Dex opened his eyes to a light-blue blur. The hydrotank slowly drained, sensing his consciousness, and he felt the cool gel-like liquid drain into the floor beneath the tank. He slowly tried to shake himself off and wake up a little more as the tank took its time. Finally, it drained, and Dex was able to lift himself up out of his liquid bed and stumble onto the clammy floor of his unit.
Completely dry and only a little more awake, Dex went over to a cabinet embedded in the wall, and pulled out a small, square piece of black fabric. He placed the piece of fabric on his chest and pressed it into his solar plexus. The fabric expanded and shifted quickly, covering his body in a comfortable and flexible black jumpsuit.
You coming? A voice in his head spoke as soon as his jumpsuit was done. The overlay on his lens let him know it was Sal, which was expected. He was on time, though. Dex sent him an affirmative ping and walked through the door of his unit.
Seeing the deck always amazed him, even though it was where he’d always lived. There were three million individual units in his sector, all the same size and all with the same door. The deck curved around, meters and meters away, forming one curve on the spinning rings of the massive flotilla. In the center were several levels of different facilities, including renewable farmland, water purifiers, solar panels, and other practical stations, as well as more than a few recreational areas. The sheer roads that circled around the center of the station were flowing with waves of smooth hyperspeed vehicles that were able to quickly and efficiently take all the denizens of the station to wherever they’re headed. Dex didn’t have one, though, so he waited for a few seconds outside his unit for an airbus.
The bus arrived quickly, as usual. Dex stepped onto it and stood, and the doors closed to maintain the pressure. Surrounding him were more black-jumpsuit-clad denizens, none of whom Dex recognized. There were people of all types here—children, adults, and elders, all quickly going to different areas of the massive station.
After a few seconds, a ping in his head from the airbus let Dex know that his destination was here. The doors opened with a hiss, and Dex stepped out. He had arrived at Sal’s unit.
The door opened before Dex stepped up to it, so he walked inside. Sal’s unit looked exactly like his in every way—the layout, the colors, where the furniture was, everything. Sal was sitting in a chair at the corner of the room, his eyes white. He was an average sized guy, about the same age as Dex. His black jumpsuit was customized with grey stripes. Dex never knew why it was so important for him to customize his jumpsuit, but he always had a different style every day.
“Hey. Sal.” Dex waved his hand in front of Sal’s face. “Sal.”
Sal continued to be in his mind. His white eyes flickered with activity.
“Saaaal.” Dex tapped him on the head, hoping that would pull him out of it. Sal’s eyes rolled back to their normal color, a light brown, and he jumped, seeing Dex hovering over him.
“Man, you scared me. Shit.” Sal rubbed his eyes and sat up in his chair.
“You pinged me, you knew I was coming,” Dex said. He lifted himself up onto Sal’s counter across from where his friend was sitting.
“Yeah, I just had an idea I really needed to get down.” Sal rubbed his head again. “Man, I really shouldn’t stay in my head for so long. It fuckin hurts.”
“Yeah, I’m not in it very often.”
“You should,” Sal said. “Every time I get an idea for my manuscript, I need to write it down. Otherwise I’ll forget.”
“Do you do anything other than write your manuscript?”
Sal glared at Dex, stood up, and walked to the cabinet. He pulled out a can of water and tossed it to Dex, who caught it and opened the top tab, and took a swig.
“Let me tell you something about this manuscript, Dex. It’s literally everything.” Sal took a pause to take a sip of water. “Have you ever thought—really thought—about our life here?”
“What do you mean?”
Sal looked down at the can in his hand, palming it. He looked back up at Dex. “I mean why we’re here. What we’re doing. Where we are.”
“What do you mean? We’re on Sol station. Humans have been here forever. Well, unless you count the time before the Fall.”
Sal shook his head. “That’s just something they tell you when you’re going through the educational programs. But what evidence do we have?”
Dex shook his head. “Why would they make something like that up?”
Sal smiled. “Let me show you.” Sal went over to the desk, opened a drawer, and pulled out an interface—a small glass orb.
Dex was cynical. “What interface is this?”
Sal didn’t respond. He held the interface in his palm. Syncing with it, the orb lifted in the air and hovered, about a foot above his hand. Dex reluctantly interfaced with it too, and both denizens of the station sat together, in Sal’s unit, their eyes white, staring into Sal’s mind.
Whiteness, and a strange disassociating feeling. Dex looked down at his body. He was still him, wearing his plain black jumpsuit. Around him was a strange field, like the ones in the farming units in the center of the station. It was a large hill, covered in rolling grass. His mind emulated the sounds, sights, and smells of the area, but Dex knew his physical body was still sitting in Sal’s unit back at the station.
Dex walked a little, until he found his friend in a black jumpsuit with gray stripes. Sal turned around and saw him.
“Do you know why I change my jumpsuit pattern every day, Dex?” Sal asked.
Dex shook his head.
“Because it makes me stand out. It makes me an individual who participates in a whole, instead of one tiny organism that looks exactly the same as every other organism around it.”
Dex didn’t understand. “But a single organism is still different than the group it’s in. It has its own mind.”
“Does it?” Sal said. He turned around and looked down to something behind the hill. He pointed.
“Look there,” he said.
Dex walked up to where Sal was standing and looked towards where he was pointing.
