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Science Fiction Speculative Fiction

Margaret’s stomach growled in protest, a relentless reminder that she hadn’t eaten anything in three days. Her SociaDimes balance had once again dwindled to a measly SD12, not even enough for a slice of plain bread. With no other choice, she mustered the last of her strength and ventured into town, determined to boost her balance for a decent meal.

Suppressing thoughts of food and ignoring her light-headedness, Margaret focused on the task at hand. Three people caught her eye, engaged in conversation in front of a nearby shop. Right, this will do, she thought, attempting to swallow her fear. As she approached them, her heart raced, and her palms turned clammy. She had rehearsed her opening line a dozen times, but now, in the presence of these strangers, her words felt clumsy and inadequate.

“H-hey there,” she announced herself to the group in a groggy voice. She hadn’t spoken to anyone in days.  

Their collective gaze turned to her, their expressions a mix of curiosity and judgement. Margaret felt exposed under their scrutiny, her face burning with embarrassment. She couldn’t help but notice their badges, the blue insignia of the Sociable Class proudly displayed on two of them, while the third wore the coveted green emblem of the Social Elites, the highest possible rank. Her heart sank as she realised the stark difference between their status and her own.

She cleared her throat. “Uh, how’s it going?” 

“Oh, it’s a Pariah,” one of the women said, her voice dripping with disdain. “What do you want?”

Margaret’s eyes fell to her red Social Pariah badge, feeling a pang of embarrassment. It was an unmistakable symbol of her lowly social status, a glaring red that stood out against the otherwise dull clothing she was forced to wear. Margaret wished the ground would open and swallow her whole. She hated all this, but she had no choice. She probably should have removed her badge before going on this venture, but that was illegal. And in any case, if you didn’t wear one, people just assumed you were one of the lower classes anyway. 

“Yes, I am,” she stammered, struggling to maintain her composure. “I just wanted to talk. How are you all doing? Nice weather we’re having today, right?” She had heard that making small talk, particularly talking about the weather, was the way to go. But the trio merely exchanged glances before turning away without uttering a word. 

Margaret’s heart plummeted like a stone in freefall, and then she heard the dreaded sound that had become all too familiar, a bu-bu-bum that signalled her balance had decreased further. She glanced at her watch, which confirmed her fear. She had lost SD4 on this interaction, and now had only SD8 left. Time was running out, and she needed a solution, fast.

Defeated, she shuffled away from the strangers and found a quiet spot in the library. Here, away from the judgmental eyes of the social hierarchy, she could be alone with her thoughts. She moved through the aisles, lovingly touching the books. She couldn’t help but drift into memories of her childhood, where the pages of books had been her closest friends. She remembered how her family’s constant arguments had left her seeking refuge in the world of words.

Just as she began to contemplate her dwindling SD balance and her uncertain future, a voice broke through her reverie, startling her back to reality.

“Jeez, you’re even more of an introvert than I am.”

Margaret looked up in surprise. She hadn’t heard that slur being used in ages. “Who said that?”

A woman came around one of the aisles. “I’m Hannah. If you don’t mind me saying, you don’t look so good.” 

Hannah was wearing the brown badge of the Social Strugglers, one rank above Social Pariah. “I’m Margaret. You know, it’s rude to call someone that word.”

Hannah smiled and handed her an energy bar.

Margaret hesitated but was too hungry to refuse or question this unheard of kindness from a stranger. She started eating with gusto, the taste of food almost foreign to her parched mouth.

“Boy, when was the last time you ate? How many SD you have?”

Margaret, still munching, held up eight fingers. 

Hannah whistled. “Wow, and I thought I had it bad. I witnessed the interaction you had with those people back there. By the way, did you know that the word ‘introvert’ didn’t used to be a slur?” 

Margaret raised her eyebrows in disbelief, and once again flinched at the sound of this word. 

Hannah continued. “It’s true. Before all this social hierarchy nonsense, it was generally accepted that some people just preferred to be on their own, or were not that good with social interactions. Now we pay the price for it. Literally.”

“You, uh, seem to be doing okay, though?” 

