“The password is 19Nov2316”, he said his birth date in his mind.
The words seemed to float out of his brain and solidify in mid air. As they hit the blue light next to the door panels, the lights turned green. As if welcoming this activity in its otherwise still day, the silken machines began gliding inside the walls surrounding him and silently, the doors disintegrated open. He smiled, he loved the graceful dissolution of the doors, how liquid it was, almost like one of those dancers he’d read about. “Dance – An intriguing ancient art form that he’d discovered while doing some arbitrary research into the planet’s past where one would interpret the beats of music and either act like a robot or a swan or act like you were having a seizure”.
It looked like so much fun! Of course there was no dancing now, there might be some videos of dancing available if anyone was interested, but no one was. No one had the time for such frivolous pastimes.
People were too busy eking out their living. Each minute they spent working, they earned a ‘Bit’ and one bit barely bought you anything nowadays. So, everyone was busy working. All the time. Stuck to their screens, day in day out. To earn more bits.
He walked into the office. His office building, just like all others were always tall structures, made entirely of plastic. That was the most economical material available and hence the most logical to use. Each building had the same plain black façade with a large 10 foot numeral on all its sides to make building identification easy. He assumed there were about a 900-950 buildings in the world, all looking alike except their numerical markings.
It was seven in the morning – quite late by normal standards but he didn’t worry about these things. The floor was already buzzing with the clicking noises of a thousand fingers tapping keyboards, connected to machines, filling data. The buzzing sound of the servers chomping down on four thousand terabytes of information per second was ever present. No one noticed him walking in. No one bothered to raise their heads, look away from their screens, no one said hello or good morning. No one ever did. It was always about the bits. This reminded him of a phrase he had read in an Omniprex version of a story book published hundreds of years ago, ‘everyone is a bit nuts’ he chuckled at the ingenuity of the saying and gloated at his sense of humour.
He knew if people became aware of what he was thinking, they’d be aghast. His disregard for the high powers, his aversion to process, his casual attitude towards hard work and the art of bit earning wouldn’t be tolerated by most. He’d be labeled a mad man, a heretic! Maybe he was mad, but mostly he thought the rest of the world was.
He kept his madness in check though, mostly because he couldn’t let people know what he was really doing. But also a little bit because of her. His eyes scoured the office floor and the black cubicles. He saw a sea of beige wearing humanoids, dressed in clothes that were as relevant in past generations as they were today because no one cared enough to innovate. He smiled to himself when he saw her, busy as always, eyes glued to her two screens. She always came in early, much earlier than the rest of the crowd, so that she could snag the double screened cubicles. Double the screens, meant double the work, meant double the bits.
He wondered if she ever thought of anything other than that. He studied her profile as he settled into his cubicle. She was short and slim; an aquiline nose dominated her face. Her eyes were grey, whether it was a natural color or they were reflecting the data from the screen he could never tell and that blue hair, it added to the mystery and enigma of what she was. She sat hunched, focused on the work at hand. Her legs were crossed at her ankles, ankles covered by long black pants. But it was her face that kept pulling his attention. He felt she was the most beautiful girl he’d seen. There seemed a luminescence to her face, a glow that made him search out for her, made him stare at her. Her animation was so in contrast to her boring bit collecting persona, it made her even more interesting to him and he marveled at her.
With a start, he realized she had made him poetic. Poetry – another one of those beautiful art forms long faded. The task to poetry was simple, yet profound. He had learnt that if one used long descriptions and rhyming verses to write about something, they were celebrated as poets. Such beauty in words he had discovered! He’s found out about and read Rumi, Keats, Wordsworth, Tagore and so many more ancient poets. It seemed that they were all now having a romantic effect on him. He smirked to himself, realizing how futile such thoughts were, how utterly bizarre in today’s modern age, how inconsequential to each and every person around him and how criminal it was considered to waste his time so.
