The Line that Is Dotted

By David Schrauger

Y2ou want a picture of the future? Honk your horn, then imagine 100,000 other people doing the same thing… for all eternity.

“Can you please hurry it up, buddy?” Dan hectored his virtual driver. Cold sweat was dripping down his neck and made him shiver a bit as it ran under his dress shirt and down his back.

The traffic was absolutely gridlocked, which it always was at this time of day, but Dan couldn’t afford to miss his appointment. It could be said without hyperbole that his life depended on it.

“What do I owe you?” he asked the UberLyft driver, which was little more than a hologram of the drone pilot that was driving the car (and who knew how many others) from UberLyft headquarters. They had been pretty much the only option for public transportation since the city government went bankrupt and the taxi services went out of business, but he still hated their guts.

“Seventy-five grams,” the driver said.

“Fuck. You want the clothes off my back too?”

“Sorry, buddy. It’s the minimum standard donation.”

Dan tapped his SmartPalm with his middle finger, and the subdermal implant projected his hologram screen. Using the sensors implanted in his fingertips, he manipulated the subscreens in the hologram until he was able to transfer the grams from his MemoPal account to the UberLyft Corporation. The SmartCar chimed a jaunty ringtone, and the locks on the doors released.

“Thank you for your patronage,” the robot voice said. The drone driver had already signed off and put the SmartCar on autopilot.

Dan took a deep breath, but coughed when he took in too much of the city air. His destination was about a block away. He could tolerate the pollution until then.

Canton International’s corporate headquarters shot straight up into the line of smog that had become Seattle’s skyline. While the smog-scrubbing drones buzzed about making the air breathable at street level, no one particularly cared about anything above the tenth or eleventh floor. Nothing up there but a few sickly birds, and the locals had come to regard them as little more than flying rats anyway.

The office buildings of Seattle didn’t have revolving doors anymore. FieldDoors had made them obsolete. Walking through a FieldDoor was an invasive process, as it scanned you down to a molecular level for prohibited items, but they did wonders for the peace of mind of people working inside the building, as well as keeping a complete genetic record of all visitors. Other than a vibration that he could feel in his teeth, the door allowed Dan to walk through without incident.

“Welcome to the Canton Corporation,” the automated greeting system chimed in from all around him “Thank you for being three minutes early for your appointment, Mr. McCanlaus. Ms. Westerling is waiting for you on the nineteenth floor.”

Dan fidgeted with his tie. He hadn’t needed to wear one in his line of work, and it was an uncomfortable noose around his neck. However, Canton Corporation had a strict dress code even for its visiting customers. He had heard of people having their appointments canceled because they had disregarded the dress code. He had also heard what happened to them because they missed that appointment.

The waiting room on the nineteenth floor was jam-packed. In fact, it was standing room only. The row of chairs that took up every inch of wall space was completely full of young men and women in nearly identical suits and ties. Everyone was making an effort to avoid eye contact. He accidently made eye contact with a pretty blond girl who had her hair tied in a severe bun. He almost immediately regretted it and they both looked away. The room was as silent as death.

“Calls, texts, pictures, and sound recording strictly prohibited and may be monitored or recorded,” the wall warned him in large red letters that flickered slightly.

He found a place to stand and tried not to fidget. It had been his habit to stream music/movies through his Bluetooth implant when he was waiting, but he didn’t see a single person using their SmartPalms for a single thing, so he just joined them in staring into space.

It might have been as much as an hour before his name was called by the automated system and one of the opaque FieldDoors became a translucent image of the picture on his driver’s license. He was suddenly gripped with hesitation.

“Daniel McCanlaus, welcome to Canton Corp. Transition Services,” the automated system repeated. “Please step through the portal or your appointment may be canceled.”

Dan complied.

The office was a spare and Spartan enclosure with a metal desk and a flat screen on each wall. Behind the desk stood a redheaded woman whose beauty shocked him to the point of incredulity. He squinted a little at her, looking for the telltale signs that she was a Mecha, but if she was one, it was the best he had ever seen. She had freckles, moles, and even a little scar between her nose and lip, which she had diminished with some makeup.

“Hello, Mr. McCanlaus,” she said with a British accent, flashing a smile that could melt a man into a puddle. “I am Gemma Westerling, and it is my pleasure to be your Transition Services representative today.”

She offered her hand and Dan swallowed a little as he shook it, as firmly as he could without being too rough. He hadn’t shaken hands with many women in his life and was unused to it.

