Bearing little resemblance to the robot that sat next to him, eyeing his every move, he nonetheless felt as if he were part of it, that somehow, he was part of everything in the world that he never wanted anything to do with. He had sort of been born into it. He was part of the connected generation.
The refrigerator was connected to the rest of the world through the net, so was the dishwasher, the stove, his car and himself. Privacy that he wanted to claim as his own eluded him like the birds and small animals that avoided him and other humans. Since the government required the implants, animals avoided him like he was the plague. Steven Gruel, a promising bioengineering student at the University of West Virginia—according to the government Career Management Department—stood on the threshold of a new world order where everyone was part of everyone and everything else. Attempting to block out his thoughts so the robot could not understand what he was thinking, he knew he had few options.
Deal with it was one of those options except he was tired of being part of something that was so much bigger and insensitive as the entity they had begun to call the Sphere.
Suicide had entered his mind, except he couldn’t figure out how to remove the computer chip in his brain that had been implanted at birth and had grown there like a tumor waiting for him to make a fatal mistake. The chip connected him to the rest of the world via the Internet that had now grown to massive proportions. That chip prevented any random negative thoughts except he had found a way around that problem. Fantasizing was permitted because without fantasies the human imagination would not be allowed to create, something the Sphere needed to continue its work, whatever the hell that was. So, he fantasized a lot.
Even though suicide might still be a possibility, he thought he might find a way to beat the system. However, once disconnected, he would not have any way of contacting anyone in his world, purchasing food or even traveling, unless he wanted to walk and even that would be limited. If you weren’t connected, you were an outlaw—dead meat—and that was something he had given considerable thought to.
Sometimes it didn’t really matter if he were dead, disconnected or just became one of the connected people who frequently lost their minds and were terminated. With an independent disposition, he wanted to be something, to be somebody and to enjoy the fragrances of the world. The Sphere wanted none of that. It wanted control of his mind, body and possession of his mortal soul. He shivered when he realized that it already had all of that, or most of it.
Of all the ideas he came up with, beating the system seemed like the one that might offer him a chance at survival. Perhaps he could live the rest of his life, peacefully and happily, in a cave somewhere living off animals and plants. That thought brightened his outlook on life and provoked another thought in him about how he was going to get away from the robot. Punching a few keys on the master computer, issuing a few verbal commands, he soon had given the robot so many tasks that it would be busy for days and have little time to report everything he said and thought to the Sphere.
His task seemed clear to him as he thought about it. He would have to understand what his life was really like before he set about conquering the largest computer system in existence. What do I really want? He asked himself the same question almost every day and every day, he blurted out the same answer. I want to be independent and I want to be free of the chains that bind me to the rest of the world. The world was watching him and he knew it. Picking up his cell phone, the one that could carry his voice to any place in the known galaxy, he walked out the door and into a bright, sunny day. He would review what his normal activities were and see if he could discover a loophole in their unique system, he told himself as he got into his gray GM Adora and told the vehicle where he wanted to go. The normal voice that emanated from the speaker laughed at him. “You cannot go to Mars in a GM Adora,” it said. “I can take you to the spaceport. You will need a passport and all the necessary papers. Shall I apply for them? It will take about six months.”
“No, just drive me to the Energy Service Station. Your batteries need recharging,” Steven said. “When was the last time you were charged?”
“Three weeks ago,” the computer said. “I still am half charged, more than enough to drive you halfway across the country.”
The computerized car drove Steven to the energy station where it parked next to an electrical charging unit. “Welcome Steven Gruel, 402-55-1734. This service will be charged to your account,” the computer on the charging unit replied as it inserted two electrodes into the port on the side of the vehicle. Within two minutes, the probes were withdrawn and the computer replied, “Thank you for your business, Steven Gruel, 402-55-1734. The total amount deducted from your account is 5,000 electro-units. Have a nice day and pleasant driving.”
“Screw you,” he thought, but didn’t actually let the thought enter the network. The computer might be programmed to understand what the word meant although humans didn’t do that anymore.
