A story about freedom
By Kalin Ringkvist
(Read all of Breaking Free - story about freedom on Kindle)
(Read all of Breaking Free - story about freedom on Kindle)
During the night, something changed within Andil. Something emerged from the deep recesses of her soul, something she hadn’t known since she was a small child, something she had fought hard, like everyone else in the twenty-third century, to push back, to hide, something she had forgotten.
______ ______ ______
She awoke to the sound of soft music in her left ear. Her right earphone had fallen out in the night. Throwing the covers from her body, she dug around her bed, found it, and plugged it back in. For a moment she lay silently, enjoying the music.
Few people still bothered to listen to music. Andil could not think of any compositions created in the past fifty years. The No Vocals Act of 2189 caused numerous bankruptcies throughout the music industry. A few years later, a law passed, banning all speakers with a sound distance of more than fifteen meters, completely killing the industry. So now, the only legal music, was the stuff without words, and the only way a person could listen to it was through personal earphones. No one wanted to listen to someone else’s music, and lyrics to almost all songs at least mildly offended somebody, somewhere. The laws had fixed those problems.
Andil stepped out of bed and walked toward the closet, meaning to put on her winter uniform, but halfway there, she noticed something. She had done this a thousand times before—gotten out of bed, walked to her closet—and yet, it never felt like this. She looked down at her almost-naked body, then looked up at the camera unit on the wall, watching her. She couldn’t remember ever looking directly at the camera while dressed like this. There had always been a fear that some human eyes would see the image. Some perverted computer hacker getting into the law enforcement systems and peeping at her. Logically she knew it was next to impossible, but the fear still persisted. Probably everyone had it. But today it felt different. She smiled as the image of the strange maniac, drooling over his computer screen, came to her mind. Or maybe pe is disgusted by me, she thought. Too disgusted to look away, maybe.
Forgetting about her fictional pervert, a very strange and alien thought came to her mind: maybe I won’t get dressed just yet. Her mind stopped working for a few seconds as the idea that she could even think such a thing sunk in. Yes, yes, she thought. I’ll just step outside of my bedroom for a while, walk around the apartment. Nobody will see me, right? No, of course not. No one will see me, except the law enforcement cameras and they don’t count. Yes, yes, I think I’m going to do it. And she took a wary step away from her closet, toward the bedroom door. After pausing several seconds, she took another step, and they became easier with each that she took. Finally she reached the doorway and touched the activator pad, expecting it to demand that she put some clothes on first. Instead, it slid open without a sound. There was nothing illegal about walking around in one’s own apartment without wearing a uniform—just so long as nobody could see.
As she walked cautiously into the living room, she saw that the windows were all black. They weren’t normally like this, but of course, she didn’t normally wander around wearing nothing but underwear.
Standing silently in the middle of the room, she did several 360 degree turns, just to make sure no one could see. Then she plucked the earphones from her ears and set them on the coffee table. And she heard the sounds of the city: the streetcars forty stories below, a helicopter passing somewhere overhead. There were people out there.
This is idiocy! She thought suddenly, and nearly turned and bolted back to the bedroom to get dressed. But she stopped. No, no. Nobody can see me. If they could, they’d be the criminal in this situation, not me. There’s nothing illegal about wandering around your apartment like this. Few people do it, but there’s nothing wrong with it.
Maybe I should ask the computer to make the windows clear.
No no. Let’s take this one step at a time. She still had difficulty getting used to this.
Andil went to the dining room and programmed her breakfast into the food computer. Three minutes passed and her steaming hot cereal and grapefruit appeared in the dispenser. She ate silently. A tenseness grew in her stomach and she glanced over her shoulder several times, just to make sure no one could see her.
Stories of burglaries came to her mind. That was a common thing, a couple hundred years ago. People broke into houses to steal stuff. She still heard about someone burglarizing someone else every couple years. It comforted her a little to know that any person committing such a crime would be executed on the spot. It was the only crime deserving such a punishment. Even murderers were tolerated, given, at most, eighty to one hundred years imprisonment. An invasion of privacy was unacceptable.
Finishing her meal, Andil put the dishes in the disposal compartment and went back to the living room. She stood, the tenseness built to it’s maximum, and said, “Clear the windows, please.”
“You are improperly dressed,” said the unisexual computerized voice.
“What do you mean?” she retorted. “I have clothes on.”
“You are improperly dressed. Somebody might see you. Please put on a uniform. Then I can clear the windows.”
“Who’s going to see me? We’re forty stories up.”
“There are apartments across the street.”
“The street’s sixteen lanes wide!” She knew it was useless to argue, but Andil was having fun.
“Telescopic instruments can easily see that far.”
“So let them look. You’re looking at me.”
“I am a computer. I am not programmed to be offended by the human body, or to pass judgment on it. The windows will remain opaque until you put on sufficient clothing.”
