“You are entering New Eden’s demerit-free zone,” the voice on the tannoy system announced. “For your own safety, all demerit-positive citizens must turn back now… Remember, rations are a privilege. Demerits are a scourge.”
I hear these repetitive warnings day after day after so many others, that I’ve lost count. They are a constant reminder of the oppressive regime’s total control of the populace. The long line of green-overalled men and women, shuffling slowly past the automated scanner, share a mutual fear of the machine that probes their demerit chips embedded in their wrists. Keeping a count of civil obeyance is the scanner’s only function; however, it is the most nerve-wrecking task to be scanned several times each day.
We are constantly reminded that being demerit free is the sign of a good citizen. Incurring one demerit means your food rations are cut by one-third. Two demerits and two-thirds are cut. Everyone fears three demerits. This means removal from New Eden society, never to be seen or heard from again. The presumptive fallout chatter is that three demerits send you to the mines for an additional three years. I have heard stories of people who were removed over four years ago and have never returned.
Demerits are absolute. If you are being deducted a point, you must head directly to the nearest A.D.S - the Automatic Deduction Station. Resist, and the dogs get called out. No-one wants to see the dogs appear. They are four-legged machinations of death, equipped with semi-automatic rifles mounted to a trigger device on their backs. If you are in the line of fire, you’re done for, because when the dogs are called, innocent people always die.
Someone behind me is trying to get my attention. Talking in line could be deemed subversive, so I ‘m going to ignore them.
“Hey, buddy…. Hey!”
Any louder and he will bring unwanted attention on us both. I’d better respond.
“What?” I whisper back to him.
“What happens if you’re wearing the wrong colour jumpsuit?”
“What do you mean?”
“I wore green today, but I have one demerit…”
“Green!?” I admonished. “You have to wear yellow on one demerit… and you must join the yellow line… in the yellow zone…”
“What happens if your clothing colour doesn’t match your score?”
I can’t believe the audacity of the question. If he gets the dogs called on us, there will be blood for sure.
“You need to turn back, now!” I insisted. “You know the rules…”
In New Eden, rules are not only strict, but they are also enforced. Guidelines for interpreting them are vague – to say the least. The Tower of Power’s published instructions on behavioural practices, categorically state that citizens are expected to memorise the R.O.B.Es – the Rules of Behavioural Expectations. It is the sole responsibility of each citizen to learn, practice, and maintain the Decorum – the practice of good behaviour.
Those who set the rules, reign supreme and unchallenged in their tall pillars of oversight, perched high in the man-made, high-rise buildings scattered across the barren plains. Always unseen and forever feared, any communications from the towers are always one-way assaults on ears constantly ringing from the totalitarian-run public address system.
Questioning rules leads to a demerit. Appealing a demerit, leads to another, and like I already said, no-one wants three. The Draconian politburo of overlords cannot be questioned as to their methods or purpose. Subversion is punished with Severity – a cruel public display of humiliation followed by burial up to your neck in the green patch, while a droid lawnmower passes over your head. Fear, is the motivator. Keep your head down, follow the rules, do your civic duty, work for the collective, and you will have nothing to worry about.
This reality is not what the brochure advertised in its wordy sales pitch.
“Make history,” it declared. “Be a part of the new society where all are equal and where hard work is rewarded, and credit is given where credit due. Serve your three years with at least one credit remaining, and you can choose your destination to live at any of the colonies scattered across the universe – mortgage free and money in the bank.”
It was that last bit that I thought somewhat incongruous, as banks are now outlawed, due to the illegal trading of crypto currencies, like eCoin – a volatile and extremely risky descendent of Bitcoin. I signed up anyway - like an eager young man at a military recruitment drive, hungry for adventure and a peaceful, young retirement. They even gave me a poster to hang above my bed. “New Eden,” it enticingly depicted - with happy people standing among fields of sunflowers under blue skies. If there are any sunflowers here, I haven’t seen them, and it’s been eight months now, since I arrived. Without the biosphere dome over our heads, we would choke on the airborne dust and toxic fumes of the old world – or what most here refer to as, the Old Eden. I can most assuredly attest that this place is nothing like the poster.