“Romance has been killed by the bits” he typed into his black screen, his fingers gliding on the panels beside him. “It’s been dead for a while now” pat came the reply on his screen, almost as if someone had been waiting for him to begin the conversation. He didn’t know who wrote back to him, what they did or even if it was a real person replying to his crazy sentences, but he always felt like the replies he got had a calming effect on him. Sometimes patronizing, many times funny, but always calming. He never got a chance to converse like this with anyone in real life, so this was often his escape – this nebulous unknown being, who always happened to be there when needed.
“There has to be more to this life than this?”
“What’s this you speak of? What’s wrong with whatever this is?”
“What? You think just sitting in front of a screen all day is why we were all born? The purpose of life meant nothing to you? What about spending time dancing or writing poetry, or just walking outside?”
“Outside? Have you seen outside? There are just more buildings with more machines and more people just like the ones you’re sitting with. Yes indeed, walking among that would be exhilarating!”
“Haha! Sure, kill the free thought and what about the dancing?”
“Ah! Dancing? I searched on the Omniprex and it says it’s got some symbolic and aesthetic value? But what’s the use of moving and contorting your body into strange positions when all you need in life is to stand, sit or lie down?”
“Sometimes I feel you’re deliberately being dense! Dancing frees your soul, dancing is celebration, it is beautiful, dancing helps you express yourself. Art, poetry, music, painting, these are all forms of self-expression, these are all that made this world a beautiful place.”
“MADE! That’s the word to focus on. MADE! Now I suggest you do some work, your bits bar is looking curiously empty. Someone might notice.”
There was a little icon, a bar on the side of his screen which showed little bits drooping into an infinite abyss. It was meant to be a reminder, an incentive for everyone to work harder and faster and it was a wake-up call for those who were lagging behind. He just found it ironic. He knew people collected all these bits in a mad dash in the hopes that one day they’ll have enough to relax and enjoy some free time. But what he found laughable was that all of that could be done even now with the very same mad dash for bits. He couldn’t wrap his head around it, though he assumed there must be some merit to it considering everyone bought that theory and lived by it.
The work day was ending. He saw people line up at the pantry for their daily food pills. That was his signal to get out of this hole. As he neared his house building, his gliders spluttered and rolled to a halt. Cursing, he bent to take them off, gosh! He’d have to walk till he got these fixed! This was why he should be earning more bits, he scolded himself. These gliders were so old, no wonder they were malfunctioning. As he straightened up and slowly scuffled uncomfortably forward, he heard a noise in the alley next to his building. He peered into the dark lane and saw a large silhouette of a burly man holding what seemed to be a wrench. No way! “A villain, just like those movies, years and years ago!” he thought fearfully and ran inside his tower.
As he took a water pill to calm himself down, he threw himself on the sofa in front of his personal Omniprex. He always looked forward to this part of the day the most. It was funny that his plan to break away from the monotony of his work and tyranny of people who controlled his life, was based on more screen time and dependent on the very technology that he was coming to despise. He logged in and met his friends within the myriad veins of the Omniprex. Though anonymous, these friends helped him feel calm, comfortable and at home around them. The spooky night scene was temporarily forgotten.
They called each other ‘spirits’ and together, they spent almost the entire night exploring history and flying around in the past where the world was surely a more beautiful, colourful and free place. Every time they delved into the great ocean of information on the life that people had lived, concepts like vacations, travel, beach parties, circuses, barbeques, painting, music, walks in the park, holding hands, mountain climbing, love, friendship and loyalty came to the fore. Initially they had all had trouble understanding such illogical concepts. How could someone just read about love and loyalty and completely imbibe it? But day after day, pressing through, they all knew that they had to somehow re-create the magic that was, because this grey, spartan, bland, one dimensional living was not for them.
They had realized that it was possible, nay, better, more enticing to live a life without the constant dreary presence of technology. No one knew how the life they were reading about had changed to the life that was all about bits and the machines that earned people their bits. It had been a gradual change for sure, subtle. Peoples’ dependencies on their personal and professional technologies had slowly taken over everything until only that remained. Of course, it served the vested interests of the powers that be and they had done everything to encourage this trend also.