“Well, I wouldn’t say that a Social Struggler badge is something to be proud of exactly, but I do what I need to get by. I can show you how, if you’d like.”

Margaret wasn’t sure of what to expect, but given her dwindling SD balance, she didn’t have much of an alternative. And so, Hannah took her under her wing, teaching her the basics of masking. 

After leaving the library, they found a quiet corner in a nearby park to begin Margaret's lessons. 

“Basically, I have established the following rules,” Hannah started. 

“Rule 1 – It’s all about the art of the smile. Not too wide, not too faint, but just the right amount to exude warmth and approachability. Got it? Good. 

Rule 2 – Maintaining eye contact. It’s a delicate balance. Too much, and people will think you’re creepy; too little, and you seem disinterested. 

Rule 3 – This might be the hardest one. It’s all about suppressing all your instincts and appearing natural. It takes time, but practice makes perfect.  

Rule 4 – Always start with small talk, don’t just dive into the deep stuff. If someone asks how you’re doing, for god’s sake, just say good and you. Don’t be too honest or forthright. 

Rule 5 – Join social groups. There aren’t many where Social Pariahs are allowed, but I know a few where I should be able to get you in. 

Rule 6 – Mirror others. Pay close attention to their body language and try to copy them, but be careful to not be too obvious about it. 

Rule 7 – Don’t zone out when people are talking to you. And finally, last but not least, 

Rule 8 – Do not, I repeat, do not, talk about your obsessions. Just assume no-one is interested.”

 Hannah grinned and concluded, “So, there you have it, the eight golden rules of social interaction. Easy as, right?”

Margaret blinked, her mind overwhelmed by the sheer complexity and number of the rules. “Uh, no. There’s no way I could do all that,” she said, her shoulders drooping. 

“Come on, see it as a challenge! We’ll take it step by step.”

***

They practised over the coming weeks, and Margaret slowly but surely managed to build up her SD balance. With each interaction, she tried to follow Hannah’s rules, her attempts often marked by visible nervousness and the occasional unintentional slip.

“So, M, how are you faring?” Hannah asked Margaret one day in the park.  

She exhaled a long, weary sigh before responding. “Not bad, I guess. I’ve had some success. In fact, my balance is now above SD500. I can sleep easy, and don’t have to worry about where my next meal is going to come from. You’ve helped me so much.”

“Then why do you sound so unhappy?” she asked, her eyes fixed on Margaret’s troubled expression.

Margaret considered this while drawing patterns in the ground with her toes. “I don’t know… I mean, it’s just so exhausting, don’t you think?”

“It is,” she acknowledged. “But that’s just how society works. We have to adapt or die. Quite literally.”

Margaret’s shoulders slumped, and she cast her gaze downward once more. “It just feels so unfair,” she muttered, her voice tinged with bitterness. She paused, as if gathering her thoughts. By the way, I wanted to ask, how much SD have you gained from your interactions with me?”

“None,” she admitted. 

“What?! How is that possible? I’ve gained plenty from you.” Margaret exclaimed, her eyes widening. 

Hannah nodded grimly. “You can only gain SD by having interactions with people of the same class or higher.”

Margaret’s dejection was palpable. “Oh,” she muttered softly. “I didn’t even know that.”

Hannah reached out to pat Margaret’s shoulder reassuringly. “Don’t beat yourself up, they change the rules all the time. But listen, you’ve reminded me of something. You need to gradually start interacting with people from higher classes. You will see much larger gains in your SD balance that way.”

Margaret hesitated, her exhaustion evident in her eyes. “I don’t know, Hannah, I’m already so stressed and exhausted. I’m not sure I’d be able to handle that.”

A determined glint shone in Hannah’s eyes as she leaned closer to Margaret.  “I know just what you need. You need to attend my SSS meetings.”

***

Margaret reluctantly followed Hannah to her first Social Support Society (SSS) meeting. Though it was supposed to be a gathering of like-minded people facing similar struggles, Margaret was averse to any kind of social gathering. But she decided to give it a try nonetheless, especially since Hannah had been so supportive so far. 

