A Breath of Fresh Air

by Steve Lazarowitz ©

There was a time when I was unable to remember when last I stepped outside or, in fact, if I ever had. Up until recently, I saw no need to do so. The fact is, I had always been quite content in my compartment.

Most people are like me, except for a small group of rebels called the Outsiders, who tell wild tales about the wondrous and magical world that exists beyond the walls of their dwellings. I understand their numbers are dwindling. I was discussing the topic with my wife just last week. "Connie," I had said, as I stared at her face on my monitor, "I don't really understand the whole lure of it. "

Connie and I had married recently. Marriage, for me, is the triumph of hope over experience, though somehow I still remain a romantic. This is why, I suppose, I average a new wife almost every month. Perhaps, Connie will last longer.

She stared back at me or, more accurately, my surrogate image, the expression on her near perfect face, thoughtful. My appearance visual had cost me a small fortune, but in retrospect, I think it was worth it. Next month, I intend to upgrade my voice to one of the deeper models that were just now coming back into style.

I knew Connie was speaking rapidly, each word blurring into the next, but it sounded fine to me. Soon after we'd met, I programmed my computer to compensate for her incessant loquacity. "I think it has something to do with fresh air, or so they keep saying, which, I don't mind telling you, makes no sense at all. I am certain the filtered compartment atmosphere is far better for you. There are all kinds of things in the air out there. Diseases and stuff. I read an article all about it. You wouldn't catch me outside. "

I smiled. That's my Connie. Always reading about something. Frankly, I don't know where she finds the time. Between my job and raising a family, I can't even keep up with the news. I nodded agreement, but was already bored by the matter. I was somewhat apprehensive about bringing up the next item on my agenda. I considered waiting for my new voice, but decided against it. We might be divorced by then. I drew a breath and spoke. "How do you feel about children?"

If she was surprised by the question, she didn't show it. Or perhaps she had programmed her image to omit the emotion should it arise. In either case, her reply was immediate. "I don't know. I mean, I only know you for six weeks. I usually wait till eight. Oh, what the hell... why not?"

I smiled. I really enjoyed being a father. I had almost 70 children already, but what was one more? I issued the command to transmit my genetic code to her. She in turn would take her own, combine the two and send the order out to the lab. Within a day or so, our new son would be on-line. I could hardly wait.

Once long ago, the childbearing process had been quite different, having something to do with a hormonal imbalance called sex drive. Thank heavens the government finally discovered a cure for it. It sounds, from all I've read, quite horrible.

Afterwards, we chatted for a time until she had to go. I hoped she wasn't having an affair, though I didn't think it likely, especially considering she had agreed to children. I stood, stretched and spoke. "Nature 341." The walls of my compartment blurred momentarily. The newer models don't do that, but I simply refuse to pay for an upgrade. Perhaps if I owned the compartment, instead of renting. A moment later, I was enveloped by lush greenery and the myriad sounds of jungle life. It is my understanding that there are no forests left, but, as most of the best ones were recorded long ago, I suppose they are not actually necessary.

I spoke again and ordered food. Admittedly, this was my one eccentricity. I still enjoyed eating. Most of my friends had given it up, preferring to have their nutrients pumped in through the ventilation system and absorbed by a gill-like appendage that is now a standard feature of all new children. I was one of the few who turned down the free upgrade offer, though I often wondered why I was so stubborn on that single point.

Perhaps, in some small way, I was similar to the Outsiders. I looked at the front door and shook my head. What was beyond it? For a moment only, I grew curious, then laughed at my own foolishness. If this kept up, I'd have to see a psyche-adjuster. I noticed I was receiving a transmission. I turned toward my monitor and waited. After a moment, a new face lit the screen. "Hi, Dad. I'm Arnold, your new son. "

I stared at him, frankly astonished. "So fast. Times change. When I was younger, it took a full week to grow a child. "

He smiled at me. "Do you like the image? They gave me several choices, but this one was best, I think. "

I nodded. "It is a fine face. Of course, I'm certain that as soon as your credit starts up, you'll find one that you like even more. That's how it was with me. "

"You are so wise. I hope that one day, I will be too. "

I chuckled. "Well, you are my son, after all. Have you seen your mother yet?"

"I'm talking to her right now on another wavelength. You know what she told me? She said that once, long ago, people had to leave their compartments and actually travel to another to have offspring. And it took more than a month. "

I sighed. "Well, son, you can't believe everything you hear. I doubt it ever took that long. "

He nodded. "You're probably right. I gotta run. I've just met the girl of my dreams. I'll see ya later." He didn't even wait for my reply before signing off.

I stood and paced the room, a bit sad perhaps. They grow up so fast these days. Still, it was nice to have such a large family. "Oh well," I said aloud, to no one in particular, "life goes on."

I took a moment to swallow the three pills that had appeared in my inbox during my conversation with Arnold. I didn't understand how my friends could give this up in favor of food vapors. Only recently, I had come across the paper of a history student, who claimed that there was a time when families sat together at a table and ate dead animals, though I didn't give the story much credence. At very least, it seemed improbable.

After my meal, I sat and went to work. Like so many people these days, I was helping to build the catalog. The Net had become so huge that it took thousands of individuals to record the numerous changes and additions. I have always enjoyed browsing and often found myself so enthralled by a subject that I would continue to research it during my leisure.

