Not Without You By Gill Harvey - chapter 1
It is 2088, thirty years since the end of the ten-year Oil Wars.
Sala and Cham live in an enormous overcrowded city that they are forbidden to leave, for their own protection: the world outside the city was contaminated during the wars.
Because the Oil Wars left the city short of energy, everyone has a small chip buried under the skin on their wrists, which measures how many units of energy they use. It also notes where they are at all times, to keep them safe.
The government uses most of the city’s energy to build virtual simulations, so that people can experience beautiful places without actually going anywhere. They cannot travel, but there will be no more wars. The city is at peace.
One Year Together
Sala and her friend Niki pushed past the people who had gathered in the rain outside the meat-growing laboratory. They were all shouting angrily, “Work! We want work!”
Government agents had just arrived, so the crowd would soon be forced to leave. Sala was so busy staring that she didn’t look where she was going, and stepped into water up to her ankles.
“Urgh!” she said. Her right boot was wet through. “Let’s get out of here.”
“What was that about?” asked Niki, as they hurried on down the street. “What are they all doing there?”
“My mom says the packing equipment is broken,” said Sala. Her mom was a scientist in the laboratory. “So they’re demanding the packing work instead.”
“And will they get it?” asked Niki.
Sala shook her head. “Mom says the equipment will soon be fixed. Anyway, there are loads of robots doing the work for now.”
“So they’re just getting wet for no reason?” said Niki. “What a life! Too many people, no jobs, and rain, rain, rain.”
“Yeah,” agreed Sala.
It was true; life for most people was difficult. But actually, Sala was feeling really happy. It was March 15, and she had been going out with Cham for exactly one year. She could say with her hand on her heart that this year – her eighteenth – had been the best so far. Absolutely. The. Best.
They reached the simulator center, and Sala lifted her wrist to touch a gray screen by the door. The little chip under her skin lit up for a second, showing how many energy units she had left. Everyone was given one hundred energy units a week, and they had to be careful not to use them too quickly. A simulator cost five units per hour, which was a lot – but it was worth it for the escape it offered from the city.
Inside, Niki went to meet some other friends while Sala looked around the busy entrance area for Cham. When she saw him over by the taste-pot machine, her heart jumped. It was crazy the way it did that, even after a whole year together.
“Hey,” said Cham, as she joined him. He smiled and kissed her, then gave her a taste-pot with a spoon: “I got your favorite. Double chocolate.”
“Aww… that’s so sweet of you!” Taste-pots were great, because they weren’t expensive, but gave you the taste of something luxurious like double chocolate ice cream. There were hundreds of tastes to choose from.
“We have Space 234. Maybe we could go to the beach?”
Sala nodded. “Perfect.”
At Space 234, they stepped inside the little room and closed the door. At once, there was silence: the noise of all the people outside was completely shut out. There was a screen on the wall with a list of places to choose from: places they would never see for real.
Sala chose the Beach illusion, and the walls of the room disappeared. Instead, there was calm blue ocean as far as they could see, under a cloudless sky. Sunlight shone through the trees above, and soft golden sand seemed to lie at their feet. All they could hear were the sounds of the waves and the gentle wind in the trees. It was a really wonderful illusion.
“Fantastic,” said Sala, taking off her wet boots. “I love this simulation.”
They sat down to eat their taste-pots, looking out at the beautiful view and watching the waves roll up the shore. Then, after her final spoonful, Sala reached for her bag.
“I have something for you. A present.”
She gave Cham a package, then sat watching his expression as he slowly opened it.
“Hey!” said Cham. “It’s one of your paintings!”
“Yes.” Sala loved painting, but the paints were expensive, so it was something she couldn’t do very often.
“Wow!” Cham studied it.
“You like it?”
“I love it,” said Cham. “It’s you and me, right? And a waterfall behind us.” He smiled. “Not a waterfall. The waterfall.”
Sala nodded. “To remind you of the day we met.”
“You think I’d forget?” he laughed. “Not a chance.”
Sala would never forget, either. One year ago, on March 15, 2087, she’d been standing in Space 29 in one of her favorite illusions. She was on the top of a cliff looking down at a valley, with fields and forests that went on and on. On the other side of the valley, the white waters of a waterfall flowed over the rocks. It was one of the best illusions available in the simulator, because if you stood at the edge of the cliff, it really felt like you could fall.
