Sweat rolled down Tristan’s forehead as he ran along the beach. He turned to look, hoping that the large mutated eel had given up its chase. Instead, the spotted eel continued at a determined pace with its six spiny legs moving at a blurring speed. Visceral bulbous eyes sat atop a triangulated head while white foam dripped in waves from a mouth filled with needle sharp teeth that snapped from side to side in expectance of a meal.
Tristan knew he shouldn’t have come here. The beaches on the west coast and most every coast were off-limits nowadays because of the polluted water and strange creatures that roamed their shores. Many animals, such as this eel, evolved to leave the water in search of prey. Lucky me, Tristan thought as he dared another glance at the five-foot long monster trailing him.
Empty hotels littered the landscape. They looked like ancient carcasses in the dim fog. Tristan thought he saw ghosts of young, fit men and women walking by him in the mist. Some carried surfboards while their feet pounded on the packed tan sand. Others were already floating in the water that used to reflect a crystal blue hue. Grains of greenish sand squeezed through his toes as he attempted to pick up the pace.
When Tristan dared to look back again, the eel seemed to be gaining ground. He suddenly realized that this could be his time. He didn’t deserve to go like this. He always looked out for everyone else. His mind filled with ideas of survival rather than clarity. He felt alive at that moment with adrenaline coursing through his veins.
Tristan scanned around for anything he could use as a weapon. All he could see were rocks and sand on the lunar landscape. His brain screamed for him to keep running, but his legs began to feel like concrete slabs.
As Tristan’s speed decreased, he thought he heard vicious snarls behind him. Is that thing growling at me?
Just as he was about to give up, he saw a cliff with a cave opening ahead. With all the energy left in his body, he leapt for the six-foot landing and was able to clasp his two arms to the precipice. He pulled himself up and in, just seconds before the creature slammed into the rock, jumping pitifully into the air while gnashing at him.
“Shit,” Tristan said, as he turned to explore the cave.
On the far wall of the cave was perhaps the strangest thing he had ever seen. In big red letters, someone had painted the words, La Raza.
What does that mean?
When Tristan looked out of the opening after a few hours, the eel was gone. He jumped down and quickly ran back to his car. He could not get the words out of his mind when he returned to his Anaheim home, and he continued to cycle the words around in his head during a long shower and even later when he lay in bed waiting for sleep to come.
He tried to think of other English words it was similar too – raise, raze, rabbit. Nothing ended with an “a” like that and nothing started with “la.” He couldn’t get it out of his mind. Even though it seemed to mean nothing, he knew that it held significance, somehow. He finally drifted into fitful sleep.
The next morning, promptly at 7 a.m., Tristan’s IPhone 9.14 began chirping. “Snooze,” he growled a total of five times, as he and the machine went through the repetitive process the same number of times before he finally decided to remove the jack from the back of his head and crawl out from the warmth of his bed.
Tristan grumbled for coffee as he walked into his modest kitchen, and his coffee machine instantly began the process of brewing. The IPhone began listing his schedule for the day, “class at 11am,” “work at 5pm.”
Tristan ate breakfast, exercised, and took a shower. He stared at himself in the mirror as he combed his short and carefully trimmed hair. He looked directly into his blue eyes and wondered what was behind them. Sometimes he didn’t think he knew. He felt like his skin didn’t belong to him. He wondered why it looked the same as everyone else’s. He didn’t want to be like everyone else. He didn’t need to be.
He marveled at his perfect hands, looking at the murals in his palms and the trite nails attached to his fingers. His nails never grew long. He wanted his nails to grow so that he could pick at his face until it resembled something different.
After the bathroom, Tristan headed to his CPU module. First, opening the door to the chamber and taking a seat in his familiar leather chair and then taking the cord from the main unit and plugging it into the connection on the back of his neck. He put his glasses on and shut his eyes as he waited for the system to load.
Within seconds, he opened his eyes and saw the world laid out before him. For a short period, he browsed the latest self-driving vehicles and read up on the latest jacked in software before remembering the words. “La Raza,” he whispered as he attempted a quick web search but received zero results. Already beginning to feel the slight frustration of not being able to look up something quickly, he shifted his search to his university library’s site. The search was unfruitful there too, and instead, he kept getting a help function that replied, “Did you mean raze?” “Raze; verb. 1. To tear down; demolish; level to the ground.”
Moments later, an AI librarian popped up in his field of view, smiled, and asked, “Can I help you find something?”