I was so wrapped up in the project, I didn't immediately notice the signal for an incoming message. Consequently, I was still absorbed, when Connie's voice, fast even after modification, interrupted me. "Eric, we have to talk. I don't know how something like this can happen. I can assure you that my genetics are clean, which means that yours must be suspect. You should have told me that you had rebellious tendencies in your lineage. I'd have never agreed to a child had I suspected. "

It took me a few long moments to absorb the diatribe. Finally, when I thought I'd caught up, I replied. "What are you babbling about?" I turned to look at her image on the monitor to my left. She did not look happy.

"It's that son of yours, Arnold. All of a sudden, he's talking crazy. He got involved with some girl, who is associated with those terrible Outsiders. Now he's trying to tell me how wonderful it is out there." When she paused for a breath, I spoke quickly, before she could resume. That was how it had to be with Connie. "Has he ever been there?" I asked, fascinated in spite of myself.

She shook her head. "I don't know. Why don't you ask him? He is your son."

It was convenient how quickly she forgot her own ingredients also flavored the sauce, so to speak. Still, I knew that this was one argument I would never win. I sighed. "Fine. I'll talk to him. Anything else?" I tried to keep my voice free from annoyance, but did a less than adequate job.

There was anger in her eyes when she broke the connection. If I wasn't careful, we wouldn't even make it a month. I issued the command to contact my son and, while waiting for his response, continued editing. As my attention was not fully on work, I saw my son's new image as soon as it appeared. It was certainly vastly different from the first he'd chosen - darker, somehow and perhaps more imposing. I wasn't impressed.

"You wanted to see me, Dad?"

I smiled in spite of myself. I love it when my children call me that. "Yes. Is what your mother told me true?"

I knew the vagueness of the question practically demanded a disrespectful answer. He didn't accept the challenge, however. "Yes."

One word. He had responded to my question, without answering it. There was a silence, while I tried to find a way to word my offensive. "Why? Where is it that your mother and I have failed you?"

He looked at me, sadness tempered by defiance. "When was the last time you were outside?"

I shrugged. "I don't remember." I really wanted to ask him what it was like, but did not wish to encourage his behavior and further risk Connie's wrath. Another woman scorned, I did not need. "I have everything I need right here."

"How do you know? If you can't recall the experience, how can you compare it to another?"

I had heard the argument before and it was a good one. In truth, how could one know? Still, it would not do to agree with him. I had to stand my ground. "I have never felt the sensation of boiling water pouring over my head, but know I would not enjoy it. Some things are just common sense."

He leaned forward looking intently into my eyes. "Very well then. Try it. Just for a second, open the door and see for yourself."

I shook my head. "I don't have to look. There's nothing out there anymore. I know what the Outsiders say, but that doesn't make it true. I refuse to be party to this." The words did not come easily, especially since I didn't really believe what I was saying. If it weren't for Connie, I would have taken his challenge, but you have to make some sacrifices when you're married.

At last, his composure broke. He raised his voice. "You just don't understand. You'll never understand." And with those words, he was gone.

I stared at the monitor for a long time, then turned to regard the door. I rose slowly and approached it, staring as if it were a foreign object. What had Connie said? Something about disease. Still, a few moments couldn't possibly hurt. I reached out my right hand and placed it on the locking mechanism. I heard a slight click, then nothing. I hesitated only momentarily before pushing the "open" button. The task done, I stood and waited. After a few moments, I tried again. The sudden deep voice startled me. "Access denied. "

I whirled, looking for the source, though I was, of course, alone. "What?"

"Access denied." There was no questioning the finality of the statement.

Two simple words. I turned them over in my mind, as if they were a philosophical treatise beyond my grasp.

"Why?" My voice was feeble compared to the other.

I waited for an answer, but none came. As I stood there, I knew the truth. No one ever left their compartments. It was not permitted. Even the Outsiders had never made it, which is why there were so many conflicting stories on what it was like. We were nothing more than caged animals. Comfortably caged to be sure, but imprisoned nonetheless.

Therein lay the irony of the situation. Until now, my compartment contained everything I had ever needed. There was no luxury denied me. And now that something finally was, I could not bear it. Suddenly, it became imperative that I find out exactly what lay beyond that door. I glared at it, as if I could bore a hole with sheer hatred. I ran toward it, throwing my weight against its staunch solidity. I earned a sore shoulder for my effort.

After a time, I gave up. I sat facing away from the object that would become a dreadful symbol of my captivity for the remainder of my days. For whatever reason, humanity was being denied admittance to the world that bore it. I didn't know why. Perhaps I never would. What I wouldn't give to go back in time, to the moment before I realized the true nature of things. Perhaps ignorance is bliss. It certainly had been for me.

I divorced Connie shortly after that fateful discovery and joined the ranks of the Outsiders. At first, I spent many long hours listening to the almost infinite speculations about what is out there and why some agency felt we were not worthy of it. Since then, I have become one of the liars, often claiming I had escaped confinement and personally inhaled the pure sweetness of natural air. I am still not certain why we do this, but it must have something to do with the feeling of hopelessness. It is in some way a form of therapy for the terminally claustrophobic.

Each time I hear such a tale my heart races, just a little, as I allow myself to become convinced of the actual possibility. Sometimes I think I would give my life for a single peek at what lies beyond these walls, or my soul for a breath of fresh air.


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