A couple of mornings ago, I woke up with an idea. It was they type of idea that only lasts for a second—the kind that you wave from your brain almost immediately, but not before it leaves spores on your thoughts, spreading its impression. The thought reappears on a walk, or making groceries. Sometimes its an hour later, maybe days; every time it shows up it stays around just a little longer. Eventually the idea I woke up with became that kind of thought which keeps showing up again—the kind of thought Mom used to call “peeking desires” Its true—these nagging thoughts— it always ends up that they are what I desire. Mom was right about that. It’s only been a few days but maybe this new idea is a true desire.
As I lay in bed this morning I compare the first time this idea emerged with what it has become. More formulated than just a desire, my spare moments spent with the idea have turned quickly to planning. This says to me: “this idea is more than stray desire— this is something you need to do.” I say it out loud so that I can affirm that this desire had turned into a need.
“I need to get of this place.”
The sound of my own voice nearly startles me. It is so silent in my room. The echo is amusing, the words a bit more serious.
“I want to be free.”
I wasn’t born into the society I am apart of. Sometimes I think that it was born out of me. Born out of all the misery and pain that I went through to be here. It makes sense that this world would be what it is— cold, distant, quiet, empty— those were the feelings that we carried, along with the virus. Those were the effects that the ensuing pandemic brought onto me. Its logical that a residually similar world would grow from those conditions.
We are spread out now, and we keep radically minimal contact with one another. Sometimes gatherings are held across the webspace but the conversation rarely pierces the shields we’ve developed within our sanitized domes. The threat is always out there, and so we maintain protection always.
Of course, it’s not this way for everyone. There are those who survived. Those who live across the river with their movie theaters and baseball stadiums. The people who don’t slave just for equipment to protect themselves with. The people who could afford to live through the virus or buy a vaccine, or those who survived through it left with more than physical scars. If I had been exposed, I would be the later. I could be there now. I could be gone from here.
I roll over in bed and I look at the clock. But I already know what it reads. I’ve been thinking about it for days now. Last night, as the date rolled into a fresh start, I promised myself that I was going to follow through with my “peeking desire.” I promised to do it today. Because today is Monday, March 20th, 2028. The first day of Spring and also the Day of Wailing Sirens.
I try not to think about this horrible day as I rise from bed. I go about my morning rituals, completing my hygiene routine and eating carefully. I don’t focus on what the Day of Wailing Sirens means just yet— there is too much to do and if I get distracted I might never fulfill the promise to myself.
“Let’s go Len.”
My voice doesn’t catch me off guard this time. A wrapper crinkles as I pull a pair of thin polymer coveralls out and over my clothing. I stretch rubber gloves over my hands, wrap my face in an N97 and put on a face shield. As I don each piece of armor I think to myself how much these items weigh me down beyond their literal heaviness. The stress and the time-consuming, humiliating things I do to make enough money to afford this protection; all because the vaccine is too expensive, becoming infected too risky. That’s what I’ve been told since they invented the solution.
But to escape this devoid place I must break one of those two certainties. I will see if the government can help me out of this place.
Like most things I am alone in my walk to the government office. The reminders of Wailing Sirens finally catch up to me. It is silent outside but the sound of one thousand strobing ambulance alerts split my mind as if they were speeding across the cracked streets beside me. Just as they sounded on this day eight years ago. Just as they sounded across towns and cities all over the country. Scientists, doctors and panicked government officials had never seen anything like this virus. A virus that came crashing down one day— the Day of Wailing Sirens. Hospitals were inundated—there weren’t enough supplies, there weren’t enough people to fight. Dad always remembered it better than I do.
“The battle was lost that day,” he would say, “more people died than in four wars! Those bastards in the vaccine companies came out as wealthy warlords…” I know he’s not thinking about the dead anymore when he says this. He’s thinking about the billions of dollars that the vaccine made— that it still makes. I don’t think about any of the numbers myself, since Mom was one of them. There’s too many more. Maybe it’s twisted that I want to try and passover to the Next society today—maybe it’s symbolism. Regardless of the reason, I know I want to do it. Maybe the government can help.
“Hold one second,” says a guard at the door. They are the first person I have seen since Saturday night and how they are not just bursting at the seams to speak with another real life person is beyond me. I apply all my will to not rush them with speech. Brief eye-contact leaves me wondering if this person wishes they could have a conversation as well. Who might they have lost on this horrid day? But the glass door slides open; I’m waved into the small plastic vestibule just beyond. Anything I would have said is drown by the sound of disinfectant spray sanitizing my suit.