“Where can I find information on ‘La Raza?” Tristan asked.
The librarian’s smile faded as it said, “I’m sorry, no records exist on this subject. Those words are unrecognizable. Can I help you with anything else?”
“No, thank you,” Tristan replied. The librarian’s smile returned, and it continued watching Tristan with its helpful arms holding books until Tristan closed down the program.
Five minutes to eleven, Tristan reopened his university directory. The mainframe took a moment to access his encryption code before he found himself walking into the virtual history 305 class. He watched the other digitized students take their seats. Their fair skin complemented the linoleum, and the uniformity of their postures matched the blankness of the walls.
The professor walked in soon after with a briefcase in hand. He looked similar to the teachers Tristan saw in every class, but the difference between him and the students was that there was no human behind the professor’s glasses. The AI educator taught faster than any human could, and it never forgot a lesson plan. It had an answer to any question a student asked. It was perfect in every way.
Tristan’s dad had told him that human beings used to teach in real classrooms only about twenty years ago – when Tristan was only five. But once government officials realized they possessed the software and that they could save lots of money, they enacted Directive 305, which brought about the current educational system only a year after the Last War in 2045. Besides, the United Order targeted many of the professors as radicals in the war. Perhaps it was not so much the perpetuation of violence that worried society but the very idea of ideas.
“Good morning, students,” professor Markley said.
“Good morning, professor,” the class said, except for Tristan.
“Today, we will continue our discussion on the Last War,” professor Markley said. “Who knows why the wars began?”
A girl at the front of the class immediately raised her hand and said, “Because the Unified Order needed to defend itself from the radicals.”
“That’s right,” the professor said. “This system worked incessantly to keep peace within the world and sustain the principle of one nation for all. The radical front attempted to disrupt the very fabric of civilization as we know it.”
“But, who were they?” Another student asked.
Professor Markley said, “They were preposterous groups of radicals and misfits who somehow unified under a badge of deconstructivism. They perpetrated a philosophy of violence against the very government who fed them. They walked under the banner of individualism and therefore selfishness towards their fellow human beings. The radicals fought to hedge money, industry, and materials away from the people and into the hands of the rich. Fighting took place throughout the world, but since the War and the defeat of the various rebel factions, we are united under one global banner.”
“But what was it like before the war?” Tristan abruptly asked.
Professor Markley chuckled, “When was the last time you viewed your fifth grade history lessons, Mr. Thompson?”
“As you should very well know, the U.O. formed early in the 17th century because the population needed leadership and order in their lives. Besides a lack of current technology and the disruption caused by the Last War, we have lived in general harmony.”
“With the advancement of RFID technology that simulated with human cerebrums and the entirety of the human body, the U.O. enacted a mandatory emplacement of ‘jacks’ on all citizens soon after the War. Henceforth, all residents of this unified world look the same. Everyone is equal and fused together without conflict over individual interests. We all work as one for the interests of society.”
“We’re all beautiful now, Tristan. There is no need to be different. People no longer need to worry about discrimination. People no longer need to worry about unneeded emotionality, infectious diseases, poverty, or individual identity. This is utopia…”
“Well, I found these strange words recently,” Tristan stuttered, “and I was wondering what they meant.”
“Don’t interrupt me Mr. Thompson!” Tristan could hear the shuffle of someone’s imitation shoes while all was quiet. The professor stared at him incredulously.
“Well, go ahead. What were these words?”
“La Raza,” Tristan uttered softly.
Tristan could feel the eyes of the entire classroom watching him for some time. They whispered amongst each other. The professor was silent for a moment as he stared at Tristan coldly. The image of the professor turned to static for a brief second while Tristan felt small beads of sweat going down his forehead back in his chair at home.
Finally, the professor said, “Sounds like rubbish to me. Perhaps you need to worry more about your lessons and less about your video games, Mr. Thompson. I think I am also going to report you to the office. You are asking interesting questions of late.”
Tristan made his digital effigy look down at his desk, and he tried to maintain this likeness for the rest of class. When the lecture ended, he logged out by walking out of the classroom and entering the school lobby. He quickly tried to close down the school simulation by walking out an exit door. Before he could leave, a box sprang up on the screen with the face of a man with an impeccable haircut.
“Tristan,” the man said. “I am Mr. Sanders. I am contacting you because we have gotten reports that your mood seems unstable. Are you plugging in to your jack at night?”
