Our world is cold and gray. Grandmother tells me it wasn’t always like this. I find that hard to believe. This is all my brother and I have ever known.
I take Rusty’s hand and lead him down another somber city block, my shoulders stiff and senses sharp. Towers of glass and steel flash advertisements at us from every angle, an endless cacophony of consumerism that bites my ears. More than once, I must pull Rusty’s attention away from them. They try to trick you with bright colors and tempting messages, I say, as our parents once did to me, as Grandmother has repeated since. The ads tailor themselves to consumers that walk by, and a commercial for toy robots scream at Rusty. You must ignore them all. If we do not listen, we rule ourselves.
My parents named Rusty in rebellion against the metal and machine that rule our world. Galaxia Corp., they said, with their computers and technology, their contraptions that feed us, transport us, survey us, tell us what to think—all are made of metal. All metal will one day rust. It was their hope that someday, things would be different. Maybe things would go back to the way the world was before. Like in Grandmother’s stories. Maybe even better, if we were allowed to hope.
But even with all of Grandmother’s tales I cannot imagine another world. Some days, believing change is possible hurts more than surrendering to reality. After all, my parents’ treasonous beliefs led to their termination. Grandmother has raised us ever since. Rusty does not even know his real name; out loud, we call him by his identifying number like everyone else. He is too young to understand the importance of keeping his name a secret, but someday, when he grasps our world better, I will tell him.
I squeeze my little brother’s hand and lead him through an alleyway between two metal obelisks that dwarf us. Are we almost there? Rusty asks, voice tinny and fragile. Yes, I tell him, although we still have a distance to go.
When we visit the Underground, we must not take the high-speed rails or hovercar. We travel by foot. It is the only way to avoid being tracked, and even then, it is tricky. It’s not yet compulsory to get the latest implant, but Grandmother says that day is coming. Resistors see the latest shiny implant for what it is: a human tracker dressed up with alluring user features. Another way for Galaxia Corp. to count us, to track us, to own us. The people have become apathetic; distracted by-products and pacified by convenience, indifferent to their personal information being tracked and sold in shipments.
Even in this damp alley, advertisements thunder in a haunting echo. We are about to emerge onto the main street when I hear it; the familiar whirs and clicks of a Pion, almost indistinct beneath the roar of non-stop ads. Rusty does not hear it coming—I know the sounds of their movements better, and I was listening for them—and I yank him back just as one rounds the street corner across our narrow alley. A staggering thirty feet tall, its body is bulbous, filling up nearly the entire width of the city street. Lanky mechanical legs creak and snap as it jerks forward, its round lens slowly spiraling its globular body. Its eye spies for misdeeds and suspicious people, and its sensitive microphones are tuned for treason. They prowl the streets for lowlifes like us, walking these abandoned streets knowing it’s the only way to stay off-grid. Rusty clings to my leg and presses his face into my thigh. He has nightmares of these horrendous creations, dreams of the extendable mechanical arm emerging and snatching him like a fairytale witch that hunts little children.
It stalks nearer and we retreat into the shadows of the alleyway, breathless. Its spindly legs swing and crunch past us, its metal body unpolished and cold. We wait, holding each other for what feels like endless minutes, its sounds receding until they’re too distant to make out. Even then, we wait. Finally, I peek out into the street to make sure it’s moved on, and allow a sigh of relief when I see that it has. Reclaiming Rusty’s hand, I find my feet and force us both onto the sidewalk, trying to control the trembling of my knees.
Enormous metal pillars line up like dominos all the way down the middle of the vacant street. Suspended fifty feet above the road is a high-speed train line, and another fifty feet above that, hovercars whir back and forth in neat, invisible lanes. We need not worry about passengers seeing us as we make our way down the stonewash sidewalks. The people in them are too consumed by Galaxia Studios entertainment in their self-flying cars to glance down some hundred feet below. Even if they did, they move too fast to make out our small figures so far beneath them.
Every time I make this trip for Grandmother, I am reminded of her stories of nature, a word she taught me. There were once trees everywhere, she said, and I asked, What’s a tree? She drew one using Rusty’s digital coloring pad, and despite her knack for detail, I couldn’t fathom the living thing she drew then. They had leaves of color that fell when it was cold and reappeared when it warmed, she said, and I listened to her fable, enthralled as I always was when she regaled me with tales of the world before this one.
They fed on sunlight and soil and water. This planet was once full of all kinds of living green things called plants. I imagined the trees uprooting themselves and walking along the road at the word ‘living.’ Grandmother later informed me that wasn’t quite right. They stood along streets, decorated the yards of homes. Some sprawled in forests bigger than cities, grew higher than buildings. Trees and bushes bloomed lovely things called flowers, and they were all sorts of colors. She sketched out an entire pallet of color I had never seen except on a screen. Your parents love this one. They were still alive then. She drew red petals—that’s what she called them—fanned out in crinkled layers.
