I wish there were another way to
do this. You didn’t have any warning and now I’ve changed your life, just by
writing the words you are reading. Your situation won’t get much worse if you
read the rest, though, so if you can do so without getting caught, I’ll try to
explain. It might help you survive.

My name is Dexon, and I
worked in this Complex for ten years. My Social Index was never high enough for
any of the sealed urbs, and I’m guessing you have the same problem or you
wouldn’t be here. And obviously they never fixed the leak or you wouldn’t have
found this message. Try unclogging the drain first.

It started like this.

I was crouched in a dusty
corridor, hastily eating some stale protein chips I’d stolen and trying to
figure out a solution to an increasingly desperate problem that could get me
killed, when I noticed the smell of mold, old and sour. I felt a stab of
fear–if the safety committee found mold our team would get a toxic health
hazard fine, and I was dangerously close to permanent reassignment as it was.
Of course the monitors claim they want us to have a healthy work environment,
even if they won’t give us the equipment we need to actually do work.

So I did everything a good
Mindful Citizen should do–signed out a set of safety gear on my task pad and
went to fix the problem before they noticed anything. I put down "repair work"
as the reason. That was vague enough to cover anything I needed to do and I
knew the safety committee monitored equipment usage. I was supposed to be doing
cleaning and maintenance anyway so it was approved immediately.

The smell was strongest in
a section of the Complex that had been built before the Fourth War, possibly
before the Third. They used a strange, compressed chalky substance sandwiched
between thin sheets of fiber for interior walls back then. I pulled away
furniture and storage cabinets until I saw it–a mottled black stain spotting
the surface near the concrete floor. The chalky part of the wall had turned to
a slimy, sticky mess, but I eventually got enough pulled free to see something
was blocking a drain. It looked like a pile of large leaves, and I was
surprised when they came out all together, as if they were attached.

The
leaves were rectangular, and had writing on them, most of it still legible. Not
interactive like a task pad, just marks on the surface, and I wondered how it
had been done. Reading further I figured out this thing was called a magazine. One article was titled, How to make a pencil–what we don’t know
about technology
. If you are unfamiliar with the term, a pencil is a device
that makes marks, for writing, but doesn’t use electronics. So it can’t be
traced. Ever. And it can be erased, too.

You can see why I thought
this might be useful.

Enough
of the article was legible to let me know I needed wood, graphite, and clay. I
think it was the mention of wood that really started me thinking. It wouldn’t
be enough to just have something to write with; it would need to be easily
concealable too, and I had an idea. I picked greenspace cleanup for my
mandatory volunteer hours that week. The greenspace here is large enough that
no matter where the job router defined my section, there would be some kind of
shrub in reach. Then I saved a handful of dead branches of the right thickness
and brought them back in with me. Not something you could hide, and I didn’t
try. I put them in an old metal container I’d found elsewhere in the Complex,
made a few "leaves" from broken circuitboard and put it in the Mindfulness
niche of my personal space. The Social Index evaluator gave me so many
biopoints my index actually went up.

Graphite I tracked down in
the lubricants cabinet, strangely enough. It’s used where volatile hydrocarbons
would contaminate a processor, or to gain biopoints for the Complex. Clay was
much more difficult. Eventually I went back to where I had found the mold and
used the chalky white powder from the old interior wall. Then it was just a
matter of drilling a long, thin hole down the center of a piece of branch and
carefully packing it with a paste made from the graphite and powder, mixed with
a little water. Since my "pencil" still looked like a piece of branch, I could
hide it with the other branches in the niche and no monitor would even think to
examine it. They had approved of it earlier, after all.

Of course I needed
something to write on, too. Something easily hidden, or that could be mistaken
for something else. It would be dangerous to leave a message where the monitors
might find it. One of the processors on the lower level makes big sheets of
plastic film–they use it in the urbs, I have no idea what for–and the trimmer
leaves odd bits and pieces behind. Dipped in microchip rinse solution, the film
becomes frosted and rough enough for the pencil to work, and with a little
effort it looks just like a piece of beancake wrapper. Another thing the
monitors wouldn’t notice.

Have you noticed yet how
freeing this message is? I’m communicating with you, directly, without any
evaluator program involved. No monitoring. No one else knows. It’s just
like the bird…no, I’ll explain the bird later. I can say whatever I want
here, and just to you. They had a word, long ago, to describe this. I read it
in another part of that magazine I found. Private.

This message is a permanent
record of my thoughts, but independent of me. I could even be dead by now, but
my words still live in your mind as you read them. I didn’t go to all this
effort for you, of course. I don’t know who you are. Certainly I wouldn’t risk
erasing my entire Social Index and reassignment to a permanent punishment post
for a stranger.

I did it for Jessen.

She arrived at the Complex
three years ago, just in time. I was almost completely broken at that point.
They never fed us enough–hence the stolen protein chips–and I didn’t have
enough Index points to earn even the lowest comfort privileges. In other
Complexes I had been able to find some way to get enough extra points for stimulants
or entertainment tokens, even though I wasn’t very good at pretending to think
like a model Mindful Citizen. Not here. The monitors only cared about meeting
production goals, and when we couldn’t do it everyone got fined. How that was
supposed to fix broken equipment was never clear to me, but that’s the monitors
for you. I was barely staying ahead of the fines to keep my minimum index score
above the punishment detail level. It wasn’t that I wanted to die, but I didn’t
really want to live either.

