This story by Shane Fitzpatrick won the Readers’ Choice Award in our 2018 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Shane writes short story fiction. He particularly likes writing in the crime and thriller genres. He is currently working on several writing projects, including screenplays. He lives in Dublin, Ireland with his wife Michelle and son Harry. You can read more of his writing at The People I Meet Every Day and Creative Daily Scribe and follow him on Twitter (@sfitzyfly).
I am minutes away from spending time with my parents for the first time. My first name is Oliver and that’s all I know. I’m a seventeen-year-old orphan and the white sales associates inside the Memory Room are viewing me with suspicion. A Hispanic man should not have access to 300 credits.
I sit in the pristine, sterile booth waiting for the associates to attach the helmet and goggles. They scan the barcode on my arm, expecting my code to flash red and set off alarms. Nothing happens but the number 0000003 appears. They huff, shuffle, and then retreat, believing their brainwashed stereotype of other races being inferior. Fear rules our society.
It is 2040 and the dictatorship I live in was formerly known as America. It has been this way since I was young; I have learned this through history lessons. The country is called the Federation Of Righteous Democracy, or FORD for short. Angry white men are still in charge. They didn’t want to give up power during our last years of democracy. I have my parents to thank for making me who I am. I won’t be able to touch or talk directly to them in the Memory Room. I have to quickly assimilate and digest their nuances, quirks, mannerisms, and language. I have to spot their clues.
One year ago, my life changed.
Silverton was an orphanage built from an old industrial unit from the last century. FORD put on a show like it was taking care of the “unwanted.” We fended for ourselves. There was no physical supervision for us. Food was cooked by prep machines onsite; central computer Chief locked down doors and windows; education and activities were bellowed over a loudspeaker to designated rooms within the facility. We wore a uniform of white with blue trim for boys and pink for girls.
On my sixteenth birthday, a cupcake was presented to me inside an old prep oven. Wires protruded from the side and I snatched them up. I celebrated on my own, realizing that life had to mean more. I was the eldest here. The younger ones looked to me for leadership of relevance.
The orphanage had cameras everywhere, but none in the basement. I planned with precision, telling no one. The others had to have complete deniability. Access to electrical systems was restricted, but egress to the boiler down there was overlooked. Causing a short circuit with the wires from the oven would overload the boiler.
That night, leaping out of bed on the third floor, I knew what the smell was. Eight younger kids slept on the floor below. Ushering them out quickly wasn’t easy, as they dragged their sleepy heels, coughing and spluttering. The smoke was thick, billowing grey smoke I didn’t prepare for. We made our way upward as the heat lifted, the floor singeing the soles of our feet.
The fresh air on the roof greeted us where fail-safe alarms told us to get back inside. Our lives were now dependent on a century-old metal fire escape. I carefully stepped out onto a straining and rusting escape. The heat from within was beginning to eke through the redbrick cladding. Little puffs of grey smolder poked out through the aged greying mortar. Perspiration dripped from my hands, loosening my grip. As we descended, a floor collapsed inside.
Reaching the last rung of the escape, approximately six feet short of the muddied earth, I collapsed, twisting an ankle. We hobbled away and watched our home light up the darkened sky around Silverton. The wail of approaching automated fire services sirens quieted the sobs of the children surrounding me. I looked upon them with awe and admiration as they glided in with such simplicity and efficiency. They swooped in, drowning the fire in minutes with foam and water. Not one human firefighter was on site to oversee the operation. Police cars piloted by two robots flew in afterward and told us to disperse, as this was now “a crime scene.”
Dawn broke hours later as we waited for support, huddled together. Child Services, represented by a flying white van emerged from the smoky grey clouds above with FORD written in dark lettering. An automated voice spoke gently.
“Please embark slowly. FORD will take you to the next facility. Please take a seat and fasten your harness.”
“We’re not boarding! We need medical attention.”
Thirty seconds of defiant repetition eventually brought the main screen inside the van to life. I was speaking face-to-face with a human.
“Who are you?” came our familiar voice, which we knew as Chief.
“My name is Oliver UN0000003. I am one of twelve ‘unwanted’ at Silverton. We need assistance, Chief.”
“Three? Eh, there’s no budget in providing medical assistance to you. The next facility has provisions to help yourselves.”
With unease in his tone, Chief quickly had an overseer, standing with hands clasped behind his uniformed grey jumpsuit. We saw the lower half of a square jaw. No eyes visible.
“We have smoke inhalation, burns, bleeding and these to be attended to! We’re not medically trained, Chief!”
“Get in the bus!” shouted the overbearing boss.
“Well, we’re seeing doctors! Otherwise, we’re hiking into Washington. Everyone will find out that FORD has abandoned its children!”
I held my stare firm. Boss paced, unhappy with being told what to do. Chief looked up, asking if he could send us elsewhere. A pointed finger and terse advice confirmed who was in charge. Boss walked away from the screen, fading into the background.
“Number three, I want to help but this is procedure. If it’s mere cuts and bruises, you have to go to the next facility. I can’t step out of line here.”
“What if I had a broken ankle?”
Chief glanced over his shoulder, tapped keys and whispered.
“The course setting for the bus will take you to Vesalius Medical Facility, outside the capital. You’ll be transferred to their housing settlement, which is a mixed community. You have thirty seconds. Okay?”
“Thank you,” came my sincere reply.
“Your parents were amazing people. Good luck guys, I’ll miss you.”
Chief slunk in his seat on the far side of the digital spectrum. He held a hand up and we saw Boss in jumpsuit reenter. He held a gun pointed at the head of our Chief. We took off, and the screen turned blank.
Being thrust into a mixed community of reprobates, criminals, homeless and abandoned would teach the children how to survive the current world. It would be fast-track life schooling. I knew that I would be able to get around the barcode system.
Now I sit, breathing deeply with goggles over my eyes. A countdown timer appears, counting down slowly, in the sterilized booth.
I see my mother and father cradling me in a hospital, smiling, and happiness glowing from their eyes. My mother’s voice is soft, calling me Olivier Rodrigo McCarthy. “Hello my boy, Olivier,” says her gentle assertion.
I see barcodes on both their arms. Number one and two. My first name is Olivier, not Oliver. I hail from Irish and Mexican extraction. “You got wires for veins, son,” comes the bristly Boston Irish drawl of my father.
Tears fall from my eyes, making it difficult to clear inside the visor, hearing my parents’ voices. Lifting it ajar, I spot three police robots near the front of the shop, chatting with the sales associates. My name is Olivier McCarthy.
My father was the initial programmer for the automated systemized world we live in. He didn’t intend for the free world to become overrun by fat middle-aged men in control of billions of robots. The code to override them is written on my arm.
Firstly though, I will avenge Chief’s murder. He gave us an out and knew my parents. The respect in his eyes in his final moments told me everything. His Boss got demoted to mall policing when he acted in haste. Control is fleeting when you place your trust in automatic beings. Emotion controls whim.
Boss worked in a security office three doors from the Memory Room. I needed a distraction inside the shop to empty his office of police-mall-bots. Just like the basement in Silverton, his office had no cameras.
The last year had brought about my development in advanced robotics, programming, coding and a new vein in cyber-realism. I knew how to be somewhere without physically being there through hologramming. FORD had no such system, completely unaware of our discreet advantage.
While I stood inside the office with Boss unaware of my raised gun replete with silencer, a thought grazed my brain.
Democracy deserved another whirl.