“The droids can’t hear us talk,” The chatty man declared.
“How do you know that?”
“I’m part of the team that cleans the control room on Level Three,” he’s explaining to me. “The operators there always complain how they can’t hear anyone in the lines, because the droids are not equipped with audio monitors. They know we chat, but they don’t know what we chat about. It causes them stress because they must report all activity to the Tower, and like us, they too are subject to demerits – even though, they start with six credits to alleviate any excessive worry. Control calls this the deaf zone – For Eyes Only. So, when the drones leave to recharge, it’s safe for us to talk.”
Personal drone cameras follow our every waking moment from rising at 6:00AM sharp to a forced bedtime at 9:00PM. Outside of those times, we are allowed two hours for socialising, one hour for mealtimes, and one hour recreation pursuit. Any infractions or tardiness is a demerit.
“How did I not know that?” I jealously ask him.
“You’re not a cleaner. Cleaners are invisible to staff, but we hear and see everything that goes on in the restricted areas, and I for one, intend to use that to my advantage…”
When the drones return to their charging stations at bedtime, the wall mounted, night-vision cameras silently watch us sleep through our dreams. Void of any private time – except for toilet breaks, love-in time with someone you’ve been allowed to start a relationship with, or conjugal visits from the Whore Corps, we are constantly monitored, and our movements are logged twenty-four hours each day.
The one waking exception is when we queue for our rations at mealtimes. Then, the drones head for the nearest recharging stations, leaving the hovering, legless and deaf droids to monitor our progress through the chow line. If I had known they couldn’t hear, would I have taken advantage of that and started a conversation? Probably not. What if they monitor our lip movements? Yes, it’s best to play safe. Maintain the Decorum. The food rations are small enough. I don’t want to jeopardise my health, having them cut. I need all of my strength and wits to get through the mistake I made by agreeing to be part of this New Eden. I can see on the faces of many others that the majority here are unhappy. No-one expected to end up on a penal colony for doing nothing wrong.
“You’re holding up the line, Friend,” nudged the chatty one behind me. “Lots of hungry people waiting here.”
“Sorry,” I politely apologised. Maintain the Decorum, always. Do not let anyone get under your skin. Disagreements lead to words exchanged and words exchanged do not go unnoticed by Control.
The scanner reads me as I pass through its archway.
“Green credits,” its computer-generated voice announces. “Proceed…”
I hurry through trying to create some distance between me and chatterbox. He’s going to get the dogs called out. I can feel it in my bones. About to enter the mess hall, I turn around to see him rapidly catching me up – a beaming smile stretched across his face.
“How did you…?”
“The benefits of being invisible, Friend. You’d be surprised what you can see, polishing floors… Commands typed into computers, data manipulated on databases… It only took thirty seconds to reset my credits when the operator went to the toilet.”
“My god, man! If they find out, you’ll be…”
“Don’t you worry, my new friend… It’s foolproof.”
“Do you know much about computers?”
“Not a thing,” he chuckles, as we continue on into the mess hall.
Collecting a tray each before joining the chow line, we strain to see what’s on offer up ahead. Sometimes, the food here is pretty good. They make sure we get our five-a-day and lots of water; however, it’s always in small quantities. I must have lost around twelve kilos in the past eight months, but I wouldn’t recommend this weight loss programme to anyone.
“Sit here, Friend,” my curious lunch companion directs me. “There’s custard and jelly for dessert today. Who says they don’t look after us…?”
“Lumpy custard and runny jelly do not make this a Michelin-star facility,” I half-joked. This is the first giggle I’ve had in ages. It feels good.
“So, what do you do here?”
I look blankly into his eyes. It’s not that I don’t want to tell him what I do, it’s that I don’t really understand what I do. However, no-one has asked me this before, so here goes…
“I stare at a single, flat line travelling across my computer screen for ten hours each day.”
“…What does the line do?”
“It travels… from right to left… There are numbers under it that travel with the line. If at any time the line jumps – like a spike, I am supposed to log the time of day and the corresponding number under the spike.”
“What does it mean?”
