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Aethon Blue

Copyright 2008 William Maxwell, all rights reserved. This work is registered with the United States Copyright Office. Any unauthorized copying of this work, other than short snippets, will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.


Efficiency City, February 8, 2084. 0802 hours.

A steel-gray chilly morning. My truck winds its way through a dreary industrial neighborhood on the city’s west side. I get on I-40 and head east. The squat city, hunched in the Rio Grande Valley between the steep Sandia Mountains in the east and a volcanic plateau in the west, looks peaceful. As the streets whizz by, I see very few vehicles, almost no people. Usually, the only vehicles are trucks, cop cars, ambulances, fire trucks, a very rare taxi, an even more rare private car, and the occasional SUV limousines of the city’s V.I.P.’s.

I drive over the Rio Grande. The Aethon Blue Corps of Engineers dug a concrete channel for the river, which had flown freely here since the beginning of time. I don’t even glance at the sludgy cesspool of a river. I get off at San Mateo Boulevard and head south. I work my way into the slums of the southeast side, tiny stucco houses with faded lawns, apartment complexes surrounded by broken fences.

A few years ago, you’d see drunk Indians staggering around, and little parties of Mexicans hanging out outside their apartments, chugging beer and listening to music playing on their truck radios. ‘You don’t even see them anymore,’ I wonder. ‘Where did they go? Did the drunk Indians put on headsets, too?’

I pull up to a small, dingy apartment complex on Valencia Street. A mangy cat leers at me from inside a pile of trash. I get out, unload my toolbox, and walk up to Apartment 2A.

I try the doorbell, but hear nothing inside. I knock, but there is no answer. I’m not surprised. Mrs. Ditley never answers the door. After a minute, I push it open. An empty hallway. I walk in and close the door behind me.

− Mrs. Ditley? No answer. I walk into the kitchen. An old woman in a muumuu is slumped at the table. A feeding tube is attached to her belly button through a slit in the muumuu. The transparent tube emerges from the wall, filled with bubbly gray-tan ooze. Her head rests on her folded arms on the table.  The electrodes of her headset stick to her head amidst a jungle of long, gray-and-black, grimy hair.

− Mrs. Ditley! I grasp her arm. Mrs. Ditley shakes her head without raising it, mutters something.

− Headset Maintenance Services here. Please take off your headset so I can check it.

− Go to hell! the woman growls.

I look around the tiny kitchen. Dust on every surface. In the sink, ancient dirty dishes. A refrigerator broken so long, the puddle of filthy ooze on the linoleum floor dried up long ago. In the corner, a kitty litter box overflowing with petrified cat shit. Cat turds all around it. The window is ajar, the screen hangs an inch away from the sill at the bottom. Looks like Cesar made his escape a while ago.

I check the connection at the wall outlet. It looks good. I plug a voltage meter into a jack on the headset assembly. Voltage is good.

Soon, I won’t have to bother with this vintage equipment anymore.  OmniCyber is switching to a wireless system. With advances in technology, the Aethon Blue subsidiary has developed a transceiver and processor chip that you can stick behind your ear. It reads brainwaves and broadcasts to the brain as well as the electrode headset can. All you have to do is install a wireless hub in your house or use the neighborhood’s transceiver tower. I wonder whether that means I’ll be out of a job. The foreman said we’ll be trained in maintaining, repairing, and replacing the chips. Not that I care about this job that much to begin with. But it gets me out of the house.

Don’t get me wrong. I love cyberfantasies as much as the next guy. And I wouldn’t mind working from home. But I actually enjoy tooling around the city and seeing people, even if they’re practically comatose like Mrs. Ditley.

I take a tiny screwdriver and check the screws on the electrodes on Mrs. Ditley’s head. They’re tight. I plug a readout into the universal bus outlet. Data flow is good. I pack up my box.

− There’s nothing wrong with your headset, Mrs. Ditley.

Mrs. Ditley raises her head. The rings of her raccoon eyes are even darker than mine. Drool is running down her chin. She wipes it with the sleeve of her muumuu.

− Check it again. There’s something wrong with this shit headset. I pay good money to OmniFantasy. They get a cut of Mr. Ditley’s social security check every month, God rest his soul.

− What is the problem, Mrs. Ditley? Static? White noise? Loss of connection?

− Mr. Ditley has been dead for two years now. And I’ve been on the Back-To-Life® fantasy for almost that long. He looks the same. His voice is the same. But your unit is broke, boy. It’s not Mr. Ditley.

− It’s not the headset, Ma’am.

Mrs. Ditley looks at the empty chair across the table from her.

− I was so happy to talk to Mr. Ditley again. I had so much to tell him. Never told him before he died. And he was so understanding. He forgave me for everything. And he hugged me.

Mrs. Ditley jumps up, and the headset jerks her head.

− That’s not Mr. Ditley! she shouts in an anguished, gravelly voice. She slumps back in her chair.

− Mr. Ditley was a mean old fart. He made fun of me for everything. He wouldn’t forgive me if the coffee had grounds in it. Do you think he would forgive me for having an affair after we got engaged? But he did. He hugged me, kissed me on the forehead, and said, ‘I love you, Esmeralda.’ Mr. Ditley never told me he loved me.

Mrs. Ditley begins to sob.

− Where are you, Mr. Ditley?

− Software problems aren’t my department, Mrs. Ditley. You need to contact CyberFantasy customer service.

− Where are you, Mr. Ditley? Mrs. Ditley mutters sobbingly. Her head sinks back on her arms. With a finger on the controller, she reactivates the headset. She is slumped there, her whole body racked with sobs.

− Have a good day, Mrs. Ditley. Lock your door behind me. I walk out the door and to the truck, wishing I had an online job, after all.


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