I viewed a sea of crates, perfectly identical boxes on wheels, rolling to their individual destinations. Inside each, I imagined a human being enjoying physical isolation by texting, gaming, taking in media, or any number of things.
Then, I glimpsed a mother and child crossing the street. I believe they were of Asian descent (though we rarely spoke of ethnic physical traits). Certainly, they’d legally arranged to walk wherever they were headed. But we weren’t supposed to see one another.
The girl stared at me; she didn’t appear old enough to understand the law. When the mother spotted me, she made her daughter look away and hurried her along.
The moment was amazing. They were two random people I’d never seen before. Above all, I’d beaten the system. I was powerful. The mother who’d seen me couldn’t disguise her horror.
It was exhilarating.
Of the people I’d known in person, all but BLE were family relations. BLE was my only live friend; all my remaining friends were still virtual. It was a sore subject for me. I suspect that by my age, most had several legally sanctioned live friends.
I remembered hacking BLE’s crate profile and learning that she had six live friends and many more virtual friends than I. Knowing things like that was forbidden because comparisons can make people feel inferior. And in this case, I was angry! It’d made no sense to me that she’d have more friends.
I knew I was much smarter than BLE and made frequent hints about it without telling her explicitly. I couldn’t risk that she’d lodge a complaint, or worse, record the conversation.
If you denigrated anyone, they caught you. If you compared and contrasted people’s merits and flaws, they caught you.
I’d been accused of revealing my own accomplishments from time to time. Usually, the AI’s caught it in my text messages. Fortunately, minor correct speech violations resulted in either warnings or assignments to watch dreadful reeducation videos.
One had to be subtle. So, earlier that afternoon, I’d managed a casual comment regarding the ease of last week’s chemistry exam. Her riled glance was priceless.
Despite our complicated relationship, we were indispensable allies in solving a mutual problem.
We both wanted to flee the American Political Union.
It seemed obvious why I’d want to leave. How infuriating it had been, possessing superior intelligence, to be considered merely an equal in a sea of perfectly identical crates!
I knew she was distinctively pleasant and engaging in person, though I had minimal data to compare. Perhaps I’d always suspected she didn’t belong hidden in a crate.
The hare came through, BLE texted. In our secret code, that meant one of her many friendship connections had provided the geographic coordinates of a gap in the electronic border fence confining the A.P.U.’s population.
About a thousand rabbit holes, she continued texting. That meant the ride to the gap was a thousand kilometers. A long way! But I’d successfully mastered how to disable our crates’ travel limiters and location transmitters without losing auto-navigation. The next steps simply were to choose a day and cover story, empty our currency accounts, and set the coordinates.
I didn’t suspect a crate would fit through the border hole. However, according to BLE, it was only a ten kilometer walk across the neutral zone to a border checkpoint of the O.A.R., the Old American Republic.
It was common knowledge that the O.A.R. accepted defectors from the American Political Union, honoring the two nation’s shared history. More importantly, the O.A.R. appreciated the A.P.U.’s strong educational system. With my advanced ability, I anticipated many advantages for myself in the O.A.R.
However, I couldn’t foresee as much for BLE.
Finally, our day of flight came. My plan was so perfect, it was anticlimactic. Our parents never questioned our lie that we were visiting one another. My ingenuity with the crates’ innards worked flawlessly. So, I spent most of our transit reading an old novel written before the Second American Civil War.
When we arrived at the gap, we stepped out of our crates into the open sun. We slid right through the border gap.
The hike across the neutral zone was magnificent. Having seen drone video of A.P.U. Protected Forests hadn’t prepared me for the experience of physically walking through nature.
I felt lightheaded upon approaching the Old American Republic border checkpoint. An armed man led us to a waiting area. Quaint paper FAQ’s indicated that our petitions for defection would be reviewed upon testing and evaluation.
Another man escorted me to a room where I received a multi-subject written exam. The proctor observed me carefully and took notes. Perhaps he was wary of cheaters. But I didn’t need to cheat. I crushed the test despite the proctor’s irritating stare. Clearly, the O.A.R. badly needed bright people like me!