The meeting room was dimly lit and tucked away from the prying eyes of the Social Hierarchy’s enforcers. Around 20 people were seated in a circle. 

Hannah kicked off the proceedings, her voice clear and confident. “So, who would like to go first?”

The room fell into a prolonged silence, broken only by the sound of a few people clearing their throats. Eventually,  a woman with a brown badge, indicating she was a Social Struggler, raised her hand. She had a weary look in her eyes. “I’ll start,” she said softly. “It’s so hard to avoid constantly talking about the things I’m passionate about. The other day at work, the conversation naturally veered towards chess and I couldn’t contain my enthusiasm. I started talking about my favourite openings. I don’t remember for how long. At some point I noticed that the room had grown quiet and tense, and people exchanged irritated glances. Later that day my manager called me in to talk about my self-centredness.” 

After some sympathetic nods and mumbles, a red-badge person spoke up next. “I tried my best to ignore my instincts and look as natural as possible during a social gathering. But the more I tried to suppress my natural reactions, the more awkward I felt. It was as if my true self was suffocating under the pressure to conform. People around me seemed uncomfortable with my forced ‘natural’ demeanour. They’ve been avoiding me since, and now my balance is dwindling.”

“Thank you for sharing, John,” Hannah said. “It’s safe to say we’ve all been there. Anyone else?”

Margaret, hesitant but determined to share her story as well, raised her hand, and started speaking in a trembling voice. “H-hi, I’m Margaret, and it’s nice to be here.”

Hannah encouraged her to continue with a warm smile. 

“For the longest time, I’ve felt like an outsider in this society, struggling to fit in and, uh, follow all these unwritten rules. But being here with all of you, hearing your stories, I realise I’m not alone. And it really helps. It’s so comforting to know that others are going through similar challenges.”

Murmurs of agreement rippled through the room. A few more people shared their stories, and Hannah led the group through a number of socialisation and coping exercises.

Eventually, Hannah closed the meeting. “Thank you so much to everyone who came today, and to those of you who felt comfortable to share. Remember, we are all in this together! Be well, and I’ll see you next week.”

Margaret got up to leave, but Hannah stopped her. “Don’t go just yet, there’s something I’d like to show you,” she said with a wink. 

When everyone except three others in addition to Margaret and Hannah had left, Hannah went to a cupboard and shifted it, revealing a concealed door. Margaret’s eyes widened in surprise as they entered a hidden room. Her gaze immediately fell on a large poster hanging on the wall. It depicted a timeline of significant events, from the world’s near-collapse due to climate change and economic disparity to the rise of the Social Hierarchy under the leadership of Dr. Vanessa Thompson and the Founders. 

Hannah noticed Margaret’s interest and explained, “That poster tells our story, M. It’s a reminder of why we’re here, fighting against the oppressive grip of the Social Hierarchy.” 

Margaret’s curiosity was piqued. “Fighting? You mean trying to be more sociable?”

“Well, yes, that’s an important part of our plan. But we have bigger ambitions. We want to overhaul the entire system.”

“What do you mean exactly?”

“As you know, this society was born from a world in shambles. Capitalism had failed us, and climate change had brought us to the brink of extinction. But then, some believed they had found a solution.”

Margaret’s gaze moved along the timeline, her fingers tracing the path from despair to the emergence of the SociaDime system. She read about the ideals of cooperation, environmental responsibility, and social cohesion that had once driven the Founders. “But it didn’t work out the way Dr Thompson had intended,” Margaret mused.

“Indeed,”  Hannah continued. “The Social Hierarchy was meant to be a means to an end, a way to rebuild society by encouraging positive interactions and sustainable practices. But it veered off course. It became a tool for oppression and division.”

Margaret was captivated by the story unfolding before her. “But Hannah,” she said, “what exactly is this? I mean, what are we doing here?”

“I told you, we’re fighting the system.”

“Just you four?”

“We’re just the leaders, there are more, and we’re constantly recruiting.”

“Okay… but how?”

“We have a plan. It involves peaceful protest and the ultimate objective of dismantling, or at least significantly changing the SD and ranking systems.”

“How?”