Pulling out of the station, he tried to rid his mind of any unpleasant thoughts and concentrate on all the things he would normally do. He read a lot since there wasn’t much else to do except work and watch the televideo, which was mostly plastered with information about companies, work and about how citizens were expected to act. Mostly a training mechanism and a boob tube he thought, and just another control device.
Shop and spend.
Deciding that he spent more time reading than anything else, mostly because the Sphere hadn’t censored the old works of the masters—yet—he decided to buy a few books to read later. At the first Super Buy-Mart Shopping Center location, he told the computer to find a parking space. The lot was crowded as it normally was. For his convenience, a covered bus was waiting to take him to the shopping area more than a half-mile away. Inside, he sat down in the crowded bus. A screen at the front of the bus introduced them to all the wonderful items they might find in the store. By the time the bus reached the main entrance, he had seen at least a hundred commercials that they called Quik-Coms. The thought made him sick. All he wanted was a damn book.
The bookstore consisted of over hundred machines where he could place his hand over a hand identification sensor and order any book in print or that had ever been published. The machine would print the book for him in sixty seconds. Placing his hand on the ID pad, he told the computer that he wanted a book published over four hundred years ago. It was called Insomnia. An ancient author named Stephen King wrote it. Humming for a few seconds, the machine finally belched out a brand new copy of the old masterpiece. After ordering several more books that he wanted to read, he put them in a transporter machine, placed his hand on the ID pad and told the computer to send them to his home. They would be waiting for him when he got there.
Since he had never been in this particular store before, he decided to join all the other happy shoppers—none of which had smiles on their faces—and explore the complex establishment. Everything from soap to crawdad meat was dispensed from machines that filled every part of the store. The items that customers ordered could be instantly transported to their refrigerators and storage banks. He ordered some fresh meat, vitamins and water-milk, so called because it was mostly water and chemicals, and had them sent to his home. The printing on the screens showed where the items had been stored. The screens also showed what items he needed since it kept careful inventory of everything he used, and did. He told the machines to cancel the offer to ship the necessary items to his refrigerator. He would order them later, or maybe he wouldn’t need them at all, he thought as he hastened his pace amongst the towering, ever watchful electronic monsters.
He knew that the Sphere already knew where he was and what he was doing. The electronic machine that housed all the information that was collected from billions of terminals knew everything about him. He was a walking barcode with thirty digits and a social security number attached to it.
Steven dared not look into the faces of all those other humans around him. Those faces were as blank as his, their eyes as vacant as a dead light bulb and their hopes of freedom were as small as a mustard seed. The only difference between the mustard seed and freedom for an enslaved humanity was that the mustard seed could grow when properly nurtured, but their desire for freedom would never grow. For a few minutes he thought about the Sphere as he walked amongst zombies and electronic monsters that would terrify the old Frankenstein, and he shuddered as a terrible coldness enveloped him.
I must escape, he screamed inside knowing he had little chance of fleeing from something as enormous and powerful as the Sphere. His mind analyzed everything he knew about the Sphere as he wandered aimlessly through the maze of machines. Not one clerk was in the entire store. Their jobs had been eliminated for several hundred years. What did he know about the Sphere?
By the year 2084, all the large corporations on earth had become larger and more powerful than the government as they were allowed to expand uninhibited. Taking control of the government, military, financial system and even the religious system, they controlled and manipulated everything. They wanted control of the Internet and got it. Since everything was already connected, people, machines and things, it was relatively easy for them to enslave humans and force them to do the three things the corporations needed to survive, work, pay taxes—which they now collected—and shop until they dropped. Their formula for success was to pay humans to work then get their money back by selling their products to the customers at an outlandish price. The corporations continued to expand and grow until they were all merged into one giant corporation called the Sphere. Additionally, the Sphere was also a computer network that controlled everything on the Internet. The Sphere stored all information in a massive database that allowed it to control everything and everybody. The Sphere had become a god.