I paced alone for what seemed like hours. For the first time, my triumph wouldn’t remain secret. Soon, I’d have the opportunity to pursue the great life I deserved.
Then, a smiley gentleman entered. From his uniform, I presumed he was important.
“Ma’am, I’m Dan Brendan, O.A.R. Immigration Agent. You’ll be pleased with the results of your exam.”
I recognized his accent, relaxed and slow, but had never heard it from a live individual. Nevertheless, I savored the praise, eager for more.
“Congratulations JNA-9468,” continued Brendan as my anticipation swelled. “Your O.A.R. citizenship application has been hereby granted. Welcome to the land of the free.”
I eagerly anticipated my future success in a world where people could be openly compared!
He resumed, “Your being so smart, I reckon you’ll want to attend one of our universities. But first we need to discuss your categorization results. You’ll belong to Category D, I’m afraid.”
That didn’t sound too awful. “So...?”
“At school, you’ll reside in a Category D living group. If your high achievement continues, you’ll have opportunities to work at numerous corporations. But frankly, there’ll be limits to what positions you’re eligible to hold, what neighborhoods you can live in, who you can marry, and numerous other things.”
“I don’t understand. Is this because I wasn’t born here?”
“That often affects the decision, but not here. Look, our great Old American Republic has four levels: A, B, C, and D.”
“And D is the lowest? What was my test score? I killed it!”
“The fact you’ve been admitted here means you did sufficiently well... given your, umm, circumstances.”
“You don’t know, do you? You and your ridiculous crates. No one’s ever told you, have they?”
My stomach fluttered and gurgled. “What?”
“Ma’am, here in the Old American Republic, you’re... well... ugly as a dog!” he laughed. “And quite overweight.”
“Do you know how offensive that is?!”
I couldn’t believe my ears. His language went far beyond anything I’d ever heard. In the A.P.U., he’d have suffered more than reeducation videos! In fact, I’m fairly certain he could’ve been incarcerated under the Correct Speech Act of 2071.
But this wasn’t the A.P.U; it was the O.A.R.
“You seem irate. But expect others to put it less gently.”
I was almost missing my crate. BLE and I quickly needed a change of plans!
“Where’s my friend BLE? We need to talk.”
“BLE-2384? Her new name’s ‘Bella.’ Her exam just missed the margin, but we gave her an extra bump. She’s Category B and headed to her new residence.”
“What? How did she-”
“You have no sense of reference, do you? Bella’s hot! A piece of tail!”
The expression ‘piece of tail’ was unfamiliar. I let it go. “If she’s so wonderful, why isn’t she Category A?”
“Category A? That’s for men only! But don’t worry about Bella, that sweet thing’ll become a pharmaceutical sales rep or news commentator... or anywhere we need a woman in the meeting room to gawk at. Heck, maybe she’ll be your boss one day.”
I couldn’t imagine what vile mode of thinking created a place like this. I was able to run circles around BLE.
Gravely regretting having fled the A.P.U., I was stuck and needed to adjust. Borrowing from ‘JNA-9468,’ I became Janet Niner.
To my delight, several colleges accepted me. Though the odds were stacked against me, I had choices. I traveled across beautiful country to the university I’d selected. My advanced level allowed me to enroll as a sophomore. The Category D living arrangements were cramped, but not as bad as I’d feared.
My roommate Alex was awesome. Her mother had taught her to retain a positive attitude in tough circumstances. I’d known that the A.P.U. had a diverse population, but since everyone hid in crates, it felt entirely theoretical. Although I’d been taught the importance of racial equality, Alex was the first person of African heritage I’d met in person. The more I got to know her, the more I appreciated being free of my crate.
Langer and Jason lived across the hall. According to Alex, they were lovers.
Regretfully, my first glance at Langer was sideways with my brows lowered and nose raised. He must have seen similar looks often, as homosexuality in the O.A.R. had an awful stigma.