“Yes,” Tristan said quietly.
“Okay, well we need to see you at the main office right away. We want to make sure you are feeling okay. The school knows life can be quite stressful for new students.”
“Okay, how about you come to the main Fullerton office at one p.m. tomorrow then?”
“Yes sir, I’ll see you then.”
“Thank you,” Mr. Sanders said before the box blipped out of Tristan’s vision.
The next day, Tristan jumped in is hybrid, spoke the desired location to the car’s automated system, and was on his way to the main CSU Fullerton campus. When he arrived at the empty Nutwood parking lot, the car automatically found and swerved into a space.
He got out of the car and began walking. The campus was dead. It was a phantom of its former self. Buildings sat dilapidated and empty. He could see planters where green life must have lived at one time, perhaps lost to the California drought that never ended, and before the state struck a deal with Alaska to create a water pipeline. Even after this water brokerage was complete, the state still set strict demands on the types of plants one could plant. He supposed that once the physical school system shut down for good there was no reason to plant more drought friendly cacti. He saw four giant trees still standing in front of the humanities building with roots curling wildly over and through the concrete. They looked like giant monoliths or imposing guardians of the ancient campus.
Tristan imagined how life must have been here. He could see two students talking on a bench while sipping some coffee, a student running to class with a binder in his hand – late for his chemistry final. He thought about pretty girls with their brown hair glinting in the sun; real girls that he could perhaps talk to in class and not just images that didn’t portray reality. A student on a skateboard almost hits him and yells “sorry man!” He walks by a student talking to a professor about that day’s lesson, and a group of students talk jovially about another student in class. A quiet girl with dark hair sits on the grass and reads her book intently. Boys wearing tank tops walk proudly and flex their biceps at every opportunity. A chipmunk scurries down a tree and eyes Tristan.
He is startled into reality by a voice, “Hey man!”
A scraggly looking man came around the corner of the Humanities building.
“I saw what you asked in class, man. I know the answer,” the man said as his eyes darted in every direction.
“Wait, what are you talking about?”
“You gotta unjack first before I’ll tell you anything, man. You gotta take that thing outta your fuckin neck,” the man twitchily said.
“I can’t take it out. They say we’ll die from the pollution if we do.”
“They just tell you that so they can control you, man. Look, there’s a whole different world out there for you, man, but you can’t see it until you unjack. Even then, they’ll be looking for you. I unjacked and the CIIA went through all my files in my mainframe and searched my house. But they’ll never get me, man.”
“Look, you asked the questions. You’re not who you think you are. Nobody is. If you want to know the truth then find me here,” he handed Tristan a note.
“But that’s in Death Valley, nobody goes out there anymore. And I don’t even know your name.”
“I’ll give it to you if I see you there. Otherwise, I’m risking a lot even being here. I mapped your eyes. If anyone else tries looking at that paper, it will disintegrate immediately. Good luck, man, I hope to see you soon. We need more good people like you.”
The man, who Tristan decided to call Mr. Twitch, abruptly turned and walked away. Tristan could briefly make out his dark hair before he went around a corner.
Wait a minute. Didn’t he have blonde hair?
Perplexed, Tristan continued until he arrived at the only building that elicited a shiny and new exterior. The big block letters on the forefront of the building read “Mihaylo Hall.” He pushed in the glass door and stepped inside.
“Good afternoon, Tristan,” Mr. Sanders said.
“Hey,” Tristan replied as he sneaked a look at the man sitting across from him in a black three-piece suit. He had one of those severe faces where the jawbone jutted out in a serious way. The odd thing was Mr. Sanders’ shoes. They were a greenish color and quite large for the man’s medium stature.
“Is everything going okay with school? We have had some reports that you are asking some strange questions.”
“I didn’t ask anything. I’m fine.” Tristan decided to use the age-old adage of denial. He had heard about other students that asked odd questions. His only friend, Corey, well they were sort of friends, told him that there was a kid they sent to a reconditioning camp in Alaska.
Mr. Sanders stared at Tristan with cold blue eyes for a few seconds. His neck seemed to twitch slightly. It reminded Tristan of the eel’s elongated throat bobbing, weaving, and slavering to eat.
“You wouldn’t be lying to me would you Tristan?”
“Is your neck unit working properly?”
I hope not.
“I think so.”