“There are many others just like us, M. We just need to realise our power. For example, if we stop accepting SDs as payment, their system will fall apart. But before we continue, there’s one question you need to answer.”

Margaret looked at her expectantly. 

“Will you join us?”

October 11, 2023 09:01

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12 comments

08:31 Feb 21, 2024

A most interesting story. Interesting take on the prompt. Thanks for reading mine and I chose one of yours to read. This one took my fancy. I identified with this so much. My oldest son has social awkwardness, anxiety, and is obsessive compulsive (So can talk and talk about his own favorite thing most of the time). He has learned a lot from me and has come a long way. Something about introverts. They can be the life and soul of a party and look every bit like an extrovert. (This is not a mid-trovert. It is a determined introvert who tries ...

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20:10 Feb 21, 2024

Thanks for reading, Kaitlyn, and for leaving your thoughts. I'm glad it resonated with you. I'm not sure I agree with your statement that "It is a determined introvert who tries to think of others, not themselves", which seems to imply that the other introverts are... selfish? Even the ones going out of their way to be social do it not because they're thinking of others but because they want to expand their social circle, fit in, etc.? Anyway, if it made you think that's a good thing! :)

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01:30 Feb 22, 2024

Sorry. It's the way I was brought up. I was the deep thinker and introvert in my family. I was called selfish, introverted and too sensitive. Not only am I an introvert but I also feel the emotions of others. People don't have to say anything to me and everything other than words screams so loud that I know exactly what is going on. It can be overwhelming. Back then, I was also painfully shy and sometimes couldn't speak. I was also very unhappy. I have overcome my shyness and worry less about how things affect me and more about how things ...

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01:50 Feb 22, 2024

Sorry to hear that, Kaitlyn. I appreciate you sharing your story and thoughts.

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Trudy Jas
06:15 Dec 31, 2023

It's good to see I'm not the only introvert. Not that there is anything wrong with that. Just because it is extremely exhausting to be around others, doesn't mean we're bad, stupid or in capable. Which makes this - writing, sharing, giving and getting feedback and validation - so wonderful. Thank you for your sensitivity and insight.

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06:25 Dec 31, 2023

I'm glad you could relate! It sure is hard out there sometimes...

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Helen A Smith
08:42 Dec 27, 2023

Hi Melissa, I loved this story. I found the premise fascinating. The word introvert doesn’t sound so great in our society and yet so much comes from deep thought. I have my own word “midtrovert” - for anyone who falls between. It is so true that you have to be careful what you say when people ask you how you are. You can’t reply with anything too “heavy.” Only “I’m fine,” etc. I also liked the way you depicted a dystopian society that had turned everything inside out. Great take on the prompt. Look forward to reading more.

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21:24 Dec 28, 2023

Hi Helen, Thank you so much for taking the time to read my story and comment! I'm glad you could relate to some of it. I'm keen to explore this world a bit more, and would appreciate your thoughts on any sequels! Thanks again :)

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Kailani B.
19:28 Oct 13, 2023

I'm an introvert and this ticked several familiar boxes. "Join social groups" is something I feel I'll never get. Once you're branded an introvert it's very hard to get out of that mold and even easier to slip back in to it. Thanks for sharing!

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21:40 Oct 13, 2023

Thanks for reading, Kailani, I'm glad you could relate to it. Once we start embracing our unique personalities, which includes our introversion, rather than trying to change it, it becomes a lot easier.

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Danie Holland
12:55 Oct 12, 2023

Melissa, First off. As an introvert this story slams so much truth in my face. Thanks for that. I love the way you approached this prompt. This was such a unique take. It is positively exhausting to mask all the time. I read this meme one time that killed me, it said: "Hey, I like your personality." "Thanks, It's yours." Mirroring people to survive is my life and I never quite know if I am being weird or if people understand me. I loved the way you bridge the struggle of introversion to the gap in the social hierarchy. Lastly, how you bri...

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21:37 Oct 13, 2023

Hi Dani, thank you so much for your comments! I'm glad the story resonated with you. Love that meme, lol. Mirroring and masking are so exhausting, but it's comforting to know that we're not alone. From a fellow Social Struggler, :)

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