After our parents were killed, Grandmother had Rusty and me wear red shirts underneath our mandated garb every day. To remember that you are not a machine, she said. You feel. You think. You bleed. No matter how convincing their imitations, you are something they can never manufacture.
The road we walk is as desolate as any other in the city – gray slab meeting gray metal against gray sky. Galaxia Corp. has strangled out every organic material on the planet, has torn up and burned every resource to build mechanical creations and their factories. While I have seen sunlight, a brief, flitting thing I had the fortune to see half a dozen times in my fourteen years, never have I seen fertile soil like Grandmother described. And I have certainly never seen anything that grows. It is a kind of magic I have never known.
A few blocks later, I tug Rusty down one last alley. Relief floods me, and I can finally relax. We are close enough to the Underground that danger should not be a concern. For now.
The Underground is a literal name. I lead Rusty to some trash bins and smile at the way his face scrunches up in disgust. I push one of the trash bins aside to expose the stone trapdoor. The knob looks like an unassuming rock, and when wrenched, it opens to a descending staircase cut into concrete. Rusty runs down, eager to be off the streets and away from Galaxia Corp’s machine guards.
The stairway is dimly lit by bulbs mounted into rock wall, exposed wires connecting each to the next, and before long we greet the last stair. We head along the rounded stone tunnel. Long ago, they tried to build an underground market beneath the city. The project became too expensive and was abandoned, but that didn’t stop the poorer of us from moving in like the hermit crabs Grandmother told me about.
As we walk, we see one stall, then another; some stragglers are here, customers and store clerks alike, bustling and bargaining for deals they cannot find anywhere else. One stand sells crystals; a woman shouts to us that they will bring joy and peace to our lives. Her hollering reminds me too much of the relentless ads aboveground, and I grasp Rusty’s small hand tighter as we weave between people and storefronts.
Next to a stall selling computer chips is the woman I want to see, an old friend of Grandmother’s. Her given name is Balta, and her knobby fingers tell me she must be nearing eighty. Today she wears a frown that deepens her lines and drooping jowls. She has always been kind to us, but today when Rusty and I step up to the stall to greet her, she wears a scowl.
Here for the usual? Balta asks, hazel eyes averted.
Yes, I say, and from the waistband of my mandated slacks, I pull out a soft strip of fur.
Balta freezes, her features flickering incomprehension. Is that…?
Merino wool, I tell her, pronouncing the words just as Grandmother taught me. Balta hisses between her teeth, and I know immediately she is pleased. She reaches forward with both hands. I tug Rusty away from the stall opposite Balta’s that sells antiquated computer games. We don’t even have the machines to play those, I scold him, and he glances up at me sheepishly. As I turn away, his yearning gaze is drawn back to the things he cannot have.
After smelling and petting the fur, Balta carefully folds it like a prized possession, which I suppose it is. I was hoping for two bushels of apples for it, I tell her. Not all at once, of course. That’s too suspicious to carry. Perhaps we can arrange for a few every week or so. Balta’s apples are factory-made, of course—not naturally grown. Nonetheless, they are apples, a delicacy normally only afforded to the rich. Grandmother says they will make us strong, even if the taste is not quite true to the real thing. But then, only she has lived long enough to know.
Balta pauses, considering me, then Rusty. Listen, girl, she says in a low tone. Come to me whenever you need. I will spare you both an apple.
This is not her typical dialogue. My lips part before I am able to form a response. The fur is not worth that much, I tell her, though I know she knows this.
Balta doesn’t reply. From behind her stand, she pulls out an apple in each hand, small and glowing red. She tosses them at me and I tuck them into an inside pocket Grandmother has knit at the stomach of my oversized sweatshirt. I wait expectantly. I’d like one for Grandmother as well, I prompt. She should know this, as this is what we have always done since I began running Grandmother’s errands for her.
Saying nothing, Balta reluctantly reaches to fetch another apple, which she passes to me. As I move to take the apple from her, she says, You take good care of that little boy. I nod, confused, as I take the third apple and Rusty’s hand.
Balta is acting strangely today, I say to Rusty as we walk through the market to return to the surface.
She’s a weird old lady, Rusty says. I scold his rudeness, but he sees my grin and knows I am too amused to mean my words. We are still smiling when we come out onto the street and return to the clamor of ads. As we turn down the road home, the red and white of Breaking News flashes onto a nearby screen with a flourish of sound. Then the next screen changes, and the next. The discordant fanfare builds with every screen that flickers on one after another until the whole street has joined the uproar.