“I don’t know. Maybe it’s seismic activity, or maybe it’s…”
I can’t even give a creative explanation. All I can do is dwell on the negative aspects of the monotonous and repetitive work that I have been assigned to.
“There are over one hundred of us doing the exact thing at any given time. Once, a green fell asleep and missed three spikes. It was highly unusual, because we’re lucky if one spike on a shift happens. Mostly, it’s just a straight line.”
“Well, miss a spike and its one demerit. Miss three and…”
“In most cases, that would be the punishment. But he was so startled by the alarm breaking his sleep, he jumped onto his desk shouting, Down with the collective, I am a free man…! Within seconds, the dogs were out. Lucky for me, I was on the other side of the room; however, fourteen people died that day – including the sleeping line watcher.”
“What madness…! The brochure never said anything about all of this.”
“I know, right? New Eden, my… You know, the thing that angered me most about that day, is that the computer knows when there’s a spike and automatically logs it into the database. All we are required for is a visual confirmation of each spike.”
“I couldn’t stare at a screen all day. I’d rather break rocks with a hammer than go goggle-eyed.”
I can’t tell him that I signed up for the Technical Information Department. My world has always been connected to computers since my school days. It takes a different mindset to work on computers all day. Whereas, others may like the outdoors or more physical endeavours, I much prefer sitting. We get recreation time, so I exercise then. Besides, the computer rooms are always cooled for comfort in the summertime, and that suits me just fine.
For some reason, I find myself feeling upbeat. Perhaps, it’s being able to chat to someone during daytime that has energised me. I may even find myself calling him Friend as well.
“Sustenance break is now concluded,” the tannoy has loudly interrupted. “All workers Line up for your exit scan, before reporting back to your stations. “Remember, be happy in your work. A happy worker is a productive citizen of New Eden…”
That last statement causes my stomach to churn; however, I feel newly refreshed from my brief conversation with the chatty man. I hate to say it, but I do feel like today will be productive for me, after all.
“Do you mind if I go through first,” he politely asks.
“Thanks, buddy.” Patting me on the shoulder, he steps in front of me before chillingly adding, “The database correction is time sensitive, you see…”
“Whenever an operator takes a break, a snapshot of the database is backed up for later comparison. Usually, the compare routine is run after lunch, so I need to get back before the operator does, to reset my credits to the correct amount.”
“Why did you take such a dangerous risk today?”
“…The custard and jelly,” he inwardly laughs. “I love custard and jelly. It’s only offered to the green credit scores, and only once a month…”
“Then, you’d better hurry, my friend. We can talk again at recreation time.”
I loiter outside the mess hall exit, watching nervously as he lifts his wrist toward the scanner. Something is not right, and my skin crawls as a red light suddenly appearing atop the archway, flashes ominously. This is now followed by a screeching alarm and a voice loudly issuing commands through the tannoy.
“All citizens must remain in place. This is a critical announcement. For your safety and for the safety of your fellow citizens of New Eden, any movement will be considered threatening and dealt with severely.”
This means only one thing, and everyone in earshot knows it, because I can see some people scrambling for cover, while others are throwing themselves to the floor - adopting prone positions. My concern for my new friend outweighs the danger that is now posed to everyone, propelling me to recklessly rush towards him - an inquisitive expression on my innocent face.
“…I miscalculated,” he admits. I forgot that yellow lunch break is shorter than the green one.”
“By how long?” I ask, as I begin to panic for his safety.
“Long enough to restore a backed-up database, my friend, that allows the operator to run his compare routine. I’m afraid the system has flagged my illegal scan and discovered that yellow in a green jumpsuit means only one outcome – an abrupt end to my…”
Why has he stopped in mid-sentence and why is he staring directly past me -over my shoulder? My bones were right, and I ignored the warning signs. I already sense the tension behind me. I moved when told not to. At the least, that will mean a demerit and goodbye to custard and jelly for a while. I have to turn and take a look, because the hairs on the back of my neck are now standing up like there’s static in the air. What a dire circumstance this is… I shall face the music like a good citizen, so let’s take a look at what’s behind me, shall we…?
“Oh no, my friend,” I let slip a cry. “You’ve let the dogs out…”