by Richard Tornello
Advances in artificial intelligence and holographic technology spawned a new international-state sponsored industry.
Around the world, crime levels rose as jobs vanished and desperation became commonplace even in the richest nations. Driven by fear, the luckier citizens demanded and received new laws that prescribed extended prison sentences for the most trivial offenses (and many acts that had never been illegal in the past). In this new world order, prisoners had to work for their keep. So, in essence, they became slaves of the states in which they were housed. This new economic paradigm was readily accepted as a sop by the frightened populations. The unintended consequence of these new laws was a boon to the world economy.
Families wanted to keep in touch with their loved ones even if they were incarcerated. But unbeknownst to them, many of the millions of convicts housed were terminated due in part to physical infirmities (the for-profit prisons wasted no resources on convicted felons) or for political reasons ('terrorists' -- and the definition of 'terrorist' was conveniently vague -- were often the victims of 'accidents').
The officials had no way of addressing these extra-legal actions and were straining to rationalize their activities. Bad press like this, especially within a republic, was not something any political entity desired. There were ways the populations could discover this and raise a protest. It was not something that could be completely hushed up.
A group of engineers, scientists and psychologists working within the penal system proposed to physically, and psychologically map each individual incarcerated. The data would be fed into the main computer. This advanced system allowed the state to project a holographic image of the prisoner to who ever wanted to speak to that person. The caller would never know the person they were talking to was only a computer generated representation of that person. Housing data was cheaper and easier than warehousing people.
The program was introduced and was total a success. The prisoners were always accused of additional crimes against the state. The punishment meted out forced them to remain incarcerated for the rest of their natural lives. There was no recidivism. It was a win-win situation. The states made up the costs of incarcerations and then some. The application of this new technology seemed endless.
"Hello Grammy," said Peter. "I can't wait to see you. Mom and Dad said it looks as if we'll finally get the passes we need this solstice."
"Oh, sweetie, yes that will be so nice," she responded as her blue gray head nodded the affirmative and a large smile broke across her face.
She must need glasses, he thought. She blinks a lot. He knew it was not polite to ask about things like that, so he didn't mention it. Peter also thought she looked like the Cheshire cat in those old videos Grammy had given to him as a special present long ago.
He wasn't supposed to have them. It was against some sort of law, one of many he had never understood. What could be wrong with old videos and books? He had hidden the portable player in his closet. No one ever looked there. He only played it when his parents and sib were out. And, he only played it in the "Safe Room", the one designed to protect the family against poisons if their locale was attacked.
All the newer laws were necessary as part of The War. That's what he was told over and over again, by his parents, by his teachers, by random grown-ups who thought he was misbehaving. He had to be vigilant. "But war against what?" he had asked a few times. "You'll know it when you see it," was the only response he had ever received. Even at that young age, he realized that they didn't have an answer. And, he knew better than to keep questioning. One day, watching an old video of an even older book about theft and writing, he realized what the unnamed enemy must be.
"Talking to GRAMMY again?" the voice, as sharp as nails across a board, sarcastically asked. "You know she's not real," the voice said.
Peter jumped in surprise. "Yes she is! Yes she is!" Peter shouted, holding back tears. He didn't dare look at his brother Fred. Fred was older. Fred was 15 years old and supposed to be so smart. He was going places, everyone said so. Peter was the dreamer and an obvious disappointment to his family, and being so, was a favorite target for teasing.
"You might as well believe in God, or what was it they called him?" snickered his brother.
"Santa Claus?" said Peter grabbing the bait, hook, line and sinker...again.
"Yes Santa Claus, that's it. You're an idiot, you know that don't you? There are no old folks. I heard it on the Hushweb. They're just past old workers. That's what they are called and a burden on our society," Fred said in mocking tones. He continued in a lower volume, "Did you know that over half the planet's population is retirement age? Do you? Only a small percentage have saved for themselves, and even less have saved enough to care for themselves. We are a planet of finite resources. They are taking the food and water out of your mouth, out of our mouths! Think about it, Peeeter." He said Peter with such a mocking tone. He finished with a verbal coup de grace:"You're talking to a computer!"
"The Hushweb is for subversives and perverts. And Grammy is not just a past old worker. She's our family." Peter said it emphatically and quietly. He wouldn't him let his brother see the tears. And No one, no one at all was supposed to talk about the HUSHWEB.
