Science Fiction Speculative Horror

I listen to the audio in my head.

“All is new. All is bright. May you have dreams of newness tonight.”

It’s the constant loop from the State NEW Agency. Nation’s Eternal Watch. 

Is this America anymore? It’s hard to tell. We have had so many different names since the revolution. And each time we reset history. I vaguely remember a few fragments of the old history. There was the Civil War of 1945. We declared independence from French Guiana in 1812. The Assyrians gave us culture and literature and democracy, whatever that is.

Now, there’s only the state, and I am a cleanser, which is really just a fancy word for maintenance worker. And it sounds unglamorous, but you’d be surprised.

I update the digital displays, which are positioned everywhere according to regulations. “Hey, Martha,” I shout to another worker.

“Yeah, George?” She dances awkwardly with her cleaning gear as she approaches. She’s as trim and neat as a state broadcast in her unitard. 

“Take a look at this bulletin.” 

She studies it, wrinkling her button nose. “‘Indo-New Zealand soccer team defeats Hungreece in World Cup standings.’”

“Is that right?” I wrinkle my nose, as much as from the smell of the meat substitute on Martha’s breath as from the possible old news still allowed to remain like a burn mark on the displays. “Abe told me that Indo-New Zealand got disqualified because they didn’t replace their equipment after the required three months.”

She tunes into the world news feed. “You’re right! This news is old.”

We both shiver and look to the ever-present watchful green eyes of the floating holo-projection above us. The founder of the new order, simply called “Gatsby,” for some strange reason. No one knows why.

“Gatsby forgive us,” Martha whispers.

I press a few buttons and let the display scan my retinas. Connecting with my mind. The scan tingles and eventually the offending text, the blight, the eyesore gets replaced with the solid green headline: “Indo-New Zealand Disqualified because of Violation, Hungreece Advances in World Cup Finals.”

I shake my head and lean on my sweeper. “I don’t know how—”

Martha shrugs. “A glitch in the system? It happens.”

“If someone had seen it—”

Martha directs my attention to the passing crowd. Everyone goes about their business without paying attention in the least. I feel relief they didn’t notice, but at the same time, I have a sour taste in my mouth. Nothing that a shot of fizzy ReNEW won’t fix. I search in my belt pouch. My last vial is as empty as the old places of worship before they tore them down. What were they called again? What were those religions?

“Damn, I don’t have any ReNEW. Have you got some?”

“I’m out too. Are we breaking some regulation?”

I shake my head. “Not if we locate the nearest dispenser before anyone notices.”

We consult our holo-glasses that we wear. The nearest ReNew dispenser is on the next street. It’s a short walk. No fuss, no bother. We’ll be there and back and still keep our schedule. 

I love walking like this with Celia. I love a simple walk in the open air, which gives me time to appreciate how she talks, with animated hand gestures. Besides, I notice so many violations when I can just slow down my thoughts and walk in a leisurely way. Thankfully, everything seems in order. 

Except that when we press the button on the compact silver dispenser, no ReNEW comes out. Only a few fizzy violet drops. No one exactly knows what is in ReNEW other than caffeine, sugar, and fruit juices—and the secret vitamin formula. It’s all perfectly wholesome and mandated by the state. The state has never steered us wrong, right? Not that we can remember, anyway.

We check another dispenser, which takes us several streets away. I’m sweating and starting to feel a little impatient.

“I think life was better before we were all mandated to take ReNEW.”

Martha’s green eyes, enhanced to look exactly the same as Newman’s, look worried and she presses her hand to my mouth. “We really have to get you a dose. It’s critical.” She slams her palm against this dispenser. Nothing. 

All the dispensers are out. How did that happen?

Someone is going to get vaporized for this.

“I think I know a source,” I murmur. “It’s…it’s black market. Not regulated.”

Martha shivers. “I’ll take anything. I won’t tell if you won’t.”

We run together down several twisting, turning alleys, all clean of course because we just did them this morning. No one litters in this society. We have vaporizers. We discard history, but we don’t drop even a food wrapper on the ground. 

I duck into a shiny storefront covered in digital displays and approach the lifelike human android behind the counter. “I’m here for my special order,” I say.

She nods, flashing a blinding smile, and takes us back into the storeroom where vials of purple ReNEW line the shelves. “You’re a lifesaver, Molly,” I say to the android. Titles and forms of address in everyday life are so old. Unless you’re addressing a government official.

She hands us two vials and I pay with gold coins. Forbidden gold coins.

Martha squirts ReNEW into her mouth while giving me the stinkeye and a sour face. “Gold? Really? I never figured you for a rule-breaker. And here you are breaking a whole bunch of them.”

I shrug. “You’re welcome to refuse that ReNEW.”

“Asshole. Let’s just get out of here.”

But before I squirt the ReNEW into my mouth, something flashes by me.

A kid wearing a vintage jean jacket and jeans. Decidedly old. I grab the kid’s sleeve, feeling the well-worn denim, rough and comfortable at the same time. I have n’t felt anything that old. “Does your mother know you went out dressed like that?”

“It’s the newest thing,” the kid snaps back.

I shake my head. “Breaking the law is new and popular?”

The kid wrestles away from me with the energy of a wild bear and twirls a yo-yo. An old yo-yo with paint chipped and scratches from multiple tricks. An image of the world in the early 21st century is painted on the yo-yo.

I used to have one, to play with it, before the revolution made everything new. Six-year-old me loved my yo-yo that I saved up money to get. I did Round the World a hundred times, as well as every trick I read about. 

I squirt my ReNEW into my mouth, or I try to. My fingers slip. 

“Hey, kid. Can I play with that?”

He narrows his eyes at me. After a minute, he shrugs. “Sure.”

“You’re nutso,” Martha says, but she looks fascinated by the yo-yo.

The kid hands the yo-yo to me and the ReNEW falls from my grip. I trade it for the childhood dreams attached to the other end of the string.

Round the World should be easy. Just a continuous sweep of my arm, like I’m sweeping dust away. The painted world makes a complete orbit and I remember telling my mom and dad all the countries I wanted to visit as a photographer. “The United Kingdom. Germany. Poland. Greece. Russia. Egypt. Tanzania. Lebanon. Israel. India. Malaysia. China. Japan. Australia. Canada. Mexico…”

I say the names of these countries aloud. Also their old capitals. It’s like calling Germany Prussia or referring to Istanbul as Constantinople. The names sound like freedom.

And then, I feel an electric current jolt through my body. Pain keeps coming and coming in a firestorm of agony, and the string wraps around my hands. I sink to my knees.

Martha presses her Taser against my neck. “I knew it was you that was letting the old news slip by, and I know it’s you that didn’t restock the ReNEW. This isn’t the black market. It’s you who was hoarding the ReNEW to cause chaos. Your mistake was coming here thinking you could hide your activities. But even now, nothing much stays hidden.”

Except me, I think as I collapse. No one will remember I existed. Some new guy will work alongside Martha, my Martha, until I get re-educated. 

The painted surface of the earth both mocks me and soothes me as I lose consciousness, going around the world, the old world, in my mind.

July 22, 2023 20:37

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Ty Warmbrodt
21:19 Aug 02, 2023

Nice dystopian story with a twist at the end Kristin. I think you picked an interesting topic in suppressing/rewriting history. Very enjoyable read!


Kristin Johnson
00:36 Aug 04, 2023

Thank you. 1984 is the king of that, so I sort of drew inspiration from that...plus Brave New World, plus a little Twilight Zone...


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