Scene 12

Efficiency City, February 11, 2084. 0807 hours.

 

Zipping up his blue jumpsuit, Hubert tosses his lunch box in the bed and hauls himself into his truck. He drives through the empty streets of the metropolis. Occasionally other service trucks pass him. An occasional ambulance or hearse. They just pulled some poor sucker from his headset and his feeding tube. Limousines and S.U.V.’s transporting V.I.P.’s. An occasional fire truck. No cop cars. Who would there be to arrest? Who is out here to protect the city from? The citizens are all asleep. 24-7.

Hubert, 56, tries not to think about the past. Not that there weren’t good memories from his childhood. But the war that ended nine years ago blotted out a lot of that. When he looks back, he just remembers fire. His battle buddies dying in front of his eyes. People tearing each other limb from limb. Frightening machines of destruction so huge and powerful, it was a miracle that he and some other humans lived.

He remembers his mother. He remembers growing up in a small town. His father was an enemy soldier in another war. Their parents had the most unlikely affair. Bombs were actually flying when they made a nest in a bush and made love. They never saw each other again. Hubert’s mother never learned whether he survived. He belonged to the other side. If he lived, he retreated with the rest of his troops, and went back to his country.

Hubert grew up the son of a single mom in Leviathan, First Peoples District. A small town in the oil patch. The very religious community treated them as outcasts. The city fathers frowned on a lot of the activities that make up human nature. It was a little oil town in the desert without much charm. The smell of sour gas hung in the air. That and the stench of dairies with thousands and thousands of cows that laid down thousands and thousands of ammonia-emitting cow flops every day. So depending on how the wind blew, the residents of the town got to smell the sour farts of civilization or the organic stench of enslaved animals.

The town did not have any architectural charm. Rows of squat stucco buildings thrown together. But there were people he was close to. He had good friends, and they hung out a lot. He grew up pretty much like a regular kid. His mother worked in a supermarket. He didn’t do that great in school, he did all right. He graduated from high school. In those years, he mostly cruised around in his pickup with his buddies, and they got drunk hanging out in select spots in the wasteland.

He didn’t notice people were gradually tuning out of the world around them. They were spending more and more time in front of the TV and on line. Video games and movies got more and more realistic. They merged in the form of cyberfantasies. With advances in interactivity, headsets were designed on which the computer could project images directly onto the mind’s screen. The user gets into a comfortable position, closes his eyes, and opens his mind. Through the electrodes, the computer feeds electrical impulses that are very specific and tuned to that user’s brainwaves. Using electrical waves that are seductively similar to the waves that flow through a person’s brain while he is dreaming, the computer could create dreamlike experiences that were very realistic. The difference was that the person was not dreaming or asleep. He almost always remembered the “experience” after the fact, and could relish it as a memory. It was not only stored in the subconscious, the way dreams are. Simultaneously, the headset’s electrodes picked up the user’s brainwaves and the computer read them,  building on the user’s experience, advancing the plot.

The cyberfantasies replaced dreams. The experience was so similar to dreaming, and people did the cyberfantasies generally in the evenings, around nap time. After they took their headsets off, they had satisfied their dreams. Cyberfantasy junkies never remembered their real dreams.

 

Hubert did his share of video games and movie watching. When the first headsets came out, his mom bought one. He experienced some fantasies, as did his mom.

After he graduated from high school, he got a job in the oil patch. He was making good money, and he bought his mom a new car. Then the news reported the rumblings of war. But this war would be different. No nations were involved.  The six companies that controlled the world were preparing to go to war with each other.

Hubert did not notice the collapse of civil society, because it had pretty much already happened when he was born. What he did not know was that lazy politicans had outsourced more and more public services to for-profit companies. Companies had commodified everything, including the gifts of the earth, like water and air. They had somehow convinced people that they had to buy, not get as a right, all their basic human needs, and everything else, of course. Eventually education, police, military, medical services, fire protection, were all performed by for-profit companies. The people elected drones who paid lip service to that system. Finally even the elected officials got vetoed by city managers and other unelected bureaucrats appointed by the companies. In a supreme act of cynicism, some companies created virtual politicians, computer programs that looked like humans. The companies told the people these were real political candidates. The people voted for them, and then the virtual governors did whatever was in the companies’ best interests, all the while putting on the the dog and pony shows, to keep the people placid.

The companies took over all government services. They also provided all private sector services and products for the people. They bought all the real estate. They bought all the infrastructure. They bought the Church. Over time, they whittled down the human’s awareness that she is her own, individual being, with individual freedoms. With initiative. With control over her world. And with the capacity to cooperate with other people, to interact, to love, to hate, to hit, to fuck, to talk, sing, and dance. Once the companies had broken that vital bond, they had the human isolated. Each person depended largely on the world view that the companies fed him. Without a competing story, most people believed that world view and did what the companies wanted them to do.

There were still six companies in the world. Rather than controlling distinct geographical territories, they owned parcels piecemeal. While one company might run the police in Leviathan, the small town Hubert grew up in, another company controlled all the supermarkets. A third ran the oil production. A fourth owned the dairies. A fifth provided the utility services. And so on.