Fred said in an equally quiet voice, "The Hushweb is where the truth comes out. And until you realize that you're just a pawn, like sheep, like mom and dad, and all the rest of you. You'll see some day."
Fred knew more than he was telling. He couldn't say any more. The information was supposed to be secret, only for the elite and the scouts who were the secret young elite in training. Peter knew about Fred's training. Not even his parents knew. He overheard a piece of the conversation Fred had with some girl he was trying to impress. It was enough to let him know his brother was special but not in the manner his parents had hoped for.
Later That Year
"Hello Grammy," Peter said in his usual enthusiastic manner.
"Hello dearie," she said back.
Peter thought the voice was a bit strange but then adults were always acting strangely. He let it pass. "I've got some news for you. Fred is joining the service. He said he wanted to do his share for the World Court."
Grammy said nothing.
"Grammy, did you hear me? Is the connection bad?" Peter asked, a bit worried. Maybe something was wrong. Maybe she was sick.
Grammy turned to face him, blinking rapidly. He had never seen her blink like that before.
"It's just my eyes dear. They are itchy, and I think I caught a code, or have allergies."
"Grammy," he laughed, "it's a cold, not code. And how can you have allergies there? It's supposed to be perfect out there."
"Yes, dearie, it's just perfect," she said.
He noticed she had stopped blinking and started again.
"Are you going to call a doctor?" he asked in all seriousness.
"No dearie, I'll be fine, just fine."
Peter was about to say that his Dad said that, "when a woman said everything was Just Fine, you can bet, it sure as hell isn't." But he decided against it. Instead he shook his head and said, "Grammy, Grammy..."
She said, "Peter dearie, I have to go. Call again soon. Good-bye." The screen went blank.
Something is not right, he thought. She never acts like that. Is it old age that Mom and Dad talk about? He was just about to go to his parents when an idea crossed his mind. He went into the library and logged on to the system.
That evening at dinner he told his parents he had spoken to Grammy. "She was just fine," was all he said.
His Dad looked at him a bit strangely but said nothing. No one asked any questions about his conversation. He noticed that Mom and Dad were both very quiet.
That night he replayed his conversation with Grammy. He had saved all of them since she moved out. He felt closer to her than his own parents. She was the one who taught him to read, mathematics and science and history. On her suggestion he never told anyone. It was none of their business.
That evening when everyone else was asleep he popped some of the old videos into the machine and watched and listened. This one was an audio/visual book by a priest, Abbot Hoffman. He was funny.
The next day he called Grammy again. She picked up right away. "Hello Peter, how are you?"
"Just fine," he said as looked into the screen. "I just wanted to make sure you were okay."
"Oh yes, why wouldn't I be? How silly of you."
"I was just wondering," He said looking intently. "No reason. I have to go to school. I'll call you soon Grammy."
"Yes Peter, you do that. Good-bye."
Ten Years Later
Fred looked out from his viewfinder. Well, they weren't all dead. The Past Old Workers, no longer contributing to the needs of society, were housed in Retirement Resorts. Past Old Workers and Retirement Resorts were the official names that he knew first hand. He remembered that day with his brother too. He had been so naïve then. The planet needed people like him with sense and dedication to a moral and just cause. He turned the volume up to maximum on the satellite radio. The music kept out the sound of the thud of the bodies as his tank hit them and their screams under his treads. 100 tons could really mess your weekend plans, he laughed to himself. He considered combat in the senior ghetto, against the Oldies, always a messy affair. The soldiers called them oldies or POW's, if only among themselves. The terms were used against all those that strained the resources of the planet and no longer mattered. The small groups that had the independent resources to pay their way, or were still contributing to the good of the planet, were left to live as they chose. And those were the ones the propaganda machine utilized to assure the populations that their loved ones were doing just fine. Complaints were quickly and quietly taken care of. Everyone was happy.
That falsehood coupled with the improved holographic technology, one that captured each new POW in their entirety, allowed a Turing machine-like response to family calls. It made the lie complete. Visits were always promised, then the dates were changed, and finally some official pronouncement cancelled all requests due to health concerns or transition to new facilities or … The visits were never consummated. The families never spoke up. They just accepted the official explanations.