I, however, had grown up in the A.P.U., where sexual orientation was like eye color, all shades thoroughly normal. I was the one perfectly comfortable with it!
There were entirely other reasons, I admit shamefully, for not taking well at first to Langer. Since arriving in the O.A.R., having seen multitudes of live people, I’d begun building comparative yardsticks and found myself brazenly judging others as human instincts dictated.
Langer was tall, but skin and bones. His top jaw jutted forward hideously. His unpleasant face and lack of muscle tone made me uneasy. My glance of disgust must have caused hurt.
His roommate Jason was comically tiny next to Langer. At first, I couldn’t take seriously anything puny Jason had to say.
I recognized that my prejudices clashed with my upbringing. But now surrounded by real people, nature was taking over.
Two weeks into school, I’d gotten used to the nasty looks from the Category B’s and C’s. The university’s few A’s lived in a Greek-lettered fraternity house. All of them were tall, sturdy, handsome men from select European heritage.
Being a D was tough. We were freely mocked and rarely shown any respect. Every day, someone demeaned me in some manner.
Near the end of my first semester, Langer was in a tough scrape. Another student, a C to my best guess, was punching him around. I assumed this ‘Miscreant’ disliked Langer for his sexual orientation. Regardless, Langer was on the ground about to be pummeled. A crowd had gathered to watch.
I don’t know what made me do this, but I couldn’t let him beat on my fellow D. I leapt out of the crowd and shoved Miscreant with the power of spontaneous rage. He stumbled two meters and tumbled to the ground.
I suddenly realized that I’d been a fool with a death wish for having done that. So, I disappeared among the onlookers before Miscreant could stand up. He never saw me. The crowd could have given me up, my being a D. Fortunately, they didn’t seem to care.
Langer successfully escaped. However, my luck appeared to evaporate when a man in a military uniform intercepted me as I fled. He grabbed my arm, though not forcefully. I was terrified of the punishment I’d receive for violence committed against a person of higher category level.
“Janet Niner,” he said.
“Please forgive me,” I begged contritely, having no idea how he knew my name.
“Are you Janet Niner?”
“Someone important needs to speak with you... And your apology baffles me.”
Apparently, he was ignorant of my attack upon Miscreant and couldn’t have cared less.
An hour later, I sat in an office in a building reserved for deans and faculty. The man across the desk from me wore a military uniform suggesting significant seniority. In addition to his decorations and rank insignia, he sported a gold pin with the Greek letters of the Category A fraternity.
“Please address me as Colonel Hayden,” he said. “And frankly Janet, we need your help.”
“Everything I’m about to tell you is confidential and need-to-know. More to the point, if you violate this confidentiality, you’ll wind up in a casket.”
He had a direct way of speaking. I pondered my chances of surviving the day should I have refused to help him.
He continued, “I understand you have personal experience with crates.”
“I’m from the A.P.U.; everyone uses crates.”
“No. Specific expertise in electromechanical tampering and code manipulation.”
Wondering how he knew that, I imagined lying pointless. I replied with a stutter, “Yes sir... Colonel Hayden.”
“I also understand you’re one of the more gifted students in the Electrical Engineering Department.”
When I’d lived in the A.P.U., I’d ached to hear that type of praise. But after all I’d been through, the comment made me barely crack a smile.
Hayden continued, “We’ve acquired some crates and need your help. We need you to reprogram them to deliver packages to several highly secure and sensitive geographic coordinates in the A.P.U. You’ll need to evade all security protocols designed to protect those locations.”
The challenge sounded close to impossible, but I was confident I could ultimately succeed with enough time and additional intelligence regarding the electronic border fence. However, I didn’t like the sound of it. It smelled of assassination or terrorism.
“What type of packages?”
Hayden sighed. “Non-lethal electromagnetic impulse weapons designed to disable heavily shielded electronics.”
“What are the targets?”
He sighed again. “You have a lot of questions, don’t you? It’s need-to-know.”
“To reprogram the crates, won’t I need to know?”
“Are you committing to helping us?”
I lowered my head. I had no idea what I was getting into or what consequences my actions would bring.