He felt alone. Nothing but machines and mindless people to talk to, he told himself. They only thought what the Sphere wanted them to think and dared not to do anything that wasn’t prescribed by law and regulations. Of course, law and regulations covered almost everything. Even now he knew the machine was watching them looking for signs of rebellion in sullen faces, searching for lack of discipline in moving bodies and monitoring eyes for strangers that did not belong in this sector. The machine also knew how much each person spent. Any change in their spending habits usually resulted in an audit by someone from the health authority. The Sphere did not like casual shoppers. Each person was expected to spend most of the money they slaved for even when they didn’t need anything. It was part of the effort to keep the economy healthy and keep people working. Or, so they said.
Steven knew the machine could not actually read his mind, not yet anyway. It could detect changes in attitude, depression and things like that. Trying to keep his mood jovial despite the fact he hated every moment he lived, he decided to get a check up at the Health Care Aid Station. After all, the government paid for all medical expenses. Walking around a corner, coming to an intersection, he turned right and followed the signs that led him to several booths where the Health Care Center was located. He wanted to fool them into thinking he was a perfectly loyal and appreciative citizen. He always got a health checkup frequently. They liked healthy citizens that could be productive.
Standing in front of a machine that looked a little like his refrigerator, he stared at the image of a beautiful woman on the screen and stated his name and ID number. While the computer read his barcode and the information about him stored in the computer chip in his brain, he studied the woman. Her beautiful blue eyes looked back at him as she studied the results from several tests that were being run simultaneously. She wore her dark hair tied behind her head with a ribbon like they did in the old days. According to her ID badge, her name was Priscilla Johnson. Steven knew that she wasn’t much more than a computer generated image. He liked her anyway. Even as he surveyed her, a powerful scanner beam was surveying his own body. Probes reached out and took his pulse while others checked his respiration and other body functions. “You are in perfect health, Steven Gruel, number 402-55-1734. If you do not feel well then please report to the hospital for a complete examination. Your body scan today concluded that your body is functioning properly. Please have a good day. Please exercise and eat regularly.”
Hoping to instill in the computer the idea that everything in his life was perfect, he decided that he was hungry. When he was working, he was not allowed to take time out to eat, except to take a couple of pills that sustained him until time for him to go home. Efficiency was the word that was engrained in his mind. Productivity earned him the right to go on living, if this was what they called living. There was nobody, no congressman or state senator, no cop or even a parent to complain to. He had been born in an incubator that had mean cables running into it. Attached to his brain by means of sensors attached to his head, the computer fed information from the Sphere to him every waking moment. Now, he had to convince them he was the happiest little slave in their entourage. He was hungry. There was no denying that.
From dozens of talking machines, each taunting him to try their wares, he selected a few pills and finally a nice simulated steak dinner in a covered tray. At a table in a dark corner, he snapped his finger causing two large red candles to flame to life. In the dim candlelight, he pulled a string on the meal and watched as the meal heated. When it was hot, a light flashed on top of it and a voice told him that his meal was ready. “Please watch that you don’t burn yourself sir. Your meal has been heated to kill any foreign bodies that might have accidentally gotten into the tray. Thank your for purchasing Warnik Foods products. Please dispose of your trays properly when finished.”
While he enjoyed his meal, he wondered what it would be like to eat meat from a real animal. The thought gagged him. Pushing the thought out of his mind, he wondered what it was like to make love to a woman. Since his sexual organs had been genetically eliminated from his body before birth, he had never had the urge even though he had read about it in many of the old books. He also wondered how much longer he would be able to enjoy the books until the Sphere decided to monitor and control what he and others read. He remembered a particular scene in a book written around 2005. The book was by an author he couldn’t remember. The title of the book was Cicada Summer. In the story, a young girl and boy make love on wet grass behind their parent’s house. With the threat of being discovered, they experience the sexual act for the very first time. The thought that he was missing something, sex, love, marriage and kids angered him and he could feel his heart beating faster. After class every day of the week, he worked at the college library. Marilyn Channels, a beautiful student with a shapely figure, nice brown hair and brown eyes worked with him. He had noticed that he felt weird when she was around. He missed her when she wasn’t with him. Sometimes, he wondered if he wasn’t experiencing love. How could that be, he wondered, such things were supposed to be impossible. Even the desire to have companionship had been taken away before he was born. The people of the Sphere had created a working, shopping creature that suited their purpose. He was a shopper and nothing else.
Is this all that I am? A worker? A shopper?