They had spent many nights thinking of the beautiful possibilities of exploration, until Spirit Blue finally seemed to have a tangible answer. Suddenly their meetings changed from harmless Omniprex adventures, to serious and dangerous schemes for freedom. It had been exciting, thrilling and scary at the same time, championed by Spirit Blue as the ideas became solidified and more discussions began taking place. As he lay in bed, smiling after their e-meeting, he suddenly remembered the man and his wrench-y shadow. He thought of every possible scenario as to the reason for the man’s ominous presence in the alley, including the fact that he’d used his ghastly weapon to decommission his gliders! He laughed and shuddered simultaneously at his over active imagination. He should only focus on the positive, the good that finally seemed accessible in the near future.
As he reached office the next day, there was a waiting message in his comms chute. He had a summons from the 333rd floor. This floor housed the office royalty, the bits distributer, the king of all these serfs, the president of this company. This was a rare occurrence indeed. The summons brought with it a strange sensation in his stomach, stranger than last night.
Slowly, he trudged upstairs to find himself in a huge room. This was the first time he’d been anywhere above the 104th floor where he worked. Surprisingly, the entire space was extremely colourful, decorated with paintings, ferns and tapestries, such a stark contrast to their bland clinical cubicles on the many floors below. It felt like this room was part of a completely different universe. It felt warm and welcoming and human! He was reminded of last night’s e-meeting and wondered if the boss was one of the Spirits. He walked towards the giant red metallic desk where the boss sat. On each side of him stood a robo-dog with its handler, menacingly staring at the new entrant, presenting a contrast to the happy art on the walls.
On a screen floating next to the green tapestry of dancers in a forest, he saw a flicker of something familiar. But the boss’s presence pulled his gaze and he stood facing him in silence. The boss looked at the screen as if he waited for something, so his attention was drawn back to it. He slowly realized why the screen showed something familiar – it was her, looking stonily at him, her aquiline nose turned up at him. She turned to look at the boss and gave him a slight nod. The boss cleared his throat and nodded back. She flickered away and the boss called his attention.
“You seem to be having some trouble with the way things work around here.”
He didn’t understand what that cryptic sentence meant. He was still in shock to see her, seemingly give the nod of death for him. It felt like, she hated him. He didn’t even realize she knew he existed.
“Yes, she does know you, very well in fact”, said the boss, reading his mind. “Whom do you think you were talking to when you were spilling all your secrets into a blank screen?”
Seeing his stunned face, he gleefully explained, “Yes, that was her, all along. That’s what she does, down at the floor. Her job was to find the slackers, the ones who think they’re better than the system, the ones who feel they don’t need to conform, the ones like you. You could call her a spy!” He sniggered at his own joke.
“B-b—but why? What?”
He disregarded his question and continued, “It was her idea to send a hitman to your house to scare you; and to break your gliders too. Too bad you reached your house early and interrupted him in his work, so he couldn’t follow with the rest of her instructions. It would have been interesting to see the different colours on your facial muscles today if he had.”
Shuddering, he asked, “Sir?” He fearfully tried to understand what was happening.
“Yeah, you’re one of the few leftovers and I’m tired of this clean up work. So these two”, he said pointing to his pets, “will take you straight to where useless scum like you belong.”
The robo-dogs jerked forward, eyes glowing red. They herded him out before he even realized what was happening. He never even got a chance to question the boss? He didn’t get a chance to deny his allegations? What should he do – how did the boss know his rambling thoughts? Should he fight back? He just couldn’t comprehend the situation that had transpired. “How did they know? Had one of his trusted friends betrayed him? Was it her all along? What happened to the other spirits? How am I the last one? What did he mean when said I’m the last? What happened to the rest of the Spirits? Am I fired?” Too many questions swirled in his head. He couldn’t figure which his first coherent thought was and which was his last. His chaotic thoughts weren’t making any sense, “Well, there was no hope left for anything with her” he mused.