“If you demonstrate your patriotism by helping us,” Hayden said in a discreet and softer tone, “I can elevate your category level to C. Perhaps even B.”
At that moment I should have felt elated. It was the opportunity for things to finally go my way. I was being recognized for my intellectual skills, and my efforts would elevate my social rank. These were the very things I’d hungered for from the beginning when I’d defected from the A.P.U. with BLE. I should have leapt out my seat and thanked him!
But instead, I sat still, unable to look him in the eye. After all I’d been through, his offer didn’t feel comfortable.
“And to answer your question,” Hayden said, “the targets are the information systems governing the A.P.U.’s Right-Not-to-Be-Seen database and algorithms. Taken down, two hundred million crates will have no information or restrictions regarding ‘live’ contacts. We’ve estimated it’ll take several months to piece the system back together, and within that time, more people in the A.P.U. will have seen one another in person than over the past fifty years. Certainly, you understand the significance.”
He was aiming to establish liberty for the people of the A.P.U., the liberty I’d so badly sought. But I imagined how it might upset the fragile balance of the two nations’ cold war. Also, I wondered if it might cause many others from the A.P.U. to suffer the indignities that I’d now become so familiar with.
“Swiftly after,” Hayden said, “will come Phase 2. Additional crates with EMP weapons will disable vast sections of the electronic fence keeping the A.P.U.’s citizens prisoner. They’ll be free to defect here should they choose.”
It was plainly clear to me that if I joined Hayden, I will have helped proliferate the O.A.R.’s abominable system of categorizing people, a system that had caused me so much pain.
Looking at the door, I murmured “I don’t know if I can do it.“
“Janet,” he said, lowering his head slightly, pointing his eyes straight at me. “Janet, please.”
“I need to think about it. Can I have time to think about it?”
After a period of silence, he leaned back in his seat.
“I’ll give you one week. And we’ll be watching you carefully and monitoring your communications. Remember what I said about confidentiality. My assistant will tell you how to get in touch with me. One week, Janet. One week.”
Days later, my friend Francisca walked with me in the rain. She was explaining to me that her family, unlike BLE and me, had entered the O.A.R. through a border that rarely accepted immigrants. She’d been young at the time but believed her father had acquiesced to sexual favors with male border security forces to get his family across the otherwise impenetrable border wall.
I was rapt in her story but suspicious that I was being followed. I wasn’t certain who was watching me. Was it one of the Category A fraternity brothers trailing me? Or was it the older man with the long hair and beard keeping pace to my right?
Suddenly, one of the Category A’s from behind me lunged forward and shoved me with his hip. I tumbled onto a soaked, muddy area of the lawn. Quickly, he had his hands on me. I was terrified.
But he only wanted to roll me around in the mud. His friends laughed and cracked jokes comparing me to a swine enjoying its own feces. Passersby paused to relish my humiliation.
The man with the long hair and beard stopped in his tracks and made brief eye contact with me. I presumed he was the tail Hayden had put on me. Unfortunately, he did nothing but watch.
Finally, the boys left me alone. Francisca pulled me out of the muck and walked me to my dorm. I’m glad I had her there, but I needed my roommate Alex. I knew she’d find a way to make me feel better.
Was I truly supposed to help these awful people with an act of O.A.R. patriotism? How could I possibly agree to help Hayden knowing that my actions could cause many others to suffer the reprehensible humiliation that I’d experienced in Category D?
At the same time, I couldn’t tolerate living like this. My desire to elevate my own category couldn’t have burned stronger. It was quite impossible for me to forget Hayden’s offer to promote my category level in exchange for my assistance.
I tried to clear my head with a long, hot shower. Disparate thoughts ran through my mind. I was steaming with anger toward Category A and their unchallenged entitlement to do as they pleased.
Yet, I think what stung most about the incident was that the fraternity boy was so damn gorgeous! He was lean and tall. His jaw and cheekbone were solid. His eyes were dark. His full and vibrant head of hair was magnificent. I’d wanted to forgive him immediately. I grasped why the men of Category A were considered our future leaders.