And then someone had opened the door, making the whole illusion break up. Sala had been so surprised she’d almost screamed. She’d turned around quickly and seen a boy: about her age but a little taller, with black hair and dark, smiling eyes… Sala had stared. He was gorgeous.
“Oops, sorry!” he’d said. “Wrong space!”
“Oh! That’s OK,” Sala had replied quickly. “You can stay here if you want.”
She didn’t know where those words had come from. Usually, she was shy with boys. But Cham had come in and closed the door, and they had started to talk. Sala had soon found out that he lived near her, in an earth apartment. He loved the same ultranet games and story-streams as her, and the same illusions in the simulator. Best of all, he made her laugh. By the time they left the simulator, she’d fallen in love – and luckily for her, so had Cham.
Cham put the painting down. “I have something for you, too.”
“Another double choc taste-pot?”
“Nope.” Cham smiled, his eyes shining. “Try again.”
Sala had no idea. “A diamond necklace?” she joked.
“In your dreams!”
“Cham!” Sala giggled. “Don’t make me guess!”
“OK, OK,” laughed Cham. “Take a look at your ultranet.”
Sala looked at Cham, and engaged her virtual interface.
“Go on,” Cham encouraged her.
Sala looked up at her interface. The letters PA appeared, followed by the face of a young woman.
“Hello, Sala. This is Pod Adventures,” said the woman, in a friendly voice.
Sala’s mouth dropped open. A pod experience?
“Sala, you and Cham are going to swim with dolphins.”
“No!” cried Sala. She stared at Cham. “Really?”
She couldn’t believe it. A pod was like a simulator, but a million times better. Your whole body lay inside the pod and it was like your normal life was turned off. In a simulator, it was hard to forget that there were four walls just five or six steps away – but in a pod, you lost your awareness of the world around you. You lived the experience completely.
Cham smiled at her. “Happy?”
“Yes!” Sala had never had a pod experience. They were expensive. She didn’t know how Cham could afford it, but he was always so kind and generous – it would be rude to ask. She wrapped her arms around him and buried her face in his neck. “Thank you, thank you. You’re the best! I love you so much.” The hour on the beach was soon over. Sala and Cham left, and met three friends in another space – Niki, and two boys named Palo and Ding. With five of them sharing, an hour cost just one energy unit each, so they did this often. For the first thirty minutes, they chose the illusion of a big nightclub with a famous band playing. Then they changed to a sunny park, like the ones that their city used to have, and sat down to talk.
“Guess what,” said Ding. “I heard the government has a new idea – about people living in pods.”
“Oh yeah,” said Palo. “Pod Life. I saw something about it, too. But it’s not just an idea. It’s happening. It’s starting really soon – in a couple of weeks, I think.”
Sala was curious. “I haven’t heard anything,” she said. “What’s it all about?”
“It’s like a pod experience, but you stay in for much longer,” explained Ding. “They’ve developed these special pods that you can actually live in. They connect your body to them and look after it for you – your food, your muscles, everything. So you don’t need to move. You live there. Inside the pod.”
“Live there!” gasped Sala. It was one thing to have a pod experience – but to stay inside the pod was something else. “For how long?”
“I think they’re saying two years, at least,” said Palo.
Sala’s mouth dropped open. “But who would want to do that?”
“People who want to earn money and energy units,” said Ding. “They give you both while you’re in there. And you get to study, I think.”
“Yeah. They’ve designed special study programs,” explained Palo.
Sala frowned. “But we already study virtually most of the time.”
“This is at another level, I guess. They’re saying that the study programs in the pod will make you much more employable when you come out.”
“And they actually pay you?” Niki’s eyes were wide.
“Yes,” said Palo. “They really want people to do it. It will save space and energy, they say.”
“Oooh, strange!” said Niki. “But interesting, too.”
“I’d hate it,” said Sala. “Can you imagine?” She looked across at Cham. He was quiet, just listening. It was unusual for him. “Living in a pod. Urgh!”
“You sound like your grandmother,” joked Ding.
Sala laughed. “Maybe.”
Actually, Ding was probably right. Sala’s grandmother remembered life before the Oil Wars, when people could travel freely and see other parts of the world. Now Gran believed in encouraging people to enjoy the real world, instead of constantly escaping to the simulators or the ultranet. She’d made her own garden on the roof of their apartment, and she was always up there. The rest of her family jokingly called it her “Real Space.”
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