At the bottom of the hill, there was a small village. There were little wood cabins and tents. The village was only home to about one hundred people at most. Dex could see them all working. There were men chopping wood and carrying large deer over their shoulders for skinning. There were women walking about, sewing and carrying water. There were children playing, chasing each other and looking at mushrooms and worms in the dirt.
“How did you get this interface?” Dex asked.
“Doesn’t matter,” Sal said dismissively. “Look at them. They’re all doing different things, wearing different clothes, talking to each other and living with each other. Look how messy their lives are.”
“Yeah,” Dex said. “It’s so great how far we’ve come. We have better clothing and better living spaces and easier ways to get food.”
“No,” Sal said, frustrated. “Don’t you understand? Now we eat the same thing, drink the same water, wear the same clothes. None of us are individuals. We all do the same things every day. These people had messiness, variety. Not all of their problems were solved automatically.”
“Yeah, and it’s a good thing. Humans used to die all the time because of dirty food and water or lack of shelter. Now we can take care of ourselves.”
Sal shook his head. “You just don’t understand. They’ve conditioned us to think that being taken care of and having nothing to do is a good thing. But this is what life was actually like. Going through hardships, getting sick, dying, even, but continuing to work for yourselves and your family.”
Dex didn’t have anything to say.
“Look at their clothes,” Sal said. “That woman is wearing red beads. And look, that man—he’s wearing a green tunic, and that man over there is wearing a white tunic. They’re different, they’re expressing themselves.”
Sal rubbed a grey stripe over his chest. “People look at me strangely because of how I change my clothing, as if I have some sort of mental problem. But all I really want is to look different than everyone else.”
Dex still didn’t know how to react. “We’re so much more advanced than we used to be, Sal. We can’t just revert to the way we were. People would die. We can’t just ignore the discoveries and the…the progress we’ve made.”
Sal shook his head again. “We don’t have to revert back to living in huts. But we are missing something. Doesn’t every day feel monotonous? We all wake up from the same hydrotank, live in the same room, wear the same clothes. Most of the jobs are automated, so all we really do is exercise and eat and talk to each other about the same boring shit. Isn’t there more? What are we doing here?”
Dex thought for a moment. “I suppose sometimes I’ve felt that way. But I’m pretty much happy and content, you know? If I had to worry about food, or sickness, or even money, I think I’d be too stressed out to do the things I want to do.” Dex pointed a finger at Sal. “You might even be too stressed to write your beloved manuscript.”
“Don’t you see?” Sal said. “That’s what my manuscript is about. I’ve written out exactly what I think should and shouldn’t be included in the perfect society.” Sal tapped his temple. “It’s all in here, and I’m going to send it to all the leaders on the station, and they’ll have to see I’m right.”
Dex looked at him incredulously. “You can’t be serious.”
“I am,” Sal said. “I’m sending it to them tonight. That’s why I invited you here. So you can witness the birth of our new society with me.”
“Sal, you can’t—”
“Don’t tell me what I can’t do,” Sal snapped. “All you do is live the same life, hopping in and out of a hydrotank. Telling me what to do is exactly the problem with society—you’re telling me how to live. What if I want to have hardship? What if I want something different than the monotony?”
Dex didn’t want to enrage him further, so he stayed silent. Sal looked at him, sneering, almost egging him on to argue some more.
“I don’t want to argue,” Dex finally said, trying to soothe the situation. “You’re my oldest friend. I want you to always be happy.”
“Don’t you see?” Sal said. He held his palm up, summoning back the interface. As their reality slowly disappeared, Dex heard Sal again. “I don’t want to always be happy.”
As the interface left their minds, Dex’s eyes blinked back into Sal’s unit. He was sitting on the counter, across from a satisfied Sal. Sal had changed his jumpsuit to be completely bright red. It was so difficult to look at. Dex didn’t think he’d ever seen something so vibrantly red.
“Sal, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you. I just don’t understand.”
“That’s okay,” Sal said. He stood up. “With every revolution comes misunderstanding, upsetting, and violence.”
Sal didn’t respond. He opened his hand, and revealed another interface. This one was black.
“Sal, you’re scaring me.”
“Good. I bet this is the most fear you’ve ever felt in your life. Doesn’t it feel liberating to feel something other than satisfaction?”
“No, I’m not. I’m sick and tired of being complacent.” Sal held up his palm with the black interface. Slowly, it started hovering above his open hand.
“Sal, what is that interface going to do?” Dex pushed himself off of the counter and slowly started walking towards the door. Sal didn’t respond. The interface rose higher.
Nothing. Dex saw Sal’s eyes go white.
Sal started shaking. The interface was giving him a seizure. The only times interfaces did that—
Dex ran to open the door to Sal’s unit, and ran out onto the sidewalk. The whizzing cars passing him by sped across the road, unaware.
“Sal!” Dex screamed. The floor of the station beneath him was vibrating.
An explosion. The unit burst into flame and shrapnel, throwing fiberglass and hardened metal across the station and onto the road and the other units next to it. People were screaming. The hyperspeed vehicles all stopped in their tracks. Dex had never seen the road so still.
The fire blazed on what was left of Sal’s unit. Other than the scrape of metal falling and the sound of billowing flames and smoke, all Dex heard was the quiet shocked silence of a million people terrified.