World-wide age limit to be instated, screens blare down at us. I stop in my tracks so suddenly that Rusty bumps into me and exclaims, rubbing his nose. After years of ongoing debate, the CEO of Galaxia Corp. Finally succeeds in convincing lawmakers to restrict the maximum age of citizens to address overpopulation concerns. The newscasters’ voices are so harsh in my ears, I want to cover them as Rusty has. Puzzlement clouds his features, and I realize he is mirroring my own expression. Citing the insurmountable global population that has strained limited planet resources and sustainable production costs, the new age limit of 85 years will become effective immediately, resulting in the termination of over 280 million people world-wide.
Grandmother. I begin running, urging Rusty along with me, moving as quickly as possible without allowing him to fall. The apples bounce against my stomach, and absurdly, I worry they will bruise. The screens follow us down the street, the announcement biting at us from every building as the newscasters are replaced with a woman whose face everyone in the world knows.
CEO ‘Tala Wulf’ #TW583611120, scrolls across the bottom of the screen. The economy is too tenuous to continue to support an aging population, which has only become more and more unsustainable, she says, and as always, I am surprised at how gentle her voice is, how dissimilar she is from the machines she has created to rule our world. This is due in part to the medical advances made in the last fifty years, but the situation has been made only more difficult by a steadily declining birthrate. I realize, distantly, that Balta knew this would happen. This global mandate—
I’m not listening for them. It isn’t until I see the hulking shadow that I recognize the ticking and whirring of a Pion underneath the announcement. When one of its metal legs emerges at the end of the block, I turn sharply the other way, forgetting my hand still grips Rusty’s. He shouts as he falls hard onto his knees.
We are out in the open with no alleyway to hide away in, and the Pion is rounding the corner. I scoop my little brother up as the Pion jerks onto the street, and I don’t have time to wonder if Rusty was loud enough to draw its attention. I dash across three empty traffic lanes, glancing back only once to see the mechanical monster’s eye swiveling around to our direction.
I’ve just made it behind a twenty-foot-wide metal metro pillar to hide us from view when Rusty begins to cry.
His wail is unbearable to my ears with the Pion less than half a block away. I pull him against me and clamp my hand over his mouth to muffle his sobs. The ear-splitting roar of the news coverage continues—opposition cries injustice at the new mandate, citing ancient constitutions traditionalists fight to uphold—and I strain my ears for the clinking of the merciless Pion, which will no doubt spot us if I don’t quiet Rusty.
You must listen to me, I tell him, hurrying us along the steel pillar, away from the metal crunching of the nearing footfalls. His snot drips over my fingers. You must be quiet. Be quiet, or the monster will get us. Do you understand? This only makes him more inconsolable, and I curse the non-stop blaring of the screens for making me forget my empathy. My back against the pillar, I kneel down and draw him close to me. Let’s play a game, I whisper. I know how you love games. This one is quite simple.
At the sound of the word game, Rusty’s blubbering begins to subside uncertainly, as though he is aware of the possibility of being tricked. The game is this, I say as the Pion appears through the smog a stone’s throw away. I pick up and haul Rusty around to the other side of the pillar just as the Pion lurches past. Its eye swings about eagerly, microphones working to pick up any sound under the discord of the screens. I put my mouth to his ear, knowing that so long as I keep whispering, Rusty will stay quiet to listen. Think of a number between one and ten. You must be quiet and think hard, otherwise a good number will not come to you. His soft crying diminishes to sniffles, but I don’t dare to stop, not yet, while the metal giant continues to stalk so near us. Think of a good number, but don’t say it, do you understand? Think of a really good number…
I continue to whisper to him long after the grinding of metal has faded into the distance, and finally, I spare a glance around the pillar to find only gray haze. All my energy melts and puddles at my feet, and I collapse to my knees. His mouth now free, Rusty looks excitedly at me, his face wet with tears and mucus. He holds his age up on a tiny hand. Five, he says.
The rest of the way home is measurable only by the mounting dread collecting against the apples in my front pocket. My shoulders strain where Rusty holds onto me, his little body propped against my back and knees tucked over my bent elbows. The screens have changed again, advertising the next product to buy. There is no more discussion of the new law, its effect on the world, or the families living in it. If people’s attention spans weren’t so short, maybe they would realize the new law is not for the reasons they say at all. The mandate was not passed for the sake of the environment, something Galaxia Corp. has never cared about; nor was it for the people, whom they have always been equally unsympathetic towards.
They are targeting the world’s memory. Memories of the time before are the most dangerous weapon against the reality Galaxia Corp. has built.