He remembered the words to an old song.
Sign. Sign everywhere a sign. Blocking out the scenery breaking my mind. Do this, don't do that, can't you read the sign.
Steve couldn’t remember the rest of the words. He knew his ancestors had heard the words and knew them. Nonetheless, they had not heeded their warning. If they had, things might be a lot better for humanity.
Finishing his meal, he dropped his trash into a disposal unit that sucked it away as soon as he closed the lid. The garbage was instantly cleaned and converted into a new tray and cup ready for more food. Nothing was wasted, except people’s lives.
Everything is automated, controlled and manipulated he told himself as he walked out into the dark and busy street. Darkness had come as it always did. Bright lights from tall metallic poles illuminated the streets. Crime was unheard of so he didn’t fear getting robbed. Nobody wanted to be vaporized instantly by the police so they didn’t commit crimes. He was more afraid of the police and their harsh ways than he was of crime.
Knowing he was going to have to make a move soon, he began to formulate a plan as he walked to his car. Since he was only five miles from home he decided to walk. The Sphere encouraged physical fitness. In fact, physical fitness was mandatory as was attending physical fitness classes. Arriving at his vehicle, he told the computer to go on home and that he was going to walk to supplement his daily physical training. The five-mile walk would earn him a hundred credits. That meant he would be excused ten minutes early. Thank you very much, he said as the vehicle drove away, for nothing! He spat on the sidewalk hoping nobody saw him. It was a crime that could earn him two weeks in the sun machine, a device that could burn his skin without injuring him physically. The pain was said to be horrible.
Walking two miles down Belmont Avenue, he turned right and walked through a dark alley for several hundred yards before exiting the alley and stepping upon a sidewalk on Tremont Street. Glancing up and down the street for signs of police vehicles, he saw none and walked hastily north. Entering an old building, he climbed the squeaky stairs and knocked on a door in a dark hallway.
“Come on in, Steven,” a sweet voice said.
He turned the knob and pushed the door open. Inside, he stood facing the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. Marilyn Channels smiled at him, took his hand and led him into the sparsely furnished living room. The smell of cooking food tantalized him as it tugged at his nostrils pulling his attention toward the small kitchen. “You’ve been scavenging again,” he said. “When will you ever learn?”
“Never,” she said indicating that he should sit on the couch near her. “Fresh fish from the river in the forest and fresh wild vegetables from a nearby meadow. Nobody has lived there for many hundred years. Those wild veggies used to belong to someone’s garden, you know.”
“They frown on us cooking our own meals,” he reminded her as he savored the odor that was now making his stomach growl. “They would prefer we buy food from them to keep the economy strong.”
“Who cares? They have to catch me first.”
“I hope they never do,” he admitted. “You are the only friend I have, that I can trust. Did you get the equipment?”
“Of course,” she said. “My brother works at the research institute. He managed to get exactly what we need. I must warn you as he warned me, though. Removing the chip from our brains can be dangerous, very painful and perhaps lead to death. Nobody has ever done it outside of a hospital. The only time they are removed is when something goes wrong with them and then they are immediately replaced with a new one.”
“They’re biological,” Steven reminded her. “They are grown from birth. How can we remove them if they are part of the brain?”
“Suction,” she said. “Use a laser to drill a tiny hole in the skull, insert a tube and in a few minutes, the machine sucks it right out. Instantly, the Sphere looses contact with you and no more tracking, recording and manipulation.”
“Yeah,” he said, “but won’t they send someone to check on us?”
“We’ll be gone into the great forest before they know what happened. Everyone lives in the cities now. Nobody dares to enter the great forests because of the dangers there. I have spent the last five years stocking up everything we need in a cave deep in the forest. My two brothers and several friends have helped me.”
“When you say that you have brothers, you are referring to your family that was appointed by the Sphere. Is that correct?”
“Right,” she said. “Nobody has a real family today. Don’t worry so much, Steven. We can trust them. They are like a real family. They have known about my plans for six years and approve of it. In fact, they plan to join us. Someday, we hope to find a way to destroy the Sphere and restore the old ways.”