On the other side of the vestibule there is a square room. Service windows are set into the walls maintaining eight foot increments. I wait behind a line to be called forward. The office is empty of other visitors. I suppose everyone else has put their errands off until tomorrow; this is a superstitious day in our community, after all. We are those who were never infected or cured from the virus. We are always waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the virus to catch us. Maybe I knew it would be empty like this today.
I’m cut off from further considering my motives as a light blinks over a window to my left. I stay within the lines of the distancing path until I reach that window. I cannot wait walk freely where I please; to get swept up by a crowd. Escape from this isolated world will be so sweet. Maybe I will even be able to talk deeply with someone. That idea feels so far away as I stare at the front of a robot behind the service window.
“Hello,” it says.
“Hello,” I reply. A light blinks on. It registers my words.
“I am C31-92R. You may refer to me as Sir. In a few short words, please tell me how I can assist you today.” I am glad now that this is a robot. Considering the day, a human may have been more emotionally charged by the question I am about to ask. A robot should be impartial.
“I would like to apply for a vaccine.” Sir pauses for a moment. Then the light blinks.
“You have requested that you would like to apply for a vaccine, is this correct?”
“Yes, this is correct.” Sir blinks again.
“Thank you. Please provide your social number.” I give Sir the digits, my breath held in anticipation. It takes longer to blink this time. I worry what it will say. I am reasonably young, and despite the cost of my virus protection I have a small savings from what Dad left. It may not be enough to afford a vaccine but at least I wouldn’t be destitute in the Next society. I want to argue with Sir before it’s even given a decision, but I try to hope and trust that—
“—Len Diaz… You have been denied.” Sir continues to elicit noises but I sputter, “due to family history you are deemed at viable risk for death if administered the vaccine. We have no records of immunity on file. The government suggests extreme preventative measures to better your chances of survival against virus SABHS-12. Please continue with Level 5 social distancing practice and protection, requiring…” Sir continues to rattle instructions for me. I bitterly self-address the robot and my circumstances:
“The government suggest you maintain the cloistered lifestyle you promised to escape.” I’m battling my desire to jump through the window and kick the thin robot to the ground; instead I use my legs to walk away. I continue speaking from the benign robot’s position as I enter the vestibule,
“You are too poor to join the Next society. You will be stuck in this lonely world…” But something happens to me as I exit the spray chamber. As I walk by, the guard grabs my elbow, low and discreet.
“Looking for a way out of here?” they asks me. This is the first time someone has touched me, let alone addressed me in person in a long time. I don’t know what to say. My promise does,
“Yes,” I reply.
“Meet me back here this evening. I think I can help.”
“Whats your name?” The office guard hasn’t addressed me since we began our walk away from the government building twenty minutes ago. By the time they do, I am antsy.
“Len Diaz,” I say.
“Well Len, this is a very secret service. Very… illicit… if you understand. The government doesn’t like it much when citizens take things this dangerous into their own hands. Then again, the government wasn’t much there for us when we needed it most— were they?”
I think this is very smart of the guard. If you’re trying to make someone keep a secret, the best thing to do is have them sympathize your cause. What breeds more sympathy than thinking about how the government left us behind?
Our world was in shambles after Wailing Sirens. All the dead couldn’t be buried without more getting sick. Those who had survived refused to return to those hospitals. The panic and collapse was something I’d seen in movies, not life. The government only survived because they had an army, even if it was a sick and depleted fighting force.
When the vaccine was announced it was thought to mean salvation. Then they revealed the price of the thing, showing its true purpose: to create a caste system based on health. The Pharmaceutical Industry’s coup was clear. Without the citizen’s ability to meet and gather, the government had nothing to fear. It was either pay for the vaccine, or spend all your resources avoiding the virus. Many of us had no choice.
I remember Dad crying one day. The news championed a production increase of personal protective equipment,
“That should be vaccine money,” he said. Dad refused to put on protection after that, dying just days late.
Old Society moved on with life in the most protected way possible, knowing that the virus always remained. Some among the wealthy saw it as their responsibility to give back, so vaccines could be applied for through the government. It was a rare event that we heard of one actually being distributed. People from Old Society didn’t seek them out much; there was a large risk to your health even with the vaccines. Most choose current life over uncertain death. I’ve swayed myself to choose the later.