When war broke out, it was not one continent against another. The companies, with overwhelming control over their employees, enlisted the people in fighting the people from rival companies. It was complete civil war and anarchy. White collar workers in office towers were in pitched battles with workers in the neighboring suite who were working for another company.

School teachers lobbed grenades when they saw teachers from another school, if it was run by a different company. The police and the local national guard unit would engage in a firefight if they represented different companies.

In Leviathan, the oil company was by far the biggest employer in town. Hubert and the other workers had no trouble subduing the rest of the populace without much bloodshed. They armed themselves with the police officers’ weapons and with the weapons and equipment of the local National Guard unit. They achieved critical mass. The rest of the able-bodied men joined their side. It was a well-armed town. They were deep in NRA country. Most heads of household had at least a rifle.

The oil producers of the next town over, Coors Light City, were another company. They had similar success in their town. What ensued was a bloody battle with M-16’s, all manner of shotguns and pistols, some humvees and trucks, a couple Bradleys, fire trucks, pickup trucks, S.U.V.’s, school buses. Workers at an Eddy County caliche mine controlled by the rival company punched huge holes in Leviathan with homemade dynamite grenades. An explosion killed Hubert’s mother, their whole trailer park, as a matter of fact.

The battle raged for weeks. Fighters set the oil wells on fire. After weeks of fighting, the uncapped wells still gushed black smoke. There were huge balls of fire from ignited gas deposits. The battle came to an abrupt end as a brigade from an army post a few hundred miles away swept in. With overpowering force, they brought the battle to an end. They were owned by a third company, and as far as the military base’s operations could reach became that company’s territory. The region’s new master enlisted most of the able-bodied men and even some of the women. And they prepared for an invasion of enemy territory.

It was a similar story all over the world. World War III raged for 27 years. The war was immensely profitable. The companies were burning down what they would then charge the people to build back up. No matter how dire the house-to-house, apartment-to-apartment, person-to-person fighting, the companies continued business as usual. They were making money, investing heavily in weapons and military equipment, military services.

Their stocks kept trading. Aethon Blue Incorporated, one of the six companies, had a strictly pyramidal corporate structure. The company emphasized top-down thinking, discipline, and loyalty. The company had a wily and very intelligent board, the chairman and CEO being the most wily of all. Their fighters did well. And the company was making the biggest profits. Their strength grew sufficiently so that they bought one of the five other companies outright. Then it was the domino effect. The end game in Risk. They were on a roll and could take advantage of the assets of the acquired company. They had the leverage to buy a second company. Then the third, fourth, and fifth.

The fighters were still cutting holes in each other and leveling their own communities when the sun rose on a day heavy with the dust of explosions. By mid-day, people were still slaughtering each other in the streets. When the order came to cease fire and retreat, some did not believe it and fought on. It took Aethon Blue Incorporated eight days to rein in all the fighters.

People could not believe it. The war was over? And there was just one company left? Wordwide jubilation. People were so happy the fighting was finally over. The company directed the people to rebuild, and reconstruction was quickly underway. But with some significant changes.

 

Hubert had lost everything. His mother had disappeared in a chasm along with his entire neighborhood. The war broke out when Hubert was 20. He was 47 when it was over. In those 27 years, he did not have much time to do anything but fight.

After the war ended, Hubert moved to Efficiency City, met Liz in a feeding tube showroom, and married her. They got to business right away making babies. Billy and Calvin were born eleven months later. Dana was born a year after them.

Hubert liked cyberfantasies as much as the next guy. But the constant sitting gave him a backache. So he got one of the few jobs that were left that involved moving around in the world. He became a feeding tube repairman.

 

He drives out of the city and into the hills. Northwest of the city, the landscape rises into gently rolling hills. One ridge has a good view of the city. The palaces of the city’s most powerful line up along it. Hubert stops his truck at the gate of one of them. A video camera on an arm fixates him, and he rolls down his window.

− How can I help you? the ghoulish video camera says in a brisk young woman’s voice.

− Here to perform quarterly maintenance and checks on the feeding tubes.

The video camera retracts and the gate slides open. He drives through some woods, then snakes up along splendid gardens. He bypasses the palace’s wide front façade, drives around back, and parks near the service entrance. He grabs his tool box and walks in.

A maid in traditional French uniform greets him at the door.

− We maintain our feeding tubes as per regulation. Only the servants use them, usually. We cook meals for the family. Hubert recognizes her voice as that which emitted from the video camera.

− The log says that one of my guys came by and checked the basement feeding tubes two months ago. I’m here for to look over the family’s feeding tubes.

− Please wait a minute. Have a seat. Hubert sits down in a no-frills lounge area. Headsets are affixed to each chair. After a few minutes, the maid returns.

− Follow me.

The maid leads Hubert up a flight of stairs and through a pair of swinging doors. They enter a dining room the size of the one at Versailles. Gleaming chandeliers. Mirrored ceiling. Giant oil portraits of dusky men on the walls.

