Updated: Mar 20, 2021
Golden firelight lovingly caressed the curves of the young woman's bare neck as she stood erect beside the delicate piecrust table. As her eyes eagerly perused the fine copperplate script flowing across the sheet of foolscap trembling in her fingers, the rounded tops of her heaving bust peeked over the lace-trimmed edge of her low-cut gown. Watching this scene, Leah's own attention was riveted to the sheet of paper, even as her senses were overwhelmed by the other details of the well-appointed parlor; the warm tones of painted wainscoting, the flickering candles in their heavy pewter sticks, the fine tea set of hand-painted bone china resting on the table.
A voice in Leah's head observed softly, 'When Prudence read the letter from her betrothed, her heart pounded in excited fear. It had been three months since she had last heard from her, and rumors of the hardships the Revolutionaries endured at Valley Forge weighed ever heavily on her mind. The words that met her eyes now sounded in her heart: “Yo, Prue—The long struggle has at last moved beyond a state of unproductive praxis. Now the people at last draw close to the glorious apotheosis of all dialectics! If only you were here at my side as we administer the final death-blow to this fascistic tyrant and usher in a shining new era of equal inclusivity!’
Leah's own lips moved in synchrony with the narrator’s words; this sequence was one of many she had learned by heart. As Leah whispered along, she felt the soothing flood of dopamine released into her system as reward for knowing this passage so well. The scene continued to play out; the paper was clasped lovingly to Prudence's bosom, the look of proud determination flared in her eyes as she then set the letter aside and reached the flintlock rifle down from over the mantlepiece. Her voice rang with strength as she declared aloud, “Jayce, I’m coming to join you! Together we will overthrow the forces of colonial patriarchy!” before flinging open the parlor door and striding into the corridor.
While the parlor dimmed following the young woman's departure, Leah felt the gentle internal humming fade as her old-style immersive headset ended the experience. Leah continued to relax into the welcoming contours of the sheltering, pod-like seat, hoping to draw out as much warmth and security as possible before an attendant requested she move along. Before she was forced to go back outside. Maybe if she remained utterly silent, they would forget about her and she could stay here a little longer. Leah brushed strands of mouse-brown hair from her pale face, then lowered her small, girlish hands to cling to the seat's armrests. To one side, she felt the bright warmth pouring from the window-shaped screen mounted on the wall nearby. She turned towards this, basking in the sense of high summer that it imparted to her grateful awareness.
Leah began to plan which chapter she would experience at next week's session. She was partial to the epic saga of the York and Sacagawea expedition, sent westward by President Sally Hemmings to explore the newly purchased 'Merician territory, but was approaching her limit on this sequence. Perhaps it was time to go back further in the library and review the entire 1619 Venture; the multi-billion dollar production budget made the exhaustively detailed, forty-eight hour documentary whip by as if it were a scant fifteen. But Leah was well over her required hours for 'Mericia's Origins, and far behind in the Glorious Era of Workers' Industrial Equity. That time period lacked the emotional appeal of the others, but she had already received an official warning and knew she really needed to catch up. Next time, she told herself. Next time she’d be able to relax into the sheltering arms of the experiential booth and be transported to a blissful elsewhere. A blissful anywhere. And the headset would keep track of her emotional responses, rewarding her for attention and enthusiasm, while sanctioning her for wandering thoughts, fleeting doubts or questions.
“Time’s up”, said the unsmiling uniformed attendant briskly, hovering over Leah and collecting her gear. The girl surrendered the device reluctantly and rose from the seat. She passed through the chamber crowded with other occupied seats, down a narrow corridor and approached the front entrance. Through the door screen, golden sunlight continued to pour benignly. She held her hand just over the surface and felt the warmth stroking her skin; if she put her face closer and squinted, she could make out the individual pixels forming the image of reassuring gold. Then with an uncontrollable shudder against what she was about to confront, and she pushed open the panel and exited Community Education Center No. 687, walking rapidly into the ravenous evening with her head down, eyes fixed on the toes of her worn shoes, throat nearly blocked by a heart that raced in barely suppressed terror .
When Leah returned to CEC687 for the following week’s session, she was disconcerted to find the expected cocoon of sheltering comfort was now tainted by an atmosphere of unrest. Sour whispers and mutterings flew among those already occupying their slots; bitter-faced attendants moved quickly, shaking their heads as they refused to answer the questions flung after them while they snatched headsets from confused citizens. Teams in white medical coats and scrubs were accompanying people in and out of doors.
An attendant stopped and glared at Leah; the livid sheen of her pasty skull winked through her close-cropped, maroon-dyed hair. She demanded, “What are you doing here?”
“I’m…it’s time for my session. I’m here every week,” the girl answered worriedly.
Impatiently, the woman took Leah’s hand and scanned it with a small data unit. “You’ve been re-scheduled for tomorrow morning. There’s been a screw-up,” she pronounced disgustedly. Under her breath she added, “Fifth time this afternoon. This week is freaking insane.”