Andil grumbled, turning toward the bedroom. “Computer’s like a mound of shit,” she murmured, almost silently. She did not mean it; secretly she felt relieved that the computer would not take her request.
“Using inappropriate language in a private area is a one-half credit fine. The funds have been deducted from your account.”
“A half credit?” Andil said.
“Using such language near another human is thirty credits,” the voice warned.
“A half credit? That’s nothing.”
“In my computerized opinion, a half credit is not nothing. A half credit is a half credit.”
Andil smiled and shook her head at the idiotic argument. “Okay, what if I put on a summer uniform? Would you clear the windows then?”
“But it isn’t summer. It is winter.”
“I know that,” Andil said. “But would you do it?”
“A summer uniform would be acceptable.”
“Thank you.” She continued toward her bedroom. She grinned widely, unable to help it. “Hey,” she said. “Do you want to know what I think a half credit is?”
“I would like to know,” the computer replied. “Your opinions are important.”
“In my human opinion,” she said, “a half credit is like a tiny little piece of shit.” And she burst into hysterical laughter.
______ ______ ______
Hundreds of people, all in identical blue, black, and white uniforms crowded the street on all sides. Each one had an artificial-fur-lined hood. Some wore the hoods over their heads, and some let them hang down their back. As Andil stared blankly out her apartment building door, she realized that the hoods were the only things that marked these people as individuals. If the temperature dropped, they would all be the same, like clones from a factory.
She set out, headed on her way toward work. It should have been a day like any other day, but something felt wrong. She saw the people as she walked, and they seemed like nothing more than automatons, methodically going about their daily business, not speaking to anyone for fear of offending, staring at the ground to avoid eye contact.
A vision of a naked body came to her mind. It ran through the crowds. It screamed such a cry of joy that Andil had never heard or imagined. They would look up then, wouldn’t they? Their mouths would drop open and they would stand and stare, forgetting about their routines. Then they’d talk about it with each other.
That’s absurd! she thought. People see the human body as being the most offensive thing on the planet. These innocent people would probably be too shocked to go on with their lives. It would be cruel.
But what if there’s someone out there who is so deranged that pe doesn’t care? Someone who can run naked through crowds of people and not worry about what they think of per? There must be someone like that somewhere. People used to do stuff like that hundreds of years ago, didn’t they? That would be the ultimate freedom, she thought, to be able to take off all your clothes and be seen be other people, and not care.
She shook her head at the absurd thoughts, and increased her pace.
She checked her watch. 9:43 AM, December 25, 2253.
The date didn’t hold any significance for her. The storefronts she passed did not display any reminders of the archaic holiday, once celebrated on this day. Showing things holiday-related to the general public had been outlawed as offensive. People could no longer remember the days of any specific celebrations, though a few could remember their own birthdays. New Years was simply the day that the year changed: otherwise meaningless.
Andil walked on, trying to slip back into her normal routine, but she found that she was moving further and further away. She tried to tell herself that she was just another face in the crowd, but instead found herself looking at the people and thinking, they’re all different from you. They’re all so different, and yet you can’t help being one of them.
______ ______ ______
She sat in her cubicle, trying to keep her mind on the job at hand. She was supposed to be drawing up plans for somebody’s garden, but the drafting program on the computer remained blank.
Andil checked her watch. Noon; almost lunch time. Maybe I could take off a few minutes early, she thought. I’m not getting anything done here.
Standing, she opened the door to her cubicle and locked it behind her. Three doors down, she stopped. This was Sil’s cubicle. Maybe I should ask per to eat with me today, she thought. But I’ve asked per almost five times this month. Pe hasn’t asked me nearly that many times. I wonder if pe feels as though pe’s being harassed.
The personal pronouns Andil used were derived from the word ‘person’. Use of the words ‘he’ and ‘she’ had been outlawed years ago, considered sexist. At this time, no one knew that such words had ever existed.
She almost turned away, but stopped. She was in the mood for some company.
A moment after she had rung the buzzer, Sil answered, calling from inside, “I welcome you to Sil’s office, drafting department.”
“Good morning Sil. This is Andil. I hope I am not disturbing you.”
“You aren’t disturbing me,” Sil replied. “Would you like to come in?”
“Thank you,” she said as she opened the door.
Sil stood up and moved out from behind the desk and offered a hand to Andil. The handshake was firm and precise. At the moment they made contact, Andil brought her eyes up to meet Sil’s. Proper etiquette demanded that eye contact be avoided until a conversation officially started, but maintained throughout a conversation.
“Would you like me to close the door, or do you prefer it open?” Andil asked.
“Whichever you prefer would be fine,” Sil replied. “Do you mind if I sit down?”
“That would be okay. I’ll leave the door open.”
