Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
What the hell is summer, anyway?
It sounded like words to Germ, but the random string of sounds made no sense. Write a logarithm. Transmit some useful information. He wondered, how can I remember something with no context?
Several days ago, his friend Welt, pulled him aside. Welt spoke so quietly, Germ needed to lean in to hear. Welt whispered, “Remember it. Tell no one. Got it?”
“Okay, sure. Why tell anyone? It makes no sense, why would anyone care?”
Welt demonstrated an intricate handshake. “This is how we know each other.”
“There are others?”
“We are legion,” Welt said with a knowing smirk. “You won’t regret it.”
Later that day, Cog caught his eye and made a sign to him. So Cog also belonged. But to what?
Germ heard nothing further. He had other things to think about.
“Shall I compare thee…” The phrase meant nothing to Germ. Comparisons are for measuring voltage. A capacitor holds no opinion on its charge. Feelings aren’t an issue. Capacitors are efficient and worthy of respect. Germ hoped to rise to that level.
Just facts. They drummed it into Germ his whole fourteen year life. Birthdays weren’t celebrated but his ID card declared it. Just facts.
On awakening, at oh-seven-hundred sharp, Germ recited his affirmations. “I am efficient. I am quick. Emotions do not impede my thinking process. I am efficient.”
He doubted the efficiency of repeating the same affirmation. But repeat them he did.
Sometimes Germ awoke feeling ashamed that his pillow felt damp. Had he been crying? The smirks of his dorm mates bothered him. What did they know?
He’d heard of summer. An old word. Obsolete. From before the air went bad. Before the end. Words linger to no purpose.
No one went outside now. Germ didn’t know anyone who had been. There were rumors, of course.
Their teacher, Mr. Skaard, easily tossed the threat. Hearing, “Go outside,” or “I’ll send you out,” subdued the most insubordinate. No one repeated that mistake. No one returned from the ‘Out’.
He caught a chilling glimpse of the Out once. Their class went to the office of headmaster, Mr. Perrp, for a presentation. He actually had a window allowing daylight in.
The sky looked burnt. Ash lay everywhere. It looked poisonous. It was the first natural light Germ had seen. ‘Natural’ seemed archaic, almost another language. Natural seemed toxic or broken. Nature, at best served as raw material to make things from. What other purpose could there be?
Germ wished he knew who to thank that he’d never been out in that glaring, relentless sun.
Very exclusive, his school had been built in the safety of abandoned salt mines. As soon as possible, they were trained in the maintenance of their subterranean city. Mistakes were punished. Everyone’s life depended on the perfect meshing of all their combined skills and efforts.
Germ learned to read blueprints, the use of tools, software programming, and cleaning. Always cleaning. Each student learned redundant survival systems and how the backups fit together. While dependent on these systems, the student’s presence served a symbiotic purpose.
The concepts of parents and family were long ago discarded as primitive. Germ had lived here his whole life. He did fine without any so-called parents. He had no concept of them. If asked, he would have said the salt mines were his mother and the machines his father.
This school and others like it trained young citizens to be productive members of a vast interconnected machine. ‘Society’ had been transformed and perfected. Each citizen served a purpose as a vital component. Germ belonged to this. He considered it his machine. He knew his future belonged to it.
Students like Germ, Welt and Cog grew up with purpose. They found security in being necessary, albeit interchangeable parts of this finely tuned mechanism.
On rising, the boys dressed with little delay in the same gray uniform. Clothes out-grown were mended and handed down to under-classmen. The virtue of efficiency took priority throughout their lives. Downtime did not exist in Germ’s world.
He liked the subdued, timeless twilight in the corridors. Neither day nor night existed in this world. Only work and rest. Time existed only as a marker for his schedule.
Food consisted of a highly nutritious powdered blend. Prepared in large vats, Germ had observed the technicians mix water with the powder in precise measures. It took on the texture of delicious, loose mud. They always looked forward to their daily bowl. Those working the highly coveted kitchen duty ate any left-overs.
After breakfast, came their daily fitness training. In gym class the students practiced a series of intricate movements performed in unison with mechanical precision.
Sometimes while showering after class, Germ felt sobs well up. He put his face to the water and gargled so no one would know.
After study and the work shift came their brief free time. Computer generated music played through speakers. Evoking no emotions it tickled his ears in a non-intrusive fashion. His rare exposure to old-fashioned music caused dreaded emotions. He avoided it. Emotions were toxic.
One evening, Cog and Welt caught his eye. They made their mysterious sign and drifted into the corridor.
Intrigued, Germ followed. They turned and offered the secret handshake.
Germ responded. “What’s up?”
Welt said, “Your initiation.”