But I stopped myself from waltzing down that path of thought. Soon enough, I felt self-reproach for the ease with which I’d forgiven him.
Once I was clean and dressed, I was finally able to focus upon hope. Clearly, I was in a bad situation, but I was an intelligent individual with the ability to change that.
It was imperative that I contact Hayden. In doing what he’d asked, I’d be appreciated and rewarded for applying my talents. After all, that was the very reason I’d abandoned the A.P.U. and came to the in O.A.R. in the first place! The unfortunate answer to my problem seemed obvious.
I walked out of my dorm room looking my best. I was prepared to accept Hayden’s offer and practically felt elevated to Category C already.
Then, Langer stopped me in the hall. He was tearing up. “Janet,” he cried.
I placed my hand on his arm to comfort him, and he hugged me gently.
“Thank you,” he whispered. “I would’ve gotten clobbered.”
It hadn’t connected until he’d said that. I’d somehow forgotten how I’d saved Langer from Miscreant. I rubbed my hand against his back and suspected then and there that we’d be good friends for a long time.
Inside though, I heaved in fear of my own potential actions. I’d been about to betray him and Alex and all of my friends in Category D by helping Colonel Hayden and the O.A.R. proliferate its appalling system of social strata.
In that special moment with Langer, I knew I couldn’t accept Hayden’s offer. If anything, Category D needed to fight back.
My one week to consider Hayden’s offer was expiring. I hoped to never see him again so that I wouldn’t have to face the awful decision he’d placed in front me.
I’d grown more depressed, wondering how my life would’ve unfolded had I stayed in the American Political Union. In my crate, no one could judge me, not by my gender, not by my face, and not by my body. I chastised myself daily for foolishly handing myself a miserable life.
I also considered the more painful prospect that I had no good options regardless of which nation I called home. Perhaps it was my destiny never to receive a fair chance at the life I deserved.
Prof. Houston, on the other hand, represented a unique ray of hope. He cared about all of his students regardless of category. Amazingly, I’d heard he himself was Category A.
I found his kindness and handsome looks a pleasing combination. And he was young for a professor, practically right out of graduate school.
One day during office hours, Prof. Houston was assisting me with a bonus challenge assignment. “Janet, can I ask you your category?” he inquired out of context.
I wanted to tell him. I wanted to explain the injustices I’d witnessed and experienced in the hopes that he’d understand. But at the same time, I was ashamed of my category level and didn’t want him to know. Thoroughly conflicted, I couldn’t get the words out.
“No need to answer,” he continued. “I despise our caste system.”
His noble viewpoint surprised me. Whereas I had every reason to hate our abominable system of categories, Prof. Houston, as an A, was endowed with all he needed to prosper.
I remained quiet. I remembered that Hayden might somehow be monitoring the conversation. And paranoia learned from years of A.P.U. communication-policing kept me from speaking my mind. It was difficult remembering that in the O.A.R., there were, in fact, no speech laws inhibiting free expression of one’s opinion. We were free to complain about our lower status, yet most simply accepted it as the way life was meant to be.
After leaving the professor’s office and upon exiting the building, I saw Hayden rapidly approaching. I considered walking the other way but knew it a lost cause. So, I stopped.
“I need an answer,” he said firmly.
I didn’t know how to reply. On one hand, there were strong reasons to refuse him. How could I let any more people, those now safely within the borders of the American Political Union, suffer from the O.A.R.’s system of categories? Would my friends in Category D ever forgive me?
Then, I remembered that there was nothing so great about living in an A.P.U. crate and having few real friends at all. And in accepting Hayden’s offer, I could be promoted to Category B or C! Furthermore, I was afraid of Hayden and of what might become of me by failing to oblige him.
“I’ll help you,” I blurted, wishing that my motives were noble.
“Thank you, Janet. Your patriotism has been noted.”
My apprehensions, however, didn’t fade, as now I had the consequences of my actions to fear.