“Are you going to kill me?” he asked his captors only to realize they were dogs and couldn’t really answer him. As he walked the corridors further and further inside the building, he became more and more reckless. “I wish that guy hadn’t broken my gliders though. How far do we have to walk?”
He hadn’t realized their happy thoughts and potential happy place was going to cause such a big problem. Why was his head causing him such real trouble? He hadn’t even realized that he’d committed some crime, he had just found himself a joyous place! Such a small thing! He was no fighter; he had just wanted to be free. Slowly in his jumbled thoughts, a single voice of understanding came through – obviously our plan was a crime in their eyes, they don’t understand what they’re missing and they don’t want to rock the boat. The boss and his cronies are happy minting bits, why would they want to change things around here? Why would they let anyone change anything around here?
A mad man he had been, but a dead man? That didn’t really sit well with him. He had to do something, anything to be away from the snarling dogs at his ankles taking him away to some unknown torture chamber. As he and his watch dogs rounded yet another corner, he spotted a shadow. The same mean huge wrench holding shadow! He halted in shock, will he finally finish the job he was supposed to do yesterday? He slowly turned around to face his adversary, but couldn’t spot anyone. The dogs started growling so he walked again. Finally he was led to enter a room.
From the far side door, she walked in. His casual countenance changed dramatically. “YOU!?” He shouted in anger, “Why did you do this? You killed all my friends? How can you be so heart less? You sold your soul, for just a few bits?”
The ‘wrench man’ followed her out the same door and said, “Fellow Spirit, don’t say such things. I’d like to introduce you to Spirit Blue, our master planner and our only hope. She has spent the past few months planning and preparing for everything we have been discussing over the Omniprex. In fact, she is the one who led the boss to believe that all Spirits are dead. But my friend, all of us are alive, thanks to her. We are ready to go on our epic adventure, just as soon as Spirit Blue permanently disables those dogs” he pointed to the still snarling machines behind him.
He felt another shock pass him through, “What!?” he stammered out! “You’re both Spirits? What were you doing colluding with that mad boss?” He was having trouble identifying what was real! Was this girl his friend or foe? And the evil shadow man.. He turned towards him “And you? Why were you out there scaring me at night? Did you follow me? You could have just told me the truth that night! No this doesn’t make sense, you were so villainous and horrifying! How can you two be my friends? Is this a trick?”
“Hello” said Spirit Blue shyly and sweetly. “I’m sorry I have never spoken to you in office, I was afraid people would have realized how closely we were connected. If you knew the truth about me, I myself wouldn’t have been able to contain my excitement if I had allowed myself to talk to you. Also, so sorry for the way I behaved in the boss’s room.
He really thinks I’m his spy!” she made a wry face! “But I swear it was all an act. I realized much earlier that our journey wasn’t going to be as easy or straightforward as we had originally thought. So I used my position in the company to help all our Spirit friends. After the Omniprex discussion we had last night, I knew it was time to move and so I contacted everyone. I couldn’t contact you as I knew the boss was monitoring your movements and I didn’t want to give the game away.”
“It’s true”, exclaimed the man. “If it hadn’t been for her, those vicious dogs would have attacked and finished our friends by now. But Spirit Blue has reconfigured their programs, which is why they are only standing and snarling and nothing more. I would also like to apologize, but Spirit Blue pretended to hire me as a hitman. My appearance was simply to showcase Spirit Blue’s loyalty to the boss and I couldn’t risk breaking out of character myself. All our spirit friends were too important to take a risk like that! You have to believe us!”
He was having trouble processing all this. He hadn’t realized his simple desire to enjoy his life away from the bounds of his machines would turn into such a mission. He realized he had no choice but to trust these two, else he would become robodog food. After all, they did mention some secrets that only the spirits could know. He tried to calm himself down, forced himself to relax and believe. He crackled “this is just like an action movie!” Spirit Blue and the man laughed and nodded.
“Hurry now” Spirit Blue affected urgency. “The boss expects me to get back to him with a report on how you were finished off and believe me, what he’d planned for you was not pretty”, she shuddered. “
“Let’s get out of here!”