− The feeding tubes are here. The maid shows him an outlet on the wall.

− Thank you

− There are outlets in most rooms. Find them yourself. Whatever you do, don’t disturb any of the members of the family. They won’t notice you. They’re used to having servants around.

− Will do.

Hubert pulls out the tubes, checks the pneumatic pressure, examines the fittings. He replaces a rusted joint. He pumps water through a tube with residue of old paste in it. Otherwise, the tubes look like they have never been used.

Hubert walks into the next room. A split level library with thousands of volumes. He goes over the tubes in that room. The next room is a small, cozy parlor, more like an ordinary living room. Chaise longues, a bear skin rug in front of a broad fireplace. A grand piano. Hubert walks into the front hall and looks out the giant French doors, the front doors. He sees the expansive gardens, the woods, sloping down. Beyond those, the valley, the city, the river, and the Sandia Peaks to the east. It is the best view money can buy.

He walks up one of the wings of a grand double staircase that hugs the entrance hall like two swan wings. There are three wide hallways emanating from the wide balcony and landing. The landing itself is large enough to accommodate a lot of people. He imagines the balcony full of revelers during a big ball, milling around and eyeing the front doors to see the people arriving.

Hubert takes the left hallway. The hallway seems endless. He finally tries a door on the right. A children’s playroom. A little four poster bed. A rocking horse. Expensive, beautiful toys and dolls. A pretty little girl, maybe five years old, with blond hair, sits in a little rocking chair. A mini headset designed for children is on her head. Her eyes are open but she does not seem to see anything. Hubert putters around the room and finds the feeding tubes. He checks one and it is like new. He lets it go and it retracts into the wall.

He looks at the girl. He walks right up to her. He waves his hand in front of her eyes. No change of focus, no blink, no eye movement. No change in expression. Is she dead? He pinches her arm.

− Ow! She liberates her arm and looks up at him. It takes a few moments for her to come back to her senses and to focus her eyes on him. She takes the headset off.

−Who are you?

−I’m the feeding tube repairman.

−We don’t use feeding tubes.

− I noticed.

She studies him.

− Do you like the food you get?

− Mom is always trying to make me eat these gross vegetables and tofu! Yuck! I like macaroni and cheese.

− Yeah. I used to love my mother’s meat loaf. My wife’s not a great cook, but she keeps me and the kids healthy and our bellies full. We use the feeding tubes sometimes, though.

− I haven’t seen you. Are you new?

− I don’t work for you. I work for the feeding company. We just come down a couple times a year.

The girl gets up and jumps on the rocking horse.

− Daddy says he’s gonna get me a horse. Look, I’m a good rider! The girl begins rocking maniacally.

− You’re really good at that!

− What happened to this one? Hubert asks. He picks up a stuffed stegosaurus from the floor. One of its legs is gone, and the plush sticks out from the stump.

− Joseph pulled off the leg. I was just a baby then, but I still remember it. I cried and Dad sent him to his room. Joseph was so mean to me. But he doesn’t really talk to me anymore. He always gets on his headset. Sometimes I almost want him to be mean to me again. It’s more fun than doing nothing.

− Don’t you have anyone to play with?

− Yeah I get to see my friends from kindergarten sometimes. We have playdates on our headsets. I just sit in my room. Dad works long hours and Mom is always busy with something. Sometimes I get so bored and lonely.

− Do you like playing with your friends on your headset?

− Yeah. Lisa and Jenny and Tanya. We play great games but when I want to see them, I have to put the headset on.

− What’s this?

− They’re jacks. The girl sits crosslegged on the floor, picks up a little rubber ball, bounces it, and picks up a jack.  Hubert sits down in front of her. She tosses two jacks on the floor, bounces the ball, and picks them up. She plays with three, four, five, and six. She drops one of the group of seven jacks.

− Aaaaaaaw! the girl hollers. Here, you try.

− Hubert bounces the ball and picks up a jack. He bounces the ball again and his fingers totally miss one of the two jacks.

− My turn! she says. Hubert passes the ball to her. I picked up six jacks, I’m the champion so far! Her face is flushed, and Hubert smiles at her.

As the girl makes her way up the sequence, the door opens. A middle-aged woman with bleached blond hair and the tight facial features of a botox user, stares at them.  She is in a workout suit, and her hair is pulled back in a ponytail. Her tall body looks like she spends long hours on the treadmill.

− Hi mom! We’re playing jacks.

− Almost time for your playdate. Get ready, the woman says.

− Yes, mom. Can the nice man stay?

− I’m sure the nice man has his work to attend to.

− Yes, ma’am. Sorry for the intrusion.

The woman disappears out of the doorway. The girl smiles at Hubert.

− You’re a fun playmate. Will you come visit me again?

− Sure, Hubert lies. He shakes her hand. Have fun on your playdate.

− Okay.

They look at each other for a moment. Hubert picks up his toolbox and gives her a silly little wave, and she waves back reassuringly. He walks out the door and out of the palace.

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