I traveled several hundred kilometers to a location near the Old American Republic’s capital city. Hayden dealt with the university so that it would accommodate my spending the second semester on an ‘off-campus assignment.’
I joined a team of twelve engineers coding crates. We only needed to re-task thirteen crates, but twenty in total were available to us.
“What are the extra seven crates for?” I asked Grace, our team leader.
“No idea,” she answered. “Maybe in case we botch a few.”
Working with Grace was an honor. She was immensely sharper than I could ever have hoped to be. And of course, it was unusual for a woman to lead a technical team, especially one who wasn’t a ravishing beauty.
It also occurred to me that women made up half the team. I was rather astonished that they’d have allowed such a team to exist. Perhaps Hayden was full of surprises!
One afternoon several weeks in, the “secretary,” as most referred to the administrative assistant, informed me that I had a visitor. I paused and followed.
She led me to a conference room where, to my surprise, BLE was waiting. Considering the circumstances with which we’d last departed, I didn’t know whether to hug her or scream at her.
BLE made the decision by hugging me. The fact is, I missed her. She was a piece of my old life I wanted back.
We caught up. BLE, now Bella, attended school in the capital city and got involved with weird political groups. Embarrassed of my D-category, I hid many details of my experiences.
I suspected that I had BLE/Bella to thank in some way. She was the only one with knowledge of my technical skills with crates, and here she was. I probed her on the subject, but she was coy about it. I suspected some link between Hayden and Bella, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.
The date of our EMP-weaponized crate attack on the A.P.U. was approaching. Thanks to a dedicated team, we were near ready. Somehow, I’d become so immersed in the technical challenge that I’d managed to bury my ethical qualms with the project.
Then I received another visitor, Prof. Houston. For my meeting with him, they provided a swanky conference room.
“I suppose you’re wondering why I’m here,” he said.
I took the comment as rhetorical and didn’t respond. Yet, I wanted so much to stop being so quiet in his presence!
“The crate attack needs to be delayed,” he continued.
Taken by surprise, I broke out of my bashfulness and hollered, “What? We’ll be ready to go!” I didn’t want the team’s efforts to meet the timeline to go in vain. Also, in the back of my mind, I was restless to complete this and rise out of Category D.
“Isn’t that Hayden’s call?” I asked in attempt to dismiss his logic. The professor’s role in this was a mystery.
“Hayden and I are colleagues in a sense. The Colonel recruited you because Bella came forward about your crate skills at an AB-Positive meeting. I confirmed your... extraordinary talent, your tenacious spirit, your-”
“AB-Positive?” I asked as his kind words made me blush.
“A political organization of Category A’s and B’s seeking equality reform. Our underground element intensely opposes this one-sided destructive act planned for the A.P.U.”
“That doesn’t make any sense! If you wanted to stop the attack, why bring me here in the first place?”
“Janet, you know these crates better than anyone. We need you to fabricate a technical problem that will delay the attack. Hayden will appear furious, all along knowing what you’ll really be up to.”
“Reprogramming the last seven crates. The additional targets must be within our own country, not the A.P.U. When the attack commences and the A.P.U.’s electronic border fence goes down, so will our own border fence. People will be able to transit as they please.
Imagine people of the O.A.R. seeing that greater equality is possible and that they don’t need to accept the status quo.
And imagine the people of the A.P.U. given back their voices... their right of open expression.
We hope that the new-found freedom and cross-fertilization between the two nations will breed greater unity and a climate that can truly sustain human progress.”
Ten years have passed since our simultaneous attacks on the American Political Union and Old American Republic. I live with my husband, the noble professor, down the street from where I grew up. It’s an easy stroll to Bella’s house. Today, the neighborhood has sidewalks, which in summer, are busy with joggers, bicycles, and baby carriages. Crates are now called “cars,” and they all have windows.
I haven’t seen Langer and Jason since their wedding a few years ago. It’s about time I visited them. They still live near the university, a long way across the country. Fortunately, travel has become easier since the reunification of the United States of America. And it’s important to keep reminding myself how precious ‘live’ friends can be.