The remote monitor actually
came online and spoke to us personally at assembly to tell us Jessen had
volunteered in order to "re-dedicate her commitment to being a Mindful Citizen
and to work on improving the community service component of her Index." Jessen
stood in front of the assembly, her expression as empty as ours were and her
eyes humbly downcast, but I saw her chin lift up just a little at those words,
the muscles in her jaw tense. Not enough for the monitor to notice,
fortunately, but it was as good as a shout to a fellow rebel like me. Somebody
else was fighting, and seeing it gave me strength to keep fighting too.

Then I noticed…little
things. A "good day" used to be getting fresh beancake instead of old, rancid
stuff, but now it was a day when I saw Jessen. Or heard her voice. Or even saw
her name on the duty roster. It meant she was still here at the Complex, still
alive. Everything about her was mysterious and wonderful to see, even the faint
freckles just under her grey-green eyes, or the way her sandy hair curled under
at the end except for one stubborn strand. Her very existence made my burdens
easier to bear. And sometimes, when our eyes briefly met, I could almost
imagine a trace of emotion there. That maybe, possibly, she was glad to see me
too.

Of course as soon as I
realized what had happened I panicked. If anyone had noticed, had thought I had
committed any of the Unwelcome Behaviors, the fine would be large enough to
zero out the social component of my Index. I didn’t think I had, but you know
that’s no excuse. I struggled for over a year, even thought about how I could
improve my Index to the point where I could petition for contact–but she might
say no. I couldn’t be sure. Also, the things I wanted to say, to ask, were too
dangerous to be said in the presence of the Safe Contact monitor.

Then I tried to find a way
to communicate with her that the evaluator programs wouldn’t see. But
everything is watched, every means of communication that uses the network. Our
task pads sound an alert if they get too close to one another, and an automatic
investigation is started. Any job requiring more than one person is monitored,
and non-essential conversation fined. We only meet in groups for assembly, and
that is monitored too. Our personal spaces are sealed at curfew, and the
viewscreens check that you are present for the daily lecture then. I couldn’t
find a solution.

But then I found the
magazine with the pencil article. I was desperate enough to try anything to
make contact with Jessen. If I could do it in a way that wouldn’t put her in
danger…then I would know. She would know. It was worth the risk. Oh, don’t
shake your head. I hope you find someone someday that will be worth the risk to
you.

My desperation was fueled
by a fortunate but temporary circumstance. In the usual quarterly randomization
of personal spaces, Jessen had been assigned the space next to mine. Knowing
she was so close, and yet still out of reach–well, those were some very long
nights. I could hear her move about, hear the creak of her bed, even,
sometimes, her breathing. And I could not speak. The end of the quarter
would move her away again. I was desperate to do something, anything, to
end the agony.

I wrote a message. Short
but to the point. "Want to communicate? Make a hole in this if you do." It’s
easy for me now but then I had to struggle to remember what letters looked like
on a screen and then make them with this rough twig with a dark tip instead of
a keypad. I rolled up the plastic film, tied it to the end of a long string
with a metal washer at the end for weight, and when the lights dimmed for sleep
cycle, I shoved it between the ceiling tiles and the wall divider with another
section of branch until it dangled on her side of the wall.

My heart was pounding so
hard I felt dizzy. Had the monitors heard the noise? Had Jessen seen the note?
Would she understand what I was trying to do? I felt a small tug on the string
I was holding in my sweaty hand, and I could barely breathe. She might denounce
me. She might be afraid to reply. I had done all that I could do.

After an eternity I felt a
stronger tug on the string, and I slowly pulled it back. The plastic looked a
bit odd in the dim light, and when I unrolled it I saw why. Jessen had bitten
a hole in the film. Savagely.

I took that as a "yes."

Over the next few days I
sent her some pieces of plastic film and a pencil. We ended up just leaving our
messages in the space above the ceiling tiles, always when the lights were
dimmed. By the time our spaces were moved apart we had figured out other safe
places to leave messages. Since we had a way to communicate that the evaluators
couldn’t detect, we could also figure out places to meet in person, during the
work day. No, we didn’t find a way to turn off the task pad proximity sensors.
We didn’t need to. In the better-maintained Complexes you are required to keep
them in physical contact if you aren’t in your personal space or it sets off
another alarm, but here they had to turn that off because we are constantly
repairing equipment in tight spaces and task pads are expensive to replace.
This place also doesn’t have surveillance everywhere, because of all the old,
strange buildings they enclosed in the Complex. If it was clear of sensors,
we’d leave our pads in our duty areas and the monitors never knew we had moved
away from them.