“That would be fine,” he said sadly. “My only family was my foster parents. They were taken away from me when I was ten years old. They were amongst the people that rebelled when the Sphere wanted to force everyone to work twelve hours a day.”
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“Not your fault,” he told her. “I will never forget them and I will never forget the Sphere. It has to be brought down.”
Sensing the sadness in his voice, the pain in his heart, she leaned closer and kissed him on his cheek. Her warm, soft lips sent a feeling through him he had never felt before. He wanted more of it. “Let’s eat,” she said before he could ask her to do it again.
After their meal, she cleaned the dishes and threw the scraps in the ditch in the back yard. Animals would dispense with the evidence before the morning came. They were hungry creatures that civilization had treated most cruelly.
Sitting in the living room, close to each other, she explained the procedure to him. “It must be done quickly,” she explained. “The pills my brother gave me will deaden the pain a little, except nothing is powerful enough to kill the pain of having the actual chip removed. You will be screaming for me to stop. Once I begin, the operation must be finished or you will die for sure then. There is no turning back once I start.”
“Let’s get it over with,” he said excited about the possibility that he would be free. “When I am able, I will remove the chip from your brain. As you said, we’ll be well enough to leave the house in about four hours. We’ll have to be ready to move before then if the police show up.”
“My brothers are watching the streets for us. If they see them, they will send a signal over my phone.”
The sturdy kitchen table served as an operating table. Bright lights had been mounted on the ceiling above the table. Hot water boiled on the stove. With great care, she soaked the instruments in antiseptic fluids. When she was ready, she gave him the first pill and shaved a little bit of hair from his head just above the area where the chip was located. He took the second pill a few minutes later and felt drowsy, stupefied and didn’t care what she did. A white sheet covered his naked body and prevented contamination. With a steady hand, she held the laser machine above his head and began the arduous work.
His skull felt like it was on fire. When she inserted the tube into the bleeding hole she had drilled with the laser beam, he thought he would jump off the table and run. Then he remembered that his arms and legs were secured to the table legs. He couldn’t run anywhere. Knowing that her life and his depended on the success of the operation, he endured the pain until he passed out. Darkness was all around him and he swam in a sea of stars and colorful gases.
When she revived him he felt severe pain in his head and ringing in his ears. His head felt as if it were swelled up as big as the moon. His teeth chattered from the pain and he felt as if he wanted to chew his tongue until he no longer felt it. Realizing that he had survived the operation, he attempted to sit up on the table until her gentle hands forced him to remain where he was. “Pain,” he said. “It is almost unbearable. I feel as if something is missing.”
“What do you mean?”
“A part of me is gone,” he said. “That is the only way I can explain it.”
“The Sphere had control of you for all of your life,” she explained. “Of course you will feel that for quite a while. You’ll get used to it. You have me now.”
He wondered what she meant. Wasn’t she a slave of the Sphere too? “Only after I am well and I remove the chip from your brain will you be free,” he said. “Then we can be together as we never have before.”
“That is what I meant to say,” she replied as she cleaned and sterilized the equipment knowing her turn would soon come as his had. “Do you feel any emotions or any differently than you did before, Steven?”
“Yes,” he replied rubbing his forehead hoping the pain would subside. “I feel free for the first time in my life. It is the most wonderful feeling, Marilyn. Despite the pain, it is still worth it. You will see. I’m only sorry that I have to hurt you.”
“I hurt you,” she said. “I will be fine. Knowing that we can live as free people for the rest of our lives will make the pain more endurable.”
Before he could answer, her phone rang and she rushed to the kitchen counter to answer it. Picking up the phone, she pushed a button and held it to her ear. A worried look appeared on her pretty face. Closing the connection, she turned to him and said, “You must go. My brothers have reported that the Sphere has sent the Romads to check you out. They are on their way as we speak.”
The mention of the Romads sent a chill down his spine and he felt his blood turn cold. Amazingly, he felt the pain subside as another worry took precedence over the pain. The Romads, special robots that were used by the Sphere were known and feared by everyone. Their sensors could detect any human simply by their body heat, smell and brain waves. Each human’s brain waves were unique, almost like fingerprints. If they got too close to him, he would never be able to get away from them. “I’m too weak,” he said, “and besides that, I will not leave you here at their mercy.”
