass. He imagined that they were blocking out the light and he felt a pressure on his lungs. He found it hard to breathe. They were blocking out the light. He looked at his hand and noticed tiny red dots covering his wrist. He craned his neck to look back up at the skylight again.
He leaned back in his chair and bit his knuckle. The sealed pods were supposed to keep out any physiological threat. Violet had known she was sick. And she had known she was never going to see the sky.
He pushed out of his chair and ran to where he could feel the rim of his sealed door, though the thin line of the seal was hardly visible. He beat against the door with his hands and kicked at it, but the metal showed no sign of damage. He looked again at the bugs and saw the sky beyond them.
He pushed his chair beneath the skylight. Climbing from it to a table he reached toward the skylight. The bugs swarmed over his arm as he shoved it in their midst. He jumped back down and grabbed up a screw driver used for small self-made repairs to the computer. With all his strength he slammed it at the skylight. Again and again.
It seemed hours or days or years before the glass began to weaken. A crack slowly spread from side to side of the skylight. He continued beating at it until the glass shattered, raining down on his head and shoulders. His eyes watered from the effort and from some speck that had fallen in it. His arms were weak but he managed to hook them onto the roof of the pod. There he stood, half in and half out for a long while. He stared up at the sky. He breathed deeply.
Later, he crawled out all the way, struggling to stay on top of the rounded dome. He looked around in all directions. Pods, like his, white gleaming domes in the early evening light, radiated outwards in lines of which he could not see the end. Red lights blinked like stars in the sky as satellites bounced messages from computer to computer. He felt tired. He was covered in cuts from the broken glass and insect bites. There was a quiet that sunk deep into his heart as he stared out.
As the night grew dark, the lights of those pods with living residents flickered on. He saw one, two, three, maybe four squares of light.
That night, he worked with his screwdriver, scraping at the roof until metal shaving grew like fur. The morning light, gleaming dully, caught the letters he had carved painstakingly.
I AM RALPH
He sat back on his heels with satisfaction. Then, pain shooting up his arm, he laid on his back, hands close to his side. He closed his eyes and breathing deeply, he fell asleep.
E. K. Wagner is a speculative fiction writer by night and an assistant professor of literature by day. Her short stories appear in The Colored Lens, Tales of the Talisman, and the anthology Faed. She is currently at work on a novel or two, but spends what little spare time she has cross-stitching, researching heresies (for work!), and binge-watching ridiculous TV shows.