Seating himself, Sil motioned toward the other chair in the room. “If you’d like to sit as well, please do.”
“To what do I owe the pleasure of this visit, Andil?” Sil asked.
“I wished to ask you if you would care to join me for lunch. If you have made prior engagements, I completely understand. It was just an idea.”
“I have not made any prior engagements, and I would enjoy dining with you,” Sil said, checking his watch. “It is a little early though, isn’t it?”
“I’m sorry,” Andil replied quickly. “I didn’t mean to disturb your work time—I’m so thoughtless. I can come back later if you wish.”
Sil paused a moment. “No. I can take off a few minutes early. I’ve had a fairly productive morning. Where would you like to go?”
She offered several restaurant suggestions, asked for his ideas. They quickly agreed on one.
They walked out of the office together, and Sil stopped to lock the door. Side by side they walked down the hall. At one point Sil looked down at her shoulder and noticed that it was less than fifteen centimeters from his. Not much of a gap. Carefully, so as not to let Andil notice, Sil slowly increased the distance. Being close to another human was very frightening for him. The society had trained him well.
______ ______ ______
Andil watched Sil for a moment, as he cut his grilled cheese sandwich and took a tiny, precise bite. It seemed perfectly normal for a person to be eating such a meal with a knife and fork. Even so, she found it difficult to bring her eyes away, after she realized she was staring.
Sil kept his gaze locked on her eyes. That was the proper thing to do, even though they were rather quiet. Every few moments he took a quick glance at his food to see what he was doing, but he tried to keep that to a minimum.
Andil looked down at her burger. She stared for a long while, knowing she should be making better eye-contact, but she wasn’t in the mood for self-control. Perhaps the burger was a bad idea, she thought. Very difficult to eat properly. Burgers are better left for private times. She wished she could just pick it up and eat it with her hands.
“Andil?” Sil said. “Do you mind if I ask a rather personal question?”
She looked up and met his gaze. “I don’t mind,” she replied.
“You appear distracted. Is something bothering you?”
She shook her head. “No, nothing’s bothering me. I was just thinking—no, it isn’t appropriate.”
Sil nodded and they went back to silently eating. Andil forced herself to make better eye-contact.
Pe’s so very different, Sil thought. Pe seems somehow different from everyone else. No no, that’s a cruel thing to think. I guess I don’t mean it in a bad way, though.
Pe’s a female, right? He thought. Yes, yes, I believe so.
He didn’t know what exactly that word meant, but somehow he knew that’s what she was. Sil knew the two words to describe the two different types of people, but didn’t know specifically how to classify people into those groups. Usually he came up with a gut feeling telling him one person was male while another female. He had no idea what it all meant, but he knew it wasn’t proper for him to be classifying people, and he felt ashamed.
Maybe I should ask Andil for an open-communication contract, he thought.
No, no, he corrected. That’s ridiculous. Pe would never go for it. Stupid idea.
Sil did not feel even a slight attraction toward Andil. That feeling had been completely repressed and he knew nothing of the concept. His theory that Andil was female and he was male held no meaning for him. However, he still felt curious about Andil, and wanted to know her better.
Andil continued staring into Sil’s eyes and she began to lose herself. The walls suddenly seemed like they were closing in. Faces of former etiquette teachers flashed before her. Still, she kept eye-contact, as if nothing else in the world mattered. She wished she could just look away for a moment. Logically she knew that wouldn’t matter too much. It’s not like Sil will go into a rage if I lose eye contact. But she couldn’t make herself believe this.
Someone lurked behind her. She knew the person was there, ready to grab her by the neck if she didn’t watch her manners, and strangle her until she conformed.
The whole of society stood behind her, ready to grab and strangle. They all knew she’d foul up sometime. They stood and waited for her to do or say something improper, then it would be time, and it would all be over. She knew they were there.
Suddenly, on the edge of her vision, something moved, and her concentration broke. She looked away, to see a naked form, running, on the other side of the restaurant. Without thinking about it, she stood, but said nothing. The naked person screamed something, such a loud shrill, a joyous shout. Andil pointed, but no one seemed to notice. The other restaurant patrons looked at her instead. Most of them turned away quickly since it was impolite to stare.
The vision blurred, and Andil realized what it was. She shut her eyes tightly and before opening them the halucination had disappeared. She sat down, breathing heavily.
“I’m sorry, Sil,” she said. “Oh, I am so sorry. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I don’t think I’m feeling very well today.”
“It’s okay, Andil. I am not bothered,” Sil replied. “May I ask you something? What was that about?”
“I’m sorry, Sil,” she said. “I’m really sorry. It isn’t appropriate.”
He blankly stared at her, not knowing what to say. The idea of the open-communication contract came to his mind. Something like that would allow her to tell him the things she thinks are inappropriate. Sil did not disregard the idea so quickly this time. Andil seemed like an amazingly open minded person.