I climb the gray steps outside our apartment building while Rusty snores quietly against my neck. The fact of the matter is, Galaxia Corp. owns the government, and the government benefits from the endless wealth of Galaxia Corp. A symbiotic relationship, like that of the wolf and the raven—a story Grandmother told me only last week. The wolf kills its prey and tears open the thick hide, allowing for scavenging ravens to forage. And when the ravens find a dead animal, they draw attention to the carcass by screeching so that the wolves come to eat. The two feed each other. Or at least, that is apparently how it was, when fairytales were real.
My pace slows when I reach the cold hallway of our complex, afraid by what I might find. My stomach twists and tumbles in knots, my heart beating so fast in my throat that I can scarcely breathe. A ray of golden light cuts across the hall where our door stands slightly ajar. I know then that I am too late.
I push the door open with my knee, my skin damp with sweat. I scan the cramped kitchen and living area. Grandmother? I call, enough hope left in me that I can almost convince myself she will answer.
But for the first time that day, it is quiet. Rusty stirs, and I move to lay him down onto the couch. He immediately curls up and falls into a deeper sleep. I again scan the small space we call home, glancing over the open bathroom door, the water pods on the counter, an overturned plastic cup on the table where we eat, synthetic dice and cards on the floor from last night’s games. That is when I notice the dash of color that glows in the rays of a blushing sunset streaming through our foggy window.
A splash of red across vinyl flooring.
I swallow hard, closing my eyes instinctually, as though I can shut out reality. Without meaning to, I imagine the termination drone flitting from apartment to apartment, identifying and eliminating its targets as coldly as its metal body gleams.
When I open my eyes again, the light has drained from the room, and I am standing in the dark. My eyes adjust slowly to the darkness, and I am grateful that I can no longer make out the evidence that Grandmother is gone forever.
I suppress one sob, then another. Crying is natural, Grandmother would say when Rusty wailed. Emotion is something Galaxia Corp. and their machines do not understand. It is one of their greatest weaknesses. She said it quietly, as she did all things of a rebellious nature, just in case they were listening. They do not understand sadness, or happiness, or love. Such power means nothing to them.
My eyes land on the family portrait hanging on our living room wall, and I am drawn to it. Love is one thing the machines will never be able to simulate. They overlook it as a human flaw. But it is they who are flawed. They may be able to stuff our heads full with information, gadgets, and products, but they will never conquer our hearts.
I stand before the picture, my gaze dancing over the faces there: Grandmother’s, Mother’s, and Father’s; mine, nearly five years younger than I am now, and Rusty, just a baby in Mother’s arms. Their machines will never understand why you are named Rose, Grandmother said, smiling at me with crinkled eyes. It was only yesterday. They cannot understand how your parents loved the flower, nor the love it symbolizes. They would never look too closely at a family portrait. They’d dismiss it as nothing more than irrational, human emotion. It is the perfect place to hide away secrets.
I reach for the portrait and remove it from the wall, reveling in the weight of the frame and the love contained within it. I hold it close to my chest for a few moments, then set it gently to the floor. When I straighten, I start at the sight of the lettered passcode pad I had uncovered.
Grandmother’s words come to me as if summoned by my desperation: Your parents named you in fond memory of how the world once was, she said, and I feel her pet my hair as she so often did. And they named Rusty for the future they hoped to one day see. Your names are of hope…and love.
Carefully, I type:
Something clicks, then beeps. A compartment door opens seamlessly from the wall and, hand trembling, I open it wider to reveal the treasures within. Inside the hideaway safe sits what Grandmother had left to trade: pelts of fur, rare metal coins, striped feathers; rough paper—an unheard-of rarity—sealed in airtight plastic; a wooden statuette in the likeness of a four-legged animal; a dried rose pressed between glass; a handful of computer chips I don’t recognize. A scrawled note with Balta’s information, the phrase she will help, underlined.
Last night, Grandmother hinted of such family possessions. I thought them more fantastical stories that could never be true. With these beloved artifacts, Rusty and I will be able to fend for ourselves for several years to come, so long as we remain savvy and are careful with whom we trust. I think of Balta and her behavior today, and know Grandmother must have asked for her help. I make a silent promise to do whatever I can to protect her from the age limit mandate.
My chest tight with emotion, I brush my fingertips against the glass protecting the rose for which I was named. It’s then I notice one last item stuffed away at the very back of the safe, sitting stout and dark beneath a metal contraption that glows orange. When I realize what it is, I gasp, and held-back tears tumble and burn down my cheeks like acid rain.
Crying is the most natural, human response, said Grandmother. We are human, and that will always be our strength. Those red shirts you wear are to remind you every day that you are bone and blood. You are my blood; you are your parents’ blood. You are no machine. You are alive.
Remember this, Rose: You are alive.
In a halo of artificial light sits a glass bowl full with soil. Within it, two green leaves poke out from the surface, like a breath of sunlight breaking from between gray clouds.