“So…I should just leave now?” Uncertain and forlorn, Leah remained partially blocking the crowded corridor.
The attendant regarded her a moment, a trace of pity softening the angry glare of her annoyed eyes. Lowering her voice, she confided, “We’re transitioning to complete neural implants—didn’t you get the notice?”
“I saw it…but I thought it was a mistake. I thought I didn’t qualify.”
“Everyone qualifies! That’s the point!”
“But…I’m behind in Glorious Industrial,” whispered Leah, growing pale and feeling her muscles instinctively brace against a searing wave of pain. But of course none came; she was not wearing a headset.
“Well…,” Biting her lip, the maroon-headed attendant studied the message on the screen of her device. “I’ll see that everything syncs up in your account. At the rate we’re going, I think the system will be smoothed out by the time you come back tomorrow”
“Okay…thanks.” Leah doubtfully moved back down the corridor, unmindful of the medical team brusquely jostling past her with a cartful of equipment. Blood glinted on the tip of an instrument protruding from beneath a clean paper sheet; her eyes slid over this without comprehension. Steps dragging as she crossed the front entryway, Leah paused with her hand not quite activating the door sensor, closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Then the doors swung open and with lowered head and eyes squinting to shut out as much as possible, she exited the facility.
Her night was spent huddled in the dark of her cell-like housing nook, State-supplied blocker- blankets wrapped about her head to screen out the scent of filth and acrid burning, the rumbling of patrol vehicles, the sounds of shuffling feet, the whimpers of her neighbors' nightmares. In the morning, Leah downed an energy solution and dashed back out to CEC687. A high level of activity still surged throughout the halls, but nothing like the chaos of the previous day. Leah stood to one side and fidgeted, uncertain where to go. She dreaded being snapped at for taking a slot if she was expected to go somewhere, do something, else. But for fifteen minutes or so, the swarming attendants were far too busy to notice her, let alone answer a timid, poorly expressed question that was unlikely to be heard over the surrounding noise. Eventually, the older woman from the previous day strode by, paused to check a reading on her device, then turned and approached Leah.
“Oh, good----you’re on time. We just got a surgical pod cleaned up for you—come this way.” Leah dutifully followed the woman as the latter briskly trotted down the main corridor, turned a corner, went down another hall, turned another corner, then stopped. Behind the partially open sliding door was glimpsed a welcoming seat and small table with a few instruments set on a sterile pad. “Well—what are you waiting for?”
Galvanized into action by the woman’s acid tone, Leah stepped over the threshold and quickly seated herself. Maroon-head departed and Leah was left alone to consider the sounds in the corridor or in the pods to either side of her. Business-like, harried voices snarled orders or made requests; there was an occasional burst of short, disillusioned laughter or a mysterious, scarcely intelligible whisper. She thought she caught the words "co-ordinated disrupters", "physical attack on central operations" and "troops mopping up in the northeast sector," but these words meant nothing to her. Soon a team appeared at the door. A nurse lifted Leah’s hand, scanning her ID and records. “This will literally only take a few minutes,” stated the second team member. Leah smiled and nodded, settling back trustingly into the seat as both figures advanced on her.
Afterwards, her head ached a bit. The discomfort soon faded, but she remained disoriented by the instructions the nurse was sharing with her as they traveled back through the halls to the lobby. She kept asking for the woman to repeat them until she finally understood: There was no need for her to return to CEC687 ever again. Everything required of her would would now be accomplished through the implant.
Standing before the glowing front doors, Leah continued to listen to the voices of the others busily coming and going behind her. If what the attendant told her was true, soon the lobby would fall silent and remain so forever. Tears filled her eyes as she lovingly remembered the hundreds—thousands—of hours she had spent since toddlerhood in the weekly embrace of the warm, overstuffed seats in the experiential slots. Her journey to Certified Plus Citizen would continue, but in the cramped, chilly confines of her housing nook. As this shadow of dissatisfaction passed through her mind, a following wave of warning discomfort drizzled down her spine. Mentally scrambling back to a place of gratitude, she released her held breath as the spinal buzzing abated, to be replaced by a reward of a delicious melting tingle throughout her whole body.
Finally ready to once again face the gauntlet of her journey home, she touched the door control and passed through the entrance.
As Leah descended the front steps, her previous tears continued to flow. But now they were become tears of disbelieving joy; her steps slowed as she wonderingly looked about herself. The terrifying path she feared to see and again traverse was gone, wiped away like a child's nightmare dispelled by a mother's soothing voice. Or the finality of a cosmic 'refresh' button pressed over all of existence. The unmitigated gray horror previously threatening on all sides, had disappeared for good. Everything they taught is true after all, she marveled. It was here all along, but I was too selfish to see it. She began to revolve, to twirl, arms flung out in abandoned relief and delight. Shafts of golden beams, dripping with iridescent rainbows, streamed from her fingertips with every movement beneath a laughing sky of sheltering blue and rose-tinted billowing clouds. Everywhere she turned, her new implant revealed nothing but cleanliness, freshness, security, hope and promise.