"Thank god," said Fred and he laughed at his use of term 'god'. It was a term that would not go away no matter what was dictated and censored by the authorities. "Thank god," he continued, "for satellite radio and especially for automated vehicle Wash & Decontam," he said loudly. He thought, Cleaning the tank manually after one of these excursions was disgusting at best. The oldies could really gum up the works. No one could hear him above the din of the vehicle. What were the officials going to do, shoot him? He laughed again at the thought.
His gunner slewed the turret and immolated another group of Oldies charging his tank, which had 'Auto da fe' painted in bright red-flame letters across the turret.
"Shotguns and light semi-automatic weapons, are they crazy?" he shouted to his gunner, as another group of Oldies attacked from the rear.
"They're either stubborn, or senile. They had no right to exist. They were drags on the planet," his gunner said. "Everyone knows that."
"Fire in the hole," laughed his gunner. Another group of Oldies was incinerated.
A few bottles were hurled against the turret and rear of the armored vehicle.
"Now that's pathetic," said Fred. The gunner cut them down with the light machine gun as the Past Old Workers retreated.
The fire alert and suppression system went on. The halon system failed to cut the fire on the exterior. His tank was burning. "What the...?" This was not supposed to happen.
Fire hit the flamethrower fuel canisters on the rear of the tank, and they ignited. His tank was the first to go.
The other tanks stopped their attack and began to pull back with their turrets sweeping back and forth. Occasional machinegun fire could be heard. One other tank took a fire bomb and exploded. The remaining few tanks jettisoned the napalm storage canisters as they retreated. This was not what they had signed up for. No one said anything about resistance.
In The Past Old Workers village the video screen was playing to an empty room.
A friendly face, an actor of worldwide renown, was on the screen, smiling. "Yes this is a great idea. All of you caring for elderly parents know the mental and financial burden can crush your children's hopes of a good college, not to mention your own financial well being. The World Court has authorized the development of retirement cities throughout the planet.
"All families will still be together linked by direct comm. to your Senior Loved Ones. And those who have the resources can always visit their Senior Loved Ones over and above the mandated visits. Yes, and please believe me, this will solve our planet's ills. The concentration of people with similar requirements, our Senior Loved Ones, will allow us to concentrate the needed resources in specific locations instead of all of them spread out all over the planet, driving needlessly here and there for care, food, and entertainment.
The actor continued, "Look at my own mother," as he pointed behind him. "She volunteered to be one of the first in Palm Springs." The screen slewed to a very pretty senior citizen waving to the camera surrounded by what one would believe to be her friends and contemporaries. Then it showed a shot of the actor with her sitting poolside in an animated discussion that couldn't be heard. Both were always smiling. It was heart warming.
The speaker began his talk. "Gentlemen and ladies," he said, "this is how we can stop them, if only for a while. We have learned from history and the past holocausts that were perpetrated upon those deemed 'undesirable'. We are not sheep." He showed them videos of the last action against the World Court forces. "We will require coordinated assistance from others."
"How did I start, you may want to know? And why would a young person, with nothing to gain, join with you? A religious man was my first teacher. No, I take that back, my Grammy was..." Peter was interrupted. There were chuckles throughout the room, and nods in his direction. He continued as if it didn't happen, "She and an abbot named Hoffman gave me my first real moral lessons and technical tutorials. It was crude but effective. I studied and read forbidden books and technical manuals more and more. I also watched videos, DVD they were called." There was a hush in the room. No one had those. "They are jewels from the past. They were a secret gift from her to me. And I will share them with all of you."
"By the way, Ladies and gentlemen, now that I have your complete attention, how many of you know Morse code? I suggest you learn it. With Morse code, you can communicate in the blink of an eye…"
© 2012 Richard Tornello
Bio: Richard Tornello is a business owner/consultant/technical recruiter with 28+ years experience, married and kept by one very neurotic cat, Stella. He has a degree from Rutgers University in Asian Studies. Richard's poetry and fiction has appeared a number of times in Aphelion (with one or more poems almost every month!); his most recent fiction contribution was Blowback (Revisited) in the May 2012 edition. Richard has also won the Forum Flash Challenge twice this year...
E-mail: Richard Tornello
Website: Non-Official Rhymes
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