Their SmartPalms chimed as they exchanged virtual business cards and social media information.

“Thank you for seeing me today,” Dan said as he and Ms. Westerling sat down.

“As I said, the pleasure is all mine. Please tell me what brings you in today.”

He knew that she knew what it was, but he had to observe the formalities.

“I received my draft notice. I ship out in a week.”

“I see,” Ms. Westerling said. “So you are interested in the Cerberus package.”

“Yes.”

“Well, that does make things simple. I couldn’t be more pleased to help you out with this transition. As you know, recruits who opt for the Cerberus package of cybernetic enhancement are eligible for a one hundred percent allotment of pay in their first year of service, which will cover all transition-related expenses. Therefore, with no up-front costs to worry about, all that you need to do is sign on the line that is dotted.”

A screen with a virtual signature line popped up on her desk. All three screens around him, as well as one on the ceiling, began scrolling terms-and-conditions statements.

“Touching the screen with your SmartPalm will give us your virtual electronic signature and constitutes your permission for us to schedule your transition appointment.”

Dan just stared at the screen, nothing more than an X followed by a dotted line.

Ms. Westerling noticed his hesitation. “Are there any questions that I can answer for you, Mr. McCanlaus?”

“Will I… will I ever be able to have children?”

Ms. Westerling smirked a little at that.

“As you may know from the promotional materials, the Cerberus enhancement necessitates the removal of certain redundant body components. All four of your limbs will be replaced, as will your heart and lungs. The digestive system is replaced, and the reproductive system must be removed to make room for the recycling system, which converts bodily waste into usable energy. With that being said, most recruits opt to have their sperm or ovum harvested and frozen at the time of transition for a nominal additional expense… but I don’t think that is what actually concerns you, is it?”

“I…” Dan tried to respond, but he couldn’t stop looking at that X in front of the dotted line.

“You know why I love my job? Because it is easy,” Ms. Westerling said as she tapped her finger to her SmartPalm.

The images on the screen changed to the bodies of blown-apart soldiers, their wounds gaping and smoking, and their faces torn with terror.

“As you know, Cerberus-enhanced soldiers have a 75 percent survival rate, and in the event of injury their pain receptors can be shut off and repairs can be implemented in-theater. However, these unfortunates are among the lucky 10 percent who survive combat in the contested zone and opt for Cerberus enhancement only after they have suffered injuries that qualify for discharge. Since 90 percent of combat troops are Cerberus-upgraded, the government finds little cause to supply the front with anesthetics. Would you like to hear what a transition sounds like without anesthetics?”

One of the screens showed a surgery that looked more like mechanics working on a car, the bleeding woman on the table screamed in unfathomable pain as a nurse carried her leg away. A robot arm pivoted downward and began welding.

“I do realize that it can be a hard decision; it seems like a large sacrifice,” Ms. Westerling said. “But the numbers don’t lie. It is your life. Lose it here or lose it there… and you know what the government does with those they discharge.”

Dan continued to stare at the dotted line.

“Come now, Mr. McCanlaus,” she said. “I really don’t have all day, and I have upcoming appointments that will require much more deliberation. It is the simplest question that can be asked of a man: Do you want to live or do you want to die? Take your chances if you need to. Walk out that door if you want to. We have a contract with the government to repurpose your organic matter, and they are really quite good at getting what is left to us after battles, so we will make money off you one way or another. It doesn’t matter to me. I don’t work on commission.”

Stay and sign. Walk and take his chances. Dan couldn’t move and could hardly breathe. His mouth seemed to be stuffed full of cotton balls, and his head pounded in time with the beat of his heart. He felt himself stand up and tear his eyes away from the screen.

“I’m sorry… I can’t… I’m sorry.”

He made his way toward the FieldDoor, but when it automatically opened, two Cerberus soldiers were standing in the portal, their bodies covered with armored plate.

“I’m the one who is sorry, Mr. McCanlaus,” Ms. Westerling sighed. “I apologize for the theater.”

He turned and saw his signature appear on the line that was dotted.

“We didn’t really need your signature,” she said, showing her SmartPalm buzzing in her right hand. “After all, we shook on the deal.”

___

David Shrauger is a veteran of combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and a graduate of Seattle University with dual degrees in History and English Literature as well as a MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics from the University of Washington. He lives in Bellevue, WA.


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