At first we didn’t dare
spend more than a few minutes together, and we’d only speak in hushed voices,
but it was worth it. Worth it to actually touch another human being, even if
briefly. I didn’t dream about escaping by dying any more. I dreamed about
Jessen and the way her warm breath traced across my cheek when she whispered in
my ear, the scent of her hair, the comforting sensation of her hand entwined in
mine. When the rations were short I would remember things she had said, her
fleeting smile, and hunger felt less sharp.

Even the writing itself was
a strange pleasure. I had not realized the act of creating letters by hand
would be so individual, but Jessen’s writing was as distinctive and recognizable
as her voice. Although we usually erased old messages, for security and to
reuse the film, I kept the little slip where she first wrote "I love you,"
because it was like keeping her by me even in the days we couldn’t see each
other. Days of separation built on each other to create an unbearable ache, so
we found ways to stay together longer when we did meet. Which created a new set
of problems, and the reason you are reading this.

We didn’t have any plans
then. We were barely staying alive. Free, unmonitored communication was new and
overwhelming, and so was physical contact. I suppose we thought we would
eventually be discovered and it wouldn’t matter in the end. We didn’t think
about survival, just getting one more moment together. We got better at it, using
the system of isolation for our own purposes. I guess we became overconfident,
and as I said, we weren’t thinking very far ahead.

We were good at hiding,
after living all our lives in this world you are still, for now, a part of. But
some things can’t be hidden. At first it didn’t make sense when she told me. I
guess I thought pregnancy could only happen from a Sanctioned Contact. I
remember how at first I felt completely numb. I was going to die. They would
know. Jessen would be taken away from me. Then I realized someone else would be
taken away, and I was filled with a cold fear and determination I’ve never felt
before in my life.

Everything that had once
been important changed in an instant. All the old excuses I had used before vanished. Jessen and the baby had to
live, and I would do whatever was necessary to make that happen. Now I had a
reason to fight, something to fight for. I knew what my decision meant. We
could not live in the Complex, which left only one option. We had to go into
the Waste.

It terrified me, but we had
no choice. We couldn’t stay–and even if what they said about the Waste was true
at least we would die together. We had to leave so our child would even have a
chance to live. We would use violence,
yes, and even kill to do this. I don’t expect you to understand, not yet. I
wouldn’t either in your situation. Just remember what I have told you, and
there will come a time when you will.

We didn’t have much
time–Jessen figured maybe a month before it became noticeable. Our messages now
were all about finding food and supplies to take with us, hiding the fact these
things were missing until we were gone, caching everything where we could grab
it quickly and without detection. With my maintenance job I had the perfect
excuse to go all over the Complex, looking for a way out that wasn’t
watched–and I found it. They tried to seal the joins between the old buildings
when they built this Complex, but they didn’t always do a good job–or check the
old buildings completely. I found a hatch that led to a hidden part of a roof,
and from there, a series of ladders and bricked-off balconies that went all the
way to the ground. I’ll try to cover our tracks so they won’t find it when
we’re gone. Might be useful to you.

That reminds me…the roof
is where I saw the bird. Sure, you’ve seen pictures, maybe even a brief video,
but that isn’t anything like seeing them in flight. They keep them out of the
greenspace somehow, maybe a mesh net. I’m beginning to think that’s another
thing they do to keep us from getting ideas.

See, the ability to fly
requires the freedom to fall. Shield someone from any possibility of harm and
there is no chance of joy. Sometimes the birds swoop and dive for no reason I
could see, maybe just for fun. Because they can. The monitors say we must be
watched so we can’t say or do anything harmful to each other. Maybe so, but
what do they allow us to say that has meaning? No one else needs to hear me
tell Jessen I love her. The only permission I need is hers. They won’t let us
fall, but we aren’t allowed to fly either.

By this time we will have
left the Complex, one way or another. I don’t know what they are saying about
us; traitors, selfish anti-social bigots, individualist saboteurs? Or have they
made no mention of our crimes at all, afraid that even mentioning them would
create more rebels?

You’re one of us now,
whether you want it or not. Unsanctioned thoughts are in your mind. Dangerous
information in your memory. You can turn this message in if you want, but it
won’t save you. Your Social Index is gone once they find out, never to return.
Destroy this if you must; there are others hidden where the monitors will not
find them. You can try to go back to your life in the Complex, try to live like
you did before, if you can call that living. It’s your choice. I don’t think
you will. It only takes one taste to realize how hungry you are for real
human contact. For communication. For touch. It’s worth it. Worth escaping. I’m
not going to write down how I figured it out, just in case they do find this,
but all the stories the monitors have told us about the Waste being impossible
to live in? Lies. More lies. I’ve already been outside the Complex, and
returned unharmed.

When you decide to leave,
write your own message for those who follow. Tell them your story, help them
escape. Leave a record that will outlive you. Come and find us, and discover
what happened after I sealed this message for you to read.

Don’t be afraid. You
already know how to hide to survive, and now you have something to live for.

And
I left you a pencil.

More in Dystopia…

by Robby Soave
"The Committee for Public Emotional Safety may undertake any and all measures deemed necessary by university therapists to defend the delicate feelings of the campus body."

by Aaron Smith
"Damn the Test!"

A maintenance worker yearns for more in a city where wealth and status are largely determined by reparations.