a slender woman in red heals walks through a door

At this point I must admit: I don’t really know what to do. The room is empty and he’s gone. Do I just leave? I suppose he has the ability to find me if he needs to— a concept I find simultaneously reassuring, and chilling.

Almost overwhelmed by excitement at landing the gig (and feeling slightly hypnotized by my new boss’s eerie charisma), I turn back to cross the empty room, my footsteps echoing sharply in the cavernous space. I am approaching the door through which I entered, when abruptly another door swings open to my right. The door’s surface is the same texture and color as the walls surrounding it, explaining why I didn’t notice its existence until now. A very slender woman in a very sharp suit steps through it, locking her eyes with mine as she walks toward me. I admit there’s a certain involuntary reverence we Wastelanders have for the dwellers above; I’ve often wondered whether it was instilled in us through some innocuous program of subliminal suggestion from up top, or if it’s just a natural human response to slavishly defer to anyone cleaner and better-dressed than we are. In the moment, as she approaches me, I must grudgingly admit it feels completely natural to consider her my superior in every way. When she gets close enough to speak I find myself involuntarily averting my eyes from her gaze, staring down at my shoes.

“This is for you,” she says, handing me a small device similar to the smartphones that were so ubiquitous just a few years before. “It’s fully charged, so the battery should last a few days before you’ll need to recharge it again. Make sure you keep it turned on, at full volume, at all times. He doesn’t like unanswered messages.”

“Do you have a charger for it?” I ask. She raises one of her perfectly manicured eyebrows and tilts her ever-so-impish chin slightly— gestures so perfectly practiced they must be the product of a graduate course in being condescending. She makes a rotating motion with her left finger, prompting me to turn the device over. Looking at the back of the device I see a hard black Dura-kevlar casing with a tiny circle in the bottom center. Upon closer inspection I see it’s actually a very small solar cell.

“Twenty minutes in direct sunlight will do the trick,” she says.

I’m suddenly struck by the fact that that none of this seems wondrous to her. My experience is different; this is a pretty big leap in technology since I last dealt with a device like this… but I suppose if you’d told me in the early 2000’s that everyone would be carrying a personal smartphone ten years later I wouldn’t have believed you. Change doesn’t have to be glacially slow to go unappreciated, it only needs to happen gradually enough, and in small enough steps, that no one is too surprised when it comes. I can tell by her expression that she finds my naivete less than amusing.

“You’ll get your assignments and communicate with us via the device for the most part,” she says. “Occasionally he might need you to run down here and pick something up, or drop something off, but for the most part you can just check in when you start a task and check back out when you finish.” So saying, she turns back toward the door from which she emerged. “No need to show up here every day,” she advises me, and the door swishes shut behind her, leaving me alone again.

That’s just fine with me: I don’t like it here. This whole place is steeped in an overwhelming gray gloom, despite all the windows and glass. And the vented air carries the faint acrid smell of ground metal and synthetic oil. I get out of there and make my way back below the line to street level. 

I fumble a bit with the device as I navigate the cluttered sidewalks back to the mole tunnel, but I’m soon scrolling through the machine’s options. I’m surprised by how quickly it comes back: I haven’t used something like this in almost a decade, but most of its functions are basically the same as I remember. This device has obviously been set up for a single purpose: it unlocks via facial ID, and the whole screen is just a list of messages with a reply button after each one. At the bottom of the screen are icons for a phone, a calendar, and a map. The first message just seems to be a general boilerplate “Welcome to the team” form letter, and says “do not reply” right in the subject. The second one says “First assignment – pick up at the Met.” I open and read it. Pretty straightforward, although I don’t relish going to the Met. It’s become a very strange place since the annexation.

It takes me an hour to get back to my neighborhood. I stop by Swap to squeeze a few hours of work in— that earns me dinner tonight, and breakfast tomorrow morning. Wanting to get an early jump on my task for tomorrow, I’m already planning to eat and run. I was hoping to see Jess, but they tell me she’s at a business meeting and will be out for the rest of the day. I’d like to know what the meeting is about, but I know Jess’s business is really none of my business. Like everyone else who frequents this place, I’d love for it to be my personal business, but I don’t see any way that’s ever going to happen. I remind myself to carve a little time out to help solve her wheat problem. I don’t know the first thing about wheat. I think you need some kind of stone? Something like that. That’s a problem for later. 

When I arrive back at my building I spend the requisite hour cleaning and doing other chores for the privilege of hot water and soap. While finishing up it suddenly dawns on me that soon I’ll have money, actual money. This might be the last time I have to do this; from now on I might have even have actual free time. In this society everyone is theoretically “free” to do whatever they want, except too late we learned that in this society you need free time to plan all those businesses, projects, and inventions that will make us the big successes we all wanted to be… except it takes all the time we have just to get by. This thought hangs in my mind late into the night, making it hard for me to sleep. That’s a bit of a problem, since I want to rest up for my big day tomorrow.

Eventually I fall asleep from sheer exhaustion. I dream of Jess, and a massive, crumbling football stadium planted with a golden field of rippling wheat.