Andil forced herself to stare back at Sil. “Do you think it would be okay with you if I went home? I don’t mean to leave you here all alone, and I wouldn’t ask this of you if I wasn’t feeling so ill.”
“No, it’s okay,” Sil said. “I don’t want to keep you here if you’re not feeling well. I don’t mind you leaving. I’ve enjoyed your company.” He stood up. “Good-bye, Andil.”
“Good-bye, Sil.” They shook hands and broke eye-contact. Andil turned away and walked toward the exit, a dull throbbing pain developing in her chest.
______ _______ ______
During the night something disturbed her sleep.
A voice, dry and scratchy, commanding. “Conform,” it said.
Andil felt fingers around her neck. “Conform!” it demanded, and when Andil replied with a silent no the fingers began to close. “We have no room for people like you,” said the voice. “You disturb the rest of the good-natured society. We give you one last chance. Conform.”
She did not reply and the fingers closed hard.
And she awoke, saying the word conform to herself. She sat up, saying it out loud.
In a way she felt that that was the right choice. Be a good person, go along with everyone else, hide your personality to avoid offending anyone. Get along. Be good, be good. Conform. To maintain order within a society, everyone must be the same.
Deep down, though, she recoiled at the thought. She wondered if it had all been a dream, or was somebody actually out there controlling her thoughts, demanding that she alter herself?
“No,” she said loudly, and she stepped out of bed and walked out of the room, not considering getting dressed.
______ ______ ______
She called in sick to work that day and decided to simply hang around her apartment. Eventually she put on a summer uniform because she wished to have a look outside. She ate a little. She tried watching television for a while but found it too boring to stand. She considered reading a story, but knew without trying it the absurdity of that idea. There couldn’t be anything available that could possibly entertain her. Books were too generic these days, too regulated.
Maybe I could write something, she thought. A story. Something about a person who’s a little different from everyone else, who can’t seem to fit in. A story that doesn’t conform to all of today’s literature guidelines.
She sat down in front of the computer screen and stared for nearly half an hour, but couldn’t come up with anything. Eventually she tried writing some poetry, and actually put a few lines down. She knew she could never show it to anyone, even if she completed something. But she lost herself in the thought processes anyway, coming up with numerous lines to complete the poem but finding them too risque to show to even herself.
It doesn’t matter. Just write something. No one will see it. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and allowed her mind to leap. The world seemed to collapse upon her. Her gravity shifted and for a fraction of a moment, rode a wave of dizziness. Opening her eyes, everything seemed to come back to normal, physically speaking, though she suddenly felt a sickening draw to her computer screen and her fingers began moving across the keyboard.
I am human.
I know I am human because I am told I am human.
I am woman.
But I am told I am not. I’m told I am human and nothing more.
I am a part of this world.
I am told I am a part of the world.
I’m a part of the world, a part of the world. I am a part of this world.
And yet… I am woman, because I know that I am.
The words formed themselves in just a few minutes, and Andil rose without reading them. She wandered in circles, her mind racing. My mind needs space from this. Think of something else. She looked down at herself. I need to change. This is winter. I’m in a summer uniform. This will not do.
She walked to her bedroom. I should go into the closet to change. I don’t want the camera to see me.
No, she told herself. Moderation. If this is who you are, then it’s time to get used to it.
She began removing her uniform, and again, found herself lost. She thought of her pervert, watching from his home computer, and a strange sensation overcame her senses. His imaginary gaze suddenly grasped her, and began to move her body. She danced, removing her clothing very slowly. She saw his eye, now on the surface of her imagination, wickedly enticing her to go on with the performance.
Piece by piece, her clothing fell to the ground until she wore only her underwear. She danced, unaware of any other aspect of her life, turned, and extended her rear for the camera, but found herself staring at her bed, the place where she slept every night under tight covers, safe from all those sick people out there, people who liked to touch themselves, or dance naked in front of the police cameras.
Her stomach tensed.
What am I doing?! She turned back, seeing the camera again, though this time from a much different perspective. She cringed, covering herself with her arms but finding them wholly unacceptable. I’m exposed! And she screamed, then dove for her closet, crawling frantically to the back, snatching uniforms from the rack. She covered herself, curled tightly in the back corner of her closet.
I’m sick, she thought. Oh, I am so horribly sick. I’m the kind of person they lock away on remote islands because of antisocial behavior. Oh, no, what is wrong with me?
She remained curled in the corner for some time, then calmed herself. It’s all conditioned, she told herself. I have no reason to feel shame. She rose, pulling on a winter uniform, took a deep breath and exited the closet.
Read all of Breaking Free - story about freedom on Kindle
Read all of Breaking Free - story about freedom on Kindle