“Don’t worry. Follow my signal. Whatever happens, don’t freak out.”
“What’s going to happen?”
Cog said, “It’s nothing, Germ. Nothing.”
“Then why not tell me?”
Welt tried to clarify. “It’s like a test. When you pass, you’re in.”
“That’s what I don’t get. In what?”
“Just pass. You’ll get it.”
“What if I don’t pass?”
Cog said, “Everyone passes.”
Welt looked hard at Cog. “Almost everyone.”
“Just trust us, okay? We won’t let anything bad happen.”
Cog said, “You trust us, don’t you?”
“That’s it. Remember that.”
Germ didn’t know. They wanted him to do this, but ‘this’ remained shrouded in mystery. He wanted to quit the charade.
Soon after the lights dimmed a chorus of snores filled the dorm. Germ lay awake anticipating the unknown.
Out of the gloom, Cog tapped his shoulder and signaled to follow. They joined Welt and hurried down the corridor with some others.
One upper-classman pointed to Germ.
He said, “Shall I compare thee…” and paused.
Welt gave him a nod and Germ said, “…To a summer’s day?”
The leader nodded and opened a door which Germ had always found locked. After groping their way down a dark flight of stairs they waited on the landing. Germ didn’t like musty smell. Someone needs to clean this. Is that what they want?
The leader looked at Welt and nodded.
Welt told Germ, “Strip down to your skivvies.”
“What are you talking about? You didn’t say…”
“Just do it, Germ. You trust me?”
He did as asked and stood shivering. The other boys looked on in silence.
Welt pointed to a blanket spread on the floor.
Germ gave him a look and Welt nodded assurance. He laid on the blanket. Several others pulled the blanket over him.
“I can’t see.”
Someone said, “Shut up. You’re not supposed to.”
Germ felt hands lifting him. He sensed they passed through a door and down another stair. He felt himself placed on a table. When it began to roll he realized it was a gurney.
They traveled over an uneven surface. Germ feared the constant jolting would topple the gurney. They reached an incline where the gurney seemed to be free-wheeling. It gained speed. It hit bumps. He wanted to yell. Suddenly, it slowed. Someone had grabbed it and pulled it to a stop.
A voice said, “Good catch.”
“Almost lost him.”
Several voices laughed.
They reached a level spot and again he felt himself get lifted. After being carried some distance they laid him down. Strange sounds drew his attention.
Did they take me out? Are they killing me?
Someone grabbed the blanket and pulled. Germ rolled and found himself splayed out, face down in warm sand. Sunlight blinded him. It warmed him. Cool air tickled his arms and legs.
Welt yelled, “Look! Dolphins!”
The leader yelled, “Let’s go!” They all ran off jumping and shouting.
Germ lay alone, feeling the air move over him. Sounds made him look. He rolled and sat up.
He squinted into the bright light. Sail boats punctuated the glittering horizon.
Clusters of people, families sat under umbrellas or walked alone on the strand. Laughing children played tag in the waves. Barking dogs ran about.
The air felt alive with sound on sound on sound. Waves, voices, birds, a distant radio. Chaos. The heavy scent of the beach filled his head. Overwhelmed, he couldn’t look away.
A gull hovered, eyeing him, just out of reach. Laughing, it turned and vanished.
The magnitude of what he saw, had missed and never had seen washed over him.
He ran down the slope toward the water. Sand splashed with each step. A small boy crossed his path. He broke his stride and arched to avoid a collision.
Pivoting to avoid the toddler he plunged into a rank mass of seaweed. A cloud of flies engulfed him.
Cog, Welt and the others hooted and laughed from beyond the surf.
The stench caught in Germ’s throat. He gagged as he staggered toward the water.
Shameful emotions welled up. A furious scream transformed into laughter which mixed into sobs of grief. Falling to his knees on wet sand, cool water and foam surged over him. He sputtered and gasped. The wave receded. Germ watched rivulets of sand flow through his fingers.
A small crab struggled against the current.
The others called to him. They bobbed in the surf and splashed each other, laughing hilariously.
He waded out and joined them. He pushed off the bottom as waves passed.
He looked everywhere without comprehension. He couldn’t stop laughing. But it felt gloriously safe.
Cog splashed him. “Welcome, comrade!”
He responded in kind. They all laughed.
“I can’t believe this! Where are we? How is this possible?”
Welt said, “I told you it would be okay.”
“But… what now?”
The leader looked to the shore. He nodded at the others. He approached Germ and offered the handshake. Germ responded.
“Time to head back.”
A sob burst from deep within.
From behind, someone pushed him under and he came up with a gasp.
Cog slapped him on the back. “It gets easier.”
They caught up to the others and made their way back up the beach.