“Well I’ve decided that perhaps you need a new jack,” Mr. Sanders said after a few seconds. He pulled out a new neck unit, placed it on the table, and rolled it towards Tristan. “Now, make sure to switch the systems tonight when you go to bed. The new jack will charge and download while you sleep. Any questions, Tristan?”
Take your medicine, boy.
“No,” Tristan said as he took the new attachment unit and put it in his pocket.
“Okay, well make sure to plug it in tonight. We will be alerted if you don’t and then we might have to take further measures.”
“Yes sir,” Tristan said as he stood and quickly left the office.
Before Tristan went to bed that night, he decided that he wasn’t going to install the new jack. He wondered why a simple question would cause all these problems. Why did they insist on controlling him without listening to a thing he said? He decided that the words must have an important meaning if asking about them caused this much of a fuss. They must have a connection to the world before. He dreamed about this previous place wherever he went. If he could find that stranger, maybe he could get some answers.
When Tristan woke up in the morning, he remembered what Mr. Twitch had said – “you gotta take that thing outta your fuckin neck.” Since he could remember, his parents and teachers always told him that the jack protected him and everyone else from pollution and a number of other potential threats. It was a biological defense for humans as well as a direct connection to the cyber world. It made everyone equal. It made everyone beautiful.
Now he was wondering what it was like without it. He really didn’t have much to live for. His mom had passed away, no girlfriend, no friends – no one really liked him. They all thought he was weird. He would miss his dad, but he’d live without Tristan. Dad had his new girl and kid to keep him happy.
Tristan took the scalpel from the counter. The sharp relic was an instrument he found on one of his wanderings. He gave special care and attention when cleaning and sharpening it, as if he knew he would need it someday. He ate a few yellows he still had from the last time he was at the dentist. The units protected humans from many things, but they still couldn’t stop tooth decay. He waited a few minutes for the painkillers to kick in before plunging the point deep and under the jack connection box in the back of his neck. He screamed in pain, but he dug deeper, attempting to sever the circuits from the unit to his brain without damaging his spinal cord. With a blood-curdling cry, he pulled the system from the back of his neck and quickly pulled a towel around the wound. The bathroom began to turn wavy and everything started to become a blur. Soon after, he blacked out.
Hours, maybe only minutes later, he awoke to the sound of knocking at his door.
“Hello, Mr. Thompson?” An official voice said.
Tristan moaned as he pulled himself up from the floor. When he looked in the mirror, he almost fell again. He had changed. His skin was darker and hair had sprouted on his arms. There were small wrinkles on his face and even some dark moons under his eyes. Even the pupils of his eyes had changed into a hazel color. He put his hands through his hair and mussed it up as much as he could. He felt different. He felt alive. He felt new. He felt beautiful.
“We just need to talk with you, Mr. Thompson. We received a page back at headquarters to check up on you and make sure everything is alright,” the determined voice said.
The knocking turned into a pounding on Tristan’s door. He scanned his apartment for a weapon. No citizens had real weapons any longer after Directive 315. He remembered the scalpel and grabbed it from his bloody bathroom floor. He yelled, “Coming!” to the waiting man as he put the scalpel in his pocket and walked towards the door.
Tristan unlocked and opened the door. Standing in the doorway was a man in a suit. Next to him was a four-foot robot called a Gestalt machine. Tristan knew that authorities used these robots to reprogram troubled individuals. “Good morning, Mr. Thompson, I’m Mr. Frank, I’m here to…” Before the man could finish his sentence, Tristan swung his fist into Mr. Frank’s temple. The man crumpled to the floor while Tristan kicked at the machine with its two robotic claspers flailing into the air. The Gestalt fell on its side. The HD camera on its upper dome gave the feds at headquarters an upside down view of Tristan taking off down the street.
The sun warmed him, as it never had before. He breathed in the air and smiled as the oxygen washed through his lungs. He could smell the manure in the grass and the gas fumes in the air while his ears listened to the chirping of a bird. A flood of happiness washed through him as he saw the orange and yellow colors of leaves on nearby trees. He couldn’t remember seeing anything so vibrant in his life. He began to run down the suburban street.
As Tristan ran, he saw a perfect looking woman watering her roses in front of a yard. Her small children tottered about around her. She gasped and ushered her children inside when she saw the disheveled Tristan running by with his bloody neck and characteristic characteristics. He smiled. He could feel the muscles in his legs pumping as he continued to run down the street with nowhere to go. But he didn’t care, as long as it wasn’t here.