“We’re almost there,” the guard says to me, “just a bit further.”
Why am I here, I wonder. I know that I want to escape this terrible inhuman community; Everything that can be automated has, I’ve monetized even my privacy so that I can afford protective equipment; always afraid of death from one specific source. I want to ride with friends in a car, and have dinner dates in person. I want to be free, but instead I’m trapped by a jailor that I cannot see.
“See that light over there? Thats were we’re going.” The guard speaks to me as we near the edge of the woods, pointing to a small sani-dome. “Are you ready to do this?”
I think about the guard’s question earnestly.
The virus has been a fact of life for nine years. I yearn for the world I used to know before it arrived— for the world they are surely living in the Next Society. I think of my mother now. How she looked before she got sick; the brilliant smiles she flashed on a carnival ride, how she always danced with Dad in the audience of concerts. I want to be free like that again. I want to be rid of this hazmat shroud I must wear to survive.
“I am ready to do this,” I tell the guard. He leads me inside the sani-dome.
“We have doctor’s standing by for when the virus hits,” the guard assures me. I am laying on a sterilized bed. My protective wear lays in a heap next to me. Hopefully I will never have to dawn it again. A robot prepares to administer a shot of vaccine. I take deep breaths. They become more and more rapid. I realize I might have a panic attack. I’m considering calling this off, until suddenly— it is too late. I feel the pinch of a needle. Am I imagining this, or does the vaccine actually sting as it flows into my blood?
“The first symptom will be wooziness,” I hear the guard announce. They mention nothing of the mild burning. I close my eyes and wait, but I do not feel dizzy. The guard speaks again,
“The next phase will be rougher… Prepare for pain in your high vertebra…” Again I am absent of his symptoms. I begin to wonder if something has gone wrong.
“Len, I’m not getting a read on any heightened vitals here,” the guard is quizzical. “Everything feeling okay in there?”
“Yes actually. I… I don’t feel anything….” There is radio silence. Suddenly the guard is in the vaccine room with me and the robot. He doesn’t have a face shield on, or a mask. That I can even know that he is a man is remarkable. It has been so long since I have seen a bare human face in the flesh. He begins checking several things on the old nursing unit. He is reaching for the vial to verify that it is the correct solution. Then, his face lights up.
“Incredible,” he says. His is laughing. “Tell me Len, did you feel a slight burn when the vaccine was administered?” His good will is infectious. I am smiling too.
“Yes, it was just slight, but after that, nothing…” The guard now has a new look in their eye. Something I can’t exactly place.
“Perfect,” he remarks again. Is it malice I see in his face? “We’ve had several others come through this facility that have felt that burn. They were SABHS-12 immune.”
I consider this for a second. Emotions—pain, sadness, joy, relief— they rush through me with an unmanageable flow. My parents may have died from this virus. It would be tragic comedy if this man is now telling me that,
“I’m immune?” Again my voice shocks me. The brashness to even say such a thing aloud when so many others have suffered.
“Yes,” the man replies. There is a glint in his eyes now. Although I am unused to seeing expressions this man’s face now gives me pause. Is it malice? It is normal to have a negative reaction to those with immunity; so many people experienced agony from this virus. I want to leave now. I want to take my new found freedom and go. But he is blocking the door. The man follows my eyes.
“You’re not in a rush to leave, are you? He moves closer to the exit. I am becoming afraid. I think of anything I can to save myself.
“Immune or not— I can pay you all the money I have in my account for the vaccine. Just please, let me out of here. I want to be free.”
The man begins to hustle around the room again. The robot comes alive and before I can move it presses me down against the bed, lashing my hands despite my wrestling. Once it has secured me to the bed it straightens and a new set of tools emerge from its arms. Finally the man turns to look at me again.
“I’m sorry Len, but you’re too poor to go to Next Society, and too valuable to stay here. There is a reason that vaccine is so expensive in the first place. The cost of an immune life is not cheap Len.”
I want to protest, to scream and to beg them to stop. But I do none of this. I will die the same way my parents did. Cursed by a virus they could not see. As the robot digs its tools into me, my only thought is my father’s advice.
“Just stay home Len. Just stay home.”