“I cannot go with you,” she protested, “they’ll be able to track me and then they’ll find you. You must go even if you have to crawl. It will take them almost an hour to get here so you have time to get at least to the forest. Once there, you will find a horse waiting for you at the old lake. Just follow the path behind the house. You’ll do fine.”
“No,” he insisted. “We have an hour. We can remove your chip and be far away before they get here.”
The thought was a challenge to her. Could they complete the operation and get away even though she knew she would be in a lot of pain and neither of them would be strong enough to run. “Okay,” she said. “Are you sure you’re up to it. You’ve never done an operation before.”
“Neither have you,” he said, “until twenty minutes ago.”
He tried to lift his arms and found that no matter how hard he tried he could not. Weakness and numbness pervaded throughout his entire body saturating him with helplessness. “I can’t do it,” he said. “Save yourself, get me out of here and then save yourself. Hide the equipment and they will never know you were involved or what happened here. Maybe if you can get me to the woods you can just say that you were looking for flowers or something like that. Come back here with a few flowers and they’ll believe you.”
“It might work,” she said. “They have no reason to suspect me. If I can get you to the forest and then return, they will not know what I was doing there.”
“I need water and I think I can walk with your help,” he insisted as she busied herself putting the equipment in a special place in the ceiling.
Turning her attention to him, she helped him put his clothes on as he felt himself getting a little stronger. The water cooled his throat and seemed to calm his quivering stomach. The pain in his head was almost gone, except he could still hear the ringing and feel a sharp pain when he attempted to stand. “Let’s get you to the living room where you can rest for a few minutes while I clean up in here. I must remove all the evidence.”
Putting his arms around her warm neck, he made his way to the couch and groaned from pain in his head as she helped him sit on the couch. “I’ll get you a cold pack,” she promised as she walked away. “It will help the soreness in your head.”
As he waited, he could hear her talking on her phone. Knowing she was talking to her brother probably trying to make arrangements for their escape, he dozed off to sleep. It was a dreamless sleep. Later, he was awakened by the sound of a bell ringing. It took him a few minutes to separate the sound of the bell from the ringing in his ear and the sound of voices in the distance. She was just talking on her phone, he thought as he tried to force his eyes open. The pain and swelling had moved down into his eyes and he had to force them open. When he could finally see again, even though his eyes were blurry and he could see two of everything, he was stunned to see four Romads entering the room through an open door. Marilyn was holding the door open with a cold expression on her face.
“Steven Gruel, number 402-55-1734, you are under arrest for treason, trying to evade the laws of the Sphere and for attempted departure from the Union of the Sphere. You will be taken to face the court. You have no rights. Do you understand?”
Horrified, gazing through foggy, blurry eyes, he looked first at the goons unable to accept the fact that he had been actually captured and then turned his attention to Marilyn Channels with a questioning expression on his pallid face. Why wasn’t she trying to help him?
Stepping forward, she shoved a large silver badge in his face. “Marilyn Chambers, special undercover agent for the Government of the Sphere,” she said casually and coldly. “You were the first traitor to actually manage to have his chip removed. We cooperated with you to find out if it could be done. As you can see, I actually was able to remove it proving that even an amateur like me can do it, with the proper equipment. The pain you have suffered will be nothing like what you will suffer.”
“You bitch,” he shouted as he kicked her leg sending her tumbling down on the floor. One of the Romads hit him with a stun stick and darkness surrounded him again. This time, he hoped he would never awaken from the darkness, except he knew that he would. Nobody could escape the power of the Sphere once it was created. He was trapped forever in an automation mania world, a world gone mad.
Signs, he yelled to the millions of stars that surrounded him.
Everywhere signs. If only he had been able to read the signs. Then he could remember all the words and hear all the music. He began to sing along with the voice in his head. The music drifted away from him as if the singers were losing their voices, as if they were gliding down a dark hole and with little effort, he followed them into the darkness at the center of the galaxy.
Automation Mania was the message those old ancient singers were trying to warn people about. Closed minds and numb ears had not heard them.